Tech reporters frequently get the following question: “What advice would you give to startups that are trying to pitch you?”
It sounds counter-intuitive, but the honest response is: “Don’t talk to me.”
There is a place in the tech world for press. When done well, it introduces innovative new ideas, shares lesson-filled stories of failure and success, and keeps companies and the people who run them honest. But most startups don’t need, and shouldn’t want, to grace headlines.
A lot of startups think they need press to get off the ground. If they don’t announce their new consumer startup, how will consumers know to start using it? How will they justify to friends, families and employees that they’re building something really cool?
But in most cases, press creates only a temporary spike in traffic or downloads, then everything normalizes and you’re back to what you should have been doing the whole time: building a business.
There are a few reasons most startups don’t need press when they launch:
- Most startups pivot, so early press will set you up for embarrassment when your idea fails or changes a few months later.
- Press can put you on a competitor’s radar.
- You don’t actually have anything newsworthy to report.
- In extreme cases, you can become a “press darling,” which means every little mistake you make will be heavily scrutinized by the media forever. That’s what happened to companies like Fab, Foursquare and Path. Their struggles (which are inevitable at any startup) have been covered as thoroughly as their wins, making company morale ebb and flow.
Scott Belsky, an angel investor in companies like Pinterest and Uber, often advises startups not to announce their launches. Instead, he tells them “news” can be written at any time; it doesn’t need to be announced right when something happens and the timing should be strategic.
Belsky calls the desire to announce things prematurely “business narcissism,” and it stems from founders being so wrapped up in their products that they think the whole world can’t wait to learn what they’ve been working on.
Brook Hammerling, founder of Brew PR, says she’s seen many startups make this mistake.
“It’s a head scratcher, but I’ve seen so many startups determined to stick to their timelines that they’ll unveil something before it works,” Hammerling tells First Round Capital, in a post for the firm’s site on this topic. “Then all of the bad press and feedback sets them back six months or more. You have to be patient. If you have to pull a plug, pull the marketing plug. Nobody’s setting those deadlines but you.”
One example of a startup that botched its launch news then got smart about press is Bustle. Before Bustle launched, its founder Bryan Goldberg wrote articles on PandoDaily teasing the company: “I can’t wait to launch my next site. It’s going to make me rich(er).” In August 2013, Goldberg personally wrote Bustle’s launch news. Again, the press didn’t go over well.
When Goldberg finally stopped talking and started building, things got a lot better. Bustle quietly reached 1 million unique visitors within three months of launch. A few months later, when Bustle passed 11 million monthly uniques, Goldberg opened back up to the press, and the company’s news was much better received.
There are rare cases where press has put — and kept — startups on the map. Uber, for example, became a beloved tech company the second it launched thanks to support from influential writers such as TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington.
“Could UberCab have asked for better PR?” A Quora user asked in 2010.
“No,” CEO Travis Kalanick replied. Today, Uber is worth more than $17 billion.
Email app Mailbox is another startup that cleverly used press to hype its way to a quick $100 million exit. It created a waitlist then got the press to write about the app to build up demand. Ultimately, more than 500,000 people signed up to download the app.
Similarly, Secret and Instagram were able to woo influential media members into supporting their startups early on, which created buzz that catapulted their businesses.
But in the case of Mailbox and Instagram, those products arose from the ashes of startups that struggled to get noticed by the media or users, Orchestra and PicPlz respectively. Secret is still relatively new, and it’s unclear if it will break out of the Silicon Valley echo-chamber, which is where another buzzy startup, Path, has struggled.
Press with a purpose can be good for startups. If the goal is to raise money, then getting TechCrunch or Pando to cover a launch could attract VC readers. If a startup needs advertising dollars, a piece on AdAge could do the trick.
But if you ask yourself, “Why do I want press?” And the answer is, “I don’t know,” then spare everyone — especially your startup. At least until it’s really ready for prime time and you have metrics to prove it.
“It’s hard to tell founders this kind of thing,” Hammerling tells First Round Capital. “It’s like telling them their child isn’t ready for an honors class yet. They want to fast-forward…People have a tendency to think today’s news is just tomorrow’s trash, but not now. The internet is forever and people have long memories.”