Start-ups & Public Relations – It’s not that complicated

I’ve come across far too many articles in the recent past contemplating whether start-ups need PR at all. Questions like: Should start-ups spend on PR? Does your start-up really need help with PR?

This is an attempt to share my understanding of PR in the start-up world. Yes, start-ups have it tough because they’re new but that doesn’t necessarily make them insecure because of their lack of visibility. Don’t judge a book by its cover. There are plenty of start-ups that have their priorities right. They focus on operations, following through their business blueprint, and are constantly moulding with their evolving business model.

It is often portrayed that once a company gets funding, the upper management can’t handle the publicity and starts spending heaps on “PR”.

PR is very different from advertising.

Among other things, PR focuses on brand-building and reputation while advertising (whether online or offline) essentially highlights products/services to primarily increase sales. More often than not, start-ups that look for ‘quick fame’ end up confusing the two and get frustrated when, despite their investment, the PR company they’ve hired hasn’t been able to get them mentioned in a leading publication. Anyone who understands the world of corporate communications or has preliminary knowledge on media relations, understands that throwing money at the problem is not a solution when it comes to brand-building.

Creating a memorable brand takes time. A bit of research on brands will show you that it has taken years for brand giants to become recognisable, trustworthy and ultimately, THE go-to brand for consumers. PR helps start-ups establish their brand identity, personality, and approachability in terms of consumers. This comment by GG Benitez, CEO of GG Benitez and Associates Public Relations, Inc., helps make my case:

“Too many companies are focused only on the dollars ROI. While PR ‘hits’ are never guaranteed, when they do happen, they spur brand affinity. That results in an ROI that’s outside just the traditional dollar for dollar measurement.”

Start-ups can, however, risk throwing money at advertising. Since we live in a time of multiple online and offline platforms – advertising, to an extent, is truly experimental. For example, there are several different ways you can advertise on Facebook. Companies can choose from ‘where’ and to ‘whom’ they can advertise to. The list of preferences goes on. While one combination may work for a product/service, the same is not guaranteed to work for another.  Hence, experimental.

While advertising is measurable, PR may not be.

When talking about Return-On-Investment in advertising, there is a simple way to measure it.

(Sales Growth – Marketing Cost) / Marketing Cost = ROI: “It is a good idea to calculate ROI on a regular basis throughout any campaign because the results do take time to build.”

Having worked in a start-up for over two years, I understand strict marketing budgets. These concerns can lead start-ups to take charge of their own PR, which isn’t necessarily the best advice and can end up eventually harming the company’s image. Instead, start-ups should find the right PR consultant or agency to assist them in building their brand.

Today, a majority of start-ups are offering products/services that can help make the consumer’s life easier. The right amount of PR and advertising will only help them leverage their brand in the industry.

Crash Course in Public Relations for Startups

It’s no secret that thousands of startups from all industries have been mushrooming across the country, especially in the last two years. This month a research firm revealed that a staggering 40 percent of these startups have already shut operations.  While lack of sufficient funding, core skills and shoddy marketing are few of the top reasons why startups fail, minimal light has been shed on the importance of Public Relations.

PR is vital for the simple reason that it connects organizations with their audiences.

PR is all about making the right connections

Relationships are important. Relationships are important. PR teams are designated to identify the target audience and build a relationship with them – backed up by a strong marketing strategy. While large companies hire an elaborate team to build these relations, more often than not, startups tend to underestimate the significance of customer feedback. It may look like a small task but there is serious effort behind highlighting organic positive feedback. Customers – satisfied with the service/product or not – need to feel valued. When a startup successfully delivers to a customer, it’s something to cherish. And when it doesn’t, it compels the team to troubleshoot and fix issues. Giving customer relationships its due prominence, startups like Flipkart and Myntra provide customer care through prompt tweets.

