Selling Yourself Short

How to eliminate fear and free the creator inside you.

By Jason Forrest

As a true underdog at heart, Bret Starr loves to be underestimated. When you have nothing to lose, he says, you're free to be creative, take risks, and reinvent. Bret Starr is the first of many things in his family. First to leave his hometown. First to graduate college. First to launch out into the tumultuous world of entrepreneurship. As the founder of The Starr Conspiracy, Bret has spearheaded a first of its kind “strategic marketing and advertising agency dedicated to enterprise software and services companies” and “capitalized billings of more than $29 million in 2014.”

He attributes his success in part to feeling like he doesn’t have anything to lose. One of the biggest benefits of growing up without the comfort of financial security, he says, is being free from the fear of losing money. If the worst that could happen is living without financial comfort, well, he’s done it before and could do it again.

As an entrepreneur myself, I’ve observed that the most successful people among us are those who double down in the face of fear. They run toward the roar because as scary as their big teeth, full manes, and deafening roars are, male lions aren’t dangerous. Their job on the hunt is to be so loud and intimidating that they send their prey scattering–right into the quiet, lurking lioness’ path. What gazelles and zebras don’t understand is that if they resisted their quivery legs and stood their ground, they’d survive. And in the case of businesspeople, those are often the ones who thrive.

Bret certainly fits this category and has too many run-toward-the-roar moments to name. Among them is starting a business in the HR software field at a time when he says the market for it was perceived as “too small to paint on the top of a pinhead.” To top it off, he had zero experience working in one, let alone running one.

To Bret, the key steps to eliminating fear and gaining a “nothing to lose” mindset are:

1) Identify where you’re dependent.

The client or employee you think you can’t live without is the one you must learn to live without. When you put yourself in position to be dependent, you lose your freedom, and it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually lose the client, too.

Likewise, you have to recognize that the employee who always steps in to save the day actually has their ego wrapped up in being the hero. What Bret describes as a hero employee can also meet Jack Welch’s description of someone with high performance and low integrity. They are enigmas, and their ability to rescue a bad situation is incredibly high. But when we look at why the situation exists in the first place, sometimes we see that the so-called heroes are the ones who caused the moments that turn into crises in the first place.

2) Engage in a process of creative destruction.

Once you’ve identified where you’re dependent, it’s time to cut ties, even with high-paying clients and your team’s perceived heroes. Bret describes voluntarily parting ways with about two “detractor clients” a year. These are clients who lower the morale of employees because they don’t share the attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs of the organization. He also has zero tolerance for a client who is abusive to an account manager. Clients are important, but employees are even more important.

But you can’t let an employee be so important that you are dependent on him or her. When their presence eliminates options for others to grow, it prevents your business from becoming scalable, and it’s time for them to be eliminated from the team.

3) Reinvent and rebuild.

Once you’ve eliminated dependencies, rebuild a sustainable model where there’s a shared risk across multiple clients and multiple valuable employees. Build a process that no longer requires heroes.

Bret came to this point in his own business. He said, “If we don’t change something big, we are going to work ourselves to death and have nothing to show for it.”

Making such a drastic change with a successful business was risky, and they did it at a time when they actually had a lot to lose. They felt like it would either destroy them or position them for greater growth over the next 10 years. They transitioned to what’s called a flat organization—where the team decides how work gets done and requires little management. This is not a common approach in advertising agencies, and though it has worked out, they had some very touch-and-go moments.

This is exactly the stuff that true run-toward-the-roar moments are made of. Reinventing is necessary in any life—on a personal or organizational level. Bret advises that if you ever look around and think you are as far as you can go in the situation you’re in, get up and look further. If you’re serious about being an entrepreneur—take stock of the influences in your life. Keep company with people who pull for you and pull you up. If you’re not surrounded by people with the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of successful people, remove yourself from the situation.

Like gazelles, humans instinctively run away from the things that look or sound scary. But sometimes, those challenges and conflicts are exactly what we need to run toward because when we do, we find something better than survival–we find life. We find that sweet spot that allows us to do and believe and achieve what doesn’t seem possible. This is when underdogs triumph and deep-seated traditions and beliefs change. The only way to thrive is to eliminate everything you’re dependent on because it makes you operate out of fear. The disruptions in our lives can catalyst a complete transportation. It’s scary as hell. And it’s also where the magic happens.