6 Founder Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them (Part 1 of 3)

I will be the first to admit that I have fallen into an enormous amount of pitfalls during my 25 years as a co-founder of more than a dozen startups. I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone. From mentoring and engaging with hundreds of startup founders over the last 10 years I have come to realise that falling is an inherent part of the innovation game. The trick is to quickly rise again, and be a little bit wiser each time. 

Here are 6 common pitfalls that you might find useful to be aware of. Going forward we can make an effort to not fall into these particular traps quite as often and quite as deep.

1. Self doubt

Here’s a picture: you get an idea in the shower and get all excited. In the coming 24 hours you research, talk to a handful of friends, and sketch it out. You feel on top of the world; this is an amazing idea, and it will make a huge difference in the world. Then suddenly your mood shifts. Excitement gets replaced with doubt. Maybe it won’t work after all? Other ideas you have had previously turned out to be rubbish. You remember a friend or family member (maybe even your mum or dad) who warned you about being too optimistic. Life is not a bed of roses. Who are you to think that you can do something grand with your life? 

This is just an example, and a simplified one, but you get the picture. As founders, innovators, change makers and pioneers we often get very enthusiastic about an idea, insight or new initiative. Only to witness how the pendulum suddenly swings the other way and we start questioning everything. Don’t get me wrong, questioning is a very useful process. In fact, it is totally necessary to ask hard questions in all matters of innovation. But there are different kinds of questioning, and we must be aware to notice what bucket our version falls into. 

One version is where we ask questions to genuinely learn more. Get more context. When we are in this mode we are engaged, curious, focused – and feeling good about it all. 

Another version is where critical voices of the past take over. Old patterns of self doubt gradually start to run the show. “Why do I think that I am good enough for something this challenging”. “The last time I made such a bold attempt, I failed”. Etc. Etc. 

Here is the way to dispose of your inner saboteur: notice how you feel. If you feel down, losing steam, getting annoyed… then that is a clear give away. Your ideation and evaluation is no longer constructive. It has been corrupted by self doubt. Take a break and do something you know rests, re-energizes and uplifts you. Only return to thinking about your idea when you are feeling good inside yourself again. 

2. Arrogance

It might seem paradoxical to go into the pitfall of arrogance right after talking about self doubt. We are supposed to believe in ourselves, right? 

Definitely believe in yourself, deep down and at the core of your being. You are enough just as you are. It’s a wonderful feeling! 

At the same time it will do us well not to believe that we know everything there is to know. It is much more useful to be humble and well aware that what we know right now is less than 1% of what there is to know, independently of what topic we are talking about, and no matter how well read, intelligent and clever we are. 

We must remind ourselves that reality is infinitely complex, ever unfolding, and in fact totally out of reach for the human intellect to grasp. Even when we are only looking at a little slice of reality, say for instance the industry that we work in, what we know is nothing compared to all there is to know. 

We can all appreciate the danger of becoming a know-it-all. This happens most often to the experts and industry veterans who have been working in a specific context for several decades. One might expect that all insightful innovation should come from them, and them alone, but again and again we see that is not the case. When arrogance takes over, it shuts down our ability to imagine solutions that are radically better than the current ones. 

It can be seductive to think that we know it all. But when we go down that route we are really not that amazing to be around.

As founders we want to trust ourselves deeply as human beings, while being totally curious, modest and humble in terms of what we can learn about any topic, from any circumstance, and from every person we meet. 

Here’s a practice that will keep arrogance at bay: sit still and feel into how you are a precious part of the magnificent whole. As much as you can, dissolve the boundaries between ‘me’ and ‘others’, between ‘here’ and ‘there’. When we experience ourselves to be to life as the wave is to the ocean, then we naturally become grateful, humble and full of wonder. 

To be continued next week… 

Illustrations by 13 year-old freelance artist Mynte Sidor Bjergegaard