It’s all an illusion

The Hotel Tonight app (which I adore & use a lot when travelling to big cities) is famous in the startup world for creating a front end and faking their back-end. They started working on their app in September 2010 and submitted it by Christmas with the 3 of them working on it. In such a small space of time, the app looked gorgeous to users but behind the scenes it was them calling the hotels all day. A number of hotels didn’t even know they were on it at the time. Gradually they built the back-end functionality. And the users? They had no idea. It was a genius way of starting their app.

But if you’d compared yourself to them during that starting period, you’d be wondering how on Earth they managed to build a functional, complex app so darn quickly and beautifully. They of course didn’t. But you’d never know.

A fashion startup in New York once hired desks and computers for their rented office and then filled it with actors pretending to be busy staff so their potential big-name clients would perceive them as an up-and-running vibrant & professional business. It worked. They signed their first client. It made no difference to the services they provided of course – but it made a big impression at the time. Had they arrived to the messy bedroom they were running it from, it’s unlikely they would’ve signed.

I know many other startups who have been in accelerators, are part of the tech-scene, look like they run a well oiled marketing machine and yet they’ve barely made any money and are often feeling uncertain of their situation. They do the press rounds, they win awards and any reader would think they’ve built something profitable – but in reality they’re struggling with user signup rates, have no idea of the direction to go in, foresee a hundred future problems, or haven’t even built the product it appears they’ve created.

I’ve worked alongside studios that run multi-million dollar campaigns who write the names of freelancers above their desks so that it appears they have more employees when clients come in. I’ve partnered with agencies who you’d believe have a big team in place but there’s only one person running the whole business.

It’s often an illusion. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s testing a hypothesis or an idea. Sometimes it has real purpose, and other times it’s just part of the scene. Sometimes you don’t mean to do it but the media has spun a story around you. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s all understandable. Humans after all present one angle of themselves all the time – social media is nearly entirely a life lived through a selective filter. It’s merely one chapter of the story. Or it’s a mirage. You can love it or hate it.

The problem arises when we compare our own business, or our life, with the smoke and mirrors we see. That new company might be in the throes of the media spotlight right now (and you’re not whilst working day in day out) – but that doesn’t actually have to mean anything. The startup down the road with the fancy office – they could be losing a lot of money right now.

None of this may matter all that much (you can choose whether it does or not) – it’s just important to bear in mind as we look around us. Too many of us spend our time wondering how on Earth they’re doing X when we’re not even getting Y. A lot of it isn’t real. And some of it is. But we needn’t compare ourselves to the illusion of it.

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