There’s a sad story I often hear. An entrepreneur starts a business. To make it grow, he projects a certain image. He strives for credibility with his audience by telling them what he thinks they want to hear. After a while, the entrepreneur realizes something: he’s no longer himself. His personality, his ideals, his character are all changed. Or, he’s so far from the person who started the business that he feels like two people: one real but forgotten, one successful but artificial. For the sake of his business, he’s become…phony.
In the quest for success, we run the risk of becoming something we’re not. Of course the journey changes us. Of course we grow and evolve as our business does. That’s natural, but when we become something alien to ourselves, we know instinctively that something’s wrong. How can we avoid that fate? How can we keep the momentum of business from propelling us away from our authentic selves?
There is a way. It comes down to consciousness, mindfulness, and a purposeful choice to build our businesses around the truth. It’s good for us, and it’s good for the bottom line.
Start with Authenticity
If you’re just starting your business, it’s important to make an early commitment to authenticity. That means introducing yourself, and not some version of yourself, to your audience from the start. Very often, new entrepreneurs are tempted to put on a show, to wear a persona that they think will be more marketable than their honest selves. The irony is that this usually has the opposite effect.
The urge to create a business persona is based on one thing: the fear that you aren’t good enough. The notion that we’re somehow inadequate drives us to concoct an idea of someone our audience will trust, and then pretend to be that person. Think about that. No one can actually read the minds of any group and know what they want to hear (though some marketers claim to). More importantly, do you really want the audience you’d gain through manipulation? Do you really think you could sustain it if you did?
Start as yourself, uncompromisingly and unreservedly. Whatever audience you attract will be an audience that trusts the real you, and that’s worth more than all the artificial persona-marketing money can buy. As someone smart once said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. From what I’ve seen, that hasn’t stopped some people from trying— but the cost to their well-being is high, and the profits don’t last for long.
Embrace Your Shortcomings
Part of being authentic is recognizing, acknowledging, and being honest about your flaws. The first mistake people make when crafting a business persona (besides doing so at all) is to project perfection. Someone who claims to have complete mastery, flawless skills, or complete expertise is taking their customers for a ride. It’s much better to be forthcoming about your imperfections— both for your business and for your peace of mind.
Does this mean you should celebrate your weaknesses, or accept limitations that you could potentially overcome? Of course not. But pretending your weaknesses don’t exist is a fool’s errand, and it’ll cost you credibility. Honesty, on the other hand, has two positive effects. First, it paints you as trustworthy, and makes consumers more likely to believe what you say about your product. Second, it forces you to identify the aspects of your game that need improvement.
It can be awkward, even painful to publicly acknowledge your weak points. But trusting in your authentic self is well worth it. Customers ultimately want to buy from someone to whom they can relate. Perfection isn’t relatable to anyone. The way to build real brand loyalty is to deliver real value while being a real person.
Authenticity is no accident. It’s something you consciously choose, and constantly rededicate yourself to. It requires mindfulness, a practice that’s been gaining steam in the West over the last few years. Linked to and supported by secular meditation practices, mindfulness is very simply the act of paying attention to everything— including your mental and emotional states.
It means reminding yourself to be authentic. The temptation to fake it, or give your business over to a persona, can be a subtle one. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it! Sometimes we can even convince ourselves that the persona is authentic, because we want to feel both honest and better than we really are by letting a few carefully crafted “flaws” show— while still hiding our true selves.
That’s why it’s so important to consciously make the effort to examine (and reexamine) your motives. The support of friends and family is helpful. When you’re speaking to your audience (or writing to them), ask yourself: Would I say this to someone who really knew me well, and would they recognize it as coming from the real me? You can even ask directly. Show friends your videos, your blogs, your pitch. Ask them: is this me? Is this genuine? They might know better than you do.
Be a Sensei, Not a Guru
One of the most tempting personas an independent business person can create is The Guru. Descended from the mountaintop, The Guru has an almost mythical level of expertise. Their wisdom is unfathomable to the customer, who is asked to trust in their brilliance. Follow me, says The Guru, and I’ll make your dreams come true.
Bullshit. You know that your customers are responsible for their own dreams. What you offer them is tools, and support, and the benefit of whatever experience you’ve accrued. That’s good enough, because it’s all anyone can offer. You can’t solve the customer’s problem; you can identify it, and offer something to help them solve it. No more. Anyone who claims otherwise is wearing the mantle of fake authority.
Rather than proclaiming yourself the messiah, keep it 100. You do have something valuable to offer customers, you do know more than they do, and you can help them— without the self-aggrandizement. The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who tell their audience how they’ve learned what they’ve learned, how much they still have to learn, and how valuable their mistakes have been.
Rather than being The Guru, be the Sensei. The term “sensei” literally translates to “someone who has gone before you.” That’s it. Not “expert,” not “magic genie,” not even “teacher,” though that’s how teachers are addressed. The concept is that some of us have traveled a little further down the road than others, and can share their experience in a way that’s helpful. It doesn’t imply status so much as value.
Authenticity is an intangible, but it’s as important to your business prospects as it is to your personal ones. By truly being yourself, you not only free yourself from the burden of a lie, you guarantee that your approach, and your product, will be as unique as you are. That’s not just healthy, it’s a solid business strategy.
Tell the truth, and you can sell the truth.