FounderFuel: What is imposter syndrome and why do so many founders have it?

Imposter Syndrome is a term used to describe a psychological phenomenon that anyone can experience. It describes the sensation of feeling like a fraud in your environment, that you don’t know what you’re doing, and that at some point you’re going to get “found out”.

Whilst many of its “symptoms” bear a resemblance to low confidence and low self-esteem, they are fundamentally different. Confidence relates to our faith in our ability to do things. Self-esteem relates to our perception of our own worth. By contrast, Imposter Syndrome is about the fundamental belief that we are not good enough, and the goals posts of what “good enough” looks like, keep moving.

But the most important thing to remember from the outset when thinking about Imposter Syndrome and how we might tackle it – is that it is a psychological phenomenon. It’s happening in our heads. It is not a true reflection of reality, only our own interpretation of reality, which is subjective at best, and completely skewed out of all proportion at worst.

It’s a feeling that SO MANY entrepreneurs have told me they’ve experienced over the years. It’s been a recurring theme in our FounderCircles too. So this two part series will look at why this is the case, and what you can do about it to help.

Why is Imposter Syndrome so common among founders?

Well, entrepreneurship provides the perfect pressure cooker for Imposter Syndrome to thrive. We’re going to dive into this in more detail to demonstrate how being a founder is the perfect recipe to experience this psychological phenomenon – so you can take comfort in the fact that you’re absolutely not alone in feeling this way!

1. Jack of all trades

As an early-stage startup founder, the business requires you to wear ALL the hats. You are not just the visionary with a great idea. You are also product design, sales, marketing, finance, fundraiser, customer experience manager, admin, HR – you name it, you are it – because you have to be. That is the life of an early founder before you’ve got enough funds in the bank to hire specialists in all those positions.

And who do you know that is a master at all of those things? No one. It’s impossible and it’s unsustainable as your company grows.

Having to stretch yourself between so many areas of the business and take on responsibility that you have little knowledge or experience of is obviously going to make anyone feel out of their depth.

It’s not you, it’s a natural part of the startup journey.

2. There is no blueprint

I would bet that as the founder of a startup – regardless of sector – you’re building something truly innovative. That’s the game we’re in right. Which therefore means, no-one has done what you are doing before. Yes, other people have built business and people might be experts in the industry you’re working in; but no-one has built your business before, it’s unique. Which is a good thing. But it also means there is no blueprint for the business you’re creating. No-one has all the answers to the questions that are going to come up along your journey.

Entrepreneurs are taking an untrodden path. That’s what makes it exciting, but it can also be daunting. And it means at times we feel that we’re just making it up as we go along (because we are and that’s sort of the whole point, isn’t it?). But this all means we can be left doubting our own abilities and whether we’re cut out for this sometimes.

It’s not you – it’s a natural part of the startup journey.

3. It’s your baby

That’s how we often describe our startups – “it’s my baby”. It’s something you created from scratch with the thoughts from your brain. Then you’ve nurtured it and watched it grow. It’s kept you up at night. It’s consumed your every waking minute. It’s made you want to scream. Yep, you’re a business parent, congratulations – it’s beautiful!

But we use this “baby” language because it’s the best way we have of describing how much we care about the business we’re building and how attached to it we feel. We care a huge amount. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth the sleepless nights, and we also wouldn’t feel such an intense pressure to be on the top of our game all the time.

Imposter Syndrome can only thrive in a person that cares. Caring is not a bad thing and a startup founder who doesn’t care about their business isn’t going to get very far.

It’s not you – you guessed it – it’s a natural part of the startup journey.

4. Confidence is King

Not only are we having to be Jack of all trades, following no blueprint and building something we care a huge amount about but we’re also operating in an environment that places an unreasonably high level of importance on visible confidence.

As early-stage founders who are looking for investment, you will need to pitch your idea repeatedly. You must stand out from the hundreds of other companies that are also after cold hard cash. We’re also told at the early stages the investment is in the team, more than the business too. That’s a lot more personal than analysing how good your product market fit is. How you personally come across when pitching is important, you need these people to believe that you are the right people to make this business a success – you must appear confident.

We’re playing in an arena of extremes. On one hand you’re creating something new with a lot of unknowns wearing too many hats, making it up as you go along to the best of your ability, whilst also being asked to outwardly ooze confidence. It’s enough to make anyone feel like a bit of a fraud.

So I’m going to say it one more time.

Repeat after me.

It’s not me – it’s a natural part of the startup journey.

The entrepreneurial world is one that invites Imposter Syndrome and helps it to thrive, which means we have a huge number of founders out there that are thinking to themselves that maybe they are not cut out for this, that at some point someone’s going to shine a light on them and say “hey, you’ve been lying this whole time about what you’re capable of, you’re a fraudy fraudster”.

However, in reality, it is simply our brains’ way of processing the feelings we have whilst operating in unknown terrain, out of our comfort zone and having to maintain an overly confident façade.

Just because you feel like a fraud, doesn’t make it true. You’re an entrepreneur. You’re dealing with a lot and it’s natural to have doubts sometimes. That doesn’t make you a fraud, that makes you human, so cut yourself some slack – okay?

So now we understand why Imposter Syndrome affects so many founders – what can we do about it? Go to part two for some mindset re-frames that can help keep it in check!

Imposter syndrome experts for entrepreneurs - Rachel Stockey, founder coach at weare3Sixty

Written by Rachel Stockey, founder coach at weare3Sixty

Founder coach | Trainer | Head of Entrepreneurial Skills at King’s College London.

Passionate about unlocking potential in entrepreneurial leaders with an expertise in mindsets, confidence and Imposter Syndrome.

About the FounderFuel Series: Actionable tools and bite-sized insights to empower entrepreneurs and founders to get the best from themselves and those around them as startup and scaleup leaders. Get the fuel direct to your inbox by signing up here.

At weare3Sixty we believe in supporting the humans behind the world’s ambitious startups and our mission is to make sure that every founder and startup leader in the ecosystem has the support and skills to reach their full potential as resilient, high-performing leaders.

Here you’ll find 1:1 founder coaching, team coaching and team training all dedicated to the unique ride that is starting up and scaling up. Not only that, with our group-coaching FounderCircles® you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other talented founders on the journey too – all committed to fuelling themselves, their teams and each other for the ride.

Calling all accelerators and investment partners: We work in partnership with investors, accelerators and incubators to complement programmes of support and learning with the human side of startup performance. Find out more here.

Related posts