How much show must there be?

On the one hand, founders practice omnipresence and adept "personal branding", on the other hand, smart ideas fail due to a lack of (self-)sales talent. Our guest author Bettina Engert writes on the question of how much mission consciousness founders need and when self-promotion becomes an end in itself.

The publicity drive of start-up founders has increased dramatically in recent years. In addition to the financing round staged with the greatest possible press impact, podcasts, conferences and the like also offer appropriate space throughout the year to push the founder's ego and, ideally, their own company. Large-scale self-promotion can positively influence brand building, recruiting and, not least, even company valuation at virtually no cost.

Thanks to the classic media, the Founder label is also popular with the general public. For years now, founders have been pitching on prime-time TV and thus experiencing a - at least short-term - growth spurt for their company. In the meantime, well-known start-up faces adorn magazine covers and even make TV commercials for moisturizers. From a certain level of visibility, the book about one's own success - often with a German-English mix of titles - is almost part of good manners in the scene. The branding of the founders is reminiscent of show or football players, their omnipresence makes even politicians jealous.

For some outsiders, the excessive personal branding quickly gives the impression that it is primarily a matter of financial self-interest. The original motivation for founding a start-up, to create something new - and ideally meaningful - for society, or at least jobs, seems to recede into the background. A cult of personality around start-up founders does not only bring applause outside the bubble. As a reflex, sceptics are quick to throw irritating topics such as WeWork, Theranos or Wirecard into the criticism pot.

Thanks to a few omnipresent influencers, a completely new relevance has emerged for the entire industry.

Bettina Engert

Also much criticized is the tendency towards lifestyle founding. Whether it's on a resume, a Tinder profile, or meanwhile on TikTok, "Founder" just looks good in the bio. Although the number of registered startups in Germany is stagnating, the number of startup CEOs on social media seems to be skyrocketing. With a visionary headshot, matching follower count and the corresponding sense of mission, real start-up success often plays only a secondary role here. Looking behind the scenes, post reach and measurable revenue growth tend to behave in inverse proportion for some of the LinkedIn-savvy founders.

But what whiners and enviers often forget: Thanks to a few omnipresent influencers, a whole new relevance and co-design opportunity has emerged for the entire industry in the civil service state of Germany. The demands of founders, start-up associations and digital advisory boards - as bizarre as some of them may be - are not only perceived by the public and politicians, but are now also taken seriously. The promotion of start-ups and their creators are no longer just nice-to-have in the political discussion about Germany's future, but unavoidable. This makes it easier to get over the one or other superfluous podcast content in which founders recapitulate their own path to success in undisturbed self-reflection for the umpteenth time.

In this way, they indirectly help the other type of founders that can be found at relevant universities, in incubators and at DeepTech conferences: The classically introverted nerds - usually alone or in conspiratorial small groups, but always away from the start-up show stage. VC money and classic startup impersonation are frowned upon here. Anything that hasn't been quietly bootstrapped out of its Garching student flatmate for at least five years is suspect, to say the least.

Instead of working on their LinkedIn profiles, these founders prefer to tinker with smart ideas for complex B2B solutions, which often come to nothing due to a lack of customer interest or funding. As a cause for failure despite the brilliance of his/her idea, the nerd then cites not so much his/her own fault, but the lack of tech understanding ("the stupidity") of established companies and potential financiers. But especially in the early phase, due to a lack of sales figures, they invest primarily in the founder's personality. So a certain urge to present oneself would definitely be an advantage here. And what good is the coolest idea if nobody knows about it?

So for nerds who are motivated to found a company, does "strong appearance, strong chances of success" mean that they'd rather use LinkedIn than Twitch? Yep. Even in the world of extroverted self-promoters, the only thing that helps in the long run, besides one's own brilliance and (self-)sales talent, is the viability of the business model. So the fear of a future wave of DeepTech dazzlers is completely unfounded. Here - as everywhere - time at the latest will separate the start-up chaff from the wheat. Until then, a little more show in Germany's tech scene is perfectly acceptable.

Personal details: Bettina Engert built up the mobility provider's communications together with the FlixBus founders and joined Munich-based VC Acton Capital in 2019. She is passionate about promoting young female founders and more diversity in the startup scene.

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