Call Me, Maybe: Tips on How Tech Startups Should Pitch Reporters

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Call Me, Maybe: Tips on How Tech Startups Should Pitch Reporters

For startups trying to attract media attention, it’s never been more difficult. The sheer number of new tech hopefuls launching everyday means that it’s an impossible task for a single reporter to vet them all. Factor in faster news cycles, and the smaller amount of reporters covering wider beats, and you can begin to understand why reporters hate time wasting.

Nothing, these days, is a bigger time suck than the unsolicited, generic email pitch clogging up reporter mailboxes — unless it’s the dreaded cold call. And yet, companies still send them and still call. At a discussion on how startups should approach reporters at Mike Butcher’s Europas tech conference in London yesterday, Robin Wauters, the editor of Tech.eu, and Monty Munford, freelance writer for the Telegraph and the Economist, declared that this method of reaching out to reporters “is broken.” Well and truly. In fact, it’s not unheard of for some reporters to receive 500 generic email pitches as well as a couple of unsolicited calls a day. 

So, how then should a startup try to get a reporter's attention? According to Wauters and Munford speaking to a packed room, it’s actually quite basic: be polite, know your story and how to tell it, help them do their jobs better by hitting them up with news that’s not just about your company, and yes, offer to take them out for a drink (as long as it’s not coffee).

Specifically, here are some of their tips on approaching reporters:

Create a Relationship Before You Need Them: It used to be that reporters cultivated sources, but now more than ever reporters want you to cultivate them. Most reporters complain they simply don’t have the time, or as Wauters put it too many startups to chase and to little time to sift through and write about all of them. How do you cultivate reporters? Ask them out for a drink and talk about things other than your own company. Maybe you’re in a particularly interesting industry that’s being upended by tech, or you can add colour to an ongoing story in your sector. As Wauters said, “Help journalists become better at their jobs.” 

Call Me, Maybe? This is another age-old question that doesn’t have an answer, down to the fact that most journalists have different tolerance levels on how they like to be contacted. Wauters flat out hates phone calls. It’s the ultimate time-waster for him (all that blah blah blah small talk!) — so don’t even try. Munford, on the other hand, doesn’t mind them, but did say he’d prefer to be messaged first, as in “Are you free to take a call?” It’s also fine to contact the reporter to ask how they’d like to be contacted. 

Use Embargoes Sparingly: Reporters don’t like embargoes. They hate the orchestrated release of information and the feeling they are puppets of some large media machine. Typically, you have to be a pretty hot company that everyone has to write about to constantly get away with this. Why do PR’s use them if they are so hated? For PRs, embargoes aren’t so much about controlling the information, but trying to ensure the news gets covered by as many outlets as possible. PR’s know that if one site gets the news ahead of another, a competing site is much less likely to pick up the news, a fact that Wauters confirmed. Yet, reporters don’t want to do embargoes either. It’s a vicious circle. The only advice is to weigh up carefully the news you’re sharing and to consider whether it's newsworthy enough that it will get covered widely on a non-exclusive basis, or to ensure that who you give your exclusive has the widest targeted audience reach.

Should You Even Bother with a Press Release? The press release is another convention reporters hate. Munford’s particular objection was with the superlative language and phrasing — revolutionary this, groundbreaking that, and the much loathed, “excited to …and passionate about…” Strip out the buzzwords, advises Wauters, and your release should still be able to communicate what your company has achieved or is trying to do.

But should you forgo them altogether? I personally did not mind press releases when I was a reporter, especially if it saved me from hunting far and wide for fact checking - did I spell everyone’s name right? Did I get the numbers correct? Did I get certain dates right? Munford suggested they be written differently. A visual, interactive one could be posted to your company blog with further links to even more information. I still think they’re necessary as an “on the record,” document,  but it’s true that it’s a very rare story that gets written from a release picked up from "the wire".

