Best pitch approach for tiny startup — 2/24/19 WSJ example

By Lauren Edwards

Unknown startups often fail to get top-tier coverage (NYT, WSJ, etc.) because they don’t affect enough people. Microsoft and Apple, by contrast, affect all of us — in other words, a huge number of people. That’s what’s meant by the news element “impact” — the number of people affected by the news.

The point here is sheer numbers, not whether there is an impact or the magnitude of the impact. Reporters often aim to write for the largest possible number of readers. So when they’re choosing which stories to spend their valuable time on, this is a factor.

Other news elements usually missing for startups are “names,” numbers” and “change.” But rather than get into explaining all that, instead I’ll tell you a way to get around the problem.

Below is an example from the Wall Street Journal. A little-known startup, UbiquitiLink, got profiled on Page B-5 of the print edition, just underneath a story about Microsoft (“impact”) and just above a story about a video game that drew 125 million players (“impact”) in under a year.

I’ll dissect this story for you and show you how to use it as a template for your own top-tier pitch. But first, an explanation:

If you’ve worked with me in the past, you may know that I call this “the poster child” approach: Figure out what your startup is the “poster child” for within a larger industrywide context.

Every industry is in flux and striving to overcome shared obstacles. The key here is to depict the flux and the obstacles, and then describe the approach your startup takes, emphasizing differences from what others are doing.

The industry-wide context is what sells the pitch, not the company’s story. But the company’s story gets to come along for the ride. By making your startup relevant to huge numbers of people wanting to overcome a shared industry problem, you’ve created “impact,” as defined above.

I repeat: The context is what sells this, not your startup and its offering.

Now for the WSJ story, with my commentary indented in blue:

Space Startup Aims to Connect Satellites Directly With Cellphones

Transmissions could provide routine cellular coverage for remote and sparsely inhabited areas

A tiny space startup is striving to demonstrate the feasibility of transmitting data—and eventually perhaps voice messages—directly from small satellites in orbit to regular cellphones on the ground.
Above, notice the company name does not yet appear in the story. You can do the same in your pitch, even though you are representing the company.
The focus is what’s being overcome — the shared industry obstacle. Notice the shared industry obstacle is the lead, meaning it’s an important hook. It belongs up high in your pitch as well.

The goal has enticed but eluded scientists and engineers for decades. If successful, such connections could help provide easy, low-cost access to the internet for developing and remote regions.

Above, notice the attention on what cannot be done. This is a gap, not a capacity or mission. In PR, people tend to write about what *is* but it’s best to show what *isn’t*.

The empty space, so to speak, of “what isn’t” demonstrates a need in society, and this emphasis on need is what indirectly lifts up your startup’s offering. The gap is the important thing here.

Various companies already market or plan to offer broadband-via-satellite services to precisely such areas. But those ventures typically require users to rely on antennas, ground stations or other types of additional terrestrial equipment that add costs and often increase complexity.

Now we’re coming to the “poster child” part. The paragraph above describes what most companies are doing now. It delineates, categorizes or names those efforts — in this case, antenna, ground-station or other terrestrial equipment.

This is an important setup that contrasts what will come next, which is the tiny startup with a different approach — no ground equipment.

At a conference in Barcelona on Sunday, Charles Miller, a former Trump administration space adviser and chief executive of Virginia-based UbiquitiLink Inc., is scheduled to unveil preliminary test results connecting signals from a roughly 16–pound prototype “orbital cell tower” to a cellular device in New Zealand and later in the Falkland Islands.

Finally, the startup is named but only after giving emphasis to the shared industry obstacle/gap/need and the standard approaches to the challenge. UbiquitiLink is now a “poster child” for the different approach.

The approach, not UbiquitiLink, interests the reporter. But UbiquitiLink’s name gets to come along for the ride.

Tests conducted in other parts of the globe failed because of hardware malfunctions in space or signal interference from existing users, Mr. Miller said in an interview Saturday. But in his Sunday presentation, Mr. Miller is expected to reveal that in some cases, his miniature space transmitter managed to successfully link up with an unmodified cellphone—identical to those consumers currently use.

This is the classic definition of news: “a break in the flow of normal events, an interruption in the expected.” 

“We succeeded in demonstrating the fundamental, core technology,” Mr. Miller said in the interview, adding that previous proof-of-concept efforts by others all required “some software or hardware change to the (cellular) device in order to connect.”

Notice again the differentiation: No software or hardware change was required, unlike in the other approaches. (And as above: no antenna, ground stations or other terrestrial equipment.)

Again, it’s calling out what *isn’t*, not only what *is*.

The latest technology uses existing cellular frequencies and internal phone software to essentially fool the devices into processing signals as though they were coming from a ground-based tower, instead of more than 250 miles above the earth. The experiments were supported by assistance from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and test agreements with various telecommunication companies.

The technical “how” comes low in the story. This is the usual place.  The “how it works” should always come only after the “why it matters.”  

In a press release, it should also be lower on the page/screen. In a pitch, you’d probably skip it altogether, saving it for the interview or at least saving it for a request for more details.

I’ll stop commenting on the WSJ story here.

