The Tucked And The Untucked

Last night I gave the kickoff talk to the West Michigan Policy Forum. I did my riff on Startup Communities and followed it up with a short Q&A on issues specific to Michigan’s entrepreneurial scene.

Afterwards, Amy and I went for a walk to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to buy a Lighting to HDMI adapter so we could watch Print the Legend on the TV in our hotel room. We succeeded in surviving the 24×7 madhouse that is the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, got the right cable, but were unable to hack our hotel TV which refused to do anything other than respond to a hardwired magic box. So we watched Jaws on TV instead (amazingly, neither of us had ever seen it.)

The juxtaposition of the two experiences (my talk vs. the casual madness of the Apple Store) combined with a line from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future reminded me of another line that I heard at the UP Global Annual Summit in Las Vegas over the summer. Thiel’s line was about uniforms and how his firm Founders Fund immediately rejects any entrepreneur who dresses in a suit and tie. Instead, his firm believes in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and a t-shirt and he gives a visual example of Elon Musk wearing an “Occupy Mars” t-shirt compared to Brian Harrison, the CEO of Solyndra, looking very dapper in his classical suit and tie. I’ll let you guess which entrepreneur created several multi-billion dollar companies and which entrepreneur saw his extremely well funded company go bankrupt.

The line I heard in the context of startup communities was “the collision of the tucked and the untucked.” This referred to the startup community entrepreneurs in untucked t-shirts interacting with the startup community feeders (government, academics, big companies, investors, and service providers) who tend to have their shirt tucked in, even if they aren’t wearing ties.

The magic in growing the startup community is to get the tucked and the untucked to hang out. Your goal should be to generate endless collisions between different perspectives, ideas, peoples, and culture. Rather than segmenting things into the old guard and new guard, mix it up. Get everyone working together.

Don’t let parallel universes evolve – you want one big, messy network continually changing. Make sure you are creating situations for the tucked and untucked to get together, be together, and work together. Have some fun with it, including formally reversing roles at a Sadie Hawkins like event, where the tucked wear t-shirts and the untucked wear suits.

Tonight I’m at a dinner with the Blackstone Foundation and several executives at the Blackstone Group talking about startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. The invite says “business attire” which I expect for many will be “tucked.” I’ll be in my standard uniform – jeans, Toms, and a zany Robert Graham shirt, that will most definitely be untucked. It should be fun.

  • Tucked or untucked, I am glad you still call it a uniform. Even though we might fool ourselves into thinking we are eschewing conformity and The Man with our startup t-shirts and flip flops, it is STILL a uniform – just a different type of uniform.

    • Bingo!

    • Hey, guys. Yes, true to an extent, Bart. But, thinking of my dress sense (or lack thereof) over the past 20 years that I’ve been self-employed, depending on climate I’m always either in jeans or shorts with a(n untucked) nearly always black t-shirt. But my point here is that this is what I’ve always, quite naturally worn throughout this time. It wasn’t me donning this as a uniform to go meet with clients, VCs, et al., or me somehow assuming Steve Jobs’s fashion sense (or lack thereof). Whether working from home, meeting with clients, or teaching classes, I just show up in what I’m comfortable wearing. Not a sense whatsoever of putting on a uniform like my old corporate days, or early entrepreneur days when I was going, say, to the Southwest Venture Forum in Dallas to hobnob with prospective clients and such. So, I guess it comes down to whether we’re wearing what we’re wearing in such a way as to conform, or simply to dress as we like without fuss.

      But, of course, we’re all conforming to some extent. I’m not, for instance, wearing a grass skirt, or walking around in the buff (at least not when meeting with clients!). 🙂

  • Wearing a uniform, you are giving a signal… I wonder what the signal is.

    • The signal varies by uniform!

  • I recall heading to the Valley during my last semester of college (1996); I “suited up” (per my mother’s and general conventional wisdom’s direction).

    Andersen Consulting interviews… everyone was “tucked.” It sucked.

    Netscape Communications interviews… everyone was “un-tucked.” It was awesome. I was the odd-man out being “tucked” at the time. They laughed at me in my suit.

    I got job offers from both. I went to Netscape, in part, because there were no suits around. Andersen felt like I would be joining a fraternity. Netscape felt like I’d be living in a merit based world.

    • StevenHB

      I joined Andersen Consulting in 1988, just before it acquired that name and worked there for quite a while. I heard someone say once, “I swore I wouldn’t join a fraternity in college, and now I work for one.” I did join a fraternity in college (with Brad) and I can see the similarities. That said, it was a great learning experience. I had no appreciation back then for the value of the training that they provided for me.

      Even Andersen eventually abandoned the suit-and-tie uniform: it made us stick out too much from the client personnel with whom we worked day-to-day, particularly when coupled with our relative youth.

  • Thiel’s insanity is pervasive. I worked briefly with one of the Thiel fellows when I was out in the Valley a year ago or so. Bright kid but all I could think of was wow, this kid really needs to be in a doctoral program instead of running around regurgitating Thiel’s college is useless crap. Its too bad.

  • “Thiel’s line was about uniforms and how his firm Founder’s Fund
    immediately rejects any entrepreneur who dresses in a suit and tie.” – That’s good to know about Founder’s Fund, but, to be fair, raising money is hard enough, random enough, and capricious enough to early entrepreneurs, that these kinds of anecdotes only seem in increase anxiety.

