Confessions of a tech journalist: my advice to startups pitching the media

At Technically Philly we are in a unique position.

Because we have such a specific niche, we are often the first interaction a local company has with the press. Many times we are dealing with first-time entrepreneurs who are responsible for their own marketing and media outreach. Typically, these entrepreneurs are programmers or business majors who don’t know anyone in the media and, as a result, are unfamiliar with how most media outlets operate.

Recently, at the end of one of my interviews, an entrepreneur I was speaking with turned the tables on me and asked me for advice for building a good relationship with the press.

Below is a synopsis of our conversation that I thought may be useful to other startups. Hopefully it leads to better business profiles and an amicable relationship between press and startups.

The very first thing you should know: journalists are an ethical bunch, sometimes annoyingly so. There are strict rules that journalists often follow. As a rule, journalists won’t let sources dictate when stories will run. They will often double check your claims, especially when given numbers. To get a feel for the world that journalists inhabit, I suggest paying a visit to Wikipedia.

Remember that your startup is like your child. Most tech journalists speak to three entrepreneurs a day who all think their startup will change the world. Most startups also are unnecessarily protective about seemingly trivial bits of news like hires and new feature launches. Your startup is like your child. Tremendously important to you, but for other people its just another kid. Have pride and be excited, but don’t let your ego and possessiveness affect your conversations with the press.

Keep the description of your business simple.  Explain it to me like I’m a five year old…  who speaks another language … and has been living under a rock. Your best bet is to give me a sentence (i.e. “We help students organize notes”) and provide a use case (“Let’s say Mary is in Math class and she wants to record her lecture…”) For an example of simplicity, I suggest reading the famous “No, shut up” thread about Dropbox on Quora. Also, read this before coming up with your pitch.

Have a demo or the press won’t write about you. I want my readers to read my profile of your business and immediately run off to go use your product.

Good design has an unfair effect on how I judge your company. When you launch, I can’t tell if you have the most streamlined code in the world or the smartest sales guys in the country. The easiest way for journalists to see if you’re serious about your company is design. Make it pretty and the press will give you an unfair pass.

Know what the publication is looking for. Like applying for a job, five minutes of research on the publication will go a long way. Decide what fits into the publication’s coverage area and what’s important to the publication. For example TechCrunch covers consumer Internet startups and places a high value on breaking news. GigaOm covers enterprise and Internet technology and places a high value on analysis. Technically Philly covers tech companies based in Philly and places a lot of value in promoting Philadelphia technology community.

It’s unfair, but there are several “red flags” that make me doubt your seriousness. These include businesses that are seeking press but are stilling looking for a technical co-founder or lead developer. If you’re unable to convince a programmer to help you, what chance do you have of convincing your customers? If your big “feature” is integration with Facebook or Twitter, I get skeptical. If you rely exclusively on advertising revenue, I get skeptical. If your business has the chicken and egg problem (or a “marketplace” business model) where the more users you have the more useful your product becomes, I get skeptical.

Don’t play the press against each other. I don’t think it’s worth it to promise media outlets “exclusives.” Journalists disproportionately value “scoops” and will get irritated if they discover you promised something to a competitor. TechCrunch is infamous for holding companies hostage in exchange for coverage. If you choose to get in bed with TechCrunch, know that you will be angering every other outlet.

Give me discounted product codes for my readers. I can provide my community value for reading me and you can measure the success of your pitch and the popularity of the media outlet. Everybody wins.

Practice your “personal elevator pitch.” You know how to pitch your business, but know how to pitch the founding team. Have a few anecdotes about the founding of the company or the circumstances that led to the creation of the business. Business journalism is often writing the same “entrepreneur saw problem and created company” story over and over. Have a few anecdotes ready and journalists will write a better story and you’ll make a better connection with that journalist.

A journalist is on your side. You’ll be asked questions like “How many users do you have?” or “How much revenue are you making?” Many entrepreneurs get defensive when asked these questions by the press. The press wants to help you. I want every company I interview to become the next Facebook. If I cultivate you as a source and you become successful we both win. Give the truth or know that the user/revenue questions are typically just ways of asking “How legit are you?” If you can’t speak to revenue or users talk about your team or your advisors. Tell me why you will succeed.

No, I will not let you read the story before publishing. And any publication that does is not a real news outlet. Remember item number two? Check your ego before talking to the media.

Follow up with headshots, hi-res logos and screenshots. If an entrepreneur doesn’t send me a headshot, I often snag a picture from Facebook or Twitter.

Questions you should be prepared to answer:

  1. Tell me what [your product] does.
  2. How did you meet your co-founders? Who are they and what do they do? How old are you all?
  3. Where are you located? Why?
  4. What problem are you trying to solve? How did this come up?
  5. How many users do you have?
  6. Who is your target customer? What has their feedback been so far?
  7. What’s your plan for next six months? How do you plan on growing?
  8. How are you different from [obvious competitor]?
  9. Why did you raise money? What will you spend it on? Why did you choose [VC firm, angel investor]?
  10. What’s the coolest thing [your product] does?
  11. What do you think of [trend in your industry]?
  12. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me that I didn’t ask you?
I hope this helps media and startups everywhere. I welcome thoughts from both sides of the table.

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