On Evangelism – how, what, and what-not to do

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One of high points of community management is to see other people spend their time to evangelize your vision. It could be taught in schools as one of the black arts, but there is a fine line where people’s expectations meet good delivery of a product, which makes people want to tell others about something.

Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a lot of Buzz around the blogosphere about Startup Insiders — too many people have been spending their time and energies talking to others about the events, helping out to organize them, inviting their friends, wishing us well, and giving prompt suggestions to improve it. This viral effect has been a humbling experience to see.

What follows a short commentary on the how and what and what-not of evangelism – and a brief hat tipped towards everyone involved in spreading the word about Startup Insiders.

Some of these lessons you could use in your startups

How do we get others to evangelize?

This comes from the simple rules of social interactions – everything in the world revolves around the relationships between you and the people who want to care about who you are… this could be your community, your brand, your subscribers,  your friends, your loyal employees, what have you.

The short answer is – I dont know, but I think the key to finding people who want to passionately spread the word about you lies in between understanding the expectations on you very very well, and designing a product that does justice to those expectations. Its not important to try and build the whole product yourself.

We started planning Startup Insiders back in August 2007 (back then the name was either “Green Talk” or “Innovation Coffee”) because we knew by then that the community wanted it to happen. Over almost two dozen meetings we were able to identify the format initially as well as what such events could build into, how they would help entrepreneurs, and who would want to be interested in supporting it. Even though we had a couple of sponsors for things as early as October, it was only until PASHA agreed to collaborate with us on these events, when Jawwad Farid coined the term “Startup Insiders”, when PixSense chose to host the first one, when PASHA was able to get the first panel together, that the product actually felt right.

The key lessons here is that you are likely not going to be able to meet expectations alone, and in such cases it is always helpful to reach out to other platforms who may want to believe in your idea and take it forward.

People who feel that what you are able to do for them is not only satisfying for themselves, but is so good it could also help their friends, may then choose to spend their time telling others about that activity. They will choose to carry the torch of your vision in front of their friends and family – they will feel a part of the culture around your product.

This is true for students telling their friends about free food, about me recommending a cellphone to my parents, and pretty much any other product.

Lets pause for a second and recognize all of the people who’ve been involved in helping, organizing and evangelizing Startup Insiders so far.

P@SHA
These guys aren’t just evangelists but the co-organizers of SI and really the quality delivery of the event would be impossible without them, and so would the first three sponsors and events.

P@SHA has been a fantastic set of people to be involved with for this and to bounce ideas by. They believe about a future driven by innovation-centric activities by young guys that go out and become the next big global brand.

The ex-Mulazamat Guys
Ali and Taher had the first video of the event up and have been talking about it ever since the last event in Karachi. They’ve been trying to encourage more entrepreneurs from FAST to take the plunge, and they’ve been valuable supporters.

Other enthusiasts in Karachi
Aleem Bawani and Fahad had interesting comments immediately after the event.

Platforms reporting local news
PakMarkaz, Chowrangi and PakSpectator, Islamabad MetroBlogs, Lahore MetroBlogs all had amazing writeups of the event and I’m very thankful that they chose to recognize it.

Mahwish Qammar
Special mention – she came up with the SI logo that immediately became viral and was adopted and appreciated by pretty much everyone.

BrightSpyre
These guys made a mammoth effort to make the Isb event the biggest and best of all of the three, including convincing universities, students and other startup enthusiasts from the local market to show up. A big thanks to Atif Mumtaz, Faisal and their team.

Dr. Arshad Ali
The ISB event was unique in that we had a lot of students who were not just very active but also very enthusiastic about starting companies. The credit for making this happen lies with Dr. Arshad Ali who chose to sponsor a special bus from NIIT to the event and back.

Mansoor from Business Beam
Special mention because he not only wrote two very warm posts but also helped with organization, took care of the mic at the event, and stuck around until the last few people were there. Thanks Mansoor!

Other Enthusiasts from Islamabad
Asif Razzaque, Sohail, and others for convincing people around them to show up.

Zia Imran from Vahzay / PASHA
Special mention again – Zia spent an enormous amount of time promoting the event locally and making sure everything is ready for the event, and also did some amazing coordination work to put everyone at ease in the Lahore event. Kudos to him for his passion.

University Evangelists
Umair Khan and other professors from LUMS and UCP added a lot of value and got students involved in the process.

Other Enthusiasts from Lahore
Metroblogging Lahore guys, Sohaib Athar, the 2’s Complement folks and others who liveblogged the event.

What to do if you have evangelists?

Wow that’s quite a list – so what do you do if you have evangelists? Ideally, treat them like royalty. Listen to them more than you listen to yourself. Instead of giving them fishes, train them to fish and get them directly involved in the next one.

