How to Start a Startup: Getting Press the Right Way

“A lot of people, I think, when they first get started with entrepreneurship think about getting press … as something that happens magically. They think about it … like a meritocracy, which is absolutely not the case.”

As part of Y Combinator president Sam Altman’s How to Start a Startup series at Stanford University, Justin Kan educated up-and-coming startups on the seemingly-elusive art of getting press coverage.

Kan is a YC partner and previously founded Kiko and Justin.tv (which later became Twitch). His ventures have received coverage on tech sites and beyond, and he gave some tactical, step-by-step advice on how to get media attention and handle your own PR.

(For more startup advice, check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.)

But before you start reaching out to news sources at all, you have to ask yourself some questions. When you have answers for these questions, you’ll be better able to respond to queries from the press when they come a knockin.’

What Is Your Goal?

What do you want people to come away from the story knowing about your startup? Make sure you keep these business goals in mind before talking about your company so you can speak about it clearly and concisely. “Um”s and “you know”s don’t read well in an interview.

Who Do You Want to Reach?

Consider your audience before reaching out to news outlets. Writers want material that will interest their readers, so make sure you’re pitching in places where your story is likely to have an audience.

Kan gave an example of how he went about finding an audience for Twitch PR:

“Twitch TV… is like ESPN for gamers, kind of like a live stream community for gamers. Our goal was to reach the gaming industry … whether they were developers or advertisers. [We wanted them] to think about us as an important place where influencers were, so we really targeted industry trades and game dev blogs. Stuff that the industry was reading.”

Kan suggests that it’s best to handle PR yourself, at least early on. “It’s generally not a good use of money, especially in the early days [to hire a firm].” He said that most firms can only help you with contacts and logistics. They can’t create your story.

What Type of Story Are You Pitching?

When you have an idea of your story and the audiences you want to tap into, it’s time to see what type of story you’re bringing to the table. Once you know which of these you fulfill, you’ll be better able to pitch your story in a convincing way.

Product Launches: The beginning is always a good place to start.

Fundraising: People love a good financial success story.

Milestones/Metrics: Did you make a lot of revenue in one week? That could be news; numbers talk.

Business Overviews: Startup stories are always great reads but more often than not, this coverage only comes when you’re a bit beyond the early startup phase.

Stunts: Think guerrilla advertising.

Hiring Announcements: Like when former Etsy designer Cap Watkins becomes BuzzFeed’s first VP of Design, that’s big news.

Contribute Articles: Contribute your own voice to the outlets your audiences are reading.

Step-by-Step Pitch Process

Even after you’ve nailed down your goals, found an audience, and picked which type of story you want to present, you’re still going to have to actually pitch your story to someone who will hopefully write about it. Kan has some step-by-step advice on how to do that:

1. Think of a story

Before you pitch your story, Kan says, “What you really need to think about objectively is, ‘If I wasn’t the founder of this company, would I want to read a story about what I’m pitching?’”

2. Get introduced

It’s best to get introduced to a reporter through someone else. Think about someone who already covered a friend or fellow entrepreneur who you know and ask your contact to make the introductions.

3. Set a date

Give the reporter at least four to seven days to write and publish your story — more if you can.

4. Reach out

A lot can get lost in translation over email. Get a commitment from the reporter, face-to face if possible, or at least on the phone if you can.

5. Pitch them

When pitching your story, write out bullet points of what you want covered. This is what Olivia Pope calls “controlling the narrative.” Yes, that was a Scandal reference.

6. Follow up

Leave things on a good note before the launch and thank the reporter for her time. Also, tie up any possible loose ends by reaffirming potential lingering details: names of founders, time of launch, etc.

7. Launch your news

And hopefully the reporters are publishing the articles you pitched at the same time!

Final Rules of Thumb

In your pursuit of press, it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of press does not a good product make. Kan reminds startups,

“Getting press is like a vanity metric: It feels like you’re being successful because many successful companies like Facebook are covered in the press all the time, but it doesn’t actually mean you’re successful. It doesn’t actually mean you’re making money, getting users, or making those users happy.”

Still, if you’re keeping your users happy, making a stellar product and maintaining good relationships with reporters, you’re definitely on the right track to getting the kind of coverage you’re looking for.

Next Steps

You can read a full transcript of Kan’s lecture here.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out How to Start a Startup: The Book. It’s the ultimate reference guide to creating a successful tech startup.

How to Start a Startup: The Book

Featured image was taken from the video of Justin Kan’s lecture at Stanford.

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