Startup PR: How a Bunch of Silicon Valley Rookies Out-Launched the Veterans

This post is for all the people out there who are just everyday guys trying to launch a company. You don’t have a list of rock star investors. You’re not some famous entrepreneur who’s done it 3 times before. You’re just a regular guy working hard and trying to get your product noticed.

udemy-logo-academyofyouIt’s been a month since Udemy.com launched and we’ve been thrilled with the response. The launch was covered on TechCrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, Silicon Alley Insider, Under30CEO and Vator.tv (3x). Nowadays when I go to conferences a good number of people say “Udemy – I’ve heard of that.” (a lot better than “huh?!”)

Though I’m sure other startups have done a better job, we were excited about the results. We’re un-funded and have no prior experience with PR. Nobody in Silicon Valley had heard of any of us less than one year ago.

We’ve been asked by a lot of folks to talk about how we got the coverage we did and so here is a post on that. We are by no means experts, but I think you’ll find this useful.

Setting up the Launch
Screen shot 2010-05-24 at 5.37.54 PM
The most important thing we did was set up the launch well ahead of time. This wasn’t on purpose, but it was a key part to the coverage we got. The first part of this was building relationships with all of the major blogs. All you need to do is gain enough credibility with ONE writer at the blog (and I’m talking about real full-time writers – not me as a part-time writer at MobileCrunch).

The only thing you can guarantee when you build relationships is that they will read your e-mail. They will not cover you just because you know them, unfortunately.

Here’s how we happened to build our relationships:

TechCrunch – I applied to write for MobileCrunch via e-mail. They had an opening for an intern and I just cold applied. Within 20 min of sending them the e-mail, I heard back – I can tell you more if you ask but it really isn’t that exciting. Since then, I’ve worked my ass off to meet everyone at TC and built relationships with them personally.

VentureBeat – I approached Matt Marshall (founder/editor) after he led a panel at the Future of Funding event. Then I pitched him and he accepted us into DEMO. We couldn’t afford the tickets, so we didn’t go. But he has seen our demo and really likes our company.

Mashable – I ran into Ben Parr (editor) from Mashable because I was wearing a TechCrunch t-shirt at a GDC after-party and he saw it. We chatted it up but I’m not totally sure if he remembers me.

ReadWriteWeb – covered Startup Roots, an organization I’m a part of.

Similar things with Vator.tv, Silicon Alley Insider and Under30CEO. Notice that GigaOm did not cover us – its the only publication we had no relationship with.

Executing the Launch
The execution of the launch was also not well-planned, and honestly we didn’t do a good job of this. We just got kinda lucky. We decided on a whim that we were ready to launch and I sent out a bunch of e-mails to press at 10am on a Friday (E-mail attached at the bottom of this post). Huge mistake. We got no responses until Sunday afternoon. I sent a reminder e-mail on Monday morning, and almost everyone responded. Mashable responded late (so they covered us on Thursday).

The e-mail was short, and followed a format given to us by Adeo, head of the Founder Institute. We were explicit that we wanted to launch on Tuesday, May 11 at 10am. I sent the e-mail to two people at each publication. In the to: line, it was the person who I knew at the publication. I’d say it makes sense to address it to the editor if you don’t know someone – their e-mails are easy to find. I CC’ed the general e-mail address (like tips@techcrunch.com).

Another important thing was giving a week’s advance notice (we only gave like 3 days, which is hardly enough), and “pre-briefing” press. The only one that actually took a phone call was Leena, but the rest of the press did not do a call.

It seems as though TechCrunch and VentureBeat always want to break stories, so it is important to play into that.

The other blogs care less about being the first to write about a story – Mashable covered us 2 days late and didn’t seem to care. RWW published 15 min after 10. Also, Mashable prefers that startups apply to be covered through their BizSpark application process -mashable.com/bizspark.

Screen shot 2010-05-24 at 5.39.15 PM

The Results
Tuesday, May 11. Total traffic = 4,000 visits. (our normal before that was between 200-500 a day)
Covered on TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb and VentureBeat. TechCrunch was by far the highest traffic driver, with over 1,000 direct referrals within the first day. RWW was second with 178 and VentureBeat only sent us 64. This may be because VB and TC readers are the same, and readers saw it on TC first. Also, we got selected to be on TechMeme – it was a small appearance and I don’t know if that drove any additional traffic.

The TC traffic stayed and resulted in a total of 1,700 direct referrals since launch.