    Yes, it’s a uniform, but business societal conventions have taught young people for ages that the proper attire for business meetings is jacket and tie. The ties disappeared for the VC crowd years ago, but existed for the entrepreneurs. In fact, I recall an anecdote back in 2006 that stated that the only time you see a VC wearing a tie is when they are meeting their LPs. Everyone looks impressive to their customer, and the reason that Elon Musk can wear a t-shirt, is because he is Elon Musk. That didn’t stop him from wearing a nice collared shirt on the cover of Inc’s Entrepreneur of the Year edition.

    Last week I had a business development visit on a dairy farm. I wore a golf shirt and khakis, along with my boots. A month ago I was meeting a wall-street investor and wore a suit. Yes, it’s “know your audience”, but if Peter rejects dealflow out of hand from entrepreneurs wearing a jacket, other VCs will also have less respect for the shorts and sandals set.

    • I don’t agree with Thiel’s view on this – I was just using it as an example. I personally don’t care what people wear. At my first company in the late 1980s, I almost always wore jeans and a t-shirt. My partner Dave wore khaki pants and a button down shirt. One of our managers, Mark, work a suit and tie. Flip flops and dress shoes co-existed in the office.

      When we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007 I refused to wear a tie. I never wear a tie except when absolutely required (e.g. I had to wear one to get into the Supreme Court Oral Arguments.) But I did wear fancy suits – just tie-less. Eventually, the suits reverted to my normal uniform, that of jeans and Robert Graham shirts. And now when our LPs visit us, they come a lot more casual!

      • Well, you don’t have to tell me that you are different from Peter – that’s very apparent, and you’ve built a great following based on your style.

        However, your original point stands, but I think it had the following subtext: Style matters much less than substance. A flashy suit and no results resonates a lot less than casual wear and a lot of productivity.

        Last week we had a crane show up at our site for a major component installation, which was a good milestone (solar tech company). I still get a charge out of the days I get to wear my hardhat, vest and steel-toed shoes.

        By the way, this picture represents your post better than the Solyndra comparison.

      • TyDanco

        Forget the Robert Graham shirt or even the madmen suit–you should go to that “business attire” dinner in your “I’m a VC” music video suit! Double points for busting the dance moves.

  • DaveJ

    Yoda slippers.

  • Good for you! Couldn’t agree more. We tend to over-complicate, and by criticizing one standard we don’t realize that we’re just conforming to another. Not any better or worse, just different! Problems arise when this gets extrapolated to the world scene. We should focus on what really matters – in this context, content and integrity – not uniform. I hope you enjoyed the dinner!

  • Elizabeth Kraus

    Just a quick thought for you: In preparing to launch the MergeLane accelerator for women-led businesses, we interviewed about 100 female entrepreneurs to better understand why so few females were applying to accelerators. One thing that came up over and over, was that many women didn’t feel at home in the T-shirt and jeans culture. This certainly wasn’t the primary reason for not participating, but it was mentioned by several women. I had never really thought about this, but in thinking about it, I realized that I’m far more comfortable showing up for a meeting in a suit than a T-shirt and jeans. When I look put together and professional, I feel that way too. I am guessing that there are plenty of women and men that feel completely unauthentic wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Breaking the uniform – whether it’s T-shirts and jeans or ties and panty hose – will make a bigger impact on diversity than we think. Thx for talking about it.

    • Amy and I talked about this last night for a while. It’s an interesting side effect of the broad challenge – both of entrepreneurship and gender dynamics. I don’t have a good answer but I’m going to think more about it.

      • LFlanagan

        Yes tucked vs untucked is a definitely a male metaphor. It’s quite different for women. I threw away my “dress for success” wardrobe (skirted suits) at 30 when I decided to just be me, and hell with the critics, but still sport a pantsuit when called for. In the early days of the computer biz, I was often the only woman in the room so standing out was never an issue! Now I try to add some color–red shoes, or bright pink or orange Tshirt under my jacket or a fun watch to stand out in the sea of grey and black t-shirts and jeans, which frankly are boring unless they are well fitted and well made. Aesthetics matter — they show original thinking — there is too much practiced casual conformity in all the boring t’s, scruffy jeans, hoodies, flip flops, etc. When i see it, I think come on guys, get a tiny bit of style on. Stand out dude! Like the color and style in your Robert Graham shirts! In contrast, the women founders I meet tend to be well dressed, and some of them are fabulous!

  • Andrea

    My personal opinion is that we should all wear what we are comfortable in – and be comfortable with others choices – I do have a bias for the untucked – esp for my bus partner and husband Bill – first met him he had a suit on – immediately I thought – that guy does not belong in a suit – for me – I do not conform – never have – and when people are more focused on what people are wearing than what the conversation is I am always a little suspect – end of the day – I agree with Brad – and its fun to think about. Thanks for the spark!

  • Joseph Jones

    Ha. This post is “perfect” timing! I’m at the Oracle OpenWorld conference and took this pic yesterday, because I noted what I call the “new suit” and the “old suit.” Brad’s “tucked” and “untucked” 🙂

    Both are well respected individuals, from different environments; working together.

    Extra points, if you can guess who these gentlemen are…

  • Good points here. This applies in the music business as well – tucked business people and untucked songwriters and creatives. Heck, sometimes we’re just glad when the songwriters remember to wear pants.

  • Yay for the tucked and the untucked together — without both, one is fucked and the other unfucked. Thiel’s comment does nothing for the species or startups. Reminds me of a Jackson Browne line, “of all the times that I’ve been burned, by now you’d think I’d have learned, that it’s who you look like, not who you are”.

  • Markets that are efficient are messy.

  • mikegreczyn

    Reminds me of the air force. The “tucked” wear dress blues and push paper. The “untucked” wear bags (aka flight suits) and push iron. It takes both to launch a mission.

  • And Dilbert weighs in.