5 Tips to Better Engage Your Early Startup Champions

By Shuly Galili

Imagine working for over nine months on your startup alongside your co-founders.  You are all highly committed and big believers in the product direction, in the market, and in each other.  The big milestone arrives when someone outside your startup begins to believe in you too.  Maybe it is an industry advisor, or one of the top accelerators, an angel investor or an industry analyst.  Maybe all of the above?

These are your early champions.  Your groupies!  They offer their faith, relationships and money to help you achieve success.  Naval Ravikant of AngelList and others refer to such milestone as “Social Proof” – Something that in addition to team, traction and product could help get you to the next phase.

I am sure it took much work and efforts to bring on board such supporters.    The question is, “what do you do to keep them engaged, effective and to truly become your evangelists?”

In reality, founders often fail to leverage the power of their early champions.  In fact, very few recognize the enormous benefit these early supporters could bring them in the long run.  Their network, relationships and connections extend beyond your reach.  Your next customer, round of funding, sales executive, or press contact could be in their Rolodex.  But they need motivation to reach out to their network on your behalf.

In the current startup environment we often see a group of more than six angels backing a team of 3 and a handful of very influential advisors who join as well.  In many of these cases none of them will take a board seat in the company at such early stage.  In all scenarios, you the CEO are still alone in navigating the rough water of your company.  Although they joined as your supporters, they still have a very limited picture of your daily dilemmas, weekly achievements, or monthly challenges.  They may have moved on to find the next deal.

In conversations with some Silicon Valley angels and advisors, I asked what is it that their CEOs do to keep them better engaged and effective.

Not everyone is created equal! Recognize where they can bring you most value.  Some of your supporters are fantastic networkers. They spend significant time in conferences, speak at events, interview for the press etc.  Learn about their ability to open doors or amplify your startup while they are out there networking.  Some of them are Industry insiders. They sit on boards of some significant players in your domain.  They can easily warm up a potential customer to speak to your startup.  Some of them are strategists with operational experience who have taken companies to scale and you can leverage that expertise to help you make the next move.  If you are not sure of the value they typically bring startups at your stage, ask them!

Make them “insiders”. Allow them to engage with your team, see you in action!  Advisors, angels and early supporters should understand the culture and dynamics inside your startup.  They will be most effective if they could feel part of a team and not “outsiders”.  Invite them to your next office party, important milestone celebration or product launch event.  It will get them excited to help you further.

Take the time to send monthly updates – Most Silicon Valley angels expect monthly or at a minimum quarterly updates from their CEOs.  Since at a startup things change rapidly you should adopt this as best practice to keep you and your team focused and clear on your progress. What you should provide will depend on the type of product/solution/service you are planning to deliver.  Your updates may include some or all of the following:   Traction (users, visitors, signups, downloads), Product  (added features or progress on launching) Business Development, (new partnership discussions) Finances (cash, runway, revenue, burn), updates on PR / Industry trends/ Competition.  Fundraising (the specifics of going for the next round).

Be Specific! With busy people, it is best to provide an effortless process to help you.  Feed them information in a digestible quantity.  If you want an introduction, specify with whom and provide background and supportive material they can forward.  If you look to recruit talent, attach an internet link to a job description they can forward or post to their profiles.  Are you fundraising and need introductions to VCs? Create a pipeline and share on Google doc. Specify who are you talking to and who you would need their help with. Always provide context so they can be empowered to make intelligent introductions.

Finally, it is a two-way highway! Engage in their interests, help them be more successful, find out how you can help them.

Building a startup is hard.  It is a journey that could take years—through twists and turns, highs and lows.  Creating the right circle of smart, committed champions is great, but not enough:  Keep them inspired.