Lynn Shepherd

Questions Communications Pros Ask About Working with Startups

By: Lynn Shepherd | December 11, 2017 | 
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startup companys

My third attempt to craft the perfect, witty opening for my first article for Spin Sucks did not go as I had hoped.

Oh well.

I decided I am probably better off taking the straightforward approach.

If you are thinking about working with startups, either by going in-house or externally, I can help you answer some fundamental questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What’s in it for me and my career?
  3. How can I crush it?

Working with startups is not always easy.

My mental files are bursting with things I’ve learned and things I wish I knew when first starting.

In this article, I will share answers to the most frequently asked questions I receive from communications pros considering working with startups.

Okay, let’s do this.

Questions Communications Pros Ask About Working with Startups

How do I know the startup will be around two years from now?

You don’t.

If you are highly risk-averse, this is definitely not the space for you.

Even if you work for a startup that has made it past the seed funding stage to attract venture capital, a good percentage of them fail.

Reasons are many—major change in market dynamics, inability to overcome headwinds from incumbent players, the value proposition just isn’t there for your buyers.

You can increase your odds of personal success by working with a venture led by someone who has a track record of successful exits—they have high entrepreneurial and high technical acumen.

You can also take the safer approach of working in an innovation center at a large organization.

While you may be limited in the things you can do creatively, you do get to be part of something new.

What do you like best about working at a startup?

So. Many. Things.

Number one is the incredibly positive energy and excitement of indulging your inner pioneer.

People who work for the startup are passionate about what they are doing.

And, there is now a whole support ecosystem for startups.

From physical community space run by groups such as Philadelphia-based Benjamin’s Desk, and Cambridge Innovation Center in Miami and Boston, to more comprehensive resource building organizations such as The Venture City, based in Miami Beach.

The second thing is the creative license to try new things and to be bold.

If you come from a highly regulated industry such as pharma or energy, it is truly liberating to be able to experiment with the kinds of campaigns and tactics done by marketing innovators such as Apple and Amazon.

What’s the most difficult part of doing communications at a startup?

For sure it is working with a leaner budget than you’ve probably ever had to work with at an agency or in-house at an established company.

Most money is spent on product development and customer acquisition, as it should be for an early-growth-stage company.

Not that anyone ever feels they have enough budget, no matter where they work.

But I found every penny matters at a startup, and you are responsible for making those pennies count.

For more seasoned communications pros accustomed to managing a healthy team, handling different aspects of communications, particularly logistical and administrative tasks, can be difficult for the person designing strategy, updating media contact info, and selecting menus for dinner programs.

Of course, the level of help varies depending on the company and how you manage product marketing and communications functions.

But, you can count on doing things you did at the earliest stage of your career.

Which qualities are most important for success in a startup environment?

Flexibility is a big one.

You’re building something that is new.

You need to be okay with the fact that you’ll be in this virtuous cycle of putting something out there, getting feedback, adjusting your narrative based on how your prospective customers or investors react, retooling your materials, and then rinse and repeat.

Resourcefulness is another, going back to the penny-wise discussion earlier.

Positivity is also up there.

You are working under a lot of pressure, at a very fast clip, and many things you try will fail.

Technology will not work as you thought it would.

Customers won’t react as you hoped.

But, if you have a positive mindset, trust the journey, and believe in the mission, you will keep finding the energy you need to carry you through.

What skills and knowledge are most important for communications pros in a startup?

Writing—concisely and compellingly.

You need to be able to write good headlines and motivate people to act in 280 characters.

And you need to be able to do it quickly.

Domain acumen.

You must be able to zero in on which stakeholders are most important and which channels are most effective for engaging them.

For example, if you take a job with a health tech startup and you have a background in travel or payment tech, it will take at least six months before you will be able to develop audience-relevant content or strategies.

Integrated communications, earned media, paid media, marketing, advertising, and thought leadership are all converging.

(BTW, check out Anthony D’Angelo’s great post on “5 Axes of Convergence That Are Transforming the PR Industry.”)

You should have a solid understanding of how to create a content plan and leverage SEO best practices to get the eyes you want on bylines, banner ads, webinars, conference sessions, and story pitches across all earned, paid, and owned channels.

Bonus question: Which news outlets are your current must-follows for healthcare business and startup news?

  • Politico Morning eHealth – A highly skimmable format, allowing you to stay current on policy and legislation news. Good for newsjacking and pitch ideas. A masterclass in headline writing.
  • First Round Review – Not solely focused on healthcare. Contains interesting content on startups and they are masters at marketing their blog—something to emulate.
  • VoxCare – A sophisticated yet simple analysis on current health news.
  • Axios – A health channel written by seasoned health care journalists with incredible access and an ability to cut to the chase and share what is really underneath the news of the day.
  • Continuum – CareCloud’s blog on trends which are important to medical practices. A team of freelance journalists writes about the business of medicine.

If you have pointers for working with startups, please share in the comments below.

Quick ask–if you are already doing communications for a startup, please take this five-minute anonymous survey as part of my Capstone research right now.

The 30-Day Communications Challenge begins on January 3.  Are you subscribed?

About Lynn Shepherd


Lynn is head of communications for the Miami-based health technology company, CareCloud. A self-professed health care nerd, Lynn has spent her career dedicated to helping healthcare companies and organizations tell their stories. She has worked exclusively with healthcare startup companies and ventures for the past seven years. She holds a BA in English Literature from Penn State University and is currently completing her Capstone for an MS in Communications Management from Syracuse University. She divides her time between Philadelphia and Miami.

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