How Can You Tell If Someone Truly Believes In Your Startup?

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A version of this article previously appeared Forbes.

When entrepreneurs describe their venture, they are often met with encouraging words, such as: “Great idea. I wish I had thought of that.”

This propensity for people to be polite when you discuss your startup can make it difficult to determine who really believes in your opportunity and who is just being nice. Fortunately, you can separate the polite from the committed by issuing the Blondin test.

Each generation, a few magnetic personalities emerge and generate a mania of public interest. During the mid-19th Century it was Jean Francois Gravelot, who wisely abandoned his given name and dubbed himself The Great Blondin. He was a true rock star of his day.

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We Believe Blondin, We Believe

On June 30, 1859, at the height of his fame, Blondin stood before a crowd of tens of thousands of people at Niagara Falls. He had begun 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.

He 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?"

Silence… 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 venture. 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 expected. However, when you are attempting to build a team of employees, investors, customers and partners, you cannot afford such placation.

When a potential stakeholder, 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. With early employees, you might ask them to accept an outsize amount of equity in lieu of cash compensation. If they believe, they will value your stock more than wages.

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 either succeed or fail together.

Let’s Do This Together

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 mishap.

Why did Colcord make the perilous trip? He really believed. However, his was not 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.

Entrepreneurial leaders must instill an absolute belief in their startups 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.

Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.

Image credit: AP Photo/John Froschauer

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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