Fake It 'Til You Make It – Helpful or Harmful for Startup Ventures
By Deanna Meador
After having helped over 500 founders evaluate their ideas and having worked for the last 3 years alongside a remarkable team (yes, I am biased) to bring an emerging technology to life, there is an interesting conversation to be had around the fake it ‘til you make it mentality. When can this way of behaving help a founder and when can it not only harm a founder but also jeopardize the rate at which an innovation sees adoption into the market?
The phrase ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ goes back to at least the 1970s with a similar phrase being included in Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Fakin’ It”, which made it to the 23rd spot on the Billboard chart in 1967.
There has long been debate about whether imitating confidence and competence allows one to then manifest or fully realize these qualities in real life. Not many know this, but my formal graduate training is in psychology. I find people and the way we interact with one another absolutely fascinating.
It is in this vein that I’ve explored others’ research and developed my own thoughts about the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ phenomenon that has been growing in its pervasiveness among startup founders, particularly those developing emerging technologies, forging new markets, and driving innovation. There are times when it is powerful in the best way and times when it is equally as powerful in the worst way.
When ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ can be your superpower:
When you are feeling nervous heading into a meeting or presentation
When you attend a networking event, and you don’t like networking events
When you are down or sad, but tasks must still get done
You’ll notice the main ways ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ can be a superpower centered around how you feel internally and how that translates to how others experience you. There are many published studies on the impact of smiling, power posing, or saying positive affirmations before a big meeting, keeping your head up and a strong posture, and on and on. Doing these physical behaviors even when they don’t match what you feel inside, can shift what you feel inside, and they definitely enhance the ways others experience and will react to you. When I work with founders on their pitch, the night before a big opportunity is reserved for small tweaks, practicing until it is second nature, and lots of pumping them up. Use ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ for good. Let it hype you up before a big presentation when you’re nervous or imposter syndrome tries to take hold and snatch your power.
When ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ can be your downfall:
When you are developing an innovation and you blur the lines between what is vs. what will (hopefully) be
When you oversell a customer rather than bringing them in as a partner on the journey to develop an emerging technology or innovation
As a customer, when you don’t do your diligence on solutions you adopt or recommend
Alternatively, the main ways ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ can be your downfall, or more exactly your venture’s downfall, revolve primarily around overselling what is vs. what will be. Making these types of mistakes can result in a loss of trust from investors, team members, and potential customers, but can also land you in hot water from a legal perspective.
My company provides virtual try-on technology for the apparel industry. This is very much an emerging technology, poised to dramatically change the way people shop for clothing and the way employees get fitted for uniforms, but still an emerging technology. My team was once on a call with a large fast fashion company in Europe and had a leader ask us if we could come in and fix the virtual try-on technology they adopted from another vendor. This person had championed adopting this exciting new technology, the company signed a contract, and once implemented, it didn’t work. It crashed, customers couldn’t log in, and it failed to deliver on the promises the vendor was sold. This kind of failure can have ripple effects and unintended consequences across an industry that make it hard for other emerging technologies and their founders to get their solutions off the ground.
As founders, we can’t use the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mantra as a license to portray what we’re trying to build as what we have built. Lead with transparency. Paint the glorious picture of where your venture, your service, and your technology are heading. Be clear about what is forward-looking vs. what is today. Engage your early customers as partners and let them walk with you on your development journey rather than keeping them in the dark and waiting for the moment the truth will catch up with you both.