One of the first harsh realities that every entrepreneur has to learn is that most of the things that are critical to startup success are outside of their direct control. Just because you dream it and build it, doesn't mean they will come -- that encompasses not only customers, but also investors, partners, team members, and even your own family. They won't come if they don't trust you.
In my experience, trust is the most powerful tool that an entrepreneur can wield, both inside and outside of his own realm of control. I've seen many examples of this in my own business life, and yet I gained a whole new perspective on how it works from a recent book by successful entrepreneur August Turak, titled "Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks."
Turak first visited the monks for spiritual guidance, but realized as he talked to them about their business, that many of their secrets crossed over all boundaries. I was particularly struck by the lessons he gleaned on how to get and maintain trust. The best entrepreneurs I know seem to have learned every one of these, so start on these now if you want to survive among the best:
- Become trustworthy before you start a business. We are hard wired to seek out trustworthy people, and to test others to see who we can trust. But the first step is to be become trustworthy ourselves. Like attracts like, and if you invest early in becoming a person others can trust, business people who you can trust will be attracted to you.
- Keep your promises to yourself and others. The surest mark of a trustworthy person is one who keeps promises to others and to oneself, no matter how small or seemingly trivial these may be. Keeping promises to yourself is closely correlated with will power and self-control, and these virtues are essential to being business trustworthy.
- Under commit and over deliver. Make sure that you only make business commitments that you know you can keep. Many entrepreneurs over-commit because they are desperate to have business constituents like and respect them, yet the quickest way to lose respect is to fail to keep commitments.
- Be willing to make commitments. One of the stratagems of notoriously unreliable people is refusing to make promises in the first place, thinking that making no commitments relieves them of any worry about breaking them. People see through this strategy quickly, and will tag you not reliable and indecisive, as well as not trustworthy.
- Protect your personal brand. As a new startup, you the entrepreneur are the brand. Get in the habit of asking yourself, "How will this decision affect my personal brand?" Everything you do or don't do affects your brand, and in the long run your trustworthiness is your most valuable asset.
- Avoid fuzzy commitments. Nothing undermines trust faster than ambiguity or soft commitments, through phrases like "I'll try" or "I'll do my best." These are heard as attempts to stay off the hook, and furnish plausible deniability for anticipated failure. Don't be afraid to write down what you expect, and what you are willing to commit to.
- Formalize business promise keeping. This simply means making it standard practice in your new startup of building a paper trail of contracts (no verbal contracts) between partners and vendors, customer transactions, and internal processes with team performance metrics.
- Never make people ask. If you make people hound you about a commitment, you have already lost half of your credibility. Nothing builds trust better than anticipating your obligations and delivering on them without being asked. A debt repaid before it is asked for reaps a huge dividend in trust.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. No one can anticipate all risks and keep all their promises, but there is no excuse for a failure to communicate when contingencies arise, so there are no surprises. Lack of communication leads others to assume that you had no intention of keeping your promise, and were hoping no one would notice.
- Aim past the target. It is impossible to be trustworthy in business if you are unreliable in the other aspects of your life. The monks teach that trust is not a business strategy or tactic; it is the natural by-product of living for a higher purpose. If you have no higher purpose as an entrepreneur than to make money, you will most likely fail in your efforts.
In business, as in your personal life, an entrepreneur must offer his own trust before reasonably hoping to have it reciprocated. Don't try to "game the system," and don't expect blind faith to save you. The power of real trust is that if your constituents trust that you can change the world, you probably will. Isn't that why you signed up for this lifestyle in the first place?