Deunicornization: Dispelling the Fairytales

Clean-cut, charismatic and full of soft spoken energy. Throw in some 3D charts, product schematics and a couple of business terms relating to strategic growth estimations or value added equity and you’ve got yourself a winning candidate in a pitching competition. Or, perhaps I just laid down the standard keynote recipe for an inspirational serial entrepreneur or a company disrupting the industry. The point is that by carefully crafting what is before our eyes, that is, what our senses are exposed to(e.g. soft, clear voice; pretty graphs), can be extremely powerful in and of itself. Further yet, this crafted sensory experience can be compelling to the point of ascribing it equal importance with what it merely intends to predicate – the content behind the facade.

Rationally speaking, that shouldn’t really be the case. Surely the content – be it a product, a framework or even just an anecdote – should weigh in more on our critical apprehensions? Think of it all as a big, red strawberry. Is it sound to assume it is delicious without a taste?

We scratched the surface of this some weeks ago when we discussed the art of presence. Specifically, we discussed ways in which we convey information by consciously increasing our presence in the moment; and the critical role it plays in how our environment communicates back with us. The conclusion: emphasise your true qualities, assuming your intentions are also, you know, honest.

But the implied flipside of that coin is that a whole lot of people won’t have a very clear cut-off between honest and no-so-honest portrayals. And we don’t have to look far to identify these grey areas of conveyed imagery. Fans of John Ham who’ve binged through Mad Men are sure to get a glimpse of the strange and often elegant conceptual strategies employed in the advertisement industry. No psychological theory required, just an honest intuition about what appeals to your audience. Indeed: selling is a kind of artform, too – one which permeates our world.

Yet, none of this is new information. In fact, some might think it’s quite normal. Just search “how to pitch a startup” and google spews back a meager 35,300,000 results. That’s not a hack anymore, that’s just standard practice.

The irony, of course, is that I’m trying to sell an idea to you. And here it is: drop the idea of being just another consumer. Let’s take a step back from the fantasy – the pretty picture of the unicorn behind the salesman – and come closer to reality.

I guess I’m selling deunicornisation.  

Okay, let’s say you’ve been humoured so far and look at why this is important.

My first case-in-point is going be about Bitconnect, which, at the time of its ICO (initial coin offering), reached a impressive market cap of $2.6 billion. Promising extremely attractive (like, 40%-per-month-attractive), tier-based ROIs it’s genuinely unnerving that the ponzi alarms weren’t going off in everyone involved. But it’s big marketing stunts – such as the one which eternalised Carlos Manto into the hall of memes – that played right into the tipping points of many eventual scam victims. 

A hyped up guy telling you how awesome it is to get quick, effortless money? It’s an allure which can bewitch otherwise composed individuals and there is a certain kind of inescapable temptation in the sleek combo of enthusiasm and overly optimistic assurances. This kind of “super-growth” mentality has nested across the board because entrepreneurial success stories go down like a warm cup of tea – they’re comforting and energising.

And Carlos Manto is a really transparent example, too. I’d say we’re more likely to face subtle and sophisticated versions of the same scenario. The dream of a billion dollar pipeline runs deep in the hearts of the community, which might explain the story Juicero. That is, how a $700, subscription-based juicer which won’t squeeze a drop of, well, juice without a wi-fi connection got more than a hundred million dollars in VC investment funds. All they needed was a founder with a nice CV, a prototype rendering and an example of a subscription model. Sounds eerily similar to a certain example from above.

Well, a couple of Tesla and Steve Jobs comparisons later, Juicero went bankrupt and the world had to come to terms with the fact that hi-tech organic juice pressing was not going to be the next big thing. Why? Because setting up an effective infrastructure of manufacturing and distribution turned out to be a bit harder than expected.

But really it was because you didn’t actually need a juicer to squeeze the delicious fruit soup out of its packaging – which is kind of awkward since you’re paying a ton of money for a chunk of metal that does one firm grip’s job.

Just think of the pitches these guys must’ve swindled to pull that one off.

$0 vs. $400-700

So I guess I’m trying to say that there is always more than meets the eye. But instead of becoming better at detecting bullshit, maybe we should try a bit harder to motivate our undertakings with things that will ultimately engender a more honest approach to our sales tactics. I’m talking about what has been a major concern of mine for many years: the notion that companies are just about money. If that is the case (and reason would suggest it often is), then entrepreneurship is just as much about coming up with problems that nobody actually needs solving as it is about providing real solutions to real issues.

Toss that mindset in the bin – only the latter half should be true. 

It might sound naive or wishfully optimistic, but the truth is that solving tangible and meaningful problems can and should be lucrative. Bland and “made up” products shouldn’t. 

I’ll finish off with what I think is behind many of the credibility-crises that get associated with entrepreneurs and startups in particular. There is an unfortunate loophole in the human brain which is easily lulled by a particular form of persuasion. This particular persuasion mechanism is made up of the very same fabric which fuels our imaginations since the days when sitting around a campfire was the only form of Netflix available. And that’s stories.

We have a special place in our hearts for a good story packed with adventure and emotion. We are, in fact, addicted to good stories. Salesmen know this very well. Today, they often take the shape of entrepreneurial narratives, one which compels us to believe. Often that’s a good thing. However, a good storyteller can really direct your attention where they want – and where they don’t. It’s the fickle nature of narration.

At Arcticstartup we’re building a community that is real and motivated by more than just enormous valuation. Our call is for entrepreneurs who have more than just a story. Our call is for real problem-solvers.

Unicorns belong in fairytales anyway.