This week, we’re going live with Volume 2 of Unsexy.tech, a resource designed expressly to explore the particular challenges and experience of B2B tech founders in more depth than the media usually allows.

We have interviews with founders of Element, Qflow and The Bot Platform, as well as a short summary post of how things seem to be going for B2B tech in the time of Coronavirus.

I’ve included that short analysis below, but head to the full site to hear from 3x founders and the lessons they have learned.

Unsexy.tech in the time of Coronavirus

These interviews took place at various times across the last few months, with Covid-19 looming large in the background. I think it paints an interesting context for how “unsexy” tech companies are being affected by the virus.

Early on, there seemed to be natural hesitance and delays while everyone scoped out the situation. But quite quickly, this switched into an interesting acceleration.

Ultimately, one of the key characteristics of B2B tech is that it helps larger established companies become more efficient, save money and do more than they were previously able to.

In normal times, this is a “long term strategic priority”. Meaning in practice, it often takes years, while the tanker slowly chugs along.

But in the context of Covid, it’s remarkable how quickly we have seen the kinds of companies who use our clients’ technology suddenly realise how little was actually stopping them make the move to these better ways of working.

It seems that “nobody got fired for buying IBM” becomes less relevant when playing it safe could still leave your business ravaged and your employees exhausted and frustrated.

I feel we’re seeing a huge phase of acceleration for the adoption of the best B2B tech. Remote working and asynchronous collaboration have stretched the limits of the old ways of operating. And in doing so, it has intensified the appeal of the new ways.

Although it comes at a terrible price, I do feel we’re entering a new time of opportunity and potential for the “unsexy” tech behind the scenes that really makes the world go round. And that doesn’t mean Zoom — it’s usually technology at a much deeper level than most readers want to read or talk about.

And that means I’m more pleased than ever to be hosting some of those stories here with the depth they deserve for just the readers who need them. If you’d like to be featured in a future piece, please do drop me an email.

And even so, if you have any feedback or thoughts about all this, please do get in touch and let us know how we can make unsexy.tech even better for you.

Wishing the best of luck and health to our readers and their families at this challenging time.

Building a startup requires every founder to tackle areas where they have no experience. However, unfamiliarity can make those challenges seem harder than they really are.

A particularly good example is PR and Comms around funding. This might be one of the earliest events that feels like a natural time to approach the press.

The good news is, it’s also really simple to do yourself and you should be able to get as good results as any tech PR agency.

The secret lies in focus and simplicity.

A note about uncertainty

Media relations is a fundamentally uncertain discipline, especially early on. You could get all the technical aspects 100% spot on, and even have a great story — but sometimes fail to cut through on the day because there’s another big announcement or event that sucks the oxygen out of the room.

In situations with uncertain outcomes like this, it’s natural for some people to try and sink more and more hard work into preparation to maximise their odds. Unfortunately, this misunderstands the nature of the beast, and only makes it more painful if the dice happen not to roll in your favour on the day.

The best way to approach media relations is with focus on simplicity, and spread of your bets over time. Send a shorter initial pitch to a smaller group of just the right people. Make it really nice and easy for them to tell you they aren’t interested. Find multiple opportunities to make your introduction and increase their understanding of your business over time.

Your long term goal is to make it a more reliable and resilient process by gradually building relationships with the people whose job it is to write about companies like yours.

Now, how does this apply to your Series A?

Perfect pitch

The first important step is to realistically grade the “quality” of your story. This involves dimensions like:

  • Investors — are they the top in your sector, with great portfolio, significant exits, ex-operators on the team, a platform? Or is it unknown/ pure finance, geographically obscure, 
  • Round value — Is this a big Series A? A confusing second seed round? A generally smaller “EU” Series A? Especially think about how you frame this with an eye on what you will be announcing next.
  • Evidence — can you highlight big new customers, partnerships, breakthroughs in scale, user numbers or similar to support why people should pay attention?

Let’s say your business just raised the biggest cybersecurity Series A in Europe from the top VC in that area to deliver a project for the MOD. 

This is a good story, because of how it relates to the strongest independent actors and context around you.

Now, the structure for a good pitch is extremely important. It looks like this:

HEADLINE
* FACT 1: Who cares?
* FACT 2: Exhibit A
* FACT 3: Exhibit B

If you can’t get a journalist’s attention with this structure, you won’t get it by spending hours more on a press release.

