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.
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.