“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.” – Yogi Berra
If the first time potential investors hear about your company is when you are ready to raise capital, you are not ready to raise capital.
While you are busy building your prototype and choosing the best employees, advisors and business partners to be on your team, building awareness about your company belongs on your A-priorities list.
Prototype, players and PR—all three are critical to every successful Seed Stage game.
So if you are one of Ohio’s hundreds of bootstrapping entrepreneurs, working 15-plus hours a day without 10 minutes or $10 to spare, here are some ideas for carving out the time and resources to build and execute an effective business communications plan.
1. Change your mindset. Promoting your company via editorial coverage (“free media”), such as newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, websites or TV programs isn’t for later, it’s for now. This should be an important aspect of your business plan from day one. Read about how Updox CEO Michael Morgan handles his startup’s communications strategy.
2. Create the perfect elevator pitch. The “elevator pitch” is so named because it describes your company in the time it takes to ride between floors in an elevator. Writing one concise sentence to provide a quick understanding of your business is hard to do, but it’s a great way to get your feet wet. When you realize how challenging it is to nail down the right 20 words to describe your company, you will have some appreciation of why companies pay for PR and communications expertise.
3. Get some help. Your company’s image begins with the company name, logo and the words you put on your website. Your message begins with your vision and strategy for the company you are building. There may be entrepreneurs who are also excellent at messaging, branding and graphic design, but there aren’t many. Unless you are a design or branding pro, seek advice.
4. Bootstrap, bootstrap, bootstrap. Because branding and PR are so specialized, these services can carry hefty price tags, but not always. Investigate internship opportunities or part-time hires from Ohio’s many excellent college and university programs for marketing and design. Network to find freelancers. Another good place to start is regional marketing firms, such as those in TechColumbus’ Expert Network (EN), which may offer reduced rates for startup companies.
5. Create a communications plan. Invest in a few hours of a marketing consultant’s time to create a 24-month communications plan. Be realistic. Include specific goals, such as a monthly press release or a weekly blog, building a relationship with two or three key writers in your industry. You won’t have the time or experience to do as much as an expert recommends—or likely as much as you want to do—the key is to make a start.
Once you have a plan, step up your personal engagement in talking about your business.
1. Expand your elevator speech. Practice talking succinctly about the company’s key accomplishments. Include relevant data or factoids from the industry. Learn how to describe your technology at different levels for different audiences. Ask for feedback. Resist becoming mechanical or diving too deep.
2. Make it easy for reporters and bloggers to write about you and your company. Always, always, always promptly return their calls. Reporters work on tight deadlines, adapt your schedule to work with theirs. Have data and sources readily available.
3. Get customers to help tell your story. Ask customers to tell you what they like about doing business with you. Write up a few quotes from the conversation. Ask for permission to use the quotes in your communications plan. It’s surprising to us how often entrepreneurs are reluctant to try this—yet most happy customers are pleased to help out.
4. Become recognized in the industry as a go-to source for information. Participate in your industry’s trade association. Volunteer to speak at business school classes or at business organization events. You don’t have to talk specifically about your company—although that’s great if the opportunity comes. There are always lots of opportunities to talk about what it’s like to become an entrepreneur and start a company or to talk about technology or markets.
5. Metrics matter. Metrics tell you whether what you are saying is reaching the eyes and ears you want to reach with the message you intend to share. Start with measuring search engine, blog and website activity. Set some goals. After a few months, you’ll get a feel for what’s working and what’s not. Don’t be afraid to change things up and experiment.
You don’t have to hire a professional for everything. As founder and CEO in the early months you will carry a lot of the water yourself. I encourage you to contact the Venture Advisors at TechColumbus for advice and mentoring on how to get started.
As Yogi says, everybody is talking—some of that talk needs to be about your company.