Have a Good Product, Show Proof of Concept: “Have a good product” is obviously a hard one. Everyone, of course, thinks they have a good product. But reporters want to see that you have “proof of concept”. Proof of concept for a reporter usually means sharing numbers, which sometimes a company isn’t quite ready to do. But this leads to a question asked by TrustedHousesitters.com founder and CEO Andy Peck. In particular, why wasn’t anyone interested in them as a revenue-making startup and why were reporters seemingly obsessed and only interested in covering startups that had scored funding rounds? In the absence of proof of concept, journalists view funding rounds as vetting from people willing to put their money where their mouth is — never mind the number of startups that have failed despite being funded. (To be fair, it was unclear how and why Peck couldn't interest tech reporters, especially as he's got plenty of consumer press).

Know How to Tell Your Story: This is one that seems shockingly obvious: know how to tell your startup’s story. Who and what are you and your company? How and why did your company get started? It’s sometimes the case that if you can’t show proof of concept, but you can tell a good story, you’ll get some coverage. This happens more than you think in tech reporting, especially if reporters are writing on a very “cutting edge trend” (a few years back this was crowdfunding) and want to gather up examples of who’s venturing into this new territory. But if you can’t show proof of concept and can’t tell a good story, your pitches are doomed.

Some Basic Housekeeping: Learn how to spell and use grammar correctly. Munford’s pet peeve is the seemingly ongoing confusion between “your” and “you’re”. (Though, apparently, grammar mistakes are not necessarily your fault; it’s the way your brain is wired for language). He also asks you be polite and if he turns you down, don’t keep pestering him. How long should you follow up with them? Up to two weeks is the norm for them, then it’s on to the next story.

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Tech.Eu: Building Trust in the Sharing Economy Through Background Checks

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Tech.Eu: Building Trust in the Sharing Economy Through Background Checks

I recently wrote a profile of Onfido, a start up streamlining background checks for Tech.eu.

Background checks may not be the most glamorous of businesses, but for Husayn Kassai, Eamon Jubbawy, and Ruhul Amin, the three founders of Onfido, it’s an industry crying out to be brought into the 21st century.

Venture capitalists think so too. In February this year, the London-based start-up raised £3 million pounds ($4.5 million USD) in a Series A round of funding from Wellington Partners, backers of Spotify and Dropbox; and CrunchFund, investors in Uber and Square.

Onfido automates background checks letting employers and companies electronically vet potential job candidates. It turns out there’s a good reason to do so. According to UK fraud prevention body CIFAS, 63 percent of confirmed frauds in the first half of 2014 were employment application frauds — that is, “serious fraudulent declarations about employment history, qualifications, criminal records and…identity fraud.” Onfido’s checks can not just verify a person’s identity, but they can validate education credentials, sniff out criminal records, and ferret out bankruptcies, all from an online dashboard.

By automating a traditionally manual process, Onfido aims to make background checks faster, cheaper, more efficient and accurate.

The idea for the start-up began to take shape when Kassai, now CEO of Onfido, Jubbawy and Amin were in their final year at Oxford University. As graduation loomed, the three began applying for jobs at financial institutions in London’s City — Kassai at Merrill Lynch; Jubbawy at Credit Suisse; Amin at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ. Each went through a check that took from 2-6 weeks. At the same time that they were hunting down jobs, Kassai and Jubbawy, president and vice president respectively of the Oxford Entrepreneurs Society, were meeting with banks and consulting firms for sponsorship to the society. They used the time to also ask about background checks.

“The recurring themes again and again when we asked about their pain points were turnaround times, compliance issues, cost and transparency,” says Kassai. “We saw that 80-90 percent of a background check is manual. And when it’s manual based you have human-prone errors, so we thought this is an industry screaming out for a technological solution.”

By the summer of 2012, they’d ditched the idea of a City job, and with seed funding of £200,000 from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, launched Onfido in August 2012. Two years later, they raised another small round of £330,000.

License to Trade

Much like other background checking firms, Onfido started out targeting employers and recruitment agencies, looking at the high-skill, high-risk sectors such as financial services. But then a fellow start-up, the on demand cleaning firm Hassle, approached them. Hassle knew that in order for them to grow their own business, they needed to show that their workers could be trusted. The company had been looking at doing background checks, but wanted to ensure they were done in good time and at a competitive price. A volume deal was eventually hammered out. More sharing economy companies quickly followed suit, including competing on demand cleaning firms Handy and Homejoy.

