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Dealing with Imposter Syndrome as a Startup Founder

Poppy Higgins
Poppy Higgins
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Dealing with Imposter Syndrome as a Startup Founder

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome as a Startup Founder

Imposter syndrome is real. We speak with hundreds of founders here at N2. We often sit on panels to discuss startup life and mentor startups through many aspects of their startup business journey.
As a founder, certain traits and aspects can be commonly identified; all founders have resounding confidence that they have identified a real problem that needs to be solved and have the solution worked out. Some may seem delusional, some may be total copycats of established businesses, but the founders come across with absolute conviction. They also have fundamental convictions in many aspects of how they will execute the requirements needed to succeed, from engineering to marketing.
Many founders are even told that their idea is crazy and it will never take off, think of how Revolut, Monzo and Starling have taken on the well-established banking industry. But the founders pushed through because they believed in their concept.
As these conversations move on and a deeper dive is taken, some of the frailties start to unravel. This is totally normal; no startup has all the answers and certainly not the expertise for every aspect of their vision, even when they have someone else’s playbook to revert to.
This learning process is healthy and allows highly manoeuvrable startups to continually iterate and find their product-market fit, but the downside is the feeling of imposter syndrome. You get the feeling you are way outside of your comfort zone, that you are out of your league, and that you don’t have the required experience or knowledge.
Listening to outside opinions can sometimes exacerbate the feeling, even when the views are positive and guiding you in the right direction. Toxic positivity that we read on social media about XYZ raising a gazillion bucks for their pre-seed ‘me too’ app raises more doubt than anything else.

Where does imposter syndrome stem from?

Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome are:
  • Self-doubt.
  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills.
  • Attributing your success to external factors.
  • Berating your performance.
  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations.
  • Overachieving.
  • Sabotaging your own success.
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short.
Imposter syndrome can be closely related to perfectionism, in which you feel pressure to perform to your absolute best 100 percent of the time, and when you don’t, you feel incompetent and anxious. It’s helpful, although difficult, for people to change the way they view perfection to combat imposter syndrome, but a good reminder:

“Perfectionists spend too much time on little differences at the margins at the expense of the important things. Be an imperfectionist.”

Why imposter syndrome can hit women and women of colour harder

Google image search “startup founder,” and you’ll be shown mainly images of white males, that’s the stereotypical startup founder. Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles explains why representation is important: “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field”, this is especially true for women and women of colour in the startup world, for whom overall representation is alarmingly low.

Why you should embrace the imposter in you

Research suggests around 25 to 30 percent of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome. And around 70 percent of adults may experience impostorism at least once in their lifetime.
But none of this is really evidence that you are in the wrong place doing the wrong thing and that you should run away. This is progress; this is pushing your limits and solid proof that you are in exactly the place you should be, pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. This uncomfortable feeling needs to be embraced, and you need to remind yourself of your story and fit these feelings into your positive narrative.
Imagine being in a situation where you don’t have that feeling, that is dull, that is stagnation and totally unfulfilling. If you never feel like an imposter, you simply are not challenging yourself enough.
Did you set out on this journey to grow, progress and learn? All factors that are highly conducive to fulfilment, well then you should always be an imposter. It is proof that you are living a fulfilling life.
Embrace the imposter in you.

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