Rachel Greenberg is a guest author, from The Org’s Panel of Expert Contributors. She is an ex-Wall Street banker-turned-startup founder, consultant, advisor, and CEO with deep expertise in the digital media, edtech, e-learning, and infoproduct industries.
I stared at my screen, mouth agape, utterly stunned by the ingenuity of his pitch. It wasn’t just entertaining or innovative; his proposal had so thoroughly covered every base and exceeded my highest expectations. Perhaps that could be expected from an industry veteran with decades of experience “wowing” bosses and knocking similar projects out of the park; however, coming from a 17-year-old former customer who had yet to graduate high school, it was a complete shock. I had made the right call: I wouldn’t regret hiring these three teenage customers-turned-interns over the experienced adults vying for the same role.
Brand champions can do more than sales calls
Having built multiple startups ranging from digital sweepstakes to edtech to e-learning and consulting — and having managed teams of 20+ adult “subject matter experts” — I never expected to hire a former customer, let alone a teenager.
However, these three hires weren’t your average teens, nor were they merely “customers”. They had been a part of an early-stage focus group — beta testers if you will — providing valuable user experience feedback and insights, and they quickly became brand evangelists. Truth be told, they believed in our product more than I did long before we’d fully proven our concept.
Most companies go wrong by assuming their brand champions are good for just one thing: Commission-based sales and referrals.
These three brand champions loved our products, but more importantly, they understood what our audience wanted for one simple reason: They were a part of that audience. Hiring these brand champions for a product-focused role — rather than solely a marketing or sales role — allowed us to tap into customer insights and feedback during the development process.
The contribution progression: marketing → operations → product development
First, we allowed them to offer their input via an alternative marketing campaign. The campaign was different for three primary reasons: 1. It was done “out of season” (at a time we didn’t expect high demand) 2. It required a repackaging of our offers and price points 3. It was tested via a short, simple ad-free campaign The results? Our new and unproven offer (with an untested marketing strategy and suboptimal timing) went from $0 to $20k in a few weeks. Repeating that strategy turned into $60k, then $120k, then $200k+ and decreased our customer acquisition cost immensely.
Once they’d proven their marketing prowess and deep insights into our audience’s wants and needs, we invited these customers-turned-employees into the fold with a more operational and hands-on role. They became an integral piece of our operations and developed a deep behind-the-scenes understanding of the “what”, “why”, and “how” of our product delivery.
Age and experience don’t trump passion and audience insights
Having successfully contributed in both the marketing and operations avenues, we finally gave the teenage interns a new task — their biggest contribution yet. We were developing a new tangential product for the same audience, but completely different from all our prior offerings. We had a couple of full-time adult developers vying for the job, but we offered the interns one opportunity to “wow” us and take the lead on this new venture.
They didn’t just stack up to the adult developers; they eclipsed them entirely with the most detailed, creative, utilitarian, customer-centric product development proposal we could have hoped for.
After three months of nonstop back-and-forth product development and another two months of prototype testing, we finally had our first production run complete. A team of three teenage interns spearheaded one of our loftiest product development goals and helped bring two brand-new products to fruition, working alongside our remote international team.
Here’s why it worked:
- Transparency: We were entirely transparent with our product requests, and we didn’t water them down based on what we thought they could accomplish.
- Autonomy: We gave them full creative autonomy and encouraged them to seek forgiveness later, rather than permission first — and it paid off.
- Trust: We trusted their judgment and competence, which empowered them to confidently pitch outside-the-box ideas they believed would best resonate with our audience.
- Communication: We encouraged them to share drafts, ideas, and in-progress work for ongoing feedback, rather than waiting for a finished product to make tweaks and changes.
- Nimble: They were nimble around our additional requests, and we were nimble and open to their off-the-beaten-path suggestions.
Despite having hired dozens of experts — from full-time tech developers to renowned marketing teams — I’ve yet to see a greater, faster ROI than I have on these young brand champions-turned-product development leads. I think the reason is simple: They really cared.
Sometimes, you can’t pay people enough to care, but if you do find those few that innately, sincerely care deeply about your company and your mission, they’re probably worth every penny.
It works both ways
Apparently, I’m not the only entrepreneur who’s hired their former customers for a high-stakes role…
A few years ago, media headlines were plastered with the brilliant event marketing that secured tens of thousands of attendees in a one-of-a-kind worldwide campaign. It was a true case study in successful event promotion.
The person in charge of that event’s marketing? He’s my relative and someone who stumbled upon the job in a manner similar to my interns: He was a customer and brand champion who reached out to the startup’s founder to offer a contributing hand. A few years later, he was the VC-backed startup’s CMO, at the tender age of 26. He was also the one who helped them pitch multiple investors and secure 8-figures in their first round of funding.
He didn’t have a marketing background, nor a finance degree. He was merely a customer who believed so strongly in the company’s mission that he went out of his way to lend his insights and talents where needed.
Unusual engagements may offer the greatest upside
Whether you’re a brand champion, a hiring manager, or a founder and CEO, there’s no harm in exploring how an alternative opportunity to work together might result in a mutual benefit and an outsized ROI for both parties. In my experience, cultivating talent in unusual places via organic engagements can lead to the most motivated of contributors and the ability to build, launch, and market new products under the advisement of those closest to your target audience.
If you limit your hiring to the people who routinely build your products, rather than those who buy them, who knows how much valuable audience insight you could be missing in your core team?
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