Advice for my younger self: It’s about style and substance
I am fairly certain that young Janneke Niessen would not have listened to any advice from her older self. When I started out in the tech industry, I went on gut feel and was perhaps a bit stubborn in that respect. That is somewhat universal for all entrepreneurs, I suppose, and while, yes, it led to some mistakes, every one of those mistakes served to make me a stronger person. It’s important that we accept that mistakes will be made along the way and that sometimes failure can be an acceptable (albeit unpleasant) outcome. I have learned far more from failure than success, and with each setback, I became a smarter entrepreneur and better leader. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
I have learned far more from failure than success.
Whether ‘younger me’ wants to listen or not, there are three pieces of advice that I have to offer, all centred on one common theme: how you present yourself to the outside world. Over the years, I have learned – in big ways and small – the importance of appearances, both for myself and the businesses I have helped build. The impact that the perceptions you create have on the outcome of an endeavour is profound. That is hard-won knowledge, and something that is much, much clearer to me now than it was in my youth.
Content, knowledge, dedication – all of these are critical to success. But all of that substance must be delivered with style. Confidence, passion, and just a little bit of spin can make your end goals that much easier to achieve.
Public Speaking: Learn It, Love It, Live It
I would urge my younger self to seek speaker training much earlier in her career. The benefits would have been huge. While I didn’t exactly shy away from the opportunities that were presented to me, I was never overly confident – and I certainly didn’t push myself out there. When I did find myself expected to speak eloquently on a panel or as a keynote, I would be, quite frankly, daunted, and the nerves would begin building up in the days before.
I urge more woman to come forward and just own that conference stage.
I have given a few speeches in the past where nerves turned a good presentation into an average one; my words rushed in an attempt to just get the chore over and done with. Admittedly, I could be jealous of those who spoke really well on stage, wishing I could be them, but at the same time assuming you had to be born with that talent. Then in early 2013, something changed. I was attending a tech conference in Amsterdam, and I asked the event organiser why there were so few women on stage. His response made my blood boil. “Women are generally bad speakers,” he said, straight-faced. This was my trigger moment, and from that day forward, I vowed to first, prove him wrong by becoming a more confident, inspiring speaker myself; and second, at every turn, strive to correct the gender imbalance that’s so pervasive in the tech sector.
Step one was seeking professional training. Not only did this give me the confidence I needed, but the simple tips and tricks I learned endured, ensuring that I was always ready to present with conviction. Skill led to desire, and more speaking opportunities followed. This in turn boosted my profile, and a virtuous cycle set in.
All of this culminated in one of the proudest moment of my career – my very first TED Talk. Sadly, though, the gender imbalance still remains in the wider tech arena, but now I understand part of the solution: I urge more woman to come forward and just own that conference stage. It’s yours for the taking, ladies.
Fake It ‘til You Make It
I have learned over the years that being too modest will not do you any favours as an entrepreneur, neither for the business your building nor for your career as a whole. “Fake It ‘til You Make It” is a commonly used catchphrase that basically means to imitate a confident state in the absence of actual confidence. I’m not suggesting one be disingenuous or lie, but instead to remember the simple truth that there is no bravery without fear. In placing emphasis on one thing (exuding confidence) over another (being fearful), you can have a dramatic impact on the way you experience the world.
Today, I would tell my younger self to be much bolder, to have the confidence and conviction equal to her passion and intellect.
I learned this the hard way, in a sector where my European business was in direct competition with big US tech companies. I would spend months with my team driving new innovations; building, testing, refining, and retesting, all to ensure it was perfect before market launch. The main problem? My US competitors would beat us to the punch, announcing their intention to launch a similar piece of tech (sometimes before even building it!), effectively stealing our thunder and making us look late to the party.
I was too worried about being right and perfect. Today, I would tell my younger self to be much bolder, to have the confidence and conviction equal to her passion and intellect. Always stay true to yourself, but remember that, more often than not, perception becomes reality. Much of the world’s perception is within your control, so much more than you know.
Be Your Own Advocate
I wish I had a better understanding of how the media worked when I launched my first company. To have a fighting chance, you must positively own your image in the industry and in the relevant trade media. Optimist that I am, I had naively assumed that great work would be noticed automatically, “cream rising to the top,” and all that. Was I ever wrong about that!
Perhaps most importantly, never, ever be afraid to have an opinion. Stick your neck out every once and a while, stir the pot, be controversial or contrarian.
More often than not, the media simply want a good story, readers want to be made to feel smart, and the shelf-life of any article is so short that sometimes it seems like only the hyperbolic and sensational have any staying power at all. I’m not advocating you be crass and cynical when approaching the press – quite the opposite. You simply must be smart and active in promoting what you do. I would have chance meeting with journalists at events, but instead of providing a big picture snapshot of how my company could change the world, too often I would get bogged down in tech jargon and what excited me as the geeky technologist. The journalist would fall asleep, and my opportunity would be missed. It’s so important to grasp what the media are looking for. Simply put, they want a smart person to tell them a concise, compelling story. So make sure you are prepared, and don’t waste their time.
Perhaps most importantly, never, ever be afraid to have an opinion. Stick your neck out every once and a while, stir the pot, be controversial or contrarian. Not only is it good intellectual exercise, it’s almost always entertaining.
This article was first published on The Guardian