It’s famously said that over 90% of startups fail. For founders struggling to get to that elusive 10%, one thing that’s often overlooked is just being liked. Popularity contests, it seems, don’t end in high school.
Being likeable is important—like it or not.
If you have a likeable business as part of your startup growth strategy, you already have a leg up on the competition. Successful people usually aren’t just smart, but also socially skilled. Numerous studies have supported this, and being popular isn’t just good for the individual; it’s a business strategy.
It’s not only potential clients who want to work with a likeable business. Investors want to like their investments, too. According to Taizo Son in an interview with CNBC, he prefers to focus on the founder rather than the business. “My criteria to invest are the founders. So I won’t check any business plans, any economic projections, spreadsheets; but (instead) I focus on the founder’s mindset (and) passion.”
At the same time, you’re not going to be liked by everyone, so how can you foster the right kind of likeability in your startup? Here are a few ways to make it happen.
Startups Need Heart
The era of the cold-hearted corporation is behind us. People want to support a company that’s service-minded, and that incorporates a philanthropic focus. In a survey of 2,000 people commissioned by Fortune, millennials were found to prefer working at a company that gives back.
While corporations have picked up on this and have been adopting campaigns to bolster their images, it might seem difficult for a startup with limited funds to do the same. Just remember that you don’t have to rival Gilead by donating $2 million to the Liver Foundation per year, or Walmart’s $100 million for economic mobility for retail workers. If you are a startup on a budget, you can start by:
- Creating a fundraiser led by employees to benefit a local nonprofit
- Encouraging volunteering as a team, perhaps in lieu of a few hours worked per month, or one week per year
Creating a fundraiser is far from new, but it has stood the test of time because it makes people feel good and useful. Having your employees help in this endeavor, as opposed to just giving funds to a nonprofit of your choosing, gives the whole company meaning. As an added bonus, it boosts the startup’s “heart” quotient from an outside perspective.
Checking out Idealist can be a great first step, as this platform is excellent at linking people and groups (including startups) to local opportunities.
If fundraising isn’t the right fit, another idea is to encourage volunteering, perhaps exchanging hours at the office for volunteer hours every month.
Being hands-on and feeling like you are really making a difference appeals to many people and companies. Explore this option, as it might fit better into your startup’s brand. A great way to start is by asking your employees for local volunteering options—perhaps an activity they already do that could use more volunteers.
Looking for more inspiration? Check out Salesforce’s model, which compensates up to 56 volunteer hours per year to its workers. Remember that everyone has different skills and hobbies, and by giving staff their choice of volunteering opportunities, they feel validated within the company.
If neither of these options appeals to you, here are a few more ideas on how to start your journey into the philanthropic realm:
- Adopt a cause to raise funds. GoFundMe is a great option.
- Choose an annual campaign, such as adopting a family for the holidays.
- Showcase and invite followers to share or even join in your philanthropic endeavors. You can get an idea of how to do this by checking out Blackhawk Community Credit Union’s efforts.
As stated earlier, it is not only companies and employees who value service and giving. Investors are also following suit. Larry Fink from BlackRock has publicly proposed a challenge to CEOs in a letter he penned to the New York Times, saying, “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
If startups want to attract investors, increasingly, it’s going to take a lot more than a great business plan. Not all investors care about philanthropic efforts, and those that do aren’t expecting massive contributions. But for those investors that do, showing that you care can be done with in-kind donations, pro bono services, or the donation of time. All of these can show you are socially responsible. An example of pro bono work as a form of service can be seen with MehtaFor, which offers its services to Native nonprofits.
Aside from making yourself more likeable, don’t forget that giving back is something we should all strive for, whether personally or professionally. If you embrace this attitude, it will be easier to execute these things, as it will feel like you are simply carrying out a life and/or business goal.
Company Culture, Fun, and Authenticity
Every company has a culture. If it’s not defined, implemented, and managed by leadership, it will occur organically—not always with the best outcome.
It’s important to create a strong company culture to create happy employees who take pride in the work they do. Teams love working for organizations that put effort into building a likeable work environment.
Company culture can and should be infused into every facet of the startup, from the business plan to the SOPs and within every hiring decision.
Google is a great example of a company with a clearly defined culture. It feels like a small business, even though it’s a giant. Most people eat in the café during lunchtime and teams interact.
Image Credit: Kevin Krejci
One risk of a startup is to focus too much on success rather than taking advantage of this rare time to really define company culture. A pleasant company culture has the ability to attract the best employees and investors.
How to Create a Likeable Company Culture
It’s one thing to include language that complements your desired company culture in business plans, SOPs, and internal documents, but how do you actually create that culture?
Simple Mills, a company known for their almond flour crackers and simple ingredients, faced the conundrum of creating company culture early on in their startup days. Founder Katlin Smith reported to Inc.com that she made company culture part of Simple Mills’ DNA. Founders can find inspiration by mimicking some of her strategies:
- Use quantitative analytics to help drive decisions. Every marketing campaign has numbers attached to it so they know exactly what works, what doesn’t, and where to improve.
- Ask “why” with every business decision and consider if there’s a better way. Innovation is at the heart of success, and there is no reason to go with the flow just because it’s the norm.
