How to Be Ready for the Spotlight: The Founder’s Guide To Looking Ridiculously Good Online
As a startup founder, there’s no one better poised to tell your story than you, whether you believe that or not. But not every founder is ready when the media comes-a-calling. Here’s how to not get caught with your pants down.
Intro: Why be media ready, startup founder?
Let’s face it: As the founder of your startup, you have to be ready for the spotlight.
If you want to gain any sort of traction and enjoy any sort of growth, the (wo)man behind the mask has got to be present -- even if you’re all about the “we.”
Why? Because your startup started with you. Because you had the idea, and despite hiring what we hope is a stellar team, it was you who propelled that idea into reality.
So when the media comes-a-calling, you best be ready for that spotlight to shine on you. Not a “I-need-to-lose-10-pounds-and-hire-a-makeup-artist”-ready, but in a “I-know-journalists-are-going-to-google-me” fashion.
Looking ridiculously good online means honing the skills needed to shine, building a presence where it matters, and then doing the work to keep that presence polished -- so when that feature does land on TechCrunch or ProductHunt, you’ve got your best foot forward.
It’s much better than being caught with your foot in your mouth (or doing anything much worse). Capisce? Let’s move on.
Part I: What it means to be media ready (and what happens when you’re not)
You’re on the media’s radar -- maybe it’s that press release that went out, or perhaps it was the mention on that niche product blog, or hey, maybe you made a scene at a local meetup and for good or for bad, people are looking your startup up.
What happens when they find out yours is a startup that’s going places? They want to know more about the person behind it; the story behind the idea; the path that was taken to get to where it is today.
The best spokesperson for your startup will almost always be you, the founder. And whether you like it or not, that’s a good thing. You bring a wealth of knowledge, a long-term vision, and a personal investment in your company’s success that no one else can. And, to be blunt, you cannot replace the authenticity and energy of a passionate founder -- it’s part of what makes your startup unique.
Which means when the press comes-a-calling, you’re suddenly in the spotlight, fellow founder. And you need to be media ready.
What does that mean, exactly? Let’s start with our good friend, Google.
Know what’s coming up in general search results.
Get your mind off the keywords you’re trying to rank on when it comes to SEO for your business for a minute, and focus on what’s coming up when your name or your company name + founder is searched.
Is it good? Bad? Ugly? No matter what, we bet it could be better.
The good news is, you have control over it. But before we get further into how let’s talk about what else it means to be media ready. (Because it does expand beyond Google, despite it being a major controller of our online fates. Yeah, we said it.)
Get your glam on.
What photos do you provide when asked for a headshot? What’s the profile picture that shows up on your social media and startup database accounts? Please, stop cropping your high school graduation picture and get some professional photographs taken. Skip the candidness of that last cocktail party, and embrace the sensible -- or at least relevant -- background. Feeling vain? Perfect.
Stick to the script. (Or at least be aware of it.)
Your startup has a mission. Sure, that mission may have evolved since you’ve started this thing, but with that, we’d also venture to say that mission -- and the talking points that surround it -- has been refined.
Do you really need to stick to a script? No -- and we don’t advise it. But being absolutely clear on your mission and those talking points gives you a leg up when it comes to improvising, so you can make sure the story you’re telling is the same one everyone at your startup is. Only with that foundation in place can you tweak it based on the audience.
Remember: Your customers are buying your story as much as your product. Define a unique angle within the broader narrative of your industry to stand out. Your personal story, founder, is part of that.
Prep that media kit.
If you think the media kit is sooo 2010, well, you’re wrong. We like how Jim and Andrew put it in this Entrepreneur.com article: “If you were to fall off the face of the Earth today, a reporter should be able to have a good story out tomorrow, using nothing but the information you’ve collected for them on your website.”
A little too morbid? Sorry. (Said in our finest Canadian accent.) But it’s true: With a robust media kit that’s readily available, you can control the story and keep a journalist moving when it’s hot.
Yes, your job is to lead a team. Yes, your job is to grow a company. Yes, your job is to get shit done. But if you’re not media ready when the time comes, you might as well kiss that time spent getting shit done goodbye, because disaster recovery hits more than just the wallet.
Part I further reading:
Part II: The skills you need to shine as a founder in the spotlight
A startup founder that shines is likely a great speaker, naturally builds an awesome rapport with reporters, has a charismatic personality, puts relationships first, and is consistent with his/her storytelling. All of these things will set you up to rock those search results and come off as media ready.
