When I founded my company a decade-and-a-half ago, I didn’t think much about what kind of culture I wanted for my company. I was in my 20s and extremely driven, with a passion for transforming the way brands get to know their customers.
I was also lucky to attract other young, driven, passionate people to the company. We worked hard together, we played hard and we watched as a culture of authentic youthful passion grew organically, as a result.
But maintaining the unified sense of purpose that gives rise to a culture of authenticity becomes more complicated as a company gets bigger. As Vision Critical grew, I faced the dilemma every successful startup eventually faces: how to remain authentic while growing up.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve learned that you don’t have to be small to be authentic. You do need to know what you stand for, understand who your customers are and what your brand means to them and keep that knowledge at the center of every interaction between customers and your brand.
As Robert Burgelman of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has said, “Strategy without culture is powerless, and culture without strategy is aimless.” In other words, these days, a culture of authenticity is essential for any business. When brands are small, the authenticity that customers crave comes easily, which helps explain why smaller brands have lately seen a boost: According to The Catalina Group, 90 of the top 100 consumer brands actually lost category share last year.
So, while staying authentic at scale can be a challenge, it’s far from impossible.
Here are a few of the guiding principles I use to keep my company authentic.
1. Embrace fear.
My mom had a saying when I was growing up: “Feel the fear, and do it anyway.” It was useful advice for taking my first leap off the high dive at the pool, and no less useful in running a company.
Being an authentic company can be scary. It means being open and transparent with your customers, admitting to your failures and confronting your limitations. It means asking them for help when you need it and asking them for the answer when you don’t have it.
It also means being comfortable with how your leadership style extends through the business, for good and for bad. Authenticity requires a leap of faith that your customers will accept you for who you are. That’s a natural cause for fear. Feel the fear. Do it anyway.
2. Reject 'faking it.'
The great thing about authenticity is that you can’t fake it. No matter how hard a brand tries to simulate authenticity, eventually today’s customers will spot a fake and won’t like what they see.
Commit to being truly authentic in every sense, not just cultivating the illusion. Any illusion is bound to eventually fail. Besides, customers so infrequently encounter true authenticity from big brands that they’ll reward you for being real, warts and all.
Cultivate authenticity in the relationship by being frank about who you are and conveying your serious interest in knowing who your customers are, what motivates them and why.
3. Be weird.
Let your freak flag fly. Everyone is unique, and that’s a good thing. The diversity of skills, perspectives and styles in a large organization should be seen as a strength, not a weakness. Not only is conformity boring, it can also be deadly. Stifling the individuality of the people in your organization leads to inauthentic culture, which inevitably makes its way into the brand-customer relationship and drives customers away.
Instead, embrace the risk of letting your people be their authentic selves. Not only will they feel more at home in a healthier company culture, but your customers too will be grateful to be dealing with a company that respects the authentic individuality of each person.
4. Have swagger.
Every authentic company has a certain amount of swagger, which is the opposite of bluster. Swagger doesn’t come from feeding the ego and puffing your chest. It comes from being in tune with who you are, knowing your customers and understanding the dynamics of the market you’re operating in.
Having swagger means moving forward with confidence because you’ve created a strong culture of authenticity built on unrelenting honesty with yourself and your customers. You don’t have to fear an “Emperor has no clothes” moment because you know you haven’t deluded yourself.
In the end, authenticity is about being true to yourself and recommitting every day to being the company your customers need you to be. It’s not for nothing that “stay true to yourself” is one of the most commonly offered catchphrases around.
Authenticity is the best recipe for long-term success in life, and business too. The key is knowing yourself and knowing your customers, and remaining true to both.