Elon Musk to disrupt the Clown­mask Industry

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“The clown mask business is ripe for disruption. This little known billion dollar industry will be the target of my next venture. Watch me!”, Elon Musk tweeted to millions of astonished followers.

Some asked questions, others retweeted, and several offered money. Within hours, Musk had an inbox replete with million dollar pledges and declarations of interest from high net worth individuals, institutional investors, and well­heeled fans.

So, the clown­mask business has little to do with Tesla. Or in fact with any other venture Musk is or has been involved with. Nobody who sent Musk an offer to bankroll this latest idea had a clue about the global clown mask industry, or what exactly it was that Musk intended to disrupt in it.

Then how is it possible that, like in the (obviously fictitious) story above, people with seemingly bright money throw it after a fluke by some successful entrepreneur?

The reason is what we call Entrepreneur Traction. Prospective investors may know nothing about the business at hand, zero about the competitive edge that is being brought to the table, but know a ton about the entrepreneur behind the venture.

Elon Musk is a man with definite Entrepreneur Traction, one of those rare people who have the reputation of turning very unlikely ideas into amazing success stories. If this Silicon Valley guru can put the fear of god into the likes of BMW, surely he can take on the clown mask business too.

The thing is, what if you are not Elon Musk?

Regardless of who you are, as a startup executive you need to build traction at three levels: at the product level, validating value propositions and business models (‘this thing is like crack’); at the venture level, showing that the business itself has traction (‘this startup is the hot s*it’); and at the entrepreneur level (‘these guys are the dream team’).

Clearly, the three types of traction reinforce one another. But while startups per se don’t necessarily require much Entrepreneur Traction, the entrepreneur definitely does. And the entrepreneur having it, in turn helps their startup.

If you look at the support infrastructures that exist out there for startups, pitch events and startup awards can be a good way to give your startup an engine for Venture Traction. In younger ecosystems, competitions can be a way to get press coverage too, which sometimes can result in Product Traction. But primarily pitches and awards are visibility devices. You still need to build a campaign around them to harvest the momentum, and so the whole thing also needs a rationale of its own in terms of what it’s doing for your business and how it will deliver.

If awards are mostly about gearing for Venture Traction, accelerators or incubators have become a viable route to both Venture Traction and Product Traction. The mentorship, (sometimes) cash, and networks of the accelerator/incubator support startups in developing the product. And the events (e.g., demo day) and brand of some accelerators have become an important and in some cases vital ingredient in building Venture Traction. In any event, it’s always a good thing to have something to talk about, which joining an accelerator gives you.

However, many accelerators have become a bit rigid and process­driven, operating somewhat like assembly lines. Often the quality of the content is not all that. Sometimes you’ll get mentors who have not spent a day outside the building or who are just not entrepreneurial human beings. There’s a huge variety of programmes out there, and so finding the right fit and applying takes time. You should also consider that most accelerators/incubators fail to seriously support their startups in building Entrepreneur Traction.

Now despite startups having more support than ever, the fact of life is that most still fail. So no matter how much product or venture traction you build, if your business fails, like most do, you will be left having to build a future from the cinders of your past glories. You’ll be able to (hopefully) show some uptake you acquired, and maybe even that news piece from the Nomansland Herald Tribune that mentioned your business. But very quickly you will be left to open your pitch on the lines of: ‘In a previous life, when ringback tones were a hot opportunity, we attempted to…’ ­ and it will sound dated and a little academic. Somebody might also put up their hand and ask, ‘Sorry, what is a ringback tone?’

This is why entrepreneurs should always be busy selling themselves as much as whatever they’re peddling at a particular moment in time. You will survive your venture (hopefully), no matter what the outcome is in terms of its success. But if all your credibility is wrapped up in the story of your business, and that business fails, then you are left with little. That hot accelerator might not be so hot anymore by the time you need to talk about it. Or your product might have faded into obscurity. All that remains is you and your learnings, and how you market what you know.

So aside from building your business, the question you can’t afford to ignore is: How can I up my Entrepreneur Traction?

Like with your product, it’s a matter of iterating your way toward this and figuring out what type of self-­promotion works best for your skills, style, and personality. What resources in your ecosystem could you mobilize for the effort? Who is organising the next TEDx? How can you get a news piece that heavily features you personally? And most importantly, how does the specific experience of your startup, which will one day be dated, substantiate those timeless lessons that you can bring to any situation? What is your story?

The mantra goes, ‘To be successful, you need to be the best at what you do’. When you’re running a startup, it’s not just about having the best startup in your category or industry. It’s also about being the best at entrepreneuring, and about getting recognition for that in itself. Because aside from solving whatever burning problem your startup was created to address, startup founders and early joiners are primarily one thing: entrepreneurs. And once the music subsides or you get up to go to the next party, that’s all your business card will say.

Authors:

Oliver Gyr and Daniel Ospina