When I left my career in education, it was quite a perceptual bias to overcome for people to consider me someone meriting credibility in the startup ecosystem. “You could maybe join an EdTech startup?” was the most common refrain. (I specifically said no to that, to avoid being pigeonholed and having a ceiling put on my potential choices.)
How do we convince people that we can do something else? As I learned, we show them. If they see that we can be of value, it’s hard to brush somebody off.
More generally, whether it is in the interest of putting out more good work to the world, helping others, getting inbound demand for our work, or generating job opportunities, knowing how we can provide value to others empowers us to become a stronger force for good and yourself. For those moving to a new city or industry, this can make a particular difference in how quickly we grow roots and credibility.
Ok, so what does that look like? How can I show that I can provide value?
When I dived into the startup ecosystem, I learned each of these in the process. Here they are in the order that I learned them:
Time. When we first make a transition, sometimes all we have to offer is time. But that can be valuable for people with limited bandwidth. I got one of my first jobs coming out of education simply by offering time. My now-boss was speaking at an event, and at the end, I overheard him speaking to a friend of his about how busy he was trying to edit his book. After a large group of people had spoken to him, I approached, and simply said that I didn’t want to take up any more of his time, but rather thought I might be able to save him some. He gave me his email, and after spending a few weeks saving him time, he hired me.
It may be volunteering at Demo Days, or providing support to a startup with our time. It may be campaigning for a political candidate on the weekends. Whatever it may be, we can see where there would be value in time, and provide it.
Information. I was a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and particularly remember his mentioning of one of the three types of people who can spread ideas- The Maven. These people seem to have inside knowledge on a market, idea, trend, or community, and are known as people who spread change through their knowledge.
As I was working with my first job at a rather unique startup, I saw the databases that supported operations behind the scenes- people, places, ideas, etc.
I realized that there may be value in my own data that I keep, and set out to develop a resource of information for others. I created a master database in Google Sheets, and began keeping track. Every newsletter that had startup events worth going to. Any recurring startup-related events. Demo days. Communities. Books, articles, companies worthy of attention, and every person I emailed. Every company that I had seen sponsor a startup event.
“Mike’s Database” now has 31 tabs of data that is available when the time calls. I started sharing information with people- those making transitions, looking for hires, seeking sponsorships, and so on.
If its possible to become an aggregator of information that people value, that can create value and credibility quickly.
Expertise. Coming out of education, I wasn’t sure how much I had. I had worked for a startup years before, but that was the limit of that experience.
Then I started attending pitch competitions- everything from hackathons to impromptu challenges. And I began winning the majority of them. Those four years of working with middle school students in the Bronx and Harlem had been strong training for knowing what stories were engaging, clear, and evocative. Founders started approaching me for help with their pitches and pitch decks, which led to the launching of my consultancy.
At the same time, I began building on my previous knowledge of behavior science from college and childhood upbringing by working for a behavior scientist. Understanding the study of influence- what causes people to make the decisions they make, and how do we affect them- became a second knowledge set that I brought to bear on work with companies.
These two experiences shed light on three lessons for providing expertise:
- Find the common threads between what you have done in the past and what you hope to do. It may be storytelling, managing relationships, analyzing data, or running operations. If you can find that expertise and demonstrate it, there will be value for others.
- Another type of expertise is one that is cross-pollinating learnings from one domain to another. A data-scientist working in biology? A behavior scientist working with startups? Astrophysics applied to corporate culture? I know of someone working in each of these domains with inbound demand. How might you bring your experience to bear on a unique topic?
- Sometimes you need to show the value of your expertise to others: Working with a company the first time for free to develop a case study, or developing thought leadership around a topic through blog posts or podcasts may be necessary to get your expertise out there.
Connections. Once I began strengthening my community in New York with entrepreneurs, companies, and investors, in conversations with people I found myself connecting more and more dots on who they should meet. Those introductions often led to business or wonderful working relationships, and brought credibility to my judgment as well. Even if you know one person worth introducing to others, you can build value by making those connections. There are two rules to follow here though, ones that I live by:
- Only introduce two people who will both find it mutually beneficial to talk. Don’t introduce someone to just “pick the brain” of another. That is a transactional, “taking” connection, the person with the brain to pick has offered themselves as a mentor or information source. You’re criteria should be that if those to people met, they would both say thank you for it.
- Go for the double-opt in. Ask both sides if it would be worthwhile talking to the other person before you make an introduction. It makes for a smoother communication, and assures that you are always following the first rule.
Demonstrate Value by Creating It. I have had a number of conversations in the past month with people who have said, “I want to work for a X, but they say they need more experience than I have” or “I can’t seem to find enough customers for what I want to do.” My opinion? If you can do the work, screw that- show them the value! (Yes, hints of Jerry Maguire yelling in that statement.) Two examples of this that I have heard and love recalling:
- One of the first employees at Square got hired because they literally went out and found about 30 new customers to agree to use their product, and then reached out to Square to tell them. Hard to turn down a person for sales if they have already shown you they can sell.
- A friend of mine runs And Chill, the Netflix recommendation bot that is highly skilled at finding the right match for your movie cravings. A few weeks ago, a marketer named Michael Taylor wrote an entire marketing plan for the company, detailing every aspect of what they could do for their strategy to expand their reach and engagement. If anybody wonders about this guy’s ability to market, it’s right there in demonstrated value. I’m sure he got plenty of inbound traffic after that.
One thought on this strategy:
- Be very clear on who you are demonstrating value to, and what your goal is. If you want a company to consider you for a hire, don’t necessarily give them the ideas you created, because it is possible they could just take them from you as free work and use them. You could point out their issues and tease your thoughts on potential solutions. If, on the other hand, your goal is to generate inbound demand for a service you offer, then it might be better to offer comprehensive ideas like Michael did. The goal was not to get And Chill to hire him, but perhaps to show other companies the work that he does.
The takeaway from this strategy is: Formal applications beget formal judgments on your value. If you just give your resume, thats what they will look at. If you apply non-traditionally, they may give a non-traditional candidate consideration, if they show potential value.
That’s what I’ve learned up to now! If you have additional ideas of how to prove your value to others and build credibility, please share in the comments below!
More importantly, if you think this may be of value to people that you know who are trying to show their value to others, please help them by sharing.
Follow me on twitter at @mikemaccombie to see future posts and continue the conversation.