The Blondin Test Will Ensure Your Stakeholders Truly Believe In Your Startup

Note: This is Part I in the Startup Team Building series. Read Part II HERE

Each generation, a few magnetic personalities emerge and generate a mania of public interest. BlodinBefore Elvis, there was Sinatra. Before Sinatra, there was Bing. Before Bing, there was Caruso and before Caruso, there was Blondin.

Jean Francois Gravelot, who wisely abandoned his given name and dubbed himself The Great Blondin, was a true rock star of the 19th Century. On June 30, 1859, at the height of his fame, he stood before a crowd of tens of thousands of people at Niagara Falls.

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We Believe Blondin, We Believe

The Great Blondin began his Niagara show by crossing the Falls on a tightrope three inches in diameter. Although the cable spanned 1,100-foot and was 160 feet above the raging waters, the trek was fairly pedestrian for a man of his skills. Always the showman, he nonetheless choreographed a few wobbles and slips in his initial crossing in order to heighten the drama.

He then addressed the crowd, asking them if they believed he could cross the Falls blindfolded. The crowd predictably cheered, “Yes, yes. We believe, we believe, we believe!” Much to their delight, Blondin donned a blindfold and made a roundtrip across the tightrope.

Blonden with WheelbarrowHe then asked the crowd, “Do you believe I can cross pushing a wheelbarrow?”  Again the crowd riotously chanted, “We believe, we believe, we believe!”

Blondin successfully crossed the Falls pushing a wheelbarrow. Blondin then whipped the crowed into a frenzy before shouting, “Do you believe that I can cross with a man on my back?” Again the crowd hysterically shouted back, “We believe, we believe, we believe!”

Blondin smiled broadly and shouted back to the cheering throng, “It is great that you believe in me. Now who wants to get on my back?”


Talk about a buzz kill.

No one in the entire crowd of revelers, which had moments before shouted, “We believe, we believe” volunteered to join Blondin on his trip across the rope. They clearly did not really believe.

You will meet Blondin’s crowd over and over as you plan and execute your adVenture. Friends, family and disinterested parties will emphatically tell you, “We believe!” whenever you tell them about your wacky entrepreneurial plans. With friends and family, this sort of superficial support is to be expected. However, when it comes to building a team of stakeholders, you cannot afford such placation.

When a potential stakeholder, such as a future employee, investor or supplier tells you that they believe, pull the Blondin Test. Make them prove their belief by getting on your back as you step onto the proverbial entrepreneurial tightrope.

One way for a supplier or strategic partner to prove their belief is to accept equity in lieu of cash, as described in Free Advice and Beware The Consultant. With early employees, you might ask them to defer receipt of a portion of their cash compensation until your adVenture attains certain milestones, such as closing a suitable round of funding.

If the potential stakeholders really believe in you, your team and your startup’s prospects, they will get on your back and trust that you will collectively make it to the other side unscathed.

Blondin Revisited

What happened after Blondin silenced the crowd by challenging their belief? Did a drunken fool stumble from the throngs and take Blondin up on his offer of a free ride over the Falls?

No such fool, drunk or otherwise, emerged from the crowd. Instead, Blondin’s manager, Harry Colcord, climbed aboard Blondin’s back and the two men successfully made the journey without a mishap.

Colcord on Blondin's backWhy did Colcord make the perilous trip on Blondin’s back? Clearly it was not a contractual obligation nor was it likely driven by an insatiable desire to see Niagara Falls from such a precarious vantage point.

Colcord climbed onto Blondin’s back because he really believed. However, this was not a case of blind faith. Colcord was confident in Blondin’s capabilities because he was privy to Blodin’s rigorous practice regime. Through his actions, not his words, Blondin had earned Colcord’s trust.

Keep this important distinction in mind when you deploy the Blondin Test. If someone jumps on your back without just cause, they may just as quickly jump off with the first wobble. You owe all your stakeholders proof that their belief is justified. Informed faith, based upon mutual respect, is the solid foundation upon which should establish your stakeholder relationships.

Deploy the Blondin Test judiciously. Only ask those who should be on your back to make the journey with you. In most instances, Donors, as described Personal Pitch, can help your adVenture succeed without jumping on your back and taking on significant risks.

Entrepreneurial leaders must instill an absolute belief in their adVenture among all their stakeholders. The Blondin Test is a great way to assess whether or not someone truly believes, and thus whether or not you can count on them to lend you meaningful support when the startup tightrope starts to shimmy and shake. In such cases, do not hesitate to ask them to get on your back and prove their belief in you.

Note: This is Part I in the Startup Team Building series.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • John-  This is thought provoking.  For me, especially on the team building side, since I think a lot about how to identify which people can be successful working for a startup.  There are already certain limits when recruiting for startups, and compensation can be one of them.    
    I’m wondering what some other tests might be for a prospective employee.  I ask because, one of the reasons that some people work for startups rather than found one is that — for whatever reason — they can’t take the full financial risk but still have an entrepreneurial spirit and can serve as a great support for a founder.  (Certainly there are other reasons that some people are better at supporting founders than becoming founders, themselves.)(If I read this correctly, the type of delay in compensation to which you refer is aside from equity — right?)Will definitely share this.

  • John Greathouse

    Donna, thank you. Your feedback is always very thoughtful.

    There are a number of other “tests” to determine if someone is a entrepreneur or a wantrepreneur. I talk a bit more about what characteristics I look for here: (I am in the process of rewriting this very old and poorly written entry, but this iteration will have to do for now).

    I also talk about some of the basic differences between Entrepreneurs and “regular employees” in these two entries:

    If these entries do not cover what you are looking for, please lmk. 

    Also, thinks for sharing my humble posts. It is more motivating than you’ll ever know.

  • Thank you — just instapapered these and look forward to reading!

    And you are very welcome!  

  • Robb Greathouse

    This is really key for open source projects.  So, often they get started with a great idea and the best of intentions.  But if they are large they can go off track when they don’t not receive feedback from critical customers.

  • John Greathouse

    Robb – are you my long-lost cousin?! 

    Agreed – getting ‘valid’ customer feedback is key. When you don’t ask anything of the person giving you feedback (no money, no risk, etc.), you tend to be placated, as the other party doesn’t have a stake in your venture.

    People who “jump on your back” will give you real-world feedback, as they don’t want you (or themselves) to fall off the tightrope. 

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