Wednesday, May 12. Total traffic = 3,000 visits. We were thrilled by how much our traffic stayed through to the next day. Eren says a lot of the traffic was sustained due to the fact that we were popular on Twitter and other viral channels.

Thursday, May 13. Total traffic = 2,500 visits.
Mashable covered us (along with Vator.tv and a mention in Silicon Alley Insider). Mashable coverage brought in 300 direct links in the first day. They covered us at 4pm on a Thursday, which kind of sucks because far fewer people read news on Friday-Sunday and in the evening (never launch Fri-Sun; always a bad time. Control the time you launch or else you’ll get screwed by writers who publish on their own schedule). Mashable was by far the best on Twitter, and we got a lot of retweets from the article.

Weekend traffic was solid – roughly 2,000 on Friday and 1,200-1,300 on Saturday/Sunday.

Monday, May 17. Total traffic = 4,300 visits.
Thrillist covered us. I have no idea how or why they did, but they drove a ton of traffic. Over 2,000 referrals since they covered us. It is a daily e-mail that gets sent out in each demographic about cool shit going on. Anyways, they have this thing where they cover ONE thing each day nation-wide. We were that one item.

We were able to sustain the traffic for over 2 weeks. Our current traffic is roughly 3x what we had before we launched, which we’ve heard is a great number.

We did a couple of things to make sure the traffic was useful, like mandating that anyone who visits a course must sign in before they can see the page. That was extremely useful and increased our signup conversion rate from 10% to 25%. Also, we did the standard tweeting and facebook spamming. You should definitely do something to increase signup conversion though because otherwise press traffic is completely useless. Also, press was extremely valuable for business development, brand recognition and VC/angel interest. All 3 shot up after we launched and we got some major deals after the launch.

All in all, it was a successful launch. We’re going to follow this up with contacting NYTimes and WSJ writers to see if they’re interested in covering the launch of our payment platform next week. Any tips on getting in touch with mainstream writers?

Please feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments!

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E-mail I sent to Matt Marshall of VentureBeat (essentially the same email went out to all press):

Hi Matt,

I hope all is well, and I loved your coverage of DEMO. We would love to launch Udemy on VentureBeat on Tuesday, May 11.

We have been testing the site for two months and it has been well-received, winning awards at major conferences and obtaining 1,000+ active users (10K uniques). We would like to formally launch next week. Attached is a writeup, some screenshots and the logo.

Briefly, Udemy (http://www.udemy.com) is a website that enables anyone to teach and learn online. We provide tools so that anyone can create their own online course and teach any subject over the internet. It’s free and as easy as starting a blog. There is a 2-minute YouTube video available here: http://bit.ly/udemydemo.

I would love to talk to you about what we’re doing. My contact details are below.

Best,

Gagan Biyani

gagan@udemy.com

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Udemy democratizes online education by enabling anyone to teach and learn online.

Udemy, a Founder Institute company, is a website that enables anyone to teach and learn online. Udemy’s goal is to democratize online education by providing tools so that educators can easily create their own online course. It takes only a few minutes to create a course on Udemy, and they can cover any subject from the Basics of Photoshop to Poker 101 to Multivariable Calculus.

There are millions of smart people in the world with something to teach. Udemy’s goal is to provide them with a fast, free and easy way to teach online. Already, Udemy has over 400 courses on a wide range of topics (available here).

As such, Udemy provides the following tools for educators:
Content Platform. Upload presentations, videos, and write blog posts for asynchronous education. This significantly differentiates Udemy from competitors EduFire or Supercool School which do not provide asynchronous tools.

  • Community. Udemy enables instructors to engage with their users. On YouTube or a blog, instructors and users rarely interact, but Udemy provides users with the ability to “subscribe” to courses so they are more engaged. They can also ask questions via the discussion boards.
  • Live Virtual Classroom. This is one of the coolest features of Udemy. Instructors can host a live video conference with our proprietary Udemy Live tool. Udemy Live has a whiteboard, presentation viewer, chatroom, and file-sharing component. Over 10 videos can stream on Udemy Live and 1000+ users can watch a session.
  • Udemy is a content site more than it is an education site. This means that anyone can use Udemy – whether it is an author promoting a new book or a yoga instructor wanting to spread their message on the internet.

Udemy is founded by Gagan Biyani, Eren Bali and Oktay Caglar. Gagan writes part-time for TechCrunch’s MobileCrunch and has previously done work for Microsoft, Cisco and Accenture. Eren and Oktay were among the first engineers at SpeedDate.com, where they were in charge of development and helped SpeedDate reach from 0 to 10 million user in its first 2 years.