Let’s go through how to make each section as compelling as possible:

The Headline

This should be more than “CorpCo raises Series A”. That’s the “event”, not the story.

A good story requires tension. For example: “MaxCo Series A provides alternative to WhatsApp for Government”

That’s conflict, with a hero taking on the “big bad”. Equally you can create tension by challenging the reader’s existing beliefs — perhaps you are bringing a certain eco future forward, or achieving something most don’t think is possible.

Just the facts

The next section must now make good on the headline’s promise. Think of it like a lawroom drama: you’re standing in front of the jury you have put forward your argument, and now you must show the exhibits of evidence that support your case.

Fact 1 must make the headline real. Why would you be able to achieve this mission? What is the bigger picture this is part of?

For example: “MaxCo was established by the original WhatsApp team, to reverse the impact they had on society.”

Fact 2 might show your product’s reach today, geographically and at scale, or reference growth.

For example: “MaxCo tech is currently being used by 10M people, including the British, French and American Governments, growing 200% in the last 3x months.”

Fact 3 could be the “black and whites” — how much did you take, from who? Is there anything else you haven’t used yet that makes you stand out?

For example: “<INSERT BEST INVESTOR NAMES HERE> are leading the round, which raised an angel round from Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama.”

All you need to achieve with this pitch is a “yes” from the journalist. If they are interested, they will ask for more info, which you can provide — and in doing so, create specifically what they need.

Target with care

In reality, there are only a handful of journalists in the world who write about funding announcements.

What’s crucial with any list like this is you don’t just copy and paste it without thinking. Go and read what these people write — if you can’t find an article like the one you are expecting them to write about you, it’s not going to happen.

Briefing under embargo

This is the act of setting a date when the news will break and telling journalists ahead of time. This is helpful to journalists because it gives them time to make the story as good as possible — to interview people if they want to, to ask questions, to perform acts of journalism.

It also gives you a bit more flexibility in getting the story out there.

Your very first email should be along the lines of: “We are X and have a story coming up next week, are you happy to take a look under embargo.” Don’t send them any detail until you have that confirmation in writing.

The announcement itself

It’s worth having a central asset to promote in public. I don’t think it should be a press release. Why would you trap a good story in such a stuffy odd format? Nobody likes reading press releases, not even journalists — and once you have the pitch above, it covers off the key facts so they won’t get lost.

Instead, prepare a post for your website which is effectively the article you’d want someone else to write. Start with the problem and context to set the scene. Think about why this moment matters for ANYONE BUT YOU.

You can quote your investors in here (even better if you can quote from a post they have also published elsewhere.) And think about this linked relationship between the various assets on the day. It’s great if you can share a draft with the journalist and tell them the URL where it will go live, so they could link to it if they want.

There’s a lot more we could talk about… (Exclusives? Only if you have to. Quotes? Make sure they don’t repeat your other points, and don’t use cliched phrases like “excited”.)

… but for now, this should give you a fighting chance if you want to announce your own story.

We exist to question the assumptions that plague other agencies, and build something better for our partners.

Growth is a problem, and the most common solution only adds to it.

So we wrote our thoughts for PR Week to help other agencies explore a better way.

It’s easy to become numb to the language companies use when they describe themselves. And frankly, that’s because it’s often generic, superficial and hollow. You scratch below the surface and slip right through the gap.

So when we say Augur is the “entrepreneurial” communications partner, how does it make us a better choice for founders who want something stronger than the status quo?

What does it mean?

Curiosity delivers originality

If you don’t ask something different, you can’t find something new. Good questions create the junction to escape the obvious path and discover true inspiration instead.

When you follow your questions back to a source of meaning, it can inform everything you do next. That becomes the origin in your originality — a much more valuable tool than simple creativity, and one that shapes how you show that you see things differently.

effective, REWARDING, inventIVE

Entrepreneurship is about finding better ways to do things, not just whacking lowball outcomes so you meet a service level agreement.

Through systems like Augur Edits, Augur Unbound and Augur Wire, we are pioneering demonstrably different approaches to communications strategy. If you don’t realign the incentives, your behaviour won’t change and you’re just another agency pretending you matter.

The editor’s perspective

You hire us for our judgement and our honesty. To take a strong position requires confidence, imagination and an ability to explain why.

This means we’ll say no when it matters — but it also means we use vision to suggest the alternative path toward the outcome we all want.