“We saw that if you automate it, you can reduce cost and therefore the same service becomes accessible to the lower-skilled, high-risk sectors,” Kassai says.

The more Onfido looked into the sharing economy, the more they liked what they saw. PWC estimates that the rapidly growing sector is currently worth $15 billion globally, with a potential to expand to $335 billion by 2025. It is part of an existing workforce trend that has seen the numbers of contract workers, the self-employed, and freelancers continue to rise.

At the same time, the trusting early adopters of the sharing economy are giving way to more cautious mainstream users. Considering the volume of transactions that now take place in the sharing economy, tales of sharing experiences ending horribly wrong are actually a very small number. But what sticks in the mind and what’s splashed across headlines are the tales of rapists, squatters, drug-fueled parties, and trashed homes.

“Background checks are a license to trade because the 10 percent of risky applicants will just go to the next platform that doesn’t do checks,” says Kassai.

Indeed, some sharing economy companies are exploring a model where applicants pay extra for a more thorough check that they can then put on their profile to signal that they are more trustworthy. Other platforms are requiring that both users and service providers are background checked. Trust is now a way to stand out from the crowd.

Background Noise

As promising as Onfido looks, the startup is not short of competition. Kassai counts six major competitors in an industry that includes several American giants: Sterling Infosystems, HireRight, Experian and LexisNexis. Another tech startup has also hit the scene, the Accel Partners-backedCheckr. The Y Combinator graduate is based in Silicon Valley and recently raised $9 million.

Kassai is unfazed. Onfido has already amassed 400 customers and offers checks across 27 countries in Europe as well as the United States and is looking to expand to 8 more by year end. Kassai believes that Onfido is now the largest provider of background checks for the on-demand and sharing economy sector with a seemingly endless supply of companies that want to be the ‘Uber of their space’ contacting them.

“Everyday there is a weird and wonderful startup [approaching us],” says Kassai. Some of the ones that have stuck out include a yacht-sharing startup, as well as a horse-sharing company — memorable as neither has ever been part of his life. “I’ve never even ridden a horse,” says Kassai, “So horse sharing was quite new to me.”

Moreover, the background checking industry is currently in flux as the processes at traditional companies have come under scrutiny. Earlier this year, Altegrity, the American global player and owners of HireRight and United States Information Services (USIS) declared bankruptcy, spinning off HireRight in the process. The company ultimately cited a “state-sponsored data intrusion” that exposed the personal information of government workers as the reason the US government pulled two contracts that made up 22 percent of Altegrity’s revenues ($304 million in the last 12 months to February 2015).

But being the owners of USIS, the company that bungled the background check of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden didn’t help either. Following an investigation into how Snowden slipped through — vetters failed to follow up on a possible security violation and left some references unchecked — the U.S. sued USIS for pushing through some 665,000 unsatisfactory checks.

Much of the problem with the manual process is that a check is typically handled by a team, with each member of the team chasing a particular reference or verification. Notes Kassai, “My interest as one of seven of the cogs in the team is to tick a box and pass it along; no one is accountable. Everyone was ticking a box and pushing it down the conveyor belt.”

The way Onfido ensures a check doesn’t fall through the cracks is by combining and cross-referencing different checks from a number of different data suppliers from whom they license the data (for example, credit reference agencies, criminal record bureaus, electoral rolls). A first check might start with an identity check – the person is who he says he is. Onfido then combines that with a document check to ensure the identity hasn’t been stolen. They can continue to cross check and corroborate with other data until a much more layered view of the applicant emerges. “The issue is being smart about the cross-reference,” says Kassai. “The aim becomes looking to find reasons to capture risky applicants as opposed to ticking a box for compliance purposes, that’s the core difference.”

Kassai is also confident that they’ve got a decent lead on other tech startups who would need to get the same three things right: fast turnaround times, competitive pricing, and accurate checks. “Looking at turnaround times, the more we’ve integrated with data suppliers the faster our turnaround times.

