Fake It 'Til You Make It: How Far Is Too Far?


Earlier in the week, a friend forwarded me a resume of a colleague with some ambiguous claims linking his business to myself and another well-known entrepreneur. Smartly, he hadn’t lied; he had merely presented the facts in a positive light allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. My wife took umbrage to his audacity, whereas I was neither surprised nor particularly perturbed. My first thought was: Good on him for having a go.

Maybe it was because I recalled myself as a similarly young entrepreneur with nothing to lose and everything to gain. In fact, whenever I’m asked if there is anything in my business that I would have done differently with hindsight, my standard response is: I would have had more front. The enduring example is our infamous “Hollywood Set”.

Within months of opening our marketing business, yet without a client, we secured the opportunity to pitch to one of the major Australian banks. After a well-received presentation in their office, they indicated we could have their business but first they wanted to check out our operation. We had 18 hours to miraculously convert our exhausted, disheveled office into something that could even remotely back up our loose-lipped assertion of “state of the art”.

We needed a makeover...fast!

A plan that has since been dubbed “Operation Hollywood Set” was swung into action. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity for our two-bit company to achieve a major bank as a client, so we decided to roll the dice and spend every last remaining dollar to hire all the furniture and technology we needed to look huge. We’d either get rich, or go broke.

Delegating the tasks, we sent someone to buy second-hand computer monitors for all the desks. This way we’d at least look like we had a technology enabled business, albeit we hoped they wouldn’t notice there were no hard drives attached. Someone else started hiring enough temporary staff to create the buzzing atmosphere of a thriving business. Next, we had to make the place look less drab and dingy. Someone was assigned to hire plants and paintings to take the bank team’s eyes away from the holes in the carpet and the tangle of cables dangling down everywhere. Our masterstroke was commandeering the vacant office next door and turning it into “our boardroom”. A huge, shiny new mahogany-coloured table and plush black leather chairs were ordered for the day and my grandfather’s battered old dining table was relegated to the scrap heap.

The next day, our adrenalin levels were off the charts. You could smell the electric excitement in the air. Van after van after van arrived to deliver our props and we felt like the directors of a blockbuster movie about to start filming. With our set ready and our extras in place, all we needed now were the stars – the team from Westpac.

Welcoming them into our “call centre”, the illusion looked perfect. And with the confidence it gave us, we secured the deal. It took us a few years to fess up to our client that we had conducted “Operation Hollywood Set” in their honour. He responded without surprise: “I figured as much because the next time I turned up to your office the cool furniture had disappeared!”

Yet, putting our best foot forward had worked for both of us. We helped Westpac build a significant client segment over a decade and they morphed into a twenty-million-dollar-a-year client for us.

In business, it’s times like these – when you back yourself and gamble everything on one roll of the dice – that become your fondest memories. Yes, we used a hell of a lot of front to win a client, but we had complete confidence in our ability to deliver a fantastic job providing they didn’t judge us merely on our looks.

Now with more grey hair than youthful enthusiasm, I think the key to “faking it until you make it” is much more than staying within the lines of the law. There is a moral code in business that must be obeyed so that you can build a brand and culture that has lasting integrity. For me, the key is to satisfy the self-mirror test. If you are confronted with an opportunity to express some overzealous front, first look yourself in the mirror and only proceed if you can be sure that you will have respect for the person who looks back at you now, as well as in the future.

Am I being too lenient on those who sell themselves or is business a game of front? I would love to hear your thoughts and any similarly audacious stories you have experienced in business.

Photo courtesy of Fotolia.

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