Today on The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about whether you should be the face of your company.

Being the “face” of a startup can be very intimidating for some founders, which is why a lot of prefer to not approach marketing this way. However, being a public CEO or founder can be a very effective way to market a startup.

In today’s episode of the show, Steli and Hiten talk about what made them become the face of their companies, examples of companies whose founders are the face of the brands, how to approach this if you’re starting a business today and much more.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic

00:12 Why this topic was chosen.

01:55 What made Hiten be the face of his brands.

04:37 How Steli became the face of his brands.

06:11 How Steli created videos in the early days of Close.

06:31 How Steli stumbled in public speaking.

07:01 Example of companies with public faces.

08:17 How to approach this if you’re starting a business today.

08:33 Why you shouldn’t make it complicated.

09:33 Why you do what’s right for your customers.

3 Key Points:

  • It started out with me wanting to do the best job with the businesses that we had.
  • There’s ego involved in everything.
  • Once I discovered that creating videos was super easy for me, I just started creating a lot of them


Steli Efti: Hey everybody, this is Steli Efti


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.


Steli Efti: And today on The Startup Chat we’re going to talk about humanizing your brand and being the public persona behind your company. Hiten, both you and I are pretty public people and are very closely associated with being kind of the humanized version of our companies, right? A lot of people but no closed in connection with Steli, right? Or Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: Yeah.


Steli Efti: And same with FYI and Hiten Shah, right? It’s inseparable. And I had an interesting conversation recently with somebody that was asking me lots of questions on how I strategically decided to go down that route. What are the pros and cons? Who should do it? Who shouldn’t do it? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it just an ego trip? And I thought this is actually fascinating topic and I thought it’d be fun for the two of us to kind of quickly unpack this for people. So let me first ask you, you know, FYI is not the first company and product that you launched, that you have been very closely as a human associated with versus just being a brand where people don’t know who the people are behind the company. Pretty much every company that you’ve been involved with, you’ve been a very kind of public face off and you’ve been building kind of your personal brand in conjunction with the companies that you’ve been building. Was that a strategic move? Did you ever do research and then decide this is the best way to make a company successful, hence I’m going to go down that path? Was this kind of more random? How do you think about that, kind of looking back? Why did you in particular ended up doing this and building kind of a pretty public profile and brand on your own?


Hiten Shah: Yeah. For me, it started out particularly with like wanting to do the best job I could with the businesses that we had and kind of fell into it naturally. I actually fell into it by doing a ton of customer support for Crazy Egg back in 2005 and I was mentioned as a line item by people when they talked about our product versus like alternatives to our product. And a line item meaning like Hiten will respond to you really fast, if do you have a question? And I was just, I just knew that, particularly for that business, we helped you, we basically helped you see what’s happening on your web pages by creating a heat map and so it was a very visual representation of analytics data. And at the beginning, there were a lot of compatibility issues with your website. So people would like write in and be like, yo, it doesn’t work with my website or this thing’s off. Then I’d be like, yeah, we’re looking into it. And then, you know, I’d have an engineers work on it and then follow up, etcetera. And so anything that came up, I was handling. So for the first two years of that business, I was in frontline of customer support and you’d hear from me. So that’s really how I fell into it. And then once Twitter came along, I happened to have an early account. I was under the first 5,000. I was one of the first 5,000 users. And my following just grew because I was early and people were just trying to find people to follow and Twitter made that really easy back in the day. I was never on the suggested user list, but they had a sidebar that showed you different people on Twitter and then you can click on them and follow them. So I ended up with like 10,000 followers early on and I was like, whoa, I got this little audience here, like maybe I should do something with it and I just started sharing links because nobody was really doing that at the time on Twitter. And I found that I was really good at finding stuff and then that built a following there. And outside of that, like I’ve been super, super friendly with startups in general. Like when people, I mean, I’m sure people listening know this by now, but people email, I do my best to respond. I mean, over the years, I’ve definitely gotten a little bit slower at it, but I used to almost make it my full time job when I was in between companies. So for me I fell into it and it just feels right. That would be my response. I didn’t study it. I didn’t think about it too hard. It just felt like the right thing to do and it still does.


