In the rough-and-tumble scramble to make a buck, lines are crossed and feelings hurt. Yoni Goldstein explores the unwritten rules of conduct and etiquette for entrepreneurs.
Q: I run my own event planning service and I’m looking to expand my business with new clients. One of my bigger challenges is that there’s a similar size event planning service located nearby and I’m finding it difficult to compete. The events I have planned in the past have been quite successful – I know how to deliver the atmosphere my clients want. My agency also provides catering; I am a trained cook with tons of restaurant experience and my food has won praise. I think the events that my competitor plans are pretty middle-of-the-road. It seems the only advantage the competing agency has is the way the CEO dresses. The guy is slick and sophisticated and really knows how to sell himself. I, on the other hand, have tattoos, long hair and wear jeans. But isn't what you do more important than the way you look?
A: Look, I want to be able to tell you success has nothing to do with how you dress – that if you're good enough at what you do, you can achieve untold glory and wealth while wearing your pajamas (and, hey, it did work for Hugh Hefner). But style does matter, and it’s pretty clear you’re going to need to find some if you want to rise to the next level.
You can talk about professional talent all you want, but the fact is humans are largely visual creatures. A study by UCLA psychology professor Dr. Albert Mehrabian, among the foremost experts in non-verbal messages, discovered that when it comes to forming our attitudes about people, more than half – 55% – are based on body language alone, while another 38% is formed by tone of voice and inflection. That leaves just 7% for actual substance.
What prospective clients are seeing when they look at you is the kind of shlub they don’t want representing them – they’re mostly tuning you out before you even speak a word. You may very well, as you say, have the aptitude and track record to warrant new business, but clearly it’s not just about your work. You didn’t mention it in your letter, but presumably some of the clients who passed you over are GQ-slick or Vogue-chic too, just like the guy they signed with. See a pattern?
Ultimately, style is about confidence
Stand on principle if you want, just be prepared for disappointment is all. And, frankly, from what I’m reading your principle doesn’t make much sense anyways: If style really doesn’t matter to you – if you’re all about quality of work – what difference does it make whether you keep dressing like you do now or start wearing what your competitor wears?
The best advice I can offer you is to adhere to the rules of the industry. If you abide by the style principles of your peers (especially the successful ones), there’s a much better chance clients will suddenly start to notice your talent. Call it unfair if you will, but if you want to win new business, you’re going to have to play their game. And when you get to the top, you can wear whatever the heck you want and it won't matter one bit. So there’s that to look forward to.
But if you’re hell-bent on holding on to the long hair, jeans and tattoos, I offer this tip: Own it.
You’ll still be at an initial disadvantage, but if you can prove to potential clients that your appearance is a calculated stylistic ethos – that you’re actually invested in the way you look, not just mailing it in style-wise, you just may be able to get away with not dressing like everyone else and expand your business. People who’ve adopted work uniforms have certainly succeeded in the past: Steve Jobs famously only wore black mock turtlenecks, and Albert Einstein reportedly stocked his closet with many versions of the same suit to avoid wasting brainpower worrying what to wear. Signature outfits have worked for everyone from the flamboyant Karl Lagerfeld to the minimalist Giorgio Armani – and maybe they can work for you.
Because, ultimately, style is about confidence: the vast majority stumble upon that confidence by adopting whatever clothes the style mavens at GQ or Vogue say will inspire it. If you can prove your look is about confidence, too, you stand a fighting chance.
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Have you ever felt that your business success depends on your personal style? And would you question a business deal if the other party was off-trend? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.