A blog about standing up, standing out, and standing for something in tech PR and communications.


Advice for tech entrepreneurs from top VCs

In the frequently misunderstood world of Silicon Valley tech PR, startup marketing programs often begin and end with getting a nod from TechCrunch. While worthy of notice, don’t be fooled into thinking that one shiny headline is enough to land your next customer or your next round of funding. Truly making a mark for your company — and gaining traction — takes much more than just one earned media placement. 

Widely respected TechCrunch journalists recently held a startup conference in the heart of Silicon Valley. Dirsruptors driving the future of smart cities and autonomous vehicles gathered to explore the technology of today and tomorrow. The TechCrunch panels also featured high-profile venture capitalists, including early Lime investor Sarah Smith from Bain Capital. (She left Facebook to become Bain’s FIRST female partner in 2018 — Sarah knew scooters would be cool way before they were unleashed on our streets!) VCs from Techstars and a Maniv Mobility also shared solid advice, with the goal of helping startups forge a successful path in today’s brutally competitive tech ecosystem. 

VC advice for startups
Silicon Valley tech investors and startups explored the tech of today and tomorrow together at TC Sessions: Mobility in Downtown San Jose on July 10, 2019.


Here’s some secret sauce for startups straight from Silicon Valley investors:

  1. Start with solving a real problem. Want to ensure fast growth and rapid scale as a startup? Investors are looking for startups that solve real, massively experienced problems in new and unique ways. Founders should critically analyze socioeconomics and be able to communicate how their innovative solutions will transform markets and/or life. 
  2. Distinguish where the money is, then get as close as you can in the supply chain. Promising high-profile companies have failed because they were unable to navigate the complexities of supply-chain management. Logistics are often overlooked by budding startups, so address supply management early on — duties and tariffs, regulatory requirements, and delivery details can be costly. 
  3. Consider partnerships that deliver operational and strategic advantages. From Boston FinTech disruptor Airfox partnering with a retail giant to bring financial services to the unbanked to local health tech startup Kenzen working with Gore to develop a precision health monitoring system, partnerships can provide incredible advantages ⁠— such as capital, traffic, marketing support, and mentoring ⁠— that help propel startups into the next stages of growth.
  4. Spend time with teens. According to Bain Capital Partner Sarah Smith, investors pay close attention to emerging trends and adoption activity among teenagers. Ideas are the currency of the future, and young digital natives accustomed to Instagram and Lyft bring different expectations and perspectives on how to connect with the world. Today’s teens will inspire and drive the next decade in Silicon Valley solutions. 

From seeking seed funding to gearing up for public launches: Startups are well-advised to continuously build relationships and reputation. Clearly communicating your vision and values helps establish credibility. Before building buzz, make sure your startup has a concrete mission and messaging that you can articulate. 

Do you need help fine tuning your VC pitch or prepping for a launch? Reach out to our Silicon Valley tech PR experts at go@sterlingpr.com

Networking checklist

The textbook definition of networking is simply interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts. It’s a valuable exercise that can produce opportunities for productive collaboration and spark interesting new relationships. That’s the upside.

The downside is that networking can also produce a lot of anxiety. After all, the prospect of interacting with relative strangers and feeling pressed to make a good impression can be daunting. 

But whether scouting for new business or simply widening your professional circle, networking is worth the effort. A recent Forbes article cites some motivational statistics: networking is vital to the success of 78% of startups, and 85% of professionals say they develop a more meaning relationship after meeting someone in-person. 

networking tips
Sterling Account Director Dana Schroeder preparing to expand her professional network at a Gore Innovation Center event in Silicon Valley.

So get out there and mingle! For encouragement, here’s a checklist of tried-and-true tips to help you become a more successful (and less stressed) networker.

✔ Arrive early. Being among the first at a gathering allows you to start up conversations before the crush of a crowd.

✔ Accentuate the positive. Remember to smile before entering a room — it makes you appear approachable and feel more confident.

✔ Open your ears. Listen as much as (if not more than) you talk. Ask people why they’re attending the event and how you might be helpful. If you take a genuine interest in people, they tend to reciprocate.

