August 1, 2023

To Move Forward, Work Backwards

The best new initiatives start with this old trick.

I have a client who is developing technology to facilitate ultra-long-read DNA analysis. With their technology, it might be possible to easily prepare and read strands that are hundreds of thousands of base pairs long.

If you’re in the field, that might sound exciting. If you’re not, you might think that sounds vaguely impressive, but also wonder what exactly that means and why we should care. That question—who cares?—seems almost dismissive, but it should constantly be on your mind.

Here’s why: No one cares about your company. People might care about how your company helps solve their problems, but only if you make it clear exactly which ones. For extra credit, make it clear how the world will be a better place once your company’s goods, services, or technology are widely used. In other words, build the story around the higher levels of Pohl’s Messaging Hierarchy (recently I’ve been inverting the pyramid to visually capture the importance of the upper levels—not sure I’ve captured it perfectly yet, would love your thoughts):

When Amazon is considering a new product, feature, or initiative, the first assignment is to write the press release announcing the launch. Why? Because it forces the team to define success—and what that success would mean to the company and the world.

The press release assumes that the company has completed the project, and allows them to answer the eternal question: who cares? What’s the impact? How is the world different? Notice: it’s not how the company is different, how it is bigger, more influential, or more profitable (though that will obviously come through). The question is, how is the customer better off? How is the world different? What problems are solved?

Back to my ultra-long read client. When I asked him why the world should care about his technology, there was a five second pause. He had a few scattered ideas, and then suggested he would think about it and get back to me later. You might think that’s shocking, but I have seen this again and again, and not just with companies led by researchers emerging from the lab.

The vision of entrepreneurs often doesn’t extend past the pile of lucre they hope to make. And even if it’s not the money, it’s just the unquestioned assumption that the benefit is obvious. It’s not. Spell it out. The original reason for a press release is to get the press to write about your company. If you can’t sell the journalists, how will you sell potential customers? So that’s why preparing a release is the perfect exercise for practicing the story of how your company will transform the world, or at least an aspect of it.

For this client, the answer to “who cares?” in the press release was the following: “These long strands should enable researchers to more efficiently sequence the genome of complex organisms, even when limited reference libraries exist. Long read sequencing is crucial for breakthrough research in fields including cancer, contagious diseases, and identification of new biological species.” As the technology develops, we can get more specific. But for now, this at least overtly ties the company’s products to large issues of the day.

Some steps and suggestions for writing your future press release:

  1. Describe in detail how the customer will be better off by the introduction of the product or service. These are the benefits that users of the product experience (they can sequence genomes in a fraction of the time and effort)
  2. Describe in detail how the world will be better off by the introduction of the product or service. These are the benefits the world will experience because customers are implementing this solution (the following diseases can be vanquished; these crops can be improved; pandemics can be avoided or minimized etc).
  3. Prioritize benefits of the product or service. (this is where customer research comes in. Do your customers care more that the gene sequencing goes quickly, or that it has a lower error rate?)
  4. If you can’t write a press release that makes what you’re planning sound important and valuable, rethink your project.
  5. One product or service often has multiple angles to it that will be interesting to different journalists. Your press release can’t include all of them. Pick the biggest one and keep a list of the others for pitching journalists later.
  6. The About the Company section at the bottom of the press release is a great opportunity to make sure you’re still summarizing the company in the most impactful way. Things move quickly with early-stage startups, and there’s a good chance your company description will evolve over each of the first half dozen press releases (or more)

Don’t outsource press releases to junior PR staff. Don’t outsource it to an AI service that promises to write one in seconds. A press release is an opportunity to define a powerful north star. Writing one before you start the project (or even launch your company) gives you an opportunity to define success for yourself, and for the world.