Startup founders: ignore the naysayers, do not let anyone walk through your mind with their dirty feet

John Lennon was into rock ‘n roll from his early teenage years, you can imagine John’s obsession with his non-stop guitar practice in his bedroom, and how this could have got on the nerves of his Aunt Mimi, who brought him up. John told the story that she used to repeatedly say The guitar’s all well and good, John, but you’ll never make a living at it. Years later, when John was successful, he had those words engraved on a plaque and sent it to her.

We all have our Aunt Mimi’s, don’t we? You have a big dream, and somewhere along the line you’re going to run into somebody who doesn’t believe you can accomplish it and cynically sow the seeds of doubt in your head. It could be a family member, a friend or simply a person sitting beside you on the bus. Maybe all three.

And the thing is, the logic supports the naysayers perspective. The odds were against John Lennon making a living with the guitar, but of course, he did achieve his dreams. John was one of those people who never listened or believed the naysayers. He nodded politely, and got on with the work of achievement. John heard his Aunt Mimi but went on practicing. Imagine if John had believed her? Imagine if he had given up on his vision, his dream. If that had happened, we would never have heard songs like In My LifeDear Prudence, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Don’t Let Me Down or…Imagine. The only reason those songs, and dozens of others exist, is because a kid with a vision ignored the doubters, believed in himself and got to work.

And it’s happened to many startup innovators too.

The audience laughed nervously when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone’s multi-touch interface at Apple’s 2007 keynote in Cupertino, California. But little did they know. There were a host of sceptical Sarahs who scoffed at what was to become one of the most revolutionary devices in history:

 Five hundred dollars, fully subsidised, with a plan? That is the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard! – Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO.

iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks – Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg.

The iPhone will not substantially alter the fundamental structure and challenges of the mobile industry. The iPhone was late to the party and rivals like Nokia will attack the iPhone by offering deals to carriers – Analyst Charles Golvin, Forrester.

There is a low demand for converged, all-in-one devices. Only 31% of Americans surveyed said they wanted a device with multiple capabilities. There’s no memory-card slot, no chat program, no voice dialing. You can’t install new programs from anyone but Apple. The browser can’t handle Java or Flash, which deprives you of millions of Web videos – David Pogue, The New York Times

Aside from Web speed issues, the iPhone has two serious flaws. First, it’s awkward to handle, it’s half an inch wider than my regular cell phone – too wide to hold comfortably. And the iPhone is slippery – too easy to drop – Mike Himowitz, The Baltimore Sun 

Taking inspiration from the above, as founders, we have to believe it’s possible when we don’t know, being focused on head-down, sleeves rolled-up, doing the hard yards. Hope is not a strategy, but know that every founder struggles with self-doubt. You’re not alone in feeling like this despite what you may hear from others. Start by being honest with yourself and avoiding the seduction of the hyperbolic hype and rhetoric of startups, and the downbeat cynicism of the naysayers. Close your ears. It’s about balance, being in the moment, doing and being the best you can.

Launching a startup is a special kind of personal commitment. A startup is about finding what matters to you. Then there’s the contradiction between your thinking and reality once you’re into it. These paradoxes and tensions are the very drivers that spur us on. What counts is not the status of ‘startup’, but the endeavour and joy in the work, so define your purpose and success on your own terms. Don’t indulge yourself in the noise and negativity of others, recognise your own dilemmas, because if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, why bother in the first place?

Accept, that it carries risk and there is no safety net, but listen to your own voice. At some point, you’ll feel that you are fully invested – emotion, energy, time – and quitting lurks as a possibility from the little voices in your head. Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching, you need to dodge the most obvious startup cliché, and at all costs avoid granting yourself the status of the victim.

Negative people have a way of bringing you down. They can bring about confusion, frustration, and self-doubt. Be cautious of these individuals. In my 59 years of life, I still haven’t figured them out. It could be that they don’t see the big picture the same way that we do, or that they have insecurities stronger than their dreams or maybe it’s just their spirit. Some people are just envious, and don’t have a productive way to deal with that. Whatever the case, don’t let their misery become your company – as Winston Churchill said You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.

Think about it this way: What’s important to me is not the hype or doubt of others; but my opinion of myself. You have to have belief in many things, for yourself, by yourself, to make your startup a success. Let’s look at some of these beliefs.

Belief in self to beat the odds: First and foremost, simply believe in your ability. You can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. Don’t hope you can beat the odds, believe wholeheartedly that you will. There is no second-guessing. As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right. If you don’t believe you can beat the odds, chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself, listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice may masquerade as belonging to you, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Ditch the baggage! Have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon. There is a light that never goes out.

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, the cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance and your vision: This is a big attribute of entrepreneurs. The obstacles, cul-de-sacs or moments of failure that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true winners. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Your vision is bigger than anything in the moment, it’s what got you started, what keeps you going. Hold your vision and make small steps, no matter how dark the clouds. Along the way trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s belief in your vision that determines your continued direction and ultimately success. I think this Steve Jobs’ quotes ums up this attitude best:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Do not let other people’s opinion become your reality, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said We all know people who are wet blankets. I can’t control the naysayers, but I can control my attitude and work ethic and determination and that’s what I focused on. If I would have listened to the naysayers, I would still be in the Austrian Alps yodelling.

In your startup, you must work to become a hard-headed realist, or else we risk wasting our time and energy on pursuing impossible dreams. Yet constant naysayers pursue no less impossible dreams. Their fear and cynicism move nothing forward. They kill progress. How many cynics built empires, great cities, or powerful corporations? You are what you are. Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. I just believe in me Lennon once said, and he meant it.

Many say It couldn’t be done, and Edgar Guest captures the spirit of fighting back against this sentiment in his poem of the same name:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, But he with a chuckle replied That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried. So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin On his face if he worried he hid it. He started to sing as he tackled the thing That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that; At least no one ever has done it;” But he took off his coat and he took off his hat And the first thing we knew he’d begun it. With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin, Without any doubting or quiddit, He started to sing as he tackled the thing That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done, There are thousands to prophesy failure, There are thousands to point out to you one by one, The dangers that wait to assail you. But just buckle in with a bit of a grin, Just take off your coat and go to it; Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

So, lots of positive words to reflect upon and push back on the naysayers. Perhaps the best thing to do is to take Gandhi’s advice: I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet. Knowing you have the power inside you to overcome the negativity expressed about your startup means you won’t let the opinion of others define you or your destiny. The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it. The next move is always yours.

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