Q&A: Elaine Pofeldt's Tips on How to Pitch Your Startup

PofeldtWe work with a lot of great reporters at Propllr, and one of our favorites is Elaine Pofeldt, a very popular freelancer who writes about startups and interesting businesses for publications including Fortune, Money and Crain’s New York Business. We sat down with Elaine – by telephone – to get her insights about how startups can work with her.

What do startups need to know about working with you?

I’m a freelancer so I wear many hats. It’s helpful for me that the startup pitching me reads my work, considers the publications I work for, and has a sense of the requirements of those outlets. For example, one of my roles is Contributing Editor for Crain’s New York Business, and sometimes I’ll get non-NY pitches for it. Do your homework, read the publications. Even if you’re not certain, at least be familiar with the topics I cover.

Pofeldt PubsHow do you develop story ideas?

Sometimes publications will give me the idea they want to cover, but mostly I come up with new story ideas during the interview process. For example, I may get to chatting with a startup about a side issue in their business, and it turns out to be a big issue for my readers. Outside of those daily discussions, sometimes I might hear of a topic at an event, or sometimes from publicists who work with me a lot.

How do you find sources?

A lot of my sources are people I’ve worked with for years. I like to use HARO, as it lets me be very specific and the people using it generally try to be useful and don’t spam me with irrelevant information.

What’s the best way for a startup to introduce itself to you?

First step would be to monitor HARO, and another way would be to write via my website. I often get 600 emails a day, so a standard pitch won’t work. When I get a contact through my website it stands out more.

What makes a startup compelling to you?

The fact that it is a real business. Having interviewed hundreds of startups, a lot of them start making sales in the first month, which shows me they have customers. This impresses me – I want to know there’s interest from customers and the business is not just an idea. Other interesting factors would be the founder’s track record in entrepreneurship, if it raised a lot of money from respected angels or VC firms, if it has a product that’s gotten into retail stores. There should be a real market for what they’re selling.

How do you define “startup”?

It really depends on the publication, but generally they should be three years old and under. An exception could be life sciences business, where there’s a longer runway – those could be in business up to a decade.

What is the most common mistake startups make when reaching out to you?

This goes back to not knowing the pubs I write for, or sending me pitches that are bordering on spam and totally out of left field. I just got a baby product pitch for Money magazine, where I write about careers. That’s a big waste of time for everybody.

What makes you roll your eyes when talking to a startup?

I really like startups, so I don’t roll my eyes. I am a business, too, so I know what it’s like, and I applaud them for trying. The only thing I might say is not to give me wildly optimistic revenue projections, because I can tell from the type of business that they’re totally made up. I would be hesitant to write about a startup if they didn’t have a realistic grip on their industry.

What was your favorite story and why?

I hesitate to say “favorite,” but in terms of capturing the drama of running a business, stories with crimes are interesting. One story I covered was a murder at a small business, and the alleged perpetrator had killed himself so they were unable to pin the crime to him. Just seeing how it affected the business brought to light the challenge of running a business. In this case, there were two brothers, one was passed over to lead the company, and it triggered a cascade of negative events. The other brother opened up to me and talked about how he rebuilt the company. It had a big effect on me and I have thought about it a lot since I wrote it.