Hundreds of hopeful entrepreneurs arrive at a warehouse around 5 AM, armed with elevator pitches and props to impress casting directors.
To secure one of the few slots on Shark Tank for a chance to sell a piece of their business to Mark Cuban and the other sharks.
On top of all that, the deals offered on Shark Tank actually aren’t that great. It’s usually smarter to find financing through other means.
So why do people literally line up to pitch their business to the sharks?
Why do they pour money into an unlikely opportunity with little financial advantage?
Because if they accept a deal, they get more than an investment.
They get leadership.
Mark Cuban doesn’t hunt for investments anymore. Great deals come to him.
Shark Tank isn’t even his prime source of opportunity. Most of his deals come through private arrangements you and I never hear about. If you check out Cuban’s portfolio of companies, you’ll see many that have never appeared on Shark Tank.
When someone makes an offer to Cuban, part of the deal is his expertise, his wisdom that took years to earn, and his entrepreneurial and business insight. And they pay a premium for it.
Their plan is to give away more of their company today so Cuban can help them turn it into something larger tomorrow. They’re willing to trade a bigger slice if he can help them make it a bigger pie.
Plus, Cuban’s presence in the world of entrepreneurship gives those contestants access to resources that would otherwise be unavailable. It’s really easy to schedule a meeting when Mark Cuban makes the introduction.
You see, Cuban is a thought leader. He’s a respected personality in his field. His words carry so much weight that the rest of the industry quiets when he speaks.
As a thought leader, Cuban oozes value. He constantly gives free advice through his blog, speaking events, and countless public appearances. He even lends a business perspective to matters of politics, humanities and world affairs.
If Cuban says a new technology will impact a market, that market embraces that technology. His opinions have so much gravity they actually become self-fulfilling.
Most importantly, Cuban has an easy time selling his products and services because people love buying from thought leaders. 92% of B2B buyers say they are happy to engage with a known industry thought leader. People love buying credibility.
Now, you could become the Mark Cuban of your industry. As he says, “There’s no reason it can’t be you.”
But you don’t need to achieve Cuban’s fame and wealth to become a thought leader. You just need to understand what thought leadership means and how to position yourself, and be willing to put in the long-term work.
Thought leadership goes well beyond marketing. In fact, if you’re looking to thought leadership to make a quick sale, you’re in the wrong place.
John Rampton, founder of Due, points out the basic difference between thought leadership and marketing.
“If you’re really an effective thought leader, you aren’t just slavishly self-promoting–just as your business aims to do with its products, you’re helping your audience solve a problem or fill a need with your ideas.”
Thought leaders aren’t afraid to share unique, complex or even controversial opinions. They don’t have time for pseudo-celebrity personas. They act like themselves and don’t apologize for it. This makes them easy targets for journalists who need expert opinions (which explains why Cuban gets so much press).
Thought leadership content should educate, advise and entertain. It should drip value, but it doesn’t always have to provide a solution. Sometimes connecting with an audience and acknowledging their problems is enough.
Thought leaders lean on their experience because they’ve worked for it. They’ve put in the time to learn their craft. They know exactly how their audience thinks and feels.
Thought leaders tackle new ideas aggressively. They sit at the beginning of Everett Rogers’ Diffusion Innovation Curve.
They are innovators and early adopters who take risks, test strategies, and forge new paths. They’re willing to fail in order to push the edge of their industry. They disrupt tradition and “best practices.” They challenge common ideas and put people in uncomfortable situations to make them think.
A thought leader has influence over other people. If they change a habit, adopt a new policy, or implement a new system, their followers do the same. This happens even if their fans don’t understand why the thought leader made the change.
We can reduce thought leadership to three components:
A thought leader’s value comes from their knowledge and insight. That value is transmitted through organization, which typically appears in the form of quality content.
Let’s look at three other popular thought leaders and examine how they organize their value.
We’ve already talked about Mark Cuban and how thought leadership propelled his business, but let’s look at a few more leaders in different spaces to show how those 3 components play a part in each of their businesses. Then we’ll briefly dissect their careers and personalities (because thought leadership requires a close marriage of both).
