Editor’s note:  We recently spoke with Jenny He, the Founder and General Partner of Position Ventures, a venture fund backed by Bain Capital Ventures and Tiger Global that invests in early-stage startups and sets them for success by helping founders develop and execute their positioning and communications strategy. Throughout her career, Jenny has partnered with hundreds of founders on their positioning and communications strategy, including everyone from trailblazing first-time entrepreneurs to iconic founders.

What are the most common misconceptions about public relations and attracting media coverage?

Public relations is not a silver bullet that will drive sales growth. Tech companies can absolutely use PR and communications to help achieve strategic goals like building their brand, demonstrating their legitimacy, and telling their story, but ultimately it’s the company’s product, positioning, and customers that are most important to their success.

There’s also a misconception about what’s actually newsworthy these days. The market is way more crowded than it used to be so simply raising a new round of financing isn’t news when hundreds of similar companies are also raising at any given time. Rather than over-indexing on spray-and-pray media coverage for these kinds of transactions, I always recommend founders invest the time to nail their messaging and positioning, and how their company’s product or service stands out in a way that is both differentiated and defensible. Once they have that unique positioning, they’re able to tell a more powerful story and it’s that thoughtful story that helps land PR. 

What are the risks for companies that fail to differentiate in this way?

There are just way too many startups, many of which are doing and saying the same things. For that reason, it’s more important than ever to differentiate your business. Leaders need to ensure they’re positioning their businesses to rise above the noise to secure an edge when it comes to winning customers, investors, and top talent, and ensuring that people recognize their brand. To succeed as a tech startup, you have to stay top of mind for people. That’s not likely to happen when you look and sound like everyone else. 

So how can tech companies go about creating the differentiated and defensible messaging and positioning you’re talking about?

Large companies often hire agencies to help them figure this out. A positioning agency will come in and analyze your existing positioning, messaging, and assets, help you gather data on, and finetune, your ICP or ideal customer profile, and identify any white space within your market where you can win the hearts and minds of consumers. The catch, however, is that the process can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and can take anywhere from six months to well over a  year to complete. 

Right, so not exactly feasible for every business. Do you have any advice around how companies can try to do this work on their own?

It starts with looking at the company’s DNA. This means wrapping your head around the founders, the company’s mission, and its product, and being honest about what is truly unique about the business. After that, you want to identify your target audience’s niche. This is important  because, as I mentioned, there are a lot of tech startups doing the same thing. One way to differentiate yourself in that situation is to focus on a niche audience. There’s a company called Affinity that comes to mind as an example of this. It’s one of hundreds of CRMs available on the market today, but what makes it unique is that it’s specifically targeting the venture capital industry.

Once you really understand the company’s DNA and have identified its customer niche, the next step is to do a deep dive into the company’s ideal customers and what they need. It’s important to get as specific and granular as possible here, and the best way to do that is typically through surveys and focus groups. The better a company understands its ideal customer profile, the better its positioning will be because it will allow everything to be tailored to that specific audience. 

All of that work will yield a lot of data for companies to analyze. The job then becomes triangulating a differentiated position based on what the ideal customer wants, what the company can offer, and what the competitive landscape looks like. 

How do you know if a company’s positioning really is differentiated and defensible? Is there a sniff test you use?

Yes, and it boils down to two questions: Can another company do the same thing? And would other people be able to articulate what the company does and what makes it differentiated? If the answer to either question is no, then the company’s positioning isn’t unique.

Can you share any best practices tech companies can use to help ensure they are positioning themselves in the best possible way? 

The key to great positioning is having really high-quality data about your ideal customers. Founders often think that they can get that just by talking informally to a few customers. The reality is that to reach the true total addressable market founders talk about, you need to talk to a lot of customers. A structured way of collecting this data is through a thoughtful survey, but surveys are hard because the quality of the data you collect is totally dependent on the quality of the questions you ask. 

It’s important to have a framework in place to gather the information you need and to ask very specific and intentional questions that are designed to tease out the data you need. For example, rather than asking people if they would use the product, ask them who the product is for. Anyone can say that they will use a product, but until they actually become a paying customer, it gives companies the false impression that everyone is their ideal customer. Asking who the product is for, however, forces people to think about who should use the product. Once you know that, go talk to those folks and see who they think the product is for. Keep going down that path and you’ll eventually get to the right target niche.

Can you share any examples of companies that have done a really good job of positioning themselves in a way that’s both unique and defensible?

Zoom is a great example. It’s the de facto enterprise video chat platform even though Google Hangouts is free, works well, and has been around longer. The reason for that is that Zoom has done such a great job of positioning itself as the enterprise solution. In fact, it’s reached the point where if a company isn’t using Zoom, some people will question whether it’s a legitimate business. 

A big part of brand building is for companies to tell their story. What advice can you offer tech companies about how to do this well?

A lot of tech companies tend to overemphasize specific product features. While having great features is important, when it comes to telling a compelling story, you don’t want to get mired down in the details. Instead, focus on the big picture and the overarching real-world benefit the product delivers. Having a clear value proposition that spells out how the company is differentiated is also important so that customers don’t have to take time trying to figure it out for themselves. A great way to do that is through case studies and customer stories, the best stories have multiple data points and voices. 

Another point to remember is that consistency is key. It’s important to ensure that your positioning aligns with your brand identity and that you are communicating the same things over and over across all of your communication channels. And, of course, you have to make sure that you’re telling your story in the places where you are actually able to reach your ideal customers. That’s going to vary depending who that ideal customer is.

Thanks for sharing your insights, Jenny. We appreciate it!