But unlike Lady Gaga, we’re going to assume you weren’t born this way.
Here are the skills you’ll need so that you’re not standing with your zipper down when the spotlight shines. (Metaphorically, of course.)
Be the speaker of the house.
Solid speaking skills are a must as a startup founder. There is no clever or more complicated way to say that. When the microphone is in front of you, you have to know what to do with it.
But not everyone is comfortable speaking to a room full of people -- even when it’s virtual. We get that. Here are four ways to get started in improving your speaking skills:
- Practice, practice, practice. Talk to the mirror. Talk to your dog. Talk to your grandmother’s book club. Get in front of a camera, then watch it back. Practice will literally make perfect in this instance, but it’ll take hours upon hours and almost guaranteed embarrassments. (We’ve all had them.)
- Research, research, research. Always know your audience and the environment in which you’ll be speaking and they’ll be watching. It helps with preparation and lets you focus on the important things: delivery and connection.
- Become the master of bulleted lists. The more eye contact you can make, the more connections you’ll develop, so it’s imperative that you not rely on notes. If you do need some sort of prompt, create bulleted lists that’ll jog your memory so that any time spent looking down is quick.
- Learn to tell a good story. A good speaker always leads with a story that’s relevant to the audience, since we, as humans, are innately built to connect through story. (We were born with that.) This is a prime opportunity to work with a media coach -- someone who can help you choose relevant talking points, develop engaging stories, and practice delivery strategies.
Remember: YouTube is a search engine all its own. When you’re giving that TEDx talk that’s going to end up online, or you’re a guest on that webinar that your client hosted, those instances will show up in your search results.
Prepare yourself for questioning.
What can be even more taxing than speaking to a crowd? Having a one-on-one talk with a reporter. Let’s just say, it’s not your standard dinner party conversation.
Sometimes, a chat with a reporter can feel like you’re talking to an old friend. Other times, it can feel like an interrogation. In either case, you need to be careful. Why? Because much like in a courtroom, the words you choose to use can and will be used against you -- and they’ll be forever searchable online. Here are four ways to make sure they’re used positively:
- Do your research. What does this journalist normally cover? What’s his/her writing style? What types of people has he/she interviewed before? Getting to know the journalist on a deeper level will help you understand what the conversation might feel like.
- Know the journalist’s angle on your particular story. Every reporter has one. Know what it is, and cater to it -- whether that means taking a potentially unflattering angle and correcting it or taking a positive angle and amplifying it.
- Turn your weaknesses into strengths. This age-old job interview strategy can be crucial to giving a good media interview, as well. There’s certainly a positive outcome from every perceived failure -- and you, startup founder, are smart enough to find it. Why didn’t you acquire that funding faster? Because you were taking the time to learn what you needed. What about that time you dropped out of college? Oh, your entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and you knew the only way to learn was by doing. You get it...
- Practice humility. You don’t know everything -- and that’s okay. The most dangerous thing you can do is to pretend you have all the answers. Be honest about the fact that you don’t. Your humility is what viewers/listeners will connect with.
Bring all the juju.
You. Are. Not. A. Robot.
But so many founders come off as one, especially online. It’s what happens when they memorize the story but forget themselves.
Whether you believe it or not, you have a personality, and the crowded landscape you’re likely operating in needs to see it in order to set you apart. It could be a signature catch phrase you always use. (Alright, alright, alright.) Or maybe a hat you always wear. Or hey, a gesture, as long as it’s clean. Your personality can come through in so many different ways -- don’t forget to let it out sometimes.
Nurture that (digital) Rolodex.
Relationships are the crux of any good business -- and you, startup founder, need to learn to nurture relationships like it’s your main priority.
Jim Rohn famously suggested that we are the sum of the five people we spend the most time with -- so we want to make sure those people are better than us. We’d stretch that to way more than five people.
Come at everything from a place of community over competition, and learn to nurture the relationships you build. We’ll talk about a few ways to do that online below, but don’t be afraid to improve your online relationships by taking it offline. Remember -- everyone eats. Breakfast, lunch, and happy hours are the perfect time to build those relationships beyond the inbox.
Make consistency the name of your game.
What do you think of the politician whose platform consistently changes? Or the umpire whose calls are always different? They lose all credibility.
