Social Media and Thought Leadership for Founders


This post is by Charlie O'Donnell from This is going to be BIG...


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Running a startup consumes a ton of time. Just the immediate priorities seem to take up more than one person’s potential working hours—so it’s no surprise that when it comes to something like social media, many founders have trouble making it a priority.

The consequences of failing to position a founder’s profile aren’t always obvious—and it’s usually all about missed opportunities. Some founders get more press, get speaking opportunities or have an easier time fundraising thanks to leads that started with social media. Does just randomly posting on Twitter mean an automatic Series A?

No, of course not.

But if you have to start your VC list from scratch when you’re thinking of who will fund you next and all of your PR outreach is just a bunch fo cold e-mails, you’re starting from behind the eight ball in a way you wouldn’t have had to had you just participated the public square that is social media in small amounts daily.

Here’s a primer on manageable things a founder can do to create and take advantage of social media driven opportunities for the benefit of their company.

The Base Layer

The very basic level of participation on social media isn’t posting—it’s listening. There is a public conversation going on around people who need to know about what you’re up to and that you ultimately benefit from having a professional connection to. Being unwilling to listen to that is foolish, because it’s good information—and it’s networking 101. Any relationship you build should start with listening first, and social media, despite what you might think, is no different.

Where you can outsource some of this to interns, researchers, a PR firm, your team, etc. is figuring out who your top 250-500 list is. Take the time to understand that if there was a conference full of people that would be highly relevant to what you were doing, who would they be? It’s some combination of industry leaders, other founders, academics, media, big company folks, etc., but in the end you should know exactly who your best few hundred (or more) potential networking leads are, and follow them. Conferences are actually a good place to start to find these lists of folks, as someone has done the job of curating a list for you. You can also look at the list of who other people in similar positions follow. For example, if you were the founder of a self-driving car startup, checking out who the founders of the other dozen self driving car startups follow might be a good place to start.

Generally speaking, I think Twitter and Instagram are good places to start. Twitter feels like a given, whereas Instagram is a bit more personal, but as long as people don’t have private accounts, they’re fair game. It’s often a good way to figure out if there are hobbies or interests you share in common with someone.

Now that you’ve got your follow lists, I would think about perhaps 10-15 minutes per day as a pretty good investment of time checking out what’s going on around you. Share or retweet what you find interesting, ask questions, comment, etc., but do it authentically. Don’t comment just for the sake of commenting—comment only when you have something to say.

If you took the time to pick out 500 industry people who are ultimately the right people for you to connect to given what you’re doing, and you follow them for 10 minutes a day for the next 30 days, but still have nothing worthwhile to say in response or can’t find anything worth sharing—I think maybe you need to reconsider whether you’re really passionate enough about this industry to be in it for the next eight years.

The Angle

Think about an angle—some unique insight—that you bring to bear into these conversations as you start to post. For example, if you were the founder of some new home workout device, posting about fitness isn’t unique enough. Posting about how hard it is to fit fitness into your routine as a parent of three kids—that’s something unique to you that you could imagine being a magazine article.

It doesn’t always have to be about you and your company either. Maybe there are some people you follow who have created great little routines to squeeze into your day doing everyday things—like doing calf raises stepping up and down from your tippy toes as you wait for elevators. Sharing that type of thing helps build your narrative but it also curries social capital with others—because sharing is a currency you can build up.

Long Form

Medium, LinkedIn and various contributor networks like Forbes are great places to get extended stories out. What is it that you would share if you had the opportunity to give a talk at a conference—this is where that kind of message goes. The best way to write long form articles is to keep your reader in mind—what is the interesting thing you’re giving them that is going to be conversation-worthy for them later. Can you imagine them talking about it later at a networking event? Probably not if you’re writing a post on “An Overview of the Banking Industry” but probably yes if the article is “Is the Fintech Startup You Just Signed Up for Worse than Your Bank?” This would be a good way to talk about ethical issues around money and data, and how your company has made a promise never to sell its user data.

Video

A lot of opportunities for founders to be on panels and on TV come from posting video clips. Just because someone writes well doesn’t mean they’re well spoken and perform well on camera—so showing off your speaking skills on video can go a long way to creating more interview opportunities for you.

If you don’t have the money or time to setup a video studio (Who does?) you might check out a company I invested in called Openreel. Openreel allows you to capture HD quality video from your phone, tablet or laptop with all of the controls available to someone using a professional setup with a director. You can even have someone else do the capturing and controls remotely and it comes with a teleprompter feature as well. It’s a fraction of the cost of rolling in a video crew everything you want to shoot something, and an order of magnitude higher quality and more professional just doing selfie videos on your phone.

With this kind of solution, posting a video once a week isn’t a big ask—especially if you just spend an hour banging out three or four at a time. Similar to the longer form posts, try to think of sharing something meaningful that you want people seeing when they search for you—like why you started your company, what’s important to you about this business, or something specific about your leadership style.

