Startups Don’t Need PR Firms

If you have a PR firm on retainer as a seed stage startup (even, in most cases, if you are Series A funded), you’re doing it wrong.

At Speek, where we’re making the conference call fast and easy, we see press placements as part of a broader content strategy. And like all things in the land of startups, our approach is data-driven: we judge each source based on how many users it generates. We can tell you exactly how many registrations, active users, and conversions to paid/loyal users every single article has generated for us, whether we wrote it or it was written about us.

As a startup, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the heady narcissism of headlines and press hits. Seeing your startup’s name in an article is like hearing your band’s song on the radio: We made it! The feeling is intoxicating. Your investors may or may not feel the same buzz (a topic which demands a whole separate article). But they shouldn’t. And neither should you.

Everything you do for your startup should generate users or you shouldn’t be doing it.

Here’s the thing: press can be a very cost-effective method of user acquisition, but it isn’t necessarily so. If the old adage was “all press is good press,” the startup’s mantra should be “not all good press is useful press.” Paying a PR firm thousands of dollars per month in the form of a retainer, whether or not it is successfully doing its job (read: driving user acquisition), is just plain stupid.

So, if keeping a PR firm on retainer is a dumb idea for a startup, what are some smart ones?

Here are some options we have tried at Speek that work better:

  1. PRServe – PRServe is a unique PR firm in that you only pay them when they actually get you a placement.It’s like only paying a dating agency if it goes well: it’s great. When we started working with them, we didn’t even sign a contract; they simply pitched our announcement and then invoiced us for the articles that landed. It’s a great model, and we have been happy using them for certain announcements.
  2. AirPR – AirPR is less a firm and more a marketplace for finding PR professionals, many of whom will likely do “pay for placement” deals. You just post your project and get recommendations for the best PR matches. Once your project goes “live,” AirPR provides curated PR recommendations based on their matching algorithm and human brainpower. Within 48 hours, you should begin hearing from some of the top PR pros in the country.
  3. DIY PR – This has actually worked the best for us thus far, although we still use #1 and #2 above in certain situations. I’ve spoken with several high profile editors and writers who expressed to me how refreshing it was to hear from a founder rather than yet another PR person regarding a given announcement. Admittedly, I am the CTO of Speek, “T” as in “Technology” and as in “people do not assume you can form full human sentences without lurching into binary” so maybe I’m just benefiting from a low bar. Either way, I have zero training or experience in PR, and I definitely learned some things the hard way early on. I once pitched Alyson Shontell at Business Insider and thought I had absolutely nailed it only to get a (very polite, too her eternal credit) response to the effect of “Danny, I have no clue what you’re even pitching me here.” It’s possible that I slipped briefly into binary.

Here are some tips and tricks I learned along the way that have made it possible for us to do our own PR successfully:

  • Plan your press announcements the same way you plan your product roadmap or overall business roadmap: thoroughly, with clear, incremental steps and room for some improvisation.
  • Form relationships with the media when you don’t need them—don’t wait until you have something to announce. I have every writer and editor from every publication we’ll likely ever pitch on a Twitter list, and when I’m winding down at home after my day, I’ll go through that feed and see if anything sparks an engagement (including a completely “off topic” one) and to learn more about them as people. This information does not not come in handy at pitch meetings.
  • Be different—look for ways to stand out from the rest. Being a founder pitching rather than just another PR flack is one good way to stand apart from the pack. We’ve also had good responses from sending things like Speek Monkey Cake Pops in an arrangement to publications along with a hand-signed note to get their attention. If there is one lesson you take away from this article, let it be this: Everyone loves cake pops!
  • Love your product. Maybe this should go without saying, but if you really do love what your startup is about, you will have an absolutely huge advantage over any hired publicist, no matter how skilled: when you sing your product’s praises, you will be 100% telling the truth. This is the easiest way to sell something: no need to drum up false enthusiasm or fake an interest; it will all be right there, plain for the world to see. And if there are aspects of your product that you don’t 100% love, well, you’re not just the PR guy here, right?

Maybe you should get to work doing something about that.

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Written by:
Danny Boice is the CTO of Speek - a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link ( rather than using phone numbers and PINs. A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and in the 90′s. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice.
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