As a startup CEO, it’s my job to tell stories. We’re creating a new product category, solving an old problem in a new way, doing something that’s not always easy to communicate. So whether I’m talking to prospective customers or investors, they tend to start out somewhat confused about what we’re doing and why. I need to tell a story that makes sense to them, and makes them believe in what we’re doing and why it matters.
But – how do I put this delicately – every successful startup story contains an element of spin. When you’re just starting out, you don’t have the luxury of a huge number of blue-chip customers with endorsements and case studies and ROI calculations. You might not even have a prototype yet. A good CEO has to use her storytelling skills and charisma to convince people anyway. This involves inflating your meager accomplishments to make them sound huge, and talking up your limited traction to make your future dominance sound inevitable.
So when you don’t have a prototype, you sell the vision. When your prototype is barely working, you sell the full product. And when you ship your beta, you talk about your roadmap. You’re always selling the next thing, not what you have now. This is all well and good … until it’s not.
Spin or bullshit?
As Nigel Tufnel might say, there’s a fine line between spin and bullshit. It’s hard to define sometimes, but you know it when you see it. Here’s some truth-stretching activities that I’d call spin:
- Calling your unpaid beta users “customers”
- Saying features you haven’t built yet but fully know how to do are “on the roadmap”
- Calling part-time contributors “team members”
- “Managing” your revenue timing (shifting a deal from Sept 30 to Oct 1)
The flip side, the dark side, the bullshit side, looks more like this:
- Calling your pipeline “customers”
- Saying features that involve high technical risk are “on the roadmap”
- Faking your revenue numbers (calling unsigned deals signed, or non-recurring recurring)
For a startup, straying over to the bullshit side is awfully tempting, because it can pay off in the short term, and hardly anyone ever checks. Most of us are predisposed to trust charismatic people who tell good stories. As long as you don’t do it too often, there’s a good chance you might even get away with it.
I would like to make the case that it’s crucial to stay on the spin side of that line. Why?
Because everything important in life comes down to relationships, and relationships are built on trust. Bullshitters can’t be trusted. And potential investors and customers should (and sometimes do) pay close attention to which side of that line you’re on. And if you set foot on the wrong side, you’ll lose them forever.
Which brings me to Magic Leap.
The smell of the bullshit, the roar of the crowd
The wheels finally appear to be coming off the Magic bus.