PR Advice for Startups From an Actual Reporter

“How I got press coverage for my dinky seed-stage startup” is a common topic in places like /r/Entrepreneur, but it’s pretty rare for a journalist’s perspective to be included. Well, I’m a full-time tech reporter who’s been following and writing about the industry for several years. I don’t claim to be a veteran, but I certainly receive a lot of pitches from or about startups. I would appreciate it if the caliber of those pitches improved!

(I also owe a hat-tip to Sean Byrnes; last week he asked me how I decide which emails to pay attention to and which companies to cover. That’s why this subject is top-of-mind.)

Before we get into the suggestions, one caveat: Unless you have a Trumpian sixth sense for publicity, you will probably get farther by following my advice than you will by following your instincts. However, that doesn’t mean that my preferences generalize to literally all reporters.

Optimal Attitude

You’re not heading into a fair contest.

For one thing, the supply-demand dynamics are against you. Tech journos are inundated with pitches on a daily basis, and we only have so much time. That’s why you should adjust your approach to make our lives more convenient, whereas we can delete three times as many emails as we respond to.

For another thing, reporters are strongly biased in favor of companies or founders that our readers already know about. Especially at general-interest publications. “Popular Entrepreneur Does Thing” will usually generate more reader excitement than “Unknown Entrepreneur Does Thing” and journalists are keenly aware of that. Companies like Google or Facebook could be terrible at PR and they’d still get covered nonstop, because readers love hearing about them.

I’m sure it’s frustrating, but that’s just how the incentives work out. You’ll have a better time if you accept the unfairness and tailor your approach to giving your company the best chance possible.

Necessary Elements

Emails that don’t satisfy these requirements are wayyy more likely to be trashed immediately.

Within the first few sentences, say who you are and what your relationship is to the company. If you’re the founder, I want to know that. If you’re the head of comms, I want to know that. Etc, etc.

Explain the company’s purpose — what it does and what the product is. Be concrete and use plain English! Cliché or baffling jargon is an immediate turnoff. (This step isn’t necessary if your company is well-known, but if that’s the case, why are you even reading this post?)

Don’t pretend that you closely follow my coverage of blah blah blah, unless it’s actually true. Acceptable: “Since you wrote about [whatever topic], I think you might also be interested in covering [similar topic].” Annoying: “I really enjoyed your article about [whatever topic], and [insincere flattery].” C’mon — I am skeptical for a living.

That said, please do look at what I’ve written about before, and don’t pitch me if your company is not even remotely on my beat! It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The automated “spray and pray” approach to PR can work when executed well, but only if you manage to reach journalists who write about your subsegment of the industry.

Sparking Interest

Beyond the basic email etiquette outlined above, here are the criteria I use to evaluate whether a startup is worth more attention:

Does the product sound like it’s useful, and does the company have a business model? Yes on both counts = you pass this round. Yes on product = maybe. No to both = do not pass Go; do not collect $200.

Did the company actually do something? “Hey, my startup exists” is far less compelling than a genuine event. If you want to be in the news, do something newsworthy! Examples:

  • raising money
  • launching a product
  • changing strategy or pivoting
  • hiring a notable person

Side projects and internal initiatives can also qualify.

Will the company share metrics? Revenue is the best one, but hardly anyone discloses that. DAUs, MAUs, number of paid seats or licenses, MRR, burn rate — going on the record with financial details of any kind automatically makes you more interesting to me. Especially if the figure hasn’t been reported before!

Is there external validation? VCs can serve this purpose, as can advisors or notable customers. If Elon Musk called the founder a brilliant person, you will have an easier time getting covered.

6/15/2017 Update

I got the following text from a PR person who introduced me to a relatively early-stage startup:

I’m wrapping up the freelance gig with [company] and wanted to re-engage before I do and see if you wanted to revive this. Any feedback is helpful to them, too. What they’re doing is unique but I honestly struggled to get their name out there.

