The Art of looking Bigger Than You Are

When you’re a young startup, trust is one of the basic commodities you have to manufacture with your potential customers. Credibility. Respectability. Stability. Trust.

But meanwhile, you’re barely keeping the car on the road, the paychecks covered, your product out of the repair shop. How do you create this trust?

You’ve got to look bigger than you really are.

When you run into a (black, not grizzly) bear in the woods, experts advise you make yourself look as big as possible — waving your arms, staying in a group if there’s more than one of you. What does that mean, when you’re a startup?

I became concerned about this as I prepared for The Bookseller’s BookTech Company of the Year competition, where I was submitting my app Bookship, a social reading app, for consideration. (Spoiler: I just made the shortlist!!!!!)

I’m just one person. Doing everything. Out of my basement. I’m competing with “real” companies. Companies with funding. Companies with profitable revenue streams. Companies with PR teams. Offices. Employees. 401K plans. I’m just a guy with a cool app. How do I make myself look real?

I settled on a few key tactics:

  • “We”, not “I”. In every email or phone call, I say “we”, not “I”. “We’re” looking forward to seeing you, “our” app is nominated for an award. There’s the “royal” we, the “papal” we, and the “solo entrepreneur” we. :). If asked directly I will say it’s “just me”, but I don’t volunteer that information. I do have contractors I use from time to time so they are part of the extended company.
  • Get yourself a professionally designed logo and color scheme. You can get one for a few hundred bucks on 99 designs. The difference between that and something junky you designed yourself is hard to overstate. Spend some time choosing high quality — but unique — fonts (Typewolf and MixFont are great resources). Data sheets, letterhead, all your artifacts need to adhere to the fonts and logos and colors you’ve chosen. This isn’t hard stuff — but it makes you look real.
  • Adopt the trappings of a larger (but still startup) company. In my case, even though it’s just me, I “invented” an Advisory Board with super high quality entrepreneurs. To be clear, these people really do advise me. But it was informal and I never thought to formalize it, put it in the slide deck, and so on. I did so and it makes a difference. If you don’t have these mentors, find some.
  • Guest post on high profile sites in your domain. Most major sites are hungry for content. Write something of quality, they’ll run it. Avoid a commercial for your company — that’s not the point. The point is to establish yourself as a thought-leader, and give you a link to forward to people whose attention you want. Splatter that logo on your website. In the case of The Bookseller, I’d written two guest posts for them before getting into their competition, so they knew me a bit. I can’t say that’s what got me in but I am sure it helped.
  • Go for some awards. Being shortlisted or a finalist is newsworthy, even if you don’t win. 3rd party validation is the hardest thing to get as a startup. Logos of major media outlets or analyst groups, anything a potential customer might recognize, go on the home page as credibility.
  • Everything that is publicly visible must be attractive, highly visual and well designed. Your product. Your slides. Your video. If you can’t do it yourself, get yourself a contract designer. It’s not that expensive and repays over and over. Here’s my slides for example, not that I am any designer — honestly it still has too many words — but big pictures and few words go a long way:

If you’re making a video, spend a bit of money and hire someone to make the video for you (did you know you can get Google to make one for you?), or take the time to do it right yourself. Spend some money on high quality stock video or photography and some nice music. The video below took me about 3 days and about $50 to put together and I’m no video wizkid.

People instantly form a judgement about you, your product and your company. If the first thing they see looks “off”, they’re done. If it all looks crisp and professional and there’s some 3rd party validation, you’re over the hump.

All this takes a lot of time away from building your product. I have news for you. That’s not a problem. Most people only see and use 10% of your product anyway. All that time on the other 90% can wait. Make the first 10% of the product they see sing, and you’re there. Invest your time in making yourself look Bigger Than You Are.