Scam Your Way to the Top

Land that angel investment using the art of the con

Scam Your Way to the Top

"Someone recently asked me, 'Do you realize that you've written a playbook on how to fool people?'"

In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time, psychologist and author Maria Konnikova explores the universal mechanisms of deception that govern everything from three-card monte scams to email hoaxes from "Nigerian princes." The book features dozens of first-person accounts of conmen doing what they do best: gaining someone's trust, taking their money, and disappearing. Through no stretch of the imagination, their wisdom can be easily applied to today's start-up culture.

It's the last thing a rube wants to hear, but most tricks follow a common narrative. In 1940, David Maurer's underworld case study The Big Con coined hard-boiled terms like "the rope" and "the fix" to explain the confidence-game arc. Those same plot points hold true today, because at the root of every scam is the timeless art of storytelling, which Konnikova will focus on at her SXSW featured session.

"Stories are the strongest tool that we have to persuade people, which is why they're so easy to misuse. There's a very thin line between stories that are told for good or for ill," says Konnikova.

That shouldn't be news to entrepreneurs. During a week like SXSW, when everyone is armed with the next big idea, the power of story and potential for deception grows exponentially.

Looking to land an angel investor? First learn about your mark (investment history, industry interests, favorite sports teams) then start the Play by appealing to their emotions (good causes, impossible goals, horrible greed). Next lay out the Rope (your amazing pitch!), and hopefully the Tale is strong enough to derail that investor's rational doubts about a cat-sharing app called Prrr. Once the money starts rolling in, the narrative flips from coercion to reassurance. During the Convincer stage, beta delays are justified; in the Breakdown, poor user engagement tests the angel's patience; but then in the Send, the investor doubles down and agrees to sponsor Best Coast's national tour in exchange for pimping out her cat, Snacks. Finally, in the Blow Off and the Fix, the app goes offline and both developer and investor agree to never speak of it again.

"Just like with start-ups, con artists always have a game plan for covering their ass. They know what their outs are and how to disappear without incurring any legal liability," says Konnikova.

Let's just hope Snacks was returned safely.


Related Panel

The Confidence Game: The Power (and Price) of Stories
Monday, March 14, 5pm
Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD

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