Startup PR the American Way. It’s Not What You Think
Apr 18

The Lithuanian startup ecosystem keeps growing, the number of startups, colocation facilities, venture funds and accelerator programs that support them – all of this is growing. Besides working on the foundation that supports our startups, we also want to prepare the teams to enter  bigger markets, like USA – one of the biggest markets in the world.

In that light, we present an interview with Inna Raykhman, who with her partners runs a PR & Communications agency – in New York.  The agency focuses on Eastern European startups entering the US market.

The first question that we want to ask is “Do startups really need PR?” Doesn’t a great product sell itself?

Inna: The great product does sell itself.  And it is essential that, as startup founder, you make sure that product does exactly that: that you have found initial product market fit, and are solving a real.  Once you are past that, one of the next steps is to start working on your public relations – relations between your company and different kinds of public that it interacts with: customers, investors, partners or even future potential employees.

Do you need PR? My answer is “Absolutely!”.  It is an essential tool in a toolbox of any business, whether startup or not.  Once your product is out in the public, your story is being told and it's up to you, who tells that story.  If it is not coming from you, from the angle that you chose, if it is not covering the ideas that you want to be known for, someone else, be that a disgruntled customer or an unhappy journalist, will do that for you.  As a founder, you are controlling every other aspect of your product and of you company's lifecycle. Are you sure you want to give away the responsibility for telling the world who you are and what you stand for?  This is even more important in the crisis management situations.  For example, when a startup had a Kickstarter campaign for a product that was too buggy, their response to all of the negative user feedback was to disappear.  Had they addressed it right then and there, fixing the reputation problem with their next release would have been easier.

Another reason to do PR is that not everything can be done through sales.  Of course, sales are important and there is no substitute for them. However, another way to attract customers and investors is to be part of the media that they consume on daily basis.  Whether that means a twitter account that creates consistent value to readers, or a friendly relationship with a few journalists that will publish articles about important events in your company’s life.  Either way, this will bring attention to you, your company, and the product.

And last but not least, as a founder, you are not just building and selling your product.  You are also building a company which at some point could become more important than the original product that you started with.  The story that your tell about the company and the product, is intrinsically linked to the culture that you create within the company.  And working on that story and getting it right at the beginning of your long journey is essential.

Now that we know that startups really do need PR, when is the right time to start a PR campaign?

Inna: Once you have a first version of your product ready and you found the initial product market fit, it’s a good time to start doing PR. The campaign should be centered around a few news events.  What qualifies as a news event?  Amongst the most important ones are raising venture capital, coming out with a full new version of your product or service, signing on a big enterprise customer or showing a significant user growth.

Any of the events on the horizon are a good reason to reach out to a few relevant journalists.  Don't combine the events into one pitch to a journalist or a blogger.  Figure out the schedule that you are happy with, whether you do that by yourself or with a PR agency, and space them out to cover a period of a few months or as they become relevant.

Do startups need to hire an agency or can they do it themselves?

Inna: It is a question of personal preference, time and money.  Mostly money, of course.   All startups are on a limited budget in the early days, but Lithuanian startups in particular are more so than their US-based competitors.

If you can afford to work with an agency in whatever local market you are targeting – do it.  It will allow you to concentrate on the product, technology and talking to you customers.  Every market has its specificity and it's a huge challenge for a startup from afar to to craft and deliver a powerful and timely message in a foreign setting.

If you don't yet have the budget to hire an agency, then figure out a limited scope of PR activity that your team is willing to undertake.  At a minimum, It should include a social media presence and a reach out to a few strategic journalists.

But before any of that, sit down and answer the important questions about your business and your expectations out of the PR campaign.  Start with a questionnaire, here is one that we use to onboard clients. Use it freely.

What are the specifics of doing PR in US?

Inna: There are a few things to remember when doing PR in US.   One is that the market is huge, the number of startups, investors and journalists is significantly larger than the market you are coming from.

What this means is that a journalist may receive 300 pitches for an article a day to choose to publish maybe 4 or 5.  Make sure it is exact and descriptive.  It should include following things:

  • a paragraph describing the news; stay away from empty words like “innovative” and “disruptive”; be specific, focus on concrete data

  • include images of your product that can be used in the article

  • contact information clearly articulated

Put together a list of journalists that are relevant to your industry or startup theme overall.  For each person on this list, do your homework – go to their Twitter, read the other articles that they have written, all to make sure you understand what the writer finds interesting.

Another thing to remember specific to in US, is social media.  Social media is important all over the world, but, for example, in US Facebook is rarely, if ever, used for professional connections, it's more of a personal social network.  Twitter, a blog and LinkedIn on the other hand are incredibly important for building a reputation as an industry expert with a unique point of view.  One of the disadvantages of a foreign founder starting in US, is that they have no social capital, it is something that needs to be grown from zero.  So use all of these social networks to build a list of advisors and other helpful contacts.

Either way, with the help of a PR agency or without it, make sure the right story is being told about your business and product. Good luck!

Storifier is a PR & Communications agency in New York, that focuses on Eastern European companies entering the US Market. Inna Raykhman is an ex-developer, entrepreneur, advised a number of startups on investor relations and communications strategy.