Boston/Cambridge Tech vs. Silicon Valley Tech: Vive La Difference

a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats1The west and east coasts of the US have drawn competitive comparisons for aboutq as long as they’ve existed. At least that’s how it feels to this extreme east coaster.

Whether you were raised on the west or the east coast, chances are you are passionate about the things that make each coast distinct, the things for which each coast have earned their distinct reputations.  Which coast has the best waves for surfing, the best snow for skiing, the better communities for raising families, the coolest home-grown music? And on and on.

The comparisons grow even more intense when you’re talking tech.  Which coastal universities turn out more talented engineers and entrepreneurs, Stanford or MIT? Harvard or UC at Berkeley Haas School of Business? And is Silicon Valley or Boston/Cambridge spawning more innovative companies?  Which is the best area to do business in?

Well, it really depends on who you talk to and which reports you read.  PandoDaily reporter Hamish McKenzie wrote a widely read article last fall and claimed in it that “Boston is in a rut”  with its “glory days of its enterprise might” behind it.  McKenzie even cited a Startup Genome Report which placed Boston in sixth place on the world ranking for best regions for startups behind the likes of LA and New York.

Strange thing is that here on the east coast, it certainly doesn’t feel like Boston/Cambridge has lost its mojo – at least not as completely as some claim.  Even McKenzie says the view of Boston from Silicon Valley is very different, and that once you get a chance to visit some of the incubators and the community of entrepreneurs working in places like the Cambridge Innovation Center where there’s almost always a waiting list for office space, you’ll feel the vibrancy and sense of urgency.

I wouldn’t say McKenzie is bullish on Boston’s chances for improving its position in the next Startup Genome Report.  But he does concede that the region “is in the process of bolstering a robust ecosystem strong enough to stop its slide down the rankings.”

As a dyed in the wool east coaster, I’m bullish on the region’s tech scene stopping its apparent slide and also on Boston fighting its way back to its rightful position as the clear no. two tech town in the US.

And I don’t stand alone on this.  Take, for example, Mark Held, the CEO of startup Weft. Held recently relocated his firm from San Francisco to Boston citing the areas ecosystem of enterprise tech startups, the talent graduating from area colleges and universities and the quick commute to NYC.

“Boston is where you go when you want to build a real company with revenue (as opposed to another social thing).  The Silicon Valley startup culture isn’t sustainable — we want to be around for a long time and the culture out west isn’t conducive to that,”  Held told the Boston Business Journal.

At a recent unConference in Boston, Pam Burton, who heads up the east coast office in Gloucester, Mass., for Accelent Consulting, has worked on both coasts and says, “The tech community here seems a lot more open and accessible, and really focuses on attracting investment and companies to be successful in Massachusetts in a more organized and powerful way than what I saw over there.”

Burton said that if a tech company founder doesn’t come out of a well known company or school, then getting attention on the west coast is harder.

Echoing Burton in the Boston Business Journal, Cathy Wissink, director of Microsoft’s tech community outreach division in Cambridge and a recent east coast transplant, said, “The energy here is remarkable in terms of startups, venture capitalists and innovation” and emphasized the big number of students engaged in the Boston tech scene.

Boston/Cambridge tech or Silicon Valley tech?  East coast vs. west?  Well, it’s a silly debate and we really don’t have to choose, do we?  When both do well, everyone wins. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

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5 questions startups need to ask before plunging into PR

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This blog post originally appeared on VentureBeat.com.  
November 26, 2013 9:30 PM
Linsey Fryatt, VentureVillage
To do PR yourself, or to hire an agency – that is the question. In this piece, Linsey Fryatt, Germany Managing Director of Clarity PR and former editor-in-chief of VentureVillage, gives us a teaser to her upcoming PR workshop and outlines what startups need to consider before jumping into PR.

Kevin Leu, a “PR specialist,” recently penned a piece in VentureBeat about why PR agencies are crap. Thankfully, PR pro Patrick Ward fashioned a response that was much more polite and balanced than I could ever have managed. Incidentally, Leu is also the founder charming startup that lets you rate women (or “girls”, as he prefers) based on how hot they are. On a map. So obviously his expertise on what constitutes groundbreaking branding is in absolutely no doubt.

