Imposter syndrome – you can overcome the curse of the small business

What is “Imposter syndrome” and how can you overcome it?

According to, Imposter syndrome is “ the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”.[1] 

Matthew Caines writes that “imposter syndrome affects one in five small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners”

Knowing what imposter syndrome is and overcoming it are two quite different things. One of the great advantages and drawbacks of being self employed or a freelancer, is that you are often along and answerable only to yourself. Too much time to ponder leaves room for self-doubt.

Going it alone!

Having started my own foreign language business almost 5 years ago and then diversified into web design just under a year ago, I am very aware of the concern that someone will find out you aren’t all you’re cracked up to be. I think this feeling is heightened by the fact that for 20 years I was employed as a modern language teacher, where people would be sure to let me know if I wasn’t any good! OFSTED observations, appraisals and even the brutal honesty of teenagers, meant that I was always receiving feedback of some sort. I was a very good teacher and was confident in that.

When after two decades in the classroom, I decided to launch my own business, I had absolutely no doubt that it was right for me. I was desperate for a change and wanted to make my work life fit my family. Teaching had begun to take over every waking minute and I wanted to control what I was doing and the level of stress in my life.

Despite having taught modern languages for so long, once I began my language business for children, I was still occasionally scared of being found out to be a fraud! I wasn’t a businesswoman! I remember being almost embarrassed to say that I ran my own business for fear that people would fall about laughing or stare at me dumbfounded. The business rested solely with me. No-one was there to provide reassurance that I was doing it correctly. Customer feedback was always fantastic, but the feeling of not quite meeting expectations could still rear its ugly head.

It’s par for the course as small business owner.

Part and parcel of becoming a small business owner, is the fact that you will be on an eternal path of learning. Despite having spent a great deal of time researching web design, and taken the opportunity in my spare time to study and practice, I still felt new and inexperienced when I decided to launch. Of course at the beginning I was. Everyone starts somewhere though, and each day I become more knowledgeable, more confident and more accomplished. Each happy customer and smart new website launched slowly builds my confidence in myself. That doesn’t always allay the nagging worry of being an imposter. The one thing that is certain about web design and small business ownership, is that it is an ever changing field. But that is also a great opportunity. I am loving feeling so engaged in something and finding solutions to new problems, or learning new business skills.

Fear of being found out!

My interest in web design began with blogging. I began writing, became fascinated by the creative process and this led me to where I am now. I have been so excited to find a new path that genuinely excites me. I love web design. Each new project presents new challenges and I adore the creativity, the constant battle with SEO , and the satisfaction of helping other small businesses make their fully responsive, SEO ready, high-speed entry into the internet world.

I have received excellent feedback from customers, such as a wonderful review I received just yesterday from Davyhulme Park FC for a great football club site I designed for them. I pondered the reaction within me, as I read that they “could not recommend me enough”. Their opinion mattered hugely and reassured me that this is indeed something I am good at. But why do I need that approval? I am completely aware I am competent, so what is the doubt about?

I wonder if this is a phenomenon that has increased with the advent of Social Media. We all know the draw we feel to seek likes and comments when we post a new photograph on our Facebook page. Do we even suffer imposter syndrome in life? My experiences of venturing onto any of the “mum” groups tell me that the temptation to compare and compete is very strong. I am only glad that I managed to avoid this when my own children were small. Do we even feel like imposters as parents?

Katherine DM Clover has written a wonderful blog entitled ” When parenting ignites your imposter syndrome”. She describes a visit to a pre-school open day where she comments,  “I wonder if I was the only one there who felt like they were wearing an adult costume?”

I think I have felt this most of my adult life!

Are women in business more likely to suffer imposter syndrome?

An article by RBS, states that “60% of women put off starting a business due to imposter syndrome”.

As a woman small business owner, I wondered what the reasons might be. Apparently “men are more likely to push through the syndrome while women tend to give in to their self-doubt.”

As a female small business owner, this led me to wonder whether women are less likely to take a risk, as has been suggested before. Are we more sensitive to the fear of failing? Or do we feel we have more to lose?

I am loathed to feel that it is because we are not bold enough, or brave enough. Do you really know any woman who cannot cope in a crisis?

This thought reminds me of a wonderful speech by Reece Witherspoon, when she bemoaned the fact that women in films are often found wailing ” Whatever shall we do?” in a crisis. Come on! Give us more credit!

Are women less likely to take risks? Not by biology but maybe conditioning. This statement by Chengyi Lin in her article, “Women Are Risk-Takers, Too: Busting Gender Myths in the Start-up Space”, tends to fall more in line with my thinking. Women can certainly take risks, and undoubtedly handle crises, but they are conditioned to consider the wider picture before leaping in.

So the conclusion of all this pondering seems to be that most of us suffer from imposter syndrome at some point, either personally or professionally. If it can be so detrimental to small business and enterprise, is it possible that it might also have an upside?

Is there a positive side to imposter syndrome?

By nature, I am always the first to critique myself. Either personally or professionally. I am pretty sure that no-one is as tough on me as I am. Is that always a negative though? If I am running my own business, I have no line manager, I receive no annual appraisals. Could my self-doubt actually be harnessed as a way to continue to push for excellence?

I have always believed that no matter what my job was, I would always do my very best. This desire to do well sometimes egged on by the fear of being found lacking, also means that I continually seek to improve. To deliver better service, to be more accurate, to perfect that website speed test score!

Another quote in the article by Matthew Caines argues that even highly successful entrepreneurs feel this doubt. But is it a bad thing?

Holly Tucker, co-founder of and owner of Holly &Co. describes this perfectly.
“I think of it as my superpower; it makes me check my Instagram posts 30 times for mistakes, over-prepare for meetings and so on,” she explains. “While others might be slapdash in their approach, imposter syndrome makes me better at what I do.”

Perhaps wondering whether you are good enough, is actually a sign that you might be doing well enough after all. The wonderful author Maya Angelou even suffered from this self-doubt,

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

Could it be that actually this self-doubt is more a level of self-assessment and continued improvement? I have never thought that self-awareness was a bad thing.

Makes sense to me! Recognise the feeling of self-doubt, but have faith in your abilities, belief in your product and the courage to try! For me the drive to overcome these doubts as a business owner comes from my love of what I do, my belief that I am good at it and the awareness that you never stop learning!

Aren’t we all slightly bluffing at life anyway? I have discovered that my philosophical approach seems all too often to fall in line with that great entrepreneur Del Boy Trotter! Maybe not the best of examples, but as he said “He who dares, wins” ( He also said “mange tout, mange tout” , but we’ll overlook that one!)

Overcoming imposter syndrome

So how do we overcome this niggling self doubt?

To some degree, I don’t think we can, or should. My concern about being seen as professional and knowledgeable in my chosen field of web design, means that I am still reading and studying to improve my authority on subjects. Especially, in a field that is ever changing. It also means that I approach each job, determined to do my best and prove my worth. I think by nature, I am this way anyway, so it’s better to embrace it!

Also, I think it is best to be utterly honest with yourself and others. No-one is suggesting that in order to overcome the feeling of being an imposter, you bluff and deceive. The goal isn’t ” fake it until you make it!” Any customer can sniff out a fake.

Rather, acknowledge the skill set you have, demonstrate this through customer testimonials, and examples of your work and success and focus on areas to develop. There are always ways to improve.

Remember that even the most experienced and successful business people, started somewhere. Recognise your strengths, see how far you have come and seek to improve even more.

If you have decided to shrug off that imposter syndrome and know that you have a wonderful business you need to share, but need a website to match, get in touch!

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