Why product evangelists are crucial for a startup’s success and how to get them

As a startup you need to grow fast. Your time is limited because the market opportunity won’t hang around forever and at the same time the moment you start a business you’re burning cash every hour of its existence.

As your resources are limited too, you need to find an efficient way to acquire users with a minimum marketing budget. That’s where product evangelists come in.

Who are product evangelists?

Have you ever had a friend who got excited about a product and basically pitched it to everyone he met? For the company who sold the product, that person was incredibly important. He was evangelizing it.

Essentially, product evangelists are early adopters who are in love with your product and spread the word-of-mouth about it. These people help you build a critical customer mass and take your product off the ground.

Probably the best example are Apple users, many of whom are huge fans of Apple products even though the company is no longer a startup but, in fact, the largest corporation in the world.

Why are they important?

As noted earlier, as a startup you need to grow fast. It would be easy to grow fast if you had a $4 billion marketing budget like Coca-Cola has. The problem with startups is, you rarely have any money at all. At the same time, you have to compete with already established brands, such as Coca-Cola.

The benefit of a startup is, that as a small and innovative company, free from bureaucracy you can build an outstanding product users will fall in love with. As Airbnb founder, Brian Chesky says, “it’s better to have 100 people love you than 1,000,000 people kind of like you”.

The reason he says that is that those 100 users will likely become the most vocal promoters of your product, infecting others with their enthusiasm, eventually making your user base grow way beyond 1 million as it was with Airbnb.

If you look at pretty much any of the successful startups in the recent years, most of them had $0 or very low marketing budget. Companies like Uber and Airbnb have disrupted entire industries while spending a fraction of their competitor’s marketing money.

In fact, over 50% of Uber’s growth came from the word of mouth. If you can make your users love your product and become fanatic about it, they’ll do the marketing for you.

How to turn your users into evangelists

If you ask Apple fans why they love their Macs and iPhones so much, most will say something along the lines of “great design, quality, user experience or that it just works.”.

But many products are well designed and high quality.

In a popular Ted talk ‘How great leaders inspire action’, Simon Sinek explains it’s the purpose of the company that makes it a leader. It’s same with Apple. In the early days, Apple was about fighting the “big evil IBM” and customers were eager to join its crusade.

Today the message is “think different”, but you can see similar patterns among other high-growth startups.

People love Uber because they hate being scammed taxi drivers. People love TransferWise because they’re tired of being scammed by banks. They see a revolution and want to join. Often, however, the message is positively framed. Quora, Amazon, Warby Parker, their message is all about empowering customers and making their life better.

What’s important to note is that having a purpose as some kind of a branding asset isn’t enough. Customers need to see you live and breathe by your purpose and you and never betray them.

As a startup you can afford to screw up many times by having bugs or product that’s not completely perfect but you can never let down your users.

If you want to be successful in evangelizing your product, you have to constantly communicate your purpose to everyone – your co-founders, employees, users, partners, investors. You want to let know what you stand for and what the big picture of your company is.

That’s why many companies have a designated role to achieve this purpose. Probably the first Chief Product Evangelist, Guy Kawasaki described his role at Apple as “to protect and preserve the Macintosh cult by doing whatever I had to do”.

Other companies like RackSpace have benefited greatly by hiring people like Robert Scoble and putting them in charge of their product evangelism.

But in the early days of a startup, it’s the founders, especially the CEO who should be in charge of that role.

As a CEO of an early-stage startup your life should be a walking symbol of the company’s purpose.

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