Whether you’re seeking funding or looking for customers, founder thought leadership is often an untapped tactic for growing your startup. Here’s how to get started painlessly.
Marketing yourself as an authority (or better yet, an influencer) using thought leadership helps grow your startup — whether that’s getting funding, customers, press coverage, talent, or strategic partnerships.
Investors, customers, media, talent — the list goes on — don’t just look at your company anymore. The line between founder and company is disappearing fast: today, the founder is the company and the company is the founder. And if you’re CEO, the line is even blurrier.
Think about the correlation between views of your personal LinkedIn profile and certain key activities: fundraising, media coverage, networking, hiring, partnership negotiations, influencer outreach, conferences, applications, landing high-profile customers. Chances are it is very high, probably closing in on 95 percent or more.
Yet many see their personal brand as a nice-to-have. But whether or not you choose to actively build your brand, it’s still evaluated.
One of the easiest ways to shape your brand is through founder thought leadership. Better yet, the input is often disproportionately small compared to the pay-off.
Getting started doesn’t require a lot of money, commitment, or time. You don’t need to be an “expert,” and it’s almost impossible to start too early or too late.
So what do I mean by founder thought leadership?
Creating and distributing content (written, spoken, audio, video) in your own name, rather than your company’s, in order to build authority, credibility, and trustworthiness.
While company thought leadership is great at establishing trust and credibility with customers, founder thought leadership is better at building authority with all stakeholders.
Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, is a great example of founder thought leadership. So is Mattermark’s CEO, Danielle Morrill.
There is a reason why Time’s Person of the Year is coming up on its 90th anniversary (and has consistently been one of the magazine’s best-selling issues every year). It’s a big deal for any CEO to be featured… even for the Zuckerbergs or Bezos of the world.
No, not everyone is going to be Richard Branson or Elon Musk. In fact, most won’t end up building that
kind of reputation, but that’s ok. You don’t need to achieve visionary status to help close a round of funding or nail down that strategic partnership. You just need to build some authority within your niche. Sometimes this only takes a few high-quality pieces.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to make thought leadership a priority. Of course, the more you put in, the greater the benefit. But unlike many things, you don’t necessarily need to put in a lot to get a great payoff.
Think about it from an investor’s point of view. One of the things they want to know is that you’re the right person to build this company. So give them tangible evidence (beyond pitching and meetings) to show it. Well-thought-out pieces demonstrating not only your understanding of your space, but also your vision for its future, can go a long way.
Many thought leaders aren’t necessarily experts, yet they have become authoritative. How? They share their expertise. And so can you. You don’t need to be an “expert” — at least by the traditional definition — to have expertise.
Topics Every Founder Can Leverage To Become Thought Leaders.
#1. Your unique expertise in… you.
That is to say, you are uniquely qualified to share expertise in how you build your company, your vision for the future of your market, and how you view the problem you’re tackling.
#2. Customer development.
This data is a goldmine. Analyze it. Share your analysis. Of course, be careful and only publish analyses you’re fine with your current or any future competitors seeing, as customer data is your ultimate competitive advantage.
Look at Price Intelligently (who also make the free SaaS metrics tool ProfitWell). While this is done on the company’s blog, this type of general analysis is great.
#3. Your wisdom.
• Share your take on prevailing ideas / theories. Take the recent coverage of WealthSimple’s re-brand. Current startup wisdom says to invest only in marketing you can measure, but WealthSimple bet on branding.
• Introduce concepts / frameworks from other fields.
• Comment on relevant trends and news. This is a great idea for two reasons: 1) It’s an especially good way to build authority; and 2) Even if you don’t yet know exactly what market you’ll ultimately serve, you can still do this.
• Predict trends in business, entrepreneurship, or better yet, your industry or market.
Let’s take commenting on relevant news. Shopify made headlines a few weeks ago with the release of Sello, a consumer app enabling everyone to become sellers with only a few clicks. You could comment on:
i. How this could affect buy / sell models like VarageSale
ii. The micro selling trend
iii. How it could potentially disrupt big players like eBay or Kijiji.
Yes, Desired End-Result Matters.
While founder thought leadership is an all-around growth accelerant, if there is a result you’re particularly interested in achieving (often this is fundraising), then focus on the best content for that audience.
For instance, if fundraising is the goal, you’ll probably want your thought leadership to persuade investors that you are the right person to build this business in this market. So try creating content that showcases your knowledge of your market and your insights into the future of your industry.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to get early-adopters, try content focused on the problem / pain you’re addressing. If you’re B2B, be educational and informative. If you’re B2C, try being inspirational or entertaining.
My Favorite Medium For Starting Founder Thought Leadership Is…
• It’s free
• It doesn’t require maintenance or commitment
• It has built-in distribution (bonus: you’re hopefully also building a large, influential LinkedIn network)
• It’s the #1 place stakeholders (investors, press, talent, strategic partners, etc) will likely go to find information on you
8 Other Recommended Ways To Start Establishing Your Thought Leadership:
1. Answer questions on Q&A sites like Quora, Reddit, etc.
2. Use a service like HARO to respond to queries from journalists.
3. Publish on Medium.
4. Submit guest posts / contributor pieces to relevant blogs / media outlets.
5. Create presentations. Post on Slideshare.
6. Submit yourself as a guest to podcasts.
7. Start blogging on your own domain (i.e. johndoe.com).
8. Speak publically. Build up to keynotes. You could already have some great Slideshares (#5) that need some narration.
Getting Started Is Painless (Well, Relatively)
Yes it’s an investment. And time is scarce. But remember this investment is cheap, highly liquid (i.e. no commitment), and has a high potential ROI: one high-quality piece could make the difference in closing a round, getting that partner, or securing that press piece. There aren’t too many investments like that.
If you want to get started, test the waters with LinkedIn Pulse. If you want to take it up a level, try blogging on your own domain and sharing via Medium, LinkedIn Pulse, etc. Attempt to get featured in a few media pieces à la HARO. Work your way up to the big leagues of conference keynotes. And the emphasis is always on quality, never quantity.
Ashley Greene is a business strategist and graduate of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. She is the founder of Instratify.