✔ Be a willing student. Focus on learning from those you meet. Aim to discover something new instead of merely collecting or distributing business cards.

✔ Dress for success. Wear something interesting (an antique pin, a thematic tie, colorful suspenders or shoes, etc.). You don’t need to don a costume, but an intriguing accessory can serve as both a memorable identifier and a casual conversation starter.

✔ Observe. Watch and learn from expert networkers at events. You can always spot them and you may pick up some great techniques.

✔ Follow-up. If you exchange business cards or have a memorable chat, reach out to your new contact afterward. Customize an invitation to connect on LinkedIn within a week, and reference something about your conversation at the event.

✔ Think long-term. Focus on gathering information and building relationships instead of launching immediate transactions — networking shouldn’t feel like conducting (or receiving) a sales pitch.

If the idea of networking still feels foreboding, consider volunteering. Serving a purpose while being at an event makes interactions more comfortable and extends an open invitation for attendees to approach you.

Portrait of a productive team

Like many organizations, Sterling holds internal events focused on mission alignment and professional development. We try to set aside at least one full workday twice a year devoted to celebrating milestones and exploring company goals, communications industry best practices, and new ways to implement creative services for our clients.

An unseasonably blustery day in May marked the occasion for one such gathering — our 2019 Spring Agency Summit.

Fueled on a certain account director’s famous focaccia and local grub from EAT Club, our busy day included a briefing on the tech news business with venerable VentureBeat journalist Dean Takahashi, a photography and digital media workshop, mindfulness exercises, a writing and search engine optimization (SEO) challenge, and a local community service presentation from Friends for Youth.

And amidst all that action, we revealed our true colors to one another.

Who do you work with?

True Colors is a refined Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) designed to assess individual temperament. In very broad strokes, Green personality types are independent thinkers drawn to analysis, Gold personalities are pragmatic planners who relish structure, Orange personality types are adventurous and action oriented, and Blue personalities are intuitive and relationship driven. 

Obviously, every individual’s personality type is a blend of all four colors, but the profiles are designed to help people identify natural preferences and explore how those tendencies impact team dynamics. 

Due to our aggressive schedule, organizational consultant Jocelyn Kung of The Kung Group was enlisted to guide a True Colors workshop for the Sterling team. Having completed necessary surveys prior to the Summit, we spent the morning under her expert direction reviewing our resultant color profile scores with each other.

True Colors Workshop Sterling PR
Jocelyn Kung leads a True Colors workshop at Sterling Communications 2019 Spring Agency Summit.

Individual “primary” color identification generally came as no surprise to anyone — and revealing scores generated plenty of laughter and playful ribbing. Gold’s were roasted for rigidity, Blues for hypersensitivity, Greens for detachment, and Oranges for shiny object syndrome.

More importantly, we spent a good deal of time discussing why common behaviors tend to incite divergent responses from different color profile personalities. Something that consistently infuriates a Gold goes completely unnoticed by an Orange, for example. They may be living in the same reality, but their experience of it will be vastly different — and that impacts team function.

Reflected in our color scores are the things we tend to value, our organizational styles, notions of respect, methods of interpreting criticism, modes of communicating, perspectives on collaborative dynamics, and so much more.

Awareness of such differences mitigates friction and encourages gratitude. One telling exercise drawn from this knowledge involves envisioning a world devoid of personality traits expressed in the four colors.

True Colors at Sterling
Appreciating our differences.

Jocelyn was careful to warn us not to stereotype based on True Colors, but even superficial understanding about how work and worldview are shaded by temperament is instructive.

Examining both your strengths and weaknesses through the prism of someone else’s eyes can be uncomfortable. But ultimately, it’s an enriching experience. When that perspective is supplied by people you work with every day, it creates pathways for more productive teamwork.

And undertaking the effort to better know who you work with and how you can best accomplish your goals together is always time well spent.

What to say and how to say it: 6 tips for company spokespeople

Just be yourself, right? 

That’s the perfunctory advice we always give to friends preparing for an interview or giving a big presentation. 

But when you’re charged with speaking to journalists, investors, conferencegoers, and/or analysts on behalf of your company, “being yourself” isn’t so simple. 

