People talk a lot about red flags in dating — those telltale signs that should make you run for the hills. I see my own share of red flags — only they’re from the founders we cover at Sifted.
From the interview to how they react to our articles, so many interactions with founders leave me thinking: “I’d never want to work for that person. 🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩”
I kind of get it. Tech is a young industry — particularly in Europe. Most founders are building a company for the first time and haven’t worked with journalists before. But that perfect storm of inexperience and protectiveness doesn’t mean founders should ignore common sense and simple etiquette. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies can be assholes but journalists still have to contend with them. If you are one of the 1,230,298 companies that raised a seed round last year, journalists do not have an obligation to contend with your assholery.
Here are the most common red flags I see when I report on founders… and how you can avoid coming off like an absolute psycho.
Red flag 1: Frantic requests and messages past reasonable business hours
Sometimes I get WhatsApps from founders about upcoming news on the weekend or late in the evening. Founders, ask yourself: Are you Bill Gates? Are you Travis Kalanick? Do you have a Wikipedia page longer than three paragraphs? If not, I don’t see any reason remotely urgent enough for you to be contacting me at that time.
When this happens, it shows me that you have no respect for professionalism and boundaries. While I know creating startups often means working long hours, I shudder to think of the working hours of the team that supports you. When you try and recruit me to run your marketing team in five months, I will decline.
Red flag 2: Telling me how to do my job
Sometimes, founders will ask me to change phrasing or analysis in the article. Don’t tell me how to do my job. Unless something is factually wrong in the article, nothing changes. I don’t care if you think that your startup isn’t just another payments platform but a revolutionary new form of capitalism; our readers want to know what it actually does.
When you try and recruit one of my journalists to run your marketing team in five months, I will tell them to decline. Because they will tell me about it, and I will show them the 🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩
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Red Flag 3: Treating journalists like your marketing arm
This red flag almost always accompanies Red Flag 2. It is also a crime that many more members of the tech ecosystem beyond just founders are guilty of, and I hope they realise this and are praying for forgiveness. (We are looking at you, VCs trying to promote your female founder office hours staffed by your intern via our newsletters.)
I’m here to give my readers what they come to read Sifted for — real news about what’s going on in European tech. That audience is, by definition, not the same audience that you are targeting with content marketing. Let me give my audience what it wants. And you can hire someone else to write about why you need payroll management SaaS. Also, I’m already doing you a solid by writing about your company at all.
Red flag 4: The founder doesn’t let PR do their job
If you’re VC-backed, chances are you want to build a big business. And in order to build a business at scale, you’re going to have to be able to delegate to specialists. I understand that your company and its reputation are your baby and if it dies, you die and the world ends. But if you have hired someone to do PR, let them do their job. When you email me or contact me over the PR, it shows me that you don’t know how to delegate or trust people.
What to expect when working with journalists
While I can’t change the behaviour of founders who are actually egotistical micromanagers, founders can learn to communicate better with journalists so everyone has a more rewarding experience.
The dreamiest founders are ones who simply treat journalists with respect and aren’t afraid to ask questions if they don’t understand the process.
Here are a few of my suggestions to avoid triggering the red flags.
Before the interview
- Read some tech coverage across several different outlets! Get a sense of what journalists actually write about, what topics they seem extra keen on and how their stories are structured.
- Talk to a PR agency or someone with PR experience about how the pitching process works. They can help you understand media.
- Read Sifted's guide to pitching. We've got one for pitching news stories and for opinion pieces.
- If you’re not familiar or comfortable with how "on the record" and "off the record" work, it’s always okay to ask before the chat starts. No one is out to skewer anyone — we’re probably talking about your Series B, not some corporate crisis.
- Expect that your interview will be on the record — ie. the journalist will record what you say and could publish any of it with your name attached — unless you specifically say something is not on the record. Journalists will often follow up after the interview to check any facts or stats anyway.
- Run your company’s story by your mother or some friends of yours that don’t work in tech. You must translate complex concepts into plain English for reporters who might not be specialists in your area. (THIS GOES FOR YOU ESPECIALLY, WEB3 DEMONS!)
- Swear! Make jokes! Share examples. Tell us anecdotes. This will give the journalist juicier and more relatable quotes — and make our readers "get" you.
- You cannot see the article before it’s published. Period.
- If there is something factually wrong with the article, contact the journalist and they will correct the mistake. If you suggest additions or changes to the article that don’t have anything to do with something being factually wrong, don’t expect changes.
- Have someone from your team keep in touch with the journalist! Invite them to your events or send them a cool link you liked! Oftentimes the best relationships with journalists are forged when there isn’t something to pitch and everyone is chilled out.