Why Trust Is the New Marketing Currency

Chris Howard

There is only one currency an entrepreneur really needs to start a business: trust.

This may sound trite and obvious, but without being able to build trust quickly, your ability to create key relationships and “get things that others can’t” never really materialises. 

Sure, you can throw money at problems via consultants and soulless agencies that serve only the highest bidder; or you can build immense personal brands by getting yourself photographed with Taylor Swift. But the harsh reality is that if you come across like a dick in Startup Land, you’ll be treated like a dick in Startup Land.

After 10 years of trying, miserably failing, measuring, and testing, I have discovered a few key aspects in trust-building that every entrepreneur should both master and understand to lower their dependency on ‘fundraising’. Frankly, trust enhances your ability to get more stuff done more quickly. I will cover three of these insights in this article, and happy to share more on request.

As a side note, before you tuck into the meat of this article, it should be noted that there is so much bullshit out there on this subject – unqualified ‘pop psychology’ & nonsense written by startup dropouts that have never understood what it means to be ‘scientific’, writing a book to get on the speaking circuit. Despite the conversational tone here, the below is grounded in science alongside relentless practice. If people’s appetites are whetted, some excellent further reading includes Quirkology by Prof. Richard Wiseman, and The Speed of Trust by Stephen R. Covey.

Tip 1 – Master the first impression.

Trust begins with a strong first impression. As animals, we developed ‘instinctive’ parts of our brains well before we evolved parts the that control language and conscious thought. And because ‘trust’ was fundamental to our survival as a species, much of what happens during a first impression happens on an ‘instinctive’ level. Think about it for a minute – as a species, when we couldn’t talk or derive new plans from our own experiences consciously, we had to react to our environment simply on instinct. Therefore, the psychology of the first impression is rooted in our ‘fight or flight’ response as a species – and this response is ‘hard coded’. Basically, a first impression is our way of evaluating whether to ‘stay’ or to ‘run away’.

In the following millennia, we underwent social evolution. This ‘instinctive trust’ became a core part of our strategic thinking capability. We used memories of a first impression to evaluate the strategic benefit of an individual. However, despite these thoughts being more evolved, they are still occurring on an instinctive level deep within our subconscious. Our conscious brain only kicks when we need to communicate the outcome of our thoughts to others.

So, how is this helpful for an entrepreneur? 

Well, it’s pretty straight forward really. If you were to ask Person A what they thought of someone they met for only 5 minutes at a cocktail party (person B), what would Person A remember about Person B two weeks later? In the vast majority of cases, Person A would only be able to recall their feelings regarding how warm and how credible Person B was. Pop-psychologists often refer to feelings as being irrational. However, that is complete psychological and biological nonsense. Feelings are often the representation of strategic thinking before it has been repacked by the part of the brain that governs language (this is the source of ‘gut feelings’). Therefore, Person A rarely can recall any specific facts (including Person B’s name) but can often recall the emotional state they were in. Person A unconsciously focused on identifying signals that may indicate a lack of warmth and credibility in Person B – all while the conscious part of their brain focused on speaking nonsense. To simplify, Person A will only be able to accurately recall whether Person B came across like ‘a dick’ or, as I colourfully put it, ‘full of shit’. 

Tip 1 is simple – in the first 60 seconds of meeting someone new, while their unconscious brain is evaluating your first impression, make sure you come across as warm and credible.

Being warm is about being non-threatening:

  • Don’t stand too close;
  • Smile more;
  • Mirror their body language;
  • Make eye contact;
  • Slowly nod when they’re talking etc.

And being credible is not the same as being clever – it’s about saying things you know you can defend; challenge assumptions of others with a simple argument; share your personal story etc. If it can easily be Googled and verified, then that’s a good place to start. After the first 60 seconds, a first impression tends to have been made and you can move on to more meaty topics.

Tip 2 – Be valuable, not sociable.

It is critical to understand that others can make your first impression for you. Whether it’s in writing, edited for a TV program, or simply someone talking about you to others – your first impression can happen by proxy. So, how do you control your first impression even when you are not there? The trick, is to build a reputation of being valuable – not simply sociable.

People tend to build their own credibility on the shoulders of others. You will frequently overhear wantrapreneurs and entrepreneurs alike relentlessly name-dropping semi-famous people into conversations that they claim to be sociable with. The reason people do this is simple – it’s based on the human need to be valued by your peers. You see in the ‘olden days’ of our evolutionary career as humans, being seen as valuable meant you were more likely to be accepted into more stable tribes. And being accepted into a larger, more stable tribe, often meant your chances of survival went up. If you weren’t seen as valuable, you were left out to dry – or scarified to some god by someone else who is seen as valuable. That’s natural selection at work, often referred to as ‘social evolution’. We do it every day – even without thinking. Therefore, spouting names is not the same as demonstrating value. You, unconsciously or deliberately, will be inferring to the other person that you are valuable by association only. Sadly, in a highly connected world, that rarely achieves the desired effect as most networks are now testable and credibility gets eroded pretty damn quick.