The same can happen to you if you don’t practice consistency in how you show up and the stories you tell, whether it’s on a podcast, in a blog post, on a webinar, in a Mashable article, and beyond. Will things change? Of course. But the core principles you build in being media ready won’t -- and after a certain amount of time, consistency won’t even be a challenge if you’re doing it right.
The skills needed to shine in the spotlight might not be what you were born with -- but they’re all certainly able to be learned. The best part? Learning to speak and give a good interview, learning how to bring your personality out and build relationships, and knowing how to be consistent -- these skills will help you in more than just media relations. You’re welcome.
Part II further reading:
- How Speaking Gigs Can Grow Your Startup (And How to Get Started)
- How to Not Suck at Befriending Journalists
Part III: The platforms that matter for your personal brand
AKA the section formerly titled “where you should be, and what to do there.” Ready?
Here are a few places the media might be looking for you, founder -- from the obvious to the not-so-obvious -- and where you might want to consider building a presence.
A personal presence on social sites is a must -- at least for those channels that are applicable. Here’s what a few of the big ones are best for:
- Your startup’s blog: Newsflash...Blogging isn’t dead. It’s still the king of content marketing, and it’s still the best way to add fresh content to your website that’ll persistently alter (positively, when done right) your search results. As the founder of your startup, you can and should be a voice on the company blog.
- Twitter: Networking + content sharing. Quick conversations can turn into offline relationships, and giving the media opportunities to mention you and be mentioned in return offers the chance for some stellar digital relationship building.
- LinkedIn: Not just a resume site. LinkedIn is its own publishing platform -- a place where you can be building your message and telling your story before the media ever gets to you.
We’re not ignoring the presence or prevalence of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat -- but depending on your industry and niche, it might not make sense to invest in a personal presence on them nearly as much as it would for your blog, Twitter or LinkedIn. Consider the best way and place to tell your story, and decide based on that.
Another note to keep in mind: If you are on and social media sites for personal use but aren’t intentionally using them for your startup brand, be hyper-vigilant when it comes to those privacy settings. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to break down barriers into what you think might be shared only with “friends.” Most social sites are indexed for search, meaning yup -- that photo on Insta of the first time you played beer pong in ages can show up when you’re googled.
While everyone and their mother considers social media when it comes to building a personal brand (seriously, whose mother isn’t on Facebook these days?), it’s having a firm presence in startup databases that separates the few from the many.
Here are a few to seek out and build a profile on:
- AngelList. “Where the world meets startups.” We’d say you’d want to be there for that meet-and-greet.
- CrunchBase. “Discover innovative companies and the people behind them.” That’s you.
- VentureBeat. “Tech news that matters.” Guess what? You can also build a profile. It matters.
- Gust. “Startup funding and investing.” Your goals might differ, but it’s yet another place to get noticed.
- StartupList. “Collections of the best startups in different places.” Be known for what you do, where you are.
- Startupxplore. “The most updated startup database. Ready to get found and get funded.” Sounds downright adventurous, doesn’t it?
With all of these sites, you have the opportunity to be listed in yet another searchable database that will boost your rankings with search engines. To be blunt: The more legit profiles you have on respected sites, the better you look when the media searches for you and your startup.
A few more places to build your expertise online
These are a few places where having a presence can help both your relationship building and your credibility rankings when the media stumbles upon you there:
- F6S. “F6S is where Founders grow together.” A mix of resources on finance and recruiting plus the opportunity to network with other founders is what makes F6S a great place for a little more than just posting a profile and walking away.
- Quora + other industry-specific forums. Quora prides itself on being a forum where you can find “the best answer to any question,” and its Q&A platform is known for ranking well in search. In addition, industry-specific forums, like inbound.org for inbound marketers, make for great places to lend your expertise and build credibility online.
When the media comes searching, you’re going to want to be there -- and looking good -- for them to find. These are the sites and places where having a presence poses an opportunity for you to shine. Oh -- and while these are all great places to exist once you’re being searched for, keep this in mind: They’re also great ways for you and your startup to be found, in the first place.
Part III further reading:
Part IV: How to maintain your presence
Okay, so we know we just threw you a whole list of places you seemingly need to be. And we know you have better things to do than making sure your latest employee makes it into the company size number in a startup database.
But the truth is, it’s the small things that get noticed, and keeping those profiles maintained and up-to-date can and will be the difference between being noticed, and getting ignored.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to take 24/7 surveillance. And there are ways to make it manageable. Here are two methods we suggest:
- Hire it out. A PR team, social media manager, or ghostwriter will be very aware of the importance of keeping your online presence updated -- and they’ll know just how to do it. If it takes a load off your shoulders and can help bolster those search rankings? It might be worth bringing in a pro, who can also likely help you with much more.