Like many, I ended up in tech PR through ignorance. When I showed up for my first interview, I didn’t know what PR was (something like advertising?) and I didn’t know what this “press release” was that I had 30 minutes to write.

But something must have gone right, because not long after that I found myself nestled in front of a tidy desk for my first day at work — still with no idea what PR was.

The good news was, with social and digital flooding into the industry, it turned out neither did anyone else. I found myself arriving to an industry half in crisis because they could see the old ways were dying and half in blissful ignorance as the rug slid out from under them.

What I also found was that the world had tilted toward the internet I had grown up on. As a precocious youth with a father who worked in tech, I’d wasted hours on forums and newsgroups, totally immersed in the original social web.

So when introduced to Twitter, I still may have not known what a press release was — but I knew this was a language I could speak.

I quickly became the cliched Account Exec evangelising the latest thing: Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google+ (and even a few non-Google projects) — I was the man taking them all seriously. 

I’ve since come to understand this is from the same instinct that makes me sit in the front row at standup shows: I want to try and experience the thing first, by myself, before I let others influence my view.

But as I watched platform after platform collapse, or evolve in disappointing ways, I also learned another significant lesson. From the latest to the ancient, some things that don’t change. Ultimately, whatever the means, people have the same drives, instincts, fears and desires they have had for thousands of years.

And so, a crucial lesson of my career has been: write strategy that optimises for the things that do not change.

This means things like:

  • People trust other people, not brands.
  • They especially trust people like them.
  • They are all trying to achieve something — and if you help them, they may be grateful.
  • Some people just want to be heard (think about complaints on social media.)

The principles of marketing aren’t really changed by developments in technology or new channels — It’s just our ability to fulfill them that does.

People became effective at broadcasting messages and not listening to their customer because really there was no simpler scalable route for some time.

PRs became effective at relying on journalists and publications to help spread their story, because there was no other channel. 

But that’s just not true anymore.

By focusing on the higher, strategic level, by not saying “we’re going to do a social media strategy now” or, god forbid, “a Twitter (or Mastadon) strategy”, we can achieve more.

So when reviewing your strategy, it’s worth asking: have you found a way to appeal to the human habits that stay the same, or just a way to tweak the tech and algorithms to produce a short term result?

I know which I’d rather work on.

We’ve been writing again, this time for Influence, the official publication of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

Cash obviously keeps you alive — but if you don’t really achieve momentum on the other three, you aren’t developing an engine that can sustain value for the long term. In many ways, getting that cash in the bank builds a more resilient system to be able to pursue the more important priorities.

And yet, how often do agencies place bets that threaten these priorities for trivial financial return?

Every time they take on a mediocre new client for a few grand in the forecast, they are leveraging a true cost for the team, brand and potential to attract future clients. You not only frustrate and waste the time of talented people, you undermine their interest in your agency and their job at the same time.

We like to write.

Recently inspired by an example from Ricochet, I put together some helpful tips for how companies can start telling their story pre-Series A.

Like almost everything in early startup days, you have to spend your energy on things that will create a greater than proportionate result. So don’t embark on a complex elaborate editorial strategy if nobody on the team enjoys writing (or is quick at it.)

Perhaps the previous career history of your team means you have access to a lot of people like your target customer? Consider a podcast interview series that takes advantage of those relationships. An iPhone with Anchor, a couple of lavalier mics and you’re away.

You sit at a table. The top has been carved from a solid but elegant material, with a marble sheen and a cold smooth touch. It reminds you of a shell you found once as a child on a beach on a family holiday. It makes you feel something you haven’t felt in years.

You put your coffee on the table. The whole structure immediately keels over. As you regretfully watch your latte sluice the cold ground, you realise the pretty table only had two flimsy legs. And that’s not enough to deal with the real world around it, notably gravity.

It looked like a table. And it looked really beautiful. It actually pushed some buttons deep down that you couldn’t quite explain, but it felt right.

And yet, ultimately, it wasn’t a table. It wasn’t built right, despite millennia of table-building that came before it.

This is the feeling I get when I look at a lot of branding and messaging.

Just as the construction of your table needs to obey reality, the construction of your story must host a consistent and robust idea at its core. It needs to be reinforcing, not contradictory.

If your “vision” suggests one thing, but your “mission” doesn’t logically lead to it, that’s a broken table.

If you use a metaphor in your tagline that revolves around DNA, but your mission evokes a different metaphor from engineering, that’s a broken table.