Here’s our list:
What do they have in common?
First, they actively work in their industries of expertise. They have put in their time, paid their dues, and grinded through slow weeks and bad days. They’re the best at what they do because they have experience.
Each of these thought leaders ooze great ideas. They carry libraries of knowledge in their heads and they have the insight and context to educate others.
Their ideas aren’t just interesting - they’re foundational.
They don’t just drop their ideas into a blog post or a clever tweet, easily published and forgotten. They build those ideas into their businesses and brands. They hire teams, start companies and buy property all based on well-supported ideas.
Second, these four thought leaders have focus.
They chose to excel at one thing. While they established themselves, they avoided jumping between ideas. They put a goal in their sights and worked until they achieved it.
The lessons they learned along the way turned them into thought leaders. If they had skipped to something new when things got hairy, they’d never have learned the nuances or the experiences that shaped them into who they are now.
Sure, they’ve all diversified now, but that’s because their influence has earned it. Good opportunities line up before them because everyone knows the value they can provide.
How do these thought leaders differ?
The differences lie in how they organize their content.
Vaynerchuk uses video, social media and books.
Godin is a prolific blogger and author.
Buffet sticks to traditional newspapers and letters (his series to his shareholders is worth your time).
Cuban puts himself on TV and his basketball court.
Their tactics are designed to serve their particular audiences. If you care about what they have to say, you’re probably comfortable with their mediums.
Marketing broadcasts your content.
It makes all of your good ideas and clever insight available so others can find value in your experience. So it’s no surprise that thought leaders (and would-be thought leaders) embrace content.
84% of executives believe that thought leadership content adds value to their role. But they only read 31% of the content they come across and only 28% of it influences their decisions.
If they know thought leadership content will help them, why does it have such little impact?
Because most thought leadership content isn’t very good.
63% of respondents to that same survey said they disregard thought leadership content because it’s too generic. 58% said it lacks original insights and ideas. 53% said it was too promotional.
Just because someone is a leader doesn’t make them a thought leader, even if they’ve landed a few guest posts in Forbes or Business Insider.
So just having lots of content isn’t enough. It has to be the right content, organized well, backed by a strategy, and packed with value.
Earlier we spoke about the three components of thought leadership: Knowledge, insight and organization. Organization is how you deliver your value to the world; your strategic way to help and influence others.
That’s where content comes in.
Content is the vehicle that delivers knowledge and insight. But without the first two components, content is dull and unhelpful. It adds more useless noise to the rapidly growing web.
Those leaders we spoke about a moment ago produce content regularly. Their methods vary. Sometimes they present at conferences or give one-on-one interviews. Sometimes they author blog articles or New York Times bestselling books. Sometimes they appear on podcasts or TV.
Some are more prolific than others. Buffett can go quiet for months, but Vaynerchuk records videos every day. Godin writes a blog post a day, but it’s super short. Cuban likes to visit other people’s programs and platforms.
Give people what they need to succeed, even if there’s no immediate benefit to yourself.
But the ability to write an article or record a video isn’t enough.
Whoever creates your content has to know strategy. They have to align the content with your vision. They have to know how to use the right tools to produce and publish content your audience actually wants to read, and how to promote it properly.
Most importantly, the creators of outsourced content have to know how to extract your knowledge and insight. That isn’t as easy at it sounds. It requires a practiced interview technique, respect for your ideas, and a willingness to dive deep - deeper than most content marketers.
Being a thought leader doesn’t just mean having content.
It means leveraging the might of your knowledge and insight by organizing your content in a meaningful way so it adds profound value to the lives of your audience.
It means structuring your message to expand your reach, grow your following, and (like Mark Cuban and the other thought leaders I mentioned), attract new opportunities.
You have a message a worth sharing. How will you share it?
Joel Widmer is the Founder & CEO of Fluxe Digital Marketing—a content marketing shop that helps smart businesses create, produce and promote their content through a unique one-on-one interview process. When he’s not working, Joel can be found trying new restaurants with his wife and son.