The Startup Embargo, Revisited

Breaking news: there was another embargo fuck-up last week. And the week before that. And the week before that. And the week before that.

I could not be any less shocked. This has been par for the course for a while. A long while. And it will continue to be.

But at least this latest one brought some fireworks. TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler, burned by the embargo break, got mad as hell and decided he wasn’t going to take it anymore. His subsequent post seemed to piss off just about every blogger and PR person out there. It reminded me a bit of the good old days.

Now, to be clear, I did find some of Lawler’s framing a bit ill-advised. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to come out swinging at other bloggers and PR people when they’re responsible for such massive fucking headaches. But you should never take it out on the startup. This insider baseball is ultimately meaningless; the startup is what matters. But Lawler made up for it with a follow-up post.

So we’re all good. But this latest fiasco is a good jumping off point to revisit the embargo situation. Especially since I’ve been looking at it from the other side of the equation for the past year.

Let me start by admitting something: I have sinned.

I’ve gone against my own line of thinking from time to time in the past year and helped a bunch of startups reach out to a group of bloggers who were all pre-briefed in order to write at the same time. Read: I’ve both directly and indirectly helped set embargoes. I know — I’m ashamed too.

But I had good reason: I was doing what those startups wanted. Well, at least what they think they wanted. This lead me astray. It’s time to go back.

Here’s the thing: fuck these embargoes. Yes, again.

In my five-plus years as a professional blogger and my now one year as an investor, I can’t think of a single time when a giant, embargoed launch has made a startup. In fact, often times such launches hurt a lot more than they help.

The conventional wisdom, driven mainly by the PR industry, is that you want to get written about in as many publications as you possibly can at launch. This isn’t surprising. It’s simply an extension of the “more is better” philosophy that permeates nearly everything in life.

Shockingly enough, this mentality also justifies that very PR industry. Because that’s a large part of what they do: develop and manage relationships with bloggers/journalists/outlets. So of course you need to be written about in as many publications as possible. Why? Because reasons!

But if you know how this actually works, you quickly see that in the case of startup launches, it’s bullshit. Startups live or die not because of their press launch, but rather some combination of timing, perseverance, and ultimately — get this — the product itself.

Of course every startup needs visibility. But if the product is good, it has a funny way of finding coverage. And if it’s really good, it has a funny way of finding lots and lots of coverage. And that coverage, positive or negative, is worth its weight in gold because it’s most often legit. It’s not just marketing.

There’s the kind of coverage that money can buy — the kind you pay a PR agency for. Then there’s the kind of coverage money can’t buy — organic coverage because your product is so good or so compelling that it simply must be written about. Obviously, you want the latter.

Recently, when startups have been asking me about launch strategy, I tell them to go as organic as possible. Let the product speak for itself. That’s not to say you shouldn’t reach out to anyone in the press — you absolutely need to — but you should carefully pick the writer (or in some cases, writers) that you believe can convey your story well.

Don’t “spray and pray”, as it were. And certainly don’t pay to spray and pray. The results will either disappoint or worse, mislead.

I can’t tell you how many startups I’ve come across that see a big spike after an embargoed press launch and seem to think they’ve made it. That’s never the case. Reality sets in just days later with a quick fall back down to Earth. And because they just went all-in, some may never see any press again.

The big press launch strategy sounds great on paper. Since these startups are already counting down to their own launch, what better way to celebrate than in the public eye with as many headlines as possible? It’s not unheard of for companies to boast about how the number of headlines they received — and it’s a fairly common practice for PR people to gloat about the number of outlets in which they got a story “placed”.

But that’s short-term thinking. At best, such a strategy gets you thousands of visits/downloads, a small percentage of which will stick. At worst, it leads to consumer fatigue and skepticism. Why is everyone writing about this startup and saying the same thing? Because they were all briefed by the same PR person for 30 minutes.

If you expect a writer to take care with your story, you need to do as much homework on them as they do on you. Figure out who you think can best tell your story or appreciate your product. Reach out to them. If they’re not interested, keep bugging them. Make them believe in you. Or find another writer who does.

This. Is. Your. Baby. Do you want to outsource the picking of your delivery doctor? Do you want a dozen angry doctors you barely know in the room all fighting over the baby?

A well-written, thoughtful post about your launch is worth a million PR-regurgitations. It may not lead to 100,000 hits on your site on that first day — but it may lead to 1,000 great ones. Users that are genuinely interested in your startup. Users that are far more likely to stick around. That is the perfect foundation off of which to build.

Now, I realize I just spent the past thousand words taking a shit on PR. Let me be clear that I absolutely do view it as a key part of the equation as well. I simply think it’s important later on. Once a startup has established itself or is well on its way to establishing itself, then it’s time to (try to) manage the story and tap into broader markets. Because of the way the mainstream media works, that usually needs to be done through PR. And for certain types of product launches, PR is vital. Volume does matter at times — especially when you can be absolutely certain your product is ready for prime time.

But that’s rarely the case with startup launches. These products are largely untested and in their infancy. In this case, not only is volume is highly overrated, it can be detrimental. Oh, the product is buggy or flat-out doesn’t work? You only have one chance to make that first impression on a user.

At the end of the day, the users matter — not just getting them, but keeping them, and learning from them. And if you manage to keep them around and engaged, we happen to live in a world where they have their own amplified voices thanks to social media. Word. Of. Mouth.

But if you only go with one or two blogs, won’t the others just ignore you? Knowing first-hand the highly vindictive and competitive nature of blogging these days, at first, yes, that will likely be the case. That’s where a great product and word-of-mouth are your allies.

Make yourself impossible to ignore and the bloggers will come back around — they always do. Because really, it’s not about them, it’s about you and their readers. If they’re not showing the best stuff to their readers, those readers will find a site that is. In the age of Twitter and Facebook where content is increasingly decentralized, this is how it works.

And once any bruised egos have been put aside, chances are that you’ll get much better stories than you would in a big PR push. Because it’s no longer a race, it magically turns into: “who can cover this startup the best?” As it should be.

So you’ll forgive me if I laugh when a startup asks me if they should hire PR agency for their launch. My answer is obviously “no”. If you have a great PR/marketing person you want to bring on, that’s one thing. But paying tens of thousands of dollars to try and get that big launch is a joke.

The big launch is a false idol. The embargo is a ticking time bomb. Focus on the product. Find the right writer. Get compelled users. Go from there.

 
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