Does Conformity Increase Startup Success?

Harvard Business School professor Mukti Khaire has an interesting theory – that startups can grow by conforming.

Assistant professor Mukti Khaire believes that small companies can grow by developing intangible social resources such as legitimacy, status, and reputation. In an interesting twist, her research on this insight is that these intangible resources may be best acquired by following a road of conformity in how your company is organized and presented to the outside world. In start-ups in established industries, conventional business titles such as Marketing Director work better than novel ones like Chief Evangelist.

For all the talk about startups an innovation, we often ignore the conforming qualities, although they make sense. You can sell a new product in an old way, sell an old product in a new way, but selling a new product in a new way is tough. Entrepreneurs often pursue a chosen path because they are fed up with the status quo, but the status quo is the status quo because other people are comfortable with it. There is a strong temptation to reject everything status quo because it represents the old way. But if this research is correct, consumers may prefer modifications to the old way instead of wholesale upheaval.

  • Fascinating. I had a professor at Stanford years ago — James March — who said “Schools teach conformity,” almost the opposite. “Education is about reinforcing the supposed right way of doing something, meaning the way we’ve always done it, the way the establishment expects us to do it.” Schools taught that the world is flat until a renegade proved otherwise.

    “New ideas come from people that haven’t been indoctrinated,” he said.

    That’s an interesting contrast, but I don’t think he necessarily disagreed with your point. He was talking more about real outliers, not about what makes a business successful. Tim

    That quote is in a related post on my blog. Here’s the URL:

  • Shit, there goes mytrade.

    Andy Swan
    Chief Buzz Officer

  • It’s still important to build trust with customers and investors, and the unusual and unknown aren’t big trust-building factors.

  • Interesting and I think the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Your business model should determine your level of conformity. Being different just for the sake of being different serves no legitimate business purpose and it leaves you reinventing the wheel. But offering the same identical products and services as nine other competitors may not be the brightest idea either. Just being ‘the best’ may not be enough to set you apart from the pack.