What kind of first impression does your startup make?

Many founders pay too little attention to this relatively important aspect of running a business. They may have forgotten the old saw that “there is no such thing as a good second impression.”

A friend’s office in a non-tech field has titled the receptionist as the “director of first impressions.” That’s an appropriate label. No one will have a bigger impact on your opinion about a company than the first person who greets you. You may be the world’s smoothest salesperson, but if you are fronted by a sour welcoming committee, you’re starting your meeting already two strikes behind.

I have just had the occasion to visit two government offices in connection with repatriating myself from Texas to Georgia, and I must say both experiences far exceeded my expectations. The guards at the door may not be overly warm, but they are not there to be your friend. However, the frontline service people in both cases did make great first impressions and were very pleasant and intent on moving me through the process as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t recommend choosing to go to a tag office just for companionship, but my initial dread was unfounded. What should be simple tasks like exchanging license plates are made highly complicated by ancient regulations and legacy IT systems, and they will be labor intensive for decades to come. Perfecting the functions of autonomous cars will be much easier than solving the problem of registering and tagging them, especially if they cross a state line.

Back to technology, I would give high praise to WeWork in the first impressions category. They’ve earned their lofty valuation by smart facilities design coupled with smart attention to their human capital. I’ve had assignments in three of their locations and visited others, and I have yet to observe anything other than a warm welcoming team at the entry desk, adequately staffed, ready to help, cheerful, attractive, and suitably attired for tech casual. If that type of office matches your business requirements, you can count on a good first impression at the main entrance. It exudes energy and youthful vitality. I liked working in those locations, even if we were packed in like sardines. Their copious use of glass makes one feel part of a “happening” community.

Let’s say you’ve got someone in the door; how the to you continue to build on that very first impression? Probably you and your guest already have met or at least know something about each other. If there’s A/V involved, you likely have to begin by fiddling with some connection or setting to get that working, even if you’ve used it a thousand times and are in your own conference room. The A/V dance seems to be a ritual that no one has really solved. Moving beyond that, you make the best impression by asking intelligent questions, but being solicitous about the needs or practices of the person across the table, by showing interest in them individually, by finding some common bonds around school, family, worship, clubs, community, sports, or other intersections, and by having done your homework on them in advance. I’m not suggesting you allow that to extend into idle chit-chat, but a bit of warmup never hurts a conversation. Showing genuine interest in the other person earns trust toward whatever action you are hoping will result from the meeting. You never want your initial discussion to leave your visitor wondering “why am I here.” And, yes, I’ve heard people say that out loud when things get off to bad start.

This wisdom all may seem pretty obvious, but it only happens when you as a founder decide to make it so. It’s a combination of basic etiquette and selling skills, and you may need to go a few extra lengths to instill those in your team. Some deep technical types may not by nature be warm and fuzzy, but they can learn to respect others and to respect the circumstances of a business.

Your decisions on physical location matter. The proliferation of workspaces like WeWork make changing offices every few months almost too easy. You can adjust your overhead practically monthly to match your revenue. You can mix office and remote work to save money and commute times. Such peripatetic behavior, however, has a downside in the impression it leaves on customers, employees, and the community as to the stability and permanence of your company. You may be a few years away from putting your logo on a high rise, but having your venture more or less on wheels keeps it labeled as a startup and may not support the impression that lands the “make the company” deal you know is out there.

We turn now to where you are most likely to make your first impression – your online presence. How often do you find a website that is really up-to-date and accurate? Is yours? Everybody is pretty good at making a pretty website and keeping most of it up and running, but websites don’t on their own change as your business changes from month to month. Content goes stale and becomes inaccurate. You may be making promises that were well intentioned when originally published but are no longer your practice. You have improved your pitch and positioning based on market feedback in your day-to-day outreach, but no one has brought your web and social media into conformance. Have you checked all your links to see if they still work? I rarely look at a startup’s website without finding some issues.

Of course, I rarely look at big bank websites without finding issues as well. I’m seeing this in spades now as I try to update addresses and conveniences like automatic drafts across all the places I do business. I am moving my primary banking to Atlanta, and no two of my online relationships have similar ways of changing addresses and payment profiles. Their website designers seem to think that users enjoy Easter Egg hunts when attempting to perform the occasional update. Some of them admittedly are limited by regulations; I learned it takes 2 hours of phone time to move a Medicare Rx plan from Texas to Georgia, even though the end result is the same coverage and the same ID card. If your company has interactive features on its site, are they all easy to find and use? Do they work? Have you moved as much action online as is possible to save your customers the agony of the phone tree? Do your online help resources really ward off the need to talk with a human? If so, go to the head of the class.

I will hand it to the credit card companies. I had alerted some of my card providers that I would be making abnormal expenditures in Atlanta, but somehow every one of them automatically picked up my Atlanta address without my having to do anything. Almost as I crossed the state line and tried to buy gas, I learned that I had to use my Atlanta zip code at the pump instead of my Austin zip for a place that is still mine.

Probably those paying the most attention to your website are your competitors. I hope you are paying attention to theirs. Your customers and perhaps investor prospects are making such comparisons. Anyone who gets sloppy about online presence is making the job harder. Startups are difficult enough when you are on top of the details, but failing to manage your venture’s own pubic persona is a decision to drag a big anchor through the sales waters. You may think your audience doesn’t notice, but I’ve seen many times how ready they and your competitors can be to call you out on inaccurate details, misstatements, and other obvious deficiencies. Unless you are the only vendor in your category, like having patented the sole approved treatment for a chronic disease, you have to assume you have plenty of people looking for the chinks in your impression making. And, they all have a megaphone through online reviews and social chatter.

A good first impression and a very clear and succinct impression are synonymous. If you introduce yourself with 50 slides or 50 sheets of paper, you leave no impression. With, that, I will end this essay with what I hope is a clear message about the importance to founders of making solid decisions around every channel you have to make an impression on investors, customers, prospects, employees, employee candidates, their families, and all those influencers on whom you depend to be successful.