The key to startup success? Become an evangelist

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This is based on an article originally published in Fast Company.

One of my favorite roles as a tech entrepreneur is that of evangelist. I love talking to people about my companies and my products, sharing my visions with them, and filling them with the same enthusiasm that I have. But something most people aren’t aware of is that these skills didn’t come naturally to me. I had to learn them - and from a most surprising source.

I was brought up in a highly religious family in Sweden. Evangelism was something we were all encouraged to do from a very early age. We were told to take every opportunity to talk to others about our faith. We were taught to spot the keywords that would give us a way in, and how to tune our message to each individual. I was just seven years old when I first had to preach to crowd of over 700 adults. Soon afterwards, I was sent out to go and literally knock on doors in search of potential converts.

I hated every minute of it.

As an introvert, standing up in front of people like that was an absolute nightmare. Ten minutes before that first speech, I had to go to the bathroom and vomit, because I knew that afterwards my performance would be publicly and mercilessly critiqued by people much older than me. When people answered the door, I’d be sweating, I’d go into shock, and I’d forget every word of my carefully prepared speeches. Remember, I was still only halfway through primary school at this time in my life. But the peer pressure was unbearable , and I had no choice but to go through with it again and again until I learned to conquer that fear.

The evangelical entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably been through much the same experience when pitching. Talking to clients or investors can be a nerve-wracking experience. Your mind goes blank, you feel nauseous, and you find yourself bombarded with questions from skeptics who don’t share your passion or your convictions. Many entrepreneurs I’ve met have related something similar from their early days in business.

But in many ways, the skills I learned preaching on doorsteps are the exact same skills you need when pitching in a boardroom, at a conference, or in a bar. Although I’m no longer a part of that organization, I have to admit that without that upbringing, I’d probably be a coder working behind the scenes in a dark room instead of a successful entrepreneur with numerous start-ups under my belt. But, for all its faults, that intensive training meant that by the time I was 17, when I started my first business, I had over a decade of experience in trying to convince strangers to listen to my ideas. That gave me a huge advantage over other first-timers. One of the hallmarks of successful entrepreneurs is that they need to be ready to push themselves far beyond their comfort zones. You know you don’t have all the skills you need when you start out, but you have to be prepared to go ahead anyway. Try, fail, accept criticism, learn, and then come back stronger. If pitching isn’t something you enjoy, make yourself do it, and keep doing it until it becomes second nature. It’s your confidence, your showmanship, and your charisma that will make or break your business.

But perhaps most importantly, in order to be a really effective tech evangelist, you need the same passion and belief that drives religious evangelists. You can’t inspire people with a simple recitation of why your product is amazing - even if your product really is that good. You need to really believe in your product, to love it completely, and to be convinced deep down that it will change your customers’ lives if they accept what you’re offering.

As an evangelist, you’re not just selling a product. You’re selling a dream, especially in a start-up. You’re selling leadership. You’re selling hope. You’re selling a vision of the future that they’re going to buy into. And if you don’t believe it wholeheartedly yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to do the same.