Three Tips for Simple, Strategic, & Tactical Startup Communication Michal Habdank-Kolaczkowski
Michal Habdank-Kolaczkowski is Founder of Rally Call, where he supports early-stage companies message and position their products and services, build brand narratives, and tell their stories. His work has helped land $155M+ in startup funding and $6B+ in startup exits for his clients to Google, Intel, Nokia, Dell, eBay, and Synaptics, and has been recognized in BusinessInsider’s Top PR Pros.
In this post, Michal shares his tips along a founder’s get-to-market roadmap, from fundraising to branding to media relations.
Tip 1: Fundraising
Fundraising is storytelling, so don’t prioritize the production value of your pitch deck over how you position your solution.
Detaching from the comfort of familiar visuals was instrumental for Fido.ai, a natural language processing client whose founders were married to a visual deck theme before they even had a first date with their story structure; a big no-no in fundraising narrative work. Instead, we developed intentional copy, including their tagline “Decoding the Human Internet” to raise $1.6M in seed funding and eventual acquisition by Samurai Labs.
Put your cart (story) before your horse and let the horse push. Don’t decide the look of your deck before you’ve mapped your story and ask. When you are ready for the design stage, you can visit resources like flaticon.com for vector graphics, designer.io for user-friendly templates and design tools, and even improve your headshot with remove.bg‘s free noise cancellation feature.
While Raising BeeHero’s $4M Seed Round, no designers or resources were available to dazzle our deck. We knew what we wanted to say, but we hadn’t developed a visual language yet. All script, no style, just ambition, and my tagline “Pollinate & Prosper.” A catch-22, the less we could show, the more we had to say, and our work needed to speak for itself.
So we channeled that stress to fuel our rewrites and drive home a straightforward, indisputable, spoken fundraising narrative that needed no backdrop. That clarity would be the best way to enlist talented friends and family to develop in-house branded pitching material at the last minute.
Tip 2: Branding
Branding, always the last box to tick on any startup’s to-do list, is both predictably and realistically never a founder’s priority. It needs to be.
While sound bytes which liken your product to a more established one can facilitate quick conversational analogies a-la “it’s ‘this’ for ‘that’,” they invariably work against you, pitting your innovation against other, possibly irrelevant, services. Your ability to fascinate your investors, customers, and partners demands product differentiation.
An excellent example of this is the now-defunct, crowdfund-darling, Navdy: raising $2.4M in pre-orders and $6.5M in seed funding for the “Google Glass for Your Car.” I worked with Team Navdy to mature the perception of a loose metaphor to a concrete reality of hands-free “Augmented Driving” under the tagline and wordplay, “Look Forward,” helping the company raise its next $15M Series A from established investor HARMAN.
Effective branding isn’t overcomplicated: it’s a promise of a better life.
Keep your words short, uplifting, and culturally climate-proof. We remember brands that make us feel strong, safe, and empowered, don’t require too much thinking, leading us down the path of least resistance. Tie your promise to your product — it may be your most valuable long-term marketing spend. And, since there is no comprehensive whiteboard eraser for SEO, your brand can’t pivot, it can only evolve. Here are some great examples:
- “Shave Time. Shave Money.” – Dollar Shave Club
- “Challenge Everything.” – EA Games
- “Because You’re Worth It.” – L’Oreal
The seed-funded Waze app was initially developed as an open-source GPS tool for mapping red-light cameras in Israel: no brand, no voice. Learning that geo-mapping was a tangible commodity, Waze raised its Series A as a potential threat to the few incumbents at the time: Google, MapQuest, and TeleAtlas.
We could also provide real-time traffic data by the nature of our technology, so by our Series B raise, our company needed clarity and differentiation: a voice and mission. One of our first successes was beginning the dialogue around a new “Traffic Apps” category and touted the tagline “Outsmarting Traffic, Together.” which would ultimately become the basis for the entire community-driven brand. When in doubt about the problem you’re solving, for whom, reference Simon Sinek’s amazing TED talk on Golden Circle thinking for inspiration.
Tip 3: Media Relations
PR is simple arithmetic: the right content to the right reporter at the right time.
The media wants specific content; you just need to come up with the right recipe. Instead of cultivating meaningful professional relationships with individual journalists or publications, most founders search for or guess email addresses and start cold-calling — the scourge of every overburdened tech journalist.
Identify and engage with journalists early about topics they care about and write about. Pose them follow-up questions or offer some relevant industry insight off-the-cuff that doesn’t have to do with your launch next week.
Almost an entire year before the PR launch of Waze’s Ad product, we knew we would have to engage with reporters far outside our comfort zone, treading particularly carefully around the issue of distracted driving. To ensure a smooth launch, we researched, reached out to, and commented on articles by reporters at publications like AdAge, AdWeek, and Internet Retailer on a near-daily basis to gauge their interest and response before pitching them on the idea months down the road. The result was a positive, widely-publicized launch without the surprise or mess of politically-charged headlines around a “new technology to distract customers in the car.”
Journalists have plenty of non-work-related interests and engage with social media on personal topics. Use networking events or social media to make real connections with reporters after-hours, off-topic, or in-person.
With a bit of research and good memory for names, I learned that a senior tech writer for CNN in Silicon Valley was in my sister’s graduating class. We both lived in San Francisco and both fascinated by the emerging hardware revolution at the time. I reached out to her and suggested we meet for coffee sometime to discuss the trend we saw and offer her some themes I had observed during my time as a mentor for 40 cohorts at Highway1’s hardware incubator. She accepted, we had a great conversation, and after that short chat, I was no longer a stranger or just a needy publicist. I created a connection with her that I knew would be important for me down the line.
By the time I began working with Spire Health, I knew I could confidently engage with my contact about our launch without feeling like a salesperson. Instead, I had the chance to tell her about the miracle technology that could help so many people. As soon as I emailed her, she sent our CEO a blank email with the subject line “re: Michal – you got the right guy.”
For you skeptics, we never discussed our mutual hometown or my sister. Leverage all of your networks, (even if it includes family) to see who you may already have a good reason to connect with; express genuine mutual interest; then you can start conversations with “Hello! Can I tell you…” instead of “Hello! Can you please write about me?”
Want to learn more? You can reach Michal at rallycall.co to learn more about how he can help you with refining and testing value propositions, refreshing websites and marketing collateral, and developing fundraising narratives.