Chances are, you know someone who’s at least mildly afflicted with body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD. No matter how strict their diet or how intense their workouts, they can never be happy with how they look. Some psychologists believe the rise in BDD can be attributed in part to the impossible ideal of physical beauty that we get from the modeling industry. (Let’s face it, no matter how often I hit the gym, I’m never going to look like Antonio Sabato Jr.)
The funny thing is, some entrepreneurs suffer from a similar affliction — business dysmorphic disorder, for lack of a better term. Facebook, Groupon and other fairy-tale startups are the supermodels of the business press, and venture capitalists are the tastemakers who decide what a beautiful business plan looks like. Instead of cheekbones and chest measurements, we obsess about pre-money valuations and product/market fit. If you don’t have a billion-dollar exit strategy, it’s easy for a lifestyle entrepreneur to feel ugly and unloved.
When hyper-growth is the model that gets all the “oohs” and “ahs” and catcalls, some entrepreneurs try to project an image that doesn’t really fit. They tell their story in such a way that they look bigger or more ambitious or more aggressive than they really are. After all, isn’t that what customers want?
In most cases, I think the answer is no. Big and fast-growing is what the press wants. It’s what venture capitalists and policymakers want. But customers generally want to deal with someone that they’re comfortable with, someone they can relate to.
When telling your story, don’t be ashamed of humble beginnings or modest ambitions. Don’t pretend that your business is the sum of your life. Resist the urge to create a myth. Instead, acknowledge the help you got from others, or the boost that you got from dumb, blind luck.
How does that look in practice? Take a look at Tim Berry’s account of why he started his business:
When I left a good job at Creative Strategies and started on my own, in truth it was not because of something I wanted to build, not because of a creative vision, but rather because I thought I could make enough money to keep my family whole and do what I wanted.
In other words: “I was running away from boredom, not building castles.”
Humble, charming, open — this is someone that you want to cheer for and someone that you’d consider doing business with. It’s not the kind of story that gets you in front of VCs or onto the cover of Fortune magazine, but it’s precisely the kind of story that attracts new customers.
And that’s a model worth emulating.
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