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Your Swag Is Not Your Company Essay

HBO’s series "Silicon Valley" offers viewers an irreverent look at life inside a startup, through the eyes of young entrepreneurs and their fictitious company, Pied Piper. I appreciate the humorous take on real issues, including one all-important necessity: swag — to the tune of $30,000 in Pied Piper's case.

Tech-sector companies compete for bragging rights over which group has the coolest swag. When I attend events, I see tech founders sporting their newly minted company T-shirts under blazers. The tee-and-jeans combo is practically the Valley's uniform. The hype is real. After all, what entrepreneur doesn’t love tangible proof that his or her startup is legitimate? We want to feel that rush, knowing we made it. But is it worth it when 90 percent of startups fail, and the  is running out of cash? 

We all fall prey to swag. Even I wasn't immune to its appeal, jaded though I was. Perhaps my hidden fascination for all things swag stems from my modest upbringing. Like many entrepreneurs, I couldn't afford a lot of the trendy extras. And whatever the reason, people in tech have a serious thing for swag.

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Don’t be swayed into the swag crowd.

When I founded my latest company, I told myself, “No swag! Nobody cares, and it’s a waste of money.” Then came the test: our first event. The event organizers said I would represent the company — and I should bring stuff for our table. I panicked. What would we bring?

Then, it happened. The swag bug bit. Frantic, I ordered backpacks with company’s logo. We received our order, and the backpacks looked great. As a business owner, I felt validated. Our company was somehow more official. Except it wasn’t. Swag isn’t magic. It doesn’t change your brand identity or your market share.

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Our swag wasn’t even what captured attention at that first event — we were! We interacted with others, showing professionalism and solid knowledge in our field. Our product made attendees take notice. As it turned out, we didn’t need the backpacks. Our people made our table the most popular at the event, and guests lined up to visit with us. Just us, at a major conference in a huge hotel, surrounded by solution providers sporting tons of swag far better than our backpacks. We learned that our success comes down to the people and the substance of what we offer our customers. 

In case we needed a review, a logo change nine months later drove home the point: We had to admit the swag was a mistake that cost us nearly $350. I realize that's not a lot of money in the bigger picture. My thrifty background and mindset didn't allow a splashy splurge. Still, money spent on things we didn't really need cost us more than the dollars out of our bank account. Our left-over backpacks suddenly were outdated, and I again was reminded of "Silicon Valley." One episode's final scene shows a truck loaded with T-shirts, foam fingers and golf balls — all bearing the company's old logo.

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Realize you are your company's most effective advertisement.

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Here’s the reality: Everybody loves to take swag. They take it because we live in a material world where people are obsessed with stuff. There's a momentary novelty in getting shiny new swag in hand, but it wears off quickly. At the end of the day, your costly swag often ends up in a drawer or the trash.

If you're strong enough to fight the urge, pass on the swag. You might feel pressure, just as I did. Keep your cash! And when you head to an event to represent your company, simply take your laptop and put on your best accessory: a smile. If you have the right people and a product that fits your market, it's really all you need.

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