Before Microsoft was even incorporated, Bill Gates famously asserted that if he was down to his last dollar, he would
immediately spend it on PR. The (then) startup maverick Gates was, and remains, a rarity: an entrepreneur who fully appreciated the importance of
communications in a company's early going.
Strategic communications and media are often overlooked by fledgling organizations. That’s a result of many concerns for startups: time, money and staff are in short supply, and PR’s payoffs aren't always immediate. Returns are hard to quantify. Sometimes it’s as basic as the
fact that PR is not a priority.
That’s understandable and communications professionals should bear some of the blame, too. Outside PR counsel is too expensive for many
startups. It's too easily relegated to the “nice to have” rather than the “must have.” It's always something to think about when the company is stronger. External PR counsel has done a terrible job of appreciating the long-term potential of investing their time and expertise in startups that matter.
That view is also shortsighted. As competition for money and attention increases, audiences grow ever more fragmented, hindering startup success.
This new reality for startups means that communications must be part of the broader strategy. For some startups—high tech messaging apps such as WhatsApp
and innovative point-of-sale systems such as Square—communications is the strategy. It becomes the competitive advantage, the scalable product and the platform
for growth. Even for startup “ghosts,” having the right message and telling the right story is critical for success.
As venture capital firms continue to expand the amount of startup capital available—$6.1 billion last quarter alone—there is ever
more competition for those funds. The “market of ideas” in many spaces is already getting saturated. By mid-2015, they will become flooded.
Yet for startups and the communications profession, nothing is changing even as the markets continue to morph into something entirely different—more money,
more competition. Little is being done to elevate many startups' apparent differentiating factors to the public and investors. These questions are only vaguely
touched on in roundtable meetings. Why does one choose Uber while another chooses Lyft? Groupon over Living Social? Tinder over Hinge?
Birchbox over Bespoke Post? These are personal questions with deeply personal answers that communications can’t quantify, but it can shape the decision.
PR firms may not design the greatest mobile applications, build the best websites or run the technology behind the best products. That is and
should be squarely on the startups and their teams. What PR can and should be doing is helping those startup visionaries articulate their ideas and tell
their stories. That’s not just a question of marketing. It’s a question of vision and intellectual
rigor. Any company with any product— particularly those just starting out—should be able to articulate cleanly and compellingly why their product is
different, needed, and innovative.
[RELATED: 7 communications habits that set the bar for everyone, regardless of title or tenure.]
Mobile payment powerhouse Square is among the most notable examples of massive PR successes, having entered a crowded (and old) market and making a
lasting mark. Its success lies not only in the company's incredible app and product, but also in its PR push. Square's product has been
adopted by organic farmer’s markets, independent coffee shops and Apple. The Democratic and Republican parties alike have started using it as a convenient way to accept
donations at campaign rallies.
Despite all this, and despite the strong case for outside communications counsel, many in the industry remain skeptical and assert that startups shouldn’t
hire a PR firm. All startups have a similar strategy: Perfect a product, prepare to scale and get more funding. Outside communications help is necessary to
find supportive communities that will help the company grow and become noticed. The best PR is unbiased and unafraid to ask the tough questions. It
explains what your company can or can’t do with subjectively and honesty, reaching top-tier industry contacts in the most influential publications and organizations around.
It’s estimated that about 75 percent of startup companies will fail. Companies must play every angle to propel them to the top. As
that market becomes even more competitive, this will ring even truer. The question that companies are always asking but can rarely illustrate is how they
are different than the competition to ensure that investors and the public are reading about their company, dismissing the
competition, downloading their app, and using their product or service.
As I mentioned, Bill Gates famously asserted that he would spend his last dollar on PR. For startups and companies looking to become the next Microsoft, that might just be
the best advice.
Alex Slater is founder of Clyde Group and a public relations professional in Washington, D.C.