• February 27, 2017

Are Boston Startups Bad at PR? 4 Ways They Can Improve

Are Boston Startups Bad at PR? 4 Ways They Can Improve


This post was contributed to VentureApp by Kyle Austin, founder at Beantown Media Ventures. Kyle recently hosted one-on-one online Office Hours on VentureApp – if you missed it, chat directly with him now on VentureApp. For a full list of upcoming opportunities to chat 1:1 with experts, entrepreneurs, and investors, view the Office Hours schedule

Over the past few years, we’ve helped hundreds of startups grow with PR and digital marketing. As our practice has grown, we’ve branched out from our Boston roots and have worked with startups in leading hubs across the country and around the globe.

These startups have come in all shapes and sizes. From a billion dollar Chinese selfie unicorn to a bootstrapped, LA-based dog-dating app. As we’ve built a beachhead on the west coast and our scope of the nation’s startup ecosystem has expanded, one viewpoint has crystallized: Boston startups — in general — are bad at PR.


Let me explain. This doesn’t mean I think Boston startups are of a lesser ilk than those in popular startup locations like Silicon Valley; it’s actually the opposite. Of the hundreds of venture-backed and bootstrapped startups we’ve supported, Boston startups are typically the most sound businesses. Nearly all of them have clear monetization strategies and many of them are creating revenue right out of the gate (Door of Clubs is a great example).

I also don’t think Boston startups are bad at marketing. Boston is home to some of the best technology marketers in the country. The mobile marketing ecosystem here has created a long pipeline of analytically driven and mobile-friendly marketing executives. They understand how to positively influence product sales better than anyone on an A/B testing level.

However, where they and Boston startups as a whole often fall short is when it comes to selling a bigger story and vision. They don’t create consumer brands and air cover like startups in Silicon Valley, or even Silicon Beach (don’t call it that if you’re in LA).

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Some argue that this is because local marketers are solely focused on generating demand for their product through other channels instead of chasing national technology press. I’d argue that these two things are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. Together, they support your core business objectives better than one can on its own.

So what are the underlying reasons Boston startups are bad at PR, and, more importantly, how can they improve? Funny you asked.

  1. The Value Proposition Pitch is Boring to Media

Deeper than what I mentioned above, I think there also tends to be an intrinsic practicality to Boston companies that is often seen as less sexy in the eyes of the media. As Rob Go has mentioned in the past, many startups in Boston attack marketing in a ‘main street’ way, talking to everyday consumers about their problems and value proposition.

Unfortunately, that problem and value proposition formula doesn’t work with the press. Reporters aren’t often driven to report on the simple story of Company A helping Company B. However, there are ways you can punch above your weight in the media with customer use cases, or even an app launch (“ugh, all we need is another app,” says every journalist). You just need to combine some outside the box thinking on your storytelling with the internal data at your fingertips. Together they can create narratives that take on a life of their own.

Last year, we saw this happen when we engineered a data story for one of our clients, Bark’N’Borrow, a player in the pettech space. With Valentine’s day around the corner, we had an idea to leverage Bark’N’Borrow’s unique mission of connecting dog lovers with dogs and find a way to fit into the flurry of widely shared Valentine’s related stories.

While there wasn’t a natural peg staring us in the face, with a little bit of creativity – and an eye towards how online dating companies have used data for content in the past –  we were able to make Bark’NBorrow’s numbers work in a new way for the company. With ten’s of thousands of users across the countries, the company has loads of data on which dogs in certain cities are “borrowed” the most. We used this data to identify America’s Most Eligible Dogs for a Valentine’s Dog Date, which resulted in some great coverage, including pieces in Boston.com, TeenVogue and Vice.

The key to the story was the ability to tie the data to the peg of Valentine’s Day, thus transforming a story that would have otherwise had zero news value, into something that prompted reporters to create their own unique stories to share with readers.

  1. Boston Startups are Good at Sales & Good PR Is Not Transactional

Funny enough, PR is more enterprise sales than consumer sales in terms of the sales cycle. The fruits of the labor often pay off further down the road. With so many enterprise focused businesses locally, Boston startups should understand the long-term approach, no? Well, not really.

Unfortunately, many Boston startups believe PR is transactional: “We [startup] have an announcement that we are selling you [reporter] to cover.” However, there’s a stark contrast between a sales pitch and a news pitch.

When you are selling something it’s all about what YOUR product will do for them. What YOU do, the problem YOU are solving for them.

When you pitch a journalist, it’s all about their AUDIENCE. A journalist’s job is to sift through the clutter and pick out the “news” that their AUDIENCE needs to hear about and will engage with.

Think they’ll write about you just because you’re the new kid on the block? Think again. And remember: “My company is launching” isn’t a hook. Attempting to pitch your story that way is a waste of time.

This core problem led us to create a simple formula for getting your pitch read. I’d recommend giving it a read before you do any outreach to any reporters for your startup.

  1. They Yell for the Patriots or Red Sox But Not Themselves

We don’t need another Patriots Super Bowl championship and rolling rally on duck boats to remind ourselves that Boston loves cheering for our favorite teams.

However, when it comes to promoting our own companies, we’re not cheering loud enough. In addition, to being reluctant to put the megaphone to their mouths, Boston entrepreneurs also suffer from NISVM (Not Invented in Silicon Valley Mentality) when getting national technology reporter’s ears.

But they’re not alone. Those in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, and many other markets deal with this. However, Boston also happens to be the furthest away geographically from the mecca of startups and the technology media that’s entrenched themselves there. This can pose a challenge in getting in front of the right media to cover your company on a national level.

