Feeling like a fraud while doing startups

Written on 3rd December, 2012
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Before I had any success with Buffer, I helped many startups with their ideas. I attended events, spoke at events and even created my own meetup for startups. These were not particularly big events, but nevertheless I somehow found myself in a position of being able to help people, and a position where people would come to me to brainstorm and get advice.

I remember the point just before I started Buffer, where these events and opportunities came up more and more, despite the fact that my startup was not exploding with any kind of success. I had neither generated any revenue, nor raised any funding, and we didn’t have great traction either. I remember often feeling like a fraud, standing up there and telling others what to do when I had no success myself. I often questioned whether I should be up there. It also was one of the things that gave me the burning desire to figure out how to make something work.

Why we often feel like a fraud

One of the most interesting things I’ve found with this feeling is that it seems like it doesn’t ever stop. I now have the opportunity to speak at even bigger events, to help people quite far along with their startups, and also to help people just getting started who want my advice for things I really don’t know that much about.

I recently attended Lean Startup Machine in San Francisco to mentor the teams and help them to validate their ideas. Eric Ries did a Q&A at the event, and one of the things he said was very interesting:

We are in the business as entrepreneurs to look at statistically insignificant sample sizes

This got me thinking more about why it is that we sometimes feel like a fraud, especially even as we make progress. It seems that as startup founders, we never have significant data. We can’t know for sure whether we were wholly responsible for all of our success, or whether other factors influenced things and we found ourselves being fortunate. That, for me, is the reason it’s easy to feel like a fraud.

Why we can help a lot even without ‘success’

Another thing I’ve found, is that we can usually help people much sooner than we realise. Over time I’ve managed to become quite comfortable helping others regularly, and the more I’ve done it the more I’ve realised that I can usually help a lot, and even if I can’t it’s always a fun conversation.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are quite a few founders where the thought to help others has crossed their mind, and the desire to do it exists, but they often dismiss it and decide that they haven’t learned enough yet, or people wouldn’t want their help.

Helping others has been so powerful for me for lots of different reasons, so I think it’s great to try and get past this myth that you can only help people once you have had a huge exit. In fact, I think a lot of the times it’s the people at the earliest stages that can help the most, because the gap is smaller and so the person you’re helping can really relate to the position you’re in.

Just as these 'lizard brain' thoughts about how entitled you are to help others can affect whether you will do so, if you take the plunge and start helping others I think you will often find that you feel like you don’t deserve to be giving the advice.

Could it be that it’s optimal to feel like a fraud?

What I have started to realise, is that perhaps this is exactly how we should feel if we’re making progress. It may seem counterintuitive, but I am starting to believe that if you feel like a fraud and feel uncomfortable, it’s probably a great thing. Just as the adage that “the magic happens outside your comfort zone” I think perhaps if you’re feeling like a fraud, you’re doing things right.

I think the important thing is to remember that none of us have significant sample sizes or complete information about what we should do, or whether we deserve what success we have. Therefore it’s completely natural to feel like we’re not entitled, to feel like a fraud from time to time. I think the best thing to do is to remind ourselves that it’s our job to work with incomplete information, and to "do" where others stay paralysed by lack of a clear path.

Have you ever felt like a fraud whilst working on your startup? I’d love to hear your experiences of battling with this feeling.

Photo credit: Fabiana Zonca