There’s a concept in network theory called preferential attachment. When one “node”– a person, a company – gets ahead, more people want to connect to it. So it gets even bigger and more connected. It becomes a lodestone, a magnet.
PR for your company can work the same way. Once you start getting attention, the more attention accrues to you. The more you get, the easier it is to bond talent, investors, customers, partners, and journalists to your company – your “network.” Which in turn brings even more attention.
If you haven’t experienced this yet, it sounds too good to be true. But if you have, you know there’s a learnable playbook behind it.
There’s a real set of answers to the question: How can my startup build this attention flywheel from the ground up?
For the benefit of all early-stage Founders in our network, I dug into this with my friend Vijay Chattha, founder of public relations firm VSC. Vijay has worked with many NFX unicorn companies including Mammoth Biosciences, Poshmark, and Outdoorsy, to build attention and momentum from their earliest days.
Here are key insights taken from our NFX podcast conversation, covering topics such as: finding your unique story, hacking preferential attachment, why funding announcements actually work, thinking beyond funding announcements, and more.
Let’s jump in.
This essay was constructed from the NFX Podcast Episode: Building Your Startup’s Attention Flywheel.
VSC doesn’t take on a lot of clients. Like NFX, they are highly selective and work with the top 1% of Founders and their companies. Here’s how VSC chooses who to take on, and what elements you need to have (or hack) to establish the ingredients for a strong story.
They use a framework to evaluate companies. It’s called PPP&C: People, Product, Pedigree, Capital.
1. People: Are we going to enjoy working with these people? Pretty straightforward.
2. Product: Does the product give me goosebumps? Would I tell someone else about this company anyway, even if I wasn’t getting paid to do it?
3. Pedigree: Journalists care about who they are reporting about. What’s something interesting about you that we can get attention around, based on an experience you’ve had. Pedigree examples:
4. Capital: Are you a venture-backed company? We only choose companies who we think have the resources to push this thing all the way through. We want to tell journalists about a company that will still be around next year. While we do focus early, we’re very picky about those types of companies. We have to think there’s going to be an ability to have an extended storytelling runway.
The first thing we at VSC always ask our Founders is: What are your goals? I want to know your goals for the next 6 months and the next 12 months.
Usually they’ll tell me: we need to get out the door. We’re launching. Or they’ll say they want to get a couple stories a month. That’s not a goal, that is a tactic. What is the goal?
Then they get more clear. The goal is that we need to start getting customers. We need our first 10, 50, 200, 100 customers. Okay, good. That’s a goal.
Or they need to be in the market for raising money, they’re looking at their next round. Great, that’s a goal.
At seed stage, you only want one or two goals. Get really clear on what they are before you start trying to get attention, because it will determine who you want what kind of attention from.
Pitching a journalist is like pitching an investor or making a sale. You have to research and know your audience, understand their career goals, and determine how you fit in with them.
Advice for finding journalist-story fit:
Positioning has been a popular buzzword since Al Ries’s great book Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, but it can have a huge impact on tangible metrics like your valuation, or what kind of funding you’re able to attract.
When we say positioning and strategy, we really just mean the words you use to describe yourself and the overarching plan.
There’s a lot of hand-waving at business school about strategy and positioning. Most people overcomplicate this. Simplify.
Instead think of it as: What three words would you pick to describe yourself? Just pick the words.
But be specific. PR words are different from marketing words and different yet again from the words you use when talking to an investor or a potential hire. Customize your words to your audience. Founders focus too much on fundraising speak and put that out to journalists and customers. It falls flat. If you want to get that deal closed it’s about what they want (journalists and customers).
Also, realize that words actually translate to value. For example, if the company is an ‘X for therapy’ then it’s going to have that kind of valuation. But if it’s an ‘X for diagnostics’ then it has this other kind of valuation. Once you know which you want to be, then you know to focus on this one, not that one. The public market comps are very different – which example and valuation do you want to attach to?
Not every Founder likes to be compared to another company. Often we want companies to be category-defining. But there are some situations where this shorthand can be a useful positioning tool.
One that VSC did recently was for Outdoorsy. (An NFX portfolio company). We said, here’s the “Airbnb for RVs.” Simple. Everybody gets it.
There are founders who would’ve fought back about that. YouTube is not the Google of video, and that’s fair. It works when you know that the analogy you’re making is between yourself, and a company that would never be in your business anyway.
One small thing that really works: Write your own launch that you want to appear in Forbes or Wall Street Journal or TechCrunch or wherever. Eight or nine months before you need it. It’s a really focusing exercise for how you’ll actually run your business.
It’s not doing PR. It’s laying out how third parties are going to see you in relation to your competitors, how much you raised, and what your mission and your positioning is. All that can come out in that launch article, and if you write it before you’re ready, it will actually drive the business in a much better way.
