Elliot Tomaeno is the founder of Astrsk, which has helped launch more than 200 startups and tech products and has been a part of seven exits.
Imagine this: You're about to pitch your product to a board of investors. They've been listening to pitches all day long, but you know you have an incredible idea that the world desperately needs to know about. You've practiced in front of the mirror 1,000 times, and you're full of confidence.
But when you proudly walk into that conference room, the potential investors only look up for a split second before returning their attention to whatever's happening on their smartphones and laptops. Some may even roll their eyes.
Before you even have a chance to deliver your thoughtful pitch, your jeans and hoodie do the talking for you.
As the founder of ASTRSK, a PR agency focused on media relations, brand image, and positioning for startups, I've worked with countless entrepreneurs who are attempting to raise money from venture capitalists. Over the years, we've discovered that most VCs look more closely at the founder than they do the actual idea being pitched. They want the individual standing in front of them to give off an aura of success.
What Does Success Look Like?
For startup founders, looking like you're capable of achieving success in the business world is often as simple as dressing up a bit. Unless you are Mark Zuckerberg, jeans, sandals, and a hoodie with your college logo on it likely won't bode so well for you. This casual approach has been overly glamorized in the startup world -- you'd be hard-pressed to find many VCs or later-stage business leaders who think it's charming to present yourself this way.
You could be the best inventor, the best salesperson, or the best coder, but to share your skills and message near and far, you might need to make a few visual tweaks. When it's time to get dressed for a big day, consider the following:
Highlight Something That Makes You Unique
The idea of adjusting your personal style isn't meant to shove you in a box with everyone else. Rather, it's meant to highlight and accentuate what actually makes you different while still providing the impression that you know what you're doing.
When I was fresh out of college and getting involved in PR, I worked for auto shows. I wore a traditional suit with a white shirt -- just like everyone else -- but I still found a way to let my personal uniqueness shine. I amassed a closet full of colorful ties of all shapes and sizes and a bunch of tie clips to add my own personal touch. As a result, I successfully stood out from my peers who always wore blue shirts and standard ties.
Take Thoughtful Risks
If a journalist is meeting with 10 founders and one decides to show up in yellow Dr. Martens with smiley faces on them, who do you think the journalist is going to remember most? Don't be afraid to push stylistic boundaries.
As the founder of a PR agency in New York City, being fashion-forward and carefully daring has been key to differentiating myself and my company from the pack. I'm not afraid to wear a leather jacket to a meeting, and I often wear an E.T. pin as well, which I can get away with because my initials are E.T. It's a good conversation starter, and it certainly helps people remember me.
Understand the Visual Cues You're Providing
Be purposeful with how you dress. You are in control of the message your physical appearance sends, so ensure the message that's received is the one you intend to transmit. Unfortunately, there aren't any autocorrect or do-over options in this department.
When I was 23 years old and just getting my feet wet, I wore sophisticated glasses and always carried around a clipboard to appear more intelligent and respectable. Sometimes, my clipboard would just have a blank piece of paper on it. But carrying it as an accessory provided an air of confidence that helped me command the attention of the more senior people in the room.
Don't Be Afraid to Reinvent Yourself
Unless you've found a secret ingredient worth clinging onto forever (see Anna Wintour's), don't hesitate to try different things and reinvent yourself every so often. Variety is the spice of life, and changing things up will keep your colleagues and potential partners interested and on their toes.
I wore contact lenses for the longest time, but when I made the decision to purchase a fancy pair of eyeglasses (along with my clipboard), I instantly felt a renewed sense of purpose that also became clear to the people around me. As I continued to grow in my career, I ditched the clipboard. But the glasses have become a permanent part of my personal style.
An entrepreneur's appearance can be just as important as his or her business model. It's key to find what makes you unique, carefully push the envelope, and really put some thought into what your image is saying about you and your brand.
In this pursuit, you'll inevitably refine your style in such a way that most accurately represents who you are, what you do, and the value you can bring to the table.