Are Your “Tells” Preventing You From Raising Capital?

A while back I was working on an 8-person sell-side trading desk. Seven of us wore Rolexes. Well, not really “us” – at that time I was wearing one of the Timex running watches – my time piece of choice ever since the strap on my Casio Calculator watch broke in high school.

After the ridicule over my choice in plastic jewelry finally subsided (can’t imagine what it would have been like had I still been wearing that Casio), they set about trying to convince me why I needed to swap “that piece of junk” for the watch of kings.

I was pretty attached to my Timex Ironman – but no harm in hearing them out. After all, I’m an open-minded guy. I can be cultured. I’ll eat ‘petit’ food when in a French restaurant. Why shouldn’t I wear a Rolex at work? Besides, it’s not like I really needed a stopwatch with a 100-lap memory and a countdown timer while sitting at a desk all day.

Despite their arguments about the engineering and craftsmanship, and assertions that, “nothing make a statement quite like a Rolex,” it turns out I actually couldn’t be cultured. Craftsmanship and status just don’t do much for me – and my colleagues apparently didn’t appreciate the practicality of having 7 alarms strapped to your wrist.

But the real takeaway is that being a “Rolex-person” or a “Timex-person” isn’t just a reflection of our taste in watches, it’s a reflection of our values. And that goes for pretty much everything. As Seth Godin explains so perfectly with his mustard analogy, it’s not just about the products we choose, it’s also about perception and “the narrative” created when we choose those products.

Conscientiously or not, we are always sending signals that collectively shape an overall story about ourselves. It’s not about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ values – but congruity of signals. The more cohesive these signals, the more impactful the message. Some signals provide very easy “tells” - like a brand of watch to wear or water we drink, or even just how a sentence is spoken (I’m pretty sure that those who “summer at the cottage” are fundamentally different than those that, “go down the shore”). But many others – like how one appears in a Google search – are not. And unfortunately, many in our industry are woefully ignorant to this resulting in jumbled signals and a confusing narrative for themselves.

For instance, take your typical hedge fund or PE fund office. In New York, most are very well-furnished and located above 40th Street between 3rd and 7th. Makes sense – it needs to be convenient enough for a prospective investor to ‘trip over’ when in town, and appealing enough to paint the ‘right’ picture of the fund. But if convenience and image are so important, why do so few of these same managers spend a similar amount of time and energy in constructing their online presence? It’s almost self-sabotage because the messages being sent often completely contradict one another. It’s also illogical – after all, which is an investor likely to do first – visit your website, or visit your office? Hence, the picture that you don’t want to paint of ‘you’ is nearly always on display well before the ‘you’ that you do want people to know.

As another example - think about the investment process. Most managers take enormous pride in discussing the level of sophistication that goes into their strategy and process. They will go to great lengths to highlight the technology infrastructure and the efforts taken to mine and filter data, or apply AI. They create an image of a firm comprised of progressive forward-thinkers. But when this is contrasted with how they approach their marketing – the tools used to actually shape perception – a totally different image emerges. Nothing says “old school” quite like a tired old 30-page PDF, a long-winded email, and a cold call.

Look – being a “forward-thinker” is either in your DNA or it’s not. And when it comes to building and promoting your business, at minimum it requires digital tools, non-conforming language and original design. You want to influence people’s perceptions, “show” matters just as much as “tell.” But cohesiveness matters most of all.

It’s time for this industry to be deliberate in owning the story that they are telling. In a digital world, you’re leaving clues as to who you are all over the place. But it’s your choice as to what clues people see. It doesn’t matter if you are a “Rolex-person,” or a “Timex-person” – just be “that” with consistency. As Seth Godin says, “Being in sync is a choice.”

By JD David

September 2019JD David