Get involved with the media

I recently stumbled upon an article that elaborated on how some successful people like Elon Musk and Oprah take out a certain amount of time to read. While how much one reads in a day varies, on an average these visionaries find 2-4 hours per day to update themselves on industry insights. I adopted a similar approach at my startup job and spent about an hour on Twitter every day to explore upcoming events, campaigns, running offers, and read up on elaborate startup stories.

More time reading also gives us a chance to discover journalists who cover specific industries, in fact, over time, it makes sense to nurture such professional relationships by offering exclusivity of product updates and company announcements. This symbiotic relationship is worth the investment.

You know what they say – Content is King

These days, marketing teams of established businesses are constantly working to create content that is clickworthy, evokes an emotional response and is deserving of a share or like, which is exactly the kind of material startup PR teams should work on. Viral content is bound to drive more traffic to the website, customer loyalty and ultimately, increase sales. Take startups like Popxo that are making a mark by creating trendy, youthful and relatable articles focusing on young girls as their target audience.

Personal Branding builds Brand Reputation

In another article, I talked about how more and more influencers from all over the globe are focusing on developing themselves as a brand. Personal Branding is key in helping a person stand out in a sea of people and emerge as an expert in a domain. Founders, investors and even employees can use their brand currency to voice their opinion on industry insights, connect with the audience on a more human level and ultimately, build a following for their company – leading to positive development of their company brand.

Always analyse what’s working & what’s not

Some marketing & PR strategies work for certain startups while others don’t – this depends on factors such as demographics and demand for service/product in that area. Startups usually lack patience and have a reputation to skip hiring a public relations team.  After a couple of hit and trials, a startup should finalize on a PR plan to help create their product into a well-known, easily approachable brand.

This article was originally posted on YourStory.

 

26 months of startups, hustling and coffee breaks

Rumor has it that the World Bank has now moved India to a new status – lower-middle income country. Having said that, the country’s GDP is at 7.6%, making us the fastest growing economy. Frankly speaking, looking at these two facts, I don’t know how to feel about our current situation. But what I do know is that in the two years I spent bumping into healthcare startups founders at events, meeting hospital management, and understanding real patient problems – the importance of digital healthcare is increasing – whether it be health-tech, home-care or wearables. Technology is making it possible for people to find smart solutions to their medical needs and better yet, stay healthy. Like the Director of Healthcare Vertical Strategy, Level 3 Communications, I agreethe healthcare industry needs startups, and startups need the healthcare industry’.

My startup story

In 2014 I joined a healthcare startup in its nascent stage. The company was only a few months old and we were just a handful at the time. Unlike me, this startup knew exactly what it aimed to achieve – which sounds quite idealistic but it was and it is the true need of the hour – quality and quantity in options available to patients that enable them to make informed healthcare decisions.

For those curious about working in a startup and what it feels like to be a part of this popular bubble – I got news for you. The long hours, deadlines and never-ending expectations from a startup employee are all true. We are, in fact, overworked, top management does keep a close check on our assignments, we are expected to be better at our job than we were yesterday.

Is this bad? It IS a lot to deal with but I personally believe it has given me as much as I have put in. Would an ordinary job give me the opportunity and freedom to explore what I could do for the company? I doubt it.

I reckon I was hired as a lead content developer because I had an up and running blog but more because I came across as someone with a can-do attitude in my job interview. After an email explaining how I’d like to change the company health blog, I joined the startup as someone who was responsible for the health content. In addition to the tasks given to me, I was always thinking “what more?”. I started following startup news simultaneously understanding the e-health scenario in the country. The more I read, the more I realized that healthcare was a tougher area to connect with the audience since it was only of interest to those in actual need of a medical treatment. Setting up a shopping platform and spending a bomb on marketing is far easier than to engage audiences in health trivia or what-to-ask-your-surgeon questions or even more difficult – introduce a super alien concept to India – Free Credible Help.

[Random event]

Stranger No. 657: “What does your company do?”

Me: “We give patients options to the best doctors and hospitals where they want. We help them with the entire hospitalization process, right from booking their appointment – getting them admitted – to post-rehab facilities”

Stranger No. 657: “Oh that’s great, and how much do you charge?”

