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Why there is more to PRing a tech start up than you might think

There is more to PRing a tech start up than just exposure or acquiring new customers. Instead it is often about providing proof of concept to allow the investor community to understand the ‘investability’ of the proposition. In fact, arguably, the biggest mistake of a tech start up is to get bogged down in the detail – for example, focusing solely on its customers and ignoring the value of a robust reputation within the wider customer and stakeholder community.

Firstly, get your head around the jargon, then discount it and focus on what matters

If you want great PR and to secure funding then you need to be able to talk the talk, as well as walk the walk.

With so many tech start ups out there, it is easy to weed out which ones have less of a chance of success based upon their comprehension of the tech start up space.

I find that journalists are bombarded with stories on new tech start ups and the first thing they do is test if there is any meat on the bones of the business. Do they have a plan that goes beyond the proposition? In short, do they have a business plan that can be invested in?

Any business that can’t explain its funding model is often not going to get the exposure it needs.

Unfortunately, the other problem is it is easy to get lost in the jargon. The term ‘tech start ups’ is an often overused and misunderstood term. The definition is used so often that in some circles its use has become meaningless.

Now of course a tech start up is something different. It’s a tech business that is looking to scale, perhaps even IPO, and is on an ambitious growth plan to world domination. Or at least that is the plan. Unfortunately, many tech start ups don’t secure the funding they need and struggle to scale.

So understanding the investor community’s terminology is crucial.  If you want to get the publicity in the right kind of places and open up conversations with the investor community, you need to learn about the various stages of funding. (friends and family, seed funding, Series A, Series B, IPO).  Know the difference between a bank, an angel investor, a VC and a private equity firm.  Understand that putting together a deal requires professional services partners, legal support and accountants, and knowing the right partners can make or break a deal.

If you want to get coverage in the serious tech media, then being able to explain the commercial model, and where the business is in this cycle, will make or break your reputation and the ability to be taken seriously.

Having spent a good deal of time in the tech start up space, the best infographic I can find to give when training new staff on how funding works is by Funders and Founders.

Start up funding

The numbers involved might change over time but this is a good introductory guide to the process.

Understand their objectives, business model, the technology and the people

Of course, before developing a PR strategy, any good PR gets a good briefing.  The brief is interrogated and sometimes what is laid out in the brief isn’t the real commercial driver behind the business.

Many tech start ups are of course trying to create brand awareness and develop a user base. However, in our experience there are so many other wider stakeholders who can make or break a business’s reputation.

For example, if a business is genuinely disruptive, then it is going to upset someone somewhere. Understanding this and countering any negativity can be crucial.  Look at Anti Uber protests, or Google’s own tax issues, for example. Also have a read of articles from those who are not on the hype train.  Our very own Barry Adams has written about tech start ups numerous times here.  There are plenty of dissenting voices.

Maybe you think that your small start up won’t attract criticism, or negativity. Think again. We have seen the market fight back against new entries to the market time and time again.

Know your friends but more over, know your enemy.

Arguably, a tech start up PR’s sole objective is to provide proof of concept 

This might seem obvious, but many tech start ups get bogged down in the day-to-day of developing a product and growing a business.

The single most effective piece of advice I can give any tech start up is to communicate what the vision of success is for the business.  This end goal might be to IPO, it might be to build a new category, to create the world’s best new web app, or to dominate a niche market.  Whatever the goal is, the commercial model behind the business needs to be explained in the most transparent way possible.

Complete transparency is of course impossible, but having a public facing narrative is crucial, even if your public facing narrative is only 1% of the total sum of the real, often commercially sensitive story.

This messaging needs to be closely aligned to the more expansive narrative for those working for the business under NDA, including investors and of course your PR agency.  This will involve more detail on the plan, allowing your suppliers and partners to make crucial decisions on your behalf.  They will become ambassadors for your brand, knowing what they can and can’t say on your behalf.

Proof of concept can take many forms. No one expects a tech start up to make a profit initially. But what are the milestones along the way to achieving this?  If a tech start up secures seed funding, what does the business plan to do with the funding ahead of securing series A?  When is the business forecasted to break even? How many customers does it plan to acquire? What is the cost per acquisition model? How will these customers be acquired? How will it invest the funding in new websites or marketing? What is the message to the market?

The list is endless of course, and there is no one size fits all.  But those that provide the greatest proof of concept will ultimately succeed.

Those that can’t provide proof of concept will fail.

Be prepared to be flexible and adapt to changes in strategy and evolving market conditions

Ideally a tech start up’s proposition is so undeniable that its strategy doesn’t need to swerve from its preordained strategic path.

The reality is that ‘shit happens’. Strategies change. Propositions are shaped. More often than not, learnings from customer acquisition data forces tech start ups to adapt or die.

A PR partner for a tech start up needs to be reactive to these changes.

My advice for any PR that wants to work with tech start ups is to prepare for late night and early morning phone conversations. You are along for the ride. Enjoy it!

Many PR agencies don’t like uncertainty and maybe tech start up PR is not for them. I’ve seen many agencies just simply unable to adapt to the needs of a tech start up.  My advice to any one choosing a PR partner for a tech start up is to choose wisely. Picking the wrong one can be a costly mistake.

Often the PR agencies that fail with tech start ups are dominated by time management controls and staff to income ratios. Arguably, those agencies that make successful partners are run by an owner manager who make it a high priority to service clients rather than monitor time. (I am biased… I am that ‘adaptable’ owner manager).

Be prepared for a lot of close agency-entrepreneur client relationship, for good and for bad

While it is often one of the investors that makes decisions about which marketing partners to choose, the chances are that during the seed funding and early Series A stage that a PR or marketing partner is going to be working closely with the CEO or entrepreneur. This has its pros and cons.  For both sides.

For the agency working with a founder means stress, hard work, and jumping through hoops at the drop of a hat.

For an entrepreneur, working with an agency can sometimes be frustrating.  Getting the most out of an agency is a fine art. They are a supplier, but they are humans too. Humans need managing and to squeeze that extra 20% out of an agency an entrepreneur needs to know what makes them tick.

The positives of this close working relationship is enormously rewarding. For the agency, they have the ear of the c-suite. Hell, the entrepreneur is probably the entire c-suite (for now). They are helping shape the future strategy of the business and that means the tech start up is able to deliver on its promises and is accountable for every pound, dollar, penny or cent that is being spent.

For the entrepreneur, it is a chance to work closely with a marketing partner and understand the reputation of the tech start up. Ultimately this is a reputation that will make or break the business.

Reputation is the great intangible that so many digital marketers fail to grasp.

Start ups: fail to understand reputation at your peril.



James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.
  • Really well articulated James. Even established PR people often get it wrong!