Archive for the ‘branding’ tag
Say what you want to about law firms, but some of them have nailed a great branding hack: they have taken a stodgy service provider offering and “startupized” it by customizing and branding their work to appeal to founders. Of course, this isn’t just a branding task, there’s often real substance behind it — a solid startup-savvy lawyer can be one of the most critical partnership decisions a CEO makes. But the mere fact that so many first-time founders understand the value of a great law firm is pretty remarkable. 83(b) elections, for instance, are now common knowledge in the startup community, and it doesn’t take most CEOs more than five minutes to track down some publicly-released template seed funding documents.
These firms aren’t simply generous — cultivating a client pool of top seed-stage startups can be a huge win down the road for a service provider when those companies get bigger and pay bigger fees. But as far as I can tell, the path that startup-friendly law firms blazed hasn’t been followed by other service providers, even ones with a similar relationship to entrepreneurs. Who is the Wilson Sonsini or Gunderson of the accounting world, for instance? There isn’t one, but funded startups still pay for outside tax and bookkeeping work. I’ve spoken with several VCs who believe that the lack of startup-savvy accounting and CFO expertise is a talent crisis only exceeded by the deficit of hackers.
This is a branding problem that certain law firms have solved and other service providers haven’t. Because some firms have established thought leadership, savvy founders –even first-time founders — know what law firm they want, and they find an intro to that firm. The discovery process for (say) accountants is totally different, as there aren’t any branded, aspirational accounting firms that appeal to founders. Rather, many founders simply use a friend of a friend or family member to do their tax and accounting work or get a poorly-researched referral from another entrepreneur. This is a huge missed opportunity for everyone, especially the service providers.
Accounting firms aren’t the only ones missing the boat. Here are a few others, although I’m sure there are more:
PEOs and Payroll Providers: I’ve never met a founder who has enjoyed working with a PEO or payroll provider. Dealing with payroll, workers’ comp, insurance, taxes, health coverage and similar headaches is a huge pain, and the PEOs and payroll providers I’ve seen have punted on every opportunity to make it easier. Rather than crafting a unique value prop for startups and charging appropriately, these firms make the mistake of treating startups as “small versions of large companies”, assume that every startup has a dozen departments, charge too little and deliver way too little.
Wealth Management: I’m writing in more detail on this topic in this week’s letter.ly. But in brief, I think wealth management organizations — despite their traditional sales-heavy tactics — are missing a huge opportunity by not developing a savvier brand that can appeal to founders. Of all the wealth management groups, I figure at least one of them would acknowledge the lessons of the Bay Area finance revolution and focus their specialization on risk mitigation and alternative asset classes like P2P lending and real estate.
Office Hardware: The traditional office copier leasing process is miserable for entrepreneurs — which is a shame, because there are a lot of benefits to leasing a machine rather than maintaining your own. Have an office with a mix of Macs and PCs or fewer than two years of tax returns? Good luck.
All of these industries are ripe to be disrupted by savvy service providers that are willing to craft brands and offerings that appeal directly to founders. It’s easier than ever to start a company, and there are far more startups and founders today than there ever have been. So who will tackle the new market?
Jason Cohen has a great post on unfair advantages. One of Cohen’s differentiators — personal authority — is the most useful to first- and second-time entrepreneurs.
So the question arises: how do you build strong and scalable personal authority?
I’ve heard blogging come up often, but I don’t think this is the way to go for most people. Blogging is hard. Rather, building personal authority through blogging is hard, and at the very least it’s total feast-or-famine. Unless your blog heavily incorporates a recognizable brand — like Chris Dixon or Fred Wilson — most people will probably lump your content into the “read it somewhere” bucket and forget that you had any association with it.
Events are different — when you run an event, you’re in front of the crowd. You get to send out regular emails to a large group of people, and the inbox is vastly more powerful than a RSS feed (this is also why I’ve moved some of my content over to letter.ly). In short, events are typically a much better tactic to gain the kind of personal authority that Cohen praises.
Starting an event series is daunting, but it’s actually quite a bit easier than it seems. I get asked about events a lot, so I’ve sketched out a basic strategy to building personal authority through an event series. I try not to be too servicey here, but I think this strategy is too important not to be spelled out:
1) Pick a topic. It should be big enough to potential draw a crowd of hundreds but not so big that you’ll lose focus (and high-quality people). And it goes without saying that this should be something in which you’d like to gain thought leadership. Competition and geography is also important — there probably isn’t room for another general “tech” event in New York right now, so most new events focus on specific verticals, processes or technologies. Over the past two years, I’ve helped create recurring events around gaming, marketplaces, and failed entrepreneurs, all of which fit in the sweet spot.
2) Build your promotional tools. Create a group page on Meetup.com, setting everything to “public” right off the bat. Meetup will actually promote your first event to its membership, which can be significant if you don’t already have a big email list. Create social media pages and an online landing page if you have the technical skills.
3) Find content. This usually means (a) a keynote or (b) some panelists for your first event. Pick the biggest names you can reasonably get in the room. Don’t get too cute or tricky — people are attracted to speakers they recognize and trust.
4) Find 2-3 solid venues. Good places to look include law firms (they love the attention of hosting tech events for free), bars with A/V and desperate restaurants. If you have great relationships with people at each of these types of places — which isn’t that hard to do — you will instantly be one of the most popular people in the small community of tech events organizers.
5) Make sure you have great attendees. Personally email people with leadership roles and deep rolodexes in your topic area. You need these people to show up, and you need to work to get them there. If you don’t, your event will easily become a mixed bag of job seekers, service providers and wannabes. Don’t let it.
6) Play up your social benefit to maintain great content. Because you are providing education to the community and helping entrepreneurs, people will want to help you. You’ll be able to land meetings with awesome people because you are running a community event, and they’ll often be honored to speak. Keep a steady stream (at least one per month) of events happening. I’m pretty agnostic on the “charging” topic, although I usually encourage people to keep their events free if they can. It’ll just make your life easier since attendees are less likely to get upset about all the little things that invariably go wrong at live events — and keep in mind that your goal is to build personal authority, not start a niche events business.
7) Leverage your membership to run events for you. By now, there will be many people approaching you for access to your membership. Your job now shifts from promotion to curation. Learn to distinguish between the self-promoters and the innovators. Pick people who will run awesome events and enable them with venues and promotion. Retain control of the branding and means of promotion (e.g., send the emails yourself, don’t sell your list) and dole out spotlight as you see fit.
The last point is especially critical — events die when organizers feel the need to exert too much control and burn themselves out. If you’re running an event series that regularly gets >50 people per event, it’s very likely that you have smart, well-connected people in the audience that would love to share the stage in exchange for doing almost all of the work.