- Simple Mills offers flexible scheduling to encourage happiness in the workplace. Happy workers are productive and take vested interest in the company.
- Prioritizing fun without undermining the company’s main goals. This can be in the form of team dinners in pajamas, dance parties throughout the day, and plenty of positive inside jokes.
Share Your Company Culture
If you already have a company culture that embodies these principles, it’s important to share it so your customers and also prospective employees can see it as well.
When it comes to sharing your company culture, a few options might include:
Guest blogging for complementary, but not competitive, sites. Search for companies that have similar goals to yours but that aren’t in direct competition.
For instance, a startup that focuses on skincare products has a natural alignment with hair care. Feeling pretty involves more than your skin, so reaching out to salons and doing a guest blog can do wonders for your own business, as it can attract customers that would have otherwise not known you exist. Furthermore, through your writing you can portray your startup’s culture and appeal to these new customers immediately.
Here are some resources on guest blogging to get you started:
Traditional advertisements including radio (great for geographically focused startups), print ads, or billboards. These can still be highly effective, but at a higher cost than social media, blogging, or working with podcast hosts. Keep in mind that traditional forms of advertising are often most effective when your target audience is a bit older and used to these forms of outreach.
With so many ways to leverage print advertising, here’s a guide to help you outline your strategy: 14 Ways Print Advertising Can Provide New Audience Potential For Your Company
Some points to remember…
When creating a company culture, it’s a first for many startup founders. There are a number of traps you can get caught up in. That’s why hiring a PR firm, social media manager, or other type of third-party contractor to help you in the early stages can be essential.
Ensuring that your hiring process is in sync with your company culture goals is also critical. This can be especially important if you hire a third-party company to manage onboarding. There has been a trend in recent years of hiring for company fit rather than the “best person on paper,” but there has been some pushback against that recently including an argument from Harvard Business Review. In reality, hiring the “best person” should include company fit, but fit isn’t the exclusive requirement.
Building a likeable work environment starts at the core of the team. If each individual brought on board doesn’t share the same values and goals as the company, there could be friction between team members, which can damper employee satisfaction and workplace pride.
However, how will you know who the best fit is if your company culture is undefined? It’s foundational for startups, and new businesses are in the unique position to be able to shape it before it takes on a life of its own.
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
No matter the size of the startup or the community, there will be competitors and helpers (brands who have some affinity with you but may not be a competitor) around you. It doesn’t matter if you are a startup that is a hyperlocal brick-and-mortar establishment that exclusively serves the nearby community, or a global online business. “Playing nice” with others will make you a more likeable business.
Businesses that aren’t well liked by their peers can also get edged out. Word of mouth is still one of the best forms of marketing, except now it often takes the form of reviews and online mentions. We typically talk about our customers when we discuss reviews but we need to also think about other companies and even our competitors.
It might not always feel natural to work on professional relationships with other organizations, but it’s an important facet of being a likeable business. Some of the simplest strategies to employ include:
- Working with other startups to offer special deals and discounts (customer sharing). For example, if you share a close market (you’re a brick and mortar on the same street), teaming up for a sidewalk sale is a great way for both of you to attract more customers. Also, splitting the advertising budget will help both businesses.
- Giving your peers space. This is on the other end of the spectrum of the previous point. If another startup (even a competitor) has an established annual event, respect that time and space by not featuring your own event at that time. This shows professionalism, and they might reciprocate if you decide to launch your own annual event.
When you’re nice to other companies, they are (usually) nice to you. Take advice from Mark Cuban himself and just be nice instead of being a jerk, if only because it’s easier to be nice. Be the driving force behind the circle of niceness, and you might just kick start some serious word-of-mouth advertising (which is ultimately free advertising) that can come from other companies who actually like you. These recommendations from other companies can turn into your customers liking you so much that they become unofficial ambassadors.
One of the best ways leading brands cozy up to one another is with a little playful banter. As long as you keep it light and fun, it’s akin to two old friends giving each other a tough time. Consider Taco Bell and Old Spice on Twitter:
Another example is Bud Light Platinum giving a shout out to Samsung when it released Galaxy Gear.
Customers like to connect with brands they support. Engaging with and supporting other companies is a way to build brand loyalty and create a positive image for your startup.
Remember: It’s Not All About the Money. Become a Likeable Business.
Any startup founder is going to have goals, but most of these goals are about profits and how to quickly become a leader in the industry.
But don’t forget about being liked. Being likeable and popular makes life easier whether you’re a startup founder or starting your first year of middle school. Being liked opens doors. It’s the social lubricant that can usher in opportunities. Even better, it’s an often free and overlooked technique that not only helps startups succeed, but makes things easier in the process.
Now that you know the importance of building a likeable company, it’s time to start implementing these strategies within your business. No matter your budget or industry, there are avenues to increase how much key people like job candidates, customers, and investors like you and your company. You’re at an advantage, able to direct that likeability from the gate. Don’t bypass this key positioning; start building likeability into your company, culture, and brand.
What do you like most about your favorite startup? Comment below or tag a startup founder you admire and see what they have to say!