I responded:

Hey! So, in this case I wanted to write about the company or do a video but didn’t have buy-in from my editors for a dedicated piece.

Also, PR operates on long time-cycles. (You can tell them I said so.) it wouldn’t be surprising if I have a reason to mention [company] in the future. Knowing about the company and how it works means I have someone to tap if I’m going to write about [industry], for example

I probably didn’t do a good enough job distinguishing my enthusiasm about the idea from a guarantee of coverage — I can’t really ever guarantee that, and I’m trying to be more proactive about saying so

Tl;dr you did a fine job, but the stars didn’t align on my end

Hopefully that exchange adds some context about how this works in practice.


That’s it! Let me know if you have any questions. I’m smann@inc.com, me@sonyaellenmann.com (checked much less frequently), and @sonyaellenmann on Twitter.

Amazon PR on Whether Scammers Use the Platform

I had this conversation with an Amazon PR person — whose name is withheld for their privacy — as part of my reporting on the company for Inc. I’m publishing the transcript here so that readers will have access to a fuller picture of Amazon’s perspective. The “dear so-and-so” bits have been cut, but otherwise this is copy-pasted verbatim from the email exchange (except for one redacted bit, which is noted, and prettified links).

Continue reading “Amazon PR on Whether Scammers Use the Platform”

Fediverse Q&A with Patreon

I went to Patreon HQ today for work. (In case you didn’t know, I’m a tech reporter at Inc.) Beforehand, I asked the Fediverse if they had any burning questions for the Patreon team. Here are the questions — all of which you can see in the original thread if you wish — and the answers I got. No particular order, and I just copy-pasted the questions.

Would be cool if we could get them to talk about how Operation Choke Point affects their business — which things would they like to support but had to not? I’d also prolly ask about cryptocurrency plans

More on this coming soon. I forgot to ask about cryptocurrency support, though — my bad! I’m going to send Patreon staff a link to this post, so maybe they’ll get back to me about that.

how can they make patreon more friendly to open source maintainers. They put in a lot of work to maintain software that a lot of companies make millions off of. How can we maintain their genius with a for-profit set up that displays their skills?

OSS is definitely on Patreon’s radar. They have ideas in this area that are off-the-record (sorry, I know that’s annoying) but I think y’all would approve of the possibilities they’re considering.

ask ’em about smol, zero-dollar a month users
I’m not sure what exactly, but go for it anyway

This question prompted a really interesting conversation — thanks Sargoth! We talked about how low-level financial support can help a person level up their hobby. For example a YouTuber might use Patreon to buy studio lights. My personal Patreon funds my MailChimp subscription!

What did you have for lunch today is always my answer to the question of “ama” or “what should I ask?”

I visited before lunchtime, but for breakfast they had quiche, and a Patreon employee made sourdough bread as part of an internal hackathon. (I love the idea of hacking bread.) They shared some with me; it was delicious.

What breed of cat does the admin have

It’s actually a fox, not a cat! The first designer that Patreon hired, several years ago, had a thing for foxes. That led to a cute cartoon fox becoming their company emblem. From the 404 page:

Patreon 404 fox

What a cutie, right?! Patreon also recently published a blog post about their procedurally generated fox icons.

(It is possible that I misunderstood this question.)

why give 5% of $ to trump packer

I asked this person to elaborate but I still don’t understand what they’re referring to. The Patreon staff were nonplussed too.

WHY CAN WE NOT DO INDIVIDUAL PAYMENTS

I mean, I get the whole shtick of the site, but there’s times I want to give an *immediate* bump to somebody I’m patreonizing, and it’s dumb to have to go somewhere else to do that when the payment pipeline is already *right there*.

Basically, this is on the list of desired features, but it hasn’t risen to the top. Patreon has to triage what they work on first, and enabling one-time payments hasn’t made the cut for strategic reasons.

why is it so hard to delete your account?

Patreon made it hard to delete your account on purpose, because they’re worried about creators’ incomes being jeopardized in the event of a hostile account takeover (hacking, an abusive spouse, etc).

