How to Communicate about Your Deep Tech Startup
10 Tips to Guide You from a Public Relations Perspective
Deep tech startups are a special breed. As Forbes contributor Scott White points out in an excellent article shared by LinkedIn power user Michael Jackson: “A deep tech company is a very different beast than a typical technology company.”
Such a company requires a different approach when considering investors, go-to-market strategy, and also I would argue – their communications. As Scott notes in his piece, it has to do with a longer development cycle, investors who are truly patient, and technology that is inherently complex, and therefore often difficult to explain.
For deep tech entrepreneurs, explaining the complex problems they are solving means tailoring stories to different audiences who have varying levels of familiarity with topics and terminology.
At Deep Tech Momentum, a recent Techstars boot camp for deep tech founders and enthusiasts in Berlin, I had a chance to witness roots of entrepreneurship in action. The 4-day event signaled high potential of European founders to develop deep tech solutions for societal problems, as well as organizations intent on supporting the ecosystem here.
Here are some examples of what emerged from the boot camp. I left the event feeling motivated by these entrepreneurs’ dedication, speed in reshaping teams, and seriousness in refining their pitches.
Why was I there? To present a PR workshop to more than 40 founders. This offered a chance to help them evolve their approach to future communication efforts. It also sparked me to consider learnings from leading communications at Earlybird Venture Capital over the past two years. At Earlybird, we’ve invested in deep tech Marvel Fusion (energy) and space tech Isar Aerospace, to name a few. We continue to focus on backing these kinds of bold companies. (In this post, I offer some examples from our Digital West and UNI-X funds, both deep tech and beyond.)
Questions I heard in response to my workshop revealed some of what founders tend to struggle with: how to identify the right PR agency, when to start their PR efforts, and how to know if a pilot project makes sense for a media pitch, etc. In response, I gathered up input and tips from a variety of sources to add more depth in this new article for you.
Here are 10 proactive steps, with many accompanying examples, that entrepreneurs, founders, comms specialists, or enthusiastic employees of deep tech, or other startups, can test for themselves. Please let me know if helpful!
I. Select the right comms point-person 🎤
1) Let your CEO speak
The role of the founder or CEO is central to providing guidance internally and externally as to the company’s vision, current milestones, and upcoming highlights. This is especially true for early-stage startups. A CEO can become a key point of reference for the media. This allows the company to ‘have a face’; it’s helpful for humanizing complicated tech and allowing an access point for journalists. It’s also helpful in case your company is in stealth mode yet you still need a vocal leader who might offer knowledge about a specific topic. (Note: also super useful for me when pitching teams to journalists and no company hyperlink exists.)
Example: Apart from his leadership responsibilities, CEO Daniel Metzler has also taken on an influential role in representing Isar Aerospace, naming challenges in the industry and the political environment of the space industry, and calling for change.
2) Stage your internal experts
While it is important to spotlight your CEO, it is equally important to stage your internal experts within their various fields of expertise. This makes your technology easier to understand, more tangible, and gives you more bandwidth to plan interviews and pitch stories across their interest areas.
Example: Listen to Stella Guillen, CCO from Isar Aerospace in a podcast here, or simply follow Isar Aerospace on social media where they share many perspectives and updates. Also check out an approachable podcast with Heike Freund, COO of Marvel Fusion.
3) Let your employees speak
The best ambassadors to convey your corporate identity and culture are your own employees. In other words, they can become corporate ambassadors. Enabling them to share insights from their daily activities via social media makes your comms mixture more authentic and your startup even more tangible. This has a personifying effect and makes sense in a digital age, where younger generations don’t necessarily trust big corporate messages.
Example: Check out our portfolio company Aiven’s social channels where they have done a tremendous job at showcasing their employees and empowering developers. This post reveals some behind-the-scenes which can help with recruitment efforts.
4) Include partners in your communications
Highly technical startups, you should try leveraging industrial and scientific partnership stories to the fullest. Those give you additional credibility and reputation for your technology/product offering. Given that frontier tech requires a long time to market, it is essential to discuss the problem you are solving, including how massive it is — this supports the required suspense/patience in your developing a solution.
Example: In this Financial Times coverage of Marvel Fusion, notice that they have the added value of Nobel-prize winners listed as contributing to the source of their innovations.