This is similar to what Jeff Bezos was doing at Amazon. When division leads would come to him with a new idea, he’d ask them to write the press article about the idea. During the writing process, they would sometimes realize the idea wasn’t that interesting. If it didn’t crystallize a good idea, it actually shut down a lot of bad ones.
By writing this way, you’re training yourself as a Founder to be driven and directed toward the goal, the mission, the outcome.
More positioning exercises for early-stage Founders:
There’s a concept in network theory called Preferential Attachment: any node that gets ahead gets further ahead because people preferentially attach to that node. “In most real networks new nodes prefer to link to the more connected nodes.”
It’s like a snowball effect.
The traditional media landscape is shifting. Instead of thinking about the media as a monolith, think about influence. Influence was static until the internet came along, but now the number of people with meaningful influence has gone way up. Think about who represents big nodes in your network.
Here are some ideas for getting your flywheel going:
Most startups aim to get their first media coverage around their funding announcement. Why is that? It can feel kind of cookie cutter, and we want that to change, but it’s worth understanding why these funding announcements matter.
When money changes hands, people have to write about it. It’s like a transaction. So these announcements are almost like your entry in a public ledger, something that journalists can use to convince their editors that something really happened here, that something moved from point A to point B.
And for this purpose it’s (surprisingly) more important than revenue. If you go out and say “Hey, by the way, I wanna do a story about hitting $100M in revenue,” you will not get covered. But if you say “Hey I wanna do a story about raising $15M in funding,” you’ve got a story. It’s hilarious. It feels backwards.
But this is because the funding story is not just about customer money coming in, it’s that these venture capital organizations or corporations put significant money in. It’s a transaction matched with social status around validation.
Even a massive amount of revenue doesn’t confer as much validation in public as somebody who’s supposedly really smart investing their money into you. Also, revenue is hard to verify. If revenue is generated in an early stage, private company, no one’s opening up their books to the journalist to show them the money coming in. So it’s not a verifiable thing. People can just make stuff up and the journalists are like, look, I don’t believe your revenue run rate or your growth rate. Who cares if you grew 400% this year. It could have been from $2,000 last year.
So that’s the logic for why the funding announcement gets an undo amount of attention. It’s an instantly verifiable thing about your company at a transaction scale and status that gets attention.
Many Founders find it hard to get coverage beyond basic funding announcements. VSC cracks this problem open with their I-T-D method: Innovation, Thought Leadership & Data.
Innovation: There’s a software versus hardware problem. It’s too easy to make a software product these days, and journalists are like: Why am I writing about these things? You probably just did this in a weekend.
To get ongoing coverage, there has to be a really dramatic step up or true innovation in what your software enables. Maybe in 1 of every 10 situations, you’ll see a story about a software company that’s doing something dramatically interesting. So dig deep for what your dramatic innovation is.
Thought Leadership: There are 4 things for early stage Founders to know about thought leadership
1. Do you have ideas that the consensus disagrees with? Do you have an insight that nobody’s talking about, that really matters? Great.
One way to do good thought leadership is think about things that truly people are curious about. And if it makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable to write it, then it’s a good idea. But if it feels like selling to somebody, you probably have to think twice.
2. The bar is going to be so much higher now for content and thought leadership because of ChatGPT. There’s going to be tons of mediocre shit out there.
It will be the truly creative, interesting stuff that breaks through. But that’s good. When you really want to create havoc and disruption, it’s going to have to come from the core of your heart, not from an AI or a third party consultant.
3. Another useful thing about thought leadership is that it’s objection handling. This is a big one. For example, a seed stage Founder comes to me after we do the funding announcement or something and says: Hey, we’re launched, thank you for getting attention, great. But when we’re talking to so-and-so big client, they still don’t believe X, Y, Z about us, or they still think one way and we think it’s another way. This is a great situation when objection handling has to be solved – thought leadership could be the way to do it.
You could write about the 3 reasons why something is actually this way and not that other way. You can visualize why something is changing and dismantle objections one by one. Then we’ll take those posts or essays and put them on LinkedIn, and run them as an ad just to those customers, so we can see if we can actually start shifting their perception in some way.
4. Generally I think Founders can become better than they were at thought leadership, even if they weren’t born with it. If they’re a zero, they can get to a five. If they’re a five, they can get to an eight. And then there are the natural, raw tens, but there aren’t many of those. The point is there are tools and techniques to get you lift, and developing your thought leadership is worth it.
Data: Companies are starting to collect a ton of data. I mean a massive amount. And journalists love data. We think this can be a big key to sustainable PR.
It might be harder at seed when you don’t have a ton of data yet, but you should think this way and as you grow your data, mine it for stories.
Could Outdoorsy tell us about RV trends in America? Does that tell us anything about new travel trends, or time-off trends, or remote-work trends?
Think about the data you can capture and ask questions of it. Can you become a data PR machine for a new industry?
There isn’t a hard rule about when and when not to hire a firm. But here are some rough guidelines:
Listen to the rest of this conversation on the NFX Podcast.
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