Are the startup leaders you need hiding in plain sight?

by Alan Jones on the 16th of June 2017

I’m at TEDxSydney today with 4,199 other people in the spanking-new ICCC in Sydney. And I’m thinking about how nearly every senior corporate executive I meet tells me they want to meet and learn about innovation from the successful founders of high-growth tech startups.

TEDxSydney audiences are fascinating for people-watchers like me – thousands of people who between massive injections of emotion and learning are flung together in vast meal and restroom breaks and encouraged to interact with strangers. Most of them need a lot of urging, and most of them tentatively seek out their tribe judging entirely by external appearance.

It’s understandable. Am I a senior corporate executive? I will likely have more in common with other senior corporate executives, so I will look for other senior corporate executives judging by how they dress and their age.

My only problem with that strategy is that the world is being eaten by software, software built by teams of people led by tech startup founders who most definitely don’t dress like senior corporate executives.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has had to clean up his act since his company went public so massively, but for most of his career he has been an awkward young man in hoodie and jeans.

When I worked at Yahoo!, co-founder Dave Filo was in the habit of keeping a big bag of clean white socks and underwear under his desk because then when he worked all night he could at least change his socks and underwear for the benefit of his coworkers’ olfactory needs.

Most of the time, Mike Cannon-Brookes (who is speaking at TEDxSydney today) dresses like he’s on the border of homelessness. Long, straggly hair he has to keep wiping out of his eyes, baggy jeans, formless t-shirt and hoodie, mashed-down baseball cap, yet he’s one of Australia’s wealthiest and most successful business people.

Why do tech startup people so often do this? Mostly because we like to believe our industry should be a meritocracy, where appearance and brand and externalities don’t matter, only quality and volume of output, and achieving stated goals. Partly because we enjoy not being networked with. Slightly because we think business status is biased in favour of wealthy old white guys from the right business schools and against diversity, inclusion and opportunity.

I don’t see us changing soon. We are successfully disrupting all the world’s industries, and nobody is yet making us conform to senior executive dress code. Awesome!

Want to engage with and learn from the leaders of the businesses disrupting yours? Try stepping out of your comfort zone in the cluster of coffee-sipping middle-aged white people dressed like you and going to sit next to the kid in the hoodie choosing to work on their laptop. Ask them what they’re working on, because they would love to tell you, if only someone would take a moment to listen.