Any entrepreneur will tell you that startup life is not for the easily daunted. Rejection, product failures, and isolation are just a few of the tests that many entrepreneurs are put through on a routine basis. Add youth and inexperience to the list of things working against you—and you can see how a startup can seem like nothing but a harsh, uphill endeavor. Luckily, entrepreneurs tend to be more optimistic than other workers, a factor that keeps them pitching to prospects and looking for ways to prove their value.
As I gather my thoughts for a panel tomorrow on how to build credibility as a young entrepreneur, I’ve been reflecting on what has helped my partners and clients say “Yes” to the diversity consulting and training pitches I’ve put in front of them over the last five years. Mind you, even if it’s not your age that presents a credibility issue, some other factor (industry experience, knowledge of a certain product type, geographic reach) may put you or your business in an ‘underdog’ position.
Here are my top strategies for proving your worth, regardless of your age, experience level or other factors you’re being judged on:
- Identify What’s Sacred To Your Customer: What quickens the pulse of the group you’re pitching to? What most excites them or eludes them regardless of their efforts? In my case, a focus on amassing lots of cutting-edge inclusion best practices and focusing on Gen X and Y women helped turn pitch meetings into signed contracts. Additionally, tying innovation payoffs to diversity efforts more often than not grabbed clients’ interest. Still, what ‘did the trick’ last year for many entrepreneurs won’t necessarily pay off now. Who can inform you about what this group cares about most now? What groups and discussions are they participating in on LinkedIn? What types of events or publications do they promote and with what angle?
- Don’t Wait To Go After Whales: As a new entrepreneur, I pitched to top business programs around the nation to train their students on the lessons in my first book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders. Plenty of deans and career offices didn’t respond. But thanks to casting a big net, plenty of people said “Yes.” To my sheer delight—and admittedly, terror—the first client to invite me to speak was Harvard University. That wonderful opportunity served as an instrumental “door opener” for future pitches, helping me get into Princeton, London Business School, Duke and inside many large organizations. As a new entity, many people will advise you to start small or go after the “low hanging fruit.” Don’t. Aim high.
- Borrow Credibility Where Needed: Many a deal has been closed thanks to a warm introduction being made early on. When a trusted professional enthusiastically introduces you to a corporate insider, you’re getting an endorsement, and therefore a chance, that others won’t. Even if you don’t have deep relationships inside the company, go through the exercise of asking yourself who in your network could act as a strategic partner or co-creator of a compelling pitch. Your partner may have age and experience you don’t, a value added service, a Fortune 500 company on their resume, or experience in a key area that you lack. I have personally benefitted from partnership and found repeatedly that two minds were better than one, especially in client meetings.
- Forecast Future Success: Even if the vision for Year 3 of your business depends heavily on performance in Year 1 and 2, have a clear path forward to share with your clients. The fact that you may be adjusting your plans minute to minute is not going to be compelling to decision makers. In a large bid that a partner and I made and won, one of the last questions we were grilled on was, “Where do you see yourself making an impact in 3-4 years?” We had a ready answer about an exciting area of research we wanted to spearhead and how we’d devise services around our learning. How can you look ahead and create a vision for the future? Your prospect may not be looking for total certainty, but they need to know you have a strategy with future mile markers of value.
More than anything, if you want to get hired, you need to promote trust. Are you creating certainty that you’ll deliver ably on what you’re selling? Even more important, are you demonstrating to prospects that if you take a wrong step or a crisis erupts on their end, that you’ll have the kind of smarts and agility to correct your course of action or manage the change?
What has worked for you to build credibility? Would do you think that young entrepreneurs need to know most?
*This post was originally featured on my Work in Progress blog for Forbes*
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