A successful business is defined by relationships, and those relationships are forged because of the reputations of the individuals or entities involved. Your reputation as an individual entrepreneur is the informal start to your official brand identity. Everyone who does not exist in a social vacuum has one. It the perception other people have of you, and the elevated starting position new connections are willing to grant you based on what others have told them about you.
Reputations can either be accurate or completely fabricated. The best ones are forged organically through the real interactions you have with others, so that they are free to form their own positive opinion about your character and abilities. This is a far stronger type of positive impression than any you could create by talking yourself up or fooling others into thinking a certain way about you.
Trust comes in two forms, and both are extremely important. The first type of trust relates to your competency. If someone is going to willingly give you authority to perform a skilled task or advise them in a specialized field of knowledge, they have to believe that you know what you are doing. We all do this many times every day. When you board a plane, you are implicitly agreeing that you trust the pilot to get you to your destination safely, and that you will not attempt to commandeer the aircraft yourself out of fear that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The most knowledgeable and talented people tend to become well-known in their fields. Malcolm Gladwell dubbed these people as mavens in his book, The Tipping Point, and many of them eventually become synonymous with an entire field of knowledge or branch of skilled labor. Michael Jackson was the king of pop. Richard Dawkins is known, somewhat tongue in cheek, as one of the four horsemen of modern atheism (and the acknowledged authority on evolution). David Wolfe is the face of raw food health trends. Do people trust your competency in your chosen field?
The second type of trust has to do with morality. It’s about a person’s willingness to mislead or harm another through the use of physical force or psychological fraud. Entrepreneurs cannot survive if they surround themselves with people who are likely to steal from them or lie about important information. You cannot forge a meaningful relationship with someone who is willing to take what he wants from you against your will, or trick you into doing something against your own best interest.
Just as individuals build a reputation for their competency in a specific domain, they also build one for their moral character. These reputations are built by demonstrating ability and character firsthand, and relying on the testimony of others who have personally witnessed it. When someone else publicly vouches for you, they are intertwining their own reputation with yours. Whenever you fail to live up to the standards of the reputation preceding you, you can also bring down everyone who has ever voluntarily associated with you.
The more developed a business, or a society as a whole, the more important the role of competence and character reputation becomes. You might be the smartest, most talented, most honest, most generous person on the planet – but if no one who matters knows about it, it won’t do you much good in business. Everyone must learn where the line falls between being humble about their own positive attributes, but also not hiding them from the world.
Total morality is the only logical choice for someone who is serious about growing a business and living a meaningful life. An immoral person has the opportunity to improve their life only in the short term. Moral people are incentivized to stay away from them for their own safety. Over a long enough period of time, a natural segregation occurs between those who act honestly and those who intentionally deceive. Those with money have a lot of incentive to not to let any of it fall into the hands of deceitful people. Character analyses and reputation become vital survival skills in this environment.
Ethical people know that there is so much more to be gained by building a reputation as a good person than by being a swindler who will take advantage of others for personal gain. Seek out these righteous people to align yourself with, and they will seek you out as well. If people perceive you can’t be trusted with small responsibilities, they won’t likely give you large responsibilities.
If you are the type of person who is always telling white lies or showing up late everywhere you go, these seemingly innocuous sins may be responsible for cutting you off from opportunities you never even knew you had. Just because no one ever directly approaches you about your minor indiscretions, doesn’t mean they don’t notice and remember. The loss of your reputation is the price you pay for the momentary advantages of lazy or immoral behavior.
In writing and publishing my first book, Brand Identity Breakthrough, I hired a company called Convertport to help me produce the manuscript for this book, and market it to bestseller status on Amazon. When Shola Abidoye, the woman who promised me generous results failed to produce them, she had every opportunity to make restitution simply by admitting error and refunding my money. I even offered to let her donate the full amount of my purchase to a non-profit education group if she felt more comfortable doing that than refunding the money directly to me. Instead, she chose to cut off all contact with me and disavow any obligation to deliver what she had promised.
I could have taken her to small claims court to recover the $5,000 I paid, and potentially even more as a result of the huge delays I faced. Instead, I chose to share my extremely negative experience of working with her publically. Because we shared so many mutual connections, Convertport experienced an enormous drop in their professional reputation. I was contacted by many people shortly afterward who thanked me for bringing Shola’s immoral behavior and professional fraud to light so that they knew not to pursue working with her as they had initially planned.
In the long run, Shola Abidoye undoubtedly lost a lot more than $5,000 in business as a result of the short-term gain from ripping me off. That is a stigma which will now follow her around for the rest of her professional life. To have any sustainable success as an entrepreneur, you must protect the reputation of yourself and your brand at all costs.
Don’t be afraid to adopt morality as an absolute principle in your life. Be honest with the people you know. Go out of your way to be fair and earnest with others, even if it means a momentary lessening of your own circumstances in life. High quality individuals notice this behavior in others, and will respond to it appropriately. They will let you into their lives, and offer you greater opportunities for collaboration.
When you do mess up and wrong another person, the burden falls squarely upon you to reverse the negative effects of your actions. Most people are willing to forgive a first offense if it is minor, and if it is clear that every attempt at restitution is made. Good people generally want to see others evolve into good people too, and they will give you the chance to prove yourself if you appear sincere in your quest to reacquire good moral standing.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to appropriately judge the character of others. Read into body language and speaking style. Learn to detect inconsistencies, intentional vagueness, and outright misdirection. Each of these is a red flag for what could become major issues later on, costing you enormous time and money. Monitor how well they communicate with you on simple matters, including the times they omit important information. Observe how they follow through with promises, or if they take on too much responsibility.
When you can see all human relationships through this filter, you will be ready to start exchanging and collaborating with others who are in a position to give you what you need to get where you want to go. Nobody does it alone.