If you invent a new descriptor for your category, then put it at the crux of the metaphor in your messaging, that’s an upside down table. A new idea is most convincing and easily understood if you orient it in a map of traditional ones.

None of these work — not for subjective reasons, but for cognitive ones. The way you build ideas matters. It has a direct effect on how easily they can be remembered, associated to concepts you desire, and shared.

The way we read meaning

Our brains are a constellation of memories and ideas. When you read a sentence, the only way to cognitively draw any meaning is for the brain to reference all its previous associations and feelings about each word.

You read the sentence: “I ran”, and your brain sweeps together its memories you have of running.

If you’re a marathon runner, one of those serious Lycra-packed over-quadded lunatics who squeezes in rich slugs of glucose every 200 steps, it will hold different meaning to those who bought their last pair of running shoes before the Millennium.

Now, as you continue to read the sentence, your brain continues this process.

 “I ran”

….

“him over”.

Your brain is used to a sentence continuing with the most common associations, the nearest neighbours and strongest links. Instead, it swerved into a different and dissonant possibility, in this case dragging you toward an extreme: tragedy.

(Sidenote, tragedy and comedy, often lumped together with the smiling and crying masks in theatre, revolve on the same dynamic. In comedy, you face a twist but are rewarded with relief because it’s not really happening. In tragedy, you have to reconcile the twist and accept the new, unexpected reality.)

This swerve is why stories can feel surprising and shocking and unnerve us so effectively. Equally, if you don’t swerve and instead continue to the cliche, it’s why they can be numbing.

Getting the balance right, or using each tool as and when you need them, is harder than it sounds — but we all have an instinct in our brain for it.

When meaning is missing

People have a remarkable capacity to react to things if they resemble a familiar form, even if the core is missing. For example, if a standup tells a joke, in a comedy club, to a warmed up audience, everything in the context means you will likely at least give a small chuckle. Because that’s the expected behaviour in the context.

This is the same instinct that makes certain brand, messaging and pitch work sounds like it’s the real deal, when it’s hollow at its core. It sounds like a pitch. So it must be a pitch.

However, if the idea isn’t build properly, when they then look back to share what they have heard, or they continue with their life and encounter a situation that is supposed to be directly related or connected to that story, it won’t be as effectively situated or accessible in their mind.

There is something about a consistent metaphor, connected to the right conceptual neighbours that makes it more memorable and more accessible to your audience, and therefore more valuable to your business.

And further than that, if your central mission, or the story about your business, isn’t robust, your actual culture and potential will be limited.

Ideas are the reality of your mind

This isn’t subjective. Meaning is substance, and the signal that should inform all the material you produce and harness to reach people, both inside and outside your business.

Scrutinise the idea behind your messaging and make sure it’s more than the sum of its parts. Again, this isn’t subjective. It’s like building anything — the pieces either join together consistently to create something robust and functional, or they are unrelated, disconnected, and will collapse with ease.

Here are a number of ways to be sure your shiny new branding work isn’t sabotaging your ambition:

1. Look for the metaphors. Anything in the branding which draws on the meaning of real world concepts (chemistry, engineering, family) should be consistent throughout.

2. Don’t be beholden to structure for the sake of it. If you have a system that hosts Mission, Vision and Purpose, but actually one in particular is doing all the hard work, simplify. Don’t allow the others to dilute what really seems to matter.

3. Remove empty signifiers. If it says something anyone else could say, ditch it. If your brand value is “trust”, ditch it. Again, these will dilute the things that really matter and make you stand out. If you really want to include the generic stuff, maybe put it in a “declaration” or something else that allows you to colour it with more specifics and character. But if you create generic values, you will become a generic business.

4. Don’t let your advisors drown you in Kool-Aid. If you’re paying someone a lot of moolah for the work, they are going to sell you hard on it. They will equally be ready to prepare and integrate feedback from your thoughts, that might seem humble — but be under no illusions, they have a mission to secure your belief in the big idea. Because with this kind of work, often there’s little else there.

5. Meaning lives throughout your business, but the ultimate editor must be clear. The institutional knowledge and culture of your business can only be found by tracking it bottom up. Sometimes the best ideas surface this way. You should always start by polling for hidden gems like this — and gather feedback along the way. But be clear that leadership is equally about then making a choice and being able to describe why it’s the right one. The timings of this is not always clear, but is crucial to avoid resentment by making sure you aren’t “coming down from the mountain” to tell everyone what they believe in.

