One founder says, “We’re making the world a better place… through paxos algorithms for consensus protocols. The next founder says, “We’re making the world a better place through… canonical data models to communicate between eggs. One founder at the end finally says, “We’re making the world a better place through … scalable, fault tolerant, distributed databases, ACID transactions.”
While the scene is a parody, in reality, this is not so far off from the stuff that reporters hear day in and day out with tech founders. How do I know? Other than working with reporters across the region daily, I’ve asked tech reporters from various media outlets including The Business Times, KRAsia and The Ken about their experiences interviewing startup founders in Southeast Asia.
Everyone thinks they are special…
Imagine yourself sitting in the shoes of a reporter, listening to a company founder droning on about how he is going to change the world.
“The thing with startups sometimes is that they believe that whatever they’re doing is the most novel thing out there. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not,” said a tech reporter from a first-tier publication in Singapore.
So how do I stand out from the pack? What if I really am special?
Start from a clean slate and rewire yourself. Avoid technical jargon at all times. I have sat through interviews where the founder cannot help themselves from going straight into the nuts and bolts of their data-driven algorithms or proprietary solutions.
“The spokesperson should be able to explain succinctly why their solutions work, what pain point it addresses, and how they stand out from their competitors. Basically, why their news matters,” said another tech reporter.
Who should I speak to? How should I speak? And how should I know what to say?
This is what founders often ask me. So, let’s break it down:
1. Who should I speak to?
Let’s start with the first step. Do your homework. You have practiced your elevator pitch time and time again for your VC investors. You have by now spent hours absorbing details about the firm’s previous investments, its investment theses, what the partners like and do not like to hear in pitch meetings.
Just like the different VCs you speak to, media outlets come in different sizes, shapes and tastes — even within the tech universe. Within tech, there are reporters who cover a country, such as tech in Indonesia, reporters who cover ride-hailing only (which for the most part is Grab and Gojek), and reporters who cover tech across the region — e.g. The Information or TechCrunch.
“Before pitching, it is essential to consider whether your news could really become a story on the reporter’s website. For example, at TechCrunch, I didn’t ever write about partner deals or appointments, but yet some people would still pitch these types of news. That showed they don’t read the publication. You’d expect a reporter to know something about your company before they speak to you, so it’s only fair to think you’d research the publication and reporter too,” said Jon Russell of The Ken.
So, do your research and get a sense of both what the publication likes to cover and what the reporter likes to write about. Do not send reporters the same generic email with a sales pitch for your company or product. The media landscape is small in Southeast Asia. It is even smaller for tech (and for the most part, a lot of the reporters know each other), so be sure to do your homework and shape what you say accordingly.
A good resource that takes a deeper dive into this topic is TiA’s article which is aptly titled, How do I get covered by Tech in Asia?
Many points in this article cover a lot of basic principles for approaching any tech publication.
2. How do I know what to say?
For the most part (and I can at least attest on behalf of our portfolio companies) as a founder, you are not in it for the money. You’ve conceptualized an idea, that became a prototype, that is now a product or solution that you truly believe will change the lives of millions. You have a team of 50, 100, 500 that you’re now in charge of that believe in you and the mission of the company.
Tell a story. Show your passion. Demonstrate your expertise in the industry. And why you are the right company to do what you do.
I sat in on an interview last year with the founder of Saleswhale Gabriel Lim and the editor of Campaign Asia to discuss the growth of the company and outlook for the sales and marketing industry.
On one hand, Gabriel could have just spouted off the tech behind Saleswhale or the growing revenues they’re seeing year-on-year, and the fact that they were a recent graduate from the Y Combinator program. But rather, he started the conversation with why he decided to start Saleswhale, the pain point he was seeing between sales and marketing teams at organizations across the board, and why Saleswhale is best positioned to solve this solution and maybe even more importantly, why they are poised to solve this solution today.
Before going into the interview, think about the headline you want, the audience you’re intending to speak to and how do you provide the context and color to the reporter in an interesting and insightful way? When you are able to tell a compelling story to a reporter that is insightful and relevant, you will see it translate into a strong piece. In this situation, the published article led to sales leads for Saleswhale.
How do you be insightful? Often times, it is just about doing your homework and providing interesting nuggets of information including stats, facts or anecdotes throughout the interview.
How should I speak?
It goes without saying, reporters are people too and when you want to work with people, authenticity plays an important role.
“I hope founders or startup executives can provide honest insight, not too PR-y answers or general statements,” said Khamila Mulia of KRAsia.
Khamila cited her recent interview with the founder of Wahyoo as being honest and insightful which translated into this piece.
Where you can and without divulging any trade or business secrets, candidness and authenticity is key to not just a strong interview but a strong impression with the reporter.
“It would be great if founders can speak candidly about challenges as no one’s expecting them to be perfect,” said one tech reporter in Singapore.
At the end of the day, as a founder, you are there to solve a problem and it is okay to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the industry that you are trying to solve.
Getting burned and how to work with media
As a final note, there’s always a degree of risk when being open to speaking to reporters. Though keep in mind you take a similar risk when you want to build any relationship — whether it is with a new investor, customer or team member.
I once went to Maxwell’s one evening, ate some cockles, and ended up with severe food poisoning with an IV drip at a public hospital in Singapore. Am I going to stop eating cockles? Am I going to stop going to Maxwell’s? You may say maybe, but I say no!
Ok, it may not be the best analogy for the cockle-haters out there.
The point is, in business, there are instances where you can get burned by a business partner or someone you’ve hired, but that does not mean you stop doing business with other business partners or stop hiring talent.
Similarly, one bad instance with a reporter does not mean they should be shunned or for you to be guarded in an interview.
“It would be great if founders have a degree of openness and trust when meeting with reporters,” said a reporter from a first-tier tech trade.
Good reporters value your insight and the relationship. It is important to build a rapport with them and invest time in your relationship and trust with them.
“The best relationships I have with founders/PRs are those that aren’t just transactional. That means that they don’t only call when they have a story to pitch, and likewise I don’t only contact them when I want something. Keeping in touch has never been easier with messaging apps, and having a relationship with a reporter makes pitching far easier—because often the tricky part is simply getting them [the reporter] to read and respond. Reporters are spread pretty thin across various beats and companies, so they’ll always appreciate someone in an industry who can give them straight opinions or even story tips,” said Jon.
At the same time, do understand a good reporter’s job is to tell a balanced story and there are always two sides of a coin.
“I think the common misconception is startup founders tend to think tech writers are natural evangelists for the ecosystem. All businesses and companies are open to scrutiny,” said Ka Kay.
It probably goes without saying that when a founder invests the time in a media relationship and builds a rapport with a reporter, it can pay dividends in supporting the growth of the company as you hire and fundraise.