I’ve spent over a month in the past three in the US, split between three different trips for different events, and over this time I’ve met with dozens of startups, many of who are from outside the US and are making their first tentative forays into the US scene. I’ve had conversations with a bunch of these startups and often we talk around the issues of gaining attention in a media riddled marketplace.
Many of these startups ask me for recommendations for PR agencies. While I’ve got a lot of friends who do PR work and this is undoubtedly a necessary industry, I’m les sure whether traditional PR is a valid approach for a cash strapped startup looking to get a toehold in a new market.
I was reminded of this when reading a blog post recently from Stowe Boyd. Stowe was reflecting on a similar conversation that he’d had with a European software company at the Web 2.0 Expo – the gist of Stowe’s advice was that new entrants should look at two particular areas – thought leadership and the formation of an advisory board.
Now I need to admit that this is somewhat self-serving for both Stowe and I. He’s undoubtedly considered a thought leader in his space and I’d also like to think that I’ve garnered something of a following in mine. We’re also both involved in advisory work with startups – so what we both say has to be seen in that light. That said however I agree entirely with what Stowe suggests.
I’m involved in a few different initiatives that, I believe, show the value of a strategy such as this.
18 months or so ago, Zoho approached a few of us with the idea of creating a cloud computing focused blog. The idea being that there was an entirely new space that not many credible blogs where covering deeply. The aim of the initiative was for Zoho to be aligned with something that would become (and in my view has become) the “go to place” for critical analysis in the cloud space. Sure Zoho could have published their own blog (in fact they already did, and continue to do so) but there was an understanding on their part that aligning themselves with something with obvious independence would prove valuable.
The SaaS world is a surprisingly small space – the 200000 or so miles I flew last year got me to a bunch of events around the place and that, along with my willingness to take briefing calls pretty much anytime, mean that I’ve met, either physically or virtually, a good proportion of the SaaS vendors – big and small. This connection, along with the fact that I’m not solely employed by any one vendor, means that I’m a reasonably handy guy to have around for a startup wishing to make connections in the industry. That also works the other way around and I’ve done a bunch of work helping larger businesses connect with small players.
All this, coupled with the fact that I spend an inordinate amount of time watching the industry and have developed a fairly good understanding of what makes it tick, means I’m a reasonably useful person to bounce ideas off. Many startups have used this fact – either formally or informally, and it’s something I enjoy and am happy to do.
Determine the line, and don’t cross it
Of course for people like Stowe, who are independent thinkers, being paid to provide thought leadership for individual entities can prove problematic. I don’t believe however that this is an insurmountable goal – all one needs to do is have clearly articulated boundaries within which one is happy acting – anything outside of these boundaries is off the table. I had a recent example of this – an organization I provide some written content for was organizing an event where they were going to pitch their wares. They asked me if I could contact all my connections to pimp the event – clearly this is something that I’m not comfortable with – it wouldn’t have done anything for my credibility to be pimping a vendor pitch to be industry contacts – and, by extension, in doing so I would have harmed the very value of the help I was giving them.
So there you have it – startups in bootstrapping mode, don’t despair and think you need a five figure retainer for a PR agency – with a bit of creativity and an open mind – you can achieve a lot.