(As an interesting side note, being sociable and not valuable is common in insecure industries – like the music industry. And whenever you can see a trend of behaviour of people only talking about their networks, it’s a strong indicator that the industry is ready for technology disruption.)

Name-dropping without delivering tangible value erodes trust. When people feel socially inferior toward others, their natural reaction is to become defensive. When someone becomes defensive, it’s perfectly normal to start re-evaluating whether a first impression was correct. This is often referred to as ‘the second impression’. But the second impression differs from the first because during a second impression you are deliberately looking out for fault in the other person – and lo and behold, you often find it. No matter how small the perceived fault, the second impression is made and the credibility and warmth erodes.

So, how do you combat this? It’s pretty simple.

Tip 2 is simply – be valuable, not sociable. When meeting someone for the first time, offer something to them. You may think you have nothing – but that’s likely untrue. Simply an introduction to a likeminded individual demonstrates value and kindness. Many of the people I meet often refer to me as someone who helps before asking, and that’s very kind of them. But it’s also very deliberate of me. When I meet someone that I want to build trust with, I will normally make several attempts to ask them ‘how can I help?’. I ask for nothing in return for the offer – because I know the true value I get back is an increase in trust with that person, and a better ‘first impression by proxy’. This then means more people want to meet me, and more people want to help me in return. Techstars calls this ‘paying it forward’ and this approach is forced down entrepreneurs’ throats. What defines a good accelerator is the number of mentors that can effectively build trust with entrepreneurs. It’s no surprise Techstars founders have great networks – it’s because they’re trusted. But a lack of paying it forward is also a key indicator of a trustless ecosystem (i.e. music). 

Tip 3 – Being trusted requires you to be vulnerable, but not weak.

The last tip here (there are so many more but this article is already too long for my liking) is to appreciate that being perfect is often seen as a weakness. You need to have vulnerability somewhere. Some refer to this ‘vulnerability’ trait as ‘being coachable’. It all amounts to the same thing – people cement trust with another person by investing themselves in other people’s success, but you cannot invest in someone else’s success if there’s no opportunity to help.

Let me explain. 

You see, after a good first (or second) impression and the extension of your value to someone new, if you accept someone else’s value in return, you are sending the signal that you trust them back. However, if you come across as someone who doesn’t need help, then others are less likely to ‘return the favour’ and begin to feel inferior toward you. And much like tip 2, when you feel inferior, you often become defensive… yada yada… 

Here’s a practical example at work. Imagine asking someone you’re only just getting to know to help you paint your house. If you were to offer them money for their help, you will likely be sending a signal they are inferior to you financially. This is because the ability to pay someone for their time indicates your time is likely more valuable than theirs, and your capacity to pay is higher than theirs. This again results in an inferiority response. However, if you were to offer that same individual beer and pizza in return for their help, you are signalling that you may not have the capacity to pay them. This in turn, gives the impression you are vulnerable – but not weak.

Dozens of academic studies have confirmed this effect – for example, when offering £50 to an individual to help paint a room vs £50 worth of food & drink, the offer of food & drink results in over 3x more people agreeing to help. When someone helps you, they become invested in your success.

Let’s distil this into a tip then. So, tip 3 – be vulnerable – but not weak. After extending your value and demonstrating your capacity to help others, ask for help in return (at an appropriate time). It can be as simple as an introduction – or as outlandish as asking their help choosing a new car. It doesn’t really matter. You are signalling that they are also valuable – allowing them to invest in your success after you have invested in theirs. When trust goes both ways, you have the unit of ‘currency’ needed to help grow your business.

Final thoughts.

These tips may seem manipulative – but in fact, they’re the total opposite. This is simply good practice at not being a dick. Many people do not understand the basics of human behaviour and psychology – too much of our education is focused on storing knowledge in our heads instead of practicing the skills required to form relationships or solve problems effectively. 

From my own bitter experience, I know how important trust is. It led to the end of my role as CEO in my first business, but also resulted in being someone who can walk into a room drunk with an investor, and walk out with a cheque for $100k. It’s not magic, nor manipulation. It’s simply the human fact that people invest in people – but they only invest in people they trust.