Entrepreneurs only get one reputation. Use it wisely.
You don’t have to wake up inside a solitary confinement cell after having committed a worldwide startup marketing ploy-turned-unplanned-fraud in order to doom your current — or future — businesses. Sometimes something as seemingly innocuous as a social media post, a product pivot, or a new unrelated business launch can be the accidental gateway to self-sabotage.
As someone who’s amassed a wide and eclectic circle of entrepreneurial friends and peers (including the aforementioned jailbird), I’ve witnessed impressive maneuvers into serial success, as well as massive and unexpected downfalls from the least problematic of characters.
The benefit of watching from the sidelines is the ability to learn from those founders’ mistakes and avoid a few of our own. Thus, I’ve compiled the below warnings of three well-meaning, but disproportionately high-stakes actions that can jeopardize — or even decimate — your entrepreneurial success, reputation, and future, in one fell swoop. Stay vigilant and proceed with caution should you choose to embark on any of the below.
Most successful entrepreneurs are wise enough to know that making outlandish, polarizing controversial statements is a surefire way to alienate a large chunk of potential customers and prospective future investors. That said, some entrepreneurs fail to realize exactly what constitutes a “polarizing perspective”, particularly after a few ego boosts off a recent startup success and the confirmation bias to believe they know it all.
To be clear, having one successful experience does not qualify an entrepreneur to spew “their way” as the sweeping generalization of what will work for everyone, particularly if they lack any alternate experience.
The sample size sabotage: There’s an industry currently rife with overconfident entrepreneurs who’ve had one quick win and thus purport to be advice-wielding experts charging big bucks for their polarizing perspectives — which often fail to prove themselves out. A few of these guys are currently wrapped up in multi-8-figure lawsuits, since too many of their clients took their claims as gospel and subsequently bet the house on an unpredictable and risky strategy.
- For example: Just because you sold one NFT for an 80x ROI doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on NFT identification and investing, especially if that’s the only NFT you’ve ever bought or sold.
- If you subsequently make broad statements about NFT investing, just because your limited experience aligns with them, you may be offering a polarizing perspective that could prove faulty or worse.
- Worse, if you tout yourself a guru in the space and monetize that narrowly-informed perspective, you may end up in hot water.
Time frame: Likewise, there are some entrepreneurs who’ve benefitted greatly off an opportune time frame that, unfortunately, produced outsized results that can’t be replicated using the same methods.
- For example: Those who grew rapidly through Facebook ads back in 2015 would be negligent and outright incorrect to assert the same strategy will yield the same results today.
- Between the increasingly crowded nature and surging ad blindness, GDPR and Apple privacy changes, and subsequent decreased ROADs across the board, it simply isn’t the same opportunity. Claiming otherwise is a great way to reveal your lack of transparency or outright deception towards a vulnerable audience of gullible hopefuls.
Industry: Lastly, one of the most damning ways an entrepreneur can incinerate their credibility is by assuming their singular experience, expertise, and advice is undoubtedly transferrable to another industry.
While the above examples might seem like they’d only be problematic for an entrepreneur who gains a large following and gets publicly vilified on the social media stage (or via lawsuit), that isn’t the only risk. An equally damaging risk is that prospective future partners, clients, or investors hear your confirmation bias-induced polarizing perspectives and thus, assume you’re arrogant, unteachable, and unaware of what you don’t know. That carries consequences that could doom your future endeavors for years to come.
If you want to build a fervently loyal audience, one of the fastest ways is to pit them all against a common enemy. That may sound manipulative, but it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that common enemies or dislikes unite people just as much as — or arguably more than — common friends or interests. That’s exactly how politicians get like-minded troops to rally around them and against their opponent, so we’ve all seen this at work in the wild.
Believe it or not, there are perfectly ethical, acceptable, and effective ways to foster a common enemy through an alienating generalization.
