Although the proportion of startup pitches employing a technique of name-dropping may well have remained more or less constant over the past several years, I notice that this animal of pretension has evolved.
When I first moved to France in 2001, the most common variation of name-dropping from startups involved citing one’s university (inevitably, une grande école). Fresh off the plane from Silicon Valley, I found this amusing. Eventually, I came to understand the deeper context for this practice. To be overly succinct (there are literally full books dedicated to the topic), historically in France a person’s school determined a person’s milieu, career trajectory, and generally one’s lot in life.
Mercifully, startup pitches that make ostentatious references to college credentials have disappeared. The new generation of French entrepreneurs became more globally-minded and caught on fairly quickly to how ridiculous saying you graduated from Polytechnique (as an example; no offense X grads) sounded to everyone else in the world outside France.
And although it would be naive to think that the pedigree system of privileges has totally vanished, entrepreneurial ventures in France are thankfully far less polluted by this mentality, probably because the country’s most successful entrepreneurs did not graduate from the so-called right schools.
The next incarnation of the name-dropping technique embraced business magnates, captains of industry, role models of success in their respective professions, or — most depressingly — politicians. I can understand the rationale. The implication is that the endorsement of an accomplished professional gives your project a stamp of legitimacy.
Perhaps we reached the nadir of this phenomenon in 2013 when France’s then-Minister Arnaud Montebourg proclaimed to a pack of ambitious entrepreneurs at LeWeb how he recently spoke startups with Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing.
The latest fad in name-dropping seems to involve celebrities. This one puzzles me the most. I’ve even witnessed European entrepreneurs boast about connections with largely domestic American starlets that have my French partners scratching their heads. Perhaps the growing acclaim of Hollywood actors and rock stars in venture funds (a largely US phenomenon) is catching on in Europe. Yet a supporting cast a celebrities do not a successful startup make. The current fortunes of music service Tidal come to mind.
Name-dropping is part of human nature. We are creatures who crave recognition, and associating ourselves with famous people or institutions helps us position ourselves within the social hierarchy.
For entrepreneurs, I’m not saying that possessing the right school pedigree, tier-1 angel investors, or a star-studded cadre of advisors is a liability per se. However, I am suggesting that believing any of these to be your company’s core asset reflects the fallacy of false authority. It is usually a red flag for me as an investor.