Authenticity Dammit

Josh Felser
on startups
Published in
4 min readNov 3, 2015

Dear Founders,

There is a race among companies and social networkers to display ever-increasing transparency to all audiences. The confusion between transparency and authenticity is starting to give the latter a bad name and that’s a damn shame.

The origin of authenticity. It’s likely that Descartes was the first to introduce the expression and he believed we should allow our “moral, inner voices” to guide us to behave responsibly. Rousseau went a little further by adding that authenticity is a “voice of nature within us”. Herder believed that creativity, authenticity, and originality are measures of our very existence. Our authentic identity is based on our life experiences and how we interpret them. 1

Authenticity vs Transparency. But it’s still confusing so let’s use some simple, contrasting definitions.

Authenticity is about how you share.
Transparency is about what you share.

Authenticity is about context
Transparency is about content

Authenticity is about sharing genuinely.
Transparency is about sharing everything

Authenticity is about being true to yourself
Transparency is about being true to the facts

Authenticity shouldn’t change: always be constant
Transparency breadth should change depending on audience

There are good reasons to care about being authentic.

  • Builds trust: with employees, prospective employees & basically everyone
  • Makes you more approachable and inspires others to be more open
  • Attracts prospective employees to your company
  • Builds your status as an expert
  • Implies that your company culture values integrity
  • Most importantly, gives you the peace of mind that can only come from being true to yourself.
  • And is even being studied as a behavioral cure for major depressive disorder 2

Keeping it real in fundraising. Today, I met with a first time CEO who also happens to be a friend. I asked him how he incorporates authenticity into his work life. He said “funny you should ask”. Since he is raising his first round in his first startup, he was anxious about the process. He decided to channel this nervousness into being open about his fears and his excitement, about what he knows and doesn’t know and where he needs help the most. This decision made him more confident and totally disarmed investors. They couldn’t “catch” him in a mistake or exaggeration because the founder was transparent with a POV. He didn’t overshare every detail but rather the right amount of information in a format and style that was true to himself.

Keeping it real inspires loyalty. I co-founded two companies: Spinner and Grouper/Crackle. I was always overly optimistic about Spinner with our employees and as luck would have it Spinner always delivered. It was a rocketship of goodness all the way to its acquisition in 1999. Grouper had a very different arc. I began my CEO role with the same fearless tone but soon I started to feel like a fraud as the company wasn’t growing the way I had predicted. I decided to be more open about my growing anxiety re: our strategy and the changing environment. This doesn’t mean I shared every detail about our board meetings or employee reviews but rather by being vulnerable as the CEO, it allowed our culture to become one of openness and empathy. We pivoted to a different product and tech stack. Instead of force-feeding the transition, we engaged in a direct, honest conversation about the new direction. Everyone felt like it was our collective decision and not a single person quit. Our culture of authenticity united us all.

Authenticity inspires honesty. “Authenticity enables people in a company to know they can talk to you irrespective of your status. I think some CEOs in large companies don’t like this, because they don’t really want to hear from their people, but I think authenticity is integral to ensuring people speak the truth. They don’t feel like they can be honest with the CEO if the CEO feels distant from them and inauthentic people feel very far away from us.” @dickc

I try mightily to show the real me and I have found that my greatest challenges are 1) getting in touch with how I truly feel and 2) overcoming my fear of being vulnerable. It’s still a work-in-process but the encouragement from my family, friends and colleagues and the impact I have already seen on my life keep me relentlessly driving toward an even more authentic future.

I was struck by so many posts and quotes on authenticity as I searched to educate myself: Ivan Walsh, Chris Wren, Michael Mortin, Buffer, Bernard Williams, Charles Guignon, Tiffany Marra and Judy Garland are just some of them. I would love to hear more from any of you that have an experience to share that demonstrates the good (or even some warnings) about being authentic.

“Authenticity consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror or hate.” Jean Paul Sartre



Josh Felser
on startups

Seed investor/serial entrepreneur. Co-founded: Freestyle (Early stage VC), Spinner (sold to AOL), Grouper/Crackle (sold to Sony)