1) What happened to you hair?
2) Did you use Homer Simpson’s make up shotgun?
3) When was the last time you went to the gym?

The response to this was basically ????? and I share the Patreon staffers’ confusion.

maybe ask them how their flagging thingy works, and what they do to prevent false positives like https://youtu.be/RtvQm5_eUaY?t=87

I missed this question, for which I apologize. I will follow up with my main Patreon contact.

How can Patreon more directly fund the passion projects of creators?

Another one I missed! Again, my bad.

are they looking at implementing an group/project oriented funding models? Right now they have accounts that represent groups, or figure heads that represent entire operations – but I’d prefer something that works better for loose collectives (non formal organizations) and helps divy out money.

Yep, this is on their radar, but it’s difficult to implement — both legally and logistically. One of the staff members I spoke with mentioned that Patreon has dealt with contentious multi-person account issues before, and it’s a huge headache for everyone involved.

That’s all, thanks everybody!

Elitist Elites and Non-Elite Elitists

This morning I tweeted a string of thoughts on political elitism. I’m replicating those tidbits here so that I can 1) easily relocate them later and 2) share them with non-Twitterites. Feel free to read the originals in their native habitat.

Helpful background: Slate Star Codex’s “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” (long but worth it) and “Staying Classy” (also long and also worth it).

If you’re not familiar with the cadence of Twitter conversations, the following may seem choppy or disjointed. I didn’t edit much. Other people’s interjections are included as block quotes.


It’s easy to be an elitist when you’re part of the elite. Is that tautological?

Example of a non-elite elitist: high school dropout who thinks people with college degrees should be in charge.

As far as I know, non-elite elitists don’t exist, or there are very few of them. [This assertion gets walked back momentarily.]

However, you could argue that this position, when held by random schmucks, is non-elite elitism: “Donald Trump should run things because he’s a successful businessman” or “Hillary Clinton has lots of foreign policy experience”

And random unimpressive people hold positions along those lines, as noted here:

“I dunno, does not appear to match observations unambiguously. Plenty shit-eating basement dwellers dreaming of elitist shit” — @okayultra

Even non-elite elitists seem to always follow cultural lines. “The people I identify with should be in charge.”

Important to remember: “the people I identify with should be in charge” is different from “people like me should run things”

Like Sam says, there are different elites for Red Tribe versus Blue Tribe:

“this is pretty common, they just define ‘elite’ in non-educational terms — religious leaders, rich people, etc” — Sam Bhagwat

There are arguably even different elites for different sub-segments of each tribe. Progressives’ idols are not neoliberals’ idols.

“Also subtribes — grey, red-grey, blue-grey, etc. (Technocratic elites)” — @orthonormalist

So I’d amend my original tweet like this: “It’s easy to be an elitist with respect to elites that align with your culture and ideology.”

“society is dominated by elites and always will be. Only question is which ones they are” — Adam Elkus

“every time a barbarian horde deposed an emperor a new class of elites was born” — Adam Elkus


Insightful responses from Facebook friends:

elitism Facebook comments

How I Find Clients as a Freelancer

I’ve been working as a freelance writer on-and-off over the past four years, and full-time for most of 2016. My career has only just started to flourish — knock on wood — but since last December I’ve learned a lot about finding work. Even more so, I’ve learned about where to find the best work. “Best” means most interesting and most lucrative.

I’m not promising to Unlock! Your Earning Potential!™ or anything like that. If you’re intrigued by the nitty-gritty of freelancing, you’ve probably read versions of my experience before. But if you’re new to this mode of employment, hearing about how I manage could be helpful. Just another data point to tuck away in your brain!

TL;DR

Freelancing is a relationships game, and this holds true across many industries. Here are the two most important things you can do to improve your career in the long-term:

  • Find the people who are getting paid to do the work that you want to do. Make friends with them.
  • Find the people who are hiring other people to perform the work that you want to do. Make friends with them also.

