Tech startups are a dime a dozen, so how do you make yours stand out - to the media and to the public? You need a “hook” to attract jaded reporters, busy bloggers and seen-it-all journalists. In short, you need a “startup legend” - which might or might not be 100% rooted in fact.
As a journalist who weeds through hundreds of startup pitch emails a week, here are my tips on the elements of an effective startup legend and how you can develop one. And I’ll even address the possible ethical issues involved in crafting your own legend.
Be the opposite. If every tech entrepreneur who’s getting publicity is a man from Silicon, you can stand out simply by being a woman, or a pair of twins, or being from an unknown foreign country. During the first dot-com boom in the late '90s, “I dropped out of Harvard to start a tech company” was a great startup legend… the first 20 times I heard it. When 95% of startup pitches began coming from Harvard dropouts, the story lost its effectiveness.
Work the human interest angle. Reporters (and customers) are busy, busy, busy, so think like a Hollywood exec in a pitch meeting and create a memorable startup story in a single sentence.
Think American Idol: Did you overcome a major challenge to start your business? Maybe you were inspired by your blind brother’s struggles to shop online, or you taught yourself to code while living in a homeless shelter. Don’t be shy about playing up a sob story.
Create visuals to cement your startup legend. Why do you think Mark Zuckerberg never takes off his hoodie? Or Steve Jobs stuck to his minimalist uniform of jeans and a black turtleneck? Their visuals play up their image (college student makes good/Zen perfectionist, respectively). And if you’re a woman, it doesn’t hurt to be hot. (Face it: Have you ever seen a woman on the cover of Fast Company NOT wearing a slinky outfit?)
How True Is Your Legend?
OK, so what if you don’t have a sure-fire hook for your startup legend? Should you embroider the truth to add spice to your startup story? Before you decide, consider these famous startup legends that turned out to be, well, just that:
- The Pez dispenser that launched 1,000 bids: One of eBay’s first employees got tired of getting rejections from reporters to whom she pitched founder Pierre Omidyar’s story. So she “romanticized” the auction site’s launch by saying Omidyar had started the site to help his fiancée find the Pez dispensers she collected. Everyone loves Pez, and everyone took to the Pez story, revealed only years later to be false.
- Garage, sweet garage: HP might have started in a garage, but Google didn’t. Despite a widely spread myth, the company was actually two years old when it moved to a garage (partly in homage to HP’s humble beginnings).
- Nobody here but us girls: In more recent years, flash sale site Gilt Groupe has grabbed headlines like this one, touting co-founders Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson as “the women who changed the landscape of e-commerce forever.” Conspiciously absent is mention of Kevin P. Ryan, who Forbes reports actually got the idea for Gilt Groupe but recruited Maybank and Wilson because, unlike him, they could be role models for customers.
There are undoubtably others that haven’t been exposed yet.
In the end, it’s up to you how much you want to embellish your startup story. Of course, you have to be prepared for the blowback if you’re found out - if anyone even cares. The truth hasn’t soured the legends of the companies listed above.
So, what’s your startup legend?