Entrepreneur Educator, Program Developer, Facilitator

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What to do when someone calls you a copycat 

Amsterdam. April, 2011. 

I was having such a great day. Woke up to the sounds of birds chirping. Walked past bike racks and cute canal bridges to a eurocoffee and a europastry, enjoying the hell out of it in the way that only a walkable-city-starved American can.  

I was on my way to the venue where I would run the second day of a three day entrepreneurship program. Everything was going swimmingly until one of the participants—an angular-faced man in black-rimmed glasses and a black turtleneck—pulled me aside. 

“Cam,” he said in crisp, Dutch-accented English, “There is a problem.” He went on with a litany of complaints about the program I was running and how it was a copycat of a different program he had participated in before.

The program I was running was called “3 Day Startup.” The program he had participated in before was called “Startup Weekend.” So his take was not unreasonable. 

I was well aware of this uniquely northern european brand of criticism. In that culture, people harping on what your work is as natural as breathing: it happens all the time, often without the person being aware they are doing it. They see Americans with their optimism and positivity like golden retrievers: oblivious, energetic dolts. Despite knowing this, I pushed back. 

“No, we’re different. We have more structure. And our selection process allows for more ideas and…”

He was unimpressed. So was I. Even to me, my answers sounded like I was grasping at straws. 

“But you have no intellectual property. No competitive moat. Literally anyone could do what you’re doing with us this weekend.”

Shaken, I kept reaching for rebuttals. His facial expression never shifted but my insecurities made it feel as if he was smirking. As if he would break out into a movie villain laugh.

At that point, I was one year deep into my CEO journey and I had a serious case of main character syndrome. As a young founder, I was deeply ego-invested in becoming successful and when someone called me out, I bristled.

So I kept hearing him out. Humoring his comments, marshaling precious mental energy to convince him that he was mistaken. All the while, the 29 other participants were busy working on their startups. 

Not only should I have been giving my energy to the participants who were bought in to the program, I should have been following their example, i.e. giving my focus to the most important thing: doing the work. Not listening to this armchair quarterback.

But the Dutchman taught me a valuable lesson: default to ignoring your critics.

I spent the next ten years taking this company across the world to 35 more countries. I was able to work with founders on the ground at Harvard and MIT, Brazilian rainforests and Australian beaches, Seoul and Paris. Entrepreneurs from our programs launched thousands of companies, raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and achieved high-profile exits to companies such as Google and Etsy. I learned what it means to build a team from the ground up and lead (mostly) without ego.

Meanwhile, my Dutch critic did nothing with his life. Every year or so, I would check on him on LinkedIn. Every year brought more progress for my company. Every year I’d see no meaningful updates on his end. Over time, I stopped caring about him and checking up on him. Writing this piece is the first time I’ve thought about the critic in five years.

Takeaway: If you’re new to doing your own thing, it’s ok to trust yourself. You don’t have to give attention to every piece of feedback, especially if it’s not part of a larger pattern.

Thanks to early reader Alan Hibbard

(Some googling turned up actual pictures from the program. Enjoy…

The wonderful, sleep-deprived team that ran everything
A common scene: caffeine-powered and ill-kempt smart people building things
Me trying to get everything ready for pitches
Anytime you’re running sprints and bootcamps it’s wise to give people stretch breaks and yoga
Pictured: what things look like in the early stages of building a product