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Reverse Engineering Startup Press: How and Why TechCrunch Covered My Launch

After my startup's launch was covered by TechCrunch I was asked by a lot of people how it happened. People wanted copies of my pitch to learn from. It was as if I had discovered some arcane secret. But I didn't believe that. All I had done was read a couple blog posts from other startups with copies of their pitches (Thanks Jason L. Baptiste, Vinicius Vacanti, Leo Widrich) and one journalist who shared his thoughts (Thanks Sean Blanda). So instead of saying here is the magical way to get press, I wanted to find out what journalists really thought of my pitch and how it could be done better. They receive hundreds of emails from people trying to get their attention and I wanted their advice and expertise. I also wanted to know why the author who covered me on TechCrunch chose to write about me. How did I win the press lottery? In this post, I will share their thoughts and opinions.

Let's begin with the actual pitch:

Subject: Exclusive Story Opportunity: Could Twitter replace review websites?
Hey Eldon,
We talked briefly at TC DC meetup and I showed you a quick demo of my startup: Review Signal.

We're planning to launch on September 25 and you're the first journalist I've reached out to and I'd be happy to give you guys the exclusive on our launch.

What is Review Signal?
Our goal is use the conversations on social media to build a review site and bring a new level of transparency to the (sometimes? often?) shady review industry. We've started with the web hosting industry (probably the shadiest of them all) and plan to expand after launching (we're in data collection mode for a few more niches like domain registrars). At launch, we will be the largest web hosting review site around by at least an order of magnitude (maybe two) with over 100,000 reviews.

We also have a 45 second video explaining how our system works:

You're welcome to login to our private beta (username: xxx, password: xxx at ).

If you're interested please let me know and I'd be happy to follow up with any information or questions over email or phone.

What happened after I sent this email? I got a response from Klint Finley, who Eric Eldon had forwarded my email to.

Eric forwarded this to me -- I'd love to get the scoop on this. Are you available Friday?

I will skip sharing mundane details because everything of importance was handled over the phone after the first response. I told him about what I was doing and answered some of his questions. And the article came out the day we launched.

What did the journalists think?

The opinion I was most curious to read was Klint's. He is the one who wrote about Review Signal. I was thrilled when he said he would be willing to participate in this article. Please note this is his opinion and his alone. They do not represent the opinion of TechCrunch or any other publication.

Klint Finley

For a startup launch I think pitching to the press is really not all that hard: blogs like TechCrunch and The Next Web are always looking to cover new startups. The important thing is to have something worth writing about. Offering an exclusive always help grab our eye, but it's not always necessary.

The pitches I've seen fail are 'yet another...' for spaces that have long since ceased to be exciting and don't have anything else to sex them up (well known founders, a sizeable investment, a really interesting new spin on the idea...)

If the pitch sounds too much like "It's like Foursquare, but better and built by someone you've never heard of," I don't think that many people are going to pay attention at this point. If you don't have a name or a big investment you've really got to get that differentiation in there early.

I like the "it's like X for Y" type of pitch format, but not everyone does. But telling me "We're an HTML5 mobile app framework with some really advanced features" won't tell me much. Telling me "We're like PhoneGap for building Foursquare-style apps" is going to be a bit more attention grabbing.

The subject line of an e-mail is really important. To be honest, I didn't think your subject line was very good. I probably would have missed that e-mail entirely if Eric hadn't flagged it for me to check out. But once I opened the e-mail and saw that it was about using Twitter sentiment analysis to rank web hosts, I was really interested since web hosting, sentiment analysis and data mining are interests/beats of mine.

Which brings me to the importance of finding the right person for a pitch. This can be hard. Since you think of your company mostly as a b2c company and I write mostly about b2b and dev tech, it might not have been obvious to pitch directly to me. Again, luckily Eric saw it and thought, correctly, that it might be something I'd be interested in.

Some of the pitches I've gotten recently that I wrote about came directly to me and mentioned articles I'd written before. Sometimes I see this stuff and it's totally left-field and vague, like "I see that you once wrote something about 'cloud,' I too am in the cloud business." But sometimes I'll luck out and someone will e-mail me something along the lines of "you once wrote that it would be interesting to see a company doing X... well, that's what we're doing!"

So, in summary: do something awesome, make sure you explain your differentiation, put that in the subject line of your e-mail, and send it to the right person. Easier said than done.

Klint also pointed out that “this would be just one journalist's preference.” So I also decided to get a few more opinions and approached other journalists I've talked to in the past.

Ville Vesterinen and Miikke Kukkosuo, Arctic Startup

Was not too bad at all. Nice job! My critic:

1) It's a bit too long. Journos might just skip if it's too many lines to read.

2) I'd answer your headline by 'How:'

I have pretty similar thoughts as Ville.

Headline could be slightly sharper. 'How' is good. Or maybe even something edgier if you can think of something else.

I got a bit lost in the explanation, wasn't too easy to follow it. Depends a lot on the reader I guess how it's received - very big sites like TC might get so many mails that they move on quickly, a bit smaller ones probably would try to make sense of the message even if it takes a bit more time.

I think it would be enough to state the problem&market you're tackling, and why you will rock. Make it easy to read and understand, go straight to the point.
For example:
The review industry is shady. We will change that using social media conversations to bring a new level of transparency. At launch, we will be the largest web hosting review site around by at least an order of magnitude (maybe two) with over 100,000 reviews. Then we'll expand to more niches.

Carl Pierre, InTheCapital

I would take out the Could Twitter replace review websites part and just write exclusive story opportunity, maybe include your name in the subject line too so they remember who you are.

Um...the first part is cool, I would probably avoid mentioning the demo part, just say "we talked briefly at TC DC meetup and you gave me some good points on my new startup, Review Signal."

Then you should probably just say that you talked about providing an exclusive for your launch, and wanted to share the information with them before you go live.

Probably avoid the part that says, What is Review Signal, I would probably skip to something like...

Here is a quick refresher as to what we do:

- bullet point
- bullet point

Trust me, nobody likes slogging through paragraphs for info, especially as a journalist who gets bombarded with pitches constantly. Keep it succinct, short, and with key information in bullet points.

Again, this won't guarantee that you'll get a story, but it should hopefully significantly improve your chances.

From talking to the journalists, the basic recommendation seems to be:

  • Do something interesting
  • Explain why you're different
  • The subject line is your one chance to communicate why someone should care
  • Target the right journalist
  • Explain your idea clearly
  • Keep it short

I have to thank all these journalists for taking the time and participating. I had a great time talking to them and getting feedback about the pitch. I learned a great deal and hopefully this helps others too.

If you have any other tips please feel free to share them in the comments.