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The Practical Case for Humility

Sure, there's a place for self-promotion, but history suggests overhyping your business can backfire.
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Whether it was your third-grade teacher, your beloved granny or your mom, someone probably told you to keep a good head on your shoulders and not get too cocky. Self-confidence is great, they probably said, but a reasonable amount of humility is important for both mental health and maintaining solid relationships.

No doubt these early advisors were correct from an etiquette perspective, but as Austin Carr recently pointed out over at Fast Company, maintaining a degree of humility isn't just good manners. It's also a good strategy for you business. Why?

Overhyping your company by calling your product revolutionary, comparing yourself to legendary leaders like Steve Jobs or talking smack about your competitors, Carr writes, is a recipe for attracting the wrong sort of attention that will complicate any eventual pivots you may need to make. To illustrate his point he cites a comment by Bill Nguyen, the CEO of Instagram competitor Color, which likened Kevin Systrom's rival product to "mice nuts" last March. Instagram, obviously, went on to sell to Facebook for a cool $1 billion.

The comment obviously makes Nguyen look foolish (rodent testicles? Seriously?) but Carr argues it also narrows the space in which Color can maneuver:

Almost every article about Color from now on, no matter what happens to the company, will inevitably mention its turbulent history, overhyped technology, and absurd funding of $41 million…. The inescapable descriptions make it that much harder for Color (and any other start-up stamped with a similar scarlet letter) to reboot successfully.

Start-ups fail and pivot all the time. Just look at Rovio, which struck out 51 times over eight years and nearly went bankrupt before creating Angry Birds. Even Instagram pivoted, having started as a convoluted app with game mechanics called Burbn. But Rovio's and Instagram's failures simply became part of their triumphant struggle to overcome obstacles.

What makes Color different? Color's failures have become a spectacle for the technorati that drips with schadenfreude. Much of this can be chalked up to Nguyen.

You may not have the outlandish tendencies of Nguyen (or Blockbuster's former CEO Jim Keyes who, Carr reminds us, spent several years mocking Netflix before the upstart video service gutted his company), but this rather extreme case is still a healthy reminder to business owners of the dangers of big talk and publicly criticizing your competition. "Nguyen's story is a cautionary tale for any company founder trying to strike a balance between hyping a product and over-criticizing the competition," Carr concludes. Or to put it another way, don't discount the value to your business of being likeable--you may need that goodwill down the line more than you need that bit of extra publicity today.

So has Nguyen changed his ways and learned to be humble? Check out the rest of Carr's in-depth piece on his trials and tribulations to find out.

Do you have any personal rules of thumbs to achieve the right balance between healthy self-confidence and unhelpful arrogance? 

Last updated: Jun 7, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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