(Image via Bigstock)
Image via Bigstock

I heard it last week at the GeekWire Awards, like I hear it at almost every tech networking event ever. How are things going at your startup?

Oh, they’re going great.

It’s a happy conversation starter. It goes well with a drink, an appetizer and a hey! good-to-see-you smile.

But who are we kidding? It’s the most popular lie in startups.

Tech journalists get the lie more than anyone. Every setback is an opportunity. Every victory a media email with “exciting news.” Press releases sing of “revolutionary” products and “leading” services that — huh — just launched this morning.

Everyone oversells the media. It’s startup entrepreneurs who consistently oversell everyone else. Most of you, I’ll bet, walk into tech mixers knowing that much of the optimism you hear from someone new about their startup will mask the true story.

You know that, probably, for three reasons.

Yeah, it's going great. Photo via Shutterstock
Yeah, it’s going great. Photo via Shutterstock

One: It doesn’t pass the common sense test. If all startups were really going “great,” a lot more would make it to adulthood.

Two: Some of your contacts in the startup world are actually your friends, and you’ve heard a beaming entrepreneur tell the tech world “it’s great” while a friend tells you something’s rotten. Soon enough, the rot shows.

And three: You’ve worked to build a budding startup yourself, you’ve seen the chasm grow between what’s happening and what you say is happening and you understand something: The dishonesty isn’t about deceiving someone so much as it’s about surviving long enough to have a sustainable company in the first place.

This is the thing I didn’t understand about startups until I worked at one. When your growth is more about your potential than your products, more about your story than your services, hope and enthusiasm aren’t your crutches. They’re your currency.

When things are new and unsteady, the optimism you cultivate in yourself and everyone around you can be all you’ve got. It can be all that keeps your crazy experiment going.

Hire, inspire and fire.

Those are the three cards CEOs have to play, according to Seattle entrepreneur Dan Shapiro.

Let word spread in the tech scene that internal challenges are testing your startup (don’t they test all startups?) and that second card gets harder to play.

Recently, another Seattle entrepreneur told me about a former colleague who’s now at the head of a fast growing startup. When the two worked together, years ago, they made fun of their CEO for being so relentlessly sunny it was fake. These days the friend heading the successful startup is behaving the exact same way.

“This stuff works,” the friend explained.

When I hear the biggest lie in startups, I pay close attention. It’s what’s said around “It’s going great” that hints at the truer story — even if it doesn’t let you get it.

At the GeekWire Awards, an entrepreneur told me things were “going well.” But the way he said it, it was more like, “going we-ell,” and he looked away and ticked his head slightly to the side. That left me with the guess that things were pretty much just going, particularly after he changed the subject.

When things really are going “great,” there’s usually some hard evidence, and that relieved bounce that comes from not having to sugarcoat to fit the script. We hit a growth milestone. We hired a genius. We landed funding. Yay!

When what you hear is vague and familiar, accompanied by that smile that’s held in place, the details are anybody’s guess. The company is “growing,” there’s some “momentum,” and maybe the person you’re talking to is “having fun.”

It’s friendly filler until the conversation moves to something more comfortable. It doesn’t say anything, it doesn’t let people in to help and it’s a sign that the high expectations we feel we have to meet to be taken seriously around each other could be doing more harm than good. But I get it.

Even when “It’s going great” isn’t the truest story, there’s an unspoken understanding in the startup scene.

For better or worse, this is the story entrepreneurs feel they need to tell. To their colleagues, to each other, and most importantly, to themselves.

Thumbs-up photo via Shutterstock.

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  • Paul_Owen

    That’s some good writing. I particularly enjoyed “When your growth is more about your potential than your products, more about your story than your services, hope and enthusiasm aren’t your crutches. They’re your currency.”

  • wwbaker3

    For a lot of these “entrepreneurs” they have a hard time deciphering whether they have a legit business or just a hobby. Most identify it as a business in order to stay positive. Until there’s enough revenue flowing in it’s just a hobby.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I toyed with a graf that mentioned that calling some startups “companies” is itself an optimistic gesture. But eh. Lots of companies start off without profit, without the direction they’ll eventually take. That the field is as inclusive as it at least appears to be these days is nice. It means more people’s ideas and “hobbies” get to be considered for bigger things.

    • Bill

      To me, it is a business if they quit their day job and are working on the new thing full time. It is a hobby if they code at night and keep their day job. Every new business starts with zero dolllars of revenue and no product on day one.

  • Startup Wife

    It’s all a game of poker: your hand is “great” until you fold or collect the chips. There’s no in between, and you can’t really express the roller coaster ride to a causal inquirer without sounding crazy.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      And yet – unlike poker you can’t do it alone, even if on some level people always think you do. You have to let people in, somewhere.

  • Bill

    The honest answers are

    1. No one knows until they know.
    2. Many founders are young, lack data points to guide them on what is success and are trying something new where even the existing data points may not be right.
    3. No one talks about how hard it is or how stressful for a CEO in particular. Even the best early/mid round financings are typically only 18 months of cash. 6 months in the pressure starts to build again because great CEOs care deeply about how their people will get paid, their friends and family will not lose their investments, etc. Ben Horowitz’s book is great on this front.
    4. The fun and crazy stress is why many people seek out the startup experience at least once. Highs are very high, lows are very low.

  • rick gregory

    Good article.

    This question is the startup equivalent of “Hey, how ya doing?” ‘Fine, you?” That is, it’s a polite noise to make in response to an inquiry that really isn’t a request for an in-depth soliloquy about your life but is rather just an icebreaker. Same for the “How’s it going” question – typically the questioner doesn’t really want to know about your marketing issues, product missteps or sales snafus… they are just saying something to start the conversation.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      That’s the case with comments about the weather and things like that. But at tech events, what your tech company is up to is not background noise. It’s where ideas and relationships and good networking starts. So while I see that explaining some of this away in some cases – entrepreneurs are tired, wondering when they can duck out, say things are “fine” just to wrap things up – I can tell by the tone of a lot of these conversations that more is usually going on here.

  • Martina

    Fantastic article, Monica! It’s true that there’s a lot of pressure to remain eternally optimistic publicly. I’ve found it essential to balance that with a core trusted network of founders with whom I can be completely honest- for better or worse. Getting empathy and insight from peers has been essential for maintaining my sanity.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Ah, really well said. Reading between the lines at all the mentorship and sponsorship conversations I attend, I wonder if one of the big differences between newbie entrepreneurs who make it and those who don’t is who has the ability to have candid, out-with-it with conversations with people who won’t sugarcoat things, who have the wisdom to tell them what they need to hear but also the heart to encourage them not to sell themselves short or give in under crazy circumstances. Those relationships are not easy to get. And the conversations have to be painful. But they probably mean the world.

  • Stephen Purpura

    I enjoyed the article. I can only add that helping the startup community understand the definition of “success” at each stage in a startup’s life is a great help. Some things may be falling apart but you’re still running faster than the slow guy who is being caught by the bear.

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