Lessons for Entrepreneurs from Working Two Weeks as Press

Although I am an entrepreneur, for the past two weeks I have also been active press as I covered parts of Ad:Tech. Having done this for the past two weeks as well as a few earlier conferences, I have learned a few lessons and would encourage all entrepreneurs to spend some time working as a member of the press.

Lesson 1 – Know how your company is being marketed especially by your PR firm and people in general

I was shocked by many of the ways in which I was contacted by PR people before Ad:Tech. Below is a real email I received, as you can see I don’t have to edit this to avoid naming the company, you will see why.

Subject: Please consider our press release

  Best regards,   Gaby

And that is literally it. The message had a .docx attachment, the press release in theory I guess, I don’t generally open word doc attachments from strangers. Oh and did I mention that Gaby sent this message to all the press at the same time, as one large to: list, so I now have the email addresses of many of the other press who were covering Ad:Tech San Francisco this year.

Where do I even begin with how horrible this is.

  1. The company name is nowhere to be found, not in the subject line, not in the message body. As a press person receiving dozens of press releases and requests for interviews and meetings in advance of the conference, I have nothing to remember this message by other than how horrible it is (and since I did not open the attachment I still don’t know what company Gaby was representing).
  2. I was not greeted personally. Even if you are using a mail merge instead of writing individually, by greeting me personally I am a likely to be a bit more receptive to at least reading your email, if not any related links (good) or attachments (best being PDF files, worst being ppt or doc files)
  3. There is nothing about who the company is or what they are announcing. Give me a one paragraph hook that covers both what your company is and what you are announcing at the show (you are announcing something at the show right….) That allows me to quickly see if it is something that is relevant to the audience I am writing for (in my case CenterNetworks readers who are likely not interested in another SEO firm but may be interested in a company with an interesting Web 2.0 application or a new business model for the web etc.
  4. Not using bcc shows a seriously amateur and unprofessional use of email. Yes, I am nitpicking here and I’m sure almost everyone has made this mistake before. But when sending to a group of strangers to you, whose relationships with each other you do not know, this is a particularly egregious error to make. I can forgive a friend sending emails to a bunch of friends (even one promoting her business) but I cannot forgive a PR professional (I assume) doing this.
  5. Sending an attachment saved as a .docx file. If you don’t know, a .docx file is the newest file format from Microsoft, many people will not be able to open and read a file in that format since most haven’t upgraded their installation of Office to the absolute latest version. Gmail, for example which has viewers for older versions of word documents, does not have one for .docx files. I doubt (I hope) that I am not alone in refusing to download and open office file attachments from strangers.

Lesson 2 – Train everyone at your company and your PR agents on what you do and how to explain it quickly

Quick does not mean five minutes of talking at me (no exaggeration, one CEO talked without pausing for five minutes as a response to the simple  question “what do you do?”).

Quick means literally a few sentences, think escalator pitch not even elevator pitch.

Then, after you have explained briefly what your company does, be prepared to move onto what you are announcing at the show and be trained to listen to what people are saying and asking about and to respond accordingly. My badge, for example, clearly showed that I was press, yet not every booth person at either show noted that, some people just launched into their pitches without asking what I covered (better yet you should be prepared and know many of the media outlets covering a given event).

But by everyone, I do mean everyone. Whether or not you have a booth, if you have a presence at a show everyone there should be able to talk with people about what your company does. Have a consistent and clear explanation.

Lesson 3 – Offer hooks to people to interest them.

Before the show brief everyone from your company on what you hope to accomplish both tactically – i.e. number and types of leads – and more long term. Be sure to think through what you will do next to hook a given person you meet. Besides potential customers, don’t neglect the press, potential hires, investors, partners and others who could play a key role in your company’s success.

I am not a fan of being in “stealth” mode, however, I grant that at times it is helpful for some types of companies.

If you haven’t yet announced (i.e. are in “stealth”) have something you can talk about at a minimum your reason for being at the show and broadly speaking what you are doing. I am sure that more than one person I met who is working at a “still in stealth startup” is working on something that would be of interest to CenterNetworks and our readers. However by not having something to tell me as a journalist those companies lost the opportunity to have me connect them directly to Allen.

And if I were not at a show as press but was just there for my own company, when you don’t have anything you can talk about few people you meet have any way to help you, any hook to latch onto and spark the connections and relationships that make or break a company. Most of what I do at networking events and after is not immediately or directly related to my business, I often make introductions or refer people to resources that could help them. Not because I expect them to then pay me back immediately but because in doing so I help them and in turn, someone else will help me (something that has proven true so many times in the past I keep doing it). But whenever I meet someone who is working at a “stealth startup” I almost never have anything to offer them.  .

Lesson 4 – Be prepared for happy surprises.

I’m always looking for publishers and advertisers. I attended Ad:Tech assuming I would likely meet mostly potential advertisers there and that I would mostly meet potential publishers. I was surprised that at the event I had many conversations with potential publishers, and I met many potential advertisers. I also met many members of the press, bloggers, possible employees, lots of partners and many other key and important contacts.

But I met these people in no small part because I was prepared for the happy surprises of meeting them. But as I watched the trade shows at both events as well as the interactions around the conferences at parties, meals and the like I observed many who did not in many cases take advantage of opportunities that were handed to them.

A few final lessons in brief.

I have learned many lessons from the past two weeks as a member of the working press. I encourage all entrepreneurs to spend some time as press at a major conference in their industry, perhaps even before you start your next venture. See how companies market to the press, watch how booth staff and attendees react. See how the press talk to each other (and learn not just from the conversations in the press room but also from the tools such as twitter used for real time feedback).

Observe what types of press releases and flyers get picked up, let alone read (short answer most just get recycled at the end of the conference and are rarely actually read, certainly no flyers in folders from Staples without the company name even visible).