Learn from a great imposter

  • Former trickster Frank Abagnale’s life story holds many lessons for budding startups
  • Hackers usually get more attention but hustlers have their role to play in the ecosystem

Learn from a great imposter I DEVOTE this week’s column to an inspiring speech I had the pleasure of catching during a recent assignment down south in Singapore.
It was the closing keynote of the inaugural RSA Conference Asia Pacific, an IT security event, and the speaker was none other than Frank Abagnale.
Before you ask "Who?" allow me to explain: Abagnale is an American security consultant known for his history as a former confidence trickster, check forger, impostor and escape artist.
He holds claim to being one of the most famous imposters to date, having assumed no fewer than eight identities including an airline pilot, a doctor, a US Bureau of Prisons agent and a lawyer — all before the age of 21.
In fact, airline company PanAm estimated that between the ages of 16 and 18, Abagnale flew over 1.6 million kilometres on over 250 flights and flew to 26 countries using his false identity as a pilot.
But funnily enough, none of these flights were with PanAm as Abagnale noted the chances of getting caught were too high had he done so.
A book written by Stan Redding entitled Catch Me If You Can chronicling his exploits was published in 1980 and was turned into a movie, of the same name, by Steven Spielberg in 2002, featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale.
There is also a Broadway musical of the same name, which opened in April 2011.
Having read the book in my late teens, I was already familiar with the story and counted the chance to hear Abagnale tell the tale in his own words as the highlight of my trip.
My first surprise was discovering that he had no direct involvement in any of the popular culture creations inspired by his life’s story, as he is still employed by the FBI.
My second surprise was how enthralled I became just watching a man do nothing but talk. No PowerPoint presentation, no flashy light show, just him standing alone on a huge stage behind a podium.
Any retelling I could do in print would not do this speaker and story justice so I urge you to watch the video (click video below).

The point of me bringing up Abagnale and his story in today’s column is to highlight the lessons startups can learn from the life of this man.
Entrepreneurs are always looking for opportunities, especially in places where one may not spot it at first blush.
For those now cracking their heads with spotting a business opportunity, take comfort in Abagnale’s own journey.
It only took the observations of an enterprising teenage runaway to unearth the many security loopholes in the airline industry and banking systems that could be exploited.
So the prospects are there, if you are open to seeing it that is, whether you're motivated by a desire to survive or to make a difference.
Entrepreneurs are also repeatedly told that while having an idea is half the battle won, it’s in the execution that real success is to be had.
In the 1960s, the quick-thinking and wit of a teenage boy seeking to survive on his own sparked an unfortunate career in fraud that was wrong but nevertheless successful up to a point.
So founders should never be too quick to disregard their own gut instincts in pursuing and executing their venture.
The fact that Abagnale did eventually get caught is also another lesson for startups, that in the race to the top, one should never be tempted to cut corners or attempt not-so-legitimate methods, or face the consequences of discovery.
But perhaps the biggest lesson of all startups can learn from Abagnale is the element that made him such a great imposter in the first place — the ability to tell a story in a very convincing way.
Entrepreneurs need to sell everything, from themselves, their idea and their team to the possibility that success is imminent.
It has oft been said that the most successful startups count both hackers and hustlers among their founding teams.
Hackers can build the most fantastic product since sliced bread, but you still need a hustler to convince everyone that eating sliced bread is a much better value proposition than hacking chunks off a loaf.
Abagnale today, at the age of 65 in a hall with over 1,500 people, can still command their undivided attention for 45 minutes straight. A truly coveted skill that any hustler should seek to hone.
So call today’s column an ode of sorts to the hustlers out there in the startup space. The hackers may get more love and street cred than you, but don’t get too bothered by that little detail.
The fact is, they still have to rely on you to sell what they’ve created to the rest of the world.

This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.

Previous Instalments:

Building bridges between Malaysia and Singapore

Richard Branson on how to take on Goliath

Incubate, accelerate or go solo

Finding the right fit

More than just big ideas 

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