When you look at offering the most competitive prices, the higher our volumes, the lower our data costs, the lower our prices. As for robust checks, we have technology that we’re refining all the time. You need a lot of data integration to do this, so it’s increasingly difficult for others to catch up.” In short, Kassai believes Onfido is first to market with a tech-heavy product that can’t be replicated overnight.

Check Mate

Certainly, Onfido’s investors are ambitious for the company. Wellington Partners’ Stephan von Perger says that the company is building a “stand-alone player that dominates,” and sees no reason that they may one day move beyond the sharing economy and up the stack from high-risk, low-skilled workers.

“Right now the focus is on the sharing economy because the growth in the underlying sector makes sense,” says von Perger. “Startup cycles are shorter so integration is faster. But as the product becomes more robust and these guys prove they are absolutely legit, there’s a huge opportunity to come back to larger corporations.”

Kassai says the focus now aside from expanding geographically, is to ensure they are constantly refining the product and perfecting the checks. “The more data we have the better the checks, and the more checks we do the better the checks.” One thing is certain, any feature based on predictive analysis won’t be part of any new offering. Customers have asked about it, wanting to know if Onfido could one day offer some sort of product that could indicate the likelihood of strong performance in the job or even criminal behaviour in the workplace based on the background data amassed on an individual.

“That is not our job. That is not where we want to go,” Kassai says emphatically, “The last thing we want to do is to develop something that is prejudiced or that predicts something based entirely on what’s happened in the past. Maybe you reformed today, so you should have a chance. You shouldn’t be banned for life [for past actions], but you should be honest what you’ve done…we don’t make the judgement calls, the employer still has to make that call.”

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Tech.Eu: Can the Sharing Economy Fix Broken Cities?

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Tech.Eu: Can the Sharing Economy Fix Broken Cities?

I recently wrote an article for Tech.eu after attending the Financial Times' first Sharing Economy Summit. Here's a snippet of the article below: 

Around the world, as urbanization increases, inequality rises, and city logistics and services are strained to breaking point, the notion that companies and consumers can transform city living into something smarter, more efficient, and yes, kinder and gentler, is the tantalizing promise of the sharing economy.

The way in which cities operate today is broken.

In London alone, plenty of stats abound on the trials of urban life:

– Congestion costs the London economy around £4 billion every year.
– Londoners waste 170 million hours a year sitting in traffic.
– Over 3,300 deaths in London are partly attributable to air pollution; in some areas of the capital air pollution can account for as many as one in 12 deaths
– The average house price in London is £458,283; average pay is £35,000.
– Inequality in London is the widest in the UK and rising.The richest 10% by financial asset wealth have 60% of all assets. The poorest 80% of the population share 20% of all asset wealth.

It’s a situation that can only get worse; London’s population of 8.6 million people is expected to grow another 1.4 million by 2030. As Alex Stephany, CEO of JustPark, the app that connects drivers with parking spaces, said, “We’re pretty screwed if we can’t make [improving cities] work.”

On paper, cities and the sharing economy appear a natural partnership. With dense living, city dwellers have been the first to embrace collaborative services such as car and home sharing. Sharing companies are keen to tout their benefits: job creation, reduced congestion and pollution, reduced consumption, less waste, closer community ties, raising trust amongst strangers and so on.

But at the Financial Times’ Sharing Economy Summit in London last week — at which Stephany was speaking on a late afternoon panel, “The Future of the City” — it became abundantly clear that considerable hurdles remain to creating more shareable cities, especially if shareable also means moreequitable.

The discussion itself — which included Rohan Silva, ex-Downing Street special adviser and co-founder of shared office space Second Home; the affable stat-quoting Zipcar UK general manager Mark Walker; and the Institute of Directors’ Deputy Head of Policy Jimmy McLoughlin — centered mainly on the current examples of how individual companies were making a difference. Croydon Council, for example, manages to save £500,000 a year and cut employee driving by 42% after adopting Zipcar. With 32 councils across London, the cost savings — and reduction in pollution — could be considerable.

The bigger picture, however, of how and should sharing economy companies lead the way in reshaping the future of cities was a harder one to imagine.

Whilst their services and products may help toward a sustainable future, collaborative consumption starts ups — and especially those backed with VC bucks — are first and foremost building a business. There may be an expectation that sharing economy companies should somehow “behave better,” but they are no more likely to than a company creating customer service software.

