I love startup companies. I’ve been involved on the ground floor of a few in my career, and the energy around launching something new and all your own is infectious and transcendent. The days fly by while the nights are restless, stirred alternately by grandiose dreams and abject worry.
Startups come to us on a fairly regular basis, mostly in the hope that we can help raise awareness about their venture and establish some credibility with key targets. Most often, however, they must confront what I call the Startup PR Paradox: they want publicity so they can get customers, and yet, they typically can’t get publicity until they have stories to tell about how the customers they don’t have were helped by their product or service. Yes, it’s a Catch-22. They need one to get the other.
This paradox might sound familiar if you’ve ever watched the beginning of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. They need Eddie Van Halen in order to make a triumphant video, but they need a triumphant video in order to get Eddie Van Halen. Excellent.
The reason garnering publicity for startups is so challenging is that the media likes to tell a company’s story in human terms. As a general rule, they are less interested in big ideas that have no track record, recognizing that many of those big ideas won’t turn out to be so big after all. And so media outlets want to hear stories about solutions to problems, products and services that are already addressing marketplace dilemmas, ideas that actually have some traction. For example, The Richmond Times-Dispatch has a Trade Names page in its Monday Metro Business section, but in order to be considered for the page, a company must have been in business for at least a year.
So where does that leave startups on the PR front? Here are a few ideas that could help overcome the PR paradox:
1. Founder’s Story
Chances are, there’s a story behind how you were founded. What were the circumstances behind that moment when you said, “hey, I’ve got an idea” or “I wonder if…” Perhaps you were experiencing some frustration with an existing product or service, and you contrived a better way. One of our favorite startup clients was Snagajob, back when they were just seven employees and a server. Shawn Boyer was adept at telling the story about how his girlfriend at the time could not find an hourly job, and so a lightbulb went off, and the country’s largest online source for hourly workers was born.
2. New Data
Consider commissioning research that introduces new facts and figures related to your industry. If the data is compelling enough, it could be the springboard to attracting media attention. When we first got started with Snagajob – it was late spring, right around the spring prior to summer job season – we pursued three data points: 1. We queried summer job workers what they planned to do with the money they earned; 2. We asked Snagajob for anecdotal examples of surprising summer jobs (bank tellers: who knew?); and 3. We surveyed Fortune 500 CEOs to find out if they ever had an hourly job themselves. With those pieces of new information, we were able to land placements on the upcoming summer job season in Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal and a segment on the TODAY Show. (Confession: it doesn’t always work out so well.)
3. Promotional Stunts
Here’s a chance to flex your creative muscles by engineering a promotional event. Okay, indulge me just one last Snagajob example. One of the company’s challenges was to start generating visits to its site from job seekers, and so we devised a splashy initiative we called the Campaign to Hire America, with the goal of finding 50,000 Americans jobs over a month’s time. (You can get away with some hyperbole with such things.) We hired the season one winner of The Apprentice and put him to work at a Wendy’s and Home Depot where he did more than 30 satellite media segments on local tv stations throughout the country. Site traffic spiked and never really receded.
4. Alternate Tactics
It may be that your startup is just not ready for earned media and another tactic may be more appropriate for your infancy. Creating a content program leveraging social platforms where you can showcase your expertise and boost your content with a small social ad budget may be the best way to start broadening the awareness and gaining the credibility in the market you are looking for.
Working for a startup – with all the hopes and aspirations that go with it – can be exhilarating and rewarding. No matter how you choose to market yourself, my best advice is to enjoy the ride.