Facing your fears Featured

11:14am EDT January 25, 2005
Almost without exception, every business success story starts with an idea -- a concept fueled by a dream.

Every day, we read about how these dreams take shape and come to fruition. We've also heard the hackneyed analogies for winning, the most ubiquitous of which are tied to sports. (Sorry ladies, it must be a guy thing.)

There are dozens of pedestrian lines such as, "If you don't step up to the plate, you'll never get on base," or "If you don't take a shot, you'll never get a basket." As corny as it sounds, these trite phrases apply to much of what we do, particularly in business. Simply put, if you never do anything, nothing will ever happen.

Most, if not all, of us have had what we thought was that big idea -- the grand slam concept that brings fame, fortune and, for some of us, the satisfaction of getting even with that seventh grade teacher who said we wouldn't amount to anything.

Unfortunately, many of these great ideas never get traction because we all suffer from the "F of F syndrome" or Fear of Failure, which almost always surfaces with a slam-bang big idea. We think to ourselves, "If I try it and fail, I'll embarrass my family, my friends, myself, and prove that seventh grade teacher right."

Self-doubt and second thoughts come part and parcel with breakthrough thinking. F of F can even be a strong motivator, making us delve more deeply, analyze fully and think through what it will take to make something really work.

On the other hand, we've all experienced -- or at least observed -- the effects of analysis/paralysis, where, through constant and obsessive study and rehashing, we beat an idea like a dead horse, with self-recriminations of woulda, coulda and shoulda. If I do it this way, that will happen. If I do it that way, this will happen.

At the end of the process, you're exhausted and frustrated, and you've taken your rags-to-riches dream and turned it into a fading fantasy bordering on a nightmare. As psychiatrists like to say, "When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras, lest you cross over the line to the darker side of paranoia."

So how do you stop this downward spiral of a good idea and translate it into a reality?

From my experience of coming up with an idea and building businesses from scratch, the best way is to start with the concept and ask yourself a few simple questions.

Does my idea fill a niche and provide a solution that no else does? Or, can I take an existing concept, business or methodology and make it better, more efficient, more effective and do it more economically than anybody else?

After I think of an idea, I create a mental storyboard, much like those used in creating TV shows. Each frame is a scene. I then fill in the blanks with words and a visual picture of what is to take place at a given sequence or point in time in my plan.

I call this process sequencing.

As the storyboard progresses, I come up with additional questions. Does the concept have staying power? What will I need in terms of resources, skills, people, and how much money will it take to harvest the concept?

Once done with my mental storyboard, I commit it to writing, and then the fun begins.

When you follow this scenario, you'll think about the idea or concept intermittently day and night. If it's a particularly good one, you'll find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. You'll ruminate about how to improve it. You'll also begin imagining yourself stepping up to the plate, taking the bat off your shoulders and, if you're both smart and lucky, you'll hear the crack of the bat and envision that spherical object soaring for the fences as the crowd cheers.

Some of the simplest ideas have become the biggest winners for those persistent enough to stay focused and create their own storyboard of success. This is known as really low-hanging fruit. Most people will think of an idea and say, "No, that's too easy. Someone has probably already done it."

Because of that always-lurking doomsday fear of failure sentiment, or perhaps more aptly put, fear of winning, you become afraid to try. The most successful people I've met are those who have something to prove to others or, more important, to themselves.

But, you'll never even come close to winning if you're afraid to lose.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm. Reach him at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.