Me: “There is no charge for the patients – this is a completely free service.”

Stranger No. 657: “…so how does a patient know your service is unbiased?”

Me: “We have all the top hospitals on our panel and while we provide options, they (patients) choose who they want to go to, where they want to go, when they want to go.”

I do not remember how many times I’ve had this conversation with people, whether the number was in triple digits or quadruple – I anticipated the same questions over and over again, I had all the answers ready to.

Not even 12 months into my job I was promoted because my boss and I agreed that I had taken more on my plate and the additional initiatives were highly encouraged. I was determined to introduce healthcare to India like never before. The focus was for people to find us approachable, interesting and quick to respond. And for all this, we had to have a strong digital presence. Along the way, we worked in collaboration with giants like LifeCell, Artemis Hospital, Max Hospital for both online and offline events. This was a way to attract more eyeballs to our brand and really just introduce our concept.

Working in a startup is similar to being pushed into the deep side of the pool when you don’t even know how to swim.

From having no experience in social media, content development or digital healthcare I found myself meeting investors, discussing healthcare with important people who were actually making a difference in the startup world and who have been leaders in healthcare for decades!

A great idea is nothing without a great mind bringing it to life.

I saw this happen in real life. I have met many people who have these world-changing ideas but the same people find it hard to turn their ‘great’ idea into a reality. The vision that my (now) ex boss has for our company is exemplary and I hesitantly confess I wasn’t sure if all his ideas were, in fact, do-able. But I was wrong. Perhaps that is the definition of a leader – he finds it in his people a way to achieve the unattainable. Just a few days ago, we touched 1 lakh satisfied patients. One of my most memorable moments was being a part of his success at the Entrepreneur® 2015 event where he received the award for ‘Entrepreneur of the Year in Service Business – Healthcare’.

During my last month at the company, I was working with my team to introduce Gurgaon to emergency ambulance services through a click-of-a-button on our app. I am proud to say that this was all over the news a couple of weeks ago.

How my Ladakh trip turned out to be similar to working in a startup

In an Economic Times article I read, a study revealed the recent stagnancy in growth and the undeniably increasing pressure in the Indian startup industry. This further confirmed the same pressure I felt early on this year but it was far from the reason why I decided to move on from the startup world. I was ready for my next adventure and after working in the startup industry for 26 months, I took a 12-day trip to Ladakh to let go of everything and ‘explore’ my options – something one of the headhunters thought was ‘too brave of me to do’. Here’s what I found similar with the two:

  1. Company matters – heaps

The journey is long and despite the fascinating scenic beauty at every turn, in the long run you realize that your company matters the most. After all, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey and company makes a huge part of it. People who are adjusting, open to new experiences and people make for easy companions. These are the people you grow close and the same friendships can last a lifetime.

  1. Compared to the nauseating endless deadlines and deliverables in a startup, the altitude sickness is terribly real

    ladakh trip

  2. Like every startup blueprint, your journey needs to be well-planned

The trip feel more like an adventure than a vacation, it’s this exact nature that makes it comparable to startups. From minute travel details to daily itinerary, the journey is measured throughout.

A trip to Ladakh or working in a startup are both situations outside your comfort zone. You know what else lies beyond your comfort – following your intuition and learning far more than you ever could in a safe area.

Would love to hear about your experiences working in a startup in the comment section below.

Digital Transformation in India: Better late than never?

1.3 Billion vs. 1.4 Billion

In 2012, I was studying Mandarin in a part of Beijing known as a student’s hub – Haidian district is home to over 15 significant universities including Baidu headquarters. When you’re living in China, it’s hard to miss how the fashion sense of the locals grows on foreigners. The Chinese like to express their individuality through their appearance. And what better reason to shop when the clothes are cheap and there is too much variety?

