If I called someone about you, what would they say?

By Grant Deken June 10th, 2019

Phone call
A few weeks ago I wrote about eight lessons I learned from spending five years building and selling a company. Over the last month another lesson recently appeared right in plain sight. It's one most of us probably already know subconsciously, yet don't give enough pause to consider its implications.

It's your reputation (or in today's hip terms, personal brand). It's easy to forget in the day to day that business is not about a specific job, a specific deal, a career move, etc. Business is about your reputation and the key choices you make over a period of 30 to 40 years. These choices impact others' willingness to work with you, help you, and support and nurture you, and they can have compounding positive or negative effects.

Since moving to Boston in 2011, I've lived in four different places, held four different jobs, worked really closely with 20-ish people and crossed paths with hundreds. While my companies, titles, and teams changed over time, my network and reputation stayed with me. I saw this play out in front of me the other day.

"If I called one of your investors right now, what would they say about you?"

I am currently out raising a round of capital for Unstack (plug: we are building next gen martech infrastructure for SaaS and eCommerce businesses - check it out here). I met with a VC who I did not know, but who knew many of the people who invested in my previous company. Toward the end of our meeting he casually slipped in one last question. "If I called one of your investors right now, what would they say about you," he asked.

My answer was some combination of "uh" and "hmm" with a jumbled attempt at a humble brag. The question itself is what stayed with me long after the meeting ended. There was a sudden reminder, perhaps because of the tangibility of it all, that my personal relationships not only mattered, they were suddenly directly impacting new relationships and others' perception of me.

Terrible advice from a B-school professor

A friend of mine was taking a negotiation class in business school. To capstone the course, each student was assigned a hypothetical role which they then needed to play in a negotiation simulation, which counted for a non-trivial part of your semester end grade.

In the end, the guy who won lied about his role and the constraints in order to leverage a better position and win the class simulation. When his lies were revealed, his classmates were furious but the professor held firm that he had won the exercise. My friend lamented about the short-sightedness of it all and that no one in her class would ever do business with that guy again. She could not have been more right. Don't play for the short money. Play for the long term, and avoid professors who live in simulated realities...

Tides are ever changing

The truth is none of us know where things are going to end up, but we do have control over the decisions we make and the way we treat others. What might feel like the easy choice in a moment may be the wrong choice when you zoom out and look at things long term. How you leave a job, how you negotiate a deal, how you work with others, it all adds up to stack for or against you.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently. - Warren Buffet

The reputational formula is stacked against you. Warren Buffet got it right when he said it takes 20 years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it. The screw ups are weighed much heavier than when we get it right, reinforcing the need to constantly be thinking about how we do business and treat each other, both personally and professionally.

No one is perfect. I've screwed it up more times than I can count. But I'm trying to do better. There will always be things out of your control, but it's how you navigate a tough situation that people judge, not the situation itself.

The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. -- Epictetus

So, if I called someone about you, what would they say?