Like Books, Entrepreneurs Are Always Judged By Their Covers

Raise your hand if you’ve heard these snippets of wisdom before: you should always dress for success; you only get one chance to make a first impression; and of course the ever-popular: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

These old analogies came to mind recently when Megan Williams, North Alabama Director of Business Network International (BNI) was a guest on my radio show and shared the story of how she made the successful transition from worker bee to entrepreneur (you can hear the replay of the interview at

Megan graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Civil Engineering and went to work for the construction arm of Chevron in her early twenties, until a few years later when an experience with a business coach lit the fire of entrepreneurship in her own furnace. Within a short time Megan, who is from the small town of Union Grove, was back in Alabama seeking the right business opportunity for her.

To make a long story short, Megan purchased the BNI franchise for North Alabama at the age of 28 and formally launched her career as an entrepreneur. BNI is a networking organization that serves to bring entrepreneurs from all industries together to network and share leads.

You would never suspect it by looking at her now, but there are a couple of things that you should know about Megan before we continue: Megan grew up a self-professed tomboy and started her business after years in the construction industry, so her standard manner of dress was khaki pants and button down shirts. She didn’t mention steel-toed work boots, so I’ll leave her footwear to your imagination.

By her own words, her hair was “long, straight, and air-dried” and she wasn’t a big user of makeup. So when she started attending networking functions and chamber mixers to promote her business she noticed that she wasn’t getting the warm response from other entrepreneurs that she expected.

Eventually, Megan was pulled aside by a well-meaning friend who said, “Girlfriend, if you’re gonna be a success, you gotta dress for success.”

OK, that actually sounded like Oprah in my head, but you get the point. With the help of her friend Megan went through an extreme makeover and began dressing and acting like a successful entrepreneur. She cut her hair, donned more professional attire, started conducting herself in the manner of a successful entrepreneur, and immediately saw the difference.

“It was like my credibility went up a thousand percent,” Megan said. “Because I looked the part of the successful entrepreneur, people started treating me differently. They were all of a sudden talking to me and listening to me and taking an interest in what I had to say. It was amazing!”

Megan learned a great lesson that all entrepreneurs learn at one time or other: we live in a shallow world where people do judge books – and people – by their covers. You are judged by the clothes you wear, the way you talk, the people you hang around with, how you conduct yourself in public – even your handshake. That’s just the way it is. Live with it or get out of business.

Now some of you may find it offensive that we live in such a judgmental world, but consider this: if you were to consult a brain surgeon and he came in wearing a dirty t-shirt, baggy jeans that dipped below the waist of his boxer shorts, and worn out flip flops, how much trust would you have that this person was capable of working on your brain? Probably not too much.

In business and in life people judge you everyday, just as you judge everyone else. And most of us base our opinion of others on our first impression of them. We make the decision to either like them or loath them within the first minute and you know as well as I do, my holier-than-thou peers, that we do not do business with people that we don’t like. First impressions are hard to change, so make every effort to make every first impression a good one.

Just use your commonsense. Consider the industry you’re in and dress and act accordingly. If the standard dress code in your industry is a suit, wear a suit. If your industry dictates khaki pants and work shirts, wear khaki pants and work shirts. If you show up at a job site wearing a suit you’ll never hear the end of it.

And more than anything act like a professional. Wearing a thousand dollar suit and acting like an idiot just makes you a well-dressed idiot. Customers must have faith in you before they will even consider your product. Remember that the next you think about being rude to someone or making a public spectacle of yourself. You never know who’s watching.