Credibility is defined as ‘the quality of being trusted and believed in’. Credibility is the art of convincing someone that you can do what you say.
I’ve spent hours pitching or helping other people construct (what I hoped) were an award-winning or income creating business pitches.
When I look back, I can’t help but think of the different factors which made the greatest difference to those I've worked with. For all those hours spent honing pitches, working on the structure and narrowing asks, I’ve now realised that there was one bridge which always seemed difficult to cross.
It’s what I called the credibility gap…
The gap is that space between where you are now and your ability to convince others of your ability.
The credibility gap is one of the biggest challenges facing underrepresented founders across the ecosystem. For all the opportunities afforded by pitch competitions, office hours and so on, credibility is the great unknown. There is no ‘hard’ way to acquire credibility, yes there are paths towards it, but these paths are restrictive by design.
How does one come across as credible? 🎓
I was recently reminded of a story from 2017, where a journalist created spoof restaurant in a garden shed in Dulwich, London. It soon became the top-rated restaurant in London on TripAdvisor before the listing was taken down.
Although different, I believe some parallels between ‘The Shed at Dulwich’ success and the issues surrounding founder credibility.
Steps to Credibility 🧑🏿🚀
Know Your Audience — This is the first step and possibly the most important. What are the unwritten rules that your audience live by? What are their expectations?
Startup culture is often portrayed as the antithesis of ‘corporate culture’. You know the cliches, beanbags and ping pong tables etc. However, there are rules to the game. I recently had an exchange with Dan Thompson on Twitter who wrote a piece on the evolution of language in Startup — https://danthompson.me/lexical-hypothesis-and-startup-culture
Achievements — You’ve been there and seen it before. You’ve ‘lived’ the story and have the accolades to prove that. Even more important, you have a platform to showcase this truth (blog, website, social media feeds).
Language — Your familiarity with industry terms. In this case, your grasp of key numbers/metrics specific to your sector. Are you direct to consumer business? Great, then you’d better have a clear grasp of
- Churn rate
- Conversion metrics
*The above terms will have very little meaning to those outside direct to consume retail. Thus succeeding in showcasing your insider knowledge.
Education — You have a prestigious education from a world-renown or reputable University.
Membership — You’re a member of a reputable group or organisation associated within your sector. This could be both formal and informal (think employee networks/investment groups composed of alumni of different companies)
How to close the gap?🔐
You burn the whole system down and start again….
Assuming you're not burning down the entire system, what can you do?
As a founder its this credibility which ultimately drives the trajectory of your company.
Double down on what you have — If that’s education at a reputable University then so be it. If you don’t have that, then you’ll have to source your credibility elsewhere. Perhaps that’s lived experience or proximity the problems that you’re attempting to solve.
Breathe your metrics — As mentioned previously, every industry has rules (written or unwritten). There will be metrics by which the success of your business will be measured.
Advisory Boards — Whether formal or informal a solid board advisors who’ve worked or even led companies within your chosen sector. In certain industries, the quality of the advisors you attract ‘signals’ the potential of your company.
Own your own journey — Own your story and the journey that brought you to where you are now. That means getting comfortable with what you have as opposed to viewing it as a deficit. This is where formal pitch training will make a huge difference.
Look at alternatives — Know the game your playing and the unwritten rules which exist. The nature of unwritten rules is that they’re hard to determine (obviously)but don’t let this discourage you. You’ll find all the answers that you need by speaking to more experienced entrepreneurs/investors.
- If your business isn’t the type of business that attracts venture capital, what options do you have?
- If you lack the expected CV for someone working in your industry, what does your team need to look like?
- How can you better shape your personal narrative to fill the gaps created by a lack of elite education/membership access?
The Perception Fight ⚔️
These factors disproportionately impact underrepresented founders who are less likely to have a) obtained a prestigious education b) have joined a relevant membership organisation early on in their careers (which often operate via the introduction of an existing member). Recently on the Policy Innovation Podcast, I commented that ‘it’s somewhat perverse that a system built on the idea of grit and meritocracy should reward those who’ve already been given the most’.
All of these factors can be linked to perception management. With the pressures of running a business, this is something to avoid obsessing about. Perception is a complex topic, linking to what you’ve achieved and how the world views those achievements and the ‘credit’ that it gives you. It also applies to things outside your control, accent, and way you speak, which links to your perceived class (which draws assumptions regarding your own life experience).
Arguably, there’s not much we can do about such things in the short-term.
This post isn’t intended to be a call to give up, either.
This is an honest reminder about the factors that directly influence the pitch success for founders across the globe.