Last August I spent an evening at the Supreme Court at an event honoring Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Between suits and small talk amongst other Presidential Innovation Fellows from the White House, I approached the bar and a contributor to Fast Company, and before finishing a glass of Sauvignon Blanc I placed three articles about companies I worked with.
Narrative is a form of capital, and I knew the stories of the founders I invest in and work with. Story isn’t just a nice to have, it’s a must have. Story and narrative determine brand, and knowing the angles meant I could pique the interest of a writer over one glass of wine.
One was about Kimono Labs, the Y-Combinator-company mapping the structured web by democratizing the ability to write APIs, and how they had recently taken the team from San Francisco to Tokyo for three weeks to isolate and bond the team. The next was about Klink, and how founder Iñaki Berenguer sourced global talent by sponsoring visas for his recruits. The third was about Spire, a big data company powered by small satellites, and how the CEO Peter Platzer had architected roles around passions, and never fired an employee.
Evan Baehr, the founder and CEO of the collaborative small-business lending platform, Able Lending, talks about story as a form of capital, “Narrative Capital,” as he calls it. Startups succeed by selling a solution to a problem. Deft startups don’t just react to a perceived problem in the market; they shape and manipulate that problem to sound bigger and more pronounced than one might have previously realized. They know how to tell a story that leaves you feeling a deeper pain point, and they leave you desiring their solution.
Operating in a constrained environment, startups must think outside the box, beyond the traditional forms of human and financial capital, and intellectual property. Increasingly, design has become a necessary, though not sufficient driver of startup success, but human-centered design and brand have yet to fully embrace story, and narrative.
Today’s public relations are largely product-driven, and self-centered. Agencies push press releases across news wires based on launch timelines, product road maps and new feature releases, rather than relevance to the macro environment. Press releases are product-centric, rather than problem-centric, and companies are left trying to place stories in content-poor corners of the web, rather than crafting a narrative response to crises that call for solutions.
Crafting a story, and a narrative response, is what I call event-driven PR. It’s not pushing PR to news wires in a vacuum. It’s cogently articulating responses to geopolitical events that highlight the salience of the problem, and the differentiated components of the solution.
By being informed about world events, startups can architect their stories to fit a narrative of need. They can responsively highlight their solutions in a highly relevant context, pulling in sales and business development opportunities rather than pushing marketing. In many ways, this is content driving commerce. But more than that, it’s content with context driving commerce. It’s deductive strategy based on global trends rather than inductive strategy driven by internal roadmaps and market expectations. By following thought leaders, and responding with solutions-based narratives, Silicon Valley startups can come across as having less hubris, and being more conciliatory in their approach to helping solve global problems.
Spire, based in San Francisco, has a network of small satellites focused on providing higher frequency commercial weather data, asset tracking and maritime domain awareness. Many of their potential clients in international container shipping care deeply about geopolitical issues such as Chinese positioning in the South China Sea. By monitoring these trends, and placing strategic, responsive Op-Eds that highlight Spire’s capabilities, we’ve crafted a solutions-based narrative, and event-driven PR strategy. Within 24 hours of placing an Op-Ed in The Diplomat, a publication in Japan, I was sitting face-to-face with the former U.S. Ambassador to Japan discussing opportunities to plug Spire into the Japanese public and private sector. I had highlighted a global pain point in real-time, and offered a unique solution from Silicon Valley that came from outside the The Diplomat’s readership.
Story as narrative capital is as important as human or financial capital, design and intellectual property. Shrewd startups should take an external solutions-based approach, architecting event-driven PR around geopolitical events, rather than an internal product-led approach.
By taking an event-driven approach to PR, startups can create contextualized content to drive commerce, and leverage press for both marketing and sales.