There is a “going public” that comes before going public. It has nothing to do with stock; nothing to do with strike price or the market’s current appetite for tech offerings. This kind of going public is how companies that understand media introduce themselves to the world.
The first going public is not as sexy as the second, but it is far more important. The reason is simple: If the founders can’t get the first right, there will be no second. If there is no Aaron Levie talking to the public, there will be no 70 percent first-day spike that was the recent Box IPO.
For founders inept at media or lacking the sense to hire a publicist, there won’t even be a first. Like the newest album from everyone’s favorite ’80s hair metal band, their company will slip into the Startup Afterlife so unnoticed that it might as well have never existed.
There is, of course, an alternative. But it takes courage–and patience.
Reverse-engineering PR success
Some founders have it easy. Some are walking away from such a hot company or are such serial hit-makers that a whisper in the right ear is enough to get all the top tech reporters speculating about their “next successful venture.” Or, in the case of lesser-journalistically-responsible outlets, posting full-on articles without bothering to call for a quote.
These lucky founders enjoy publicity as a certainty. Their stuff is so well known that their best strategy is stealth. Like rare birds that nest in high places, they hide between the rocks until the right moment to reveal themselves.
It may take months; it may take years. But when these buzzed-about startups do soar into the noon sun in full plumage, all eyes follow them as they pass.
Uber and AirBnB–two of 2015’s most anticipated tech IPOs–have both made masterful use of stealth. Uber blew into London with an all-luxury, high-end fleet comprised of Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar. AirBnB struck its first major chord with users by offering last-minute, affordable lodging for SXSW and President Obama’s 2008 inauguration.
These strategies didn’t come out of nowhere. Apple is the undisputed master of rocking the stealth route. It goes silent for long periods of time; it alternates between teasing upcoming releases and suing rumor-mongers; then, when the product seems as distant a possibility as Half-Life 3, Apple pulls a lit sparkler from its lapels, as was the case recently with its staggering iPhone 6 earnings.
Bootstrapping founders should not feel envious of such showmanship. Instead, they should figure out how to reverse-engineer their own success from the examples of Apple, Uber, AirBnB and other companies with strong PR.
The process is not unlike creating a summer blockbuster movie. Only instead of a comic-book storyline, a handsome leading man, lots of explosions, and a romantic sub-plot, founders must beg, borrow, or steal a different set of ingredients.
Ingredients for startup media
- Good back-story (founders met in an ashram; founders were college roommates who bonded over the Total Annihilation map in Call of Duty multiplayer, etc.)
- Ivy League education or equivalent (Stanford, Harvard, etc. Graduation optional. See: Zuckerberg, Mark; Gates, William Henry.)
- Member with successful track record on board (PayPal Mafia, someone whose company was bought by Google, etc.)
- Charismatic leader (Again, the Apple thing; also utilized to good effect by Box, Square, Slack, and others)
- Serious money from serious people connected to serious banks (e.g. Box, who got angel money from Mark Cuban, then its Series A from Draper Fisher Jurvetson)
- A product that is amazing
Founders lacking one or all of these ingredients should take heart:
- Back-stories can be contrived.
- People with Ivy League credentials are easily located. (In Silicon Valley and its environs, the process is: open window, throw stone.)
- Finding someone with previous success can also be as easy in the SF/SV area. The only difference is that you’re going to need a wad of cash to tie to that rock.
- Finding a strong leader who’s good in front of an audience is no easy task, but is not essential from jump.
- Serious money is not something you need right away, but if you have it, it talks LOUD when introducing your company.
- Okay, an amazing product is the hardest thing to fake. And it is the most important ingredient. Without it, you have nothing; with it, you can get all the other necessary ingredients.
And the takeaway is?
How you introduce your company is crucial. While a lot of founders want to focus on tech at first, PR becomes essential when you want to get other people excited about what you’re doing. When it comes to startup media ingredients, the more of the ingredients you have, the bigger the splash you’re going to make.
If founders lack some or even have none of the ingredients, they should set about getting them. Fearful founders need to get a hold of themselves or get into a different business.
Waiting for the perfect moment to begin doing PR is also a mistake. Founders can still run a stealth game while speaking at events, writing articles, and doing other slow-burn things to make connections — which can be later turned into press.
The most important lesson to remember is that messing up is OK. The advantage that tech has over industries like Hollywood is the ability to iterate. Whereas it is impossible to get a do-over if your film is a flop, startup founders can fix their products. They can also fix their PR.
Snapchat, for instance, is a master of the media reboot. After limping out of the gate with only one of the startup media ingredients (Stanford grads), Picaboo, as it was known at time, got the traction of an upturned turtle with its first press release. But then it came roaring back almost a year later with a new name, a great product, and a milestone story that set it on its current path to IPO glory.
Bill Lessard is co-author of NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web and NetSlaves 2.0. He has written for NPR, Wired News, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is VentureBeat’s PR maven and runs his own boutique PR firm. Follow him on Twitter @PRwithBrains.