Perception and Your Career – COVID-19 series

Perception is a powerful thing: What we do, where we live, which school we went to, which company we work for and who our clients are paint a picture of where we belong in people’s minds. Rightly or wrongly, perception is reality. Perception also informs finance.

A thought experiment: You meet someone at a function and ask the obligatory question of what they do for a living. You get the following answers:

  • I work for a large warehousing and logistics firm
  • I work in the energy industry, primarily focused on electricity
  • I work in consumer electronics sales
  • I work for a large taxi services firm
  • I work at a very large information indexing firm.

Some people (not us) nod politely and move onto the next conversation. But of course, the above statements could also read like this:

  • I work at Amazon
  • I work for Tesla
  • I work at Apple
  • I work at Uber
  • I work for Google.

Same job, different description, entirely different perception.

If someone works at a ‘hot’ company, surely they must be smarter, better, more competent. A possibility few people consider is that they might just be lucky to have ‘a seat on a rocket ship’ – simply riding the success of what happened before they got there. Maybe the more competent person is working damn hard and smart in a failing firm with fewer resources and a worse brand perception. Reality is rarely as it seems.

The economics of perception: Perception doesn’t only change minds – it also influences the economic value we assign to something. People, careers and especially corporations. If a firm seems ‘futuristic’ enough, the market can be incredibly irrational. Uber has lost $38 billion since 2013 and yet still has a market valuation of around $60 billion. As I discussed on The World on ABC News, I don’t believe Uber will ever recoup investors’ money and I still stand by this. But the reason Uber is valued so highly has little to do with reality and more to do with perception. In the short run, perception is more profitable than reality.

Now let’s compare Tesla with its closest competitors. The figures below represent the market capitalisation of the biggest car companies in the world, divided by how many cars they sell per year.

– Tesla $ valuation per car sold = $302k
– GM $ valuation per car = $5k
– Ford $ valuation per car sold = $17k
– Toyota $ valuation per car sold = $15k

Even though Tesla makes terrific cars (and has a wider portfolio) – its valuation is seriously inflated. Tesla plans to make 500,000 cars this year, while Toyota will ship around 10 million. Even if Tesla sold 5 million cars (10 times more than it does today), it would then have a valuation of $30,000 per car sold, which is still double that of Toyota. It just doesn’t add up. We must also remember that Tesla’s advantage in electric cars is quickly being eroded. You don’t have to be a maths major to understand that the economics of this will eventually drag their share price down. Likewise, it’s a lesson in the importance of brands, and being seen as technologically competent and future-centric. It’s one of the things our economy values most highly today.

Here’s the kicker – this isn’t just important for companies, it’s vital for you.

The Economic Perception of You: Being seen as future-focused and technologically literate in your career is a bankable asset. In uncertain times, people want to back those who have a handle on the future. It gives them confidence in you and gives you outsized opportunities. Being good at what you do today isn’t enough. People need to believe you’ll be good at whatever they’ll need tomorrow. This is a perception game – a matter of personal brand. How ‘Elon Musk’ are you? Our work lives used be based on qualifications, experience and competence. Increasingly, having a personal brand is becoming a core competence for everyone.

The World Just Got Flatter: Twitter, Facebook and other large technology firms have just announced their staff can work from home ‘forever’. Once we start to work from home, employers can hire staff from anywhere globally. It’ll be harder to build relationships, so having a personal brand will be even more vital. What we know from consumer culture and technology is that the most impressive brands command the highest price, not the most functional ones. This means that the marketing we do for ourselves might even be more important than the marketing do we do for an employer.

Keep thinking,


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P.S – My Post-Covid-Economics briefing is getting rave reviews. I’ve now done with Fortune 50 firms and Governments in the USA, India, China, Singapore & the UK. I have a few corporate slots left for the month of June. Details here.