How to Answer the Entrepreneurial Question:
“Just Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?”

image of man hiding head in sand

The question stops you cold.
You cringe when you see it, as if it was written just for you. You feel yourself cower as it echoes through your brain. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
You feel exposed, all your imperfections on display.
How could anyone question your right to do what you’re doing? Don’t they know how many times you’ve asked that of yourself? Don’t they know how hard you’ve worked to get here?
With all that hard work you’ve put in … why do fear and doubt still haunt you?

Here’s the thing: you’re crazy passionate about your work. You’re really good at it. And you want to do it more than anything.
But still, the fact remains … you sometimes question your own ability to pull it off.
Those little doubts, the nagging little questions.
Let’s look at what’s going on here …

How the fear of being seen creeps in

I recently got a late-night email from a coaching client. She was anxious about a project we were working on — the first thing she’d been really excited about in months. She wrote:

Ackkk, I started thinking, who the hell am I to think I could be doing this? I know I’m really good at what I do — my clients have been telling me this for 25 years — but I don’t ‘follow the book,’ and I haven’t read any of the industry literature for years.
I’m afraid of being ‘out there.’ I’m afraid of success. I’m afraid of being SEEN.
I’m afraid we’ll spend all this time on something I won’t actually be able to go through with.

I understand her not wanting to be seen. It’s my story too.
I was extremely self-conscious growing up, because I was much taller than everyone else my age — taller than all the girls, taller than all the boys, and as I kept growing, taller than many of the grownups. Everyone noticed me, and most people, even polite people, thought commenting was okay.
“How’s the air up there, Stretch?”
“If you fall down, you’ll be half way home.”
I wondered if I could remark about how fat or bald they were, but I concentrated on making myself invisible instead.
On not being seen.
But try as I might to get by unnoticed, they saw me. They expected a lot of me because I was so visible. But being tall didn’t mean I could do anything well, or do things the right way — whether it was schoolwork or dunking a basketball.

Who the hell do I think I am?

Today, the things I’m doing have people looking at me again. I never did figure out how to do what I want to do and be invisible at the same time. I had to get comfortable sticking my neck out, and letting people look if they wanted to.
It bothers me sometimes, because, like my fearful client, I don’t do things the right way.
I don’t follow the book. I teach business, but I don’t have an MBA. I’ve never taken a business class and I don’t really know what they teach in business school. I know how to run a small business … through my own experience.
What if people find out I don’t do it “right”?
I never set out to be a business coach. What I did was run a successful, profitable business for a long time, keep excellent, engaged employees for a long time, and keep happy clients who valued our work for a long time. I also took regular vacations, a month off in the summer, and didn’t work weekends.
And other business owners kept asking me how I managed to do all that.
So I decided to stop worrying about who was looking at me (and if I was doing it right) and I started sharing what I’d learned over those 25 years.
Because it was helping people. And they seemed to want to learn it from me.
I imagine people are out there thinking …

Who made her an authority, teaching business to business owners without a business degree? She doesn’t even teach about start-ups and raising venture capital and going public. She’s not an accountant or an attorney, either.

Those kinds of criticisms used to bother me. And truthfully, I still wince a little.
But it turns out that the people who think that way are not the people I want to work with, and they’re not my audience.

That may be what the media portrays as the entrepreneur — the social media platform founder or high tech whiz kid with financial backers in Silicon Valley — but most small business people are not like that.
Are you?
I’m guessing not. Your business is probably doing something you’re great at just because you love to do it. You don’t raise venture capital; you do it out of your savings and on a shoestring, or you work a second job. You just want to support yourself and your family doing something you love.
You’re the person I want to work with. Not those who ask why I don’t have an MBA.

Who the hell do you think you are?

You’re probably terrific at what you do, too. Even though you might not follow the book, exactly, either.
And now, you may be doing something half way … and having half-way success with it. Or, you could be doing fabulous things in the dark, and not putting yourself out there enough, not letting enough people know about it.
You’re not sure what the “experts” or gurus would think of your method.
You feel more comfortable playing in a smaller space, where not so many people will look. Where you can make mistakes quietly, and no one will know.
I know who you are.

And you need to know some important things.

1. It’s not just you, trying to be invisible

You probably think everyone but you has it together.
So many business owners are teetering on the fence, terrified to put themselves out there, and asking themselves, “What makes me think I know what I’m doing?”

If you step out, find your voice, and do it anyway, your audience will applaud you, not look down on you. Even if you make mistakes (and you will), even if you fall flat on your face (and you will), you’ll show you have the guts to be seen — and the force of character to show what you’re worth.

