My general view of business (and life) is that humility is a big part of success. But that’s almost assuredly more representative of my value system than of any generally accepted business wisdom. In fact, there may be strong evidence to the contrary. There are of course many quiet, humble people who have run successful enterprises. Those heroes are hardly household names, though. The business leaders that we know of, quote and point to as examples are usually the ones that make the most noise about what they do and what they have achieved.
If you can be successful either way, why does it matter? Generally speaking, the more people you know and, more importantly, know you, the more access you have to resources, investment, supporters, partners, the media and customers. This access opens doors and reveals paths that may not have been obvious or even available to you otherwise. Again, this is not to say that you can’t make it fly if you’re not an active, outgoing promoter of yourself and your business; but increasing your visibility simply makes many aspects of creating and running a successful business easier and isn’t easier something we all seek?
I found myself thinking a lot about this topic recently when I read the story of Reginald Fessenden, who is actually responsible for the first two-way, transatlantic radio transmissions and being the first to correctly described how radio signals actually work. No wait, wasn’t it Marconi who did that? Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with the invention and discovery of most radio technologies. As it turns out, while Marconi was brilliant and clearly responsible for some of the most important discoveries of his time, he was also good at playing the patent and publicity game. Fessenden, a brilliantly but much quieter and humble scientist, was overshadowed by Marconi (and others). Apparently more interested in the science, Fessenden’s company went under while Marconi’s companies were, in general, very successful.
Reading the story of Fessenden, then got me thinking of Philo Farnsworth and Nikola Tesla. Both brilliant scientists who were steamrolled by brash, self-promoting contemporaries. Farnsworth invented not only the television, but the first real camera and broadcast mechanism. Of course, David Sarnoff of RCA fame is generally remembered to have played this role in history (although Sarnoff really hired Vladimir Zworykin to do RCA’s work on television). Farnsworth did most of his work in obscurity and the companies that he (and others) created around his work failed. Sarnoff, on the other hand, had already made RCA into a large and successful enterprise and used that platform as well as his strong personality to take credit (in the name of the company) for the creation of television.
Tesla, who is considered one of the most brilliant scientists and engineers of all time is well known for many discoveries and inventions. However, with respect to one of his greatest creations, large-scale power generation, he remains in the shadow of another brilliant, but much more vocal scientist, Thomas Edison. While Edison was doing his damndest to get DC power transmission to work, Tesla created the first simple and reliable AC power generation facilities (including the first hydroelectric power generators) as well as AC motors to utilize his new form of power transmission. Edison spent much of his highly visible career discrediting Tesla and is generally given credit for what we take for granted today.
In the end, what’s the correlation between strong self-promotion and success? There are too many subjective components to quantify it, but empirically there is more upside to brash self-promotion than to the lack of it. None of this means that you should be an asshole, of course, but spending more time increasing the world’s awareness of you and your company will likely offer benefits that will far outweigh the energy you put in to making yourself more visible and more closely associated with your solution and market.