Startup Celebrity Endorsements Done Right

November 19, 2013

1:00 pm

My friend Michael Chasen wrote an interesting post the other day laying out the pros and cons of celebrity endorsements for startups. His post was great and his advice was dead-on.

This article came on the heels of announcements that Justin Bieber is leading fundraising rounds now, Ashton Kutcher is becoming more and more involved in the startups he advises and invests in, and even my startup Speek is getting press coverage of some very nice things that Edward Norton had to say about us.

Given the attention that celebrity endorsements of startups have been getting lately, and the not unrelated trend toward more and more startups joining forces with celebs as investors, advisors or even straight up spokesmen, I thought it would be relevant to share how we’ve made having a celebrity as a fan of our product work for us.

Speek is a web and mobile product that is fixing crappy conference calls. Like other popular “prosumer” products, we straddle the line between consumers and business users and ultimately cater to both. This brings me to my first piece of advice:

Not all celebrities are created equal.

Given that we play in both spaces (consumers and business), Edward Norton makes an ideal evangelist. Edward is not only a Hollywood A-lister, he is also deeply involved in a wide variety of non-profits, as well as several business and business development ventures. His broad, deep and multi-faceted reach and respect is what made him a great celebrity for Speek to partner with, far beyond the fact that he is famous. Edward brings not only the ability to drive enormous amounts of qualified traffic to Speek, he can also pretty much introduce us to any non-profit or venture capitalist we could hope to meet. And they will respond, because – Edward Norton. This brings me to my next point:

In the end, it all boils down to numbers.

In a startup, everything should be viewed as a channel for user acquisition. You’re either spending your time profitably acquiring and retaining users or you’re not. This same lens should be applied to working with a celebrity. Edward’s army of Twitter followers and mental Rolodex consist of potential users and partners who are in exactly our sweet spot as a target audience. We have great traction and retention among non-profits and associations. Edward is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, an activist, and the heavily-involved co-founder of his own startup CrowdRise, which has already proven itself essential to the fundraising efforts of a wide swath of non-profits. He is also crazy-smart, a graduate of Yale, and close with many business leaders and venture capitalists who are also in our sweet spot for user acquisition. Every joint effort we’ve made with Edward—from a couple of tweets to a business development deal—can be measured very closely in terms of user acquisition channel. Which is a perfect segue to point #3:

Quantify your expectations from working with a celebrity ahead of time.

When we first learned that Edward was a big fan of Speek, we had some very frank conversations—both internally among our executive team and with Edward as well. We spent months discussing ways we could work together and how we could quantify success. In other words: what would it mean for our partnership to be a successful one? In the end, we all saw eye-to-eye and agreed not only on some high-level tactics, and communication channels, but also in how we mutually defined success. Furthermore, we all agreed that we valued transparency absolutely and that either side could end the relationship at any time if they felt it wasn’t working. This is key. It’s a lot easier to agree to go on a couple of dates than it is to say “I do” at the altar.

Conclusion

Working with a celebrity, it’s very easy to get caught up in the bright lights and glitz, and sheer magnetism. There is a reason these people are famous (well, most of them, anyway). The first time I met Edward for a coffee in Manhattan, I had butterflies. A 30-minute coffee turned into three hours of talking deep business development strategy and traffic generating tactics. We never once talked about movies, Hollywood, or the lifestyles of the rich and paparazzi-hounded.

One huge reason that should have NOTHING to do with your decision to work with a celebrity: because it makes you feel cool. If this is about you or your clingy ego, the partnership is screwed from the get-go. This is about your startup. And your startup doesn’t want to feel “cool,” it wants to grow and build a user base.

And if, after thorough discussion and consideration, you agree that working with a celebrity would be mutually beneficial, that it would serve your startup as a measurably profitable user acquisition channel, and you do decide to go ahead with it, and you find yourself hanging out with a celebrity every once in awhile, just you know, grabbing a coffee or whatever: hey, it’s cool.

Nobody said this job didn’t have perks.

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Danny Boice is the CTO of Speek - a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link (speek.com/YourName) rather than using phone numbers and PINs. A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and MusicMaker.com in the 90′s. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice.

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