Michael Seibel, Y Combinator CEO, on press strategies for startups.
The best press advice I ever got was from Mike Arrington and M.G. Siegler while they were speaking at an SV Angel CEO conference. They said:
Treat PR like biz dev.
Once I heard that, everything clicked. Before then I’d wasted mental energy thinking there were special rules for talking to the press and getting great stories for my company. I needed cool and catchy subject lines for my emails. I should have a list of a hundred reporters that I blast with new story ideas. I should write press releases. Needless to say most of these efforts ended in failure. Sound familiar?
Treating PR like business development means developing relationships with reporters as people, getting introduced through warm connections instead of cold emails, and creating a fair value exchange. Here’s the process I advise YC companies to follow when they’re ready for press.
Step One: Generate News
Many founders pitch reporters profiles and stories about their company that could be written today, next week, or next month. Everyone wants a “profile piece” on their startup but most of the time those stories aren’t valuable to reporters. What makes a valuable story is news.
What is News?
News is timely. It makes more sense to talk about it today rather than tomorrow. News attracts attention now and that’s what reporters want. News for most startups can be broken up into these 4 categories:
1. Product Launches and Features
These are things coming out today. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, today. Think Instagram Stories or Facebook Timeline. Typically you are looking for user facing features. In my last company, Socialcam, we would reach out to the press when we released video filters, the ability to add soundtracks to videos, or user profiles.
2. Product/Sales Milestones
This could be hitting a million users, $100k MRR, or maybe a million guests per night. It’s important for this number to be as big as possible (relative to your size of startup) and I’d recommend you sandbag this number - i.e. wait until you’re 25% past the milestone to announce - so that you’re that much closer to announcing the next milestone.
3. Significant BD Deals or Customers
Did you just get a team at Airbnb or Instacart to start using your product or service? Did you partner with GM to build a network of self-driving cars? If you have their permission you should consider announcing it.
For better or worse, fundraising is conflated with traction/success so it is a topic people want to read about. If you have raised an angel round or series A/B/etc. most reporters will consider this news and potential employees will notice it, too.
Note: Many of the examples I’ve used might seem a little aggressive for an early stage startup. My goal is not to discourage you but to provide examples that will be generally understood. If you have any new product, milestone, deal, or investment round you should strongly consider pitching it.
Step Two: Make Your Own Press Contacts
Reporters want to talk to CEOs and co-founders--not PR people. As an early stage startup founder you should be building reporter relationships and making pitches. Your success rate will go up and you will actually spend less time and money on PR. Take it from me--we spent over $100,000 on PR agencies and PR people as an early stage startup before we figured this out.
How Do I Make Press Contacts?
Don’t spray and pray. It’s stupid.
The best method to meet a tech reporter is by having the CEO or a co-founder get a warm intro. If you’re a YC founder, the YC founder network is super helpful for these. The reporter you want to meet has definitely written about someone you know. Have them intro you. Proper etiquette is to ask your friend for an intro to only one reporter. If you aren’t a YC founder, make friends with other startups and reach out to your startup community for warm intros.
Here’s what should be in your intro. The reporter should be able to read it and reply in thirty seconds.
- News. Describe your news in one sentence.
- For an exclusive: Let the reporter know you’re offering an exclusive. Note: Only offer one exclusive at a time. To do this, offer your top choice the exclusive with a deadline to decide. If they pass, move your way down the list, offering the exclusive to other reporters one at a time.
- For an embargo: Say when you’re making the announcement. Include the date and time.
- A request for a twenty minute call. Be courteous. You don’t need to meet in person.
When you get the reporter on the phone, be ready with three to five reasons why your news and your company is important. Make them clear and then, at the end of your call, offer your notes and any relevant collateral (screenshots, graphs, logos, pictures, etc). This will provide you with an opportunity to be courteous and provide reporters with the language you prefer.
Step Three: Pitch Those Contacts an Exclusive
Almost all startups should be offering their story as an exclusive to one tech reporter at a time. Your target audience - investors, potential employees, motivated customers, early adopters - exist in high concentration in just a few tech outlets. Getting blanket coverage across a bunch of tech blogs is often not worth the struggle and can piss people off when embargoes are broken.
Step Four: Share News at a Consistent Cadence
There is a philosophy in the PR world that the number of press mentions per story is an important metric. This causes them to put all the best news in one story, infrequently, and try to get the most reporters to write about it at once. For startups I actually think this isn’t the best strategy.
For me, the benefits of PR are hard to measure but they do exist. It’s like funding basic research in science, you can’t predict the advances but they do happen when you invest consistently over time.
To see real startup PR results you’re better off getting one story every month or every other month versus one huge story every year. To do that, don’t combine all of your news into one story, spread it out across multiple stories. Also when you are looking at your stats or sitting in product meetings with your team, keep an eye out for potential news that you can pitch. I tell YC startups to maintain a queue of 3-5 pieces of news that you will want to announce in the coming 6 months. It takes the pressure off you if one of those pieces of news doesn’t get picked up, and it helps you keep a regular cadence of positive news about your company in the press.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Just like BD, don’t expect to get every meeting and story. When a reporter says “no”, ask yourself why. Were you really giving them news and doing all the other things right? If you’re doing all those things well, you should have a 25-50% success rate.
After six to twelve months of keeping up a good cadence and sharing real news, you should be relatively friendly with two to five reporters. In other words, they’ve written about your company enough that you’ve probably met them in person and certainly they’ll reply to most of your emails.
Later on in your startup’s life there will hopefully become a point when press organically pays attention to your company and wants to proactively write about what you are doing––Dropbox and Airbnb are great examples. At this point, oftentimes it is strategic to start creating distance between the CEO/Founders and the press. This is when PR people can be very helpful. They create a buffer that allows you to be more strategic about what you announce, when, and to whom.
Lastly, remember that doing PR is a very small part of being a good CEO/Founder. Make sure you aren’t dedicating more than 5% of your time to press and don’t expect PR to create observable miracles (tons of users, customers, investment offers, etc). Most of the benefit I’ve received from PR only became obvious weeks or months after a story was posted.
Thanks to Kat Manalac and Craig Cannon for contributing to this article.