Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to help a number of young entrepreneurs on their journey. This has taken a variety of forms. I’ve being involved with the excellent Young Enterprise Scheme, which aims to give high school students a first taste of entrepreneurship. I’ve also mentored at startup weekends and incubator programmes which focus on giving people with an idea the building blocks to see their idea progress to something more real.

One thing that all of these different initiatives have is a focus on the pitch. This is something that well-known figure in the tech ecosystem in New Zealand, Rowan Simpson, has opined about often. Simpson, a veteran of no less than four exemplars of startup success – TradeMe, Xero, Vend and Timely – calls these events startup theatre. As he puts it, these events are flawed because:

The patterns promoted at these events are barely applicable to the reality of early-stage start-ups and the things they need to do in order to move into high-growth mode. It’s like watching Survivor and thinking we’ve learned the techniques required to survive in the actual wilderness (it’s all about alliances and winning the immunity idols, right?) There is very little of the hard grind of building an actual start-up. Because, these events are designed to be quick fun. And, most of the time, the grind is neither quick nor fun.

Notwithstanding the utility or otherwise of these pitch-centric events, one thing I have noticed is that the outcomes that entrepreneurs see are highly correlated to how smooth their pitch is. Or, to put it another way, confident pitching is a self-fulfilling promise where salespersonship is the best predictor of a pitch being well received. Confidence in the presenter engenders confidence in the audience and judges and so on and so on.

Startup theatre, and the acting skills of the thespians who partake in it, is a notion I was reminded of recently when I saw a post from Kiwi tech veteran Shona Grundy. It’s a topic that extends beyond pitching a startup but in fact has relevance to anyone stepping up and presenting. In her post, Grundy talked of her own experience of imposter syndrome. She also talked about things she had discovered when researching imposter syndrome. In particular, Grundy told of her findings that fully 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome at least once within their professional life and that it does not discriminate between gender and we are all equally susceptible;

I replied to the post supporting the assessment that Imposter Syndrome is not gender-specific. As I wrote:

This isn’t a gender thing in any way. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve felt imposter syndrome and been close to checking out of whatever opportunity because of it.

But, as is often the case when I find myself replying off the cuff, I started thinking about this a little more deeply. While everyone might be equally susceptible to the feelings of imposter syndrome, the external aspects that can make the impacts greater or lesser are far less evenly distributed. As I continued in my reply:

I’m mindful, however, that as a white male, I probably have less external limiting factors that amplify that imposter syndrome. To put it another way, I might feel a fraud being part of a big corporate board, for example, but society probably looks at me (white, middle aged, male) and assumes that I fit.

I have certainly felt like a fish out of water many, many times over my working life. But, due to the fact that I come from a demographic that the world generally sees as capable (white, middle-aged and male) the situation I was in, and the demographics of the people I was in front of, did everything to lessen the impacts of those feelings.

So I agree that imposter syndrome happens to us all, but I suspect that women and people from different ethnic backgrounds have that feeling amplified by external factors. And that’s why we need to think about facilitating conversations with those who are less represented – not because they’re weak and need us molly-coddling them, but because the world, in general, tells them they’re less able. Food for thought.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He thinks about Imposter Syndrome quite a bit.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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