II. Choose what to showcase 🎬
5) Make use of lighthouse use cases
The best way to illustrate your technology/product and to make it accessible to the outside world is to communicate the functionalities and USPs by showcasing client stories or use cases. These might be best shown hosted on your own channels, website, and articles distributed through social media. When possible, to avoid the mundaneness of pure funding rounds, it is even better to combine funding rounds with a scientific achievement or with a new customer contract. This expands the newsworthy factor, especially in the early stages.
6) Make your technology tangible
Whenever possible, invite journalists or other key opinion leaders (KOLs) to get first-hand insights into your technology. Ideally, you are building up your relationship with them and inviting them to visit your production site or see your technology at a demo day. To begin this relationship, be sure to follow them on Twitter, and check for what ‘beats’ (topics they cover), and how they prefer to be pitched.
Example: For more info on achieving (PRF) or Product-Reporter-Fit, a phrase coined by journalist-turned VC Josh Constine, check out my article on why ‘Existing is Not News.’ Notice that journalists (i.e. Paul and Christine) pin to the top of their Twitter feeds, exactly how to pitch them.
III. Package it Properly 📦
7) Experiment with formats
Making deep tech innovations tactile is sometimes tricky. One approach could be to use a mix of different formats when explaining a particular innovation or new product feature. Playing with video, audio, and written elements in your comms mixture increases the likelihood that you will be recognized and understood. Podcasts and owned articles have an excellent shelf life. Utilize that. Ideally, you are researching podcasts in your industry and pitching your C-level for spots on there. The more podcasts you do, the more comfortable you will become in communicating your message.
Example: Aiven has done a stellar job in creating videos to help build up familiarity with their mascot, the crab. We were happy to share a video co-produced with Marvel here. More tips on podcasts: to hear the importance of communication, check out SpeakLikeACEO and note that some podcast hosts look for social proof before inviting you on. This means you want a digital footprint showing that you know your topic well, and share high-quality content, not necessarily a high volume, in your own channels.
8) Explain and re-explain
Make sure that you have enough opportunities to explain your technology and give vivid examples of how to use your innovation. You may need to write differently in your press release, website info, and published articles in order to break down complexity, and either avoid or define scientific terms or insider terms when writing for a broader audience.
Whatever you do, do not assume that your key messages are understood just via one single press release. See more about this in Section V, the Question & Answer summary below.
IV. Think bigger: short- & long-term 🎯
9) Scan the media agenda
‘Pitch me on the trend’ is common when pitching story ideas to journalists. Often journalists will even put out a question on Twitter where they are asking for retweets to poll the community about certain topics. You might notice this pop up in your feed, or you can actively search for: #journorequest or else #HARO, which stands for Help a Reporter Out. It might look like this.
Yet another reason to follow those that cover your industry! If you can be helpful to them, based on your knowledge and community, it can make you more memorable or reliable as a source for future stories. The precondition to catching free-riding and agenda-setting opportunities is obviously to know what is hot in the press. This will push your pitching success to the next level. Effective media monitoring is key to that.
Example: An expert PR-for-startups person to follow is Gloria Chou in the US. Although she is not necessarily focused on deep tech, she has a wealth of creative knowledge about how to come up with compelling and relevant stories, and how to pitch those. I encourage you to follow her on social and sign up for her online sessions and PR packages!
In my own work, I see that top-tier journalists (in both German and English publications) like being kept up to date on game-changing companies. So, even if journalists can’t provide immediate coverage, they may keep a ‘file’ on a topic, adding cool companies to that. When they are at last ready to cover that topic, they’ve already got a great pool to draw from. You want to be IN that pool.
10) Build relationships with multipliers
Make sure you know the right journalists and multipliers in your business sector. A multiplier could be a journalist who has an extensive social media following and who is known to ask probing, thoughtful questions and share those on social channels. That could be in tier-1 business outlets, special interest publications, or your local newspaper. Combining three media types and prolonging the story on social media will push your visibility further.
V. Let’s Get to those Founder Questions
Q1. How can I identify the right PR or comms agency?
It must be a good personal match. There has to be room to give and take on ideas, and for both sides to respectfully share expertise and opinion. What do I mean? The founder or startup team has every right as the client to speak up with angles, ideas, and comfort zones. The PR agency should hear that and guide from their professional experience, but not steamroll the company along the way.
