OPINION: I spend a bit of time on LinkedIn, the “Facebook for professionals” and am always interested in the way people portray themselves.

In recent years, LinkedIn has become ground-zero for people going to great lengths to extol their virtues. It seems that LinkedIn is the leading indicator for the new economy where humility and self-deprecation are no-go areas and where frequent, voluminous and gushing self-praise is the theme du jour.

It’s OK to write about imposter syndrome and inadequacy, but only in the context of being super confident and with just the right level of faux-vulnerability.

Of course, LinkedIn is simply an indicator of a far broader trend, and the new economy generally is a hotbed of this sort of approach.

I’ve been thinking about this self-love as it relates to startups and the technology sector inspired by one of New Zealand’s most successful, yet self-effacing investors, Rowan Simpson. Simpson, after making his first fortune as part of the initial TradeMe crew, went on to be an early part in the success of Xero and, even more pivotally, the multi-hundred-million-dollar successes of Vend and Timely.

Simpson tends to rail against the orthodox way of doing things in startup land and has been a vociferous critic of the various Government agencies who fund the plethora of different startup initiatives. In particular, Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise have come in for some opprobrium from him.

Simpson has written at length about what he sees as “startup theatre”, the current trend of hothousing entrepreneurs via a programme of only a few months, at the end of which they pitch to a hopefully enraptured bunch of investors. To paraphrase Simpson, all that an entrepreneur can really gain in a few weeks is a slick patter, a peppering of buzzwords and a catchy descriptor – “we’re Uber, but for organic smoothies” or “We’re like Xero, but for pilates instructors”. You get the drift.

I’ve been thinking about Simpson’s viewpoint recently since the news that Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of failed medical-technology startup Theranos was found guilty of fraud.

For those who haven’t heard the Theranos story, essentially Holmes hoodwinked investors, partners and customers. She did this by leveraging hyper-confidence, a penchant for emulating Silicon Valley hero and Apple-fonder Steve Jobs (even going so far as to deepen her voice a few octaves) and by managing to wrap some high profile people around her finger (think former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; former Defence Secretary William Perry; former senators Sam Nunn and William Frist who all joined her board).

Theranos’ vision was to make blood testing easier – rather than taking large vials of blood, Holmes envisaged a world where all manner of testing could occur, from a few drops of blood taken from a painless finger-prick. And the idea is great, it’s the reality that made Holmes come unstuck. You see the science really doesn’t work and no matter how many buzzwords she used, or flash photoshoots she took part in, she couldn’t change the fundamental laws of chemistry and physics.

Holmes raised billions of dollars, managed to ink partnerships with some of the largest corporations in the US, and strung people on for years before her house of cards fell down entirely. It’s a cautionary tale for the Silicon Valley approach of faking it till you make it.

But as many have pointed out since the news of Holmes’ judgement broke, she only failed because she got caught lying. So many other founders have also grown companies that had a business model that was fundamentally flawed. Uber, for example, has only ever lost money in ever-greater amounts, while WeWork, seemingly simply by taking a very traditional business model and spicing it up by calling it a technology play, was itself valued at tens of billions of dollars and far higher multiples than its direct competitors.

True, WeWork got caught out in the end, but much like Theranos, it was a matter of timing, external economic situations and founder hubris that caused WeWork to falter. And for every WeWork and Theranos, there have been dozens of similarly fictitious companies that have been acquired or IPO’d valued at many billions of dollars. Perception is reality, I guess.

This brings us full circle to our own startup ecosystem here in New Zealand. For years, we’ve been told that Kiwis’ self-effacing and understated approach leaves too much value on the table and that we should talk it up in the style of a Steve Jobs or an Elizabeth Holmes.

Indeed, when some commentators opine critically of locals who stray too much into this Silicon Valley-style, others are quick to bemoan a perceived delight in taking people down and failure to celebrate success.

Actually, I’d just contend it’s the traditional Kiwi trait of letting actions do the talking, of quietly getting stuck in and of building something of stability and robustness over time. While it may not be nearly as exciting as an Uber, a Theranos or a WeWork, it also avoids spectacular flameouts and failures of culture that these models often come with.

I, for one, sincerely hope the current trend towards self and corporate aggrandisement is short-lived, and we revert to a more measured, honest and sustainable model soon.

– Ben Kepes frequently uses LinkedIn but tries hard to do so with humility.

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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