(Early days at Brontes … me as Patient 0 in $10 Target Dental/Beach chair being scanned by VP Engineering Ed Tekeian and why I’ll forever be “That Dental Guy”)
Whether CEO or recent college grad, at a big company or small, it’s easy to get typecast based on your previous experiences. It’s human nature to put things into buckets because it helps us simplify complex situations. This is why VCs (and sometimes entrepreneurs) pitch things as “kind of like Twitter, but for taxidermists!” (As an aside, I noticed a similar phenomenon when I worked in Hollywood … movies were often pitched by making the most ridiculous analogies … such as Titanic meets Ishtar. More on the parallels between Hollywood and VC/start-up world in a future post.)
This can be problematic if you, like me, have spent a good number of years in a particular industry that’s considered “nichey” and you want to pivot professionally. I may forever be known as “that dental guy” for starting a dental product company despite having started a web company, worked in Hollywood and online education. I think investors often underestimate the parallels between businesses and how building a certain type of business in one industry can often be transferred to another industry. Perhaps this is because entrepreneurs overestimate how easy this is to do.
I’ve found that the best defense to being typecast is to put themes together about your own experience and couple them with distinct theses on industries, technologies, etc. I’ve seen entrepreneurs who have literally bounced from tech to pharma to getting fired who tell their entrepreneurial tale with a theme that makes every chapter seem like part of a divine plan, even the lay-off! For me, one theme I talk about is how I like to find markets for raw technologies and productize them for use by less sophisticated small businesses and individuals.
The other reason it’s important to have themes ready at the go is that it’s a much better thing to say at cocktail parties then “I’m looking” or “I’m between projects.” Perception is important and there’s a big difference between sitting on the beach and being actively engaged in the start-up germination process. If someone asks me what I do, I’ll often talk about an idea I’m working on or a company I’m helping out. It’s important to stay in the entrepreneurial “flow” and to do so you have to stay current by always having some interesting company or idea to talk about.
It’s amazing how quickly (and perhaps unfairly) one can become stale in the VC/start-up ecosystem. However, if one can go from Austrian bodybuilder to Terminator to Kindergarden Cop to Governor of the eight largest economy in the world, I can certainly be more than that dental guy!