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Technical Hiring and Cultural Fit
In this interview with Conrad Egusa, founder of Publicize, we discuss how to get press coverage for startups and side projects. We dive into how to get press, the format and content of a press release, how to identify journalists to reach out to and the common mistakes made by those seeking press coverage.
Content and Timings
- Introduction (0:00)
- About Conrad (0:20)
- First Steps with PR (1:19)
- PR Agencies (2:44)
- When to Seek PR (4:24)
- Creating a Clear Compelling Story (6:36)
- Elements of a Media Plan (11:36)
- Writing a Press Release (13:01)
- Contacting Journalists (14:04)
Conrad Egusa is founder of Publicize, a startup PR company. He’s a global PR mentor at 500 Startups. He’s contributed to TechCrunch, The Next Web and was previously a writer for VentureBeat. Conrad, thank you so much for joining us today. Do you have a bit to share about yourself?
I approach PR from three different angles. I think the first is that from a journalist’s perspective I used to write for a tech site called VentureBeat and now, I guess, contribute to sites like TechCrunch. I’ve invested in publications as well. I see it from the perspective of editorial. I think from the perspective of a founder, I raised funding for my first startup in northern California and now working on a startup and from the perspective of helping other companies through 500 startups and other avenues.
I’ve been able to look at, I’d say, about tens of thousands of different data points and basically with the interest of deconstructing the PR process to make it as efficient as possible. I think there are a lot of misconceptions people make about the PR industry, one being, for example, that you need to have a very strong relationship with a journalist to get covered, another being that, hey, you need to pay a ten-thousand-dollar-a-month PR firm. I have just seen so many data points that disprove these. My hope is that people can come away with a better understanding of media and PR after this.
First Steps with PR
What are the first steps those interested in PR should take?
Let’s say you’re working on a side project. You’re about to launch, for example, this mobile app or this web app, whatever it may be. The first thing to understand is that you need to have something to announce. I’ll give an example. When I was writing for VentureBeat, I had a friend come up to me. He said, “Conrad, could you write an article about my company?” I’d say, “Sure. What do have to announce?” He said, “Well, I don’t have anything to announce.” I said, “Well, if you don’t have anything to announce, I’d want to write a story about you, but I can’t because there’s no story I can write about.”
The first thing to remember is if you’re going out to the media, whether it’s the Wall Street Journal, whether it’s TechCrunch, you have to have something to announce. A lot of people will ask, “All right, well, what are good announcements to make?” Traditionally, for any new project, the following announcements are very strong. Let’s say you launch the business. That’s a great announcement. Let’s say you’re launching a new product. Maybe it’s a mobile app. That’s a great announcement as well. Maybe you raise a hundred thousand in funding. That’s another great announcement or if you hit a milestone.
The goal when you reach out to The Guardian or to TechCrunch or any of these sites isn’t to say, “Hi, my name is Conrad. Can you write about my company?” What you should say is, “Hi, I’m the founder of this startup that’s about to announce a new product launch. Do you want to cover the product launch?” Because those are really what a lot of these, the news stories that media publications are looking to write about. I would say that would be the first step is identifying that specific announcement you want to make.
“It’s less about the specific feature and market and more about how big of a story you want to make it”
Do you need a PR agency?
I think the beauty of PR as a marketing channel is that it is inherently free as opposed to doing something like paid advertising, Google Adwords, et cetera, where you have to have some type of minimum marketing budget. With PR, there isn’t any inherent cost to it. I would say in regards to using a PR firm, to me, with startup marketing it’s all about return on investment. If I were in a startup’s shoes and they were looking at paying a PR company, I think the first thing I would look to do is minimize risk as much as possible. As opposed to a six-month retainer, go month to month because, obviously, a startup resources tend to be limited.
