The Art School Approach to Generating Startup PR

A senior at art school got more press than many venture-funded startups.

Many startup founders think you need to announce a massive investment, demonstrate an impressive product, or spend a fortune on a well-connected PR firm to earn coverage in the press. The truth is startups don’t need any of these things — You can earn a surprising amount of press with nothing more than a color laser printer and fragrant oils.

Design student Angela H. Kim recently debuted a new art project, If you Smell Something, Smell Something Else, that offers subway riders a respite from the unpleasant odors that have suffused New York City’s subway lines. Her senior thesis consists of tabbed flyers, similar to the ones people post to advertise landscaping services and yard sales, that are coated with scents like vanilla and lavender. Riders can tear one off to make their trip to Park Slope more pleasant.

It’s a clever project, but one would think Kim was a student of public relations rather than print design. Her project — which again consisted of a sheet of printer paper and some low-grade perfume — was covered by The Atlantic, Fast Company, Barstool Sports, PSFK, Mental Floss, Gothamist, and a local ABC affiliate. Not a bad return for fifty cents worth of materials!

Think about this—A senior in college, armed with nothing more than office supplies, generated more press than many startups with millions of dollars in funding and a small team of marketing employees.

In this case, the only benefit of the project was to Kim’s GPA, but what if she had been advertising a startup—Say a mashup of Warby Parker and Yankee Candle? It would have been a press windfall. There’s no reason your startup can’t benefit from tactics like these.

How to Find Ideas Like This for Your Startup

I have the great fortune to work at a venture capital firm that has backed 200 very impressive companies including Uber, Buzzfeed, and Periscope. A common challenge for our earlier stage startups is getting press and building buzz around their nascent offerings.

Too often, startups overvalue the expertise of PR firms. The sad reality is that most firms do little more than robotically forward a carefully crafted press release which is dutifully deleted by reporters with short attention spans.

If you raise money from a respected VC, you’ll get a 350-word piece on TechCrunch. Maybe your story will get included in a trend piece. But it is possible to manufacture an ongoing stream of PR if you dovetail your business model and PR strategy.

I used to write for Wired and have shared the lessons I learned there with some of our startups, but here are a few tips for figuring out how to earn media for your startup:

1. Your Story Has to be Relatable

Most startups think too much about their company and their product, and not enough about how to make their mission appealing to a wider audience—especially the people who will be writing the stories. In those cases, drawing attention to the problem you are trying to solve, even solving it in some flamboyant way, will do more to attract attention to your brand than a brute force PR pitch.

The reality is most businesses are kind of boring and need to be spiced up. No one wants to a blender salesman talk about the power of his product’s motor, but if you blend an iPhone before their eyes, you can get a quarter billion people to take a look. A good pitch is more about the audience than your product.

2. Every PR Pitch Needs a Hook

There’s a compelling tension between the mirth of scratch and sniff stickers and the miasma of a subway—just that concept leaves me wanting to learn more.

Hooks are hard to quantify, but if you can get objective people to say “gross” or “cute” or “whoah” in response to your pitch, you’ll know you’ve got one.

3. Pics, Plz.

PR people in tech dramatically underestimate the importance of “good art.” When I wrote for Wired, we passed on interesting stories because the graphics were dull. A compelling animated GIF is 100 times more impactful than a carefully crafted release.

Before your story can be read it has to get clicked. A good headline can help, but a slick image does a better job.


In closing, if you’re considering hiring another person to further optimize your Facebook spend, or paying a massive retainer to a retrograde PR agency, consider looking to a more creative marketer—perhaps a recent art school grad like Ms. Kim. Writers are constantly looking for stories and you’d be surprised how willing they are to write about oddball baubles that use your brand as a jumping off point. You might be surprised with the response you’ll get and the worst case scenario is that you get a citation for graffiti.