Could this be the competitive advantage you’ve been looking for?
I launched my first startup in 2002 while I was still in college. I mention this only because I’ve recently realized I’m entering my third decade as an entrepreneur.
Yikes! That’s a long time in the tech startup world.
During that time, I’ve seen lots of significant changes. Among them has been the emergence of cloud computing, streamlined online payment processing, mobile devices, AI, crypto, and an array of tracking and data services so precise that they’ve made personalization creepily good.
All the changes I’ve mentioned, as well as plenty others, have certainly been impactful, but they’re not very subtle. By that I mean they’re big, obvious changes, and, when appropriate, most competent entrepreneurs figure out how to take advantage of them in some way or another. By that I mean we’ve all “moved to the cloud.” We’ve all “gone mobile.” And so on.
However, there’s another change that’s been taking place for the past 20-ish years. It’s equally as impactful — if not more so — than all the ones I’ve mentioned, but it’s more subtle. As a result, lots of entrepreneurs are missing it. Not the savvy ones, though. The savvy entrepreneurs are increasingly embracing the subtle change, and, when they do, it pays huge dividends.
I first began noticing the subtle change back when I was working on my last major, VC-backed startup. It was a sales tech company. One of our competitors was blowing 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 to be a blowhard who was more interested in promoting himself than his company. And yet, his business seemed to be adding new customers faster than I could schedule demos, and he had VCs lining up to write him checks.
What was going on?
My problem, I eventually realized, was baked into my criticism of the other company. I was taking what might best 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 win my market, I needed to “out-product” my competitors.
In contrast, my competitor who was beating the heck out of me wasn’t focused ont his product. He was focused on building his personal brand as an entrepreneur and then leveraging that brand to attract customers and make sales. As a result, while I was sitting around iterating on my product and poking fun at my counterpart’s latest self-promoting Instagram post, he was using all the publicity he was generating for himself on social media to get in front of customers.
For what it’s worth, he was also probably making fun of me. Or rather, I’m sure he would have been laughing at me if he wasn’t too busy creating social media content, getting new customers, and putting me out of business.
I closed that company nearly five years ago, meaning I’ve had plenty of time to think about why it failed. While I’m sure lots of mistakes and circumstances contributed to its ultimate failure, I never considered the role of that other founder and how he contributed to my company’s demise until a recent conversation with one of my entrepreneurship students.
He’s spent the past year building his startup, and he pulled me aside after class one day to ask some questions. However, rather than wanting advice from me about his startup — which is what most founders ask about — he’d seen all my articles, newsletters, podcasts, and TikToks, and he wanted advice about building his personal brand.
“Why are you worried about that?” I asked him. “Creating content every week like I do is a full-time job. How are you going to have time to do all that and build your startup?”
He looked at me, confused, and said, “I don’t see the difference. Isn’t my personal brand a big part of whether or not my startup is going to be successful?”
When he said this, he reminded me of my old nemesis from back in my sales-tech days. I hadn’t thought about him in five years, and I suddenly found myself wondering: “Whatever happened to him and his company?”
As soon as I got done talking with my student, I took out my phone and Googled my one-time competitor. Sure-enough… his company is still alive, he’s still putting out self-promoting content, and he appears to have more customers and VC funding than ever.
In contrast, here I am, company shuttered, millions in VC money lost, and doing something completely different. In that moment, the reason he’d beat me became crystal clear. He didn’t beat me because he’d built 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, despite my condescension and ridicule, all the time my competitor spent posting to his personal Instagram and Twitter feeds wasn’t self-serving. It was a wildly effective marketing strategy. He was building name recognition and trust from consumers that made them aware of his product and interested in using it. Meanwhile, I was sitting around my office tweaking code, adding new features, and hoping people would discover how cool my product was on their own. No wonder I lost. People can’t buy a product they don’t know exists.
Luckily, for savvy entrepreneurs living in the age of digital social media, making sure people know you exist is more accessible than ever. It begins by recognizing that you — the founder — are an important part of your company’s brand. The better you are at promoting yourself, the better you’ll be at growing your startup. And you don’t need to buy expensive TV commercials or spend huge amounts of money on ad campaigns. What you need is a cell phone, a social media account, and — most importantly — a willingness to shamelessly continue promoting yourself and your company. Sure, your competitors might ridicule you. But don’t worry… you’ll get the last laugh when you put them out of business.
Author: Aaron Dinin, PhD