The Mirror: A Startup’s Worst Enemy?

Look in a mirror. What do you see?

According to psychologists, it’s not what your friends see. In fact, human beings are predisposed to see ourselves in a certain way, regardless of the facts of our appearance.

It’s called the mere exposure effect, and it was first discovered in 1977. It goes like this:

All of us look in a mirror from time to time. Eventually, we become accustomed to seeing our mirror-image and believe we appear that way to others. But our mirror-image is not really what others see. Not only is our face horizontally-reversed, but we naturally isolate elements of our appearance we want to see from ones we don’t (ones we believe make us unattractive). We do it both by making particular, though subtle, facial expressions when viewing our face in the mirror, and by literally “blocking out” of our vision things we don’t want to see.

The result: We find our mirror-image more attractive than we would our actual faces, were we to meet ourselves face-to-face.

In other words, we’re literally blind to parts of our appearance that we don’t like.

This phenomenon explains the “cringe” feeling we get when seeing certain photographs of ourselves, because, well…‘Is that what I look like!!?’

But the truth is, a photograph — not the mirror — is the more accurate reflection of your visage. It “exposes” an image of your face identical to what those around you see. It is, to put it simply, yourself through others’ eyes…whether you like it or not.

Why This Matters for Startups

The mere exposure effect has huge implications in fields like entertainment and personal cosmetics. Instead of looking in a mirror, for example, models will often examine photographs or videos of themselves to find flaws in their appearance. Same for athletes and dancers who review tape of their performances in order to hone their skill.

But the mere exposure effect has massive implications for startups — in any field — that founders often ignore.

PeopleFish was founded in 2016. Since then, our team has talked with and worked alongside more than 200 startup founders to identify, understand and reach out to their target market.

Without fail, one of the first things we notice is these founders’ invigorating, contagious passion. Someone who has quit their job to start a business has made a commitment that requires overwhelming focus and vision— you can feel that energy through the phone.

But the second thing we notice with these founders — almost without fail — is their lack of perspective. The fact is, being head-down and neck-deep, day after day, working on your startup does a number to your sense of reality. After a few weeks, the entire world is made up of your startup and your market. Everyone becomes a prospect. Every email address you have is a lead. Everyone you know would benefit from your product (right?), and it’s only a matter of time before the world falls in love with what you’re creating.

Cue the kool-aid.

We don’t have to explain the problem here. When founders stumble into this way of thinking, they become victims of the mere-exposure effect. They start to see only what they want to see, and become blind to what’s not working.

A Story

Early last year, our team conducted a survey for a big non-profit. They wanted to learn more about their donor-base — specifically, how canceling their quarterly magazine might affect donations. The magazine was expensive — they were sending more than 10,000 copies every quarter — and leadership was unconvinced it was worth the hassle.

But the survey’s results were decisive. Donors loved the magazine, and they wanted to keep getting it. Almost no exceptions.

We presented these findings to our client, and immediately saw the disappointment on their faces. This idea — to scrap the magazine — was the result of lots of brainstorming on how to cut costs. To learn that donors weren’t receptive to the idea was defeating.

A week after the presentation, we checked in with the client. We got the following response from their Director:

“To be honest, I’m just not convinced our donors understand what we’re trying to do here.”

Turns out, they decided to scrap the magazine anyways, despite the results of the survey. It was too expensive, and they’d spent a lot of time convincing themselves that the magazine was just a big waste of time.

They saw, in other words, only what they wanted to see, and literally ignored their donors.

You can guess what happened next — we won’t tell the whole story here. Suffice it to say, the magazine is being reconsidered this year as donations have slowed.

How to Gain Perspective

Don’t be like my client and fall prey to the mere exposure effect. Here are some practical things startup founders can do to gain perspective on their work and idea.

First, pulse your customers.

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve work with post-launch startups who’ve never surveyed their customers.

It’s depressing.

How any serious investor lets a founder get in this position is beyond me.

That said, it’s almost never too late to conduct market research on your target market. An online survey, a series of focus groups, in-store customer interviews — this takes many forms, depending on your business and your goals. Pick the one that makes sense for you, and keep a formal log of customers’ feedback.

And never stop.

Market research is an ongoing process. The market waxes and wanes — things are always changing. You’ll have new competitors every quarter, even from fields and industries you never would have predicted might steal your market share. And perceptions of your product will change — what consumers love today they might hate tomorrow. And what is the only service of it’s kind today will be one-in-a-million next week.

Second, believe people’s first impressions of your pitch.

If you’re starting a business (or if you know someone who is), you’re familiar with the question: “What do you think of this idea?” You may have asked everyone you know. You may have answered this question for the same entrepreneurial friend seventy-two times.

But unfortunately, if you’re like most founders I know, you don’t like people’s answers. You get a less-than-enthusiastic response from a trusted friend and potential customer, and you turn it around — “Well OK, but just think about how much time/money/energy this would save you. Come on…it’s a great idea!”

That’s the mere exposure effect’s nefarious work inside your brain. Don’t engage it. Instead, believe the first impression and keep a running tally of who likes and dislikes your idea. Crunch the numbers after a while and let the data — not your passion — be your guide.

Third, get a second (and third) opinion on your books.

We’re assuming your books are clean and your finances are organized.

That said, share your monthly reports with someone you trust, but who isn’t affiliated with your business. Someone, ideally, who knows that early-stage finances don’t always look so hot, but who can give you honest feedback on whether you’re startup is making progress.

Because it’s easy to believe that you’re making progress when you’re spending most of your time filling orders, talking with prospects, and paying every bill on time.

But if it’s not showing in your books, then it’s not actual progress.

The point of a startup is to provide value. Money is a proxy for value. If you’re providing value to customers, then you’re able to solve their problems at a price higher than what it costs you, and lower than what your customers think it’s worth.

This means your success should be reflected in your finances. And as the founder, it can be hard to take an objective look at your financial performance. Starting a business is an emotional experience, and admitting that things aren’t working financially is something almost no founder is prepared to do. So let someone else do that for you, and help you plan a better way forward.

Facing the Facts

Believe us, this is all easier said than done. As famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

But your startup’s success depends on you looking beyond the mirror and into the lives and concerns of the voices that that matter—your customers, target market, advisers, and mentors. It depends on you facing the facts and investing in high-quality market research that amplifies the opinions of people who will ultimately make or break your startup’s success.

So put down the mirror and learn to listen. Your startup will thank you!