Every entrepreneur, anyone who’s ever had an idea and thought, “I could make money out of this,” dreams of riches and success. They yearn for the day when their innovation or concept suddenly fires the public imagination, or its potential is spotted by a large corporation and they are bought out, able to retire on their millions and seek the high life.
We can all think of examples. Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan, who had his idea for videoconferencing rejected by his managers at Cisco, must be content with his company’s stock performance over the last 12 months: He is now a billionaire. Or Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal, and went within a year from an IPO to a wholly owned subsidiary of eBay worth $1.5 billion. It is the stuff dreams are made of.
If sudden, vast wealth is, in some ways, the American dream, then those who win that particular lottery should be aware that there are also down sides. An entrepreneur who has toiled at their idea for months, or years, and then whose numbers come up, can expect to become a bit of a celebrity. You don’t have to be on the front page of USA Today (or the National Enquirer) to be unprepared for a public profile. Some find it a deeply uncomfortable experience, while others slip into character as if born for it. Fortunately, however you react to having a newly recognizable face, people like me are here to give you advice and help you handle the situation.
If you type “reputation management” into your chosen internet search engine (OK, Google), you’ll quickly get around half a billion hits. Even if your success has brought you a dollar for each of those results, you likely don’t know where to start. This is unfamiliar territory, especially if—as the best success stories demand—you come from humble beginnings in a small town and aren’t blessed with that whiff of inherited stardust.
Social Media Is Your Friend, But It Can Turn on You
Most of the really famous entrepreneurs—Bezos, Musk, Branson—have Twitter accounts with millions of followers. These are a great way of engaging with your customers and your competitors. They allow 280-character snapshots of wisdom, insight, admission and conversation. They make you human, even if it’s actually a hired professional who moderates the account and produces the content (and it usually is). People love the idea that they might, possibly, one day have a brief interaction with you, brush the hem of your robe, and they’ll pore over your thoughts in pursuit of that goal.
All of your painstaking hard work can, however, be swept away by the stroke of a key. We all remember Elon Musk’s tweet about “pedo guy” during the Thai cavers’ ordeal. OK, the subsequent trial acquitted him of defamation, and yes, he’s still rich as Croesus, but it was an unnecessary period of bad publicity, which could so easily have been avoided. But social media took a stupid, offhand remark and sent it round the world in seconds. That’s the power of the platform. Be careful.
If in Doubt, Say Nothing
As a successful entrepreneur, you will be asked for your views on the most unlikely subjects, from the latest executive order coming out of the White House to the new season of Dancing with the Stars. Now, as someone who’s made a lot of money, you’ve earned the right to have your opinion heard, listened to and broadcast. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? But there we are.
All I’d say is, be cautious. The old saying is that it’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, and that’s pretty good advice. Remember that, with any public pronouncement that isn’t utterly banal, for every person who agrees with you, there are probably two who don’t. So, you can have an opinion on Planned Parenthood or DACA and the Dream Act, but expect the public—your potential customers—to call you out on it. Be prepared to fight or keep quiet. It really is your choice.
You’re Less Interesting Than You Think
This might seem like a contradiction of the points above, but it speaks of a trap which is easy to fall into. As a rich entrepreneur, you are a modern form of demigod, and your guidance will be sought by all sorts of devotees on subjects which really aren’t in your wheelhouse. You made a billion in software? Great! Now what do you think about Second Amendment rights and gun control? Stop there—no one’s interested. Or if they are, they shouldn’t be. It goes back to keeping quiet when in doubt. If you nail your colors to a mast, especially if you aren’t some kind of expert, expect to be exposed pretty quickly and pilloried, probably by both sides. So, think before you speak, and think about whether you should speak.
I could say a lot more, but those are fundamental principles of managing your reputation, strategic advice 101. You need to master those before you can move on to anything more advanced. Like a lot of simple rules, they’re surprisingly difficult to master comprehensively, but you’ll be astonished by how well they work, and the dividends they pay. You’re worth it.
Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.