But his piece does raise an important issue. The biggest challenge I have faced since recently donning the furry robes of PR (having previously been shod in the Hessian trousers of journalism for many years) is explaining to people what a PR firm actually does, and why — especially if you’re a new brand — it’s absolutely vital to have a PR strategy, whether that means in-house, consultancy, external agency or gorillagram.

Your marketplace is crowded and increasingly global. The media landscape is massive and fragmented. Your product is, and should be, the most important thing in your world, but why should anyone else give a sh*t about it? You need to make the world take notice, and in most cases, you’re going to need help with that.

There’s a certain amount of nervousness, especially in the startup world, in hiring a PR agency. And rightly so. Your seed or Series A money is precious, you don’t want to waste a cent on unneccessary or unquantifiable services. When you couple this with perhaps lukewarm experiences with one-size-fits-all PR firms (I assume the ones that Mr Leu might have issue with) and it’s difficult to justify any kind of spend on communication strategy.

My colleague Sami wrote a great piece on the questions you ought to ask PR companies before you hire them, but I’m going to take it one step back. Here are the starter questions that you need to ask yourself that will help you guage whether you need actually need a PR agency or not. And if you do, how to have a more fruitful relationship with them…

1. What do you actually want to achieve?

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away by the first flush of column inches. It’s not enough just to want “to get a piece in TechCrunch.” [Editor: Or VentureBeat!] Do you need to attract investors? Do you need key hires? Do you need a quick increase in user numbers?

Set you key objectives you hope to get from any exposure before you do anything else. From here it’ll be much easier to brief anyone else correctly.

2. What’s your timeline?

Getting scattergun press coverage around product launch is great, but it can be really difficult to follow up. I see many companies enjoy an initial spike of interest and then drop completely off the radar in those critical following months. Think about your product timeline, and consider how you want to knit a full communications strategy into that plan.

3. What’s your budget?

Have an idea of what you are willing to spend, considering the factors above. Whether that’s an external agency fee, human-hours within your company or a completely new hire. If you’re going with an external agency, then look for ones that don’t just offer standard retainers, but also ones that are willing to offer project-based work. That way, you can see how they perform around a single task.

Also realise that it will involve a spend to do this properly. Communications and marketing should be built into your budget and not just added as an afterthought once your product is market-ready, especially if you’re a B2C product.

4. What’s your story(ies)?

What three words describe your company values? Would all your team give the same answer? Spend half a day internally nailing down your core qualities. From there, it’s much easier to begin working on the rest of your communications.

What’s your context, what do you do differently? What voices can you add to a discussion in your market? What’s your story? And who are you telling it to?

This is where the fresh pairs of eyes at an agency can give a new perspective. Ask an agency for a handful of ideas in their pitch. At the very least it will demonstrate that they “get” what you’re doing and you can gauge their creative fit.

5. Who else is doing this well?

Which companies in your space are suceeding at this? And why? And do you have a robust angle or statement as to why you are different? Journalists like to have a product placed in context (“we’re the Airbnb for dogs”) but also the justification as to why you’re offering something different to the market.

Linsey will be hosting a workshop on How to Communicate your Brand on 11 December with VentureVillage. Click here for more details.

Size Matters When It Comes to Picking a PR Agency

090831-SmallMediumLarge-4651Public relations agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are holding-company owned with offices in 50 countries or more and thousands of employees.  Others are independent and mid-sized with a handful of offices and perhaps a hundred or more workers. And of course there are scores of founder-run, single-office firms and boutique consultancies with anywhere from three to 50 staffers all working under one roof or virtually.

While all of these agency types often compete with each other for the same prized piece of business, they can be very different in their approach to new business, client service and relationship management.

For the prospect, deciding to work with a one-office firm or a large agency with an office in every major U.S. metro area can be a tricky decision as agencies have grown adept at becoming chameleon-like. For example, a smaller agency may try to present itself as bigger and more “scalable”  than they really are when pitching a potentially big client. They will bring up that they work with “partner” agencies all over the world allowing them to send your message out globally.  And a large agency may attempt to present itself as nimble and flexible (with pricing and programs) when pitching an emerging brand with limited marketing dollars.  They will bring up the fact that they have specialized teams working on smaller programs and the promise that you won’t be a small fish in a big pond.