Obviously, when you’ve got multiple types of posts—long form on Medium, videos, etc. you’ll cross post across your various channels. This is also a good spot to outsource. Put someone else in charge of making sure your LinkedIn connections know you wrote a Medium post and vice versa.

Engage Others

One way you can build up your following is by engaging others. Write posts where you pose interesting questions to others—giving those people a reason to share things that you compose, along with your profile. If you’re eventually going to be fundraising for a wellness startup, it might be worthwhile to ask 50 investors about their own wellness routines—or, if you’re looking to stir the pot a little, measure the wellness routines of the founders that those 50 investors backed and point out the likely differences.

Interviews other others are a great way to punch above your weight as you build your profile. Most people are willing to have content composed about them for SEO purposes or even to have something to share to their own audience if you’re willing to do the editing.

Authenticity

Not everyone is comfortable posting every last intimate detail of their lives on social media. The good thing is, no one is asking you to do that. However, it’s not an unreasonable ask that there’s some human semblance of you on the internet that a potential hire or funder can find if you’re asking them to commit several years of effort to helping you. When you post about what’s important to you outside of your professional life you build not only a multi-dimensional image of yourself that might give others a better picture of whether they want to work with you, but it also increases the potential ways to connect with key stakeholders. Maybe there’s a VC that also plays the sport you do, likes puzzles, or who can relate to stepping on their kid’s Legos in the middle of the night—and when you’re a founder, you could use any inroad you can into a conversation.

Bonus Points

Here are three next level media strategies that I think have a significantly high ROI and might actually take less resources than you think:

Podcasts

You can use a tool like Zencastr or even a video capture tool like Openreel to create interviews for podcasts very easily—and a basic suite of Apple software like Garageband can get you pretty far in terms of basic editing. A single interesting podcast interview can hook an investor’s attention and running a show can excellent excuse for connecting with high level stakeholders. Running a logistics startup? Interview the GM of North America for UPS. Got a new parenting app? Interview an influential or celebrity mom or dad.

When you’re starting out, much of the value of doing things like podcasts isn’t necessarily in the building of a big following—although that can happen over time. It’s all about having a reason to connect with someone that isn’t so transactional and that gives them some value, too. Instead of grabbing coffee to pick someone’s brain, which is particularly one-sided for them, invite them to an interesting podcast conversation they can share with their own audience. Instead of cold-pitching the media, bring them onto your podcast to share their expertise.

Surveys

Getting a professionally done survey from a real firm costs about the same as one month’s worth of retainer from a PR firm—but is bound to get you way more in terms of press hits. There’s nothing more sharable on social media than data—so let the numbers make your case for why you’re starting a company in this space. Moreover, why not let customer surveys create leads for you? Google “indoor farming data” and you’ll find Artemis Ag’s (formally Agrilyst) State of Indoor Farming Survey, which added a windfall of leads to their sales pipeline. You can work with a media outlet or professional society to get a whole bunch of potential folks in your target market answering questions that they all want to know the collective answers to.

One Day Conferences

You can book a space and feed everyone in a nice space for less cost and effort than you think—and create a lot of content and connection in the process. In fact, if you just need to break even, you can often get sponsors to cover much if not all of the cost of it. It’s also a good excuse to invite interested investors and get into a conversation with them. You could literally script an entire day of panels that fit with your company’s narrative for a higher ROI than trying to get in front of someone else’s audience for just one panel. It’s more work, sure, but it’s potentially a much more valuable outcome. Besides, if you really are the industry leader you say you are, shouldn’t you be running the go to industry conference?

Newsletters

The most valuable career asset I have is my weekly newsletter that goes out to the NYC tech community. It’s mostly just a collection of events, but it has grown to include a fair bit of preamble and perspective. Imagine you were going around telling everyone that there’s a new revolution happening in the dating world away from just a solitary swipe right/swipe left perspective—and that there’s going to be a backlash about how dating works today. Then isn’t there at least a week’s worth of articles, links, essays and content being put out there already to fill up a newsletter, not to mention what you yourself might have to say about it? Having a weekly, consistent curated stream of news and becoming the industry’s source for your narrative is invaluable—and can also be turned into an asset for others. You can post events, conferences, and links to what others are saying and doing too.

Setting Expectations

Participating in social conversations and thought leadership as a founder isn’t something that is going to pay off overnight—but consistent contributions to this area has a high likelihood of paying off for your company. On the other hand, being a founder trying to raise money when no one’s ever heard for you or what you’re up to, nor have they ever read up on what you’re saying is going to happen in the industry is starting from less than zero.

Plus, if you never invest in serendipity, it’s never going to happen to you. You’ll never get that speaking opportunity at a conference or you’ll never get that inbound from an investor asking “Hey, I read your piece, let’s meet the next time I’m in NYC” if you’re not contributing to your thought leadership profile. I can’t promise when, where, or how it’s going to pay off, but the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, and the second best time is now. Trust me what you’ll wish you had been doing this for the past year when you need something to happen to your company that’s a bit out of your control like fundraising, hiring or launching.