17.10.2018 Feature Article

"Dress for Success" is still good advice, particularly for startup entrepreneurs

LISTEN OCT 17, 2018

Before I exited corporate (whatever that means) to start my entrepreneurial journey, wearing suit jacket and tie was regular sartorial code. It was a requirement. In fact, part of my job as an operations manager with my last employer (a bank) many years ago, was to ensure my team complied with a broad range of policies, which included Dress and Appearance Policy. The gentlemen had to wear blue or white shirt, with a descent tie (nothing fanciful). No unkempt beard (well shaved was better, but not required), no sandals too. For the ladies, the prohibitions included length of skirt and some few make-up issues (if I recall correctly). And of course it helped when clothing or “allowa” (subsidy) for clothing was provided to enable staff comply. So why do big companies take appearance very seriously? Well for one thing, the literature on personal psychology is clear: sensual perceptions, by and large, form the basis of social interactions. When people adjudge you to be descent, and courteous, and polite, they form preconceptions of competence, even character strength, until proven otherwise at least. From the customer’s perspective, trust is credited (without rigorous due diligence) to an organizational member that appears to be trustworthy. Of course the company brand also matters in fostering that trust, but at the point of consumer interaction, how one looks, speaks and conducts himself/herself is the critical factor. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Trite knowledge, everyone knows this. So here is the big question: AND SO WHAT? Why is this important?

Here is Why
One of the things that got me excited about being an entrepreneur was the opportunity to work for myself; that meant; I wake from sleep at a time that was convenient, start work when I wanted, dress up the way I wanted, return phone calls whenever I wanted…do you get the picture? Well, suffice to say within the last 11 years I have started and exited 4 business. Let me say that in English. I have started 4 business that did seen the light of day – didn’t get anywhere near profitability. I failed, woefully. Two of them were founded on sound ideas, I must say. The timing was right, but the execution was weak. So why did those businesses fail? And what’s that got to do with dressing up for success? Here is the quintessence of lessons I have learnt from managing failed startups and from financing (this is what I do now!) startups:

1. LESSON #1: Mechanisms for ensuring accountability in 4 key domains are non-existent; governance, commercial, operations and finance). A typical sole proprietor has no board, not even a board of advisors. And if they do, it’s cosmetic, just for titles’ sake. Budgeting? Forget it. They don’t make budgets. They spend as and when, no approval chains, no step-up authorizations or defined limits, nothing.

2. Almost always, such weak internal control mechanisms find expression in how the entrepreneur organizes himself/herself – whether its files and folders or personal grooming.

The second point is extremely important. Think of it as an indicator. If you dress well, present yourself well, and appear to know what you are talking about during customer interactions, then it’s very likely you do, or at least possess the capacity to organize your business in a way that reduces risks. And that’s very important from a lender or an investor’s perspective. DO NOT TAKE THIS FOR GRANTED.

In the last 3 years, I have led a team at YieldRock (see to deploy substantial amount of capital in several startups in Accra. I must also say, that within same timeframe, we have equally rejected several invitations to fund twice as many for startups. Frankly I used to enjoy keeping tabs on our rejection rate, but I have increasingly grown disturbed because it suggests that the problem is widespread. So part of my crusade is to educate startups with lessons learnt from our successful portfolio businesses that have received, and continue to receive funding to grow their balance sheet.

Before I present a few of such lessons, here are some myths that prevents startup entrepreneurs from scaling to reach liquidity and profitability:

Myth 1: “I am my own boss”.

I know, it’s exciting, isn’t it? For years you reported to people who were even less qualified (academically) than you. Performance appraisals was a drudge, so unpleasant. I can hear you say “yes! I hated those”. I hear you, I do! But guess what? Nothing has changed, even though you are now an entrepreneur. The only change is this - you now report to the market. When you were in corporate, you were several layers down the hierarchy, accountable to shareholders through the executive management board. Congrats! You are now the shareholder. The market is still the same. Customer service is still the same. Supply chain is the same. Value is still value.

Myth 2: “Now I can finally do things the way I want”

No you cannot! Building a successful business follows a format. Simply because you own the business doesn’t mean can you do things haphazardly. You must keep proper books of account. You must file regulatory returns. You must deliver on your value proposition to customers. You must DRESS FOR SUCCESS. Essentially, you must do what big businesses do, notwithstanding that you are less burdened with the constraints they have. There is no room for laxity.

Myth 3: “The market is the problem, not my products or services”.

I have a friend who works in the publications space. What he does is this: he designs, publishes and sells scholastic materials to schools in Accra and elsewhere. His target market is the pre-primary level (Crèche and Kindergarten). I cannot emphasize enough, his creativity. It’s just amazing. In fact, he told me himself, that some of the schools think that his charts are imported. We laugh over such stories, but deep within is a certain narrative that equates quality to anything non-Ghanaian. “If it’s good, it has to be from America, or London, or much recently, Dubai. As a patriot and pan-Africanist, he finds this very insulting. And I agree. It is. But what my friend doesn’t understand is that presentation also matters in economics. I have had occasion to raise issue with his unkempt beard and his general appearance whilst on business development engagements. I mean for crying out loud, how do you wear T-shirts, jeans and Timberland boots to go knocking on doors asking for a buy? I mean how? Mark Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley cohorts can get away with T-shirts and sneakers but this is Ghana. We don’t have the kind of venture capitalists with deep pockets who are willing to overlook appearance to focus on scalable business models. This is Ghana. Years later, I tried to set up my friend with a business associate with the expectation that they would negotiate some mutually beneficial arrangement since the latter had experience in the educational space. Here is the feedback” chaley you for tell you man to dress sharp oo!!”Ouch!

As an entrepreneur/training consultant, I noted the way people treated me when I went around dropping training proposals to look for business. The day I wore suit and tie, they be like “hello sir, how may we help you?” “Please have a seat sir”…”would you like some coffee sir”. The day I wore just a simple shirt, no tie or suit jacket, heeiii! Different story. Not even the security man will open the reception door for me. Amazing, just amazing how human behavior changes in response to environmental stimuli.

So here are a few takeaways.
1. Dress well. No, let me say that properly just so we are clear. Dress professionally. Shirt, tie and jacket, if you are man. Descent skirt, shirt or blouse (nothing fanciful) and heels (no flats) if you are a lady. Dress code is especially important when your customer model is B2B and you have to do a lot of presentations and client engagement. NB: Don’t worry about the hot Sun and crazy Trotro. Be creative in how you balance reality with your obligation to ‘keep up with the Jones’.

2. Be mindful of presentation in every aspect of your business. Appearance matters because of what it says about substance. The choice between form OR substance is a false dichotomy. In finance, we look at form AND substance.

Dress for success. See you at the top.

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