2. Your distinct voice has a market

If your work is as good as you think it is, there are people out there who need you. Your job is to find them and to help them find you.
Try thinking of it this way: Imagine you’re a lighthouse, and your job is to shine a way through the dark and stormy nights, to help weary travelers safely find their way.

Those who need your light search for it with strained and desperate faces, through discouragement and exhaustion, never taking their eyes off the horizon, trusting you’ll be there to show the way and guide them to safety.
Would you keep your light low with a shade over it, and maybe only turn it on once in awhile — when you know they depend on you this much?
Or would you get the strongest light source with the highest power and the longest reach, and add the loudest siren? And maybe shoot off fireworks and flares every 30 minutes, with searchlights scanning the waters? Would you do everything in your power to let them know “Here I am! I’m here! I’m here! And I can guide the way for you!”?
Your ideal customers need you just as much as those travelers need the lighthouse. Even though it’s scary for you, will you throw off your shade and turn up your light so they can find you in the dark?

3. Not that many people are actually looking at you

Remember this old saying?

We wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of us … if only we knew how seldom they do.

Everyone is too wrapped up in their own stuff to be thinking very much about what you’re doing.

When you finally step out of your comfort zone and start shining a light on what you’re doing, you’ll find that the challenge is finding a wider audience, not being overexposed.
There are some trolls out there, but I don’t believe there are as many naysayers waiting to trip you up as you think there are.
More people are watching for you to succeed than to fail.

4. You can trust your results

What matters is the outcome of your work.
If you help people solve some problem in their lives, that’s what matters. You don’t need any other measuring stick.
What results do you get? What do people tell you? How have you helped them? What value do you add to their lives, their businesses, their situations?
If you don’t know, find out. Ask. Document what you hear. Write case histories. Get testimonials. And while you’re gathering this information, stop for a moment and think about your part in these successes.

5. You can attract the people you most want to work with

When you identify your strengths and find a way of talking about your business that’s honest and valuable, you’ll attract the people you most want to work with.

You’ll find plenty of them and they’ll never ask you who made you an authority — because they already know. They align with you.
And you’ll repel the people you don’t want to work with — which is a good thing.
Smile and let it go.

Over to you …

So the next time you hear, “Who the hell do you think you are?” (including from your own head), or any variation that triggers those old fears inside you, you can smile and let it go — because you know the answer.

You’re someone who helps others. Who gets results. Who honors their audience.
I know you can do this. You know you can do this. So go do it. You’ll be great.

Let us know in the comments just what you’ll be doing in the coming days to prove who the hell you are …

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Reader Comments (80)

  1. says

    I Hear You Marcia….. Loud and Clear.

    This feeling of dread comes especially when some month’s are worse than others and you think am i really cut out for my industry? I used to have this feeling a lot when i first started out a couple of years back and began running my own web development company.

    I can especially relate to the feeling of looking at the guru’s and wondering how do they keep it together, because everything they put out seems so polished and working. All i can say is the feeling and the dreaded question ” who the hell are you?” pops up every now and then, the only difference is one learns to handle it better over time.

    I simply look at how far i have come since starting out and also, how much i am improved and say ” hey i can do all of that, then i can do so much more….” belief in oneself plays a big part, BUT yes it is not easy in the beginning or when you at a low point on your business.

    So I guess chin up and keep trying is good advice. So the next time you hear who the hell are you?, prehaps you should ask if others can do it ….then why not me. :)

  2. says

    Marcia, I love point #3, “Not that many people are looking at you”. When I read it I thought, “huh, she’s right”. I was raised to care about how I appeared to other people and so I have a tendency not to do something or put myself out there until I feel that things are a certain way. Thank you for this wake up call!

    • says

      Hi Erica,
      I think a lot of us were raised this way, and it’s a killer. It slows us down in ways we can’t really afford to be slowed down today, when things are moving so fast. Perfectionism and worrying about what others think is hard to move away from but, oh, so much of a relief when you do!

      • rose henn says

        Excellent article, I felt that way many times, working my way thru many flops, i often qestion myself,


  3. says

    This is a wonderfully inspiring, timely piece for me today. I especially like the light house analogy. I’ve heard others say before that it is your duty to share your gifts with the world, but the visual of the lighthouse makes a nice concrete reminder for those days we aren’t feeling so useful or stuck in our fears. Thanks for this!

    • says

      I’m glad you like the lighthouse. It’s just another way of saying the same thing — and we do need to hear things in different ways. “Sharing gifts” wasn’t concrete enough for me to feel duty bound, so the lighthouse works for me, too.

