Free your mind. We must dust off all the nonsense that bogs us down and creates anxiety. Exercise, practice yoga, meditate, take a walk, or otherwise do whatever frees your mind. When our heads are buried in technology or work-related drama, we automatically tie so much importance to it when, in fact, not many things are worth fearing. Clear your mind, remind yourself that life is short, and move forward.
The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Scott DeLong.
Scott DeLong is a serial web entrepreneur, best known for creating Viral Nova, who has had six exits totaling over $10 million — with no employees and no funding. He was named by Business Insider as a top 100 influencer in tech and has been featured in BusinessWeek magazine. Scott now teaches other how to succeed online on ScottDeLong.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Thanks for having me. I grew up in a small blue-collar town in Ohio. In 1996, when I was finally able to get my first computer, I instantly became addicted. As an introvert who was voted Most Shy in high school, the Internet became the place where I could truly be myself. It wasn’t long before I began learning how to do basic HTML and building websites on Angelfire (remember them?).
There was something very rewarding about bringing this new “art” to life. I can’t draw or paint to save my life, so being able to make websites became a passion. My first successful website was in 1998, all about the Nintendo 64 game, Goldeneye. I had a thriving community of other gamers. It was fun, but, more importantly, it opened my eyes to the power of the Internet very early on.
It wasn’t until graduating college in 2004 that I had my lightbulb moment. I had a relatively small website about the video game, Halo 2. I finally started trying to monetize it and made around $1 per day. It doesn’t seem like much, but if I could make $1 per day, why not $10? Why not $100? So, I started optimizing and learning new strategies. After a month or so, with the same amount of site traffic, I was making $500 per month.
From there, I started trying just about everything online: I created sites in so many different niches. Most failed, but some succeeded. I had a breakthrough in March 2006 when I got accepted to Yahoo’s answer to Google AdSense. I jumped to $50,000 per month, banked all of it, quit my job, and it was off to the races.
Over the next 10 years, I built sites that brought in tens of millions in revenue and billions of visits. I remained the introvert I always was, so hiring employees and seeking funding was always out of the question.
After my final exit in 2019, I have gotten married and had a daughter. Now I’m focused on teaching others how to succeed online through my website.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Yes. Without a doubt, it’s the story of Viral Nova, a site I created to write about incredible stories and artists very few people knew about.
I was early in understanding how to capitalize on Facebook traffic and launched it in May 2013. By December, it was making over $400,000 per month at a 95% profit margin. It even climbed to the 120th largest site in the world, bringing in more visitors than virtually every VC-funded media company, even with dozens of employees. As you can imagine, it sparked a lot of interest and controversy among so-called traditional journalists.
As an advertising major who had spent 10 years building content sites, I knew how to write headlines and position content better than most. Combined with the rise of Facebook and a demographic that was just getting online for the first time, it skyrocketed. It was averaging 3 million visits and $15,000 per day with just two AdSense units.
The craziest moment was when I woke up one morning and noticed I had a lot of traffic coming from The Atlantic. I went to the homepage, and, to my horror, my face was staring right back at me. A writer had covered “the person behind Viral Nova,” and they covered A LOT. As someone who had always laid low, this was a horrible feeling. I felt violated, exposed, and — I guess by today’s terminology — doxed. I wasn’t a public figure. I was a 31-year-old introvert who didn’t ask for this attention.
From there, it was a media bonanza and I seemed to become this mysterious Internet enigma who was either loved or hated. It was mind-blowing to people that one person could create something so massive.
Not long after, I decided to sell the site because I just wanted to go back to obscurity and build more sites without anyone knowing the founder. So that’s what I did, but now I’m opening up purposely to challenge myself and grow as both a husband, new dad, and entrepreneur.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Sure. Three traits I’m not sure I would’ve succeeded without are: 1. Shyness, 2. Disciplined, and 3. Passionate.
Shyness: I often tell people that introverts have a head start when it comes to succeeding in business now. In the past, the extroverts with the best networking and biggest personalities had the advantage. But when you’re shy, you can stay focused on your business. Not only that, but you tend to listen a lot more than others. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never learned anything by talking. You learn by listening.
In my case, finding who I truly was via the Internet only happened because I was so shy. If I wasn’t shy, I would’ve likely played sports, joined clubs, lived at college instead of commuted, etc. My path wouldn’t have been the same.
Disciplined: Creating content websites requires consistency and always striving to create something better than you did yesterday. I know many people who had a great idea and initial success only to fail because they got complacent. When you make an excuse — “ahh, I will just do twice as much tomorrow” — it snowballs in all the wrong ways.
While I’m not really advocating for this, I used to fall asleep on my keyboard coming up with the perfect headlines. I refused to go to sleep until I absolutely nailed it and knew it was a knock-out. That kind of disciplined “perfectionism” adds up in ways you can’t even really measure… until you’re measuring how much money it has made you.
Passionate: it’s just not possible to succeed if you aren’t passionate about your business. Whether it’s the subject matter or the way it can change your life (or both ideally), you have to be passionate about what you’re creating and why you’re creating it.
While I’ve had a few sites that I just genuinely loved the subject, most of my success came from my passion for freedom. Working 9–5, struggling to pay bills, and waiting til my 60s to retire were so terrifying in my mind that it sparked my passion to build enough wealth to avoid all of that.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?
I just wrote about this recently actually. People fear failure for a few reasons:
- Lack of confidence.
- Lack of information.
- How others will react.
Lots of us lack confidence and just think we can’t do something. Whether it’s a business or anything else in life, if you’re not a confident person, you’ll always be nagged with a feeling of, “Everyone else is better than me. There’s just no way I can do that. People like me just can’t.”
I’m not a psychologist and lack of confidence comes from a variety of places, but it’s a huge problem that causes fear of failure.
