Learnings from impostor syndrome as a founder

by Frederic Melanson in
Person at the edge of a mountain

Being bold, and taking risks, means that you often find yourself in situations with impostors’ syndrome. Especially when you’re starting out.  

Which is my case. I’ve always felt like an imposter.

Being a first-time founder in a HYPER-competitive tech world certainly made me realize that I knew nothing. Grit, vision and probably insanity have all kept me from turning back and accepting that fact.

However, I truly believe that there are things that one can do, and qualities that you can nurture, to go past the impostor syndrome and step into bigger shoes. 

At the end of the day, the best way to reach/gain something that you don’t have is to do it and learn fast enough to reach it before your hit walls (running out of money, being fired, etc.). 

So, I thought I’d share some learnings that have helped me nurture my impostor syndrome and go past it. 

Important note: I am still actively working on all of those traits and I’m far from an expert. However, I recognize the immense value add from incorporating them into my leadership/work. 

1 . Self-awareness 

Self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself and how your actions, thoughts, or emotions do or don’t align with your internal standards.

If you’re highly self-aware, you can objectively evaluate yourself, manage your emotions, align your behaviour with your values, and understand correctly how others perceive you. 

In a context of feeling like you don’t belong, or feeling like you lack expertise, understanding your strengths, but most importantly where your weaknesses fall, is crucial.

It’s in my opinion one of the strongest attributes of leadership, and slowly working towards being more self-aware has helped me realize how I affect others, how my work is contributing to the business, what I’m doing that’s not contributing to our goals, and communicate better. 

In a context of a team, it’s also truly beneficial to know your emotions, communication patterns and weaknesses.

Mainly because your need to find people who can compliment you, but also because different personality types will cause communication problems that you can easily solve by understanding the psychological dynamics of yourself and your team. 

Concrete example: Our funding team is a hipster (artist), hustler (business), hacker (tech) trio. Although it’s very complementary and helps take care of all sides of the business at once, it can be a behavioural nightmare.

The emotional nature of the artist, combined with the asshole/direct ways of the businessperson and finally the rational, control-freak nature of the tech leader can lead to us wanting to express the same thing but fighting over it instead. 

Here’s what I suggest: 

  • Taking some time, like before going to sleep, to reflect on your work and what you do well, what you don’t, and how you can improve. 
  • Making everyone take a personality test internally. Game-changer to improve work dynamics and productivity. 
  • Try to implement a culture of honesty and transparency and ask others what you do well, what you should improve and why. (A good technique is the Start, Stop and Continue exercise which Netflix’s head of RH, Patty McCord, is famous for. More in her book titled Powerful). 

2 . Constant learning

Pretty straight forward but oh, so important. Having a learning mindset is a great benefit when going on a journey you’ve never taken before.

It may be weird coming from someone who made cocktails in college instead of actually attending classes… However, there are many ways to learn.

“Fail fast” is a famous is saying in Silicon Valley and truly necessary in entrepreneurship because failing is your #1 source of learning.

As long as you’re self-aware enough to recognize where you failed and why, you’ll grow. 

Other quick ways that I’ve used to learn as I’m doing include: 

  • Listen to business podcasts while doing regular non-work tasks like walking the dog or cooking. 
  • Cut TV 1 hour before bedtime and read a book instead (mostly business books but it can be anything worth learning from). 

3 . Listen more. Talk less

Most difficult one, for me at least.

In leadership as much as in sales, I’m starting to learn that listening to others and asking the right questions is an amazing way to learn and get to real problems rather than surface the obvious.

Chris Voss’s masterclass is great at teaching negotiating and learning techniques if you’re, like, trying to master that skill.

I find it really important for people with extroverted personalities to work on listening skills. Especially in a team setting.

You might learn a lot from others and bounce around ideas of far greater quality if you let everyone express their opinions. 

4 . Surround yourself with mentors

That’s something I’ve been religious about from the beginning of Bliinx and has been my secrete weapon. I tried to surround myself with as many mentors as possible (few mentors with incredible knowledge or many mentors with specific knowledge both work fine).

It was a way for me to make more experienced decisions without having the internal expertise to do so. 

What’s great is that the Startup community is amazingly open and generous on that front. People in tech seem genuinely open to helping others and giving back, which I’ve been truly grateful for. 

Show someone with experience that you’re hungry, passionate and eager to learn and most people will give you their time! 

5 . Document your wins but most importantly your failures  

Documenting wins and failures is an idea I received from another founder/mentor, and it’s great for learning, decision making and leadership. 

Document wins: 

Great way to create momentum, increase motivation and truly a practical way to go through hard times.

Building a company from scratch is hard, so hard, that being able to look back at what you’ve accomplished is an underrated benefit to finding the drive to keep going. 

Document fails: 

Documenting failures makes sure that you fully learn and don’t repeat mistakes twice, which is a horrible thing for young companies.

I keep a journal of failures, both personal and company-wide, and review it often to remind myself of past learnings. 

We document wins and failures weekly at Bliinx, and discuss them openly every week in an all-hands meeting. 

6 . Selflessness

As a first-time founder, I find the ability to be selfless (concern more with the needs and wishes of others/or the company than with one's own) truly important. 

Obviously, it’s extremely hard to “back your words” and be selfless every day, and no-one really becomes 100% selfless.

But, at least trying to be selfless as much as you can create trust in your culture, raise employee happiness, lead to better strategic decisions and align yourself more with your company’s vision. 

Especially as a first-time founder, where you should be focused on building something great, learning and bringing something positive to the world, rather than self-gains, ego or perceptions. 

I hope this was interesting and helpful to some. The notions described above were communicated in a company-founding context but do apply to all forms of work.  

Cheers, Fred ✌️

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