For instance, I did some rudimentary research on Silicon Valley’s media outlet of record — TechCrunch. Over the past year, here’s how many articles TechCrunch published with the following keywords in them.

  • New York City and Startup — 8,383 articles
  • San Francisco and Startup — 5,534 articles
  • Los Angeles and Startup — 5,233 articles
  • Seattle and Startup — 5,175 articles
  • Boston and Startup — 5,159 articles
  • Chicago and Startup — 5,158 articles

While there is nothing worse than hearing a startup founder saying “Get me in TechCrunch,” I do think the results above illustrate that Boston startups often struggle to break into the Silicon Valley echochamber. That can be a major problem because Silicon Valley sets the narrative for the technology industry as a whole. Dig a bit further and compare the above list with the venture funding that went into each of these markets last year.

  • San Francisco / SV — $25B
  • New York City — $6.8B
  • LA — $4.2B
  • Boston — $1.8B
  • Chicago — $1.7B
  • Seattle — $1.5B (statewide data)

As they say, good reporters follow the money and the story totals are pretty in-line with the amount of investment going into each of these markets. Although it is a bit curious that NYC and Seattle startups get a disproportionate amount of stories given their funding totals.

Without as many national reporters in the backyard for startups based in LA, Boston, Chicago and Seattle — having a strong local media contingent covering and amplifying startup stories to a national audience can certainly play a role in generating awareness. Seattle may have a slight leg-up in this category. With Amazon and Microsoft in the backyard, they often draw national reporters to the city. Furthermore, Geekwire is the well established standard for city-specific, technology coverage with its reporting from Seattle. Boston’s technology media landscape may be close to Seattle’s, but the future may be a bit less optimistic.

The Boston Globe re-positioned BetaBoston in March of last year, which effectively shuttered the online portal for technology and startup coverage. Technology coverage certainly appears less frequently in the Globe and on Boston.com since the move, although we still get a weekly column from Scott Kirsner.

BostInno has also lost a bit of its luster with its fresh takes on the startup ecosystem in Boston. High profile exits from experienced technology writers such as Kyle Alspach and Galen Moore don’t help. Outside of those two outlets, Xconomy, the Boston Business Journal, and MIT Tech Review offer coverage on local happenings. They’ve also been joined in the last year by Built in Boston, which drives its local job board alongside local startup coverage — as it also does in LA, Austin, Colorado, NYC, and Chicago. Finally, VentureFizz has a solid take on various startup cultures with profiles on the movers and shakers in our community. As a whole, I’d rank local technology and startup coverage ahead of Los Angeles, on par to slightly ahead of Chicago (Chicago is gaining with Blue Sky & ChicagoInno), and falling behind Seattle.

Outside of the local media issue, some of the lack of attention for startups in Boston simply stems from Boston startup founders not wanting to really talk about themselves and/or a lack of understanding of how to do it in a way that will be well received by the technology industry’s top reporters. The problem with that is if you don’t talk, everyone else gets to define who you are. As Jeff Bezos says, “your brand is what other people say about you when you leave the room.” If you don’t try to influence that at all, your brand will simply be what others say.

When trying to get heard nationally, early stage startups can often fall into the trap of feeling like they don’t have enough ammunition (funding news, partnerships, big customers, etc.). That’s why startup PR isn’t scaleable without content marketing or tying yourself to a thought leadership platform that is bigger than your product itself. Getting your first round of funding covered isn’t all that hard (well maybe if you’re trying to get it picked up by TechCrunch). However, after that initial burst of stories, startups are often left with crickets. You only have so many things to announce as a startup after all. This is where content comes in.

When the initial buzz dies down, and there aren’t significant features or newsworthy developments to announce, content can carry the PR torch. Use your access to user data and your unique point of view on key industry trends to tell compelling stories that are newsworthy in their own right. Keep the buzz buzzing. The key is learning how to become the storyteller, rather than the audience. If you’ve ever raised money from investors, chances are you’ve already done this. You just need to create content that falls within one of these categories: helpful, unique, or relevant.

  1. Because Many of Them take Money from Mark Cuban

I kid, I kid. Of course, it has been widely publicized in the past that Mark Cuban doesn’t believe startups should hire a PR firm and he’s also an investor locally in Boston startups such as Catalant, Rugged Races, Unshrinkit and Apptopia.

That doesn’t mean these startups necessarily follow his advice around PR, but perhaps it could have tainted our local view of how PR can help a startup? If so, it’s a shame because there are numerous ways in which PR can drive growth for cash strapped, early-stage startups.

After all, there is a reason that folks like Bill Gates have said, “If I only had $2 left, I’d spend $1 on PR.”

PR has proven itself to be one of the most effective ways to get heard in this incredibly noisy startup word. But it’s way more than that. Even leading VC’s like Mark Suster agree that PR can help improve recruiting, attract partnerships on the business development front and even boost staff morale. As Suster has noted: “Once your firm (startup) is ready for marketing, I personally can’t think of any marketing budget that is more effective than PR.”

In addition, from a marketing standpoint, PR can be the best forcing mechanism to make sure a startup and their key constituents (founders, investors, board members) share the correct narrative. A startup’s narrative can be much more important than simply securing articles. It sets the overarching messaging for the company moving forward and the stage for how a startup will be covered through its somewhat forced lifecycle by the media.

So there you have it – a few ways to improve your startup’s PR, whether Mark Cuban is your investor or not. That doesn’t mean you need to publish a 6,000-word Zuckerberg-style thought leadership manifesto tomorrow. Good PR is built page-by-page, or perhaps today, click-by-click. People (and especially journalists) want to discover great stories over time. Why can’t the story be yours?

If you want to chat with the author of this article about startup PR, chat with him on VentureApp