Brian Lee and Jeff Stibel: Influencer Marketing Secrets for Startups

Finding the right influencer for your brand is all about authenticity—and knowing your role as a founder.

Last Updated: December 7, 2021

Published: August 9, 2021


When it comes to brand marketing these days, is it table stakes for startups to work with influencers? At M13’s recent Future Perfect: Influence event, I posed this question to two experts on influencer marketing:

  • Brian Lee, co-founder of The Honest Company, LegalZoom, and ShoeDazzle
  • Jeff Stibel, co-founder of Bryant Stibel and Stibel & Company

    Brian and Jeff are Los Angeles legends who have contributed to building some of today’s most iconic brands as both founders, operators, and investors. Like us, they believe that connecting with your customers comes from staying true to your brand value proposition and aligning that with influencers and champions who can authentically represent and support emerging brands.

    From sharing their best advice on leveraging influencer to discussing the influential and critical role of founders, check out the highlights from our conversation below.

What’s your approach to successfully leveraging influencers?

Jeff: “For me, it's all about trying to create an organic experience. So knowing and understanding your customers, knowing what they want and what they need and trying to fit the product to that, and then match your messaging in a very organic and authentic way, which sometimes involves influencers because psychologically, they can be very powerful if authentic. Sometimes not. For me, I do not use influencers very often. So it's sparing both in the businesses that I have run but also with businesses that we invest in. When we do it, it's because there's a certain amount of authenticity. Their effort, time, and experience carries the day. And the fact that they're influential is coincidental.”

Brian: “It really is about authenticity and building that natural relationship with the consumer. When we talk about partnering with a celebrity or influencer, that really has to relate to the end consumer. And you can't have the end consumer think twice about it. If the end consumer has to make an additional step or an additional connection to connect that influencer to whatever service or product that they're representing, then you've already lost.”

How can a brand develop an authentic relationship with an influencer?

Brian: “At the time we started The Honest Company [with actress Jessica Alba], most of her followers were not young moms. We had to really build that following with her to attract more and more modern moms. We did by reaching out to bloggers and having a lot of influencer events. By the time we launched, we had a tremendous following these moms who understood her story, which resonated with them quite naturally.”

So are influencers necessary for a startup?

Jeff: “Every startup has a pre-packaged influencer attached to it from Day One, and that's the entrepreneur. As the entrepreneur, you should be the best person to convince your customers, your employees, your investors that they want and need and have to have whatever it is you're selling … The reality is if you feel like you need an influencer, there's nothing authentic about that. If you see a fit with someone who happens to be influential, then you should go after that individual as a partner. Otherwise, be your own influencer. It’s the best way to learn about your market, learn about your customers, learn why people want or don't want your product. Do that before you bring an influencer.

I'd actually argue that table stakes is not having an influencer. If you have to constantly question early on whether you're selling something because an influencer is hawking it or because it actually provides a real service and real value to someone, you're ultimately going to do your business a disservice.

Jeff Stibel

What’s a great example of an authentic company partnership with an influencer?

Brian: “One that really sticks out to me is Goop. What Gwyneth Paltrow has done with Goop is quite amazing. She has built her preferences (what she loves and likes) into this company that exists not just for her brands but for other brands that she’s attaching to it in very organic ways. I think Goop is here to stay.”

At the end of the day, authenticity matters. As a startup founder, remember to listen to your intuition, and wield influence as an effective tool. When you discover a tipping point of what clicks with the consumer, double down on it when it happens because it can provide some tremendous insights, momentum, and opportunities for brand building and creating connection with your customers.

To catch up on more of M13’s Future Perfect: Influence series on everything from the creator economy to social impact, check out the full video replay.