Introducing Your High-Tech Startup: An Irreverent Guide

10/1/10

You shape the view that others hold of your company via either one-to-one interactions or one-to-many interactions. Of course, the one-to-one interactions in business meetings and social settings are the most potent, because you have both quantity and quality of attention. But this doesn’t scale well. Another reason that personal one-to-one contact is so effective is that you can adjust your message based on real-time feedback from your ‘audience.’ If only that were the case for one-to-many communication! But maybe it can be. Hold that thought.

Network Theory

So, it’s obvious that newspaper, magazine and electronic media stories have the one-to-many benefit of touching lots of people, but the message and impact are highly attenuated because the contact is brief and attention is extremely fragmented by the clutter of competing stories and ads. There is nothing as exciting as scoring a great story in a prestigious outlet with wide circulation, but the real impact of a media program is the network effect that comes from multiple positive impressions bumping and rattling around in the environment. These collectively create a picture of your company in the minds of the key audience.

The second, third, and even higher-order effects are where the impact really lies. Imagine a VC reading a long positive story in her daily Dow Jones VentureWire e-mail newsletter ($6,000/year) nine months after your public launch. While the reporter’s story is initially triggered by your press release about a partnering deal, the length of the story and his extra effort to write it were driven by dozens of impressions that have already reached him. These include one article about you that he has seen and filed away from the New York Times, and two from local business press that he follows. Several round-up stories about your industry mention your company as a player. As he is preparing his story from your press release, his Google search turns up ten links to three industry-specific conferences where you’ve presented; one even includes a flattering photo of you at the podium. Search also turns up news stories he has missed, mostly snippets about your company in the trade magazines, a nice mention in Xconomy, but importantly, some of the company’s scientific publications in quality journals. A dozen bloggers have mentioned your company, mostly in a favorable light. His story is better, and the repetition he has experienced helps him get the kernel of your message right. He calls a couple of industry analysts about your thesis, and they, too, have been touched by your message frequently enough to offer neutral to positive comments. The VC reader is also consuming this story in light of a half dozen touches you have accomplished without ever having met her. These range from the first three minutes of your first conference presentation (before she left to take a phone call) to the NYT story she quickly scanned. Or imagine how helpful it is to your internal champion at a large corporate partner when he hears a story about your company in front of his boss at a cocktail party and someone else chimes in with another bit of news about your company.

The positive network effect grows out of repetition, consistency, and trust. Getting attention requires something else: news. More on that in a moment.

Audience

So let’s consider who is participating in this network you want to shape, starting with your key audiences. Most leaders would quickly identify prospective investors, customers and employees as the targets of interest.

It’s tempting to think of players such as your PR firm, reporters, editors, and other gatekeepers as simply a means to the end of reaching key audiences. But it’s appropriate to think more broadly about influence. You have to win over the gatekeepers as well. Also, don’t simply think of your current employees, vendors, and customers as a means to an end; they are also a key audience. In other words, every person whom you want to make a decision about your story or your company is a target. Each needs a reason to care—a motivation to make a decision about your message—and they need a fact set on which to base their decision.

For current and prospective investors, customers, and employees, you or your agents will have one-to-one time to deliver the motivation and message, but the effectiveness of this investment of time will be influenced by the cloud of opinion that results from your media efforts.

Message

By now, you have probably spent a lot of time discussing your key message. What simple image do you want to pop into the minds of people who hear your company name? What small set of facts do you want them to have well enough in hand to transmit the message to others? What decisions do you want them to make based on your message? Answer these questions before going further.

The kernel of that message has to convey a problem and a solution. The problem may be so obvious that it doesn’t need to be made explicit. If you think that is the case, it had better be very close to the surface of your recipient’s mind. The solution has to be something communicated in a very few words. It has to be believable. To convert it from “believable” to “believed,” you will have to go beyond the kernel of your story and supply proof points and invoke trust. Proof point delivery will require more attention than can be obtained in a few seconds. Trust comes only from repeated impressions, delivering results that match the message, and a complete absence of trust-destroying behavior such as self-serving inaccuracy and arrogance.

Dramatis Personae

Your PR Firm

The good ones are an incredible source of experience, insight and contacts. Treat them like a true partner, even as you are aware that they are working you as hard as they are working the outside world. Give them a reason to believe, but never believe all the nice things they say to you. Listen really hard, and set realistic time-based goals for them based on the milestones that drive your company’s success. Don’t just think of them for media, but use their expertise and contacts for creating the right opportunities for public speaking, socializing, recruiting and more. It’s okay if your account executive is junior in age, so long as he or she has the ear of the rainmaker partner who sold your deal and the right personal qualities to drive your projects internally and externally. Don’t delay the decision to fire your PR firm if they aren’t delivering.

Reporters

These folks work very hard, live by deadlines, have short memories for facts, and never forget an offense. They are acutely tuned to detect insincerity and arrogance. They have a beat and rarely stray from it. They compete with their colleagues to fill the news hole every cycle. You are a means to their ends. Don’t forget that, but don’t treat them the same way.

Target a few reporters with the aim of becoming a trusted resource for them on stories other than your own. Help them understand your expertise and earn their trust by being available, candid and interesting. To do that, you need to be well informed about recent news in your sector, so keep current! Take great care before criticizing others, but a judicious dose of this can be strategic for your company and makes your input more interesting for the reporter.

Know the difference between speaking on and off the record and figure out which reporters you can trust to honor the distinction. Send them interesting stuff that is not pitching your company, but don’t spam them. If you are going to offer any reporter special access when there is real news, it should be from among this targeted group. And always send this group an e-mail after every really good story and gently correct the facts when they err, whether it is about you or others.