I think the second is try to have some type of metric to know. Maybe you paid a thousand, two-thousand dollars. Did you get more value than that? If so, maybe it’s a good avenue. If not, maybe you should try to look at other marketing channels as soon as possible. If there is no marketing budget, they can get PR by themselves.
Just as a quick example, I remember helping this 65-year-old founder in Chicago who had never been involved with technology, knew no writers. He was launching this company that doesn’t really look like a great, like the typical startup. I remember we got it on, I think it was VentureBeat or The Next Web. A lot of people said, “Oh, of course, you got it on VentureBeat. You used to write for that publication.” What most people didn’t realize was I said, “Well, that’s actually not true. When we wrote out to VentureBeat and The Next Web and these other sites, we wrote on behalf of the founder. So, no one actually knew I was involved whatsoever. We were emailing from the founder’s emails.”
I think it just goes to show that if you follow the right PR process you don’t necessarily have to be located in San Francisco or New York or have these prior connections.
When to Seek PR
When working on a new venture, when should you seek PR?
I’m of the attitude that I always recommend that people completely finish their product before reaching out for PR. The primary reason is there is so many cases of friends coming up to me and saying, “Hey, Conrad, we’re about to finish our project in one month or we want to start two months and we want to start talking about PR.” Then, they end up dividing their attention. As opposed to their product actually taking two months to finish, six months goes on. They haven’t even finished because they’ve divided their attention.
I like to say if you think of step two as PR and step one as finishing your product, you can never actually get to step two until you finish step one. You might as well completely finish step one and then focus after. I think when you’re about to launch, what I’d recommend is finish an alpha version of your product and then test it with a small group of friends to make sure that any bugs are … You feel like it’s ready for primetime. Then, start reaching out to the media.
I would say in terms of building a relationship with journalists, a tip that really worked for me is that a lot of people try to attend these big conferences like a South by Southwest or a CES to meet journalists. The reality is out of every hundred people, there may be one of them is a journalist. The ratios really aren’t in your favor. It’s hard enough to meet them. I found the best way to meet journalists is to go to events that are hosted by publications. The most well known ones for example will be TechCrunch Disrupt in London or in San Francisco.
Those can be somewhat expensive. There are actually a lot of smaller events that publications will host as well. As an example, and the reason why I started writing for New York was I, for VentureBeat was because I went to an event in New York that was hosted, a small, free event VentureBeat hosted. I think there were forty people there. Fifteen of them were writers at VentureBeat. Just the ratios were absurd. You couldn’t help but run into a lot of different journalists who wrote for these publications.
I would say, if you ever, and whether it’s especially in London or New York or San Francisco, see an event that’s being hosted by a Mashable or by a VentureBeat or by a TechCrunch, I’d say do your best effort to go there because you’re bound to run into a lot of journalists. You would think more entrepreneurs would go to these events. Surprisingly, they don’t.
Creating a Clear Compelling Story
If you’ve got a product that does 25 different things, how can you go about presenting a clear message for it?
Regardless of the number of features that you’re looking to add, you should have one primary mission of the company that you could basically sum up in one line. I think a mistake a lot of entrepreneurs or developers make, people starting off, is that they, when they’re pitching a company a publication they write about what the product is right now as opposed to where you want to take it in three to five years. Any product when it’s first starting out, isn’t particularly interesting. You can go back to even the well known startups now.
What does make a very interesting story is where you want to take the company, the mission, the ambition of the founders. What I would say is if you’re daydreaming about how big, how in five years the company is going to have two-hundred people and be taking over the world, that overall mission, that’s what you really want to get across.
Some kind of quick examples I started a co-working space in South America. The mission wasn’t to become a co-working space. The mission was to turn this city, Medellín into the Silicon Valley of Latin America. I’d say any new project that you have it doesn’t matter if you have two features or fifteen features. There should be one overlying mission that you have that you could, I think, rally and unify a lot of the features as well.
What steps could you take to ensure you get attention in spite of so many other products?
