The startup scene is a crowded place no matter what market you're trying to crack. And if you can't build industry credibility fast, you'll probably fail to crack it.
If you're going up against established players or launching a new technology solution, your prospective customers will likely have some healthy skepticism to overcome before buying whatever it is that you're selling. Same goes for investors. But in order to explain who you are, what your company can do for them, why they should believe in you, and the reasons to expect you'll be around for the long haul, you need to gain a credible platform from which to make your case. Here's how to do it when you're starting from zero.
Just as your company should have a list of dream clients, target markets, milestone goals, and the like, you need to draw up a dream list of credibility signifiers. You already know roughly what "success" looks like for you six or 12 or 18 months from now because you sat down and defined it. So do the same for your company's profile and reputation: What would make you feel like your company has really made it as a respected presence in your industry? Is it being profiled in a particular publication? Winning an award? Being invited to speak at a certain conference?
Whatever the answer may be, you need to start identifying your credibility goals early on. Describe them in concrete terms and set deadlines for achieving those milestones along with your overall business growth and marketing objectives.
Unless your company is still in the two-people-with-laptops-in-a-garage stage, chances you've already built a base of trustworthy people who are connected with your company and believe in your value proposition—that's one of the first things startups need to do in order to get even halfway off the ground. So use that to your startup's advantage.
You may already have a marquee management team and investors in place, or you may not—either way, you need look for ways to emphasize the expertise and connections of the people who are already related to your company. This can be as simple as asking your board members to make a few key phone calls or introductions on your behalf. Or just encourage your inner circle of partners to spread the word about your company on social media and endorse you and your company on LinkedIn. These are small gestures, but they can go a long way.
In addition, include detailed bios of your board members and testimonials from key partners on your website and in company communications—don't focus exclusively on the founding team. Needless to say, you'll need to get permission from your partners first, but many of them will likely be glad to help spread the word about your company if they're already satisfied with your partnership. Just make sure you do this as openly and collaboratively as possible; the quickest way to lose credibility is by overstating the extent of a partnership or claiming an endorsement that doesn’t exist.
Every startup wants to see its name in the New York Times and its services featured prominently in major outlets. But instead of trying to make a big splash in a mainstream mass-media publication, you should think first about quality coverage in the niches that matter most to you. Tech startups, for instance, can build credibility more quickly by speaking directly to tech audiences that already care about and are paying close attention to their product category.
Nor does it require a huge PR push right off the bat. Start building an engaged audience on social media: Create a track record of helpful interactions and thought leadership among users with interests that line up with what your company is doing (there’s a reason why so many startup founders are active on Twitter). Or you can participate in other online community forums that affect your customers and industry, whether it’s commenting in LinkedIn groups or in industry-specific sub-Reddits; serving as an expert commentator on Quora; authoring contributed articles in industry publications; or creating original content-marketing pieces.
The key is to stay focused rather than try and cast too wide a net. If you don’t have enough of a reputation yet to get invited to speak at your dream industry conferences, host a conference of your own. It doesn't need to be a lavish affair in order to be effective. Invite some partners to join you in hosting and sponsoring even something intimate, as long as it's well-produced. Many of your industry partners and other great speakers will be happy to support your event if you’re willing to share your platform with them.
The most successful startups have widely regarded CEOs who are synonymous with their companies. But even if you’re not running a billion-dollar business, every startup CEO needs to act like a thought leader and the public face of their company. Building your CEO's personal brand and credibility is one of the most powerful ways for people to quickly get familiar with your company and understand how you can add value on issues that they care about.
Especially in the early stages of your startup’s growth, the founder/CEO needs to be a prominent presence and take a high-touch approach with early customers. Those first customer relationships are hugely valuable, and the CEO needs to be front and center—building customer relations, listening to feedback, and asking early customers to help by promoting and recommending you if they're happy with their experience.
Building credibility is often a matter of working from the inside out: Start with your inner circle of trust—your board, partners, and key mentors—and then ask for their help in building a foundation of credibility to speak to a wider audience. Then get the attention of the inner circle of influencers and enthusiasts who care the most about what your startup does. If you can win their trust, they’ll help spread the word about your company even further.
Trust is the basis for every successful business relationship. Just like your startup needs a go-to-market strategy, you also need a detailed plan for building credibility. It's the starting point for the successes that will follow—or else could be the reason they don't.
Juliet Travis is the founder and principal of Liftoff Communications, a Bay Area-based digital communications PR agency that helps tech startups attain publicity and achieve their strategic marketing goals.