Founding a Tech Startup: 10 Ways To Reframe Your Impostor Syndrome
In 2019, like most MBA students, I found myself in a management consulting info session. I was shiny and suited up, but on the inside I felt as if I had just downed a bottle of sriracha.
Was it the first time I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there? Not really. I spent four years at undergraduate business school thinking they had admitted me by accident. The next four years I spent worrying my wealth fund colleagues would figure out I wasn’t an excel whiz.
In 2020 I moved to the UK to co-found Freedom Row, a SaaS startup that aims to reduce modern slavery using Artificial Intelligence (AI). It was a completely new role, industry and style of work for me.
Based on my track record with Impostor Syndrome, I should have crumbled into a demotivated pile of self-doubt. Founding a startup is hard. Period. But for someone prone to Impostor Syndrome, the biggest challenge has been getting out of my own way. I’ve managed to feel less like an impostor in this role than in all my previous experiences, thanks to a few reframing strategies:
- Realize that Imposter Syndrome is more common than you think.
Acknowledgement that Impostor Syndrome is everywhere is the first step in feeling less of an impostor. Every startup founder, marathon runner, CEO, and even new mom has a Day One.
In a 2018 study by workplace social media site Blind, around 58% of 10,000 polled users from tech careers indicated suffering from Impostor Syndrome.
Makes you think- did over half the workforce of companies such as LinkedIn and Microsoft fraud their way through rigorous resume screenings and recruitment interviews? Unlikely.
2. Be a good learner instead of a good student
Good students are goal oriented; they seek out good grades. Good learners are process oriented; they seek out learning opportunities.
This is a crucial mindset to have in the startup world. Why? Because around 90% of startups fail. So if you join a startup anchoring your personal success against the company’s “good grades”, odds are you will internalize “bad grades” as a personal failure. If you anchor instead on the trajectory of your own learning curve, you effectively break the impostor cycle.
3. Find the right team
A startup is only as good as its team. But how do you form the right one? In Tuckman’s Model, the most crucial of the five stages of team development is the storming stage. It’s the nucleus of innovation. If the storming stage doesn’t happen in your organisation, it could mean a) your team suffers from herd mentality or b) all voices are not being heard equally.
Co-founding with my sister, we were aware of the maxims discouraging getting into business with close friends of family. But we realized we could make it work, not because we get along, but because we think differently. Concurrently, we strive to ensure we create a safe space for disagreement.
This culture of sharing expertise and testing ideas together ultimately alleviates the anxiety of needing to seem like an expert in every subject.
4. Turn the volume up on your Growth Mindset
Psychologist Carol Dweck describes the two main mindsets:
A. Fixed; belief that intelligence is static
B. Growth; belief that intelligence can be developed over time
But the mind is malleable. This is known as neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to alter neural networks.
One simple yet powerful strategy to switch to a growth mindset is Yet Statements. Yet Statements prevent mentally psyching yourself out, by lowering the volume of that ‘fixed mindset’ inner voice.
Instructions: For 2–3 weeks, whenever you have a self-critical thought, turn it into a yet statement. For example, turn “I’m not good at Excel,” into “I am not good at Excel yet.”
It’s a tried and tested technique that works wonders.
5. Learn to differentiate your comfort and safety zones
Marketing guru Seth Godin describes two distinct zones of activity- comfort and safety zones. When we start pushing out of comfort limits into our safety zones, we feel out of our depths. This is when Impostor Syndrome may kick in, drawing us back into the cosy warmth of our comfort zone. But that cosy warmth is actually holding us back from exploring our potential.
So how do we better navigate our zones? Use it as a decision making framework to figure out how to push out of your comfort zone without encroaching your danger zones.
What’s key is these zones are not static, and merits periodic reevaluation. If you’re currently experiencing Impostor Syndrome, it means you are out of your comfort zone. Push through.
6. Replace your perfectionism with an MVP mindset
In the Marshmallow Challenge, teams build the tallest possible tower within 18 minutes using spaghetti, string, tape and a marshmallow. It’s been run amongst MBAs, CEOs, and even kindergarteners. The results? Kids outperform most adults by a surprising margin.
So what’s the deal? Kids quite simply, have an MVP mindset. They test, fail, learn and iterate right off the bat. Doing this challenge with other MBAs, I can attest that most teams spent the first 8 to 10 minutes furiously drafting blueprints (unsurprisingly most of us failed miserably).
Preparation is good. Over-preparation however, not only limits you but highlights potential problem/challenge areas, discouraging the Impostor Syndrome-prone to even start.
But with an MVP mindset, you start at one point and continuously improve as you go, creating a much more robust end product. Just start somewhere.
7. Put your unconscious mind to better use
Sigmund Freud described the mind as an iceberg; what’s floating on the surface is merely the tip. As humans, we are believed to have access to this conscious mind, which makes about 10% of our brain. The other 90% is thought to be inaccessible.
However, in Eastern spiritual philosophy it is believed that this 90% can be accessed and managed through meditative technique. Practices such as meditation, affirmation and manifestation work on a neural level, leveraging the principles of neuroplasticity.
When you meditate consistently on positive thoughts, you form and reinforce new neural pathways in your brain. It’s like working a muscle. Over time, you reprogramme your mind to let go of negative thoughts. You are in essence conditioning your growth mindset, and silencing the inner critic.
8. Reimagine the phrase ”Fail fast and often.”
At face value, this phrase is rather counter-intuitive. But essentially it tries to remove the stigma of failing.
To embrace this mantra, the concept of failure first needs to be recalibrated. Personally, I don’t believe in the concept of failure. If you’ve learned even 1% from something that didn’t go to plan, you have grown.
At Freedom Row, every “no” is an opportunity to be better. We actively seek feedback from parties that have said no to us. 9 out of 10 times we not only receive valuable feedback, but also connection to a new opportunity.
9. Be unapologetically imperfect
If you’re a fan of SNL, you’ve probably seen actors unintentionally break character by laughing. This is called ‘corpsing’. Why not just re-do imperfect takes? Because that imperfection makes the actors more likeable. Breaks in character remind viewers of how much it takes an actor to assume their role, and that they’re only human. Similarly, authenticity as an employee or leader comes across much more positively than perfection.
In the startup world, it’s better to come across as being unsure yet willing to learn. Let’s normalize phrases such as “I’m not sure, I’ll get back to you”. Another way to be unapologetically imperfect? Start replacing “I’m sorry” with “I appreciate your time” or “Thanks for your patience.”
10. Lead with the right culture
Knowing how Impostor Syndrome can manifest is crucial to creating a culture that prevents it.
Here’s a few things leaders can do:
- Create a safe space where saying “I don’t know” or “I need help” is normalized.
- Encourage juniors to take credit for their work.
- Share your own impostor stories; vulnerability creates trust.
- Replace “Do you have any questions?” (the default answer is “No.”) with “What questions do you have?”.
- Praise effort, not intelligence. The latter bears the risk of putting your employee in an impostor cycle.
The right leadership will allow all levels of your organisation to be able to own their spaces and quite simply, kick butt.
Written by: Ash Menon
Ash is the Co-Founder and Head of Strategy at Freedom Row, a women-led SaaS startup that aims to reduce modern slavery using Artificial Intelligence.
Yale MBA and lifelong learner, she enjoys contemplating the intersections of professional and spiritual fulfilment. She splits her time between London and Kuala Lumpur.
Read more about Ash’s work at Freedomrow.co.uk.
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