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’.

#entrepreneur2015 #healthcare #credihealth

A post shared by Prachi Tyagi (@prachipreaches) on

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.

Startup India: A series of uninterrupted one-liners & an action plan

It was a huge deal. First time in India, the Prime Minister took the initiative to announce new and exclusive exemptions for India’s growing startup ecosystem. And why shouldn’t he? According to NASSCOM’s report, India stands at a whopping third place when it comes to the highest number of startups in the world. After the his stint in Silicon Valley, PM Modi grew even fonder of the idea of an independent India building strong, smart entrepreneurs. Love his governance or hate it, this is the sort of vision India needed in its Prime Minister.

The power pact day, 16th January, entailed 1500 eminent speakers, entrepreneurs, startups and government officials present at the event – by invite only. The day started off by addressing basic yet vital points – Why focus on the Indian startup system? How can we nurture innovation in India?

Followed by sessions in-conversation with the policy makers of the country, women entrepreneurs making their mark in the industry and eventually the announcement of the big action plan.

Felt like déjà vu when Modi ,yet again, emphasized on Setting up of a ₹10,000 crore fund for startups. 2 years ago, the finance minister announced the launch of India Aspiration Fund (IAF) but the financial plan is yet to be shared with the public.

Other points announced included – Lower government interference in business, a credit guarantee fund for startups and a Startup India Hub – a platform where investors and startups could meet.

While a startup India hub sounds exciting enough, my favourite announcement were the Tax exemption for 3 years and capital gains. But then I realized, not many startups would generate taxable income in the first three years! I still feel like the PM got a bit too ambitious when he mentioned the launch of a mobile app and website that would enable single point of registration for startups – all in a day. The same would be used for clearances, approvals and registrations. I’m all for this, but a government app that can smoothly perform these function would be a boon and almost sounds too good to be true, especially for startups that are just starting off.

Although the day was all about the action plan, the one-liners young entrepreneurs and seasoned investors threw at the crowd stole the show. Whether it be Softbank’s Founder, Masayoshi Son, “In 25-35 years, I have a feeling, this country will surpass all other countries in the world to become No. 1 (in GDP).” or the young 22-year-old starry-eyed entrepreneur Ritesh Agarwal, Founder and CEO, OYO Rooms “I dream of a country 15-20 years from now where there will be more self employed people than the number of people employed by other companies.”

What can the Startup Action Plan do for India in the coming decades?

More startups mean more solved pain-points of the common man. More consumer based companies mean happier customers. This might just be the formula to a more content India. India’s increasing internet penetration is proof enough that startups are here to stay. The PM’s Action Plan is the perfect catalyst to shaping his Digital India, our Digital India.

Startups Are Here To Stay, Unicorns Might Fade Away #BigIdeas2016

Startups valued over a massive $1 billion are unicorns – you know that fantasy animal that doesn’t exist? In the recent past, Indian unicorns have been in the news. Whether it’s about something as celebratory as receiving huge amounts of funding series after series or a dramatic exit of a co-founder.

It’s been a few years since the ‘startup boom’ in our country and after all the gushing, people have now started talking about the possible burst of the startup bubble.

Will 2016 be the beginning of the end? I don’t think so. Yes, investors are focusing on more sustainable revenue models. And that should have been the case from the very start. But does pricey investors mean the end of startup proliferation? Nope. It only means the good ones, the right ones will flourish.

So what sparked the fear of the tech bubble burst?

One of the main factors – famous startups ended up firing hundreds of employees (on the grounds of reorganizing the company, etc)  in the past few months led analysts to come to this conclusion. While it makes sense for them to compare the rise of the startups to that of the dot com boom, the need of the hour remains unique startups set on the foundation to solve the common man’s problem – be it hospitalization or food delivery. In other words,

startups born with the aim to raise funds, gain immediate profit are bound to break in the long run while startups built for the fundamental reason to solve an identified problem – directly or indirectly helping the masses – emerge as the sustainable hero.

The much talked about visit to the Silicon Valley by our Prime Minister was made to digitally empower Indians and promote tech investment from around the globe.

Contrary to what people have started to believe, the Indian startup ecosystem is still booming.

