Published in UT San Diego, September 4, 2012
Making the best product is never enough to ensure success. The world needs to know what you’re doing, and the media — traditional, new and social — is instrumental in telling your story.
Helping startups understand how to work with the media was the topic of a recent San Diego Startup Circle event at which Barbara spoke. In her early career, when more people read print newspapers, Barbara was a business writer for the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times. So she has seen both the printer ink and the digital bits.
In 1996, we did our first startup together, Atcom/Info, whose business plan was to make Internet and email kiosks for airports and other public places. At the time, very few people traveled with laptops because they were expensive and heavy and difficult to hook up to a phone line. High speed Internet was available in only a few places.
We did not yet have a product, but we had an artist draw a picture of the kiosk — a very cool looking pyramid shape — floating in outer space. And we decided to announce to the world what we had, even before our genius developers had actually finished the software. We viewed this as “anticipatory marketing.”
We turned to Jackie Townsend, then the head of her own public relations firm. She persuaded Business Week magazine to run a tiny drawing of our kiosk (which didn’t yet exist) on the back page. The headline was “coming soon to an airport near you.”
A few days later, two big telecommunications companies wanted to order 20 of them for their airport customers. We installed the first ones in the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in August 1996.
This article and others attracted the attention of a New York venture capital firm that invested $5 million. Bill Gates read a Fortune magazine article that named Atcom one of the year’s coolest companies, and he sent Tom Caldwell, a young Microsoft engineer, to visit us. Microsoft became one of our most important partners, and Caldwell joined our company as vice president of engineering.
Since then, the media landscape has changed, and yet, it hasn’t. Yes, the Internet and social media are a critical part of getting the word out. Still, getting your message into reputable media outlets — both offline and online — can help in attracting customers, money and talent.
Here are some rules that Barbara outlined in her comments to Startup Circle:
1. Nothing is off the record. You should only say to a journalist what you’re willing to see in the newspaper, on Facebook, on Twitter, on the radio, or on TV.
2. Make sure that you have a story to tell, and match your story to the appropriate media outlet or journalist. For example, if you have a fashion app for the iPhone, then Vogue and InStyle may be appropriate but not Wired. Also try to identify the particular journalist who covers your area, and get to know them. Read their stories, comment and re-tweet when appropriate.
3. Talk about how your product and company fit into the landscape of an important emerging trend. For example, with Atcom, we talked about the emergence of the Internet and email and the need to stay connected.
4. Explain your value proposition very succinctly (one minute max), whether it’s over the phone, in person or in email.
5. Identify industry experts who can substantiate your product claims.
6. Immediately return every email and phone call from a journalist. They are always on deadline and time matters.
7. Sometimes the news isn’t good. When your company has gone out of business after losing $13 million of investor funds, Bruce Bigelow from Xconomy may call you to ask what’s happened. You need to talk to him although there is the “Art of the Spin.” We will not teach that in this column. For further education in that area, simply turn on the political talk shows for the next 60 days — and hang on.