Steli Efti: That’s beautiful. I think for me it’s very similar, although it might be more surprising to people, but really, there were two things that happened when we started Closed. One was we wanted to have a blog and wanted to do a lot of content marketing and me writing, like I had a lot of stories, tactics, experiences that I thought were worth sharing, but me writing blog posts was just a kind of, I was very slow at it, so it just took a lot of time. Eventually I brought on Rameen to help me, was a good friend, who is still part of the Closed team. And you know, I would write a rougher draft and send to him, but even that took always forever until one day he was frustrated and asked me to just record like talking through the blog posts or the idea and he would just write it. And once we did that once or twice I realized wow, talking through it is super easy for me.


Hiten Shah: Yeah.


Steli Efti: And then if I just recorded this on a webcam and if I stopped saying Rameen’s name and referring to it as on the blog posts, say this and this and write this and this, then the video itself could be content, the audio could be content and then we could also turn it in to written content. And this was so easy for me that for the, you know, once we kind of discovered that recording video was kind of super easy, didn’t take that much time and effort for me, I just started creating a shit ton of them. I think for the first two years, I would do one a day, and the videos were 10 minutes long and it took me 10 minutes to do it because I would just like think of an idea, hit record, stop. No editing, no real trying to be professional. And so I just created thousands and thousands of videos over the years. And then eventually somebody saw some of these videos and invited me to speak at a conference. And then as well, there was no strategy. I didn’t say, Hey, I need to be on stages. Public speaking would be a great way to promote my company. I just went to that one time because I was flattered and I thought, Oh, it’d be cool to give a talk at a conference. And people enjoyed it so much that they invited me to lots more and we saw a spike in signups and we saw a bunch of really good customers come out of it so it was like, Oh, maybe this is a useful thing for my business and for me to do. So just kept going and so kind of just stumbled into that without sitting down and necessarily setting this as a goal for myself. Now, lots of amazing companies have built without the public persona, right? You know the brand but people weren’t seeing the founder or CEO every single day. But then there’s plenty of examples of great companies that we all know instantly, Virgin. I instantly know Richard Branson. Even Salesforce, you know Mark Benioff. There’s like Mark Zuckerberg. There’s many companies that have like a humanized public face of the business. In some cases, multiple public faces. So it’s definitely been a very successful strategy. Now, let me ask you, if I’m a kind of early founder and I’m thinking about starting my business and promoting it, how do I, should this be a real decision that I make? Should I put myself out there a lot in order to humanize my company and my brand or shouldn’t I? And what are the pros and cons? I do think that we both, I’ll go ahead and say that we both, I assume, would say that it can be an ego play, but in our cases maybe to some degree, but in our case, it’s not that we love seeing each other in videos or be interviewed for podcasts. It’s not like we, I always tell people that I am already very sick of myself, but I do think it’s an effective strategy to serve my customers, the market and my business employees. And I assume you feel the same way, but how would we advise somebody early who’s trying to figure out should I do this or not and what are the pros and cons?


Hiten Shah: Yeah. Yeah. I hope people aren’t making this too complicated. I don’t, I mean, there’s ego involved in everything.


Steli Efti: Right.


