Simply put, I don’t think you should hire a public relations agency before Series A. You probably don’t have product/ market fit yet. You’re probably still working out what that crucial persuasive message that closes the most important deals. You probably don’t have a critical mass of advocates to sing your praises.
There are many more important ways to use your time and money than the monthly thousands required to do a great job. So the question is, how do you make the most of your victories in the meantime and ensure you aren’t in an involuntary stealth mode that will make fund-raising and recruitment harder later on?
Assembled from years of helping founder friends, office hours and practice, here are some key rules that should put you in good stead while you get on with the real challenge.
1. What’s your unfair advantage?
Like almost everything in early startup days, you have to spend your energy on things that will create a greater than proportionate result. So don’t embark on a complex elaborate editorial strategy if nobody on the team enjoys writing (or is quick at it.)
Perhaps the previous career history of your team means you have access to a lot of people like your target customer? Consider a podcast interview series that takes advantage of those relationships. An iPhone with Anchor, a couple of lavalier mics and you’re away.
Perhaps your product naturally absorbs an interesting kind of data that reveals patterns that were hidden before. Start publishing it as an index. Return on a regular basis with updates. Automate as much of this as you can (think MVP for the first release — a sheet of the data, linked into a Google Doc with more findings.)
Looks for these opportunities where latent potential in the business can give you a bigger bang for your buck. Think twice about creating marketing mouths to feed that you aren’t genuinely excited about or able to sustain.
2. Leave a breadcrumb trail
The natural story of a business involves a steady cadence of events.
You found it, you begin to make progress, you get your first big customer, you hire some interesting people to the team. THEN YOU TAKE FUNDING (potentially big moment.) Then you hire some more, move offices, learn something important that means you pivot slightly THEN YOU PARTNER WITH ONE OF THE BIGGEST COMPANIES IN THE WORLD AND BRING YOUR PRODUCT TO MILLIONS. Then you hire some more people, and so on and so forth.
It’s easy to not say anything about the smaller stories when you are early on with your business. But actually, once you are a year or two down the line, it will really benefit you to be able to point back to that consistent steady rhythm of progress which built to the current moment.
The crucial point here is: it’s impossible to go back and build it in retrospect. You don’t want to regret something you can’t go back and “have done”.
Furthermore, if you don’t leverage a piece of information by capturing it somewhere public, it cannot act on your behalf with scale. You will have to tell people one by one, instead of it showing up when they search for you (or the topic.)
Short notes, on a regular basis (that read nothing like a press release) can go a long way. Publicly capture the breadcrumb trail so it’s where when you need it.
Here’s a fantastic recent example from Paul Smith at Ricochet — publishing the latest user metrics for their app while still in beta. Five minutes work to take data they are tracking anyway and leave a little public essence for their narrative to pick up later.
3. Anonymise if necessary
Approval processes are a misery, even when you aren’t a plucky team of seven collaborating with a multinational. But the chances of them letting you publicly reference a big project are often tiny when you are just getting started.
So make it easy: forget about it and write the story up anonymously. “One of the world’s largest healthcare providers”. “Two of the world’s largest food and beverage companies”.
Don’t expect journalists to take it as a piece, but this can make use of potential “breadcrumbs” that you’d otherwise wait years for.
(Sidenote: For similar reasoning, I’d never bother trying to work together on a press release — let them write whatever they want and approve it, then just write your own blog post on the side and use that for yourself instead. Nobody wants to read a press release anyway, it’s the perfect way to trap an interesting story in a disgusting structure.)
4. Target and listen
Communication is a two-way street — and so is the art of Communications Strategy. While you can’t entirely replace the value of an agency putting the word out for you, you can pretty much replace the listening aspect of good communication.
You want to set up TweetDeck (never ever ever use the abysmal Twitter.com) with Lists of crucial groups. Have one for key journalists/ influencers in your area, so you can understand what’s genuinely interesting in your industry. Have another for competitors, adjacent businesses, and the community.
Elsewhere, consider RSS for key publications you want to tune into — or there are obvious email newsletters that almost anyone in tech would benefit from. Think: Steve O’Hear’s ITK, Ben Thomson’s Stratechery, Charles Arthur’s Overspill, Charlotte Jee’s The Download, Martin Bryant’s Big Revolution, Benedict Evans (and of course this fine publication…)
There is no replacement for truly paying attention to the context around you before you want to join into the conversation (and action.) You should genuinely gain a better understanding of your industry, your influencers and your customer.
5. Build your business first
Companies get talked about for doing things. Until you are really scaling and growing and having a major influence on your industry it is quite natural that you shouldn’t be trying to make all the noise.
Focus your actions where they matter for now first, and then hopefully they will speak for you as you grow.