Approachability, founder brand and getting on the soapbox
I think there's really 3 phases to a company:
- Founder needs to do anything in their power to find something that will "work" as a business. Talk to customers, understand pain, solve that pain either through service or product).
- Surround themselves with a team of people that can help them with solving that customer pain.
- Inspire that team to grow the business independently.
The common thread throughout all three phases is "marketing".
To get customers, you need to put yourself out there.
To find great talent, you need to put yourself out there.
To inspire great talent, they need to see that you're willing to put yourself out there for the mission.
For me, I was able to get through pases 1 and 2 while remaining pretty quiet. From 2015 through 2018 I was more of a "behind the scenes guy". Super passionate about the problems we solved. Customers could feel it in live chat or on zoom calls. The team could feel it internally.
That inward facing enthusiasm got us to solid scale, don't get me wrong. But had I never rotated that enthusiasm outward, I don't believe we would have had the growth and outcome that we ended up having.
I was nervous when I first got the push from my CMO Dave Gerhardt to start taking my expertise and passion and sharing it externally.
I cringed when I saw thinkbois out there posting threads, being loud.
But then I realized, If I, the founder of this company, am not out there sharing learnings and stories of customers winning using our product, how could I ever expect anyone else to do it? How could I expect my team to feel this was a worthy mission If I was sitting quietly while the conversation happened online?
Dave nudged me to start taking all those customer insights I learned working with thousands of stores, and start sharing some simple nuggets daily.
I did, and I genuinely think it changed my life.
It started on twitter and linkedin. A simple post each week day about a tactic we coach our clients on. Something that would help you grow your list better, or drive more sales using email. Even if they weren't a privy customer, someone seeing the post should be able to derive value.
I started to get traction pretty quickly because it was subject matter that at the time, no one was focused on.
100% of my content was focused on the expertise I built up over 5 years doing one thing: ecommerce conversion rate optimization.
The funny thing was that in the beginning, not a ton of people were liking or commenting, but I started to get DMs from brand owners I could have never imagined.
Sometimes, traction lives in the DMs, not in the replies.
And that gave me the confidence to turn those daily insights into the tactical podcast, ecommerce marketing school.
Same concept: 5-10 minute episodes, once a day, with some learning or campaign or targeting rule that would improve your business.
From there things really started to steam roll. OF course you could get a ton of value out of the learnings if you weren't a customer, but I'd get even more pointed DMs now from my exact target customer "loved today's episode - didn't realize I could do that. Can I talk to someone at Privy about signing up".
It was amazing.
Then in Gong, we'd start hearing leads on sales calls mention that they loved the podcast, and thats what brought them in.
We never directly measured the ROI from the podcast, but we could feel it.
Me being out there, on the proverbial soapbox, daily on social and through the podcast, catapulted us to the center of the conversation for years.
It actually even provided air cover for us in marketing while we were heads down trying to build table stakes features on email so we could better compete. That stuff takes time. So even in periods where we didn't have a ton of new features to "launch", we were still able to suck some of the oxygen out of the room but getting on the soapbox.
I genuinely believe that the personal brand I built from 2018-2020 added $40M or so to our purchase price.
Dave, my former CMO, actually wrote a book about the concept of "Founder Brand". He goes into pretty good depth about his philosophy on founder led marketing. Something he did at Drift and Privy, to much success.
I highly recommend the book. It's a weekend read, and will inspire you to push yourself to get out there.
I recommend it to ever founder I invest in or advise because it's a playbook that works.
It works because it's not actually a playbook. It's just what it actually takes to tell your story, find customers, recruit and inspire great talent.
It's a modern approach to marketing, that's focused on earning attention through founder-led expertise. Something that most founders keep locked up.
I know I did for far too long.
Even with this blog and fund, I've been blown away at the caliber of the DMs I get from people I would never imagine read this content.
If you're an expert in something, share it online. Only good will come of it - I truly believe that.
Finding your voice online.
I hate video. I love writing. So thats where I started. I wanted to commit to consistency in this "soapbox" approach, so I knew It needed to be in written format.
Tweets, then linkedin, then podcast episodes where I would personally write an outline for every single episode.
Once we hit episode 100 or so, then we layered in video (to help with promotion).
The founder brand model is about consistency above all else, so be sure you're starting with a medium you can commit to.
Approachability is a big part of all this.
Look at Harley from Shopify.
President of a $50B company, responding to most, if not all, relevant posts about shopify on twitter, quickly.
But you're too busy to do this? You're too busy to respond to your first comment on LinkedIn?
Make the time. Be front and center. Respond to your customers or to your community who tags you in stuff online, until it becomes no longer possible.
I found that being there online, responding quickly, not from the brand social account, but from my own, with my face, helped us build further momentum in the soapbox approach.
People wanted to interact with the founder of the company, not the company social account with no face behind it.
Remember - YOU are the expert here.
The more I'd lean in to founder brand, and remain approachable online, the more momentum we built.
Everyone has a different approach on this. For every example of a great founder building momentum through this soapbox approach, there's 5 others who didn't need it to get to scale.
That's totally fair. I'm just telling my story of what worked.
I had an incredible team supporting me in this initiative. It wasn't just me.
But I genuinely believe that had we not taken this approach about being out there, with a mini, modern media business centered around me as the expert, Privy would have just been another logo in the sea of email marketing providers out there....
Thank you, Dave, for the major push.
Looking for current examples of this? Here are a few that are doing things their own way:
Akshaya from spellbound is a product-leaning founder. She records looms and posts regularly showcasing the uniqueness of her product. They always get a ton of engagement and leads for her.
Drew from PostPilot has run fast growth DTC brands himself. He knows what works for him, and he's sharing that content as a way to help other DTC operators, and also elevate the awareness of his direct mail platform.
I like how each of them is leaning into their strengths. Akshaya isn't flaunting what her product does in terms of results or revenue, she's leaning into the product wow factor, and doing it consistently.
Drew is sharing stuff he has learned as an operator, and weaving some humor in as well.
It's gotta be really you if its going to work.