Likely the most notorious item coming out of the college admissions scandal in recent weeks is a method involving doctoring photos. Applicants’ heads were actually made to appear on athletes’ bodies for scholarship applications.
Many following the news were left feeling the rich are gaming the system — yet again. The ability to pay for presentation can trump substance. This is a psychosis familiar to entrepreneurs. File it under “fake it ’til you make it.”
The solution for entrepreneurs and maybe parents and students is not to mimic the fakery of others — but to be clear on your strengths, and dial-up confident transparency.
Betting on a fantasy.
Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the blood-testing unicorn that went bust — is an extreme example of what can happen when entrepreneurs pretend to be something they are not. What was celebrated as a medical miracle technology ended in a “long, labored, highly visible, and heinous corporate death march,” wrote Vanity Fair.
Most of the “fake it ’til you make it” mistakes don’t cause collapse on such a grand scale.
However, sometimes it’s blind ambition — more than intentional manipulation or mistruths — that lead to empty promises or broken contracts. Still, it’s essential to understand what motivates entrepreneurs to promise solutions they can’t deliver, and parents to cheat their kids’ way into college.
For some, it’s a lack of confidence in what you can deliver, and a desire to be something you’re not. Rather than doubling down on your skills and abilities, these parents and entrepreneurs placed bets on a fantasy and hoped to game the system to make it come true.
But the truth is, teenagers don’t need to go to Yale to be successful. And entrepreneurs don’t need to be revolutionary icons to spur innovation, make money, and move their industry in a positive direction.
As a longtime entrepreneur, the lesson I take away from these scandals is — be ambitious. Build that ambition on a foundation of your strengths, what you can reliably deliver, and the type of businesses you serve best.
Selling others on your vision starts inside your company: making the right hires, doing the market research, digging into the data, finding product-market fit, refining the pitch, and always showing up prepared. It means getting smart people with different opinions to make you product best-in-class. It means doing the work.
Every business defines success in its own way, but here are some tips on making sure that your company’s confidence isn’t a facade.
Being authentic doesn’t always come naturally in the business world, especially when you’re a startup and your small size works against you. Most entrepreneurs recall a moment where they need to connect an early customer to the accounting department, only to hand the phone to their co-founder who plays the part, because there is no accounting department yet. But recognizing that being small is a strength requires transparency and vulnerability, acknowledging our faults along with our strengths.
I’ve worked with executives who avoided transparency in their own teams (Holmes famously refused to release test results to her own board). Most of us have worked at companies where big decisions are made behind closed doors based on data that only a few people can see.
The unsaid message, of course, is that the team can’t be trusted. But closed decision making prevents smart people from doing what they were hired for: helping identify tough problems and solve them. The culture of transparent confidence is mutual, and it won’t grow in companies that keep secrets.
Everyone on our team knows the objectives of their colleagues, so they can see how their goals relate to one another, and contribute to our team’s overall plan. If an individual or team is thriving, I want the whole company to know it. And if there’s a problem, it’s on all of us to fix it.
It’s necessary to balance ambition with what you can realistically achieve. But it’s also important to be realistic in how you get there. It’s tempting to look at Google’s office or Amazon’s technology and want to mimic that.
If most companies feel safer contracting with big businesses, the thinking goes, we should act more like big businesses. This is the same thinking that says: Ivy League grads are more likely to succeed, so I’ll make my kid an Ivy League Grad.
Fancy offices and equipment, just like fancy diplomas, don’t lead to success unless there is substance behind it. Entrepreneurs and growing businesses should not be asking how they can operate more like the dominant player. They should be asking what makes them different.
What can your small but mighty team do better than anyone? What do you need from logistics, communications or software solutions to do that? And what are the simplest and most cost-effective solutions on the market?
Getting these answers right allows your team to focus time and money on what you do best, which is all that really matters.
When you are starting a video conference with a potential client, they don’t care what floor you’re calling from, or how much you paid for the communications technology. They want a clear connection and a simple presentation on how you will help them succeed.
Failure is often a necessary stop on the road to success. Listen to NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast, and you won’t find a single entrepreneur who didn’t push through enormous challenges before they eventually broke through.
Nothing can guarantee success — not millions of dollars for a college degree nor billions in venture capital. But failing fast and pushing ahead is paramount. Those who cheat the system will never develop this grit.
Resilient companies have teams that believe in the mission and are always willing to dive in and fix problems when they arise. They have leaders that are open about challenges because they know that the team will overcome them. And they have clients who trust them.
Anger over the college admissions scandal focuses on how deep pockets can rig the system. But what it should really shows entrepreneurs and small businesses is that simple, confident authenticity becomes more valuable with each scandal of this nature.