Regulation and the Right to Innovate

Indeed, one of the consistent themes throughout the day was the need for startups to defend their “right to innovate,” a phrase coined by Martin Bailey, the head of the European Commission’s DG CONNECT unit, trying to assure the room that the EC were looking to create regulation that ensured level playing fields but didn’t stifle innovation.

But at a time when some sharing economy companies are rustling up VC investment in the billions, and all manner of startups are clamoring to be the “Uber” of a particular service or asset, there was a palpable impatience in the room when the discussion turned toward fair treatment of incumbents and startups, workers’ rights, and the implications for local housing markets.

On a panel looking at how the sharing economy should be regulated, Airbnb’s Head of Policy of Europe and Canada, Patrick Robinson, conceded that companies should all be regulated equally, but at the same time dismissed the numbers in a New York State Attorney General’s report that found 6 percent of hosts were generating 37 percent of Airbnb’s revenues from New York City rentals. The majority of Airbnb hosts, Robinson insisted, are not professional landlords.

And just who are the workers of the sharing economy? Are they micro-entrepreneurs as Love Home Swap CEO Debbie Wosskow likes to call them? Are they people looking to make a bit of “extra money”? Are they the traditionally low paid looking to cobble together a paycheck? If the sharing economy really is about job creation, rather than about some welcome “pin money”, do these workers deserve some employment benefits? Or, in the brave new world of the micro-entrepreneur should these workers whose labor collaborative companies are benefitting from be sensible enough to set aside something for pension plans, maternity leave, sick pay and holiday time?

Of course, it depends on the service itself. Lower-skilled platforms will attract lower-skilled workers, and will pay less. Still, there are certainly highly motivated workers who make the most of even these lower-paid jobs. Hassle.com CEO Alex Depledge told the story of one cleaner who works 50 hours a week. From the living wage, Depledge says Hassle pays (up to £8.50 / hour, according to the site), the cleaner has managed to build his father a house in Sierra Leone and is grateful to be able to afford Arsenal season tickets to boot. That cleaner, however, was an exception. Most, said Depledge, are on Hassle because they want the flexibility of working around their own schedules – usually mothers with family commitments or students juggling cleaning between courses.

But one person’s flexibility is another worker’s instability – again, the most in danger are low skilled, low-income workers using the sharing economy to patch together a living. On the regulation panel, Jackie Grech, the British Hospitality Association’s Legal and Policy Director & General Counsel, questioned whether women might be more excluded than men from the sharing economy because of a lack of benefits like maternity leave. Of course, with a flexible schedule a woman can always take the time off to care for her infant, she just won’t be paid for it.

Helen Goulden, NESTA’s Executive Director of its Innovation Lab, reminded the audience too, that in order to share and profit from assets such as cars and houses you had to have them in the first place – something the urban poor struggle to obtain.

Two-Tier Sharing

Could a two-tier sharing economy market emerge? The danger of one sharing economy for the middle and upper classes and one of the lower classes doesn’t seem such a far-fetched story when you consider the growing trend of the collaborative economy to move away from “sharing and caring” to the cool efficiency of the on-demand economy. On-demand services are still staffed by “everyday” people, often putting up their own assets to get the job done, but now the expectation is they can be summoned as quickly as a customer can access them on an app, or be bypassed for the next ready and willing worker.

Sharing and caring used to be a value-add, now it’s friction.

But then, the sharing economy has always been a bit of a misnomer, and a bit of a paradox. People act selfishly by seeking out the less expensive, easier option in order to behave more altruistically, or more sustainably.

Said JustPark CEO Stephany, “Environmentalism should be the biggest driver to action [to the service], but it’s actually the smallest. [Our customers] use JustPark because it’s cheaper and more convenient.”

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Hello and a Few Words About the Blog

I'll be using this space to talk about some of the challenges start ups face when they take the first steps into telling their story to the wider world. After years as a reporter (and being pitched to by companies), and more recently helping companies get heard, I have a number of thoughts on the subject. 

I'll also be posting articles that I've contributed to tech blogs and other publications. 

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