If you are reading this, you have almost certainly hailed a cab with Uber at least once in your life. Even if for some reason you haven’t, you’ve definitely heard other people call some up-and-coming startup “the Uber for X”. But have you ever hailed a ride via Cabulous, Uber’s direct competitor in its early years? Neither had I. While one of the pair went on to become a symbol of the sharing economy, another never really took off.
The process whereby a humble tech venture grows to become an industry hegemon is always path-dependent, meaning that even seemingly minor choices made early on can have dramatic consequences over time, ultimately deciding who will be the next big thing and who will have to quit. These small yet decisive early advantages are often idiosyncratic and can go unnoticed even by winning firms’ CEOs. In the Uber/Cabulous case, however, one of these winning factors can be discerned clearly: the early difference in the tech press coverage that the competitors secured.
The PR difference
As Business Insider observed at that time, Travis Kalanick’s brainchild landed some 30 mentions on TechCrunch in its first year, while Cabulous got zero. The difference between products they offered may or may not have been significant, but what mattered in the early period of racing for the dominance in the new market niche was brand recognition that Uber managed to build among the startup community, investors, and influencers.
Perhaps it would be far-fetched to suggest that a sound PR strategy from day one was the only decisive factor that projected the ride-hailing giant to where it is now, but it has definitely been a major one. As Uber’s story illustrates, it is never early for a tech firm to invest in a PR effort. As the stories of all the promising startups whose names we’ll never know suggest, you can lose big if you don’t do PR. What exactly are the points of failure?
1. You lose if you don’t speak the language your audiences understand.
According to a renowned public relations expert Brooke Hammerling, tech PR is essentially about “focusing your voice” and finding your place in the market. You may have a great product to offer, but you still need something else to make it fly: a focused message directed at the right public. Given the potential diversity of audiences that are essential for your solution to take off, you might as well need several tailored versions of your message. Do not take it lightly: we’ve seen many brilliant startup teams who thought that appealing to stakeholders couldn’t be harder than writing great code – only to find out that these two take entirely different skills and competencies.
2. You lose if you do not capitalize on the vast communication potential of the tech mediasphere.
TechCrunch is huge, and so are Wired and Gizmodo. You probably know a handful of really smart guys writing for Hacker Noon, too, and follow a bunch of your colleagues and hackaton regulars on Medium. Yet there is so much more to the intellectual tech universe. Knowing that firm that’s about to produce the next hot quarterly report covering your area, or being able to navigate influencer networks relevant to your market niche is no less crucial than landing a mention in a big-name publication. This point is inextricably intertwined with the next one:
3. You lose if you don’t keep up with the pace of tech information landscape.
Tech sector is more entrepreneurial and faster-moving than many other industries, and so is the information space it exists in. Keeping track of the emerging blogs, research firms, and Reddit communities relevant to your market is an intense task that requires either a full-time dedicated in-house operation or outside help. In addition, timing your communications to this ever-changing flow becomes a separate task: whether or not you can make a major announcement so that it resonates with the industry’s fluid agenda could be a deal-breaker between a hero and a zero.
4. You lose if you don’t maintain your reputation strategically.
Tech is a crowded ground these days, and it becomes increasingly harder to stand out. One asset that can help your company tilt the playing field your way is steadily building a reputation and promoting brand awareness. If you do not invest in this side of your operation starting from very early stages, you might end up biting the dust stirred by those competitors who do.
This is not to say that you should put PR before the product itself – having too good of a press before there is a solution appropriate for such coverage could easily backfire, as the story of a social network Ello suggests. Neither should you throw your firm into the arms of the first predatory PR agency that readily dishes out grand promises without possessing expertise and resources needed to accomplish a fraction of what’s in their sales pitch.
The point is that a good product has the best shot at succeeding when it is accompanied by a robust PR effort. Whether to pursue it on your own or outsource to outside professionals remains up to you.
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