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Virtual Panel Recap: Strategic Comms for Early-Stage Startups

May 30, 2024 Inkhouse

On May 23, 2024, we held a virtual panel to discuss the role of comms for early-stage startups. The panelists included Dr. Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder of Incredible Health, Pukar Hamal, CEO and founder of SecurityPal, and Richard Robinson, CEO and founder of Robin AI. The panel was moderated by our own Dan O’Mahony, managing director of Inkhouse West.

The main focus: how to launch and grow a communications function from the ground up at an early-stage startup. The full panel discussion can be viewed here—some key takeaways include: 

Getting Started & the Importance of Comms

First, make sure you’re ready to invest in communications. As Iman pointed out, startups need space to create and actually do the work to get to the right place for market fit; then, it’s time to tell the world. 

Pukar and Iman both felt brand new to comms and didn’t quite “believe” in it at the start. Iman stressed that during Incredible Health’s early days, there was “a lot of doing,” closing deals, creating products, delivering services and experiences to customers, etc., but “not a lot of showing.” She felt like the company was doing a lot of important work but not sharing the messaging broadly.

“It’s important to maximize both the doing and showing… but showing can sometimes be more important than doing.”

Dr. Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder of Incredible Health
Dr. Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder of Incredible Health

Pukar agreed with Iman. In fact, he got on board with communications because of the “incredible success of Incredible Health, no pun intended.” He sees the role of communications as extremely important, as companies need differentiation to stand out now more than ever.

“Narrative can be one of those things that’s a unique differentiator for a company. If you can find the right way to tell your story and find the right angle to deploy and amplify…it can be a massive asset.”

Pukar Hamal, founder and CEO of SecurityPal
Pukar Hamal, founder and CEO of SecurityPal

Comms can be the “engine” that differentiates brands that are creating similar products and solutions. 

Like many other startup CEOs, Richard didn’t immediately see the value of communications. He felt that the return on investment (ROI) in communications wasn’t as strong as with other more direct forms of demand generation. However, as he watched the rapid rise of AI and ChatGPT, he realized that people were searching for AI services, which Robin AI provides specifically for legal assistance. 

“The premium for being the company associated with AI dramatically increased… when people think about legal AI, we want them to think of us, and that means communication. PR suddenly became, arguably, the most important thing we are doing.”

Richard Robinson, CEO and founder of Robin AI
Richard Robinson, CEO and founder of Robin AI

Empowering Your Communications Team

Now that you’ve hired an agency, you want to make the most of your investment. How does a startup get the best value from a comms program? By providing the CEO’s time. Especially at the beginning of the relationship, the CEO is crucial in spearheading the strategic thinking and building a compelling company story that will resonate with reporters. It’s imperative to get the messaging and talking points right the first time because the brand will be using those materials for years to come. 

According to Iman, the next most important thing is to learn and listen to comms partners. “Startups need to come to terms that no one really cares about your story unless your story matters and maps to larger trends; that’s the strategic part of PR and communications. But there’s also a very important logistical and administrative component.” She also reminded viewers that all of this takes time and patience. 

“Learn to be patient. It’s [about] gaining momentum. The longer you do it [PR], the better placement you’ll get.”

Iman Abuzeid

Richard echoed Iman’s thoughts and added that CEOs need to know who their company’s buyers are. Agencies might be experts at crafting a narrative and getting that narrative coverage, but the CEO should know their target audiences inside and out; who are the buyers? What do they do? Where do they hang out online? What do they read?

Comms Misconceptions

What are some common misconceptions about building out a comms program? Pukar said that there isn’t just a big button to start an entire engine (we wish there were, too!). “There’s work that goes into the relationship; a PR agency isn’t just going to do everything.”

“It requires a lot of thought alignment with the team, but that’s the way it’s going to be effective; a really powerful and effective tool. Being prepared is to be committed and setting aside the hours to write the blogs, push the articles, connect with the right set of folks, and show up.”

Pukar Hamal 

When it comes to working with Inkhouse, Pukar sees himself as a chess piece on the board, with his team deciding where he can be the most effective. 

But there are things he doesn’t compromise on, including SecurityPal’s unique story as the product with an office in Kathmandu at the foot of the Himalayas while also pioneering Silicon peaks. Early-stage founders ultimately need to figure out what kind of company they want to build. It’s fine to have a quick exit strategy or, like Pukal, want to build a company for 30 to 40 years into a billion-dollar company. Founders just need that intellectual honesty to deploy the type of marketing strategy that’s best.

It’s a push and pull between what the PR team suggests, what the CEO sees as important, and how it fits into the broader landscape. 

Richard also sees the value in a healthy tension between an agency and a company. He doesn’t want all the press and doesn’t want Robin AI commenting on everything related to AI; a comms partner will vet the right opportunities. He trusts Inkhouse to know who to pitch, the outlets’ audiences, and what will attract journalists’ attention. He also trusts us to tell him how candid or open he should be or how he should talk to certain reporters. 

“I personally don’t like talking to [the media]…I’m generally quite honest, but that can be a bad trait when talking to journalists.  I appreciate the briefing packets so I know what’s coming.”

Richard Robinson

Leverage Investors

Iman’s philosophy is that investors work for the brands they invest in (not the other way around) and should help them be more successful. 

For comms, Iman has strategically leveraged reporter relationships that some investors have. Especially for startups that might not have these relationships yet, it’s important for investors to make introductions. Another way investors can help is by amplifying company news, like launches or data reports, via social media to reach their own unique audiences.

The Value of Earned Media vs. Owned Content

How important is media coverage to get news out vs. relying only on owned content like blogs and social media (famously the stance of Elon Musk)? Iman shared that their audience—hospitals, nurses, and other healthcare workers—need to know the Incredible Health name. And those audiences aren’t all on X. They still get their information from “traditional media.” They might be reading smaller trade journals but they’re also reading CNBC, Bloomberg, etc. 

Pukar agreed and also mentioned that Elon Musk owns mainly B2C companies and can likely get away with little press because there is a consumer customer base. Any bit of drama will become a “win.” But when it comes to B2B brands, there’s a long-term vision, and, in the case of SecurityPal, they want to win the hearts and minds of CISOs, GRC leaders, and a more risk-averse audience that wouldn’t likely appreciate unvetted Tweets. 

What do these startup founders read?

Richard Robinson:

  • I’m both a lawyer and a nerd, so I basically read everything.”
  • Financial Times
  • Axios
  • Tech Crunch (specifically for fundraising announcements)
  • AI news and threads on X
  • Podcasts in technology and AI

Iman Abuzeid:

  • Twitter/X (tech and med communities/topics)
  • Long-form investigative articles or podcasts

Pukar Hamal: 

  • It’s less about the publication and more about individual articles, tech groups, and communities
  • Twitter/X
  • LinkedIn
  • Ben Thompson’s Stratechery

We really enjoyed asking these smart, successful CEOs and founders about their journeys and where comms helped. It was a great conversation, and we look forward to our next panel. 

Watch the whole panel below. Wait until the end to find out what the panelists found to be red flags with working with agencies!

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