Entrepreneur or imposter? The hidden barriers to starting a business

FEW people starting their own businesses anticipate the hidden emotional costs, according to a survey. Crises in confidence, ‘imposter syndrome’ and loneliness are common rites of passage for those choosing self-employment. And contrary to the entrepreneur stereotype portrayed on reality TV, self-promotion comes naturally to few, as it is named the business skill they struggle with most.

Sixty-seven per cent of business owners said they have suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ – an irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud that was first studied by psychologists Clance and Imes back in 1978. For 44 per cent of those surveyed, this self-doubt is intense enough to be named a daily companion.

Women are more likely to admit to Imposter syndrome than men, with 74 per cent saying it resonated with them compared to 58 per cent of men. Likewise, the majority of freelance professionals said they felt this way regularly (71 per cent), compared to just under half of those running construction firms and 60 per cent of those in retail.
Social isolation is similarly high among people who go self-employed: as half reported the move had led to loneliness.

However, there is little correlation between how much time business owners actually spend alone and levels of loneliness. Rather, the most common reason to feel lonely was having people around – like friends and family – but not being able to discuss work with them as they had with colleagues and bosses.

This emotional adjustment proves almost as difficult as the financial for people starting a business. Forty-six per cent of business owners said funding had been their main blocker in the early days, but an almost equal number – 41 per cent – named psychological barriers top instead.

In contrast to the super-confident entrepreneurs portrayed on reality TV shows, few people in business today are natural or enthusiastic self-promoters. When asked to name the skill they most struggle with, six in ten named ‘projecting myself confidently’ top. For comparison, the second and third most popular answers were financial management (named by just 21 per cent) and IT/digital skills (23 per cent).

Gareth Howell, managing director at insurer and asset management company AXA Direct, which published the survey, said, “We live in an inspiring time: more than two million British people have launched a business in the past three years, and we estimate that another 3.5 million people are at the planning stage. They are becoming self-employed in the pursuit of a better life, but it can often be an emotional rollercoaster, especially in the early days. Long hours, adjusting to life without the support of colleagues and employers, as well as needing to prove yourself to clients can all take their toll. That’s why having an action plan for emotional low points is just as important as having a good financial plan.”

Top tips for adjusting to self-employed life

The three main pieces of advice from business owners to anyone starting up were:

1. Schedule breaks with as high priority as meetings. “Working from home, I had to discipline myself to take time out. I now ‘walk to work’ for at least half an hour in the morning, take meals religiously and stop circa 18.00 unless there is a real, and I mean real, need to continue.”

2. Create your own entrepreneurial community. “I joined web communities to get advice from people who run cake businesses too. They weren’t in my area so didn’t see me as a rival. They were incredibly generous with advice, reassurance and time”

3. Remember you started a business because you’re good at something. “At 15, I was told I was an academic failure. The day I started my business, I made a decision: I do have talents, I do have something to offer and I would only look forwards.”