For all of the above, Augur tends to focus on one area where brand and meaning all collide nicely: the pitch.

If you can explain from a cold start what your problem is, why this solution is interesting and how that helps the world, that gets you a long long way.

The art of “brand” in this, is often how you do it and where you place the focus. It is brand as verb, as the implicit that comes through what you are actually doing, not how you want to make people see you.

At the end of the day, that’s always what will define you most.

I get the idea of owned, earned, paid (and people add shared, but how is that not earned?) However, it feels like it’s phrased so tactically, and without a relationship or journey between the different elements. They are just smushed in a single hierarchy.

In practice, this means it can feel a clumsy way to outline a strategy, sitting each in their silos and making choices about where ambiguous elements must sit.

Instead, we’ve started to use a different taxonomy:

  • Meaning
  • Material
  • Reach
  • Systems

These four areas not only cover the general categories of strategy we put together, they also relate in a way that feels more engaged and relevant.

Defining Meaning can stretch from mission/ purpose, to simply clarifying the pitch or the key themes you want to beat the drum for.

From this source, you can then develop Material  (not “content”, never “content”) which explores those ideas, and captures them in a way that is useful to your strategy (and your audience.)

Having put all that work in, it’s nothing without ensuring subsequent and growing Reach, by developing the audiences and relationships that bring in eyeballs — from mailing lists, to sponsored social, to a handful of valuable influencer relationships.

And underneath it all are the Systems that make it work. For us, principles like Objectives and Key Results, evaluation with Google Analytics and automatically updating dashboards, things like “founder therapy”, which we use to generate interesting article and commentary ideas on a regular basis.

If you want to work strategically, you need to set out your toolset and approach in a way that inherently serves it. This feels like a way to do that, which matures the PESO categorisation for our own purposes. It allows us to think better — and demonstrate more clearly to companies we work with, how and where we will provide real strategic value.

There are many reasons I chose to focus Augur on “unsexy” tech. But one of the key ones is that I believe the nature of PR and marketing is a really good fit for the B2B market.

The incentives align better

In consumer marketing, brands try and reach “most people”. They want big publicity splashes. And most people just want to get on with their lives.

The best they can offer is sometimes a glimmer of light entertainment. But 99% of the time, they are still interrupting normal programming to get it in there.

By contrast, our clients help other businesses make more money. Most of the time, anyone running a business wants to improve how they do it. However, if anything, they are often too busy to make it enough of a priority.

When we target, it’s most often by characteristics like job title or industry specialism. It’s not because we think you are vulnerable to coercion, it’s because we know you’re looking at e.g. translation to help your business grow, and we work with a company that fundamentally does it differently.

We lead with content and insight

B2B Tech really means B2B innovation. It means what’s next. It means the new way of doing things and a potential source of advantage over the competition.

That also means that it’s a constant process of keeping track of where the tech is going next, if you hope to use it to help your business.

We help this happen. And what it means is, if we do use paid or targeted in strategies, it’s almost never to just force information in front of an audience — it’s to surface insightful material that others found useful, for more people.

The time of B2B decision-makers is more valuable than consumers. So you have to use it even more wisely. If you don’t directly hit a need they have, and if you aren’t producing material that strikes that need anyway, you’re in trouble.

The rewards make sense

If one of our clients wins a new customer, that can be worth many multiples of our fees per month. Deals of hundreds of thousands. Pipelines of millions, partnerships that open new territories and opportunities

If we produce any kind of asset that helps bring in more of the right kind of lead or close them once they are already in the process, the impact can be enormous.

In that context, where lifetime value is enormous, our fees make sense very quickly as part of customer acquisition costs.

If instead, you’re relying on some obtuse relationship between coverage in the tabloids and downloads of your app which then convert through in app purchases for 99p, then probably don’t renew, you’re getting into a mess of causality that, frankly, I’m just not interested in.

Where privacy matters

Now, with GDPR coming in, this doesn’t mean privacy is something you don’t think about in B2B. It just means that, if you’re doing it right, you should be ticking most of the boxes of the new policy anyway.

Every incentive aligns to give you good reason not to try and reach everyone but to create great material, that is of ultimate relevance to your small and specific audience — then attract them toward it.

More than consumer, and more than ever, B2B marketing just makes the most sense to me.