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So here's the formula...

May 24, 2008

I've done a lot of research on start-ups. Having read hundreds of books and too-many-to-count websites and blogs on the subject, I was nothing if not prepared when I decided to take the plunge and leave my corporate job to co-found Grazr. Or was I? The truth is, other's experience and advice only gets you so far, there is no formula. My favorite blog post on the subject: Every Piece of Startup Advice is a Lie (including mine) by Tony Wright. It's a list of startup platitudes and how, in almost every case, they come in mutually exclusive pairs with examples supporting each.

That's why I tend to get heartburn when reading "here's the formula for startup success" posts. There's a conversation on Techmeme about PR in the "new world" of web 2.0 by Brian Solis on TechCrunch. We're keenly interested in the roles of PR and marketing for our company, one of the reasons Adam weighed in on the topic. PR is one of those areas where we've tried to follow the "new math" of web 2.0 in building our company. Adam's post flows from some of the frustrations. We're constantly analyzing what we're doing wrong with Grazr and we know we don't have *it* yet (whatever it is).

Loic Le Meur weighed in on the conversation with a post about the "truth" of "PR bullshit". I respect Loic, I think he's done a great job with Seesmic and many of his ventures (like LeWeb), but I think he's a bit off-base with his post. Don't get me wrong, it sure feels good the way he describes the role (or lack thereof) of PR in web 2.0, but it's the extrapolation of his experience into general truisms that I think is wrong.

The tone was set by his first "PR in the new world" truism.

Not a secret #1 who cares about stories, you can get traction and users if you have a good product

Ugh. As an engineer and a technologist, I cringe at the continuation of this myth. The quality and draw of your product is clearly an element of success, but to intimate that this is some fundamental truth is short sighted. How many times has an inferior product gained market dominance over superior products? How often have amazing technology products vanished because they failed to gain exposure to the right people. The history of the technology business is littered with examples. (Windows versus OS/2 anyone?) In most of these cases the equation is complicated, but to discount the role of PR and marketing is folly.

Not a secret #2 Do not pick a PR person, be the spokesperson of the company

He makes the point that the company founder should be the spokesman. For Loic this is definitely true, he's charismatic and an excellent marketer. I've been following Seesmic's progress, and my earliest exposures were highly polished video messages starring Loic. If you are a CEO or founder that is as charismatic as Loic and/or an innate marketer, then by all means you should be the spokesman. What if you're in the situation where the CEO or founder brings different personal strengths and assets to the venture? Maybe they're strong in areas like grand vision, technological expertise, or industry experience. You could make the mistake of saying the founder/CEO should cultivate this skill, but it's always at the expense of energy that could be applied to the areas in which they're already strong. One of the best things a CEO or founder can do is recognize their own personal limitations and find or hire others who are strong where they are weak. Is Loic saying that if you're not good in front of a camera, or good at working the room, you have no business starting a company?

There are other entries on his list on building community and cultivating friendships with bloggers. All of it clearly worked for Loic, but I think seeing your own success through the lens of it being the "right" formula is dangerous for others trying to start companies. The truth for PR in startups is the same as all the other startup advice, there is no formula.