The importance of authenticity when running a startup

When starting out in business, it can be really daunting as you always seem to have a million things to do. Whether you’re bootstrapped or you’re backed, it’s likely that you don’t have all the roles you need to make your life easier.

So, you often assume roles that may not necessarily be your forte.

It’s completely natural that when you put on a new “hat”, you adapt for the job. So, if you have been tasked with doing budget forecasts, then you put on the “CFO” hat and you get diligent with the numbers and perhaps a little frugal and brutal with budgets.

This can be a great skill for many, but it can also be a curse. Some find it difficult fleeting between different roles, and they feel the pressure to “show up” in a certain way. It then causes them to lose a sense of who they really are.

This is even more prevalent in marginalised groups. A study by Deloitte has shown that people “cover” who they really are and most of these will come from those who want to hide their gender, race, religion, disability or socio-economic status.

Stats from Be Yourself At Work show that only 16% of people feel that they can bring their real self to work. Let’s think about that for a moment; only about 1/6 of your entire workforce is really showing up as themselves. So, who are the other 5/6 really?

What even is authenticity?

It’s become a bit of a buzzword of late as all the personal branding gurus are telling you that you need to be more authentic. But if someone is telling you to be a certain way and giving you a formula to do so, isn’t this, by definition, inauthentic?

At the end of the day, authenticity is being true to who you are. It’s standing by your values and acting in a way that makes you proud, rather than pretending to be someone you’re not.

Why authenticity in startups is important


When you’re starting out, one of the most important factors is trust. People don’t know who you are and whether what you’re offering is actually any good.

You need to consistently show up, deliver quality results, and do as you say you’re going to do. That’s the only way to build trust.

However, if you show up in a way that is inauthentic and then get found out later, the trust will be completely broken and your brand will be in a negative light, which will be difficult to recover from.

Attracting talent

It’s notoriously hard to attract great talent when building a startup as you don’t have that brand recognition of established companies. However, people are much more interested in working for companies with a purpose, led by people who are transparent and authentic.

Even if you cannot match the salary of one of the giants in your space, if you offer a workplace where everyone can feel comfortable being the real them, that’s worth a lot more to many people.

Attracting investors

If you’re looking for investment, then you will know that investors invest in people, rather than the businesses. You need to show them who you really are and that you’re worth investing in.

You cannot do that by showing up as the person you think they want to see – they see through this stuff as they’ve seen it all before.

They look for real people, with something different to offer. This is how they stand out in the marketplace.

Mental health

Masking is exhausting. You’re consistently putting on a persona and using up all your energy to be this person you’re not.

Plus, deep down inside, you know that it’s not right and the “real you” often just wants to come out.

For your own mental health, being true to who you are is the best thing that you can do. It’s also the easiest, once you can overcome your fears and understand how.

How do I be more authentic?

Be Yourself At Work found that only 24% of us actually know who we really are. So, if you’re in this boat, you certainly are not alone.

It all comes down to your personal values – what is most important to you, really? Your startup’s values should also align with these.

For example, if you really care about making a difference in the world and you want to be impactful to other people’s lives, then you probably want to work for or build a startup that has a similar mission. If the startup just wants to make as much money as possible, no matter what it takes, you will certainly have very different ways of doing things.

Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck has a great article on using your values to help you find who you really are.

Surrounding yourself with people who align with your values is the best way for you to feel more comfortable being your authentic self. Don’t be afraid to cut out other people from your network if they don’t align with your mission/purpose. It might sound brutal, but it’s for your own comfort.

Startups often have difficulties defining their values as they come into a marketplace and look at their competitors and copy them. But if you do this, then you’re not going to stand out. You’re just going to be another company a few years behind them.

Think about what really matters in your startup and ask your team why they work there. The words that are used will usually give you an indication as to what your true culture is, and this will help you define your values.

And this is one of the key reasons that I picked up the ‘hat’ of curator and organiser of the local TEDx Shoreditch edition. I wanted to run an event that allows founders and entrepreneurs to express their true passion, be true to who they are, and share those experiences with their peers.