The Entrepreneur's Hoax, and Why I Won't Play Along

Sharon Schneider

It seems like such an innocuous question: “How’s business? Everything going well?” People just want to be encouraging. They really are rooting for you and they just want to hear that a company they like (and an entrepreneur they like) is doing well.

I’ve read that the standard reply in Silicon Valley is to say something like “We’re crushing it!” and all I can think is Thank God I don’t live in Silicon Valley. If someone in Chicago said that to me I would raise my eyebrows and think they had been watching too much Entourage.

But what do I say? And why does it matter?

It matters because you’re probably not crushing it. Hopefully, you’re not failing miserably, either. Most of us are somewhere in between. Or, more accurately, some days we’re crushing it and some days we’re…not.

But entrepreneurship can often feel like a performance. A non-stop performance—for customers, for investors, for employees, for peers. Perception matters, and startups need to create a perception of success. “Fake it till you make it,” right? Everybody's playing the game, right?

Lately, though, I’m hearing some concerning stories about how faking it without making it has led to entrepreneurs burning out, even to the point of committing suicide.

Comparing your own private reality with the polished and refined public image of your competitors and peers is like women comparing themselves to Hollywood actresses whose bodies have been professionally coifed, colon-cleansed, styled and Spanxed before walking the Oscars red carpet: It's an elaborate hoax. And the hoax gives all the rest of us a distorted perception of reality and it’s bad for our self-esteem.

Much like the excesses of Hollywood, we can all be complicit in creating an ecosystem that feeds on (and then eventually requires) bravado and exaggeration. Or we can refuse.

Personally, I vote for keeping it real in Chicago. For being a safe space. For sharing our ups and downs and making struggle normal.

I’m not saying that you should dump your shit on everybody who says, “how’s it going?” And if you don’t possess that bizarre combination of incredible confidence and willingness to be proven wrong then you probably shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. But I am saying that we need to help each other benchmark against reality instead of an airbrushed, Botoxed land of make-believe.

So what’s my response when someone casually asks, “How’s it going?” On good days and bad days alike, I say something like “It’s going, thanks. We’re chugging along, making progress every day.” And we are. Moxie Jean is a lot bigger, and we’re ten times smarter than we were just a few months ago. We’ve figured out so many pieces of the puzzle (some painfully and all through trial and error). But truthfully, we still have some big things to figure out, and I ask my friends, mentors and investors for help and advice all the time.

I also try to be candid in sharing lessons, wrong turns and times of struggle, mostly because turning events into coherent stories helps me process it all, but also with the hope that other people will know that their own doubts and disappointments are part of the normal life of a startup entrepreneur.

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Mike Powell
Great post Sharon! Thanks for sharing.
Thomas Stelter
Great post. Entrepreneurs by default have a certain degree of optimism embedded in their DNA, and often need to draw on it to get through the tough spots. Responding to "we're crushing it" with, "tell me more" usually creates a pause... :)
James Bellefeuille
Don't compare your business with another Entrepreneur's highlight reel.
Marcy Capron Vermillion
This is precisely why I am starting that FounderTherapy group. We cannot afford to stay silent about what isn't going well or what we need help with. And fwiw my typical response — if it's to someone who doesn't need to know my business beyond a certain point — is "hanging in there."
David Christiansen
Whenever someone asks me how my startup is doing I respond in one of three ways, depending on the person: 1) If I trust them and think they are sincerely interested, I say "Let me show you" and pull up the dashboard I use to manage my business. 2) In all other cases, I try to tell them an anecdote that is true and recent, like "We sold three subscriptions yesterday" or whatever problem I'm currently trying to solve, like "we're trying to figure out how to scale customer support to keep up with the demand". The advantage of this is simple - the response is real, it invites substantial discussion, and it's factual. If you're enthusiastic about your business you won't need to act. It will be obvious.
Sharon Schneider
That's great advice, David. Thanks for sharing.
Erik Severinghaus
Well put.
Richard Alesky
There definitely needs to be a balance between optimism and realism when talking about your start-up, otherwise you'll never get the help or advice you need.
Katherine Raz
THANK GOD someone wrote this. Kudos to you, Sharon. If we're not honest about where we are we don't learn from one another. Constant chest thumping turns the entire environment into a competitive place where no one feels comfortable saying, "I have no fucking clue what I'm doing. Maybe you can help me." And that's where, I think, the best work starts getting done. And the best collaborations start happening. And you find the best people to add to your team. Etc., etc. Chicago doesn't have to be Silicon Valley. We've already been criticized for focusing too much on apps that "actually do stuff in real life." Hopefully we can carve out a reputation for keeping it real in other ways, too.
Sharon Schneider
Thanks for the kind words, Katherine. Admitting your weakness is always the first step to getting stronger, right?
Ninos Youkhana
Thanks Sharon, you are right..And, I love Entourage :-)
Daniela Bolzmann
I love the honesty of this post Sharon! Some of my favorite talks from entrepreneurs are when they share their truths...the up and more importantly the downs. For me, hearing the downs makes me feel like I am not in this alone and that others too have been through tough times.
Sharon Schneider
Thanks, Daniela. You are definitely not alone!
Maria Christopoulos Katris
Couldn't agree more. In addition, while the spotlight and press is great for a young company, it can absolutely deter you from focusing on your business-a trap many have fallen into and takes a fine balance to avoid.
Sharon Schneider
I'd love to answer that in depth, Maria, but i have to go focus on my business. :) Thanks for keeping it real, mama--and keeping me grounded.
Peter Bruce
Great post. Ups and downs are just part of life. How we handle them is what makes us who we are (or who we aren't). Just like a startup. "hard times come and hard times go" Bruce Springsteen
Sharon Schneider
Thanks, Peter? Truly, is there any situation where Bruce Springsteen's wisdom doesn't come in handy? I think not.
Peter Bruce
I've yet to have a problem that could not be solved by The Boss. "Keep pushin' till its understood and these badlands start treating us good".
Brian Maggi
Nice post Sharon. There are two kinds of entrepreneurs – those who are compelled to be an entrepreneur and those who find it compelling to be one. After that, it comes down to whether you're optimist or an opportunist. Optimists are better equipped emotionally to weather the highs and lows that come with being an entrepreneur.
Sharon Schneider
Thanks, Brian. If only there were a bright line to mark where you cross from Optimistville into Crazytown. :)
Jeff Carter
Yup, great advice and goes for the investors too! Investors shouldn't make commitments they can't keep or follow up on. That keeps entrepreneurs from "crushing it", or at least doing well.
Sharon Schneider
Thanks, Jeff, as always, for your support and encouragement.

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