The Limits of ‘Fake It Till You Make It’

The line between whatever-it-takes and lying is finer than we like to believe.

Bloomberg is reporting today that venture-funded mayonnaise brand Just Mayo may have gone to extraordinary and unethical lengths to demonstrate growth to its investors and buyers, including buying up its own product off the shelves of product retailers.

My first reaction was “Who knew there was venture funded mayonnaise?”

My second was “Man, what assholes those guys are.”

My third was “I get how they got there.”

I’m a marketer, and an entrepreneur. I make a living bringing new things into the world — ideas, products, businesses — that didn’t exist before. Doing that requires certain skills… to synthesize inputs, clarify vision, and communicate effectively. But more than those it requires the sheer force of will that is only enabled by unreasoned conviction you are right, by a certain kind of belief that drives good entrepreneurs right up to the line of deception, and sometimes past it into fraud.

A brief story illustrates… When we were trying to get a business called m-Qube off the ground in 2002, we quickly figured out we needed the support of the major wireless carriers to win. Our vision was for a mobile marketing platform, a way for brands to leverage the still nascent technology of SMS messaging to communicate with customers and prospects. The problem was it was 2002, and text messaging hadn’t yet taken off in the US. As Jeff Glass later put it, “We were the 800 lb. gorilla in a non-existent industry.”

We knew the carriers wanted our thesis to be true, though, and set out to convince them of what they already wanted to believe… that they could enlist the help of major brands in helping turn SMS into a phenomenon here, just as it had become in Europe.

In September of 2002 we had the idea of creating a pilot program for the category we were trying to create, to demonstrate the power of the “mobile coupon.” We enlisted the help of the local Cingular Wireless team, and set off in search of a retail partner willing to participate. When all the retailers said no, we found a local mall operator willing to support the trial, and we were off.

The campaign was a nightmare. Back then no one knew what text messaging was, let alone how to use it. We screwed up the call to action and the offers, and basically spent 3 weeks in a food court teaching people how to send and receive text messages on phones like this one.

However humble the reality, though, the carriers loved the concept. So did the media, who reported heavily on the story, and put us on the map. A few months later we had our first carrier deal. Four years later — having pivoted twice — we sold that company to Verisign for $300 million. Today my name appears on the patent for mobile couponing, despite the fact the program I led to demonstrate its potential was an abject failure.

The vast majority of startups successful at introducing something new to the world have a story just like this one.

It’s a story of willing something into the world by brute force, whether or not it was really there to begin with. There is no creation without will, in art, business, or politics. And there is no will without belief, first and foremost among people willing to take action and able to do so effectively.

Is this deception? Does it cross an ethical boundary, even if the intent is pure? We never set out to deceive the carriers or anyone else with what we did at the CambridgeSide Galleria back in 2002. You could argue the difference is in the disclosure, that the mayonnaise guys didn’t reveal they were emptying store shelves of their own product to investors who were trying to gage their market momentum. But we never told the carriers the vast majority of people didn’t know SMS existed, let alone how to use it. We just told them some did, which was true, even if they needed “a little help” to get there. Then we let the carriers fill in the blanks with their own fears and desires. And they did.

I want to be clear here… What the mayonnaise guys are accused of doing — if they actually did it — crosses over from packaging to fraud. It constitutes a willful deception, not just an unnatural act required to will something new into being, which is what we did at m-Qube.

Rather than just condemn them and move on, though, every entrepreneur should take the opportunity to reflect on the difference, to think about the lines they’re willing to cross.

People in my line of work know creating momentum often requires creating the perception of momentum first. Doing so is all well and good, right up to the point where it’s not.

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