The Rise of the Influencer CEO
In the fall of 2019, a wide-eyed Australian landed in San Francisco. He had a little bit of seed money and zero connections in the Valley, but he was determined to build a company that would revolutionize how we pay for stuff online.
Armed with nothing but a smartphone, the seeds of a social media following and a whole lot of chutzpah, he tweeted his way to a lucky break that connected him with his first investor and co-founder. Over the next two years, he would go on to raise more than $120 million dollars from top-tier VCs, building one of the fastest-growing startup teams and a sizable online following in the process. His name would become synonymous with startup success and he’d come to symbolize the myth of Silicon Valley: that anyone from anywhere can make it. He would do it all on Twitter.
Domm is the latest example of a new and increasingly common type of entrepreneur: the Influencer CEO. Not so long ago, startup founders had to rely on traditional media coverage in order to communicate their story to the general public. But recently a number of entrepreneurs have started flipping the script.
The Case for Going Direct
Platforms like Twitter and Instagram have enabled individuals to build a following by sharing their ideas and insights directly, instead of raising their profiles solely through interviews in newspapers, magazines or television.
The ubiquity of social media — combined with the more skeptical coverage startups have received in mainstream media over the last several years — has given rise to the “go direct” movement. Pioneered by venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen of a16z and David Sacks of Craft Ventures, going direct encourages startup founders to tell their stories and share their points of view directly with their audiences as opposed to relying on media outlets.
The rationale behind this is that if entrepreneurs share their thoughts directly with their audiences, they can control the narrative around their companies. Whereas in the olden days, founders had to rely on the press to share their stories with a broader audience (and relinquish some of the control over it in the process), social media has allowed them to bypass this step and give their followers an unfiltered version of their point of view — or at least filtered through the lens they prefer.
By being unapologetically themselves, founders can also create the sense of a more authentic relationship with their followers. Sharing not only their ideas, insights and aspects of their lives — think hobbies and pet pictures — allows founders to connect with their audience on a more human level. While a well-written piece in a top-tier media outlet may include a surface-level look into the interviewee’s personal life, it is much more likely to focus on their work and accomplishments. It will not leave the reader feeling like they truly know the subject of the story.
In contrast, when someone consistently shares moments from their day-to-day life with their audience, this can create the illusion that followers actually know this person, making them much more likely to buy into their vision and use their product.
From Going Direct to Building in Public
Going direct has often provided social-media-savvy founders with an alternative marketing channel. If authenticity helps you build a following, then this gives you a ready audience that trusts you and is more likely to buy your product and serve as a brand advocate. In fact, a number of founders have leveraged their social media following in order to find customers, connect with investors and even recruit employees. This has become much more common over the past year, during which the “build in public” movement has really taken off.
Building in public is an extension of going direct. It encourages founders to take their authenticity one step further by sharing the ins and outs of building a business as they do it. This includes not only the successes but also the failures and mistakes made along the way. Over the past year, multiple companies were launched and built this way, with startups like Copy.ai, House of Wise and Fast being just three of the most prominent examples.
Leveraging one’s following or building it simultaneously with the business has become almost a necessity for entrepreneurs. Having a pre-built audience may not guarantee startup success, but it does provide a free marketing and recruitment channel that significantly increases the odds. Therefore, any aspiring entrepreneur may need to start moonlighting as an influencer.
Is Going Direct a Silver Bullet?
While leveraging a pre-existing following to set your business in motion and accelerate its growth is a no-brainer, things get a little more complicated if you’re still in the process of building an engaged audience.
Going direct and building in public are not silver bullets, and they come with their own challenges. For example, if you’re new to an established social media channel like Twitter or Instagram, building a sizable following takes time. While a clever quip or an engagement by a prominent user can definitely land you thousands of followers overnight, the chances of that happening after a few posts are quite low. It typically takes months (if not years) of consistently posting on your preferred social media channel in order to see your labor bear fruit.
The good news is that once you get to 1,000 followers, your growth rate will accelerate. It will take you less time to get to 2,000 followers than it took you to get the first thousand. When it comes to building a following, it’s all about compounding returns.
That’s why if members of your team already have a pre-built following, you should encourage them to evangelize your brand online. This will not only accelerate your audience growth rate, but will also create more brand awareness for your company while you’re still building your following. Companies like Morning Brew, a newsletter about business, and On Deck have done this extremely well.
Leverage Your Audience to Unlock Media Opportunities
It’s easy to think that if you (and your team) have a ready audience, there is no need to talk to podcasters or journalists. In fact, the opposite is true.
Media professionals are usually very active on social media (and on Twitter in particular). This means that they are likely to notice a new company or founder who is gaining prominence online. Often, this leads to interview requests from podcasts, newsletters and legacy media publications, which helps amplify the company’s message beyond social media.
There are multiple examples of founders and investors whose social media presence has helped them get press coverage, from Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Keith Rabois to Li Jin, Paige Finn Doherty and Allison Barr Allen. While some of these people can steer news cycles with their tweets, others have used social media to build their public profiles further and increase brand awareness for their companies beyond their preferred social media platform.
This begets the question: Do you need to have a prominent social media presence to get earned media? While it certainly helps, media coverage can help you build a following.
Podcasts, newsletters and more traditional media publications — with both large and niche audiences — will help spread the word about your business and allow you to reach new potential superfans. Not only will this drive traffic to your website, it will also create a spike in the number of followers you have, as media outlets will inevitably share the story on social media.
As distribution for startups becomes more and more challenging, founders will need to find creative ways to get attention for their products. This means leveraging all the tools at your disposal to stand out and leaning into authentic storytelling — on social media and beyond.