When you’re a thought-leader, journalists, analysts and conference producers come knocking on your door to put you in the spotlight. Your voice and time becomes coveted as people clamor to meet with you and gain industry insights. And as a thought leader, you'll understand that these supporters and followers can open doors, which will ultimately grow your businesses.

Are you ready to wield this kind of influence? In her book Ready to be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success, Denise Brosseau, provides a seven-level framework for becoming a thought leader. She shared with me five reasons thought-leadership is so effective and provided real-life examples of entrepreneurs who are using this strategy to their benefit.


1. Start a conversation that will make you stand out

Miki Agrawal is the co-owner of Wild, in New York City, a farm-to-table pizza restaurant. As anyone who is lactose-intolerant knows, finding good-tasting pizza has historically been a challenge. Not anymore. Her pizza is gluten-free and uses mostly vegan ingredients. She has made herself a thought-leader around eating healthy foods that are locally and sustainably grown.

This brand of thought-leadership helped get her invited to the Summit Series, events for young entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. There she met Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. That meeting led to the two partnering to open Wild in Las Vegas. Attending conferences and other events are an important way to be seen and meet people.

As if her work in the restaurant world wasn't enough, Agrawal is also the co-founder of social enterprise THINX, maker of leak- and stain-resistant undergarments. For every pair of THINX you buy, the company funds seven washable, re-usable cloth pads for a woman or girl in the developing world. Without them, these women often miss school or work each month—losing valuable time unnecessarily.

This venture proves that having a cause is another way to get noticed. Agrawal's THINX received the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival’s “Disruptive Innovation Award” and was also named 2013’s Forbes’ “Top 20 Millienials On a Mission”. Her thought-leadership thereby expanded to include empowering women. Agrawal is now a public speaker and media maven, having written a book and blogs and serving as a media source.

Adrian Ott created successful consulting practice Exponential Edge by changing consulting strategy to differentiate herself and become a thought-leader. She developed Time-Value Economics (Time-onomics) and wrote a book, The 24-Hour Customer. She makes and writes new rules for winning when always connected and starved for time. She is a contributor to Fast Company and HBR, and a prominent speaker. Her message not only resonates with people, it has led to new consulting opportunities for her company.

2. Become a media darling.

Kat Gordon, like Ott, is a successful consultant. An advertising creative director at Maternal Instinct, Kat specializes in marketing to moms. Wanting to distinguish herself from the rest of the consultants out there, she noticed that women make 85% of consumer purchase decisions but almost all creative directors are men. The stark contrast seemed a bit of a mis-match.

To remedy the situation, she started The 3% Conference which got her a "Proclamation from the Commission on the Status of Women" at City Hall in San Francisco, designation as one of 2013's "Top 10 Women to Watch" in Advertising Age, and lots of media coverage including an article in Forbes. The third conference, which will be held later this year, is in the planning stages. A sought-after speaker, Kat has presented at Techweek, The Haas School of Business, Walmart, The 140 Conference, MamaBear Tech Conference and Mom 2.0 Summit.

Nilofer Merchant is a blogger with a vision for the future: social technologies will help companies be more collaborative, resulting in quicker response times and greater agility. Nilofer writes for her blog Explore, contributes to Harvard Business Review and runs a successful consulting practice. She earned her stripes working with companies like Apple, and Autodesk, and startups like Golive, which was later bought by Adobe. Her nickname, “The Jane Bond of Innovation” speaks to her ability to help companies overcome impossible odds. She has written two business books: 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra and The New How. She has contributed to several other books as well.

Nilofer exhibits that publication begets notice. The Wall Street Journal has written about her and CNBC has called her a visionary. She has opened for Bono, regularly speaks at events, TED conferences and technology conferences like Web 2.0, inspiring many. Merchant is a member of public and private boards, bucking the trend of all-male boards. 


3. Develop a deep understanding of your market’s needs.

Ali Wing is CEO of giggle, a company which sells baby products to choosy parents. She is her corporate brand, a choosy, expert mom, whose research into baby products saves time for other parents. It’s not just her favorites that matter; she talks to other new parents to find out matters to them as well.

She is so aware of her market that she is its spokeswoman and has appeared in that role on The Martha Stewart Show, been quoted in Real Simple and writes or has written for The Bump, Glam, BabyTalk, Working Mother, and eHow. She was part of USA Today’s CEO Roundtable, and is co-author of The lilaguide: Baby Gear Guide, the Zagat's of baby gear.

Like our first entrepreneur, Agrawa, who speaks for people with food intolerances, Wing has become the go-to person within her new parents niche.


4. Attract customers who become evangelists for you..

Stephanie Burns and Jody Greene of Chic CEO answer women’s questions about starting a business. They do this in-person at events and online, providing start-up entrepreneurs with both expert and peer advice. Chic CEO was rated as one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurial Websites for Women by Forbes and one of the Top 10 Best Websites for Millennial Women by Forbes, and has a passionate, built-in fan base ready to spread the word. 

5. Build your brand as a corporation and as a person.  

All these women have both a business brand and a personal brand, although the latter comes at a price. While it’s nice being known by her customers, Wing would like to be able to turn her visibility off when not working; a little less focus on what she says and how she looks would be a relief. Thought-leadership is hard for small business owners, Brosseau said, because their time and resources are often already strained. “Thought-leadership, even when done right, is time consuming, especially on top of managing the day-to-day operations of a growing business,” she said, adding that in her experience, “Women entrepreneurs are not always that good at delegating.”

But there are ways to make the path to thought-leadership easier, she said. Brosseau learned from those she interviewed along the way and developed a multi-step process for becoming a thought-leader.

Here are a few of her insights:

  • Define what success looks like for you. Is it media mentions, website traffic, blog comments, or revenue growth?
  • Don’t get caught in the ego trip of more customers and more sales and lose your focus.
  • Don’t be afraid of controversy and being the first to speak up. If you just say what everyone else is saying, you’re not a leader, you’re a follower. To lead, you have to speak the unspoken ahead of the crowd. When Robin Chase was challenged, she came up with Zipcar—a whole new business model, not just a variation on the old theme.
  • Learn to enjoy the limelight, even if you have to take classes to overcome shyness.
  • Accept mistakes. No mistake is wasted; you learn from every one of them.


Geri Stengel is president of Ventureneer, a marketing research company targeting small business. Geri is a regular Forbes contributor, consultant, Kauffman facilitator and the author of Forget the Glass Ceiling: Building Your Business Without One.

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