It doesn’t matter if your logo is an exploding unicorn that’s about to cover the multiverse in rainbows. It doesn’t matter if you have a catchy brand name that’s so memorable, your next door neighbor, the one who has managed to live without internet access for the past twenty years, is enthusiastic about it. And it doesn’t matter if your tagline is so awesome, it is promptly co-opted in the latest Summer Hollywood flop. All of these things will play a role in your success later, but without good publicity they are and will be entirely irrelevant. So it’s your mission now to get your story straight in order to get that publicity as you build out this other stuff.
I’ve been working in PR since 1999, even going so far as documenting my misfortune as a Millennial during the peak of The Great Recession in the pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek just to stay in the news. In that time I learned everything was secondary to a good story. If you don’t have that, regardless of whether or not you want to make the world a better place or possess the technology to do so, it simply won’t matter unless people know about it. And conversely, if you’re a broke Millennial living with your wife’s parents in South Glens Falls, New York, the opposite is true. You could have nothing and offer nothing while still making appearances in the national media; thus again validating what I’m saying to you now: don’t underestimate the power of a good story. It’s all you need to get that much-needed publicity.
It’s rare that your startup is going to have an opportunity like Google or Facebook did, where they were both able to grow extensively because they were founded in hotbeds of viral activity (elite universities with proactive alumni bases). I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I’m going to tell you that it is unlikely that anyone will know you exist or play with all your cool stuff unless they know about you via an external and trusted source, and nine times out of ten, that trusted and external source is going to be a media outlet like the Wall Street Journal, not an active alumni base.
If you’re a startup, and you haven’t yet figured out what your story is, the reason for your existence, and what exactly you can do for other people, there’s nothing I or anyone can tell you that’s going to make a difference in the failure or success of your enterprise. Too often, startup founders get caught up with themselves.
Sometimes, this can make a ton of sense. Like if you’re Tyler Spalding at StyleSeek, whose company delivers highly personalized product results while adhering to a super strict code of ethics about how that personal information is treated by the company. It makes total sense for your CEO then to be front and center as a privacy advocate because they’re there to tell the rest of the world, through their story and advocacy, that there is a better way forward than the fear, paranoia, and distrust we all now exhibit toward private companies and the federal government when it comes to the use of our data.
But this need for the founder and CEO to be front and center should be be a rarity. Startup founders are not overly relatable for a number of reasons. Often they will tell you a story of their frustration and that’s what lead to the creation of the company. That’s simply not good enough to sell the company to the press consistently over the long term.
So the story of the company in most cases needs to be separate from the story of the founder, and with that in mind, the heart of the matter is that the story of the company needs to be centered around the purpose for the company’s existence, not what issues the founder had. The press is more concerned about the why of the company’s existence and readers of the press are more concerned about knowing what your startup can do for them. What the founder thinks is does is often irrelevant outside of the Valley.
If you can get that part figured out, you can then flesh out the rest of the story. “We exist because X.” “We hope to achieve X.” “This is how we plan to get to X.” Very simple, very basic points. Points that can later be recycled and repeated, almost ad nauseam, to the press as talking points about the company that employees can use and have readily available. It’s only once you have your story straight that the other stuff like logos, design, and tag lines makes sense to talk about. Without the story, you have no guide, no one knows what you’re about, and the press won’t go anywhere near you. You can fix that. Go do so and worry about the other stuff later.
Image by Slavoljub Pantelic.