Confusing attention for reputation in the messy middle

January 10, 2022

The startup journey can be a long one, and founders often expend a lot of energy raising their company profile, expecting that it will help ensure their success. The battle for attention is real.

It starts out with scrappiness and ways to get noticed by guerrilla tactics and savvy promotion. With early funding comes the resources required to amplify with paid means. This can often be the golden hour: newly minted, cash in the bank, full of promise.

This only works for a certain period of time, however, and after a while, some common challenges emerge

  • Attention seems much harder to get and questions get harder to answer
  • New kids seem to get a free pass on promotion, appearing on the “what hot in …” list instead of you
  • You start to feel like the 35-year-old wearing a cap backward to blend in with the young kids

You are confusing attention for reputation

The concept of the Messy Middle was popularized by Scott Belsky and refers to the hard slog that happens after the golden hour and before you are a household name.

Your pathway through the messy middle is not the same as what it took to get started. The expectations of the market change as your company grows older and in effect, there is a higher bar by which you are measured.

Many founders waste time and effort trying to regain the attention they received as a newly minted company and get frustrated by the increasing difficulty of retaining attention. This is because they confuse attention with reputation and are focussing on the wrong things.

Attention can be bought, reputation must be earned

Attention is a resource that can be acquired — the more you’re prepared to spend, the more you can buy. Cashed-up, early-stage startups with low headcount, high bank balance, and minimal track record can bask in the glow of attention.

Once you have a few years under your belt, the game changes. The things that made you interesting are no longer enough. With dwindling resources, and higher burn, buying attention is no longer viable, and in any case, is often futile. To level up, you need to perform, deliver value and earn a reputation.

Reputation is a virtuous cycle and attention is a fickle friend

Crossing this chasm of the messy middle by focussing on what you do well pays off. Reputation creates a virtuous cycle that builds and feeds on itself delivering sustainable growth.

Attention is transient, and whilst sometimes deserved, isn’t self-sustaining let alone amplifying

Build a reputation and bask in the glow of well-deserved credit.