Hiten Shah: So let’s not get that confused. Even monks have ego. I mean, like let’s not, like there’s ego involved in everything. I think, yes, your ego can get … Carry you away with it and you want to prevent that. But to me, it’s like don’t make it complicated. If you are able to help your business, not even by being a public figure, but by helping your customers, go do it. Go do it. Whether it’s your current customers or your future customers, whatever it is. Like in your case, if you did those videos and I’m sure that that brought a lot of attention to your brand and your business and I mean, look, you’re a sales expert. Everybody knows it. I don’t know if you are not Steli, but like you are. You know, and that’s because of those videos, right? That’s how you establish yourself and you stumbled upon it, right? And in my case, I learned similar to you that if someone asks me a question or if I’m talking on a podcast or a video or a conference, like people like what I have to say, meaning like it resonates with them and they like it. So I’ll keep doing it because it helps my brand. It helps my business. I think you can go the other way and like just start wasting your time on stuff like that, absolutely. So that’s why I just go back and say, don’t over complicate it. Just do what’s right for your customer. We’re doing it because we believe that there’s something there for our customers of value that helps us as well. That’s why we’re doing it. There’s alignment there. If you don’t have that or you can’t find it, you’re probably thinking about it the wrong way or doing it for reasons that are not about your business.


Steli Efti: Beautiful. I don’t think I could say it any better. I think if you see that it comes natural to you, if you see that it serves your customers, it serves the market, it serves your team members, your business, then it’s a strength to help create value. Why wouldn’t you want to use that? Why? Why wouldn’t you want to double down on something that’s working?


Hiten Shah: Exactly.


Steli Efti: But if you find that you are doing this because you like the idea of being famous or having your name on some outlet or have people recognize you, if that’s the thrill that you’re chasing and you’re seeing that you’re doing all these things and now you have like all this public recognition but it doesn’t translate, like your customers are not really consuming that information and are not really affected by what you’re putting up in the public. Your team members don’t benefit from it. Your business doesn’t benefit from it. Then you need to think about it as a hobby and you need to treat it as such and not confuse it as your main job because being featured in some media outlet or speaking at some stage at some conference in and of itself is not equal to creating value for your business. It’s just isn’t. It can but it doesn’t have to. So you need to track these things and if it’s something you do because you like to be famous, that’s cool with me, as long as you treat it like a hobby, unless you see that it really drives results for your business. And I have to tell you, one thing that people don’t realize, maybe especially with people like me, is I still at times have to be comfortable with that. Like I still have some insecurities around this. Internally in the business, I’m okay being on stage or being interviewed, all that is not making me uncomfortable. But internally in the company, I don’t like to, I like to stay behind the scenes much more and I don’t like to share at all anything that I do in public. And it always surprises me when team members, I just had this conversation two days ago or so where I talked to somebody on the engineering team and I was like, what could I do to help more? Anything that you would criticize? Anything that you think I could do better? And he’s like, you know what? Anytime I stumbled over your content randomly on the net, I’m always happy and I’m always excited. I know that every time we interview customers, your persona has really benefited our brand and benefited their lives. But you don’t bring this internally. You know, I have to find that stuff. You never share that stuff. We don’t really celebrate it internally as much. And he’s like, and I think that maybe the people that have been around for many, many years and know you so well, maybe they’re over it and they know this and they’re cool, but we have so many new people and they’d love to hear that. A lot of them came because they were watching your content out there. So you should promote that a bit more internally. And I was like both flattered but also uncomfortable. I was like, Oh yeah, you’re right.


Hiten Shah: Mortified.


Steli Efti: Yeah. Right. To me, if I was like, look everybody, I did this big new thing somewhere or I spoke here, watch the video. You know, I’m insecure about that, like I feel like I’m a show off or something internally, like some kind of an idiot that wants to promote himself internally in his company. But it’s interesting to hear that the perspective internally is so different sometimes, but I thought it might be valuable or useful for people to hear this because I don’t think people recognize or realize that even somebody that seems as attention hungry as I am is uncomfortable and insecure about where he shares these things.


Hiten Shah: That’s really fascinating.


Steli Efti: All right. I think that’s it from us. If you have any experience, if you have any questions around this, any first attempts, or just need feedback or want help around this, we’re always happy to hear from you. Send us an email, Until next time, see you very soon.


Hiten Shah: Later.