It doesn’t matter whether you network online or in person, but nurturing solid connections with individual human beings is vital. In fact, “networking” is just a smarmy word for befriending fellow industry participants. Making public contributions to the community will also help expand the mouth of your funnel.

Yes, the unfortunate reality is that building relationships takes time. There is no shortcut that I’m aware of, unless your parents have relevant connections. It’s taken me years to get where I am, and like I said, I’m only just getting the hang of things. However, both aptitude and chance will affect your results. YMMV!

Ways to Meet Clients

Remember, I’m not a veteran freelancer. That said, these three methods do reflect four years of experience. The list descends in order of quality, from most preferred to least preferred. That also happens to be the order from most time-consuming to least time-consuming.

1) Via Friends or Referrals

I became a contributor at Mattermark quite serendipitously. Alex Wilhelm and I had followed each other on Twitter for a while and exchanged a handful of messages. Then he got hired as Mattermark editor-in-chief. On a whim, I sent him a DM along the lines of, “Are you looking for pitches at Mattermark?” The answer was yes.

For me, Mattermark is a perfect gig. I get paid fairly to write about a subject that fascinates me. I have thoughtful editors and I’m able to accrue clips for my portfolio. Writing about startups and venture capital also allows me to conduct interviews that widen my circle of acquaintances.

Desirable jobs like writing for Mattermark come about either because someone I know wants my services, or someone I know suggests me to a person or company in search of a writer. Often these leads literally come through Twitter, because I spend a lot of time talking to people on that service. A subreddit, niche forum, or IRL meetup could work just as well. Sometimes I initiate contact and sometimes the prospective client asks about my availability.

Making friends in order to find clients can take months or years to pay off. It’s speculative and unpredictable, but luckily the process is intrinsically rewarding.

I view every new person I befriend as a possible source of work, and try to comport myself accordingly (with mixed success). Someone won’t hire me or refer me unless they feel good about my work ethic, analysis skills, and integrity.

2) At Random

Sometimes people contact me out of the blue. The projects they bring to the table can be delightful or baffling. Sometimes these prospective clients accept my rates without batting an eye, and sometimes they ghost when I start talking numbers.

I am not sure how to optimize for this other than having an online presence and constantly self-promoting. Although it’s a bit mysterious, I do like getting work via surprise email. It seems to be a result of personal marketing that I’ve already done and would keep doing anyway.

For example, a Dutch tech consultancy reached out and asked me to help internationalize their website. If I remember correctly, they found me via a blog post about product communication that I shared on Hacker News.

3) By Applying Willy-Nilly

I do this less now, but I used to get one-off jobs all the time by applying to Craigslist listings. Other sites like Indeed and Glassdoor can also be fruitful, but people tend to look for full-timers on those platforms, rather than freelancers. Besides, Craigslist is unmatched in terms of posting volume, and their simple, utilitarian interface is a blessing.

The key here is to have a general cover letter that you can adjust as needed. The amount of time you spend customizing your initial contact with the prospective client should be directly proportional to how much you want the job.

Applying to a random Craigslist ad is how I got my first professional freelancing gig, managing social media for Creeklife. I’ve landed numerous other gigs this way, ranging from soulless #content writing to sociopolitical essays.

Conclusion

That’s it. Those are the three ways that I’ve found my clients. As you can tell, I vastly prefer the first method. Four years in, I feel like networking is finally starting to pay off for me. Thank goodness that my personality prompted me to do lots of arguing and chitchatting in the first place! (I know that not everyone is able to spend years doing speculative emotional labor. I’m not sure how to change that.)

It’s not easy. Anyone who tries to sell you a simple step-by-step guide to being a successful freelancer is oversimplifying. Maybe you noticed that the guidance in this blog post is pretty overarching and vague. I didn’t even cover how to differentiate yourself from the competition! And how do you go about making friends, anyway?!

Well, them’s the breaks. You have to muddle along yourself. Seek out information proactively. Anyone who’s not comfortable doing that isn’t suited to freelancing.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you).