  4. Amy Baker says

    What a well written post. I can so identify with this. Fear of failure is our worst enemy and you make a great case to fight the fear because there’s so much each person has to offer everyone around them.

  5. says

    Marcia, this is a really LOVELY piece of writing – it struck chords with me personally and professionally especially as a somewhat reserved English woman LOL :o)) – thank you!

  6. says

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. I’m less than a week away from launching my core business product (that I’ve been working on since I officially launched my company in January). Almost every day I’ve heard myself say that I’m not good enough to be doing this (damn inner demon) and I’ve just had to ignore it and keep moving forward. Every time the voice says I can’t, I find some reason why I can. Being out there is tough–it’s hard to have people watching you as you launch something for the first time. But it’s exciting at the same time.

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s OK to stand out and to find a niche that works for you.

  7. says

    Thanks so much for the inspiration Marcia. I truly needed to hear some words of encouragement this morning.
    We all second guess ourselves from time-to-time.

  8. says

    This is truly excellent. Thank you so much. It comes at a time when I’m considering huge decisions about my career as a writer/entrepreneur. The people closest to me, say “go with your gut.” What they don’t know is that my gut is what scares the daylights out of me. I read your posts regularly, but this is my first time to comment. Wonderfully articulated. Many thanks. ~ steve

  9. says

    Awesome post. This reminds me of a cognitive bias called the “dunning kruger effect.”

    “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.”

    • Keri Clarke says

      Wow, this is great. I’m currently working on my master’s degree and running my own business, and I still struggle with self-doubt; knowing that there’s an actual cognitive bias helps me feel a bit more normal. And Marcia, as always- fantastic post! Thank you so much for your insight- I feel very inspired!

  10. says

    Thank you for this. I’m a young professional writer without a college degree, and even though I’m very good at what I do, and have won some awards for it, sometimes I still get nervous, thinking I need that piece of paper to prove I know what I’m doing – even though I’m proving it in better ways every day.

    It’s really encouraging to hear that others have found success NOT following the book.

  11. says

    LOVE this title… what you’re saying and how you are slapping me upside the head with it! Timing is everything. I am good at what I do and I actually have said to myself more than once, Who do you think you are?!

    Is it okay to just say Thank you for this AWESome blogging and sharing!

  12. says

    The lighthouse scene played out very dramatically in my mind, because there’s a storm passing through right outside my window. I can’t help but smile & let go this morning! And, keep going forward!

    Thank you so much for these inspiring words!!!

  13. says

    Hi – Excellent post!

    I love these posts. This was me, and I used to always think like this. Now – and I have only really been “operational” in this business about 3 months – I don’t care what people think. If people give me negative comments, or judge me without knowing me then they have no value to me what so ever. So, I give them no thought at all anymore.

    I have just dived right in a the deep end, and am going to see what happens. I will make mistakes on the way and people will question what I do – but as a family man with two kids, the question of “who do I think I am?” is not one that crops up anymore…….

    I think anyone who doubts what they are doing should check out other people in their niche – dont worry that they may be considered more successful than you. Just remember they were you once…..

    Keep going and help each other…….


    • says

      I find that action is a helpful antidote to self-doubt. :) It doesn’t completely get rid of it, at least for me, and that’s ok — a small dose of doubt will keep you honest. But it brings things to a healthy level rather than that overwhelming swamp.

  14. says

    Wow, what a great article! I’ve had those fears too because I’m self-taught at what I do and am not well-known in the make money online niche.

    Such a good point, though, that those who might look down on me are not my audience anyway. I need to remember that! Not that I have been criticized, that I know of, except in my own mind. :-)

    So glad I saw this post!

  15. says

    Love your lighthouse analogy… Like you say, we get so caught up thinking the spotlight is on us (some of us adore that attention and some of us hate it) when instead it should be shining onto that helpful path we create for others. Well said.

    Joe 😀

  16. says

    I’m saving this article so I can re-read it again when I’m doubting myself. It’s excellent timing for me and hit the nail on the head in regards to wanting to stay invisible. Thanks so much!!!!

      • says

        Funny thing is I feel my most invisible when I have a bad hair day, my gray is showing too much, etc. Like I really blend in. : ) Again, great article, thanks!

  17. says

    Thank you for the inspirational post, and also for providing an awesome example of engaging, inspirational content. You set the bar high for the rest of us with this post, and we are all the better for reading it. I also appreciate your ability to talk about vulnerability and self-doubt, because you open a dialogue for all of us, and there is comfort and encouragement in knowing we all face the same fears, and we can get past them. I love the summary of “I know you can do this. You know you can do this. So go do it. You’ll be great.” – that will be put on my whiteboard today. Thanks Marcia!

