Savvy entrepreneurs start testing their ideas on potential customers even before the concept is fully cooked. They have enough confidence in their ability to deliver that they don't worry about someone stealing the idea to get there first, and they don't forget to listen carefully to critical feedback. They become walking public relations machines for themselves, as well as their idea.
The alternative is to spend big money later on pivots, lost credibility with investors, and delays at rollout trying to build visibility and credibility. I'm not proposing that anyone promise things that they don't intend to deliver, but it's time that founders switch to start selling their product before they build it, rather than believing the old adage of "if we build it, they will come."
I still hear too many excuses for not working early on the elevator pitch, like wanting to fly under the radar, don't have the team together yet, or can't afford an agency. In fact, you don't need a third-party public relations agency at this stage. There is real value in doing the key things yourself, before your startup is even started:
- Demonstrate thought leadership before selling a product. Highlight the problem and your concerns in industry blogs, speaking in public forums, and making yourself visible on social media and networking opportunities. You want people to see you as an evangelist for hydrogen fuel, for example, so your later auto engine will have credibility by default.
- Craft and hone your elevator pitch early. Before the product is set in stone, you can test your message and continue to refine it until it connects well with investors, as well as customers. Later you may have the problem of being told by public relations firms to stay on message, even after you suspect it is not working.
- Visibly be a bit controversial to test the limits. This early in the game, any coverage and peer review is better than just being another unknown entrepreneur. It's human nature that challenging the status quo gets more attention than quiet concurrence. People tend to forgive controversial views if you aren't perceived as pushing a product.
- Proactively seek out thought leaders and journalists. Entrepreneurs who wait to be found are destined to spend a lot of time alone. Social media sites today, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, provide ideal forums for presenting your cause and your concept. Start actively blogging on your own site, as well as on industry forums.
- Make your business cards stand out in the crowd. Everyone exchanges business cards, and most are forgotten immediately or never really seen. These days, images are especially important, as well as a tag line, and your social media links. Unique and professional business cards are still well worth the investment.
- Follow up personally on every new connection. Key introductions in a networking meeting will be quickly lost, unless you take the next step of calling or emailing later to request a personal meeting. Use these meetings to build the relationship, more by asking questions than by pitching your concept. Requests for investment come later.
Every entrepreneur has a story, perhaps the inspiration for your idea, or the path taken to get to this point, or a key lesson learned from past mistakes. Stories are the grist reporters look for, and they make you unique and memorable. Find your personal hook -- it can be more key to your entrepreneurial success than any given product or service that you are about to offer.
If you are a social entrepreneur, a natural hook is the environmental or humanity cause that you espouse. Perhaps you can amplify your position by sponsoring an event, traveling to a visible location, or donating your time and other resources.
These days, winning in the crowded startup world is all about marketing. The sooner and more effectively you utilize all the available marketing channels, the more visibility and impact you will have later when your product or service arrives. As an entrepreneur, you are the most important part of your brand, not the other way around. Capitalize on yourself early.