Being an entrepreneur is a scary thing. You’re risking a whole lot in starting your own company. The probability of success is not good. The starting salary is definitely not good. It takes time and allot of hard work. You are constantly stepping into the unknown, doing things that you’ve never done before and just learning as you go. You’re also often trying to do something that hasn’t been done before and having to deal with all the people who think you’re crazy. If that wasn’t enough, at the end of it, you run the risk of being left with nothing. And the experience, although teaching you allot, doesn’t really qualify you for anything else.
Despite all these understandable sources of anxiety, at the same time there is a persistent pressure to conform to what we believe to be the stereotype of a ‘strong’ leader. Someone who is always confident, shows no sign of weakness and has the answer to every problem.
I constantly felt this pressure as a founder. But when I reflect on it now, with more experience and a better perspective, and also through the lens of an investor thinking about the kind of founders I want to back, I believe that showing vulnerability is a good thing. It’s actually a sign of strength. You’ve got the guts to be true to yourself.
As a founder I rarely showed vulnerability because I didn’t have enough confidence in myself and what I was good at. I thought that if i showed vulnerability the whole house would come crashing down.
But the truth is I was scared allot. Giving presentations scared me and still does. Talking to people who I thought were vastly more experienced and more intelligent than myself scared me. Trying to do things I felt unqualified to do scared me. Not having all the right answers scared me. Hearing bad news, especially when it’s in the context of overly optimistic expectations, scared me. Feeling like I had all my wealth tied up in this high risk and seesawing venture scared me.
Sometimes it felt like the business was hanging by a thread. I remember at MessageLabs we went through a period when our infrastructure simply couldn’t cope with the huge increase in email volume that a big virus outbreak or spam attack could cause. Every time there was a major outbreak our network would come to a grinding halt and our customers (mainly large businesses) would experience email delays than could run into hours. I remember talking to a customer (with probably another 5 on hold!) and saying ‘…well at least you’re not getting any viruses’ to which they quite rightly pointed out ‘...of course I’m not getting any viruses because I’m not getting any @#&*ing email.’ Scary, scary times.
But my point is I wish I had been more open about my fears and been more vulnerable. This would have been a more honest thing to do. Honesty is the foundation of strong relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of successful teams. And teams drive top performing companies.
Showing vulnerability, admitting mistakes, sharing your fears and asking for help makes you a more authentic person. I believe people are drawn to this, find it easier to connect with you and really want to help when they’re given the chance.
It can be a huge relief to share - you can put the problem into some context and receive some different perspectives from people that you trust. It also helps you identify what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at so that you can fill those gaps with people more capable than yourself.
I still struggle with showing vulnerability. It’s not an easy thing to do. I’m better than I was but I still have a long way to go. Many of us are hardwired not to show weakness or vulnerability. But this is actually a weakness in itself.
I’m convinced that showing vulnerability will make you a better entrepreneur. Indeed, it will make you a healthier and happier person.
I’m not suggesting you share everything with everyone. You share more with those closer to you and who have earned the right to be trusted. And it's not about gaining attention - it’s about being honest about who you are and trying to solve problems.
When you keep everything to yourself (something I’m an expert in) you just feel isolated. This is definitely not the way to build strong relationships and a successful business. It can also be very stressful, always trying to play up to this role and having no outlet for your hopes and fears.
So my advice is the advice I’m constantly trying to give to myself - show your vulnerability. Otherwise you’re not showing up at at all.