How to Launch Your Startup
Four questions to ask before approaching a PR firm for your startup launch
Launching a business can be a massive undertaking and risky proposition in the best of markets. In today’s market, the naysayers will probably tell you it’s a death wish.
As a former public relations leader at several top firms, I’ve seen it all — the good, the bad and the downright stupid. I’d like to share some words of counsel before you take the leap into the great unknown.
While these four questions don’t cover everything under the sun, they are enough to raise some red flags and reveal the need for additional prep.
There’s no shame in pumping the breaks in this market and taking some extra time to ensure that all the right pieces are in place.
Why do you want to launch now?
This is the single most important question to ask. Don’t get let the rose-coloured investor presentations cloud your judgement.
Shelve the hockey-stick-growth promises for a second, and take a cold, hard, stone-sober look in the mirror. Make sure your rationale is sound because agencies desperate for cash will gladly take money out of the pocket of a startup CEO.
If you’re trying to rush a launch announcement in reaction to pressure from investors or competitors, your head is in the wrong place. If you’re trying to use public relations as a Band-Aid for stalling sales efforts, save your money.
While it’s certainly possible to generate leads and acquire customers following an official launch, this is not the primary purpose of a launch effort. A paid digital content marketing campaign would likely be a cheaper and smarter approach.
The goal of the launch is to plant a solid stake in the ground and articulate the company narrative. It’s an opportunity to talk about the market need and outline how your company will deliver in a way that no other company can (if there are competitors, be honest…don't hide them).
Given that the goal is to tell a solid story that resonates broadly, it’s a good idea to align your launch with a triggering event, such as the closing of a new round of funding or a partnership deal with a major, well-known investor or business.
Don’t forget to consider the optics either. Launching during a pandemic is risky business. On the one hand, most reporters are focusing on COVID-related news, which means fewer ears for your story.
On the other hand, the tragic impact of the pandemic could make a company appear to be tone-deaf if it’s not delivering major, tangible market benefits.
Do you have a solid business strategy? Is it clear and concise?
If you can’t tell the story of your business in under a minute, then you might have a problem. You can’t fire a shot across the bow if you can’t tell the story in a clear and concise way.
Narratives that work best quickly demonstrate your value proposition and offer specific, colourful examples, a path to profitability with key milestones to assess success and solid anecdotal comparisons (please come up with something better than “we’re the Uber of XX”).
Business, innovation and technology reporters are pitched startup stories every single day. Tech reporters can smell bullsh*t through a hazmat suit.
They’ve been approached by many eager startup CEOs and greedy agencies, who have tried to sell them on half-baked, venture-backed vaporware.
I’m not saying that’s you, but, unfortunately, you will have to navigate the deep-seeded skepticism sowed by those who came before you.
Even the friendly reporters will hit you with tough questions to pressure test your business strategy. Be sure to do some gloves-off Q&A role-play before the big day.
Have you reached a critical mass of clients? Will they share their experience?
In my experience, where there’s vaporware, there is often phantom clientele. If your website says you have “major business clients in beta,” you can’t then tell a reporter that they’re all confidential.
It’s not an effective workaround, and, worse, it flags to the reporter that you’ve likely overstated other elements of your story.
Customers are a key component of launch storytelling. They should not be an afterthought. Existing customers offer an important outside perspective; they can “show” your value proposition in action.
Their words are a powerful, credible way to explain the industry problem that your startup has solved.
If you have customers (who are satisfied), it’s a great idea to have them prepped and ready to go. If they’re hesitant to help you tell your story, try to float them a discount on services.
Reporters often ask for total client volume. If you can’t give actual customer figures, that’s not a deal-breaker. Try to be prepared to talk about quarterly growth in percentages.
Another option is to brief an industry analyst and let them offer an independent perspective (if you think they’ll be fair).
Do you have a solid spokesperson?
This question might seem like a no brainer. I can tell you from experience that it’s often an assumption that’s not fully explored until right before launch, which can be a catastrophic mistake.
Just because the co-founder has decades of business experience or understands the technology better than everyone else does not necessarily mean they can deliver a clear, concise elevator pitch.
If their head is too high in the clouds (talking in abstractions and hyperbole) or too low to the ground (industry jargon and product spec minutiae), your startup could whiff when you get up to the plate.
Your spokesperson will find the sweet spot if they can nail the company narrative and sparingly pepper in big-picture thinking alongside real-life examples that demonstrate your value proposition.
Extra points if the spokesperson has a personal anecdote, a light-bulb moment, that led him/her to realize that this would be the business of the future.
Lastly, I’ve often seen empathy missing in the stress of the unveil. Remember that reporters are people under stress, pressure and tight deadlines just like yourselves. They often cover several industries and beats at once.
They may be unfamiliar with your niche or not have time to do research. Patience is key. The more considerately you treat them, the better your outcome will be.
Good luck with the launch. May hockey sticks and unicorns be in your future.
Russell Weigandt is a former senior vice president at top public relations agencies, where he managed corporate reputation for Fortune 500 and startup clients.