As a spokesperson, you must anticipate the needs of an audience and embody the spirit of your organization at the same time — and serve them both.

Being a spokesperson

When you act as a spokesperson, you become your company personified. It doesn’t matter if you’re being interviewed on national television, conducting a local press conference, or posting to Twitter, the spokesperson is the public reflection of the entire staff and everything a company aims to accomplish. 

But no pressure. Just be yourself, right?

Microphones Sterling Communications

Managing such an enormous responsibility and performing its duties successfully is the purpose of media training, wherein spokespeople undergo a kind of exposure therapy to master various aspects of professional representation. 

Practical practice

At Sterling, we provide extensive and personalized media training “therapy” as part of our public relations services. But there are general tactical tips on how to speak professionally that you can practice on your own:

  1. The medium is you. Your delivery can either enhance or hamper the effectiveness of your messages. Make sure that the attitude you present (cheerful, serious, etc.) suits the personality of your organization.
  2. Pump up the volume. In spokesperson mode, most speakers talk about 10–15% louder than normal — and the practice is actually helpful for those listening. You can use diaphragmatic breathing to make your voice fuller and more resonant.
  3. Limit verbal fillers. Try recording yourself conducting a normal phone call or conversation with a friend. Review to check whether you deploy excessive verbal fillers (e.g., well, umm, uhhh, like, y’know).
  4. Modulate your tone. If your speech is monotone or clipped, your audience is less likely to listen — play with your pitch.
  5. Cadence can be powerful. On average, people speak 150 words per minute. Purposely vary your pace, it helps spark interest and encourages engagement.
  6. Every so often, use silence to punctuate a big point. Practice speaking in front of a mirror and pausing strategically to make yourself more comfortable with using silence for emphasis.

Be yourself

The aim of all this practice is simply to communicate more comfortably and effectively. No one wants to listen to what an automaton has to say, so natural enthusiasm, hand gestures, and sincerity are all great and it really is fine to be yourself.

What you say and how you say it already serves as a reflection of any group with which you are associated. This is a natural part of “being yourself” in life, so polishing your communication techniques as a spokesperson for your company is just a healthy exercise in self-improvement.

Canine culture coup

At Sterling, where we revel in an uncommon devotion to tackling tough challenges and breaking down barriers, a flourishing company culture is vital to our work. In the search for a Chief People Officer, we needed a leader who not only understood our purpose, but could elevate our true passion for communication, storytelling, and translating ideas into world-changing brands.

We are thrilled to announce that we have expanded our incredible team to include not one, not two, but THREE new Chief People Officers. Buster, Kaya, and Pachi bring a combined 18 years of experience in nurturing, enabling, and empowering individuals to achieve their highest potential. Most importantly, each new hire aligns closely with the core values that are the heartbeat of our company’s identity: teamwork, helpfulness, curiosity, accountability, flexibility, passion, and fun.

With these exciting additions, our executive team is nearly 50% canine! The results have been unfathomable — our company culture is thriving and our team is more engaged than ever before. Without ever uttering a word, Buster, Kaya, and Pachi consistently deliver three simple, yet indispensable lessons:


1. Your energy is contagious

Buster at Sterling Communications
Buster

You may understand we are all social creatures, but are you putting it into action? As Buster, half Chihuahua, half Pekingese, sprints from desk to desk, our stern, focused faces melt away. He translates his positive energy into festive fun. Ask yourself: What influence are you having on those around you? Whether you work at a boutique PR agency or a huge corporation, every single team member makes an impact on the collective workplace culture.

Simply put — your presence influences the people around you, of that you have no choice. But each day we decide how we are showing up. And how you contribute to your community is just as important as what you contribute. What Buster does effortlessly, we humans must do intentionally.

Own your presence and shape your impact.


2. Remember to paws pause

Kaya at Sterling
Kaya

How can you fuel creative energy in others if your own well is running dry? It’s easy to recognize the value of taking a break, but it only becomes a precious life skill when you put it into practice regularly. German Shepard Kaya practices the art of rejuvenation with expertise. She leads by example — her leisurely socializing, afternoon naps, and delight in frolicking among the wildflowers remind the rest of us to revitalize ourselves with strolls outside, mid-day stretches, and lunchtime potlucks.