Your pitch, if this had been your client, could look something like this:

A space startup is about to reveal preliminary and partial results of a successful effort to do something that has eluded scientists and engineers for decades — transmit data directly from satellites to cell phones, without antennas or ground stations.

Can we interest you in an early briefing on Saturday, Feb. 23? That’s a day before the results will be announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. 

Notice that in this pitch, it’s not even important to name the startup. It doesn’t matter. The reporter will be hooked and the story cannot be told without interviewing and profiling the startup’s spokespeople.

I mean, it’s OK to name the company (and you probably should, ideally near the bottom), but the company itself is not the important part, at least not to a top-tier reporter covering an industry-wide story that could affect billions.

This startup is now a poster child for a distinctive approach to an industrywide challenge. The approach and challenge are the story. The company is merely a source of information.

Now, sure, this was an extra cool announcement. Many startups won’t have totally amazing news to share.

But the structure of this WSJ story is very telling. It shows you what elements to emphasize when you communicate with a top-tier reporter.

OK, now let’s assume the company didn’t have those preliminary results to share. It’s still best to start with the problem. There are many options, but one variation could be something like this:

The billions of people worldwide affected by dead zones — places where mobile phones don’t work —  won’t have to wait solely for big companies to keep building more antennas and ground stations. Help is coming from the satellite industry, now making smaller satellites for lower orbits.

One startup in particular is doing what has eluded scientists and engineers for decades — sending signals from satellites in space directly to the phones in our hands, without need for hardware or software changes. [Famous Company A], [Famous Company B] and other industry giants have made similar attempts, but all so far have required some form of terrestrial adjustment. 

Few have heard of [Tiny Startup], but that’s about to change.

Can we give you a briefing?

Your readers can be among the first to know. Two-thirds of Earth’s geography stands to benefit.

Either way, both of the above are better than the usual approach. Imagine if the pitch had looked like this:

Fictional bad version: [Tiny Startup], the leading provider of shared mobile-phone roaming technology, is committed to seamlessly connecting mobile phones to satellites 500 kilometers overhead without interruption of mobile phone protocol, enhancing coverage services and reducing costs for mobile network operators. Its patented technology for the first time enables phone signals to shift seamlessly between cell towers and satellites, providing ubiquitous coverage to MNO subscribers. If you agree to a Feb. 24 embargo, we can provide you with a preview of an announcement to be made at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

That would have been the cut-and-paste version based on a marketing brief. It emphasizes features and benefits, not the overcoming of an industrywide challenge.

The rest of the WSJ story is below.

If future tests bear out the preliminary and partial results, UbiquitiLink seeks to start deploying satellites weighing some 50 pounds each by 2020 or 2021. Initial applications could include tracking vehicles, providing access to emergency services or offering individual phone users limited internet connectivity—possibly just a few minutes daily when part of a limited satellite constellation passes overhead.

The prototype hardware, attached to a NASA unmanned cargo capsule returning from the international space station, was tested earlier this month. The next round of tests may occur during the summer, Mr. Miller said.

At this point Mr. Miller’s fledgling venture has no signed agreements with customers or firm production plans for spacecraft. UbiquitiLink still needs to raise some $30 million to begin offering commercial services, according to its chief executive. And under the best-case scenario, it is years away from being able to offer routine broadband connections across a number of regions.

Still, the venture has signed testing and cooperation agreements with more than a dozen telecommunication companies around the globe. Many of those participants are looking to supplement existing cell-tower coverage. Mr. Miller said his company also has attracted attention and discussed collaborating with some Silicon Valley companies.

“We are really excited and want to push these innovative solutions along,” said Easwaren Siva, general manager of technology strategy for Vodafone Hutchison Australia, one of the test partners. “This would be transformational for rural and remote Australia,” he said, where traditional terrestrial solutions are too costly.

Adrian DiMeo, a senior technology official at Telefónica Argentina, said his company has cellular coverage for roughly 96% of the country’s population, but the rest live in remote areas where installing traditional ground infrastructure isn’t viable. Even if UbiquitiLink or another space-based venture “provides only partial or limited coverage,” he said, “there are still lots of good opportunities for applications” to supplement existing services.

The technical concept has support from some prominent space industry officials. “

“It’s a very interesting idea,” said Mark Dankberg, chairman and CEO of satellite-operator Viasat Inc., which is pursuing a different strategy based on larger, high-altitude satellites to provide broadband connections to rural populations.

On Wednesday, Viasat and Facebook Inc. announced they are joining forces to accelerate deployment of thousands of Wi-Fi “hot spots” in parts of Mexico with limited or no cellular services. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

But unlike Mr. Miller’s vision, Viasat plans to set up community connections at stores, cafes or other businesses, where residents can use a prepaid card to get on the internet for a limited period.

UbiquitiLink also has received help from regulators, mostly through authorizations to test on certain terrestrial frequencies, according to Mansoor Hanif, chief technology officer for the U.K.’s telecom regulator. He said the company’s partial success is likely to fuel support for the concept. “I would say there is a lot of interest in this,” Mr. Hanif said in an interview, with mobile operators in many regions assessing various options to supplement ground-based coverage that is spotty or unavailable.


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Lauren Edwardsis a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.

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