Start-up pro-tip: Likability matters

September 10th, 2013 | mike.bushong | No Comments

likableTuesdays have been reserved for career advice for the past few months, but I want to use this Tuesday to make a slightly different point. Over the first 8 months that I have been at Plexxi, I get a lot of people reaching out asking me how I like the new job. They want to know what the experience is like, how the startup world compares to the more corporate life I left behind. They ask me if I am having fun, if I like the new company, how I am adjusting to the new role. 

My answers are all pretty much the same. I would say that there are two remarkable things about working at Plexxi for me: first, I have found a much healthier work-life balance, and second, I am astounded by how much people want us to win.

It's this second point that i want to really highlight today.

The networking industry is going through a serious transformation. And it isn't just SDN that is taking root. We are seeing trends like network virtualization, NFV, white box switching and routing, DevOps, and silicon photonics. Right around the corner, Big Data will come into play as analytics take a more center stage after the initial SDN deployments start to go a little broader.

The gist is that we are experiencing a period of massive upheaval. During times of disruption, there will be clear winners and losers. And so it should come as no surprise that money is flying in from the sidelines to back the various startup companies taking on these trends.

So who do you back?

Most of us will naturally begin by scrutinizing the ideas, strategies, and strength of team. We tend to bet on the technologies that appear to be the most sound, or the strategies that really wow us, or even on teams who have been here before and been successful previously. What I have learned in my first 8 months living the new startup life is that all of these things are absolutely important. But they can all be rendered useless if you forget one never talked about thing: likability.

When you are a tiny startup, you are far better off if you are likable. When people like you, they follow you. They listen to you. They amplify what you have to say. They treat you cordially. When they disagree with you, they do it respectfully and usually in a softer voice. They coach you. They recommend you to others. They encourage you. They point talent your way. They engage earlier and provide invaluable feedback. They might even buy your products.

And this is true of everyone in the industry. It's not just potential customers. It's pundits, analysts, reporters, bloggers, social media gurus, and yes, even competitors. If you are liked, the whole world stays a nice cozy place. 

As you would expect, if you are actively disliked (actual negative sentiment, not just the lack of affection), everything gets more difficult. People scrutinize you. They poke and harass you. They criticize your every move with very public disdain. Coverage is a little dicier. You give off a shadow of dissent everywhere you go. People talk about you behind your backs in the most unflattering ways. And they start to bake in ways to kill you off even if you are irrelevant to their market objectives.

This isn't rocket science. You are probably nodding your head thinking this is dead obvious. But if it is so obvious, riddle me this, Batman: why do so many startups carry a chip on their shoulder or constantly lug around a gigantic axe to grind?

I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with people about this company being too abrasive or that company being too standoffish. Some companies have a tone that is downright offensive, forgetting that the people they are selling to are the same ones who have likely bought into the incumbent's strategy for the last 20 years. When you disparage them openly, you are telling your customers that they are idiots for having believed the crap for so long. Is it really that surprising that this doesn't sit well? 

Even on the earlier startups, stealth companies very rarely remain too stealthy for too long. People become almost too coy with their secretiveness. I was on a panel with one stealthy company where the guy basically said "No comment" to every question. That just irritates people. They are there to see you. They actually deep down want you to win. Don't blow it by not saying anything.

I don't know if this is mostly American culture or if it transcends all cultures, but we all tend to root for the underdog if we don't have deep emotional allegiance to the titan in control. When we see a David v. Goliath battle shaping up, we want to see David win… or at least make a game of it. It's every bit as true in business as it is in sports.

And if this is true, it means the job of the marketer is to tap into this. As startups, we all ought to be just as worried about how likable we are as we are about how well we communicate our vision and strategy. Our public discourse ought to reflect who we are as a company, an extension of our personalities in some regard. We ought to aspire to be truthful and credible, cordial, dependable, and even fun or funny. 

As you look at the companies you think are most poised to survive this dog-eat-dog startup world, how does their likability help or hinder them? If you are at a startup, have you given any thought to your corporate identity beyond the markets, products, and strategies? Because I will tell you this, your life will be meaningfully better if the universe is pulling for you to win.

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