What drives prominent media placements for tech start-ups?
For Carvana, you might think it was their clever “car vending machine” publicity stunt that sent the now-popular car buying site roaring out of the gates from day one with major stories in mainstream outlets including the Washington Post and ABC News.
Not to put the brakes on a great PR strategy, but the truth about Carvana is that its January 2013 launch was modest from a media coverage perspective, with niche automotive trade and tech enthusiast coverage. From there, it built its media profile slowly as its business grew.
Each city roll out generated local press, building a narrative on its successful geographic expansion.
Finally, at the end of 2013, nearly one year after its launch, Carvana exploded on the national media scene with the car vending machine stunt, which is what finally scored that big press.
But the only way the hook worked was that Carvana was able to show steady business growth — geographic and financial — that assured the media that it wasn’t a fly-by-night player.
So maybe a PR stunt won’t grab major mainstream media attention until a company is established, but what if your company has signs right from the get-go that it’s got legs, thanks to a high-profile principal or impressively large funding?
You might think that automatically makes your launch a surefire mainstream media darling, but that’s not necessarily true, either.
Take for example Duolingo, the popular language-learning site and app. The company’s founder, Luis von Ahn, was already a well-known tech innovator, having invented reCAPTCHA, so that certainly motivated media to take note… but not at the level that you might assume.
Its June 2012 launch received solid coverage in tech trades and enthusiast media: The Verge, PC World and The New York Times’ Bits column among those that gave it ink.
The company grew steadily after that, closing investment rounds, attracting users and debuting new products. Those building blocks of business success situated Duolingo to attract enviable mainstream business press attention later in its lifecycle.
In May 2013, about one year after launch — when the company could boast one million active users — Business Week finally profiled Duolingo. The story used Duolingo’s Android app launch as a hook and pointed out its usage numbers. Forbes followed suit that fall. By that time Duolingo had five million monthly active users.
When IKEA announced it acquired TaskRabbit in September, the news put the popular household-help marketplace into big-time headlines once again. But despite the recent enviable attention, the company’s battle to win major media coverage was hard fought — and slow.
TaskRabbit launched in 2008 as RunMyErrand, and for its whole first year earned virtually no press. It eked out a bit of coverage in 2009, mostly sparked by Facebook’s investment in it.
The tables turned a year later. In 2010, ABC News introduced its audience to TaskRabbit in a feature story, calling it a “new website.”
But as a two-year old company, it wasn’t exactly “new.” By that time, TaskRabbit had ironed out many of the initial kinks in its business model, moved its headquarters to San Francisco, and could boast of 300 “runners” who were available for hire through its marketplaces in San Francisco and Boston.
Similarly, Casper, the mattress company beloved by urban millennials, had a modest press debut. It introduced itself in February 2014, when it announced its seed funding before its product was available. That triggered a smattering of coverage in tech trades like TechCrunch and Venturebeat, which was a great start but hardly the stuff that catapults a company into the mainstream lexicon.
Big-time media coverage didn’t hit for another few months — certainly helped along by closing some big funding rounds with celebrity investors, which can be catnip for media. The company got a feature in the fall of 2014 in Fortune, after its $10M Series A closing, and its funding was part of the story set-up when it was profiled on CBS This Morning the following May.
These true stories are not intended to tamp down the enthusiasm of start-ups; in fact, it’s that very excitement that helps build stories that are well worth telling.
It makes perfect sense that founders want mainstream business media to share their enthusiasm and give them the coverage they desire from day one. They’ve worked hard to bring their plan to fruition, and their vision, unique journey, and potential industry disrupting position can make for great coverage.
The challenge is that mainstream business press doesn’t usually produce features on companies that have the possibility or potential to be hugely successful. It usually reserves that firepower for companies who can prove they already are, or at least well on their way.
Even the most promising company would be hard-pressed to deliver that proof on the first day it’s open for business… as illustrated by Carvana, Duolingo, TaskRabbit, Casper and many others.
Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage media when you launch. You should. It’s important to start building media relationships and setting the wheels in motion for coverage momentum. You get to introduce yourself, explain the rationale for your existence, the gap you believe you’re filling, and why you’re set up to succeed. That can start from day one.
It’s reasonable to expect some press coverage too, likely from trades or enthusiast media. If you have characteristics particularly enticing to media — a famous founder or principal involved, backing from individuals or organizations important in your industry, or some technical innovation that genuinely solves a problem that media care about — your coverage will likely be richer.
But although there are exceptions, it’s far more likely that your “dream” story — the one you think will springboard your business to the next level — will take time to develop. First you need a business model that has proven itself.
After all, media relations, much like business success, isn’t a race: it’s a journey. And the rewards along the way include getting the attention your company deserves when it’s ready to deliver on its brand promises.
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