Thursday, March 4, 2010

Make the leap from trade to business press

Technology startups often have trouble making the leap from trade press to business press.

Here's what your company must provide to your PR team, if you want them to successfully send you to the big leagues.
  • Competitive analysis

  • Forward-leaning differentiator

  • The "why," not just the "how"
Competitive analysis -- Your competitors are not adversaries. They're your helpers in that they make your story better. Name them in your e-mail pitch to a top-tier business reporter. The more names, the stronger the pitch.

Likewise, name peripherally related companies and industries, and name your partners and customers, too.

There are a lot of reasons for this:

(1) A single company does not an industry make. Your company can't be "the only one" that does what you do. Even if you have no identical direct competitors, any alternative to your company's offering counts as competition, even if it's radically different or radically inferior.
The larger the swimming pool and the more swimmers in it, the more likely a reporter will pay attention to it. Sheer numbers help. The reporter's only taskmaster is the audience, and if there's an already-interested large audience for a topic, he is more likely to cover it.
(2) Conflict is an essential ingredient of storytelling. If that makes you squirm and want to wriggle away, look at it this way: The World Series is interesting only because teams are pitted against one another with something at stake.
If you assembled the world's best batters and sold tickets to batting practice, you probably wouldn't make much money. If you assembled the world's best pitchers and watched them practice without batters, how many people would pay to watch? Probably not many.
A business story is a sports story, with league standings, batting averages, secret playbooks, charismatic coaches and star performers.
You can be a good sport. You don't have to be mean and aggressive to compete. But remember that conflict is your friend.
(3) The pie slices need to change size. I'm talking about economics here. Consider college-level cost-benefit analysis, which involves comparing "before" and "after" pictures with regard to a particular business decision or action. Whose pie slice will get smaller? Whose will get bigger? Whose will stay the same? If your company's actions are not "disruptive" in this sense, there's no story.
For example, say Company A acquires Company B. How will companies D, E and F need to respond? If you have no effect on companies D, E and F, there's no story.
Forward-leaning differentiator -- In what way is your company's secret sauce a sign of the times to come? You can't just have secret sauce; it has to be indicative of the future.

Typically, big-name companies invest in a small-time competitor's great new idea, whether through acquisition, research, new hires or even a direct donation to the competitor. This sometimes ticks off the little guy, who fumes that the bigger company is getting credit for something it's not even good at and was slow to appreciate in the first place. The little guy cries out, "But we're better, we're way ahead, we're the real thing." The little guy resents the big company's fame and advertising budget.

But when big companies jump into a market that *you* invented, that's good.

Now you have data points for your business pitch. Now you have competitors' names to include in your competitive analysis. You've influenced companies D, E and F, and they are now watching you.

Typically, the startup that invented the market really *is* way ahead, and that puts the startup's CEO and CTO in the position of "authority on the subject," which is exactly who reporters want to talk to.

So don't talk solely about your company or technology; instead be the third-party arbiter of the emerging competitive analysis. Talk about where the market is headed, and talk in an analytical manner about factors that could accelerate or "de-celerate" progress. Paint a picture of the future. Explain *why* the market is headed there, what's lost if it doesn't get there, and who will make money once the future has arrived.

Inherently, this conversation will show off your company in an authentically positive light, and your participation will be essential to telling the story at all.

The "why," not just the "how" -- This is the technology startup's biggest stumbling block in making the transition from trade press to business press.

Trade press write about "how it works." That's what they do. Technology startups enjoy telling that story and tell it well. Success is easy here.

Business press don't care about the how, nor do they care if your company does the how faster, better and cheaper than other companies can do it. They simply don't care. Stop talking about it.

In particular, they don't care if your "technology is better." Really, I can't emphasize this enough: Hush! It's all just "yada yada yada" to them. Stop saying it.

Instead, go back to the second bullet here -- "forward-leaning differentiator" -- and become that third-party arbiter of shifts under way in the emerging market.

Your ego may initially protest that your company should instead be the star, but let's get real: Do you know who Sharlto Copley is? Do you know who George Clooney is?

Sharlto Copley was star of the 2009 sci-fi sleeper "District 9," an awesome mock-documentary inspired by real events during South Africa's apartheid era. Talk about an awesome performance. But guess what? Sharlto Copley wasn't even nominated for best actor. George Clooney was, though.

Accept the fact that George Clooney's presence in your awesome sleeper of a technology story is a powerful engine. Ride it, baby! His light becomes your light. It's a way in.

And once you're in, you're in.