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Case studies in the wisdom of fake it ‘til you make it

We’ve all been told “Fake it ‘til you make it” when we’re feeling unsure of ourselves.



“Fake it ’til you make it” is a business strategy many people live by and some successful entrepreneurs attribute their flourishing businesses to this phrase. But it can also go very very wrong. Cue bug-eyed photo of a turtle-necked Elizabeth Holmes.

In the recent HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about Elizabeth Holmes and her $700 million scam of a healthcare/tech company, Theranos, all of her chicanery and fraud came to light. Theranos’ 15 year run is an extreme example of when the “fake it” mentality turns into sheer chaos and villainy.

How does a company like Shazam, born from an idea without any technology to back it up, end up disrupting an industry and selling for a fortune to Apple, while Theranos, built on the same concept of an incredible idea with no technology to enact it, crumbles?

Everybody fears faking it will get them into a situation they’re not qualified for or adept to handle, like Holmes. But if we examine the traits of Shazam’s co-founder Chris Barton against Elizabeth Holmes, the mind behind Theranos, it becomes clear when and how you should “fake it” if you really want to make it.

Noble beginnings

Both entrepreneurs started with an idea so inventive there was no technology even close to turning that idea into a reality. Barton wanted to identify music through a flip-phone in a noisy bar environment. Unfortunately, it was 1999, the iPhone and mobile apps hadn’t been invented yet, there was no music identifying software in existence, and no such thing as a comprehensive music database.

Holmes wanted to create a miniature, automated blood-testing machine that could use a pinprick of blood to complete hundreds of tests in minutes. They were both told time and again their visions were impossible, but all great entrepreneurs know the bold idea is just a starting point.

They saw their products changing the world in big ways, but knew their ideas were not attainable…yet.

“Faking it ’til you make it” is a business strategy entrepreneurs use, but it can also turn sour. (Source)

Where things derailed

Both entrepreneurs worked hard at actualizing their ideas, but went about it in very different ways. Barton knew he didn’t have the knowledge or skills to make his product, so he turned to the experts. He went to the greatest minds in the field of sound research and pleaded with them to try to create Shazam.

Venture capitalists turned him down many times, but he kept trying. He wasn’t sure this technology could ever be made, but he kept working on the idea as if it could be done until his ardent optimism was embodied by the scientist who made it happen.

Holmes came at it from a different angle. Because she was a Stanford Engineering student, she believed she could create her product, despite professors’ and industry professionals’ belief that it was impossible.

Creating this revolutionary technology transformed into a mission to prove her own worth. She took on a completely different persona, mirroring Steve Job’s attire and look, and even lowering her voice to give her a sense of control.

She wanted Theranos’ success to make her the smartest, youngest tech genius in the industry. So, she decided to fake it, charming  investors and interviewers alike, overstating test results and making deals with companies to do medical testing before there was even a proven device or process.

Her pride wouldn’t allow her to listen to experts or even seek help outside her inner circle who knew the truth about the failed blood-testing technology. Even when tests results were wildly inaccurate using her invention, she refused to admit defeat. Instead, she deceived companies by using standard blood testing equipment to give more accurate results and pretended her invention was responsible.

Lessons learned

Faking it means you work harder to get where you need to be. It does not mean you lie to become what you are not.

Entrepreneurship is not about your ego, it’s about following a passion or purpose. As soon as you lose your vision and let pride run the show you’re company will fail.

Any idea big enough to change the world must be bigger than oneself. Surround yourself with people that compliment you and offer what you cannot.

We all have to fake it sometimes, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re not sacrificing who you really are.

DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation for writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.

Jessica Welch is the Marketing Content Associate at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau. She graduated with a degree in English, minor in Anthropology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her studies at Cal Poly were focused on Creative Writing and Cultural Anthropology. Jessica enjoys partnering with BigSpeak's roster of exclusive speakers to create original content that spreads their unique messages.