  18. says

    Marcia, This is an absolutely fab read! Beautiful writing. I love the lighthouse image–very helpful. Perfect timing, too, since I’m launching my big project right now. I think I’ll print this out and tape it in on the wall right where I can see it and re-read as needed. And as I walk out on the cliff and jump off with my bag of potatoes 😉 I’ll say, “Yes, I can, yes, it’s good and I know it’s good, just jump and shout really loud! Turn on the lights and up the volume!” Thanks :)

  19. says

    Dear Marcia,
    BRAVO! You have managed to shine your light so bright today!!! My dear friend forwarded this email to me right after a conversation I had with another friend about how “unworthy” I was feeling to be a part of the dream team that will bring Adaptive Yoga to our community! The thought of talking to medical professionals makes me want to run for the hills! But at the end of the day, you are absolutely right… I KNOW I(WE) CAN DO THIS!
    : )

  20. says

    Hi Marcia,
    A very helpful and supportive article in that I have had some of the thoughts you mentioned. I have been an employee and solo business owner. Now semi-retired and working in an area that caught my attention, Media Literacy. Teaching children and their parents the skills they need to critically think about the media messages that surround them in everyday life. I am self-taught and sometimes gets in my way. The point you made about ” You distinct voice has a market” will help to keep me focused and moving forward. Thank you

  21. says

    How did you know I needed to read something like this today? I got a major case of the “Oh, no, what have I done?!” stress release last night when I created my blog to support a new business my friend and I are launching. So much of it is about being afraid of being SEEN even though that is exactly the point isn’t it?!

    I love John’s reply too – great advice! It is definitely my tendency when I get scared to just launch into writing something or hop onto a social media site and start chatting away vs letting those doubts & negative responses eat at me.

    Bookmarking and sharing this one because I know I will need to keep coming back for the reminders!

  22. says

    Hi Marcia,
    I got one of those MBAs at age 21. I want you to know that I don’t think it helped much except get my foot in the door early on. It’s working in the trenches as business owners that builds our confidence, I think. Thank you for all the wonderful reminders here: not worrying what others think, attracting the right people (and repelling the wrong), & that helping people is what it’s all about. Happy to know you. :-) — Kristy

  23. says

    Great post Marcia! This is something I’ve been fighting for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been marketing secretly online for 8 years now, and the insecurities you mention have kept me back as well. The fear of being seen and teaching others without a degree were my hangups. I will no longer allow this to affect the person I am now and can become.

  24. says

    What I’ll be doing to battle fear and overwhelm? I’ve finally hired a coach to encourage and keep me accountable!

    It also is a matter of choosing love over fear every conscious moment.

    Thanks for a great post, Marcia (enjoyed your landing page video, too).

  25. says

    You covered just about everything! This was exactly my thoughts when I first started my blog, and I even got a couple of remarks saying this same thing. You just have to be determined and plod on!

  26. says

    Fantastic post, Martha! The “who do you think you are?” question is chilling for nearly everyone. (And as a fellow too-tall girl growing up, I know how tempting invisibility can seem!) Your post beams with empathy, authenticity and hope–important and timely things I’m glad to hear. Thanks for sharing your wisdom in such a warm and generous way.

  27. says

    What an amazing, kind, and sincere article. I really love it.
    This speaks to such deep fears we have as entrepreneurs. This fear quietly lurks and makes little impacts on a lot of different things in business. From waiting longer than you want to, to launch something new (so you can get it just right before anyone sees it), to the fear of contacting new people about working together, its an important fear to overcome.
    Thanks for a great article!

  28. says

    Wow Marcia, everything you say resonates with me. Big time. I’m a designer, yet my own website has been “under construction” for over two years. I kept allowing other projects to come first, or got side-tracked – anything but do my site. I’ve been researching and writing for years, but never found time to put my books together. Now, finally I have some spare time to work on my own stuff …and presto! …a painfully debilitating neck/shoulder is making it hard to work. I accept I created that for myself, but your post has given me some insight into the “why”. It’s a useful tip to contact my satisfied clients for feedback on past projects etc. Thank you!

    There’s a culture for prominent “gurus” to tell their story of rags to riches to gain trust. I wonder whether those of us still struggling to make it are holding back until we get to the riches bit before we can tell our story? Will people respect me if I tell the world I’m not making a fortune?

