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Are you a builder or a breaker? Your answer could have big implications for your startup

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

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A study carried out by the Harvard Business Review found that entrepreneurs who described themselves with references to the concept of “disruptive innovation” attracted significantly more interest from both investors and prospective employees.

By examining trends on LinkedIn, the Review found many people drawn to the startup life tended to represent one of two identities. The first are the breakers, who describe themselves in disruptive terms and focus on the brand-new. The second are the builders, who embrace concepts like collaboration and aim to improve things that already exist.

HBR then went further to test how the identities perform in the startup environment. Builders tend to be more numerous, to the point where they’re roughly 10 times more commonly found than breakers. However, where the disrupters are lacking in numbers, they make up for in excitement. The possibility of bringing something new to the table works to their advantage when courting investors, who contribute almost twice as much funding to startups that promise to break the status quo. The more disruptive innovation a business can promise, the more funds it can usually pull. The excitement of the breakers also attracted human capital as well. An HBR survey found the spirit of innovation made hypothetical employees feel more excited and energized about the prospect of working at a breaker firm than that of a builder.

That’s not to say the disrupter class is without its weaknesses. While a breaker’s energy can attract resources, it also lends itself to serial entrepreneurship that can stifle the potential of any one idea. Builder identities seem to help with employee retention, with builder firms getting a significant boost over their breaker counterparts. That longevity can go a long way for young companies who’d rather be spending time developing core competencies, as opposed to constantly recruiting to fill a revolving-door office.

Ultimately, builders and breakers do better when they’re on the same team. Try to examine the language you use to describe your business. How might you be perceived by a potential investor? What about a possible employee? Learning more about the identity of your firm — and the individuals within it — can help ensure you’re directing the right energy at every stage of the business development process.

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