“It’s going to be bigger than Google!” I remember describing an idea to my father in 2005 with these exact words and without sarcasm. He ran his business for 30 years and had heard countless ideas from me, so he was basically inert to my hyperbole. 2005 was also the year I graduated from college and got a job. While it was a great first opportunity, my mind would still wander.
Ideas, inventions, and business models kept coming to me. Some were grand visions that I imagined would industries and others were just little improvements on products. I couldn’t stop myself from seeing a better world.
Looking back now, it's unsurprising that I’ve since become an entrepreneur, but at that time it didn’t occur to me that it would be possible. How do you imagine yourself going down a path that doesn’t even exist in your mind? It indeed, took 8 more long years before I gained enough courage to start Let’s Make Great!
And it was courage that I needed, because for every idea I also had 100 more questions. Will it work? Where do I start? Where will I get the money? What else do I need? Who can help me? Who will buy this? Where will they come from? What should I start with? What’s it going to look like? It went on and on and on. That's the paradox of entrepreneurship.
Like Recognizes Like
Looking back now, I see the root of these questions was fear and I wasn’t alone. According to The Atlantic, “More than 40 percent of 25-to-34-year old Americans said a fear of failure kept them from starting a company in 2014; in 2001, just 24 percent said so.” While interest in entrepreneurship has been growing, apparently our anxiety has also increased.
I saw this firsthand here in Shanghai, China. People from all over the world came here with dreams of what they could create. Week after week at startup events, college campuses, and networking meet-ups, I met hundreds of people who were sick of the status quo, tired of living someone else’s dream, and aching for meaningful projects.
I did get to know a few brave souls that had already started companies, but there were so many more that were stuck. They had ideas, but were often formulated in isolation (away from customers, target users or even their friends). So they had no way of knowing if it would work and thus, afraid to continue. Afraid to commit. Afraid to risk their safety.
Please be clear: like recognizes like. I used the same damn excuses to explain why I failed to start for so many years. Their lofty ideas were as absurdly grand as mine. I knew the fear in their eyes as my own.
How to Extinguish the Fear?
The short answer is that only action extinguishes fear. All the articles, books and podcasts of my 20s were entertaining, but never satisfied the real itch. Each only offered the satisfying illusion of knowledge, but I was left without the confidence of actual ability. And that was the real itch: personal experience. There’s a concrete understanding from experience where learnings are internalized into our bones, rather than intellectualized by our brains.
For me, it was gradual and consistent experiments in becoming a creativity consultant that inspired greater confidence. I started by sharing ideas with a few friends, then acquaintances, and eventually complete strangers. I repeated the same process for workshops... organizing a training for 6 friends, then 15 friends, then 30 and eventually actual paid corporate requests. (YAY!)
Experience through Play
This happened over a period of 6+ months, day by day, I gradually increased the intensity of each experience... week by week, I discovered what actually worked... and month by month, I grew more confident. The effect of gradual experimentation is exactly why we've created our new card game, "PROTO"; to give aspiring entrepreneurs a chance to feel what it's like to build a business, play with hundreds of ideas and perhaps find a missing piece to their start. It's experience through play.
And even if you never get to play PROTO, I urge you to start as gradually and consistently as possible... because in the end, I learned that you can't think like an entrepreneur, you can only act like one.
With this entrepreneurial philosophy already deep in his bones, my father recently sent me this message of encouragement as we get ready to launch PROTO: “Always be ready, the more you do, the more you get. Let's make great!