I vividly remember thinking to myself about their obsessive shopping from Alibaba-owned TaoBao – a shopping haven similar to Amazon and eBay. Even on a freezing snowy morning on my way to class, I would pass minivans dropping off ‘packages’ right outside the university, creating obvious heaps of brown cartons.

In China, online purchases generated approximately $121 billion in sales in early 2011 and about 80% of all transactions were done on TaoBao. Were people in India ready to rely on online platforms to shop? Was a China like digital transformation possible in India? Even though there were companies that established similar platforms in India as early as 2012, I can hardly recount a friend or relative shopping online. But there’s always a first time for everything, right? Cut to today, everything from my shoes, clothes, electronics, even my next doctor’s appointment is booked online. But are we really there yet?

Here’s a fact that’ll tell you exactly how far we are – Out of 20 top Internet companies in the world 5 are Chinese, one each Japanese and English while the rest are American. Even though India ranks third globally in terms of the number of startups, why can’t we find ourselves in this list? Two major factors contribute to this – digital access and digital capability.

Even though there’s not much of a difference when comparing the number of people in the 2 countries, at the end of 2014 India had approximately one-third of the total number of internet users in China. The government has finally expressed the desire to promote the Indian startup ecosystem and we have a long way to go before the Internet reaches Tier II and Tier III cities. Clearly, digital transformation is still in-the-process of arriving in our country.

Coming to the digital capability gap, a staggering 25% of the Indian population cannot read and write compared to China’s 5%. Taking this into account, it’s safe to say that making Internet accessible for all Indians is more a need than want.

Digital transformation: Ready or not, here I come

Digital transformation is the development and implementation of strategies that help captivate and engage digital customers.

Here’s a simple way to describe why digital comes first today:

Say I move to a new city and plan my housewarming party, I hire a party planner. After the party, I look for a plumber. To find all these, I go online and search for the nearest service expert available and I come across Urbanclap, a platform that allows a person to find the best service professionals.

Here’s another example, I want to consult a doctor, but I want to be sure of his capabilities and expertise so that I know I’m going to the right one. What’s my first step? I Google search him. I will probably come across hospitals where he works, his LinkedIn profile or better yet his own website.

The previous generation was alien to the whole idea of going online to find the right people. While they relied on services they found via word-of-mouth, things have taken a digital bend today. We don’t need to talk anymore. All we need to do is ‘search’ online. And we open a world of patient reviews, years of experience, work locations, accomplishments and so on.

Pure convenience on your fingertips.

According to reports and statistics gathered over the years, digital transformation not only helps improve customer engagement but the sort of one-on-one experience that digital channels offer lead to a high percentage of customer satisfaction. Big companies, like Myntra and Paytm or startups like Innerchef and Fassos make sure they respond almost immediately to customer concerns with packaging, delivery or even service quality. Direct customer relations with the company not only help resolve issues fast but provide instant organic feedback from hundreds, thousands or even millions of customers.

Did you know that most companies do not have preconceived blueprint and execution protocol for content strategy? To engage customers, companies require fresh content on traditional and social channels. And to achieve the utmost level of customer satisfaction, the focal point doesn’t just fall on customer experience but additional rich sources of expertise from company culture bred employees and leaders, who create quality content that acts as a catalyst in building the company voice and brand.

Since this transformation is still in-process, we face an obvious roadblock when it comes to old-school company campaign strategies. To engage a customer, companies now need to allocate budget keeping in mind digital marketing besides offline marketing. The creation of an event is not just about location, sponsors and footprint but also about social media presence, Google Ads and online content. Turns out Paid Social is an integral part of digital transformation as it helps reach target audiences and build brands by retaining ads on social media giants.

Overcoming these limitations and evolving with new-age digital strategies will help companies build a brand, create engagement among their customers and deliver smoothly. Much like Huawei who recently announced innovative solutions for 4.5G, Internet of Things (IoT), 2K/4K video and Safe City. Question is – in a country where less than 2 companies out of 5 have taken their business online, how far is the digital transformation dream?

Originally published on BWdisrupt Businessworld.