So you want media coverage for your startup. Great!
Earned media (aka coverage of your business by newspapers, business journals, trade publications, podcasts, etc.) is an excellent way to build brand awareness and credibility.
It’s this kind of coverage that can help your startup become like IBM in the old catchphrase “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”
But if you want media coverage (pieces about your business versus ones that simply include your quotes as a thought-leader and the like), you have to be prepared for the questions reporters are likely to ask about your business.
More importantly, you have to be ready to answer them.
Here, I’ll lay out 15 questions reporters are likely to ask during an interview, offer some background about why, and provide some insight on how to answer.
(For more on spreading the word about your company, check out our guide to DIY PR for startups.)
These questions are easy and fact-based. There’s no special art to answering them, but it would look bad if you didn’t know them (or didn’t know if you were allowed to share them) – they are the things you should know cold.
Expect questions like…
- When were you founded? Be ready, too, to identify the dates of major news in the past, like a rebranding, a new product launch, or a shift to a new target customer.
- How many employees do you have? This helps reporters understand the scale of your work (Are you worth the "ink"? How do you compare to others they’ve already written about?) and, when asked by a local publication, your answer shows them the impact you’re having on the local economy.
- What’s your revenue? Basically, this is the reporter’s way of asking for proof that you’re onto something, and that you’re worth their attention. But just because the reporter asks for revenue doesn’t mean they want to know your revenue. Often what they really want is anything that shows evidence of your success. So if you’re not comfortable sharing revenue, find another metric – headcount, customer numbers, month-over-month growth, team growth, expansion, funding, etc.
- How many markets are you in? Again – this is a way of learning how impactful your business is. Reporters may also want to know what your biggest market is.
- How fast are you growing? Again, any growth metric you’re comfortable sharing should work here.
While it’s important to be confident on the basics, it’s just as important to know that you don’t have to answer every question.
If you’re not ready to answer a question directly, try either offering a generalization (“We’ve had thousands of customers sign up to use our platform”) or clarify your policy (“We don’t release that information, but we are encouraged by the feedback we’ve been receiving about our platform”).
These questions delve into how you got to where you are. Before sharing these answers with a reporter, workshop them with someone you trust (or someone at your PR agency). You want your answers to be authentic, of course, but also clear and concise.
Typical questions about your business’s story include these:
- Where did you get the idea for this company? It may have taken 10 years to brew in your head, but you should be able to answer this question in a single sentence. Chances are, it will take a few tries to craft a one-sentence summary, so be sure to practice. Remember that stories have ups and downs, good and evil, and heroes who save the day. Be the hero in your story.
- What problem are you trying to solve? Focus on your potential customers: what problem are you solving? What about their lives or businesses are you making better? Aim to get this answer down to a single sentence as well.
- What’s your background? Did your grandmother have the problem you’re trying to solve? Did you? Did you go to night school to learn the skills you needed to start the business? Your answers to this question should give the reporter a sense of who you are as a person and to show how that background makes you uniquely capable of solving the problem your startup aims to fix.
- Who’s on your leadership team and what’s their background? Think both in terms of capabilities and interest: What is required to be successful in this space? What’s unique about your leadership team? Why is your team perfect to solve the problems you’re tackling? Are your founders childhood friends who reconnected to launch a business? Perhaps you’re a brother-sister or husband-wife team?
- How did you get here? One reason we enjoy reading about businesses is that we love stories of triumphing over failure. To answer this question, highlight mistakes you made that led you to where you are.
Here, the reporter will look to get a better sense of what’s going on in your industry. Expect to get questions like these:
- (If you’re a B2B startup) Who are some of your clients? Beg if you must, but please have customers to mention. And if you don’t, tell the reporter you can share names but only if they commit to not using them. The reporter’s question here isn’t necessarily because they need to include names in a story about you and your startup, but because – again – they want to know you’re legit. If you’re unable to share clients’ names, reporters may be interested in hearing about successes clients have seen: how your product or services has increased sales, cut costs, etc. You can probably share these numbers even if you can’t disclose anything else.
- Who are your main competitors? Tip: it’s a red flag to say you have no competitors. That suggests there’s either no demand for your product or you don’t actually understand your space that well. Everyone has competition. If you have larger direct competitors, it’s good to compare up, so use their names. If you have smaller direct competitors, describe them without naming them. Or use the old standby that works for most startups: "What we’re doing is new – our biggest competition is the status quo."
- How are you different from the competition? Here’s your chance to shine – this question lets you explicitly state your value proposition. Spend some time honing this messaging. The clearer it is, the better your target audiences will understand what you do and why they should become your customers.
If you’ve received funding, be prepared for reporters to ask about it. Specifically, they’ll want to know…
- How much have you raised total over how many rounds? If the answer is zero, it’s fine to say you’re bootstrapping – bootstrapped companies often have a philosophical reason for staying self-funded, so feel free to get into it (this is especially true if you have grown to a large size without outside funding, as it is proof positive that you have a thriving business). Otherwise, be ready to name your Series (Seed, A, B, etc.) and the amount you raised.
- Who are your investors? Whether you’ve received angel investment or VC funding, reporters will want you to name names. There’s generally no reason to hide this information, but if you want to limit what you share to the most impactful names – perhaps a well-known angel investor or an important strategic investor – that’s perfectly okay.
Every Question Is an Opportunity to Tell Your Story
Even if you don’t get these exact questions, know that every question is an opportunity to tell your story.
When we launch a new PR program, we take our clients through a media training process, where we prepare them to talk with reporters. We offer a few tips for making the most of every media opportunity, including these:
- Start with your headline: Start with the big-picture of who you are, what you do and why you do it, not with how old you are, how many people you have or where your office is located. You can get to facts and details later.
- Speak in lists: This helps keep you organized and the reporter engaged. Without a list, you might ramble and the reporter might lose interest or cut you off before your done.
- Avoid jargon: You should go into interviews assuming the reporter (or their audience) has just a very basic level of understanding about your topic. Avoid industry jargon and acronyms and keep it in plain English. It’s much easier to elaborate on something simple than it is to simplify something elaborate.
- Know the reporter’s work: Read (or watch or listen to) a few of the pieces they’ve done recently to get a feel for the kind of work they do. Try to find a way to work in a reference to it.
- Compliment good questions: Saying “That’s a great question” (when it actually is) is a way to underline the topics you most want to talk about. And for the generalist reporter – or one new to your space – it gives them confidence that they’re taking the discussion in the right direction.
- Keep it positive: Avoid talking about potential customers, competitors, or partners in a negative way, even if the reporter is seemingly leading you in that direction.
- You don’t have to answer: If you don’t know the answer to a question or don’t want to answer it, you don’t have to answer. Instead, say something like, “I don’t know the specifics on that. Let me look it up and get back to you.”
- Answer how you want to: I mentioned above that you don’t have to actually give revenue numbers. That’s not just true for revenue – it’s true for most questions. While you want to avoid sounding like a full-on politician who’s constantly avoiding saying the wrong thing, you are allowed to frame your answers however you want.
- Answer with stories: Our brains process new information more easily via narrative, so use anecdotes – preferably real-world ones but hypothetical if necessary – to illustrate your point whenever possible.
- Leave a parting gift: Reporters often end interviews by asking whether there’s anything you’d like to add. Use that as an opportunity to put the emphasis on your most important point or to prime the pump for future coverage by hinting at news you have coming around the corner.
Still feeling shaky about talking to a reporter? Check out our tips on how body language can make or break an interview.