I must admit that I can be a little “old school.” To build a great, fast-growing company, your activities should be focused on acquiring customers, talent, and investors. I have tried to be open to understanding the “why?” of the activities in the startup ecosystem that do not accomplish these goals. But when I see entrepreneurs speaking at conferences, attending pitch competitions, and tweeting ten times a day with no real purpose, I question their motives. It appears that many entrepreneurs are more focused on building their personal brand than building a company.
It’s not that conferences, pitch competitions, and social media are useless, but there are right and wrong ways to use them. There have been times when I’ve decided not to invest in an up and coming company after seeing the founders focusing on the wrong things. Here’s how you should use (or not use) these activities in a way that won’t scare away investors.
Stay away from startup conferences. They are a waste of time and create zero value for your company. Some would say that they are a great place to find talent, but great talent is too busy working hard to attend conferences featuring Gary V. Focus on industry conferences. These are where you will find customers and go-to-market talent.
Have a pre-conference and post-conference goal. I typically browse the sessions ahead of time and try to get an attendee list. Then I connect with speakers and attendees via LinkedIn and set up meetings. You are there to learn and sell, period. So your activities at any conference should support those goals.
There should be an ROI, and your spend of money and time should be highly defensible to your investors. I was recently asked to speak at a conference in the Bahamas. It was a good fit, but I worried about the optics of being in the Bahamas. I sought counsel from my team and advisors for several weeks before deciding (and if you’re wondering, I did decide to go). I have learned that optics are important.
Short answer is NO.
Venture capitalists don’t go to pitch competitions. If they do have a presence, it is typically an analyst. Why don’t we go to pitch competitions? Our job is to find deals that no one else knows about, negotiate a good deal, and drive liquidity. Our LPs don’t pay us a management fee to go to pitch competitions. It’s the same reason that avid car collectors don’t go to auctions: they don’t want to pay above retail just because amateurs are driving up the price.
Last year, I was asked several times to attract startups for various pitch competitions. I basically told them that I would not help. When they asked why, I told them that I didn’t think it was the best use of time for a founder to burn two days to get on stage and pitch to people who were not investors, talent, or customers. Oh, and maybe they get a $5K prize. Such a waste of time.
The one exception is if you are a consumer-facing app. If you are pitching at Techcrunch to a thousand people and they are going to download your app, then sure, do it.
Tweeting, Blogging, etc:
Then there is twitter. I enjoy twitter. It can be entertaining, and it has been a great way for me to stay in touch with friends who I don’t get to talk to frequently. Mostly though, my twitter is for business.
I often look at first-time entrepreneurs and check out their twitter accounts. I see them avidly tweeting about a myriad of topics and building a personal brand. In many cases they rarely tweet about their company. Meanwhile, their company twitter account hasn’t been active in weeks and has 10% of the followers of their personal account.
My personal twitter account is twice as old as my company, so it makes sense that I have more followers. However, I am constantly trying to engage via my company account to have it grow beyond my personal account. Quite honestly, an entrepreneur (with outside investors) who is overly focused on building their personal brand versus their business brand signals that they may be teeing up their next gig.
I once lost an investor who said he thought I was too busy promoting my book and speaking, and I wasn’t focused on building a venture firm. He may have been right at that time. I learned from that experience and re-focused. While my writing is out in public, there is also a lot of content that only goes to my team and startups.
Everyone is Watching:
In this day and age, there is a lot of transparency. Everyone is watching. Recently, I had a potential LP ask how attached I was to riding a motorcycle. It turns out he had an analyst troll my Instagram and came across a picture. It felt creepy, but I totally understood.
Investors expect you to have a personal life. However, they also want to see that you are busy building a company. So focus on customers and talent. When you hire the right talent, build a great product, and delight your customers, the right investors will show up. And if you do build your personal brand, make sure your business is woven in. If your startup is your “baby,” people want to see you brag about your baby.
Like I said, I may be “old school”—but I think it works.
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