Much of your intellectual capacity remains untapped if you are always working on auto-pilot. A five-minute break in your routine can refocus a chaotic day, enhance an idea, and improve your state of mind. Make time to rejuvenate and the work will get done with less resistance.

Replenish yourself and thrive.


3: Communicate with radical transparency

Pachi at Sterling Communications
Pachi

Pachi, like most pugs, excels at making himself heard. He sets an unparalleled standard for honest communication in the office, revealing his mood and feelings openly and clearly.

It’s a bit more difficult for humans to practice the art of communication with such purity.

Pachi reminds us that verbal clarity, skilled listening, and acute awareness of nonverbal messages are essential in connecting with others.

As demonstrated in the nuances of his canine vocabulary — whines, growls, barks, and yips — we can improve our communication with others by listening to their tone of voice, tuning into their body language, and offering our undivided attention to their transmission of words and emotions.

Communication is an art worthy of mastery.


Three superlative lessons for humans imparted by three canine authorities, who could ask for better work advice! If you know of any canines interested in board positions, please send them our way. Oh, and Happy April Fools’ Day from all of us at Sterling Communications!

Shining in the spotlight: 12 tips for successful on-camera interviews

On-camera interviews can be nerve-racking for even the most seasoned spokesperson. In addition to speaking clearly and staying on message, interviewees must also be mindful of nonverbal communication, appearance, and posture. 

A long time ago, in a country far, far away, I worked as a TV presenter. I made a lot of mistakes. Here are a few tips I have picked up since then for polished presentation on-screen. Follow this advice to appear confident, relaxed, and comfortable in front of the camera.

Sterling client on-camera TV interview

A Sterling client is interviewed on camera for a local affiliate.

Preparation:

1. Practice — Practice in your bathroom mirror with a stopwatch. This sort of preparation will enable you to exude confidence and eloquence during the actual interview and prevents the dreaded  “ums.” Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-winning performance in the movie Michael Clayton demonstrates what this looks like in action.  

2. Dress for Success — Wear solid colors, with an emphasis on blue (avoid green unless you want to become meme fodder). And although nautical stripes may be on trend, they don’t always play well on TV. Patterns and high-contrast combinations produce strange visual effects for viewers.

3. Hydrate — Drinking water increases brain activity and enhances mood. Drink plenty of water throughout the day leading up to your interview so you’re not parched on camera. During the interview, have water at the ready to combat dry mouth, but don’t reach for it while talking…it looks weird. Sip only when the focus is on the interviewer (or avoid drinking altogether while cameras are rolling so that it doesn’t distract from your words).

4. Groom — Being on camera can be uncomfortable both figuratively and literally (studio lights are very hot). To ward off flop sweat, wear comfortable clothing and remember to breathe. Minimize unwanted shine and blemishes with a little translucent powder on the forehead and nose. While major studios will supply makeup stock, most executives with high media visibility carry their own. It also helps you avoid looking like Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential debate. But go easy on the lips: Learn from Congressman Joe Kennedy’s appearance for a State of the Union rebuttal and avoid shiny lip moisturizer.

5. Get a Healthy Glow — If possible, taking a brisk walk shortly before going on camera will bring a healthy flush of blood flow to your face.

Engaging:

6. Remove Distractions — Be completely “present” by banishing anything that might divert your attention. Set your phone to airplane mode, remove coins from your pockets, and ditch the pen and paper.

7. Check Your Posture — When sitting during an interview, lean forward around 20 degrees when you talk to open up your diaphragm, increase your air supply, and signal interest in the discussion. If you’re wearing a jacket, take a tip from Broadcast News and sit on it so that the shoulders don’t hunch up. Don’t lean back in your chair, and if possible, avoid chairs that swivel and rock.

8. Plan to Smile — Nervousness leads to looking stiff. To keep your look natural, keep your lips in a slight smile. It will show in your eyes, too, giving you an attentive expression. 

During the interview:

9. Communicate with Your Eyes — When face-to-face with an interviewer, focus on the person asking the questions, not on the camera. Anxiety induces excessive blinking, so be mindful to slow things down. Lastly, if pausing to think, look down — not up. You don’t want viewers to think you’re rolling your eyes. 

