For Startups: Make the Leap From Trade Press to Business Press

Young technology startups often have trouble making the leap from trade press to business press.

eWeek may feel like your best friend, but how do you also get into Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Wall Street Journal and Fast Company?

Here’s what it takes to send your company to the big leagues.

  1. Competitive analysis
  2. Forward-leaning differentiator
  3. The “why,” not just the “how”

One:  Competitive analysis — Your competitors are not adversaries. They’re your helpers in that they make your story better. Name them in your email pitch to a top-tier business reporter. The more names, the stronger the pitch.

Likewise, name peripherally related companies and industries, and name your partners and customers, too.

There are a lot of reasons for this:

     (a) A single company does not an industry make. Your company can’t be “the only one” that does what you do.

Even if you have no identical direct competitors, any alternative to your company’s offering counts as competition, even if it’s radically different or radically inferior.

The larger the swimming pool and the more swimmers in it, the more likely a reporter will pay attention to it. Sheer numbers help. The reporter’s only taskmaster is the audience, and if there’s an already-interested large audience for a topic, she/he is more likely to cover it.

(b)  Conflict is an essential ingredient of storytelling. If that makes you squirm, look at it this way: The World Series is interesting because teams are pitted against one another with something at stake.

If you assembled the world’s best batters and sold tickets to batting practice, you probably wouldn’t make much money. If you assembled the world’s best pitchers and watched them practice without batters, who would pay to watch?

A business story is a sports story, with league standings, batting averages, secret play books, charismatic coaches and star performers.

You can be a good sport. You don’t have to be mean and aggressive to compete. But remember that storytelling conflict is your friend.

(c) The pie slices need to change size.  Consider college-level cost-benefit analysis, which involves comparing “before” and “after” pictures with regard to a particular business decision or action. Whose pie slice will get smaller? Whose will get bigger? Whose will stay the same?

If your company’s actions are not disruptive in this sense, there’s no story.

For example, say Company A acquires Company B. How will companies D, E and F need to respond? If you have no effect on companies D, E and F, there’s no story.

Two:  Forward-leaning differentiator — In what way is your company’s secret sauce a sign of times to come? You can’t just have secret sauce; it has to be indicative of the future.

Typically, big-name companies invest in a small-time competitor’s great new idea, whether through acquisition, research, new hires or even a direct donation to the competitor. This sometimes ticks off the little guy, who fumes that the bigger company is getting credit for something it’s not even good at and was slow to appreciate in the first place. The little guy cries out, “But we’re better, we’re way ahead, we’re the real thing.” The little guy resents the big company’s fame and advertising budget.

But when big companies jump into a market that *your* client invented, that’s good.

Now you have data points for your business pitch. Now you have competitors’ names to include in your competitive analysis. You’ve influenced companies D, E and F, and they are now watching you.

Typically, the startup that invented the market really *is* way ahead, and that puts the startup’s CEO and CTO in the position of “authority on the subject,” which is exactly who reporters want to talk to.

Don’t talk solely about your company or technology; instead be the third-party interpreter of the emerging competitive analysis. Talk about where the market is headed, and talk in an analytical manner about factors that could accelerate or “de-celerate” progress. Paint a picture of the future. Explain *why* the market is headed there, what’s lost if it doesn’t get there, and who will make money once the future has arrived.

Inherently, this conversation will show off your company in an authentically positive light, and your participation will be essential to telling the story at all.

Three:  The “why,” not just the “how” — This is the technology startup’s biggest stumbling block in making the transition from trade press to business press.

Trade press write about “how it works.” That’s what they do. Technology startups enjoy telling that story and tell it well. Success is easy here.

But business press need more than the “how.”

Instead, go back to the second bullet here — “forward-leaning differentiator” — and become a third-party interpretor of shifts underway in the emerging market.

Say why it’s happening, why it matters and why now. Why didn’t it happen last year? Why not next year? What contextual, industry-wide details make this the moment?

Your ego may initially protest that your company should be the sole star. That used to happen a lot during the dot-com bubble, but in part because bubble-era coverage proved so embarrassing, that rarely happens now.

Let me put it this way:

Do you know who Sharlto Copley is? Do you know who George Clooney is?

Sharlto Copley was star of the 2009 sci-fi sleeper “District 9,” an awesome mock-documentary inspired by real events during South Africa’s apartheid era. Talk about an awesome performance. But guess what? Sharlto Copley wasn’t even nominated for best actor. George Clooney was.

Accept the fact that George Clooney’s presence in your awesome sleeper of a technology story is a powerful engine. Ride it, baby! His light becomes your light. It’s a way in.

And once you’re in, you’re in.


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Lauren Edwards is 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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