On 16th January 2016, Modi will be announcing the complete action plan forStart-up India, Stand-up India – a programme focused to boost entrepreneurship that will help generate employment for more than 250,000 people by 2020.

For the first time, the Government of India, has planned to promote bank financing for start-up ventures. With this sort of unprecedented support and encouragement, it might as well be impossible to anticipate a bubble burst.

Previously published on LinkedIn.

Picture courtesy – flickr.com/photos/scobleizer/14213975068

Modi in Silicon Valley 2015 – What this means for the Indian Startup Ecosystem

Were you aware that the Indian startup ecosystem has reached approximately 2 million high-tech employees in about 14,000-19,000 startups?

With these staggering numbers, India has earned its reputation as the global tech Mecca (according to a U.S.-based research firm’s Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking).

The Indian startup boom is hard to ignore and caught the eye of our very own Prime Minister.

Narendra Modi might have his share of critics back home but he sure is a political celebrity among NRIs. The first Prime Minister of India to give fresh impetus to the Indian startup ecosystem, I won’t deny, I was curious to see how he would do.

At the Facebook headquarters, hearing ‘chak de India’ playing in the background as Modi and Facebook CEO Zuckerberg took their respective seats was definitely a patriotic touch that worked wonders with the present crowd. While most political officials rarely ever gather an audience in 4-digits in their home countries alone, Modi managed to attract a staggering 18,000 people at this unprecedented town hall in sunny California. While sharing a story about his initial days of struggle Mark narrated the story of how his mentor—Steve Jobs suggested he embark on a journey to visit a temple in India, while Modi revealed his insights on the marvels of technology—in hindi—which I found to be an especially interesting choice to make.

Fast forward to his speech at San Jose’s SAP arena in Silicon Valley was an unflinching attempt by the small-town Gujarati amidst tech luminaries like Shantanu Narayan of Adobe, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, John Chambers of Cisco and Sundar Pichai of Google.

Nadella modi

Nadela revealed an incident from his recent trip to a classroom in a rural setting of Nanyuki, Kenya where a group of students were engaged in a Skype conversation with another classroom located in a rural part of Andhra Pradesh, India. Satya Nadela elaborated on his vision to build data and cloud infrastructure – developing smart cities in India. This being apt to Modi’s quote on the Internet of Things “it’s been a long journey in a short time”. Think about how many doors this sort of technology opens in the healthcare sector alone. An experienced surgeon in a metro city can now instruct, guide and train doctors in Tier II and Tier III cities in real-time. In others words, it is now possible for a doctor sitting in one corner of the world to treat patients thousands of miles away through digital healthcare.

With Nadela committing to support the Indian government to provide broadband to 5 lakh villages across India, Qualcomm’s Executive Chairman Paul E Jacobs took this opportunity to announce $150 million fund dedicated to the Indian startup ecosystem. This chip-making giant is already involved in several projects in India – one such project is with the National Health Mission, to help frontline health workers assess sick newborn babies, with the ultimate goal to decrease high mortality rates. This project is one of several in the mission to change India’s current status as the top country with the highest under-5 mortality rate.

Acknowledging the vast potential of the Indian startup ecosystem, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO accredited the progress of startups like FlipKart, Snapdeal, Zomato and Quikr – a few big names from over 3000 upcoming startups in India. He also took this opportunity to announce Google’s plans to enable Wi-Fi Internet to 500 railway stations, which will inevitably hugely contribute to Internet penetration in India.

Unfettered, Modi stood high and mighty with the tech giants of Silicon Valley with the aim to start Indian entrepreneurship and connect the country’s ecosystem with Silicon Valley. This visit is expected to digitally empower Indians, promote tech investment massively, ultimately leading to more investments and more jobs.

While it might be too soon to say that India may replace China as Silicon Valley’s frontier, the startup ecosystem is undoubtedly set to grow, generating employment for more than 250,000 people by 2020. President of the US-based startup accelerator YCombinator, Sam Altman showed his confidence in the Indian startup ecosystem by stating that he foresees India coming up with multiple $10 Billion startups in the next five years. With so much of time and most importantly – increasing dollar inflow, Modi’s stint may just have taken us one step closer to becoming a superpower.