It’s nearly three years since I left Tradeshift to start Augur. Prior to that, I’d worked at tech PR agencies, with brands of all sizes — but I had never been fully immersed in one company.
The experience was a shock to the system, going from solid but fairly traditional PR agencies into a world where you’re hanging out with software engineers, witnessing tough choices by the leadership and putting on events with speakers like Eric Ries and Ben Yoskovitz. Three martini lunches with journalists it ain’t.
I thought it might be about time to share some of the things I learned in my time at Tradeshift, that may help other SaaS or B2B tech at a similar stage to Tradeshift back in 2012. Since then, it has grown from dozens of people to hundreds, taken another $75m funding, opened in China and signed clients like the NHS in the UK.
1. Balance evidence and faith to find truth
Any company with such a grand, ambitious mission requires a little imagination and faith to see how you get there. When you’re helping craft that message and hearing it spoken by great leaders, it can become easy to believe — almost a kind of shorthand between those in the know.
And when you then sit to have lunch and the software engineers are telling you it’s going to take 2x as long as anyone is predicting — if you can make it at all — that’s when reality hits.
But both sides are right. Great software engineers are paid to thrash out the nuances of the big systems and can’t afford not to be paranoid. Great leaders must thread everything together and produce a compelling “why” if they are going to keep an increasingly tired team pushing the boulder up the hill.
The sides are like lawyers, expressing the strongest possible form of two cases. And as the PR, you have to play some role of jury and decide where you draw the line for the outside world.
Evidence — customers, proving the product is in peoples’ hands, demonstrating its impact out there in the wild — is what makes the difference. You can let the rhetoric inform *how* you present this evidence. But after a few years, you can’t expect the outside world to have the faith you do internally.
2. Be the conduit that turns thoughts, talent, ideas into working capital
When you build a great team, they naturally start bouncing off of each other with great ideas, new ways of thinking or looking at challenges. But they generally can’t prioritise turning those thoughts into content that can work on their behalf. So it lays dormant instead of helping recruitment or sales efforts.
PR can join these dots. At Tradeshift, we used Yammer to make sure that everyone in the business, in every role, knew that we would remove whatever obstacle was stopping that content making it into the world.
Not enough time? We’ll write up your notes and you can approve. Not confident about your mastery of English? We’ll look at the draft and refine it. More of a video personality? Let’s get you in front of a camera.
Especially when it comes to founders, it’s remarkable how much you can add a dimension of authority by being quick to a story and saying something new.
3. Fight the war, not the battle
One of the reasons that previous point is so important is that you really need to bed down for the long haul. The only way to ensure growing understanding and relationships is to build an anti fragile approach to your PR, without single points of failure and where no single announcement is the be-all and end-all.
At Tradeshift, we achieved some of this by turning our blog into our main publishing platform. For some customer announcements, we would put out a relatively short casual post and simply let key contacts know it was going live the next day. If they didn’t write about it, fine. Onto the next one — but having not tried to “hard sell” it to them would count for a lot when we hit bigger stories.
Again, this attitude allowed us to operate with a kind of dignity suggesting we weren’t scrambling to make them love us. We were like internal reporters, just telling the company’s story and giving a few people an early heads up.
4. Tickle your enemy
Conflict is the essence of all drama. Greater men than I have talked previously about how you tackle the Goliath of a market you are entering — but if you can build one element of your pitch against the incumbent then it can pay off for years.
In our case, an SAP-owned monster called Ariba was claiming it would build a similar business network but, where Tradeshift made accounts free for the 100,000s of suppliers and only charged the big enterprise customer, they charged everyone.
We would do things like hijacking the hashtag for their event with #aribaghosts, linking to a piece that talked about the spectral figure of the suppliers who would never join the network and never attend such events.
This is a good way to get your hooks in and make it more likely that those who write about the incumbent will include you as the disrupted.
5. Build your army
In the build up to launching a new UI project, we started to gather advocates under the banner of #showmethenewshift. This small group opted in to see the new design of the product, creating an interested and engaged little community that could be used for all sorts of purposes.
By definition, this attracted the most eager, communicative types among our audience — and it turned out that key members of the group were very well connected, including one who launched the Danish arm of Silicon Roundabout, which Tradeshift then hosted.
It also made it easy to quote customers in announcements, release or blogs and have someone to share stories when Tradeshift would make announcements that affected customers like them.
6. Find your way
My experience with Tradeshift gave me a feeling for companies at this inflection point that I don’t think you can learn without that intense environment. But ultimately, a lot of finding what worked came down to being open to trying things that wouldn’t be possible if you were that one step removed in the agency or in a larger company.
Seize that opportunity and experiment to see what’s right for the business. As long as you are measuring the right things, there’s really no environment quite like it.
I have sat on the board of Tradeshift for 7 years having led the Series A round 2009. We have seen it flourish from a tiny Danish start up to a global powerhouse with the fastest growing business network on the planet. They have used PR very effectively to get their message across, both under Max’s stewardship and since. Max has great insight in this area and there are some real nuggets in here that all start ups could benefit from. Stephen Chandler.
Post produced in partnership with Max Tatton-Brown, Founder at Augur.