- Create a schedule and DIY. Be realistic. For example, set a quarterly calendar appointment to make sure major database listings are up-to-date, a bi-weekly reminder to share your latest post on LinkedIn, and a daily appointment for 30 minutes where you can check in and network via sites like Twitter and F6S. Crucial to this process: remembering log-ins. Keep ‘em safe and keep ‘em accessible.
The goal, remember, is to be easily searchable and to have the media like what they see when they find you. That doesn’t mean you have to spend every minute checking Twitter or hours per day confirming your database profiles are up to date. It’s completely reasonable and effective to choose one or two platforms to be truly active on, and check in on a monthly/quarterly basis with the rest.
(Side note: If you feel it’s important to have a Twitter profile, but don’t plan to be active, make note of where someone might interact with you instead of in your Twitter profile. Apply this rule to all other platforms where it might be relevant, as well.)
Over time, you’ll find what’s working and what’s not, and you’ll fall into a routine that makes it all manageable.
Building an online presence that’ll pop up in search isn’t a one-and-done process. DIY with a manageable schedule or hire it out to make sure your profiles stay up-to-date and your content makes it onto the applicable platforms.
Part IV further reading:
Part V: Faux pas + what not to forget
We’re not here to burn anyone at the stake. That said, before we get into a few final things you won’t want to forget, a little sharing of a faux pas will help us all learn faster.
A year ago, we were back and forth with a writer at a major lifestyle media outlet, warming them up to do a pretty awesome piece on our client.
The issue? The writer did a little bit of research of their own for their article and looked to LinkedIn and Twitter to find out more about the founder, only to notice there was no mention of his startup on either account. Oops.
Every founder has their reasons for intentionally leaving their startup out of social media. For some, it may be because they have a full-time job with a boss who isn’t aware their startup exists. For others, they want the startup to thrive on its own without a face or name behind the company. Of course, there are also those who have simply forgotten to keep their online presence updated.
Whatever the case, unfortunately, it can reflect poorly on you and your startup. In our case, it nearly lost our client an amazing opportunity with the media, leaving us powerless to stop it.
And, finally, a few things you won’t want to forget
Your email address is telling. So a journalist is impressed with your online presence and wants to reach out with a few questions. Yay! Then, they realize you’re still using firstname.lastname@example.org as your main email address. Fail. Ditch the AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo! and other extraneous domains (yes, even Gmail), and buck up for the @yourstartupname.com address that shows you’re legit.
Family matters. There’s a reason a lot of founders don’t go into business with family. But despite dodging that (sometimes) bullet, your family can still impact your online reputation. After all, how much do we hear about Pippa Middleton -- and usually not when it’ll positively reflect on Kate. Gently remind your family members that respectable online presences aren’t just for the famous, or the soon-to-be. (And if you’re the III in a long line of John Smiths or Jane Does? The risk is real.)
The internet is for-ev-er. Not to go all doomsday on you, but keep in mind that even a deleted Tweet may have already been screenshotted. The internet tends to be pesky in its persistence if you haven’t noticed. Remember what’s searchable, and keep your own eye on it. Set up Google Alerts or use an alert platform like Muck Rack to stay in tune with what’s being said so you can try your best to be on the front-end of it.
Forget AOL. Family matters. The internet is forever. That’s all.
Part V further reading:
Conclusion: Have an online presence that works for you, not against you
“The good news is that a positive online reputation is the best lead-generation approach you don’t have to buy if you are proactive and do it right.” - Martin Zwilling
Far too many founders are content with staying in the background -- and while we respect your humility, we say it’s time to come out of the closet. The media wants you -- and we want you to be ready for it.
Don’t want to take our word for it? Note this, instead: in Aon’s 2015 Global Risk Management Risk Ranking, a survey of 1,400 risk-management professionals in 60 countries identified online reputation damage as one of the top 10 business risks. What’s more? They report “an 80 percent chance that your company will lose value within five years due to this problem.”
It’s like we said: disaster recovery hits more than just the wallet. Why not preempt it, knowing you can? The time to be proactive is now -- not during that next launch.
Be vain. Google yourself before the media does. Like what you see? There’s always room for improvement. Not thrilled with what’s showing up? Get to work.