I was brought up in a highly religious family in Sweden, where evangelizing was encouraged from a very young age. I was just seven years old when I first had to preach to a crowd of over 700 adults. Soon afterward, I was sent out to go knocking on doors in search of potential converts.
I hated every minute of it.
As an introvert, it was an absolute nightmare. Ten minutes before that first speech, I had to rush to the bathroom and vomit, because I knew my performance would be mercilessly (and publicly) critiqued by people much older than me as soon as I’d finished. When people answered the door, I’d be sweating–I’d go into shock and I’d forget every word of my carefully prepared pitch.
It would be years before experiences like these proved valuable in the tech world. For a kid just halfway through primary school, though, the pressure was just about unbearable. Still, I had no choice but to go through with it again and again until I learned to conquer my fear.
An Unintentional Training Ground
As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably been through much the same experience while pitching. Talking to clients or investors can be nerve-wracking. Your mind goes blank, you feel nauseous, and you’re bombarded with questions from skeptics who don’t share your passion or your convictions. Many entrepreneurs I’ve met describe similarly agonizing experiences from their early days in business.
But in many ways, the skills I learned preaching on doorsteps are the exact same skills you need when pitching in a boardroom, at a conference, or in a bar. Although I’m no longer a part of the religious organization I grew up in, I have to admit that without that upbringing, I’d probably be a coder working behind the scenes in a dark room, instead of a successful entrepreneur with multiple startups under my belt.
For all its serious drawbacks, that intensive training meant that by the time I was 17, when I started my first business, I had over a decade of experience trying to convince strangers to listen to my ideas. That gave me a huge advantage over other first-timers.
Done Right, “Product Evangelism” Lives Up To Its Name
Today, evangelism is actually one of my favorite roles as a tech entrepreneur. I love talking to people about my companies and my products, sharing my vision with them, and filling them with the same enthusiasm that I have. But none of the skills that takes came naturally to me–I had to learn them.
Growing up, I was coached to take every opportunity to talk to others about our faith. I learned to listen for the conversational keywords that could give me a way in, and I gradually figured out how to tune the message to each person I spoke with. Not only did it take time to master these habits, but it took a huge effort of will to push past my visceral discomfort in the process.
Successful entrepreneurs–even extroverted ones–likewise have to drag themselves out of their comfort zones; it’s just part of the job description. You know you don’t have all the skills you’ll need when you start out, but you have to be prepared to go ahead anyway and give it a shot. It’s a common process: Try, fail, accept criticism, learn, and then come back stronger. If pitching isn’t something you enjoy, tough luck–you’ve got to make yourself do it, then keep doing it until it becomes second nature. A lot of the time it’s your confidence and charisma that will make or break your business.
Perhaps even more important, you need to show the same passion and belief that drives religious evangelists. You can’t inspire people with a simple recitation of why your product is amazing, even if your product really is amazing. You need to be convinced deep down that what you’re selling will change your customers’ lives if they accept what you’re offering. That’s why the practice of “product evangelism” has earned its name–it’s no overstatement.
After all, as an evangelist, you’re not just selling a product. You’re selling a dream, especially in a startup. You’re selling leadership. You’re selling hope. You’re selling a vision of the future that you strongly believe it’s in customers’ and investors’ own interests to buy into. And if you don’t, you can’t expect anyone else to do the same.