I’m going to say something controversial. “Fake it until you make it” is the worst advice you will ever hear.
And for a time, I too was victim to this detrimental way of thinking. It’s pervasive in the startup world. But when I hear a founder spout this ridiculous mantra of “fake it till you make it”- all I really hear is “we haven’t done the hard work necessary”.
Now, I am not a world famous VC. I’m not a founder that’s taken a company to unicorn status. But, I am a professional who has given 150% to a countless number of early stage companies. I’ve been in the trenches with all types as we worked tirelessly together to make something great. I’ve been a part of successes and I have been a part of failures. So I’ve seen a lot of folks hiding behind “fake it till you make it”.
And I’ve got something to say about it.
The success of any early stage company is dependent on luck and hard work. Some founders jump headfirst into the lion’s den, armed with nothing but a grand idea and some gumption. And sure, perhaps their lack of planning pays off for a short while. Maybe they slip through some early stages of funding by “faking it till they make it.” But eventually, their lack of strategy will be exposed. Because time has a way of separating the lucky from the hardworking.
And I’m always left to wonder - why didn’t these bright and courageous entrepreneurs just put in the time it takes to make it real? The truth is: “fake it till you make it” isn’t just ignorant…it’s completely unnecessary.
In the world of startups, there is no shortage of magical, awe-inspiring thinking. Most founders do come to this industry with the purest of intentions. But as they continue deeper into the process, they inevitability hit a buzz saw. VC’s can create insane pressure to execute early results, pinning these new founders against the wall. And now, the only way to escape is to make the next great unicorn company and to make it fast.
And in their minds, the only way to get the funding required is to exaggerate that once great idea. They begin to cut corners and in short- they start faking it. If I build a great pitch deck, a stunning product demo along with a logo and a fantastic website, then my company and product is real…right?
Investors, customers, and employees do not take well to the old Jedi mind trick. And eventually, those fabrications and exaggerations will catch-up to you. We all know too well the story of Theranos.
And to me, it’s all quite tragic. Because I know that if these founders just put all the energy it takes to create a razzle-dazzle song and dance into building and executing a real plan- they’d have a good shot of long-lasting success.
And the fact of the matter is, in today’s climate, everyone is so obsessed with finding the next “unicorn”, but those magical beasts are rare. There is so much pressure to create something transcendent when in practice, startups can make a very profitable exit, without having to become a unicorn.
And after years of working in early-stage companies and dealing with this fake it mentality, I’ve come to learn — there are no shortcuts. There’s only hard work mixed with luck.
I’ve fallen victim to the “fake it till you make it” logic twice in my career. It embarrasses me, it haunts me — but I do want to share it with you. Because you can be sure, I’ll never let it happen to me again.
And I don’t want it to happen to you.
While interviewing for a VP of Marketing position, I asked for a demo of the product, as any VP of Marketing would naturally do. The demo was positioned to me as a “working product.” And in truth, it wasn’t much to write home about. But what’s worse - soon we were to find out that their unimpressive display was nothing but a complete fabrication. They oversold their technology for short-term gain.
The company executed what I call “the smoke screen strategy.” During board meetings, the CEO would rail on and on about all the activities and all the “progress.” But by the end of the quarter, the truth came out.
All these activities resulted in nothing more than empty work. Deals that were touted as almost ready to close…never closed. Product launches there were just about to happen- flat out didn’t. The CEO was just kicking the can down the road, hoping that at some point this great product would magically appear and sell itself.
And their scheme did not last for long. They were eventually discovered, the CEO was ousted, and the firm was reduced to a zombie company- wandering aimlessly until they could sell whatever meager scraps of IP remained.
Later, I was partnering with a company who once again, made the wild claim that their technology was further along than it was. And after an extended seed round, it was discovered that product was nothing but mere wishful thinking. The company had their funding pulled, followed shortly by an immediate collapse.
These experiences aren’t rare in the start-up world.
And when I look back at these experiences, I see my faults in it all. Maybe I was too naïve and trusting.
So for the early stage company or VC reading this- my advice is simple. Don’t fake it until you make it.
· Cultivate confidence. Make bold claims. Big ideas create big success. But do the hard work to back-up those claims.
· Being excited and bullish about your opportunity is expected. But make sure that excitement is built off of truths.
· Tell the complete truth about what your product can do TODAY. The future is for later. The present value of your product should inevitably show the potential of the future outcome.
I don’t see the “fake it till you make it” mentality going away anytime soon. It’s, unfortunately, become too ingrained in our industry’s culture. But I do see a future where founders of early-stage companies can immediately separate themselves from the pack by shunning this ridiculous concept, replacing it instead with hard work, courageous creativity, and real ingenuity.
There’s no need to BS. Take all that energy it requires to spin the yarn and instead do the real work.