Gain Influence and Traction Before It’s Too Late: Get a Third Co-founder

by Calvin Chu, Managing Director at R/GA Accelerator, Powered by Techstars

Most tech startups begin life with one or two founders ready to rock the world with some awesome new product. While there are many differing schools of thought on the best way to advance the progression of the product and company, a lot of seed stage investors are looking for a technical co-founder (CTO) paired with a business co-founder (CEO). Many people in the seed stage investment community will not invest in a startup with less than two people, regardless of how good the founder is. But that’s well-tread ground; instead, let’s look at your ideal third co-founder.

Your third co-founder should be a master of influence and traction. This third person should be solely responsible for every aspect of your product, company and message that exposes any surface to the outside world. The role is responsible for such ordinary things as branding and culture but also for adjusting the nature of the product to take advantage of virality. In particular, this person should be well versed in everything from basic hustling all the way to Cialdini’s Six Weapons. While this sort of cofounder may technically come from the marketing world, for those engaged in a from-scratch new venture, you’re looking for a strategic operator, a combination of Sun Tzu and Apollo Robbins. This person knows the nuance between a brand and a brand name, sales from marketing, and more.

Let’s face it: launching a startup company is rife with risk. It’s hard enough as an established company to build a successful product, and that’s with resources, regular pay, and even a good working environment. But here you are, a hot but underfunded startup company. It’s natural to put every dime you have and every nickel you raised from investors into growing either the product team (more engineers, more contract developers!) or building up talent on the business team. This much is true: it’s why founders one and two should be highly talented and willing and able to deliver on those areas.

But don’t conflate marketing and influence techniques with selling. It’s a rookie mistake to not differentiate between sales and marketing. To many early stage startups, the internal answer seems to be that since the product isn’t built yet — nay, since the MVP isn’t signed off — there is literally nothing to sell yet. And if there is nothing to sell, why even think about marketing?

Your customers have a natural system of mental shields that are put there to make you go away. Everybody has them. If we didn’t have these shields, we would have our bank accounts emptied in a heartbeat and quickly fall victim to the next 419-scam to shoot through unfiltered. As an unfamiliar startup, the natural reluctance of all your customers to accept you is your biggest barrier to success. Think about it: if none of your customers had mental defenses against accepting your product, you wouldn’t need to raise money — you’d only have to construct the product and cash in.

So it’s true, you shouldn’t be hiring sales people before you have something ready to sell. But on the other hand, there should be someone responsible for breaking down the shields and defenses of your customer population from the start.

Don’t just take my word for it. For example, many of the hottest startups of 2013 are using Social Proof, Scarcity, FOMO and Herd Mentality when they throw people into a waitlist (Mailbox, Tempo, Loom, etc). Also, enormous quantities of product shift every day on the basis of brand — essentially on perception information inside of other people’s heads. These techniques take time to strategically implement, and interestingly, it takes as long to effectively achieve influence as it takes to launch a product, so why push it off? How your target audience feels about adopting your product shouldn’t be left to chance nor pushed off until it’s too late.


Calvin Chu is the Managing Director of the first hardware connected devices accelerator in New York: R/GA Accelerator Powered by Techstars. Read his blog at A Gray Twilight or follow him on Twitter @cchu.