How Startups Can Self-Assess Their Strength Before Stepping into the Spotlight

By Craig Corbett Published: 14 April, 2016 Last updated: February 18th, 2022 at 11:32 am

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With millions of new companies launching each year, it is becoming more and more difficult to catch the eyes of journalists and investors. Once upon a time, before the media downturn and the global startup explosion, just having a great product or interesting backstory was enough to get picked up. Nowadays it’s not that simple. The startup market is saturated and to maximize their chances of getting media results and reach the general public, enterprises of all sizes need to be sure that they are ready to take the leap into the spotlight, or they risk being left in the dark and out of pocket after paying for an expensive P.R campaign which didn’t result in media coverage.  

The ever-diminishing bastion of overworked staff journalists from leading publications receive hundreds of pitches each day, from startups who are unanimously convinced that their product or service is the next game-changer which will ‘disrupt’ one industry or another. As a means of peeling past the P.R jargon, extra servings of superlatives and dramatic descriptions of products, journalists assess the worth of a pitch in the same way as a potential investor would, looking past the product at the company as a whole.

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So how can enterprises of all sizes take a step back and assess their likelihood of success before investing time, cash and energy on a P.R campaign?  

1. Look at your Founding team

One of the most important factors which defines the strength of an enterprise is their founding team. Consequently, pitches should highlight founders with impressive resumes, interesting back stories and include links to LinkedIn profiles.

If a co-founder was a Google executive, or has worked as part of a well-respected organization like Y-combinator, this should be waved under journalist’s noses from the outset. If a team member has been involved with any previous startups which have received investments or been acquired this is important too. If the team doesn’t have such an impressive CV – as is the case with the majority of startups- founders should highlight notable education achievements, such as whether they attended M.I.T or an Ivy league school or have taken part in incubator or accelerator programs.

Engaging back-stories which really differentiate your founders from the rest of the crowd are also worth highlighting. If your company was founded by a 70 year old or a 12 year old, by a single mother of four or an ex-homeless entrepreneur, these are ‘eye-grabbing’ factors which should be woven into the narrative of your announcement.

Social proof can also be built through the founders contributions to the startup ecosystem as a whole. Potential clients and investors alike are likely to search online for information they can find about your company and founders, and the more they find, the more value they will give to your product or service.

If the team has contributed to the wider conversation in the form of guest articles, books or studies, or taken part in conferences, this adds value to their profile, and a reason why they are worth giving the time of day.

2. Assess the overall ambition of your company

When you have been focused on one project for such a long time, it is very difficult to take a step back and assess how valuable it is as a whole. But picking apart your ideas and business model with a fine comb will benefit your company in the long run.

In an overcrowded startup ecosystem, highlighting why your company has a competitive advantage is key. In this respect journalists will follow suit with investors, in looking at the bigger picture of a company.

Is your product or service really going to make people’s lives easier or change the way that we do things either generally or in a specific industry? Does your company have clearly expressed aims and values which are endearing or are they totally focused on one specific product?

Does your company have the potential to scale, is your product useful across a wide range of industries or is it industry specific? How many direct competitors do you have? Can the product be used by general consumers, or does it target specific demographics?

A team should gather and ask themselves these questions. If you don’t feel that you can look internally in an objective manner, then why not organize a think tank, or present your ideas to a local entrepreneur meetup or incubator near you. The answers might not be what you were looking for, but they will allow you to focus on aims, objectives and possible pivots for the future.

3. View your company design through the eyes of a potential consumer

According to Social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School 80-90% of how trustworthy we think someone is, or how much confidence we have in their abilities is defined by the first time we meet them. In the world of startups and the media, when face-to-face meetings are rare, it is your company design that offers the ‘first impression’ to journalists and potential investors.

Your website design are like the clothes you wear for a business interview. If your design is shoddy, and looks like it hasn’t been touched up since the early 90s, you are unlikely to hear from them again. However, present journalists with a freshly ironed, custom cut three-piece suit of a website, and they might go further than the homepage.

Make sure all your company, product and team information is presented in a slick, modern package which doesn’t leave the interested party having to make too many clicks to find the information that they are looking for. Journalists and investors will view your site through the eyes of a potential consumer, assessing how innovative the user experience is, and the speed and accessibility of the web design. Alternatively you could hire an outside web designer, or simply ask the opinions of personal or professional contacts who are not invested in your company, to take a look and note down first impressions and weak and strong points.

4. Play devil’s advocate with your own announcement

As mentioned before, journalists and investors have become desensitized to overly promotional pitches which exaggerate a startup or product’s importance with words like “disrupt”, “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking”. The importance given to your announcement will depend on the story itself and how newsworthy it is for a general audience. What announcement is your startup making? Is it really important, and to whom? Would a general Techcrunch or Venturebeat reader be interested in this, or only someone who works within your field?

Even though your announcement might be a huge win for your company, it’s importance and significance will be based on your competitors and the industry as a whole. This is especially true for funding announcements. $50K from a local angel investor will help you finally move out of the garage and into a nice office or hire some more freelance coders (for a short time!), but when companies are being given billion dollar assessments by venture capital firms left right and centre it is unlikely to get you on a leading publication. Before you try to throw your news in front of a skeptical audience, do some research and find out what your competitors are announcing.

If you decide that your announcement is not eye-catching or important, there is no need to give up in despair. Post your news on a PR newswire, on social media or on your own company blog or news section. Launching and running a business is a constant learning curve, and in the cut-throat world of startups timing is essential. Putting yourself under the uncomfortable glare of the spotlight will either give you a confidence which will unify your team before the storm hits, or be a painful reality check which will save you wasted time, funds and energy. Either way you will walk away having learned something, and with your expectations better aligned for the future.

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