Widely recognized as an Internet visionary, entrepreneur and investor Jay Adelson is known for his work founding and running companies including Equinix, SimpleGeo, Opsmatic, Revision3, the first internet television network, and Digg, a news aggregator and arguably the world’s first social media company. He has been named among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Most recently, Jay co-founded Center Electric, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on Internet infrastructure. In our latest “In the Know,” Jay joins Karbo Com CEO, Julie Karbo, in conversation about successful startup positioning, and shares his advice for building the game-changing press relationships that were crucial to his success.
Julie Karbo: You have a lot of experience working with PR teams; you’ve leveraged Karbo Com at several of the companies you’ve led. How can executives get the best from their PR agency?
Jay Adelson: Startups should think beyond just media coverage when working with a PR agency. The expectation should be the agency should function in a marketing communications and strategy capacity as well. And then it’ll be way more effective, because it’s all very tightly integrated.
Press coverage is part of the story, but startups should work with PR on the company’s positioning, how that positioning impacts products, and how to get the company’s message out to customers. For every launch over the course of my entire career, a PR firm was helping me in that early stage and it was totally mission critical to my success. Without you I wouldn’t be as successful as I am today.
For more mature businesses, it’s a different story—there’s so much to do in the media relations arena. You’re trying to secure ongoing coverage and you want to constantly be pitching new ideas to keep your company top of mind, not just for your consumers, but for other audiences as well. And of course, it’s key to have PR at your side when your company goes into crisis mode. I don’t care how good you are, you always have to have crisis management.
Whether you’re a startup or a more established business, I’ve found that it’s important to meet with your PR agency very regularly. At Digg, Revision3, and Equinix, my CMO would appoint someone in house to serve as the internal liaison responsible for communicating with our PR firm on a daily basis.
Let’s talk a bit more about how early-stage startups should utilize PR as they begin to position themselves.
I’ve never seen in a startup pitch where the positioning was right on the first day.
And what was the problem? Too much of a tech focus?
About 80% of the time, yes. There’s often this obsession with the tech risk they’ve overcome, and founders can become so narrowly focused on that victory that they forget that the point is to sell their product to as many people as possible.
Admittedly, communications is hard. I don’t think a lot of very qualified founders are good at communications. I certainly wasn’t. I had no idea how comms worked. I had to be taught by you, or I learned the hard way by failing at it. But really, as a founder, the second you start raising money you should start thinking about communications, engaging with a PR firm like Karbo Com.
I’m not talking about big marketing spends or event planning before the product is ready, were talking about positioning and start. During my early startup days before our product was ready for the market we would sit down and come up with what our product was going to be and how we wanted to position it. And that would shape product decisions—it was crucial.
As an investor, when I talk to a new entrepreneur who is pitching me, I want to see that they’re thinking about that. They don’t have to have all the answers, but they have to demonstrate that they are willing to go through that analysis. It is not as simple as “the product is awesome.“
I completely agree. And that kind of early positioning work plays a big role in a founder’s ability to lead effectively and to get their team excited.
That’s right, positioning doesn’t work if the founder doesn’t believe it. It has to connect to why they started the business; it has to come from a core place of meaning for that founder. And then it becomes easy to communicate. Because it’s true. You’re just saying what you believe.
And all you need to do then is to go through some degree of training to ensure that you’re using the right diction. I remember going through those PR training exercises with you. I couldn’t believe how fast my speaking shifted as a founder. I’d open my mouth and out would come a perfectly phrased sentence that someone on your team wrote. It was incredible. It really becomes part of your everyday lexicon.
I remember that process, yes! And good branding helps companies build closer relationships with customers too, of course.
I believe the point of much of branding and positioning work is to create something that has meaning to your audience. In the end, you have to understand who your audience is and what you need to do to make your product or service easy to understand. When they understand where you’re coming from that’s a bridge, and that opens a conversation.
One company that has been really successful at this is GoPro. Their branding was focused on doing cool extreme things, jumping off cliffs, flying in the air—it wasn’t just a camera. Their story creates a connection to the audience and customers. And that connection is two directional. It’s not you coming up with that branding and pushing an audience. It’s a two-way conversation with the community you’re building—that’s what makes for a successful branding exercise.
What advice do you have for founders who are looking to build a community around their brand?
When I’m advising a founder, I often say communities are adopted, not created. That might mean you have an influential person join your team, or that you join forces with someone who’s already plugged in to bigger, relevant communities. I would advise founders to leverage people who are already influencers in their communities, rather than putting resources towards building a community from scratch.
We’ve touched on relationships with customers and employees—let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about a founder’s relationship with reporters. How has your relationship with reporters evolved over the years?
My earliest relationships with reporters predate the explosion of the blogosphere and social media. The journalists I got to know back in 1999, I still know today and in many ways those relationships have remained the same. These traditional journalists had a high bar. They held a lot of power and were hugely revered. You would plant the seed and it would be months before an article was written, if at all. That was the relationship I was used to.
With the advent of blogging and social media, I’ve observed a shift. Many relationships are much more real-time, a lot more casual. Newer reporters or bloggers would just pick up the phone and call me, collect some little bit of data, and they would write a story about the smallest amount of news.
And now I think we’re seeing the pendulum swing back. The public discussion around fake news and the lack of trust in the media seems to be driving a real desire for vetted journalists. And so we’ll see. I’m hopeful.
What advice do you have for founders who haven’t established those relationships with journalists yet?
Well there’s no question that it’s worth establishing these relationships as soon as you can. And one way to do that is by establishing yourself as someone worth talking to about a topic that actually isn’t your business. You helped me start that process.
I met a number of journalists at events that they were covering, like TechCrunch Disrupt or launch events. If you can arrange to sit on a panel or ask a question or just approach them and talk to them then you’re off to a good start. Have a quick conversation and offer them a tidbit, or give them a sound bite because you know they love having something to quote, and then get out of there. Don’t talk their ear off.
And after a while they’ll get to know you. It’s sometimes better to maintain a casual relationship that doesn’t have to do with your business, where you can continue to be a subject matter expert for them and let the pitch for your business come from your PR firm. It makes for a much more comfortable relationship. You can talk offline and build trust.
I remember that at one point there was a story coming out about my business from a prominent journalist and it wasn’t a completely flattering story. But because we had slowly built a relationship over time, I was able to call her and she held the story. And that made all the difference.
And yes, the PR firm is mission critical here. Let’s look at it bluntly: a PR firm may have connections with journalists that they’ve had for decades. You’re the new guys on the block with no credibility whatsoever. And there’s a huge gap you can cover if you have a PR firm who’s gonna make that call.
There were times that you connected me with a reporter at Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal who would never have taken my call otherwise. That’s just reality, that’s how it is. Now, you don’t always need press, and you have to choose when that is important to you, but if it is important to you then PR support is absolutely critical to building those relationships.
Interested in building strategic relationships with the media and positioning your brand for success? Karbo Com can help.
Contact us today to learn more.