The problem with startup PR

So the young startup wants a feature in TechCrunch.

They hire a PR girl (or guy, but let’s be serious) and a few $10,000 retainers later, they land VentureBeat and Gawker.

No TechCrunch, but oh well. That’s a scam pub anyway, right?

As traffic hits the servers, a team member sacrifices her Apple monitor for dedicated Google Analytics watching.

Some signups happen.

A month later the press is buried, traffic is normalized (zero), and the team ponders what to try next.

“How about marketing?” someone suggests.


Marketing should be the first investment, not the second.

PR’s function is limited — it amplifies success. But growth marketing helps understand users, fix products, segment audiences, and optimize messaging. (Great ingredients for a strong PR campaign, no?)

Yet young startups would rather expense a PR team to amplify a shitty product than invest in marketing to help make it better.

You can budget accordingly or die with your name in headlines.

Your biggest fan

In high school I started a band and our first show was downtown. Tickets were $6 each.

When I started selling them I anticipated some no’s. People are busy and I get that.

Then I got lots of no’s. Friends said $6 was expensive and that Atlanta was too far away, despite their allowance being 5x mine and their frequent weekends in the city.

This was my first exposure to people not believing in me.

Then I graduated high school in May 2008. While my friends flew to college that Fall, I drove to North Carolina and spent my life savings recording a solo album.

My website was all like,

“Do you want to pre-order it?”


“Here’s a link.”

–radio silence–

My third experience was Nov 2012, when I wrote a book and launched a Kickstarter project to fund the publication.

Things were different now, I thought, because everyone grew up and had jobs and disposable income.

Emails to friends were all like,

“Do you want to pre-order it?”


“Here’s a link…”

You can guess what happened next.

When you do entrepreneurial stuff, you’ll probably need funding. Art projects, product launches, mission trips, whatever. All cars need gasoline before they run.

Counterintuitively, you won’t learn if all those people rooting for you actually believe in what you’re doing until after you ship. This is because it’s free to support ideas but a burden to support execution.

I said before that entrepreneurship is the ultimate heartbreaker.

Not software, design, or operations.

Those are functions, while entrepreneurship is the aggregation of resources (belief) and the transformation of those resources into an area of higher yield (profits, attention, social good, etc).

So something entrepreneurs experience that other people don’t is the incessant pulse of how much (or little) people believe in them.

And that begs a critical ingredient of entrepreneurship– you have to be you biggest fan. But you also have to be your biggest critic.

Because to be good at your craft requires experience. And failure begets experience 10x more than a pat on the back.

So you have to fail all the time, believe in yourself anyway, ship stuff that everybody might hate, and then improve.

That’s entrepreneurship.


The Triple Threat Growth Marketer

Marketing is anything that gets customers. Marketing is campaigning for votes in the form of dollars.

Not every campaign has a name or a tidy start/end date. Not every campaign has a big budget, or garners press, or contends for a Clio.

But good campaigns do have 3 things in common.

Good campaigns are composed of strategy, tactics, execution. And each element requires a different skill-set, so campaigns are typically achieved by a specialized team.

Except at early stage startups, where they’re done by a single person.

Here’s how:

1. Dream

When you talk to your boss, start each sentence with Wouldn’t it be cool if…? This is dreaming; don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.

2. Plan

Friends who can’t break out of their career say things like “Ryan, I have this idea to do xyz but I don’t know where to start!”

This person may be effective at a larger organization, but not at a startup. Because at startups, nobody is going to tell you exactly what to do. As Seth Godin reminds us, there are no more good jobs where you’re told what to do.

3. Execute 

A lot of people imagined Uber. A lot of people wrote business plans for Airbnb. And half of my college friends tried to start Seamless. Yet none of them executed the way these names did.

So it’s evident that going from idea –> plan –> action takes serious technical chops.

And this is where most marketers fall short.

They can “think big” but fail to synthesize the mechanics. They can strategize on whiteboards for hours but fail to take first steps.

This is good news for the rest of us — if we can do 3 things, we win.

Good marketers execute. Good marketers ship.



Minimum Viable Knowledge

The minimum viable product is startup mantra.

But what’s the minimum viable knowledge?

What’s the least you need to know about a market, industry, or customer profile before you can build something people want?

I don’t think it’s very much, and I’m tired of investors obsessed with domain expertise.

The Innovator’s Dilemma says “You can’t disrupt from the inside.”

News flash: ‘inside’ isn’t limited to office walls.

Inside is knowledge. When you have a lot of knowledge, you’re inside something. When you are inside something, you can’t disrupt it.

So minimum viable knowledge. It’s not a prerequisite.

In fact, it might be everything.



Ryan goes on Teenage Entrepreneur

Last week I was interviewed on the popular podcast show Teenage Entrepreneur.

It was a lengthy but fun discussion about my lifestyle, my entrepreneurial endeavors, and most importantly the many things I’ve learned along the way.

We laughed, we cried, and we postponed real work for 1.5 hours on a Thursday morning. (I even missed a meeting with one of my readers, who will likely send some well-placed words when this post hits his inbox.)

If you’re into background noise at work or school, give it a listen or read the transcript.

Huge thanks to Jordan (host) for having me on the show — I look forward to returning the favor very soon.