For example: Let’s say you’re selling a vegan skincare product that boasts that it was never tested on animals and goes on to pit your company — and fans, followers, and customers — against cruel animal testing. This isn’t too controversial and likely won’t come back to bite you, since while you’re selling vegan products, the majority of your audience would likely be similarly against animal testing. However, sometimes making an enemy comes with more risks than you’d realize…
I know an entrepreneur who recently decided to open up to his audience, become the face of his company, and start sharing motivational insights that he believed would help his sales pitch. He figured these personal perspectives were zealously shared by his target market, so he wasn’t worried about stepping on toes or offending prospective customers…
This entrepreneur ended up making bold, alienating generalizations about managers in certain 9 to 5 professions. Unfortunately, he failed to consider the fact that some of his target market and current client base might also identify with those jobs or industries he put down. In attempting to intensify his sales pitch and rile up his audience, he ended up alienating, offending, and ultimately losing a large chunk of them, completely unnecessarily.
He didn’t have to put down those other professions or industries to sell his product. People who’ve worked three decades in some of the jobs he trashed could very well have purchased his products; though after hearing his revamped sales pitch, it’s unlikely they will.
The moral of the story is simple: There’s no need to alienate your audience around a topic that isn’t directly in conflict with your product or service.
If you’re a health and wellness entrepreneur and you want to vilify greasy, processed potato chips, have at it (assuming you don’t plan to veer your ventures into the junk food space in the foreseeable future). However, if you’re selling financial services or media products, there’s no need to go on a tirade about how [insert profession here] is an utter waste of life. Simply put, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and if you don’t know which hand does, don’t bite any of them.
If you build up a loyal client base and following, you can sell anything…right? Wrong.
One mistake I’ve witnessed like a slow-motion train wreck multiple times — from small newbie entrepreneurs to those who’ve made tens of millions and amassed followings in the hundreds of thousands or more — is the radical reinvention gone wrong.
Have you ever seen a serial entrepreneur pump out similar project after similar project, as if they’re a one-industry or one-business-model pony? That isn’t necessarily because they’re unimaginative or incapable of branching out. Instead, it could be that that entrepreneur thoroughly understands a certain audience, industry, or business model, and thus is strategically leaning into that expertise and credibility.
The flipside occurs when an entrepreneur decides to burst onto a new scene, break into a new industry, target a new audience, or attempt to sell a brand-new product or service to an existing audience. This is where things can get dicey.
The B.S. Alarm
If you’ve built a brand around your reputation, credibility, or expertise in a certain domain, spontaneously switching to an entirely new and unrelated product or industry is a risky move likely to set off many a B.S. meter.
I’ve watched a respected entrepreneur with an 8-figure brand in the no-fluff technical marketing services space reinvent herself with a very fluffy psychic and witchcraft business with no warning. The result? Her audience was instantly confused, a large portion offput, and worse, the credibility for both her prior (still operating) and new business simultaneously tanked.
- Is she really a highly technical, in-the-weeds operator capable of providing results-generating services her first venture promised?
- Is she actually a spiritual witchcraft guru who can read your energy, tap into your past lives, and help plan your future?
You can be whatever you want, but you can’t necessarily be them all at once, and you certainly can’t flip from one expertise, reputation, and personality to another with no warning and expect your credibility to remain intact and your client base unquestioningly loyal.
That’s just one example that took down an 8-figure business that had been operating for 6+ years prior, but there are countless other radical reinventions that have been similarly jarring to client bases and damaging to entrepreneurs and their ventures:
- The education entrepreneur pandering to a non-tech-savvy older audience who dove into the more technical burgeoning NFT space, and her audience did not follow suit…
- The finance entrepreneur who unsuccessfully attempted to jam his personality and mindset coaching down his crypto trader client base’s throats, then decided selling fitness coaching would be easier, and then hopped to products. No, crypto traders don’t necessarily want the mindset coaching (or fitness plan) promoted by their financial news anchor…but this entrepreneur learned that a bit too late…
The simple fact is that you shouldn’t assume your client base or followers will buy anything and everything you’re selling if you venture into territory where you have no experience, reputation, or expertise. If yesterday you were a crypto expert, today you’re a mindset coach, and tomorrow you’re a weight loss guru, your prospective clients might start to wonder if you ever were any of these things at all…
If you’re trying to be the face of five new ventures at once, don’t be shocked if your audience, customers, and prospective investors are confused by and distrustful of the multiple personalities you’ve suddenly chosen to portray.