Highlight them more than you highlight yourself, allow the individuals to grow professionally, recognize their intelligence and ideas so that they can remember their involvement as something worthwhile they did with you, enable them to be the face of the event one day.

Let a hundred flowers bloom, but make sure you direct them all to sunlight.

What NOT to do if you have evangelists?

If you have evangelists, you need to realize that you cannot assume sole-contorl over the evolution of the product’s brand – your community will then decide what it is or should be. It is like what Ze Frank said about “Waves”… waves dont care whether you just created a sandcastle that you’re proud of. When they come and go, they decide what shape that lump of sand will be in.

There’s a couple of sure-shot ways of killing evangelism around a product… to make people stop caring about something no matter how much YOU say things are great and how much YOU did great.

Pushing
This is a common mistake companies do when their products take off — they mistake it to assume that the success was because of them. They start thinking they will be able to repeat that success, and they start defining for themselves how the next revision of the product will be.

Another variant of this is to assume that the formula that worked the first time around can work again.

In other words, the companies start pushing the decisions of how the product will evolve. They start “expecting” the evangelists to fall in line. They start assuming that they are the only group in the space who has earned the right to know how the product should be designed. Somewhere along these thoughts, they disconnect with their community of evangelists, and the product dies.

Remember, every solution creates new expectations – the more successful you can get the bigger and better you must be next time around, the more focused you must be, the more specific needs and ideas from your evangelists you need to address, the more you must listen out for the expectations and the more you must realign yourself to meet them.

Green & White started out almost a year ago talking about supply chain management and operational efficiency. I dont know at what points in time we switched our topic focus, our writing style, our way of engaging authors and more but what we do know is that the community has driven our focus and continues to do so.

Pushing kills evangelism and brands in general.

Self-Centeredness

So what would happen if I went and started stopping everyone from writing about me, or pushing them to write only in a certain way… what if my first priority on this was how these activites could benefit me personally in the short-term? Well, pushing would happen.

But what happens if the only people who participate in these events in general are doing so for pure self-benefit — whether it is to try and show others how active their brands are? Or to try to hire people they meet at the events? Or to forget the bigger picture and only worry about how great *their* contribution is? Or to only participate to try to get new business for their own firm?

If everyone who participates does this — if e.g. Mansoor started wondering “Why should I hold the mic… whats the benefit to me?” — if startups start telling me “Ofcourse, that’s the only reason people come here right – to market themselves”… its pretty simple what will happen.

We’ll lose the chance to build the one platform we’ve raised in the past year which soberly and seriously aims to truly help entrepreneurs get out of hiding and step up on the limelight – a serious bid to try and move us towards an innovation-centric economy, to raise international attention about innovative thinking and thought leadership — things that will benefit everyone, not just yourself in the long term. We will lose that unless we all adhere to picking each other up and moving forward with them together.

For Startup Insiders, I think I’ll continue to be surprised at how these evangelists will step up to move forward together by adding their own spoonfuls of insight in the startup process.

To the negative people — the five or so people from different platforms who’ve said “We’ll only be involved if you put our brand on it” – I say, dont be involved then… even if you dont support SI, this community will evolve on its own.

Even if two people out on the fringe meet for coffee, and later one of them tells his friends “Yes, I had a nice coffee session with a friend to share notes”, the spirit of SI will live.

And it will live as long as the spirit and vision of our evangelists remain with us – while Green & White and P@SHA will continue to be the organizers of the events for now – I think and hope that our community and supporters will be driving and guiding us in the way we need to go.

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7 Comments

  • thanks for these wonderful tips.
    I wonder how much branding a product/event affects evangelism? What do u think was the case with SI?

  • Thanks!

    We all are the part of SI and that’s what make SI so successful! :) That reminds me, howz about hosting a Virtual SI? Think Second Life!

    http://secondlife.com/

  • Cool suggestion Ali. That could be one of the add-ons but the physical meetings need to continue. They are so exhilirating! See you tomorrow!

  • Very thought provoking. My product has been taken over by the evangelists and spread over 108 countries albeit the user propotion is tilted heavily towards India and Pakistan. Once people get a hold of the product, they will show it to their friends. It does help that it invokes the cool factor. Who doesn’t want to be cool or unique in their group.

    By the way I tried to email you the Cricket Companion story (submit@greenwhite.org ??) but got a SMTP error saying no such mailbox exists.

  • Ali,

    You took the thoughts right out of my mind here… we’ve had a Seminar planned on new-media engagement in Second Life.

    I’m looking for people who can help set up some virtual exercises for the participants. Do you know anyone who knows some SL coding?

  • Osama,
    Thanks for sharing beautiful thoughts with us. With the commitment and dedication of hard working pakis, I am sure this SI platform will definitely bring a change in Entreprenurship future in Pakistan. Keep it up !!

  • Well, I like the logo…very much.

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