Lacking the correct information is also a hindrance. I’ve spoken with so many people who want to start a business, but they’re overwhelmed by it. They don’t know if they need a lawyer, special bank accounts, an LLC or an S-corp, how much money it’ll cost to get started, how to bookkeep, and so on.
These are all things that have become incredibly easy to handle with modern technology. They just need to relax, take a deep breath, and read an article two on each item. When you realize starting a business isn’t actually that complicated at all, it’ll get rid of that fear that you’re going to do something wrong when you start.
And finally, humans just care what others think. Nobody wants to look inadequate or dumb. They don’t want to be gung-ho on starting their business and then be mocked if it fails (which they won’t be). Starting a business is admirable, regardless of the outcome! It means you took a massive step to change your life, which is more than most people can say.
I’ve had 8 websites that I would consider successful. I probably have around 30 that were failures. Who cares? Launch your business because a much greater fear is going to the grave having never tried.
What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?
Being afraid of failure makes you stay in your comfort zone. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason, and it’s not necessarily a bad place to be. But when you are actively wanting to do something new, but your fears are outweighing your actions, you’re literally robbing yourself of who you truly are.
Many people enjoy living the same day over and over throughout their lives. I’m just not that way. If you’re afraid of failure, nothing will ever change. Welcome to Groundhog Day.
In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?
In my world, eliminating those fears legitimately can change your life. It gets you out of a dead-end job, it provides more time with those you love and doing the things you love, and it can even make you wealthy (if that’s what you’re seeking).
Fearing failure is almost always useless anyway. Recount the times you took a risk and it didn’t work out. You’re still standing, and you’re still here. Continue opening yourself up to pursuing what you want, both big and small. Over time, it will become habitual because you’ll know that “failing” isn’t a bad thing.
I’ve had many failures that I have fond memories of because I’m just glad I tried. And that’s why it’s not actually a failure at all.
We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?
Sure. During the social gaming craze on Facebook, I tried to get into that business. I came up with a concept where every user has a yard, and you lure animals to your yard with various food. As you level up, you get access to more food and cooler animals. Simple enough, but I knew nothing about building games.
I spent tens of thousands of dollars getting my game developed. There were so many setbacks that, by the time I had a functioning version, the social game craze was ending! Facebook had pretty much killed them all by changing how notifications work.
While the money and time spent weren’t going to bankrupt me, it was a significant hit. I made literally $0 and cost myself months of time I could’ve been spending on something else.
How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?
I learned that you shouldn’t jump into something with so much money if you don’t fully understand it. Even recently, this was happening across the cryptocurrency landscape. So many people hearing stories of others getting rich jumped into it with their life savings, not understanding the slightest thing about cryptocurrency or the technology behind it. Billions of dollars were lost, and it’s really sad.
When you go into anything, be armed with information. Do your research. Read everything about it. Learn from others in the space. Trying to jump on a trend you don’t understand for a quick buck rarely, if ever, works.
I was able to rebound easily because I invested an amount of money that wasn’t going to sink me. It was still far too much, but my advice is to only take big risk with money you can afford to lose. There are many businesses you can pursue without much capital.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Free your mind. We must dust off all the nonsense that bogs us down and creates anxiety. Exercise, practice yoga, meditate, take a walk, or otherwise do whatever frees your mind. When our heads are buried in technology or work-related drama, we automatically tie so much importance to it when, in fact, not many things are worth fearing. Clear your mind, remind yourself that life is short, and move forward.
- Educate yourself. Most fear is based in the unknown. When we don’t fully understand something, we tend to fear it. Learn everything you can about what you fear, so that it’s no longer the “boogey man.”
- Embrace the possibility of failure. When you set out to do something new, take comfort in possibly failing, especially at first. If you’re constantly questioning whether you’re failing, you probably will. Just accept it is a possibility up front, and keep striving toward your goal.
- Highlight the wins. Humans are cursed with stressing the bad things a whole lot more than we feel happy about the good things. We remember that one tornado that happened in 3 years, but we don’t appreciate the hundreds of sunny days in the same time frame. Make a point to highlight your wins and celebrate them. Become addicted to that dopamine hit you get when something goes right and use it as motivation to feel it again.
- Repeat accordingly. Practice makes perfect, so continue this cycle of freeing your mind, learning, accepting you’re imperfect, and celebrating when something goes well. It’ll become your norm. Instead of fearing failure, you’ll look forward to trying something new.
The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?
I’m not sure Aristotle’s context here, but it’s an interesting quote. Perhaps he meant that when you succeed, that “success” is defined by accomplishing your goal. So, you accomplished your goal with only one path, but you could have not accomplished your goal for a multitude of reasons. In that sense, I agree simply because it’s logic.
But as it pertains to a person’s entire life, you can certainly succeed in multiple ways over the years. And, of course, you will fail in multiple ways!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A passion of mine is to create the initial spark that leads more people to freedom — both time and financial. I can trace so much of my success back to specific people, or even specific conversations. Millions of driven people just don’t have that initial introduction to the possibilities, and that’s why I’m writing every day on how I created my own success.
I’m particularly passionate about a movement among introverts. We live in a time where you can thrive like never before. There are a lot of silent sufferers who feel overshadowed. Many of them end up going down dark paths, and I want to show them one alternative path.
There truly is nothing like being free from the shackles of the traditional path.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Aristotle to better understand the quote! But seriously, I would probably go with Derek Muller from the YouTube channel, Veritasium. I’ve only started watching his videos in the past year, but I absolutely love what he’s doing. He also just seems like a genuinely good person who set out to teach others, not for his own ego.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m writing guides and articles on how to succeed online every single day on my personal site: scottdelong.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
Thank you for having me!