Startup Culture Needs a New Ethos: Stop Faking and Start ‘Being’

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Editor’s note: The Canadian startup community’s (and beyond) greatest attribute is its greatest fault: its positivity. Its inspiring levels of peer encouragement mirror that of its members’ “lionization of seemingly ordinary people and things”.  An environment of self-promotion without a system of proper checks and balances, where anyone is anything they claim they are. Who’s to say entrepreneur X isn’t experiencing actual success when he/she gets published in the New York Times, or listed in a ‘Top 30 Under 30’? While the media admittedly perpetuates much of this, there will always be dissident voices. 

These concerns are echoed well in the following guest post by Canadian startup entrepreneur Brandon Chatreau, who asks: at what point does “fake it ’till you make it” become unethical?

-J.C.

“Fake it ‘till you make it” – It’s a staple phrase in the entrepreneurial community, and a pillar for any founder.

This attitude is brought on by our desire to change things. The tough thing about change is that it isn’t natural, but it goes against the grain, and people are very resistant to it. People recognize that change is good; they just don’t want to be the first ones to do it. People, like new customers, new investors or new employees want the risk removed and the security of knowing that change will result in positive improvements.

This is where “faking it until you make it” comes in.  Sometimes, the only way to drive change is by convincing people that change is happening by massaging the truth. Then after you have their buy in, work your butt off to build the reality you laid out for them.

But at what point does the “fake it till you make it” attitude become unethical?

I read a great article on the 10 worst pieces of startup advice, and “fake it ‘till you make it” was on the list.

This quote particularly resonated with me: “Faking it until you make it is also known as lying. Lying is usually an act reserved for CVs, kids and sociopaths.”

As entrepreneurs, it’s in our blood to be a bit delusional and set ridiculously hard to reach goals. That’s part of the reason why I love working in a startup. But when it gets to a point where you aren’t making any progress, and are just flat out lying to keep up an image, you should re-evaluate.

There are both good and bad ways to approach faking it till you make it. You aren’t always lying if you fake it. There is good faking and bad faking, but it’s a fine line between being an entrepreneur and being a fraud.

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When It’s Good To Fake It

Selling your vision is a crucial element in the success of a startup.  You need to have a huge, well thought out vision to guide progress.  This vision is used to recruit your founding team, attract new investors, and acquire first customers. As well, it should be based on passion and interest. If you are truly passionate about your vision, then it will be impossible for you to lie when selling it. To you this vision is a reality and you believe it whole-heartedly, and will be the foundation for your first product and all features down the road.  Your MVP is the first incarnation of your vision; it’s not the whole vision, just a small step towards it.

You can promise future features, and that’s not lying; lying is if you consistently don’t deliver on them. If you promise huge, mind-blowing features, deliver on them.

When Not To Fake it

There are a lot of common things entrepreneurs fake in the community.  Its usually around lying about the company’s valuation, promising new features and never delivering, fudging metrics based on bots and skewed results, misrepresenting the product/company through marketing copy, and an overall inflation of their current level of progress.  These lies are told throughout the entire ecosystem.  I’ve heard founders tell them to investors, investors tell them to other investors, founders tell them to their employees, and founders tell them to their customers.

They’re sometimes disguised as half-truths, vague indications or overtly confident statements. But at the end of the day, its like putting lipstick on a pig: a lie is a lie.

The Fine Line Between Being an Entrepreneur and a Fraud: Execution

Entrepreneurs have big ideas and they see the world differently. It’s a new world in which their idea makes people’s lives easier. But ideas are a dime a dozen. What matters is execution.

An entrepreneur can only fake it for so long before they’re found out. “Faking it” is not sustainable. To be successful, you need to effect real change through execution. Execute and reach that big hairy audacious goal, or at least show exponential progress. Results makes people believers.

excited startup people

Stop Faking and Start Being

There needs to be a new ethos in startup culture.  Lets stop faking and start “being”. “Be it ‘till you become it”. I know that sounds a bit lame, but when you strive to be something, you’ll work hard to obtain everything you need to become it.  You can clearly define what you need to reach your end state.You won’t need to fake it; your progress will speak for itself.

There are a few different things to put in to practice when it comes to “be it ’till you become it”:

  1. Always Be Learning. To become something you need to constantly be learning the skills necessary to get there. Fill in your gaps with learning and experience, or with someone who is an expert.
  2. Be open, transparent, and honest: This is critical when forming the relationships needed to reach your end state. Being open, honest, and transparent has gotten me way more interviews, meetings, free advice, free lessons and free lunches, than faking it. Most importantly, be open and honest with yourself. The concept of faking it will begin internally and work its way out.
  3. Revisit and evolve what you want to become.  As you and your company begin to progress, you will undoubtedly have experiences that require you to alter the course. Continuously revisit your end state and make sure that it evolves with your experiences.
  4. Talk about your progress and your experiences, good or bad.  To get the most out of your time as entrepreneur it’s important to share your experiences openly. You’ll learn more with the help of your peers then you will on your own. In the same 10 worst pieces of startup advice the author goes on to say that:

“We owe it to everyone else to be honest, to share both successes and failures. Otherwise it starts looking like, based on our titles, our press releases, our websites and our business cards that everyone is succeeding.”

Enough with the fake it till you make it. Be it until you become it. Be a skill and people collector; learn as much as you can. If you can’t learn it; find someone who is an expert. Build a strong relationship with them.  If you have a track record of executing then you can say whatever you want and people will believe you can achieve it.

I’m far from someone who has reached my end state. I am in the early stages of being, but I have a plan, and I’m executing. You should too.

Bottom photo by Business Insider

Brandon Chatreau

Brandon Chatreau

Brandon's Twitter bio reads "Biz Dev at birth / Software by trade / Product by Passion / Startup by choice." He's the former cofounder of FounderFuel-graduated startup Dashbook.

  • http://robinhood.com SIMON BURNS

    Awesome post – loved the read. This phenomenon is very present in S.V.

  • http://chrisarsenault.wordpress.com/ Chrisarsenault

    Believing in yourself, your idea and your vision requires some utmost perseverance, passion and … some great communication skills. Convincing people (investors, clients, employees, partners) about your crazy idea helps build momentum, momentum allows you to move forward, and as you move forward faster your company eventually “takes-off”. And lets face it, starting a company is an uphill battle. Nobody believes you. Nobody “initially” understands what you are trying to achieve. You have little money, limited talent and resources at your disposal. And just to complicate things even more, perception gets in the way, when perception is often bigger than reality. So I clearly get the “Fake it t’ill you make it” line. The important thing here to remember is that you CAN’t fake it for very long. If you cross the line and lie, then that’s not faking it. That’s lying. And, note that I do believe that “if you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it.” You just need to be smart about it and execute on your idea. then it’s note faking it anymore.

  • Artin

    Glad someone finally wrote about this.