Allyson Downey and her husband, Jack, are parents of young kids who started an online service for parents of young kids. WeeSpring is a "Yelp" for baby and children's products, allowing overwhelmed parents to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff (or the tight sippy cup from the leaky one). The couple's first step, before deciding to launch the business, was to reach out to their social network for feedback about the concept. As happens in many startups, friends and family soon got excited about the company and started to engage with it. Even some casual acquaintances took up the company banner with fervor, converting everyone they knew. On occasion, the fervent overstepped their bounds, making unsolicited introductions to investors and prospective partners that the company simply wasn't ready for.
But while support from friends and family has been critical to the growth of their company, the couple quickly learned that "some people are natural ambassadors and some aren't," as Allyson put it. Some individuals offered to help and then never followed through. Others promised to spread the word but didn't even sign up for the service themselves, although they were in the target demographic. Still others volunteered key connections to media and influencers--then never actually made them. Allyson has become philosophical about these lapses. "You have to let it roll off your back," she said. "It's about managing expectations with people not on your payroll. Not everyone will be out there beating the drum for you. It's not that they don't love you. It's that they have their own responsibilities to deal with."
Allyson has learned that, when it comes to getting people to help promote your brand, you get what you pay for. "When a friend offers something for free," she said, "be prepared for it to fall to the lowest place on their priority list." Allyson believes these informal relationships should be formalized and has started paying-;albeit not much-;anyone she hopes to rely on, including friends (though not family members). She now uses objective assessments, like the online tool plum.io, to evaluate core competencies, making sure each person is a good fit for the assigned task.
Especially in the early days of a startup, friends and family may not fully understand what's at stake for the founders. "Our business is so personal to us," Allyson said. "This is who our family is right now. It's hard for non-entrepreneurs to understand that, especially before you have external validation, like X dollars raised or high-profile press hits. To them, it's just something you're doing for fun, like a hobby."
Now when it comes to asking for help, Allyson waits until the request is "easy lifting." For example, she doesn't hesitate to ask for introductions from friends who have personal relationships with people she would like to meet. But she's careful to lay the necessary groundwork before asking people to use their professional networks to help. One good friend works in New York media, but Allyson decided to play that card only after she had gotten other press hits on her own. That made it easier for her friend to approach her boss. "Instead of my friend using her political capital by asking her boss to cover our company as a favor, she was able to show her boss our other media hits and say instead, 'I've got a connection at this cool company and can get us access,'" said Allyson. "'So it helped my friend look good, too."
Entrepreneurs are probably safe counting on moral support from those closest to them. Practical support should not be taken for granted. So let friends and family know what you need but don't ask for more than they can comfortably provide. Tailor marketing requests to the person. And offer your ambassadors a little something--even if it's a very little something--in return for spreading the word. Make an effort to craft win-win's, even with the folks who love you.