10. Embrace Your Message — Key messages are your best friend. Acknowledge any questions you’re asked, but always bridge back to your key messages during the interview. Rephrase long questions before answering. Also, reiterate your messages if you’re asked to provide a sound check or give a closing thought/summary.

11. Think in Soundbites — Journalists tell stories for a living. You can help them do their job by offering short examples and anecdotes. Clever soundbites can frame important ideas you want to communicate. If you have a good soundbite to offer, try to include the company name in a dependent clause.

12. Remain Calm — There’s no way to anticipate everything that may happen — an interview is a conversation, so try to relax and roll with it.

The 3 rules of Wikipedia biographies

Wikipedia is a free, crowd-sourced encyclopedia that holds its users accountable for its contents. The site is all about volunteering knowledge and, theoretically, anyone in the world can post information about anything. But there are guard rails. The Wikipedia community has several requirements and unofficial guidelines that all updates and new entries must meet.

wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Autobiographies are a Non-Starter
Having a personal Wikipedia page is awesome: It’s a sign of clout, it ranks well in search engines, and it tells the world you did something worth knowing about. So why doesn’t everyone have a Wikipedia profile page? Because Wikipedia is not Facebook.

Wikipedia exists to note the notable, vetted by interested people who serve as proof that someone cares about the contents of an entry. Which leads us to the first rule for getting a Wikipedia biography about you published:

1. Have someone else post it because autobiographies are rejected on Wikipedia.

This is logical. Wikipedia is a site for useful information, not self-promotion. Someone else has to care about the content of the entry — go you! But the truth is that, even if you don’t have a single friend in the world, you could create an account under a fake name and try to post an entry on yourself (we didn’t tell you that). Even if you result to skullduggery, it still has to be a biography, not an autobiography — and it will be vetted by a volunteer army. Any chance of success comes down to language (watch your pronouns!) and verifiability, two points we’ll address next.

Get Neutral
Most of the time, it’s insulting to be called a fence sitter. On Wikipedia, however, maintaining a neutral position is imperative to getting published. Words like terrible or great don’t fly — your entry should read like hard news, not an Op/Ed. Which leads to the second Wikipedia rule, one we affectionately call the law of Sgt. Joe Friday:

2. Stick to the facts, not your opinion on them.

Following this language rule will ensure your submission’s tone of voice is consistent with the Wikipedia community’s expectations. It will also conveniently make it much easier to comply with the third rule for having your own Wikipedia entry…

Show the Receipts
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, 12 references are still required for it to get its own Wikipedia entry. Verifiability is the lifeblood of Wikipedia entries, and it is earned by linking to reputable external sources. With the spirit of a scientific research paper but the flexibility of a creative blog post, sources on Wikipedia can include articles, company websites, books, TV shows, podcasts, YouTube videos, other Wikipedia entries…you name it. But prestige counts for a lot:

3. Reference credible, well-known news publications as much as possible.

This, of course, implies that you already have an online news presence. We’re here to help if you need assistance with that.

Will blockchain save the world?

Life at our small but mighty creative agency often feels like an episode of my favorite Silicon Valley-based TV series. A typical week includes cruising up the San Francisco peninsula to meet with a client, often an emerging tech startup working tirelessly to make our world a better place.

We use our collective creative powers to help these growing companies find their voice and brand identity — to stand up, stand out, and stand for something. Friends and family always ask us: “What is brewing in that Silicon Valley bubble? What is the next technology that will actually transform society and our daily lives?”

Right now, the answer is blockchain.

Exploring the hubbub, hype, and hope of the blockchain revolution
“Crypto” no longer refers solely to cryptocurrencies, but to all services and platforms with blockchain-like reliance on cryptographic hash functions and peer-to-peer networking. The beauty of blockchain lies in decentralization. Computing via cryptography and consensus offers a fairly new and potentially better way to conduct, track, and verify digital transactions of all kinds without the need for third-party clearinghouses or monolithic data hubs.

