Ayelet Noff has been named one of the top people in tech - she's the founder and CEO of award-winning PR Firm Blonde 2.0 with offices in Tel Aviv and Boston. She talks to us about the reality of startup PR.
You work with some top tech companies to ensure media coverage. But do you work with small startups as well?
We work with a range from Microsoft to Google to stealth startups. I started Blonde 2.0 in 2006 in Israel, and I often get the question “why didn't I open in the US”? The answer is that in th the US there's already enough to represent the tech scene. I wanted to support the European tech companies who don't get the same opportunities.
I wanted to act as their diplomat and help them out. I started working with Viber before anyone knew who Viber was. Same with Yo - the app that went viral - when we start with them, no one knows about them. But eventually they got coverage in basically every news outlet in the world.
What's your stance - should startups be doing their own PR, or hire a firm?
There's a lot of startups with wonderful technologies, but who don't understand anything about marketing. Other startups with inferior tech, but have the resources and wisdom to take on a PR agency, end up getting all the glory. No one is going to know about you without telling the world that you exist, about your uniqueness.
In PR there are 2 elements:
Connections. Because a reporter at the New York Times gets between 50-1000 emails per day, they need to filter them out somehow. Having a connection with them is the best way to do that.
I came from a journalist background, that helped me create these connections. I started blogging under Blonde 2.0. I know the journalist, because I used to write for TechCrunch, Mashable, TNW, Forbes, VentureBeat, that added advantage of being on a friendly basis obviously means they're going to open my email before anyone else's.
The second reason is that a good PR firm knows how to tell your story right. They know how to make your case a unique one.
Yo was ours, we launched them to the world. We used various hooks to get them to where they were, we got them in every publication in the world. Even Stephen Colbert mentioned Yo. We broke instagram's record for downloads, 1 million downloads in 48 hours.
Chances are you won't be able to do PR very well for yourself, and if you hire someone in house, it might be more expensive than hiring a PR firm. I rather leave it to the professionals.
What tactics did you use to launch Yo to the world?
It all comes down to story.
The first story was that they raised 1 million dollars. Everyone raised their eyebrows. Either you hate it or you love it, but you have to say something about it. We created a debate between the people who that it was genius, versus those people who that that it was the stupidest app in the world.
Debate is always good. Scandal is always good.
We brought Robert Scoble to Israel. He posted to his status ”I just saw the stupidest and most addictive app every. Yo.” That already shows, in the one status, how divisive the app is.
But what it is, basically, is a notifications app. So being in Israel with missiles constantly passing over us, we integrated Yo with a service that lets you know when a missile is launched in your direction. That was also a news story.
Basically we utilize data that the startups have to make news. Like SixGill, a cyber security company. We had them look at the dark web and find information on that, and created interesting news about it.
We worked with another startup called Beyond Verbal, they recognized voice and recognized emotion. So when Hilary and Trump were doing debates, we used their tech to analyze what they were feeling during the debate.
How do you deliver the news? Is that through a press release?
Yes and no.
A press release is important and you need to have all the information in one place. Writers are busy and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to write your story.
I'll probably DM them in Facebook, but you have to get to that stage in the relationship.
I actually wrote a piece on my blog about how writers like to be contacted. We have a series called “How To Pitch Me” - we did a series of interviews asking journalists how they like to be pitched. We pulled data from the series and it shows the different methods of how they like to be pitched, from favourite to least favourite.
Once we have all the info in place, we'll pitch our personal connections. There are over 30 employees in Blonde 2.0, and each one brings their own contacts. I know my contacts, and I know how they like to be pitched. Whether it's email, phone call, Telegram, Whatsapp of Facebook.
We're always one step ahead and seeing the next big thing. Because we're so immersed in the tech space in the last year and a half, we've noticed that block chain was going to be big. So we opened the BlondeChain - a subset of Blonde 2.0, where we work with over 25 companies that have block chain-based projects.
There's specific channels for them, Telegram is a big one that they prefer. It's just an example of how I speak to different clients through varying channels, based on their preferences.
Do you ever turn down potential clients?
We've never had to advertise, it's always been word of mouth. My reputation is more important to me than anything - I rather lose a client than take on one I can't do a good enough job for.
Also, as much as my journo friends love me, if I send them a bad story, they won't be as likely to take on my subsequent stories I send them.
I'm quite transparent when I turn them down. Since I'm Israeli I can be frank - I can tell them that frankly I don't think that this is a product that I can't help you with. Either because 1) the product isn't strong enough, or 2) the market is too saturated for that industry.
What would be the most effective way for a startup from a small country to get media coverage?
If you really don't have anything and you need to do it all on your own from scratch, you're going to have to spend a lot of time dedicated to research, various writers, research them, and what they write about.
If I'm pitching an article to VentureBeat, I have to know what they write about.
The easiest way to turn a journalist off is by pitching a drone story to someone who doesn't write about drones.
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges for a European startup to make the move to the US market?
There are specific publications, without naming names, that are global and won't write about your company if it's based in Europe. It's even more of a challenge to get media attention because you need to explain why you're worth it. But if you're based in New York or San Francisco, there usually aren't that many barriers.
Proximity used to be a major challenge. But I feel that in recent years we've advanced quite a lot and European companies are getting an increasing amount of visibility. It's less of a hurdle than it used to be.
I think blockchain has to do with that as well. A lot of blockchain companies are coming from Europe and Asia, which has a lot to do with the over-regulation in America.
Tel-Aviv, where you're based, is often cited as a geographical startup hub. How did that come about, and what is it about the city that's been able to foster such a culture of innovation and startups?
The army, first of all. You have to be very technologically advanced to have one of the best armies in the world. That spills over into civilian life.
There's also a philosophy of “it's ok to fail”. There's a saying - “done is better than perfect”. That way of thought is definitely prevalent in Tel Aviv. Much moreso than in “old” Europe. Take Austria, for example. I feel like there, failing is terrible, it can't happen.
In Israel there's this feeling of Carpe diem - if you fail, you fail! There's a lifestyle here that allows that. There's a sense of openness because of the uncertainty of life in this area, with missiles being launched at you as a very realistic possibility. You don't know if things will be the same tomorrow, so you might as well try.
What would you say or suggest to those who call their small country a reason for their lack of success?
Surround yourself with good people. A good CEO knows how to get the right people with the right set of skills.
We live in a virtual age and there's no longer an excuse as to why you can't work with a virtual team. You can have a team of people working with you globally, you don't have to feel limited by the talent that's available in your country.
Unfortunately we won't be able to see you at this year's DFF, as was originally planned. Any words of advice to the Latvian startup scene?
As I said before, Latvia, just like Israel, is a small country. A lot of people might use their geography (not being in New York or London), as an excuse. I disagree with that. Today everything is possible, we live in a virtual age, we have access to the network of the world. If back in the day you were limited to your own local network, that's simply not true anymore.
The biggest hurdle might be funding. In Israel there are a lot of investors, money can be the only thing that limits, as far as resources. That aside, if you have money to start with, the sky's the limit.
Look at Zug - Switzerland. A small little place, it has become Crypto Valley! People are actually calling it that! There are so many crypto companies there. Any place can become that, it's just a matter of smart people creating strong teams around them.