Outsource things you don’t care about

A fundamental principle of business is that you do things in house that you think can give you a competitive advantage and outsource things that you don’t. At an early-stage technology company this means you do in house: product design, software and/or hardware development, PR, recruiting, and customer relations/community management. Ideally, most of these activities are led by founders. You should outsource legal, accounting, website hosting, website analytics etc. (Unless you are starting a company where one of those activities can give you a competitive advantage, e.g. a securities trading startup would need to have in-house legal).

A lot of startups over outsource. A few years ago, you’d sometimes hear tech startups say they were going to outsource software development. Thankfully, founders have gotten smart about this and it rarely ever happens except as a stopgap. It is still common for startups to hire outside PR firms. If you decide to hire an outside PR firm, that means you don’t care about PR. Just because you are willing to spend some of money on it doesn’t mean you think it’s important. You probably shouldn’t hire an investment banker during an acquisition unless your company is later stage. And you might occasionally use an outside recruiter but the core recruiting activity needs be done by founders.

Some tips for interacting with the press

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about the best ways for entrepreneurs to interact with the press (by press I mean blogs as well as traditional media).

– Don’t be afraid to ask what the rules are. Is this on or off the record? If they are writing an article about your company, do they require exclusivity? What is the angle of the story?

– Don’t use a PR firm unless you are so successful that you need someone to help you manage inbound press interest. Most journalists, when talking candidly, will tell you they’d vastly prefer getting an email from the founder of a startup than a PR firm. If you’re Bill Gates, it is understandable that you have someone reaching out for you. If you are a small startup, having a PR rep contact a journalist says “I’m not competent enough to reach you” or “I don’t respect your time enough to reach out directly.”

– Treat journalists with respect. Tech/business journalists often interact with rich and powerful people, some of whom treat them disrespectfully. Like entrepreneurs, journalists are usually interesting people with diverse interests. You’ll probably like them if you talk to them and might even become friends.

– Unless you’re a super hot startup, the existence of your company is not a news story. Exclusives of launches, financings and acquisitions are usually news stories. Trend stories that you are part of could be a news story. Relating your startup or data your startup generates to something already newsworthy (journalists call this “pegging”) can dramatically increase your chances of getting covered.

– Whether you like it or not, the press will put your company into a category, and might run “horserace” stories comparing how the companies in your category are doing. The best you can do here is to try to choose which category you’ll be put into. Arguing that you have no competitors or are creating a new category is pretty much impossible.

– Try to put yourself in the mindset of the journalist. How will this story get them on Techmeme or featured by their editors? What were their most successful recent stories? Do background research on any reporter before talking and read a bunch his/her articles.

– Don’t just contact reporters when you need them: try to be helpful even when you don’t. Sometimes, I get calls to talk about, say, the state of the venture market or asking for some background on a tech sector that is new to the journalist. My guess is they appreciate this and are more responsive when I contact them about a possible story.