Harkening back to my childhood days, I remember a wonderful Aesop’s Fable called The Boy Who Cried Wolf. As the story goes, a little boy tended to sound a false alarm that a wolf was attacking a flock of sheep. After doing this repeatedly, the villagers eventually stopped taking him seriously. Then when the wolf did eat the sheep, the little boy’s cries fell on deaf ears. In some versions of this story, the wolf also eats the boy. I believe that this fable is more apropos for our society today than perhaps at any time in recent memory. The current state of political affairs comes to mind as a perfect example of how over-the-top proclamations about how our country is doomed are being bandied about daily.
We can expand a modern-day Aesop’s Fable to include entrepreneurs – more specifically, entrepreneurs who engage in lying and distortion. There’s a distinction between puffery and lying. Puffery involves hyperbole which is “obvious and intentional exaggeration not intended to be taken literally.” For example, if we say that our widgets are the “best,” there’s no objective way to measure this claim and the public generally understands the context to contain a degree of hyperbole. On the other hand, if we say that 99% of all our customers agree that our widgets are the “best,” then this is a factual claim that can be verified. And it becomes a lie if this fact is manufactured, or we can’t prove that 99% of all our customers agree with our statement.
Where this gets dicey for entrepreneurs is when the integrity line is crossed. Alex is the CEO of a start-up company and is pitching a group of investors for funding. During an interview with the investor group, he says, “Our firm has 35 customers and we’ve generated $500,000 in revenue.” What he doesn’t reveal is that he doesn’t really have 35 paying customers. He has 25 prospective customers that are using a beta version of his product for free; five current customers that are currently paying for his product, and five former customers that quit because they had issues with the product. What he also neglected to say is that his company has been in business for three years and $500,000 is the cumulative revenue generated during that time. Did Alex lie about his company’s progress, or did he engage in a form of puffery? While it’s not quite the false cry that a wolf is eating the sheep, Alex has crossed the line through omission of key facts. Any savvy investor will drill down and quickly learn that Alex has misrepresented his situation – which will probably cost him the investment.
As entrepreneurs our integrity is our most valuable currency. When we go to the bank for a loan, it’s important that we put our best foot forward, but in an honest manner. We should be fact-based with our approach and present a true picture of our operations. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with sharing data trends that portray our company in a growth-mode. When we are reporting to our investors, we share the true, unvarnished facts. If things aren’t as rosy as we’d like, we provide an explanation about the issues we are experiencing. We have a real estate fund and write a quarterly report for our investors. Periodically I like to include a section called, “What’s Not Working.” In it, we discuss some of the challenges we are facing and what we are doing to overcome them. We’ve had feedback from investors who appreciate the fact that we’re not always trying to sell them on unicorns and rainbows.
Another problem area for entrepreneurs is that of overpromising and under-delivering. In fact, we would be much better off doing the opposite. We would do well to find one of the most skeptical members of our team and have him or her help set expectations. It’s likely that our optimism would be dialed back to a more realistic degree. Overpromising once may be forgivable. But if it happens over and over then we’re probably moving past the realm of hyperbole and into the arena of deception.
We all want to win, which is a critical element of entrepreneurship. Doing so in an honest and forthright manner may not be the easiest path to take, but it will likely keep us from being eaten by the wolf.
This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.