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Robin De Cock Professor AMS Antwerp Management School presentation
Strategy & Innovation

Surviving the emotional rollercoaster called entrepreneurship

When you ask entrepreneurs how they experienced their entrepreneurial journey, many of them would describe it as a rollercoaster.
A recently published study on the lead founders of 183 Flemish technology start-ups* by professors Robin De Cock (Antwerp Management School), Lien Denoo (Tilburg University) and Bart Clarysse (ETH Zürich) is one of the first studies to give insights into how entrepreneurs can deal with this emotional rollercoaster and increase their chances of surviving the difficult, bumpy road towards initial viability and subsequent growth.
Robin de cock phd
by Robin De Cock, PhD | September 11, 2019
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Robin De Cock Professor AMS Antwerp Management School presentation

Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape, once a leading web browser firm, described it as follows: “First and foremost, a start-up puts you on an emotional rollercoaster unlike anything you have ever experienced. You flip rapidly from day-to-day — one where you are euphorically convinced you are going to own the world, to a day in which doom seems only weeks away and you feel completely ruined, and back again. Over and over and over.”

Setting up a venture is a real rollercoaster of ups and downs where the moments spent on cloud nine after signing a big deal or making a well-received pitch quickly alternate with periods of losing (potential) customers and urgently needing to find capital to fund the payroll.

“Setting up a venture is a real rollercoaster of ups and downs.”

For entrepreneurs, surviving requires them to ride a rollercoaster, enduring constant twists and turns, and dealing with emotional ups and downs. Dealing with early accomplishments and huge disappointments within a short time span may put significant emotional strain on entrepreneurs. How entrepreneurs regulate their emotions has an impact on their venture’s survival chances.

Entrepreneurs' ability to regulate their emotions may help them navigate this landscape more effectively and increase their ventures' chances of survival. The quote of a Belgian entrepreneur from a March 2018 broadcast on national television illustrates how entrepreneurs frequently need to regulate their emotions: “When you’re running a start-up and especially when you’re in the process of raising money, you need to build some sort of façade pretending that everything is going fantastically while in fact everything is fucked up. And that’s how it goes in every start-up.”

“How entrepreneurs regulate their emotions has an impact on their venture’s survival chances.”

Below are three key advices for entrepreneurs on how they can deal with the rollercoaster of the entrepreneurial life:

1. Suppress emotions only when your venture is really performing below expectations

Suppressing emotions, or changing the experience of your emotions, such as not showing that you are disheartened when the CFO discloses the negative financial positon of the firm, is an important emotion regulation mechanism.

Overall, because it may lead to a dissonance between what you are feeling and what you are expressing, suppressing emotions may lead to missing opportunities to improve the venture and its performance.

However, when the venture has a very low performance and is really in trouble, suppression may reduce outburst of negative emotions and keep the team focused on getting out of the negative situation, ultimately resulting in significantly higher survival odds.

2. Reappraising emotions does not help increase your chances of surviving

Cognitive reappraisal, a second type of emotion regulation, focuses on the way we experience emotions. Before an event takes place, individuals may already change the way they think about the event so that they will experience the emotions caused by that event in a different way.

If you go in front of investors and think about your pitch as a one-time chance to acquire crucial funding, you will likely experience different emotions than when you reappraise the experience in such a way that you consider it as an opportunity to get valuable input on your venture idea, regardless of whether you will attract the funding or not.

Somewhat unexpectedly, cognitive reappraisal does not increase the survival odds of firms. When ventures are performing poorly, reappraising things so that they seem better than they really are, makes start-ups lose a valuable ‘wake-up call’ and an opportunity to focus on the venture and improve its poor performance.

Even when ventures are doing well, reappraising one’s emotions will not significantly increase firm survival, as the founder and start-up team likely refrain from taking further actions when the firm is doing well.

3. Regulating your emotions can have an important impact on yourself and others' behaviors

How ventures’ lead founders regulate their emotions matters not only for themselves and how they will experience and express events in the start-up rollercoaster, but also for the start-up’s team and employees.

Managing your emotions in a specific way may help you create a positive working environment where the employees are focused and looking for solutions that help the venture. Founders should be aware of this, and be cautious of how they experience and express emotions in specific ways as it impacts not only themselves, but also their employees, and eventually the entire start-up.

Ultimately, how you regulate your emotions is important as it can neutralize some of the ups and downs in the emotional rollercoaster that every start-up faces.

At Antwerp Management School, we designed our master of innovation and entrepreneurship in such a way that our future entrepreneurs experience this rollercoaster while studying at AMS.

Already from day 1, they get time to work on their our start-up idea or on an real-life entrepreneurial challenge of a corporate. Throughout the year and the different Innovation and entrepreneurship labs, they will be confronted with early stage wins, severe set-backs and will have to pivot and deal with uncertainty.

By doing so, they do not only obtain the necessary knowledge, they also have real-life start-up experiences which learn our future entrepreneur to become resilient and drive the emotional rollercoaster called entrepreneurship.

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