While startups do some pretty cool things, they’re often not very savvy about sharing their stories with the media. Good writers are always looking for leads and story inspiration. To connect tech journalists and StartX founders, we launched our first ever, “Meet the Press” educational media event last week, sponsored by law firm Fenwick & West. The results? A better understanding of the technology media and how to pitch a story as well as many new entrepreneur-reporter connections formed.
“I love it when great, symbiotic communities come together to help each other! The press participation was awesome and I learned a lot,” said Mark Brenneman, founder of Pico, an app that makes event planning as “easy as sending a text.”
Media Advisors Contribute
The evening’s “headliners” included more than a dozen technology reporters who shared their media experience with our StartX community of entrepreneurs. As a non-profit, education-focused entity, such community-based help is critical and sincerely appreciated!
Part I – Panel Discussion
Part I of the event was easy. In some ways, it was like reverse Demo Day. Instead of sitting in the audience, attending media were front and center. Each gave a quick introduction. The entrepreneurs took notes and tried to differentiate the writers and their outlets. With a good understanding of what each reporter focuses on, it becomes easier to know who to contact when you have news to share. Listen for yourself by playing the audio below.
As memories of poor PR outreach started to resurface, the reporters became even more motivated to talk. They seemed to agree that email contact was the most common and usually most efficient way to communicate a company pitch. To be effective, Liza Boyd, a magazine writer for Fast Company and San Francisco, strongly recommended good preparation.
“Do your research. Know what they cover. Know what angles they’re interested in. Because when we get that generic email, please be assured that is the fastest way to get into the trash bin,” she said.
CNET columnist and #Dominatefund manager Ben Parr, added that having a personal introduction via email or an attention-grabbing subject line can help.
“Try to get an introduction from someone the writer might know or put something in the title that will get their attention, even if it is just ‘Stanford,’” he said.
Silicon Valley Business Journal’s Jon Xavier advised the entrepreneurs to diligently follow up.
“Some reporters get hundreds of emails a day, he noted. “Don’t just send an email and forget about it.” He suggested trying other channels, including social media.
While TechCrunch writer Anthony Ha is very active on social media, he advised the group to pay attention to details. His LinkedIn profile says, “Do not contact me via LinkedIn,” but people still try to contact him about stories there. For pitch content via email, he told the audience to think of the inverted pyramid style that traditional newspapers use, where the key facts and points are presented, first.
“Every single paragraph has to have the most important information. Assume a reader can jump off and stop at any time. Every single piece is an essential piece,” he explained.
Boonsri Dickinson, a writer for Byte, shared a simple tip, “Write like a human!” She said jargon-filled emails just end up being hard to read.
To figure out what to highlight in a pitch, VentureBeat’s Christina Farr, recommended using the elements in your story that usually get people excited.
“Think about – what’s the story that when I talk about my startup, it makes them go, ‘OMG, that’s so cool!’ That’s what we want to hear about too,” she explained.
Mountain View Voice tech columnist Angela Hey said she’s only interested in Mountain View companies and clarity is key.
“I need a very clear description. I like software and mobile. I like to look at where the future trends are. I like to do my own investigation and meet with the company,” Hey told the entrepreneurs.
Rafe Needleman, a veteran journalist who recently launched Opportunity Notes for Evernote, told the audience not to excessively self-edit, which can sometimes stifle good content.
“Let the story flow. Every person has a story and in many cases, it is not always the story that you think it is,” he explained.
Producing a well-written story is how MIT Technology Review’s Rachel Metz pleases her editors. We asked, “What makes the boss happy?” For Metz, a magazine writer, publishing a thoroughly researched piece is highly valued. It usually begins with a good interview.
“A startup being really willing to share information about how they’re doing and some personal details as well. That is what will make up a really good story,” she said.
Sensing that the audience might be feeling intimidated about the challenge of getting press attention from the “wall of journalists in the room,” Wade Roush, West Coast editor for Xconomy, told entrepreneurs to think beyond conventional publications. He advised them to develop other channels for getting their message out, such as posting on a blog.
“Don’t obsess over this. We are gatekeepers for a very specific kind of communication and it is not the only communication on earth,” he said.
Michael Chiu, co-founder of Medigram, who also participated in the event, could not agree more. His own company, featured by Roush earlier this year, develops HIPAA-compliant messaging apps for medical communications and just launched its own “Mediblog.” As CEO of a seed-stage company, Chiu does all his own PR work. Most panelists felt that early stage company founders should be doing the same until their business demands a more complex communications strategy.
“For me it is almost about avoiding PR for as long as possible. I would love to hear from you, especially at an early stage. I’d love for you to reach out to me and see if we can start a conversation,” said Farr.
While that might be a preference for some writers, Shelly Gordon, a PR professional with G2 Communications who attended the event said, “I wasn’t surprised by the somewhat negative comments about PR professionals. Science & health journalists can be even tougher. We face the challenge of serving two masters: our clients and the press. But I agreed with Wade/Xconomy that we’re all just trying to do a decent job in our respective fields.”
Part II – Breakout Groups
For the second half of the evening, founders, writers, and PR folks formed small groups to make introductions and engage in more intimate Q&A. Initially, this was the awkward part. Many tech founders are not natural self-promoters and some tech writers are self-proclaimed, shy “geeks.” Regardless, they eventually got talking. The groups covered a wide range of topics. Some founders wanted to learn how to make sure your story is told correctly. Others asked for tips on executing a good press launch. One group talked about “best and worst ways to get attention on a budget.” Jeff Kostermans, co-founder of Insynctive, a cloud based HR HelpDesk solution, said the interaction was a unique, appreciated opportunity.
“StartX Rocks! This enabled Insynctive to get invaluable face time and have conversations with local media,” he said.
The discussions continued as attendees nibbled on a Korean bulgogi and kimbap dinner. MindSumo intern Aaron Weiss also got the chance to mix and mingle for his first-ever StartX community event.
“It was great to learn from individual panel members during the informal dinner!” he said. MindSumo, a StartX company that was covered by Needleman at the Fall 2011 Demo Day, is a platform that connects students and employers by hosting companies’ real-world challenges.
The next challenge for these StartX founders and media experts will be to put ideas and introductions into action. Good luck and thank you to everyone who participated and helped organize!
Event Photographer: Paul Sakuma
Xconomy — Wade Roush, @wroush
Byte – Boonsri Dickinson, @boonspoon
TechCrunch – Anthony Ha, @anthonyha
San Jose Business Journal – Jon Xavier, @svbizjon
Mountain View Voice – Angela Hey, @techviser
Technology Review- Rachel Metz, @rachelmetz
Evernote Opportunity Notes – Rafe Needleman, @rafe
VentureBeat – Christina Farr, @chrissyfarr
Fast Company & San Francisco – Liza Boyd, @ebboyd
CNET – Ben Parr, @benparr
DishDaily – Chuck Stern, @thedishdaily
DishDaily - Sebastain Gould, @thedishdaily
AllThingsD – Camira Powell, @allthingsD
NBC11/Press Here – Scott McGrew – VIDEO CONTRIBUTION, @ScottMcGrew
Stanford Daily – Billy Gallagher – VIDEO CONTRIBUTION, @GallagherBilly