Let’s say you are working on a side project. You just finished it. You want to get it on a TechCrunch or a Wall Street Journal or Business Insider, one of these large publications. What I recommend there are basically, two routes you can go. You can either set an embargo or you can do an exclusive. The way especially the new media works is everyone is competing to break stories. Once a story, especially in tech, in the tech vertical of media where news goes, news cycle revolves so quickly, if TechCrunch covers the story, two days later VentureBeat is no longer wanting to cover that story.
What people do is they set an embargo, which they basically, will email thirty sites. They’ll say, “Would you be interested in covering this launch of my side project? If you’re interested, we’ll send you all the material, but you have to publish it no earlier than, let’s say, Wednesday at 12:00 PM East Coast time.” Ideally, at that time, many publications will cover it at the same time. It’s a great deal of press coverage.
The challenge that you have, especially if this is a side project that you haven’t raised ten-million dollars of funding, is that it’s hard for a lot of these big publications where they’re getting a thousand emails everyday to agree to an embargo. For anything below a seed round of funding, what I generally recommend is an exclusive. The reason why I mention an exclusive is you’d reach out, let’s say, to a TechCrunch and say, “Would you be interested in this exclusive? You have first right to publish this story.” Because of that, it’s a way that you can really … It’s something that most entrepreneurs don’t use. You could really stand out from the crowd by doing that.
Ideally, what will happen is a TechCrunch will respond and say, “Hey, we’re interested in the exclusive. Can we have an interview with you? The article will be online next Wednesday.” Then, once the article comes online, you could further coverage to other publications. The reason why I recommend the exclusive is that if you are featured on a top site, it doesn’t mean that other publications will also not cover the story I think. You’re essentially able to as much as possible, guarantee coverage on a leading publication.
When TechCrunch covers a story, it’s not just about TechCrunch. TechCrunch is the same site that the New York Times and the BBC also read. Oftentimes, coverage can spread from that. If you’re able to use this, ideally every eight to twelve weeks with different announcements that you have, all those results will just compound over time. I like to say you won’t be in the top ten percent of companies. You’ll be in the top one percent.
“Completely finish your product before reaching out for PR”
What can you do if the product you’re working on isn’t some super exciting app or a world-changing startup?
Because I’ve seen so many data points across all different industries, I would say it’s less about the specific feature and market and more about how big of a story you want to make it. If we just launched it as, hey, we’re launching this co-working space, you really should cover it, no one would have covered it because co-working spaces are launched hundreds every year. That’s not particularly exciting. It was the larger mission of it.
What I would always tell founders is, “Okay, this specific product that you’re launching isn’t particularly interesting. So, when you’re daydreaming and you’re thinking about where you actually want to take this in three to five years, what is it that you think about? What’s that kind of bigger mission?” Then, I think, what tends to happen is the founder says, “Oh, actually once I do this, I also want to add this and this and target this bigger market and it’s actually going to become this really big company and this is how we see it happening.”
See, that’s perfect. That big mission that’s what you want to get across not this small feature because there’s so many, for example, different Chrome plug-ins that we’ve helped get on TechCrunch and the New York Times. It’s just a Chrome plug-in that actually has really limited features. The reason why it got on the New York Times wasn’t because it was a Chrome plug-in. It was because we said, “Well, the end mission is to change the way that people learn languages online. That’s where we’re heading to.” That’s why they covered it because that’s an interesting story. I wouldn’t set any artificial barriers about where people can get. I would say, to me, it’s a lot about how people phrase the mission of the company.
“If you get a twenty-percent response rate, that’s really high”
Elements of a Media Plan
What are the essential elements of a media plan?
A quick plan would be identify the specific announcement. Let’s say it’s a launch. Make the story as big as possible. Craft it into a press release, which I’ll talk about in a second. From that press release, take 250 of the very strongest words. Craft it into an email. Offer it as an exclusive for a leading site. Then, once the article is published, further the coverage. That’s the overall PR process. Then, ideally, repeat it every, as soon as possible with different announcements.