The rest of the reporting crowd is also important. News cycle deadlines make their calls different from others who want your attention. Since they often cold-call the company general number, train anyone taking a message for you to ask about the reporter’s deadline and make sure that you actually get the message in time to respond. Even if you have nothing to say, do them the courtesy of calling back and refer them to someone who can comment.

Your PR firm will help you target reporters, but keep their beat in mind as you work with them. There are some special breeds that need differentiated handling. The people who report news in the front pages of scientific journals, for example, are technically sophisticated and very worth cultivating. As important as getting your news stories placed is the need to not to be left out of the round-up stories here and in the general press.

Local bureau reps for the major national papers and business TV/Internet outlets are very important. They will spend time with you but rarely write about you. If you’re a startup, you don’t have enough shareholders to drive automatic interest in the story by their readers, so the hurdle for newsworthiness of the story is high. News means something new. The more desirable the outlet, the more essential it is to provide a news hook, something that just happened that is surprising and interesting and hasn’t been reported before. Don’t limit your thinking to your key corporate milestones, but look for ways to manufacture a real news event. Sponsor an event that teaches something interesting and invite reporters. Convene a group to solve an industry problem. Do something out of the ordinary and maybe a little bit crazy. Make a selfless contribution that isn’t transparently self-serving. Think Habitat for Humanity—when your employees are finished building, those houses are real.

Editors

It’s not easy to get direct contact with these gatekeepers, but it can be valuable. They make decisions that override eager beaver reporters all the time. Sometimes they show up at industry events and meetings. Consider inviting them! Your best chance to enter an editorial dialog is in the course of pitching an op-ed piece. You will probably get help from your PR firm on the writing and the message, but the pitch ought to come directly from you. A well written op-ed can always be placed somewhere. Try to get the opinion editor on the phone and look for opportunities to connect with the news editors. A good op-ed in a local paper has multiple benefits and positions you to reach out to national outlets.

Other Gatekeepers

Many, but not all, industry conference speaking slots are open to any speaker whose company pays for podium time. Xconomy, for example, eschews pay-to-play. In any case, choice positioning and showcase roles such as panel moderators and plenary speakers are selected by the gatekeepers. Find out who the gatekeepers are and get to know them before you have a specific ask. You may have to put in some time with less attractive slots to work up to premium placement—or, your PR advisors may want to preserve your status as a premier speaker only. Figure out the strategy before the question comes up. Some of the gatekeepers are working for you. It’s surprising how influential vendors to your company can be. The major accounting and law firms are often asked to supply sources for stories and speakers and they need to know your outreach objectives to effectively connect you with these opportunities.

Bloggers and Other Social Media

This new media stuff is happening faster than any of the PR firms can keep up, so press them on strategy and execution. Again. On this topic, don’t trust anyone over 30. Even me. Advertisers now think of their ad spend as the stone dropped in the water, with expanding ripples of impact amplified through social media. Tell the kids what you want and listen to them. Don’t try to micromanage this part of your outreach—it’s impossible and unproductive. Instead, keep the focus on the kernel and some core values that are shared by you and the audience. Expect lightning-fast reactions to insincerity and arrogance. Trial and error is the rule. While the stuff that gets out there can never be erased, it will be washed over by never-ending waves of comment, some of which will be your own new and improved messaging. New media strategies are your best opportunity to approximate the message adjustment that takes place in a good one-to-one meeting. Treat every exposure as an experiment. Use the rapidly evolving tracking tools to measure effect and make adjustments. Forget old-school clipping services.

Order

Some things just have to be done in the right order. Public relations is one, even though it is a strongly iterative process.

1. Get your message right. You have to own the kernel. From the heart. This should not take months, but days. Then get clear about your company’s key milestones that will benefit from effective PR (such as a venture financing) and which will merit media coverage.

2. If you have a good message, you get to pick from strong advisors and then refine the message with their help. The milestones set the tempo for the program as well as firm boundaries on what can and must occur.

3. Tune up your website. Don’t let anyone talk you into taking months on this. Websites need to be built and changed regularly, adjusting to your changing milestones, news flow, and who is hitting your pages and why. You can measure that stuff with greater and greater precision. Don’t ignore what you learn.

4. Voraciously consume the media related to your space. Get efficient, so you can scan many relevant print and on-line publications to give you the broadest relevant exposure. Use your team to divide and conquer, so folks can have specialties related to their interests. It’s a much more effective media strategy to have several capable spokespersons in the company. Everyone involved should get media training, and retraining. It’s affordable and builds confidence all around. Yearly is not too often if you switch up trainers and emphasis.

5. Get out and give talks. Rotary Clubs if you have to. Watch the audience and adjust your pace, delivery, stories and message to their body language! Treat each speaking engagement as if every member of the audience was giving you a precious and irretrievable slice of their remaining hours on this Earth, because they are.

6. Gain media practice by interviewing with lower impact outlets, such as your very local business dailies and weeklies where misfires have less impact and it’s easier to get a correction. They need lots of stories.

7. Set goals and measure your progress. Stuff will go wrong, so keep a sense of humor and treat the entire exercise as a continuous learning process. It is.

Leighton Read is a venture partner and a former managing member at Alloy Ventures in Palo Alto, CA, and a serial entrepreneur currently working on Seriosity, Inc. Follow @

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  • Dan Eramian

    Wise words from a classy guy.

  • Steve Weiss

    Leighton’s comments are spot on target, and provide a great roadmap for entrepreneurs looking to boost their company’s visibility.

    I’ve used a similar approach in helping build several cleantech firms, including Serious Materials. We’re in the early stages of raising the profile of Genomatica, the emerging leader in sustainable, bio-produced chemicals.

    The good news is that his approach works and can deliver high value. It takes real focus and energy to do it right.

    Kudos…