Blockchain public relations

Sterling Client Airfox at the CODE_n conference, where it took home the $17,000 grand prize for winning Best Startup and Best Business Model awards. (Photo Credit: Code_n.)

Blockchain is all the rage these days, but it’s not a panacea for every computational complication. The startup scene supporting this emerging technology can be tricky to navigate. The Sterling creative team has already established deep experience in this realm, working with organizations leveraging blockchain concepts to solve the biggest issues in healthcare, banking, and enterprise logistics. We are also currently working with the first venture-backed startup to successfully complete an initial coin offering (ICO) in the United States. While academics and engineers will continue to debate the impact blockchain will have on our daily lives, educating the world about its potential and pitfalls is key. Sterling is committed to helping innovative startups and forward-thinking enterprises successfully tell their compelling stories.

Have you caught blockchain fever yet? Here’s some essential reading that Sterling has placed for our clients:

Contact us to learn more.

blockchain public relations

The case for content marketing: Bridging the gap between earned and owned media

People associate public relations (PR) with the pursuit of “earned” media coverage. Whether it’s writing and distributing press releases, pitching stories to reporters and editors, or submitting clients for prestigious awards or speaking opportunities — you are effectively looking to earn media attention. The goal is to inspire credible third parties and influencers to tell your tale and share your message (or a version of it, anyway). Traditional earned media is still the backbone of PR, but in our highly digitized world, a well-rounded communications strategy should also address “owned” media — specifically, content marketing.

Owning Your Story
Content marketing refers to the practice of creating content for a targeted online audience to establish a relationship with them. Put simply, it’s a process for getting attention from the right people — not unlike public relations. However, because it’s created in-house for web distribution and is not subject to outside interpretation, self-published content affords greater control of message delivery. Basically, owned media in the form of digital content marketing lets you tell your own story. But to be effective, it has to be a story worth telling.

Below are several best practices to consider for your content marketing program.

1) Who are you talking to?
Content marketing is not meant to be about you, your brand, products, or services. It’s about your audience. Who are they? What do they care about? Start by doing research on your customer. Determine how your story can provide real value and how best to deliver it to them.

2) In order to sell something, don’t sell anything
Content marketing is inherently meant to be helpful over promotional. It is not synonymous with traditional marketing collateral that touts a company’s offerings or accolades. Instead, it uses how-to articles, whitepapers, case studies, e-books, videos, infographics, and webinars to provide answers to customers’ questions or solutions to their pain points. An important cornerstone of content marketing is that by helping other people succeed, you too will see a return on investment. Offer unique insight or helpful takeaways consistency throughout content marketing materials to establish trust with your audience. Offer credible information and share your expertise. This practice ultimately strengthens customer relationships and encourages loyalty.

3) Begin at the beginning
Before you even think about creating content, make sure you have identified your target audience, objectives, search-engine optimization (SEO) considerations, and brand voice. Each of these elements will inform your content marketing strategy. A content marketing strategy — which typically includes an editorial calendar, story matrix, content map, and style guide — should align with the overarching goals of your communications/PR strategy. Additionally, outline key performance indicators (KPIs) that you will use to measure success and/or reevaluation requirements.

4) Amplify your content
If you publish a blog post, share it from your Twitter account. If a piece of content is not performing well on one channel, explore others that may provide increased exposure to your desired audience. Leveraging the content you create across various web ecosystems provides multiple opportunities for your target audience to be exposed to your message. For example, it’s not uncommon (in fact, many argue it’s best practice) to share outstanding PR results on all your owned channels (brand social media accounts, website, blog, etc.).

5) Don’t forget SEO
Your customers are asking questions, and they use search engines to find answers. You want your information to be at the top of those search results. SEO ensures your content is easy to discover via search engines and helps drive the curious to your website. Common SEO best practices include diligent tagging (descriptions in the HTML code for how your content is presented on the web) and appropriate keyword propagation (identifying the terms people use for searching specific topics online and deftly using those keywords in your content marketing text).

A successful content marketing program will result in enhanced visibility and customer trust. When properly nurtured, the symbiotic relationship between earned and owned media builds brand reputation, boosts web traffic, and generates new business opportunities.

Learn more about content marketing here.