    • says

      Very insightful, Sue. Guess you’re going to have to get moving on your site and your books, huh? It may not be necessary for you to tell the world you’re not making a fortune :) but telling your story in bits and pieces as you’re comfortable is a wonderful start. Taking the plunge in baby steps and finding out you’re not dying but actually feeling liberated is a wonderful thing.

  29. says

    Hey Marcia! Great post and I just want to say people around you never be happy with you no matter whatever you do for them and they still making fun or pointing you on some points but its you who did not bother their negative points instead take that critics in positive way and that’s where you gain confidence and improve yourself.

  30. says

    God, I’m so tired of the adoration for the “right” way of doing something. It is SO overrated. I happen to have an MBA, but it’s not doing me a lick of good as I try to start my own business. What’s helping me is the community of people who write posts like this, who share their experiences and give me ideas for things I can do and who taught me about the value of storytelling in business. I believe those three things will be the most important for me as I move forward.

    The old saying is that people buy from people they like; even if the product or service I provide is not as “good” as someone else’s, if I can work with like-minded people who appreciate the overall experience, that’s a win for me and them. With all that said, I still need to work on overcoming the pull of invisibility. I recently started two new blogs, so maybe that will help! :)

    • says

      Jodi — I like your list of the 3 most important things as you move forward. Remembering them should help with overcoming that pull of invisibility.

  31. Dana says

    Thank you Marcia for speaking directly to me! I have been wanting to start a business in an overcrowed field that is overflowing with “experts” and BIG players, for the last 7 years! What has caused my procrastination? Who do you think you are? You have no real experiance! You’ve never worked in this industry! Who’s going to listen to you?
    The one difference that I see, is that you had the 25 years of proven history in what you do, and I do not. Is it possible to not have the proven success in an industry and still make the business work?

    Thank you from your newest fan!

    • says

      Hi Dana,
      Here’s what I think: the proof is in the pudding. In what i do, experience is a plus. It’s easier for people to trust me because I’ve been through it. But there are other fields where instinct and talent play a larger part, and number of years experience isn’t as big of a factor — someone could be experienced and still not be any good, and a new person could knock you over with their talent. In both cases, results are what matters, and you’ve got to be able to help people/make a difference/add value and demonstrate it in some way. Are your results measurable? DOES anyone listen to you? Can you demonstrate value? Experience is relative, I think. Hope that helps.

  32. says

    I swear I feel like this blog post was written for me. Most days I feel like I am falling on my face and not going to make it. I am funding it out of my saving and in fact I just cashed in my last 401k. I need another job, but the idea of giving up my dream is just unacceptable and I am passionately in love with what I do for a living. I get to see lives changed daily with what I do and that is the reason I know it will be successful!

  33. says

    Love it. Taking fears and self defined weaknesses and turning them both into strengthens and focus. Knowing our skills, passions, talents and dreams, and letting them out.
    Of course the entire world will not applaud. It’s not a one size fits all world. Thanks for the reminder!

    • says

      Right. The entire world will not applaud. Knowing this and accepting it — and being able to move forward anyway — is very liberating, isn’t it?

  34. Louie says

    I’ve tried several business ventures and have gotten closer to success (FAILED) each time 😄. I’m about to launch a new blog. I keep hearing those nagging demons, “who the hell do you think you are?” To which I answer, I’m sure as hell gonna find out.

    Thank you marcia!


  35. says

    Thanks for this great read Marcia! As I was reading this I related it back to one of my favorite business books, Getting Naked by Patrick Lencioni. This book addresses many of the fears that we face in business and how to combat them head on.

    We just went through an exercise at Willow Marketing where we asked “who are we” and how do we set ourselves apart to really make a difference to our clients. We ended up coming out of that exercise with the “Willow Way” of Client Service. This is what makes us different and what truly matters. I would love your thoughts on what we developed:

  36. says

    Thank you Marcia for a refreshing and inspiring post that I love both as a Life Coach who helps people with their self expression and authenticity and a Founder of FreshBiz; a brand new game that develops entrepreneurial multi-dimensional thinking. The old “Who are my to do something?” vs reframing that question and instead asking “Who are my to NOT do something?” We have more power than we know and live in a world that allows us to harness and amplify that power like never before, if we could just realize that we’re more than enough. There is a balance in realizing that we have what it takes and at the same time, realizing that there’s always more to learn. May we find the strength to make a powerful difference through being our true selves at the highest level!

  37. says

    Thanks Marcia for the great advices. I feel tomorrow will be a productive Monday :) I’m in an early stage of putting myself together and this is just the kind of guidance I need.

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