ITL #439 Public relations from startup to unicorn: evolving communications for high-growth ventures2 years ago
How PR can help rapidly growing tech startups meet ambitious goals. By Ashford Pritchard.
In July, our client Go1 announced one of the largest ever funding rounds for an Australian startup, making the business a “unicorn” (a startup valued at over US$1 billion). It was an incredible milestone, making Go1 one of several startups Down Under to join the Billion Dollar Club in 2021.
Australia boasts at least 20 privately held unicorns who together have raised more than AU$1.6 billion from investors since April this year. Most of these businesses have been founded in the past five to 10 years, and nearly all are led by one of their original founders.
Public relations and communications plays a pivotal role in the development of these high-growth ventures. In the early stages, it helps to establish the brand and is a key tool for founders to engage with the stakeholders they’ll need to grow their startups. After all, you can’t build a business from a handful of people to hundreds of employees in a matter of years without engaged investors, customers, and talent.
While the communications requirements of every organisation are ever evolving, the cycle of needs is particularly accelerated in high-growth businesses, as are the competencies that founders can call upon to help manage this growth.
There are some commonalities that founders, and those working with startup clients, should keep in mind.
- Know who you’re working with
While it might seem elementary, it’s always worth understanding who you are taking on as a client and who you are employing to amplify your business activities. Online searches are not enough when it comes to getting to know each other; founders may not have much of digital footprint if it’s their first big venture and agencies make it a point to keep their work confidential.
At Kicker, we dub our measurement of compatibility with a potential client the “beer benchmark.” We ask ourselves, “Is this someone that we could have beer with?” – metaphorically speaking. We want to make sure that we are always a good fit for our client and vice versa. If we’re not, we’re happy to recommend a better fit. Ultimately, it will be the best decision for the growth of the startup and your team.
- Selecting the best time to launch is crucial
There’s a natural evolution that most technology startups go through in terms of finding the right product-market fit and getting traction with customers. At the end of the day, sales are going to be the most important metric – and this is key when deciding when to start pitching stories. If you don’t have a growing list of customers, you’re probably not ready to engage with media.
PR is a great amplifier, but PR alone cannot grow a unicorn. Making sure that the brand position and unique selling proposition (USP) are at least road-tested before proactive media outreach is essential.
- You need the right resources to make PR sing
In the early days, it’s likely the founder will directly deal with PR – either doing it themselves or enlisting agency support. This is when the true magic of PR can happen, and a technology company with 10 people can often find their brand sitting alongside Fortune 500 names in mainstream media.
As the business grows there will be a need to fill the all-crucial communications role internally. Often a marketing person is engaged but may not have experience in PR or communications. Bringing the agency into the process to help guide and co-create with an internal marketing team is something that can benefit all parties. It needs to be a collaborative partnership, not a one-way transaction.
- It’s the story you weave between investment rounds that counts
Anybody connected to startup communications will be aware of the power of the funding release. At each stage of the journey, from seed funding to Series A, B, C and beyond, the exciting big dollar figure and the validation of new investors lead to the high-impact headlines that all businesses love. However, this is the “easy” part – it’s the brand building between funding milestones that helps a startup become a unicorn.
As you build a brand from zero to market leader, the riches will generally be in the niches. For B2B brands that means placing thought leadership and profiling stories in trade verticals you’re targeting. This is the day-to-day, bread and butter of most communications campaigns; building profile amongst the audiences that matter, regardless of whether there is a big fundraising story around the corner.
Personal stories are also incredibly important to a startup’s media journey. It can add colour and personality to a founder and endear future investors to a company’s philosophy. This is especially critical as millennial investors and beyond begin to look at a startup’s intentions, practices, and ethos just as much as their financial viability.
- Create a feedback loop between sales and communications
As technology startups grow, they often pivot towards new markets as opportunities arise. Sometimes a focus on a new sector or client type will fail and the organisation will shift towards more receptive customers. This can cause havoc with communications plans. For example, if your top target was local government yesterday but energy and gas tomorrow, your content strategy will need to adapt.
Likewise, if a piece of coverage in a telecommunications vertical leads to two major sales conversations, the communications team needs to know so they can prioritise more activity in that sector. Having an effective feedback mechanism with sales creates a massive competitive advantage, as well as ensuring that time, energy, and money are not wasted.
6) Always hold on to the startup mindset
Ironically, while startups often seek to embrace the systems and processes of large multinationals, I’ve lost count of the times a large, long-established corporation has asked me how they can be seen to be as nimble as a startup when it comes to their communications.
The most successful PR and communications initiatives have two things in common: access to senior stakeholders and experts to build the right story, and agility to fit communications activity into the media cycle. This is built into the DNA of most startups but can often be lost as they scale up into global businesses, but retaining the startup mindset will stand any technology CEO in good stead as they continue to grow their business.
Ashford Pritchard is Co-founder and Director of Kicker Communications, a communications consultancy that specialises in strategic brand storytelling for startup, technology and corporate clients in Australia and Asia-Pacific.mail the author
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