Thought leadership

Start-up thought leadership: Don’t try to be a business influencer

Start-up thought leadership is a powerful tool – but don’t fall into the trap of becoming an insipid business influencer, says Arthur Lee.

In the quarter-zip-clad world of LinkedIn start-up entrepreneurs, there are reams of founders all jostling for positions to be the next Gary Vaynerchuk.

Podcast appearances, videos listing “common founder mistakes”, and maybe even a recommended self-improvement book, are all staples of the start-up influencer set menu.

Arthur Lee is a Media Executive who works within the company's Tech and Professional Services unit. Source: Profile.

But behind the "regret is scarier than fear" infographics, there are legitimate questions here for the aspiring founder:

  • Do I need to share my personal experiences to connect with customers?

  • Do my LinkedIn posts impact my revenue?

  • Do my thoughts and opinions influence the scaling of my business?

Well, the answer is both yes and no. LinkedIn influencing à la Steven Bartlett is going to take a significant amount of time, effort, and capital – as well as a few bestsellers and TV slots to boot – with no guarantee that you’ll get any traction.

But authentic, insightful, and practical thought leadership can absolutely be leveraged to help scale your start-up – here’s how.

Connecting with customers

It doesn’t matter if your start-up services big institutional clients or sells a product to everyday consumers, considered start-up thought leadership from the founder will help you connect with these customers.

Success in today’s start-up ecosystem is hard to come by for many reasons:

  • Persistent inflation is nipping at consumers' heels, making them more cautious.

  • High interest rates have seen businesses strip back all but the most essential services.

  • Governments are bearing down on costs and spending, meaning that new public contracts are few and far between.

And, yet, despite these headwinds though, a record 900,000 new companies launched in the UK in 2024 – so competition over these customers is fiercer than ever.

Founders need to find ways to both attract new customers and hug their current ones tightly.

Arthur Lee

Founders need to find ways to both attract new customers and hug their current ones tightly. Traditional start-up strategies, like flashy influencer campaigns, are expensive and have uncertain returns – but CEO thought leadership can be a cost-effective tool to connect with your customers.

Founders should leverage their personal background and expertise, offering insights into their industry and advice from their start-up experience.

  • If your business is software-as-a-service (SaaS), clients want to hear your opinion on how AI will upend the software design and coding profession.

  • If you’re a fintech founder, customers want to know about how banking safety needs to innovate to protect against deepfakes.

  • If your business sells to large enterprise corporates, clients will want to hear cutting-edge b2b thought leadership, such as your takes on M&A activity, investment trends, as well as wider macroeconomic analysis.

This should not slip into "sweat the small stuff" type influencing – which is vague, unperceptive, and meaningless to clients or consumers.

Rather than attempting to engage everyone, founders and CEOs should aim to speak only to the people who matter the most – their customers. Your audience should be defined by quality not quantity.

Securing funding as a scale-up

A core part of scaling any start-up is fundraising – and thought leadership should be a tool in your arsenal when engaging external capital.

Where VCs used to give away millions after seeing a sketch on the back of a napkin, they’re now far more cautious with their cash. Gone are the days of near-zero interest rates, free-flowing PE cash, and pumped-up valuations.

Credibility is more important than reach, so publications should be industry-specific and expertise-led.

Arthur Lee

Whilst a watertight business model, sustainable financial foundation, and comprehensive growth plan are non-negotiables in any funding round, an established executive thought leader doing the pitching can only help your case, whether it's seed or series C.

Investors want to see deep industry expertise, not fluffy business influencing. Founders of more mature start-ups should look to secure opinion pieces in media publications where they can comment on industry trends and discuss concrete case studies.

Again, credibility is more important than reach, so publications should be industry-specific and expertise-led – front page of the broadsheets is neither realistic nor (necessarily) desirable.

Founders of early-stage start-ups are unlikely to be able to invest the time into full-blooded opinion pieces – but thoughtful LinkedIn posts achieve the same results.

It’s naïve to think potential investors won’t look at your profile, and you’ll stand out from the crowd of other hopeful founders looking for funding with a stream of astute industry insights on your page.

Attracting talent through start-up thought leadership

The best talent today wants to see more than their potential pay check. They’ll assess your start-up's environmental standards, flexible work options, and opportunities for career development.

But beyond that, start-ups as businesses are uniquely associated with their founders – and the reputation and profile of these founders undoubtedly play a role in potential employees' decisions to sign on the dotted line.

The best talent wants to work with the best in the industry – inspiring leaders with genuine industry expertise.

Arthur Lee

Interested applicants will search founders and trawl through their LinkedIn. The best talent wants to work with the best in the industry – inspiring leaders with genuine industry expertise and concrete guidance on overcoming problems offer practical and tangible learning opportunities.

Thought leadership campaigns can also bolster talent retention. As any founder knows, talent poaching is a cut-throat business in the start-up ecosystem.

If you’re offering employees regular opportunities to establish themselves as leaders in their roles through speaking opportunities and media slots, they'll want to stay put with you and your business.

Influence or insight

For founders today, the path to growth is hazardous. There are a range of headwinds blowing against them – they can't prevent these but they can prepare for them. And one cornerstone of any strategy should be thought leadership.

Genuine thought leaders are few and far between but aspiring business influencers are all too common – and this is an opportunity for the founders of today.

Authentic, insightful and tangible thought leadership can make you stand out to customers, draw in investment and retain the best talent. Founders would be remiss not to take advantage.

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