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Bullshitting vs Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It

August 29, 20144 min read

Steve Jobs's most important job - sell

As a start-up founder and CEO, you have only one job: Sell.

  • Sell your vision to your co-founders and employees, so they can bet their youth and aspiration on your shared vision.
  • Sell to investors how you can make them money.
  • Sell to customers and clients your new products/services; more importantly, sell them how you can make their life better.

To sell well, you need to be confident in what you believe and what you say. Or at least, as they say, fake it till you make it.

This is a sound strategy – just because you are a young start-up, doesn’t mean you should feel intimidated when you walk into a “real” meeting room and shake hand with the CEO who is the age of your father.

In fact, there have been plenty of illustrious examples of how wealth was created through an “act as if” attitude by entrepreneurs:

Allen and Gates saw potential to develop an implementation of the programming language BASIC for the system. Bill Gates called the creators of the new microcomputer, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), offering to demonstrate the implementation in order to win a contract with the company.

Allen and Gates had neither an interpreter nor an Altair system, yet in the eight weeks before the demo they developed an interpreter.

Such gutsy and hustling nature can be found in the DNA of most successful entrepreneurs. But we must note that there is a vast difference between such “fake it till you make it” ballsy attitude and the proclivity for bullshitting, which exists in different degree in almost all founders I’ve met, including myself and my partners.

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In my Vietnam's startup days, I’ve been to so many meetings where both sides were just recklessly bullshitting, or as the Vietnamese calls it, “Chém gió“, which literally means “cut wind” – similar in nature to Chinese/Cantonese use of “吹水“.

Here are some examples of bullshitting I’ve encountered:

“I have connections at XXbank (top banks in VN).”

  • reality: Knew 2 university friends who work at the most entry-level in this banking giant.

“We have very deep pocket, and we are looking to invest US$ 50 million in early-stage start-ups this year.”

  • reality: Injected US$ 15k into one start-up, which was left to starve afterwards. And “invested” in 4 more start-ups through offering advice, connections, etc.

“We are a global company, with headquarter in Hanoi, and offices in New York, London, and Singapore”

  • reality: We have a 5-person operation in a humble office in Hanoi. And a few friends’ home addresses in New York, London, Singapore.

“I’m an online marketing expert”/”I’m a marketing guru”

  • reality: I am a joke.

“I have done millions of dollars in product launches”

  • reality: I worked in a digital marketing agency that helped these companies get Facebook “likes”, and these companies have revenue in the millions.

“I am the founder of XX. Also, I founded YY and ZZ. I’m also the Managing Director of QQ, and a partner in RR. I’m also starting this new project.”

  • reality: I like bullshitting and having things on my resume, and really like to be associated with “start-up” and “entrepreneur”.

“I have founded 3 companies in 3 years, raised 2 rounds of funding, exited twice”

  • reality: This one was actually my own bullshit.

...

Pivoting from one failed product to a new one that got funding should not be considered “exit”. Neither is leaving Vietnam an “exit”. We did get one round of investment, albeit short-lived and unconventional in nature, and had another investment that was promised for nearly a year but never realized due to certain uniquely Vietnam’s reason.

Though there certainly are occasions where certain polishing of your “accomplishment” are necessary, I would think that more often than not, conveying the reality without bullshitting helps open more doors, builds better bridges, gives you access to more realistic and useful feedbacks, and ultimately helps you grow and develop more from your current situation, however it might be.

It takes courage (and a secure and confident sense of self) to say: “We are a 3-person tight-knitted team, and our E-commerce site has served 80 orders so far after 2 months of Beta. We haven’t spent any money on marketing, and we are currently iterating based on the feedback from our early users, but we are optimistic moving forward and would welcome your advice on how to grow.”

But it is infinitely more helpful and insightful than bullshitting and saying: “We are the top social fashion E-commerce site, with 400% growth rate, and on track to reaching 500k USD revenue by end of the year.”

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As entrepreneurs, we should be the ones that are the most optimistic and confident about the vision of our business; If you yourself aren’t sold, how can you sell to others with conviction?

But there is a fine line between “act as if” and bullshitting: the former is bold, based on the confidence and optimism that you will deliver; the latter is founded upon your insecurity and fear of admitting and confronting the reality. If done habitually, bullshitting will affect our ability to discern facts from fiction – when that happens, when you lose sense of business reality and market signal, it’s the moment that you fails as an entrepreneur.

There are more and more bullshitting and noises around us in the tech start-up space, partly driven by tech media (and mainstream media), partly fueled by the explosion of information shared through social networks. As we get overwhelmed by the amount of overt and subtle self-promotions (and often times bullshitting) around us, we sometimes feel the expectation to match others in playing the same game.

But consider this: in an age when most are bullshitting, the best way to differentiate yourself and get noticed (by potential investors/employees/partners) is to keep your feet firmly on the ground and build your empire slowly but steadily.

Quoted from Singaporean entrepreneur/VC, Lim Der Shing’s post:

Bottom line, I hope fellow entrepreneurs can be more honest. You don’t need to bullshit to succeed in business. You just need a great product, marketing and loads of paying clients on a profitable basis. Let your revenues and profits do the talking. If we look carefully at the real successes today, there are mostly below the radar.

Disclaimer: please note that there can be different interpretation to the word “bullshitting”. For the purpose of this post, I interpret “bullshitting” as the purposeful distorting and misrepresenting reality in a way that results in no actual positive gain except to avoid admitting, accepting, and facing the reality.



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