Stories from the Kakorrhaphiophobia – How Founders can overcome the fear of failure

In these unprecedented times of (using the word unprecedented) uncertainty, many of us are contemplating taking the leap of faith and becoming full-time entrepreneurs. In this edition of the Zymurgist Diaries, let’s attempt to understand more about kakorrhaphiophobia (the fear of failure) and how startup founders can use simple structures and good planning to alleviate the fear.

Founders are always under tremendous pressure to succeed. Having left their cushy corporate jobs or comfortable alternative careers, they chose to go through the rigmarole of entrepreneurship and dedicate their lives to the pursuit of their vision via the venture. However, failure is (mostly) frowned upon in the corporate world.

However, real entrepreneurs realise that the only risk they are not taking is not taking any risk at all… hence, weighing the two risks, they are prepared to take the pain of failure than live with the pain of regret.

But first: kakorrhaphiophobia

kakorrhaphiophobia
The definition of kakorrhaphiophobia

Kakorrhaphiophobia is an abnormal, and irrational fear of failure which is so pronounced that it restricts people (Founders) from doing anything at all. It manifests in different questions and fears such as:

“What if I fail?”

“What if I look stupid after I fail?”

“What will my friends and family think of me if I fail?”

“What do I want to humiliate myself with this risk?”

“What if taking this risk ruins my reputation?”

“What if I become unemployable if this fails?”

“How will I pay my bills if this fails?”

Founders and their kakorrhaphiophobia can either make or break businesses. Like a kaleidoscope, a business is a collective reflection of its founders’ priorities. It takes a lot of courage to drop a thriving career to become a start-up founder.

So, let’s face it – What if you fail?

As children, we were taught to associate failing with taking the blame for something bad or not being up to the mark or incompetent. Most of the learning in most countries follows the system of rote, where there is a pre-defined curriculum with a pre-defined set of questions and answers, and this often leads to the misappropriation of failure – the inability to remember and execute.

However, the startup world is different. It is not a game of memory anymore. It is mostly about connecting the dots, relationship management, and disciplined execution – treating failures as stepping stones.

Experience is the name people give to their failures. For most startup founders, it is a badge of honour worn with more pride than overpriced swag. The reaction and acceptance of failure depends on several personal, and cultural factors; hence very specific to that individual. The real aim of failing fast is not to fail, but to learn from failure and not repeat those same mistakes.

Most people dream of success and there are a few who wake up each morning and make it happen! The greatest and the most persistent blockages to your progress in life usually come from a single source – yourself.

And what can you do about it? Accept it.

Acceptance of failure goes a long way in making or breaking a startup. Success has many fathers, but failure is often an orphan. As a founder, it is also very easy to fall into the traps that people sort of establish in their own minds by giving themselves excuses or giving themselves insurmountable obstacles, and insurmountable paths.

Founders, however, go beyond this social stigma associated with the term and work on understanding the underlying complexity and the interdependencies which led to the failure and conversely, can lead to success. A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance – The Known Unknowns.

kakorrhaphiophobia

Never underestimate the ego’s desire to preserve its imaginary self

The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know! What you know is inside a circle, what you don’t know is outside of it. As your knowledge grows, the circle grows and the circumference expands. By working with feedback (both – soliciting and providing), it is possible for you to discover your blind spots and reduce the “unknown unknowns” in the process – thereby improving your perception of your strengths and weaknesses and reducing over-confidence.

It then becomes a matter of positioning

When you admit you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future you move from predicting to positioning. Good positioning allows you to keep playing. Great positioning allows you to take advantage.

kakorrhaphiophobia

The risk of insult is the price of clarity

In start-ups, there are broadly 2 types of failures:

  1. Productive Failures: These failures are a part and parcel of learning, and almost everyone human goes through them. More often than not, they serve as the underlying catalysts for future successes.
  2. Unnecessary Failures: Unfortunately, these failures could have been avoided with better research, planning, and advice from mentors.

As a Founder, you can look at boosting your ability to increase productive failure, and introduce structures to decrease unnecessary failure. By accepting that it will always be a VUCA world, you are better prepared by accepting the volatility, planning for the uncertainty, dissecting the complexities, and clarifying the ambiguity.

One of the top reasons start-ups fail is the co-founder dynamics, often driven by financial needs to survive. The financial, societal, and cultural aspects of need-based failures were discussed in my blog  – Stories From The Thrift: Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Applied To Start-Ups And Cofounders

Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.

kakorrhaphiophobia

Need I say more?

In all chaos, there is a cosmos; in all disorder, a secret order.

Entrepreneurship is bizarre, because, as a startup founder, you have no idea what you are doing; yet, at the same time, know exactly what you are doing. New products are inherently hard to launch because both the problem and solution are unknown.

Solving a problem means having to recontextualise it till it ends. Thinking through and contextualising kakorrhaphiophobia to build the next version of your product/service is a better way to move forward. Regretting wasted time is more wasted time. Pain is inevitable but suffering can be avoided through a set of simple techniques and a shift in mindset.

Remember, “Startups are designed to fail, Entrepreneurs are not.“

Need I say more?

Parting thoughts till the next blog:

“You can lose only what you cling to.”

Pause, reflect, act.


About the author:

24x Founder, 3x Success, 2x VCExit, 19x Failure, 100x Resilient, 14x Sectors, 6x Continents, $3+ billion deals originated and advised.

Chennakeshav Adya (Keshav) is an eclectic value creator for mid-sized firms and PE/VC funds on Fund-raising, M&A, growth, corporate strategy and deal-making (currently, as co-founder of Adan Corporate). He is a resourceful entrepreneur with 20+ years of global experience in building businesses from a concept and growing global teams from 2 to 200+.

A deca-lingual, multi-talented zymurgist, Keshav is skilled at using the founder’s mentality and thrives in uncertainty and chaos, directing teams through the “Unknown” in the initial 1-2 years of setting up any type of new venture.

As an Entrepreneur Mentor in Residence (EMiR), Keshav is associated with London Business School’s experiential entrepreneurship activities supporting students and alumni who are interested in pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, whether launching or growing their own ventures.

Keshav is reachable at ck.adya@adancorporate.com and loves speaking to startup founders and VC fund managers on topics of growth, technology, and the traps of entrepreneurship.

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