How I Decide What to Write About-And Why I Might Not Cover Your Company

7/29/11Follow @wroush

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sit down with the founders and really find out where they got their ideas, what makes them so passionate, and how they plan to take the world by storm. You’d be surprised how many of these companies there are.

Does this story boil down to a product announcement? I rarely cover things like new apps or software releases, unless they’re part of a big strategic shift or represent the culmination of some larger story I’ve been following.

Then I move on to some harder questions.

Has this company won the backing of reputable investors? I love writing about early stage startups, but if they’re so early that they haven’t even got investors on board, I’ll probably shy away. I’m not qualified, and don’t have the time, to decide whether your mousetrap is better than the next guy’s. For better or worse, I rely on the investment community to help with this kind of screening. Note: I count the top-tier venture incubators such as Y Combinator as investors, so if your company has gotten into one of those programs, you’ve automatically cleared at least one bar with me.

How truly differentiated is this company’s technology? I’m a tech geek at heart, or I wouldn’t be writing about the startup world. I love to dig into a company’s core technology and then try to explain it to readers in a way that helps them understand its importance. It’s only worth my time, and my readers’, if the technology is truly novel, or is being applied in a novel way. Certain technology areas are looking very bubbly to me these days, so I find myself having to apply this filter more and more often. A few of the areas I’m getting jaded about: online advertising optimization, digital payments, cloud application management, and the whole social/mobile/location/media-sharing nexus.

Is this company offering a product or service that our audience would care about? Xconomy has a diverse audience that includes readers from the infotech, life science, and energy industries, as well as quite a few investors and service providers. With such a broad readership, we can’t spend a lot of time dwelling on technologies with small addressable markets, or on giant software systems that only a few Fortune 500 companies can afford, or on technical minutiae better left to the trade publications. I don’t have a blanket policy against covering B2B or enterprise software companies, the way many tech blogs do, but when I do write about these technologies, it’s usually because I’ve come across an especially disruptive idea or an especially entrepreneurial person or team inside a given company.

Does this company have a team of articulate, charismatic founders or executives? Biztech journalism isn’t quite as personality-driven as other areas of the media, which is part of why I like it. Still, if I find an entrepreneur who has an interesting personal history and can tell his or her company’s story in clear, compelling terms, it gives me a lot more material to work with.

Does this company have a convincing business model? Building a startup is largely a process of testing, discarding, and reinventing your business model until you find one that works. So I’m happy to write about companies where that search is still underway. But at the very least, a company has to be able to explain its current business model, and tell me what they’re doing to test it. I’m increasingly irritated by what I call the Twitter Answer: “We’re focused for now on building a service that 200 million people will use, and later we’ll figure out some way to monetize it.”

Is this company built to flip? Or simply to get the founders “acqhired” at Google, Facebook, or Twitter? I’m rapidly losing interest in companies building products or services that only make sense as a feature or modification of some other company’s service. (Take, for example, the dozens of companies trying to address the perceived inefficiencies in Google’s AdWords platform—how many of them can possibly survive independently? What if Google simply improves AdWords?) The best stories of entrepreneurship and innovation come out of companies that believe so strongly in their mission that they turn away acquisition offers.

Whew—that turned out to be a pretty long list of criteria. The more positive answers you can give to the questions above, the more likely I’ll want to write about your company. If you pitch me and I say no, please don’t be offended. It’s a pretty high bar that I’m trying to set.

It’s no coincidence, by the way, that a lot of my questions are the same ones an angel or venture investor would ask. In a way, I’m making an investment with every story I write. My resource is time rather than money, but it’s still precious to me and my readers. I don’t want to waste time writing about companies that might turn out to be inconsequential, or whose stories don’t contain interesting lessons about entrepreneurship and innovation. My hit rate will never be 100 percent, of course. But with your help and understanding during the filtering process, I can get closer.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Wade, How delightful to have you open up the hinge-top on your brain and tell us about your coverage decision process. I don’t know how you sleep with all those unwritten interviews in your back pocket…I would worry that I would forget the texture or key insights I had in the moment of the conversation. Do you have a trick for keeping important details and synthesizing thoughts those “live?”

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Hi Jules. I don’t sleep very well. ;-)

    One thing that helps, though, is that I am blessed with super-fast typing skills, so I get verbatim notes of most interviews. My notes don’t always capture the texture or the in-the-moment insights in my own head, but they do help me reconstruct what I was thinking at the time. Do you know how sometimes you’re listening to a song, and you can suddenly remember exactly where you were the first time you heard it? I’m not sure if that happens to other people, or if it’s just me—but anyway, my notes are like that.

    Also, when I come back to a story that’s been languishing in my notebooks for a month or two, I make a point of re-immersing myself in the company’s news, and often do a quick phone or e-mail check-in with the source. But as you can imagine this is not terribly efficient. So I’d like to whittle my backlog down to the point where the delay is less than 1 week.

  • ef

    Wade,

    Thanks for taking the time to carefully lay this out. While you rightfully position this as your own personal set of tenets I have found that much of it is quite common in tech journalism. These points are not only a great tool for new PR professionals to learn the ropes, but are also important for executives and entrepreneurs to understand.

    Thanks again and take care.

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  • http://OnStartups.com Dharmesh Shah

    Thanks for reading that article. It seemed to strike a chord with hundreds of people.

    For me, personally, it has been life changing. At first, it was still difficult to say no. But now, I find myself often sending a quick email with a link to the article. (http://MustSayNo.com).

    Hope all is well for you. We’re trying to do our share of innovating out here in Boston too.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Dharmesh: And thanks for reading *my* article! Glad to hear that your piece has helped with your overcommitment dilemma. I have had a similar experience — I now include a link to this article in the signature line of all of my e-mails. And when I have to say no to an idea, I point people to this piece for guidance on the criteria I’m using.

  • http://twitter.com/sunnycmui Sunny Mui

    Great advice, I’ll be sure to cross my fingers when I submit out B2B social ecommerce startup. We think it fits the category of truly disruptive so we hope you think so too!

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  • Binay Curtis

    This is a great article to share with my start-up clients. Thanks for taking the time to write it…

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  • http://www.incion.com/ profesional web design

    That is simply fantastic – thanks for putting your time into conceptualising and producing such a graphic. Outstanding!