When startups are competing for a limited amount of attention, cultivating a good origin story can go a long way towards winning customers over.
If you’re lucky and you’re running a startup that resonates with people naturally, then you’ve got a great head start. If you’re in a business that doesn’t lend itself to a clear mission-driven message, Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse, is here to help you on your way.
I caught up with Carson at Collision Conference, where we spoke about how companies can cut through the noise and market intelligently. Here are his top tips to help you reach your target audience.
Develop a clear mission-driven message
Ryan Carson: “If you can draw upon a mission that matters to people and if you’re running a startup that resonates with people naturally, then of course you should focus on that. At Treehouse we have a mission to give people education so they can change their life. That’s easy for us to draw upon, and I think consumers want to buy from businesses that are mission-driven now.
“Now if you’re in a business where it’s not as clear that you can be mission-driven, I think you need to be authentically committed and passionate about serving your customers. I believe in being authentic and who you are, and not being afraid of that. I have tattoos. I wear T-shirts. I’m just me, and I don’t pretend that I’m a fancy-pants CEO. And I think that flows down to the whole company.
“It’s critically important to walk that fine line of approachable, friendly, and human.”
Set the stage for your customers with a thoughtful brand narrative. Use your origin story to show them how you will be committed to serving their best interests. By demonstrating the care and consideration you put into launching your business, your customers can see how they’ll be treated.
Be who you are and don’t be afraid of disrupting the status quo. You have to be respectable and trustworthy so that your audience knows exactly where you stand and whether they can feel secure backing your company.
Break into the market by looking for the gaps
RC: “I started Treehouse because I got a computer science degree back in 2000, and we basically saw that the degree was not connected to the job. So I thought, ‘Well, that’s strange.’ Since then, Treehouse and other schools like us have launched to reduce the cost of that education, and to increase its relevance to the job.”
If you’re coming up short for ideas, draw upon your own personal experiences of pain points – it’s likely other customers feel the same way.
If you’re entering a crowded marketplace or looking to disrupt an industry, make sure you’re taking an angle that your competitors overlooked. If you are offering a similar product, hone in on perfecting important details like customer service.
Position your message carefully when speaking to your audience
RC: “I would encourage everybody to think, ‘Where is the attention of my potential customer?’ and be there.
“Treehouse and I use different tactics. As the CEO and founder, I am leading a movement which basically says, ‘Educate yourself.’ Treehouse also markets this mission, but I can be even more opinionated about this subject, and say, ‘I think the future of education is online. I think it’s affordable. I think you should be able to get job-ready for less than $5,000. You shouldn’t have to go into student debt.’ I post at least four times a day on all my channels, with a consistent message.
“What’s interesting is it’s really resonating with people. I’m getting a lot of feedback and a lot of support from people who are like, ‘Yeah, education has not served us. We are not getting a good deal. This is not OK.’”
“Be willing to stand up for something and get it out into the world with the right message.”
When speaking to your audience, consider how your company should be positioning its message and what you can do as the founder or one of the leadership team to promote that message further.
Upgrade to a help desk when the volume becomes unsustainable
RC: “I started the company seven years ago. So for the first year, we just did email and I actually did customer support as the founder.
“It was fun, but we got to a point where we thought, ‘OK, we need something else.’ That’s when we tried and loved Help Scout. It was easy and straightforward. We wanted to see basic things like average time to the first response and happiness rating. These are really important features to us.”
Once your business starts to take off, you might want to consider upgrading to a dedicated help desk for your customer support. Using a shared email inbox works well in the beginning, but down the road you may find yourself struggling to keep track of conversations while making sure your teammates stay in the loop.
To double down on a customer-driven approach, you might want to consider switching to a help desk when the volume becomes too high to be sustainable. When you have a larger team and reporting becomes a necessity, it’s important to be able to track metrics like the busiest time of day and the amount of customers helped. Make sure to have a stable strategy in place before you make the switch so you can be up and running smoothly.
Bonus Round! Adopting a remote setup can boost your company culture
RC: “I started Treehouse in Bath, England, but I hired people in the States, so we were remote from the beginning because we had to be. You know, it’s weird, I didn’t really think about it — I just tweeted out, ‘Hey, we need to hire a developer.’ And we hired our first developer, and he lived in South Carolina.
“We ended up saying, ‘OK, we have to get very good at communicating,’ which means we use Asana for our internal communication and to-do system. We post in Asana, ‘Hey, this is what the marketing team is doing this month. This is how it’s going. This is what the product team is doing. This is how it’s going.’ And we have had to develop a habit of communicating in written form or video. There has to be something that people can consume later, so we’re very asynchronous. We use tools like Zoom for our video chat, and it works great.
“If you’re going to be remote, there will be this feeling of being decentralized, which is good and bad. I was actually talking to somebody from Automattic, who runs WordPress, and they had this amazing office in San Francisco. Nobody goes.
“However, I think remote work is better at encouraging women to be in the workforce because if a woman has a baby, then she has a greater opportunity to be a mother and also work. We’re trying to be a lot more aware of empowering women at Treehouse, and how obstacles can affect women specifically. So a remote workplace can be more friendly.
“We haven’t figured out if there’s some magic trait to hiring a remote employee. You want someone who’s proactive. You want someone who can communicate well. You want someone who can stay focused and is motivated, but you would want those characteristics anyway in a location-based office. Basically a good employee can also be a remote employee.”
When it comes down to choosing whether you’ll be distributed or location-based, you need to consider the company culture that you want to foster. Remote work can be a surprising differentiator when you’re crafting your brand’s origin story.
In terms of company culture, having a remote setup can provide greater flexibility for employees. You can also hire based on skill rather than proximity, leaving you with a larger talent pool. A final important consideration with remote work is that you can help your customers across all time zones and locations across the world.
Final Takeaway: Focus on your message
To win the hearts and minds of customers, you need an authentic message that is consistent across the board. Focus on making a good product, and don’t discount how narratives can push consumers to become brand evangelists.