Here’s an example of comms tips for startups in the UK shared by Nick Baines of Nara Communications. His co-founder Andrew Skinner-Shah chimes in: “Rather than going straight to Google, the best way to start looking for an agency is to ask around your own networks for experience-informed recommendations on the ones to speak to, and those that should be avoided. This is particularly important if you need an agency with specific deep tech expertise and experience.”
He adds: “Beyond this, look at their social channels so that you can gauge the quality of their recent work. If they regularly post coverage on the likes of TechCrunch, Bloomberg, The Financial Times etc. then you know they’re the real deal. If they’re inactive then that shows that they’re either not securing results, or what they are securing isn’t worth shouting about.”
I also inquired with comms pro Lea Schramm, who recently launched her own PR consultancy, COHORT Public Relations. Lea recommends “taking a close look at the agency’s portfolio of existing clients. It should represent a mix of projects in the same industry — showing that they have expertise in your sector — but also look for competency across other industries, so that you don’t compete with too many startups on the agency’s key contacts.”
Q2. When should I start my company’s PR efforts?
Start sooner than later. This is because your public relations is your relationship with the public, as the name implies. PR is a long-term commitment to building up a company’s standing in the eyes of many. According to comms expert Kim Oguilve, “PR is more than pitching funding announcements! It’s about a long-term effort to build your company’s reputation and credibility in the market, for your customers, investors, employees, etc.”
Let me add a key tip: Once you have finalized a press release, stick with it. Try not to introduce changes once pitched to a journalist. Then stand at the ready for journalists’ questions back to you, or in the best case, possible interviews. Have these prepped: bios of founders, information about competitors, burn rate, and what makes your solution unique. This is the big leagues, and you need to be ready to go to bat. You might notice that much of a journalist’s due diligence in reporting feels a lot like what an investor might ask…😅 So be prepared.
“PR is more than pitching funding announcements! It’s about a long-term effort to build your company’s reputation and credibility in the market, for your customers, investors, employees, etc.” — Kim Oguilve
Q3. Should I pitch a ‘pilot project’ story to the media?
How can you know if a Pilot Project makes sense for a media pitch: Given a recent article about how to pitch to Sifted, I think it is safe to say that a pilot project alone might not be the best for a pitch. Rather, it might be best shared by the CEO or bundled with other news like a funding round. I recently noticed this tweet, which does a good job of conveying a partnership milestone. (See section II.5 above about bundling your wins!)
Hanging Tough & Wrapping Up
Note to founders: It has become increasingly tough to earn media attention for pre-seed and seed rounds. This is not my personal opinion, but rather confirmed by 3–4 other startup comms professionals I recently spoke with. It could be due to extremely in-demand journalists, early round sizes that can’t compete in size with heftier later rounds, or simply a saturated news market. What does that mean for your communication? It means you need to stay resilient; don’t be discouraged by a no. Keep refining your message, building those media relationships with patience and respect ,and considering storytelling angles and options. I’m right there with you! ✊🏽
Finally, some thanks to a few folks: To Philipp Semmer of Earlybird UNI-X who encouraged me to join this event as a speaker. To Martin Schilling (who has a new great book out), and the team at Techstars Berlin for being the driving visionary force behind Deep Tech Momentum.
You all brought together a cool lot of Partners like Audi and RWTH Aachen Innovation and attracted brilliant entrepreneurs along the way. Factory Berlin did a stellar job hosting and together this event reminded me why I got excited about startups in the first place. 🔥
Also props to all workshop attendees and my crew at Earlybird who backs great founders (who I then get to support with comms 🤗), as well as my community of valued comms professionals here in Europe. This growing group is open to sharing our insights at upcoming events, so please be in touch if this is of interest.
Reach out to me via LinkedIn or Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org 👋
All photos by Daniel Cati. 📸
Feel free to 👏🏽, comment, and share so this reaches more entrepreneurs!
Curious to read more? Check out this article from my archives, where Amy Lewin offered timeless advice and her astute predictions came true on areas to watch.
Want to hear more about deep tech at Earlybird? Stay tuned this Fall for an article from my colleague, Moritz Belling.