Going into the press release, it’s a very specific document. It’s not particularly fancy. There are a lot of misconceptions about it. It’s basically, a document that it’s uncomfortable to read for the general public. The purpose of it is for reporters to look at it and take information and craft it into an article. A journalist won’t read a press release and then say, “Wow, this is the most interesting thing I’ve ever read. You just sold me through this press release. I’m going to write the article,” because it’s actually not the press release that sells the journalist on whether they should write it. It’s the email that you write.
Once they read that email that might be 250 words long, they say, “Hey, this is really interesting. I’m interested in covering this story.” Then, they’ll open up the press release and see these extra data points and information that’ll help write the article. The reason I say the press release is an important exercise is it’s through writing the press release that you can almost help a founder refine what’s so important about the story and then taking that information and putting it into an email to get a journalist to cover the story.
Writing a Press Release
How should you go about writing a press release?
With the press release, it follows a very specific format. Typically, the title and the first line is the big mission of the company. In the co-working space, it could say, “App Espacio launches to turn the city of Medellín into the Silicon Valley of Latin America.” Then, the second and third paragraph go more into what exactly is the announcement and the product. In this case, we can say Espacio is a co-working space. Here are the specific features.
If someone is launching a side project that has this big mission, then you can go back into the details and say, “Here’s exactly what the product does,” explaining it. In general, following after, there is a quote from the founder of the executive team. Then, there’s some background about how it came to play, how it came to come into existence, maybe the background of the founder, how they came across this problem or whatever it may be. Also, usually, at the end too, if it’s a really technological problem, a breakthrough that’s being made, people could add more information about how the technology works et cetera.
What should you do if you don’t get traction with the press that you wanted?
I see a lot of people make mistakes. One of them is that they don’t contact enough journalists. They may contact two or three and say, “I didn’t get any response. Something is wrong.” They stop. The reality is if you get a twenty-percent response rate, that’s really high. There is a certain level of, hey, you have to contact twenty, thirty-plus journalists. It does take time to do that.
How can you identity the right journalist to contact?
I would say what I would do is whatever industry or vertical you’re into type in one word that can identify that. Let’s say you’re looking at TechCrunch. Type “TechCrunch.” You’ll see really quickly, hey, here are the twenty different articles on that subject. Here are these different writers that have. If they’ve covered prior articles about that, they’re likely would be interested in that industry.
One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of people, all publications will have these emails like Tips@TechCrunch.com, Tips@VentureBeat, et cetera. A lot of people think those aren’t read. When I was at VentureBeat, I would say everyday, half of the stories we wrote about were the ones sent to Tips@VentureBeat.com. Those emails are read everyday. It’s important that ideally, people would first begin by emailing individual journalists. At the very, if there is no response, I’d always recommend sending it to the tips at that publication.
What tools do you recommend for those just getting started with PR?
I would say there aren’t these shortcuts. I would actually anywhere that you can find different emails of journalists that’ll help save you time. I would say outside of that, there’s nothing. There is no email program that can help automate that. I would actually recommend leaning away from anything that does automate that because it’s so frequent as a journalist that you’d get this email that says, “For immediate response” in the subject line. It’s sent to 10,000 people. People think that they fact that you sent it out to 10,000 people is a good thing. When it’s actually the response rate will probably be essentially zero. There isn’t a specific tool that I would use.
Are there any other resources you can recommend for those interested in learning more about PR?
There is a popular blog by Sean Ellis. It’s called Startup-Marketing.com that I’ve written just explaining each step of the process and use examples with his site, GrowthHackers.com and say, “Well this is what you should first do with the announcements, the big story. This is the press release that you should write.” It’s just a real-life example of what an email should look like, what a press release should look like. I think you can start with that resource. It’ll probably be pretty helpful.
Conrad, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thanks so much for having me.