Blah blah blah.

Ok, so perhaps there are a few instances where both the large and the small agency can get the same job done well.  But typically, this won’t be the case.  So to help you decide, here are a few guidelines to mull:

  • if yours is a global company, then hire a global agency with global branded offices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring in a boutique for specialized work as well. But in my experience, the various global networks of independent PR agencies are better suited for project vs. ongoing work.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s difficult for one agency (the AOR) to control and manage the quality of the work that another agency in another country is doing for a client.
  • if it’s important that agency principals pay close attention to your account, then hire a boutique. Even with many mid-size firms, you won’t see the firm principals very often once the contract is signed unless you insist on it or have a previous relationship.  In most cases, agency principals are too busy running the business to pay attention to client service until something goes wrong.
  • if you are an emerging brand with limited PR dollars to spend for the foreseeable future, hire a boutique or mid-size agency.  Big agencies are working hard to penetrate the emerging brands market, especially in tech, but until they figure out how to make money on small budgets it’s still largely a work in progress for them. Generally, if you’re an emerging brand, the sense of urgency and enthusiasm and attention you’ll get from a smaller firm will outshine that of a big agency (at least once the honeymoon is over).
  • if prestige and name recognition is important to your CEO, then hire the global agency so he/she can brag at the next cocktail party that his PR agency has offices in 75 countries even though the client only does business in three of them. Just remember, someone has to pay for all that overhead.

The Best Way to a Journalist’s Heart is Through Research

tumblr_inline_mrttviCm101qz4rgpThe more things change in tech public relations, or in PR in general for that matter, the more they are the same.

Despite the demise of paper tech trade publications, like InformationWeek which last published in print on June 24, and the tsunami of all-digital channels, what journalists want from PR people hasn’t changed all that much – and likely never will.

  • Reporters still want relevant pitches from PR pros and abhor the thoughtless shotgun approach that for reasons I will never understand (other than pure laziness), so many PR agencies (sadly) still do.
  • Journalists will ignore PR pros who won’t take the time to understand their interests before they pick up the phone and pitch a story (what they might do instead is put together another one of those “why I despise PR people” articles).
  • A reporter is more likely to cover a trends piece vs. as a standalone company story.  As in the past, it behooves a PR pro to share the bigger picture in a pitch and insert the relevant client story as a case in point.
  • Oh…and PLEASE don’t forget to research the media channel and read the journalist’s most recent articles before you pitch. Sounds basic, I know, but not everyone does it.

These recommendations could have been written 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.  They were as relevant then as they are today.  But, in fact, they come out of The 2013 Top Tech Communicators Awards recently published by PRSourceCode which provides tech editorial, speaking, and award opportunity services for tech PR pros.  It’s a useful report  — which surveyed 68 journalists and 114 PR people — even though it reads much like the 2010 version of the same report which I wrote about here.

“Even in this Internet world, where the last story a journalist wrote is just a click away, journalists rail that PR folks fail to do their homework.  Journalists say 93 percent of pitches are not on target,” reads the PRSourceCode press release announcing the survey results.   “This points to a massive missed opportunity, as three out of four journalists say they use proactive pitches from PR folks to generate story ideas and sources.”

Imagine pitching a reporter before researching what that reporter likes to write about? Yup, happens all the time.  Senior PR people will do the profession a great service by mentoring the junior people to NEVER pitch a reporter or blogger before doing their homework.

Journalists, by a wide margin, also still prefer email pitches (99 percent which is actually higher than in 2010) while 70 percent of PR people use the phone for pitching (this stat actually surprises me since so many junior people especially are reticent to pick up the phone these days).   “PR pros need to hold the phone,” reads the report.  In addition to using the phone to pitch story ideas, PR pros who participated in the survey of course also use email (100% of them).  But apparently a high percentage, to the chagrin of journalists, are using the phone to follow-up on their email pitch.

The report also shares winners of the annual top tech communications awards including top tech business and trade publications (print and online), top tech blogs (no real surprises here), top tech journalists as well as top tech PR agencies  and top in-house departments. You can read the entire report right here.

(And a shout out to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr for inspiring my lede).