Could this be the competitive advantage you were looking for?
Unsplash. Photo by Phil S. Per
I started my first startup in 2002 when I was still in college. I mention this only because I have recently realized that I am entering my thirties as an entrepreneur.
Oh! That’s a long time in the tech startup world.
During that time I have seen many important changes. Among them cloud computing, streamlined online payment processing, mobile devices, AI, crypto, and an array of tracking and data services so precise they have made personalization great.
All the changes I mentioned, as well as many others, have certainly been impressive, but they are not very subtle. By that I mean they are big, obvious changes, and, when appropriate, most capable entrepreneurs figure out how to take advantage of them in some way or another. By that I mean we’ve all “gone to the cloud.” We’ve all “gone mobile.” And so on.
However, there is another change that has been taking place for the last 20-ish years. It’s just as impressive – if not more – than all the ones I’ve mentioned, but it’s more subtle. As a result, a lot of entrepreneurs are missing it. Not knowledgeable, though. Knowledgeable entrepreneurs are increasingly embracing subtle change, and when they do, it pays huge dividends.
I first started noticing the subtle change when I was working at my previous major, VC-backed startup. It was a sales tech company. One of our competitors was blown away by us and every other startup in the industry, and I couldn’t figure out why.
My competitor’s product was garbage compared to mine, the pricing was nonsensical, and worst of all, the founder seemed a jerk, more interested in promoting himself than his company. And yet, their business was adding new clients faster than I could schedule demos, and they had VCs to write checks.
what was happening?
My problem, I eventually realized, lay in my criticism of the other company. I used what could be described as an “old school” approach to entrepreneurship, where product iteration and testing was at the core of my company’s workflow because I believed that, in order to conquer my market, I needed to An “out-product” was required. my competitor.
On the contrary, my rivals who were weighing down on me were not focusing on their product. He was focused on building his personal brand as an entrepreneur and then leveraging that brand to attract customers and drive sales. As a result, while I was iterating on my product and mocking my counterpart’s latest self-promotional Instagram post, he was using the hype he was creating for himself on social media to get in front of customers. Had been.
For what it’s worth, he was probably also making fun of me. Or rather, I’m sure he’d be laughing at me if he wasn’t busy creating social media content, getting new clients, and putting me out of business.
I closed that company about five years ago, which means I have plenty of time to think about why it failed. While I’m sure that a lot of mistakes and circumstances contributed to its eventual failure, I never considered the role that other founder played in my company’s demise until a recent conversation with one of my entrepreneurship students. How did you contribute?
He spent the past year building his startup, and he pulled me aside after class one day to ask a few questions. However, instead of consulting me about his startup—which most founders ask about—he saw all of my articles, newsletters, podcasts, and TikTok, and he wanted advice on building his personal brand.
“Why are you worried about it?” I asked him. “Creating content every week like mine is a full-time job. How will you have the time to do all this and build your startup?”
He looked at me, confused, and said, “I can’t see the difference. Isn’t my personal brand a big part of whether or not my startup will be successful?”
When he said this, he reminded me of my old servitude from back in my sales-tech days. I hadn’t thought about him in five years, and I suddenly found myself wondering: “What happened to him and his company?”
As I spoke with my student, I took out my phone and googled my one-time competitor. Sure… his company is still alive, he’s still putting out self-promoting content, and it looks like he has more clients and VC funding than ever before.
In contrast, here I am, the company shut down, lost millions of VC money, and was doing something completely different. In that moment, the reason why he beat me became clear. It didn’t beat me because it made a better product. He beat me because he understood the emerging role that personal branding is starting to play in consumer buying habits.
In other words, the amount of time my competitor spent posting on their personal Instagram and Twitter feeds, despite my condescension and ridicule, was not self-serving. It was a wildly effective marketing strategy. He was building name recognition and trust from consumers which made them aware of his product and showed interest in using it. In the meantime, I was around my office tweaking code, adding new features, and hoping that people would find out how great my product was on its own. No wonder I lost. People cannot buy a product that they are not aware of.
Fortunately, for savvy entrepreneurs living in the age of digital social media, making sure people know you exist is more accessible than ever. It starts with recognizing that you – the founder – are an important part of your company’s brand. The better you are at promoting yourself, the better you will be at growing your startup. And you don’t need to buy expensive TV commercials or spend huge amounts of money on advertising campaigns. What you need is a cell phone, a social media account, and – most important – a willingness to brazenly promote yourself and your company. Sure, your competitors may ridicule you. But don’t worry… you’ll have the last laugh when you put them out of business.