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The power of personality in the pitch room | Insights from Darryl Sparey, Founder of Hard Numbers

Trying to raise funds for your startup or business idea isn’t an easy task. From creating the pitch deck, planning what to say, dealing with nerves and overcoming the interrogation of a lifetime (or what can feel like it) – there’s a lot for founders to worry about. And when economic times are tough and investors’ pockets are squeezed a little tighter, the stakes are even higher. 

Aside from having a brilliant business idea, investors are also increasingly interested in the founder/innovator themselves. Having a dazzling personality can actually make all the difference. 

In fact, there’s a growing perception that investors look at the team, more specifically the founder first before the product. According to some investors, this is particularly true for early-stage start-ups where the focus is on the ability of the team, led by the founder, to follow through on an idea. After all, a founder needs to have the right personality to lead a team to success. They need to show resilience, inspire confidence and demonstrate they have what it takes. 

Darryl Sparey, the Founder of Hard Numbers, believes that personal brand and personality matter in the pitch room – and we quite agree. So, we decided to chat with him to discuss it further. We talked about personal branding, how it translates to commercial success and in particular, how it impacts fundraising. Darryl also shared his insights in the relationship between a founder/CEO’s personal brand and that of the company he/she runs as well as advice to startup founders on building their personal brand from the outset.

How would you define “personal brand”? What makes a great “personal brand”?

Personal brand, ultimately, is about clearly defining an area of expertise for yourself as an individual and as a key person within a business, and then promoting that expertise effectively externally through the channels that are available to you. 

I think the first part is the key part of personal branding – what is it that you understand really well, then you can share your knowledge and expertise with others such that you’re perceived to be an expert in this field. One of my favourite books on personal branding is “Known” by Mark Schaefer. In it he looks at people with a high profile across a range of different sectors globally, and this is a key step he identifies in building a strong personal brand. 

Ultimately, a great personal brand is what I might call the “mental Google” test. When I think of “fitness expert”, I immediately think of Joe Wickes. When I think of “neo-bank founder” I think of Anne Boden. When I think of “craft beer maker”, I think of James Watt. All of these people have built a personal brand that’s so strong, that they are “position one” in my “mental Google” for their field of expertise.    

How does personal brand translate to commercial outcomes? Can you share some studies/numbers on this?

Our latest Coverage to Capital report shows that startup unicorns whose founders have the largest number of LinkedIn followers secured over £763 million in total investment on average. That’s over 20% more than the average total raised – £632 million – across the UK’s entire unicorn cohort. It demonstrates that cultivating a social media presence not only helps business leaders to share their vision and values but deliver a cold, hard commercial outcome too.

The same trend was true in earned media. Of the 20 UK unicorns with the highest volume of media coverage, we found that 15 of them had CEOs or founders who were the most prominent in earned media. Boohoo’s John Lyttle was the most-profiled CEO across print and online channels, with a total of 718 mentions and having raised £59M in funds.

The most media-savvy CEOs appeared in nearly a quarter of company coverage. The leaders of top tier unicorns – i.e., which raised an average of £1.4 billion – were featured in 23% of their company’s press coverage on average, compared with just 13% of leaders at mid-tier unicorns – which raised an average of £350.9 million – and only 14% of low-tier unicorns – which raised an average of £130.8 million.

We have seen instances where a founder’s personal life/activities negatively impacted the brand/image of his/her company. What is your take on how to incorporate/integrate the personal brand into the company’s brand or insulate the company from it? 

This is a challenge as from our research we’ve seen that the profile of the founder and the profile of the business are closely interlinked, particularly for the most successful start-ups. 

Companies can really benefit from incorporating a strong founder story and personal brand in their early stages of development and growth. Having a founder with a strong personal brand, and a great authentic story about “why” they’ve created the business they have can be very powerful. 

But, as businesses mature, and face a broader range of challenges and stakeholders – regulatory, NGOs, charities, pressure groups, etc. – the skills of the founder and the reliance on that sole founder story change. 

Once a business is at a certain level of scale, broadening the bench of external speakers for the business can be a great way both to show the growth of the business and depth of expertise, but also insulate against some of the “key person risk”. 

What advice can you give to build a personal brand from the outset – especially for those in the early-stage?

There are a few pieces of advice I’d give to founders looking to build their personal brand from the outset. Firstly, be thoughtful about the platforms you choose to use, and don’t choose too many! If you’re targeting a B2B audience, LinkedIn and Twitter are likely core platforms; for B2C it’s probably TikTok or Instagram. For company founders, whatever the sector, our research showed that LinkedIn was the platform they were most likely to use. It offers great organic reach still, particularly if you spend the time to understand what works well for the algorithm and what the best times of the day and week are to post. It can also be extremely impactful.  

In terms of the content you share, try to use your own tone of voice and be authentic to yourself and to your brand. Original photography, featuring the founder, accompanied by a relevant post can perform well on LinkedIn, for example. Particularly for early-stage businesses, being open and honest about the challenges of growing the business can really resonate with others, so don’t be afraid to share the odd failure and what you’ve learned from it. 

In terms of earned media profile, it really is best to invest in some form of specialized external support for this. Whilst I might sound like I’m talking about my own book, it doesn’t have to be an agency, it can be a freelancer. There’s a brilliant PR freelancer database called PR Cavalry that’s worth looking at for very early-stage businesses. 

By the way: If you’re an early stage startup interested in pitching your idea to a panel of expert investors, why not apply to the Pitch Competition of this year’s EU-Startups Summit? Applications are now open and there is an awesome prize package up for grabs!

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Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez has over 10 years of experience in various fields including trading, supply chain management, logistics and manufacturing. As well as helping startups to raise funds, she is an award-winning public speaker and the current President of Toastmasters Nice, a bilingual club that promotes public speaking and leadership.

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