By Vivek Wadhwa
The technology industry and Hollywood both have a love-hate relationship with the closely linked disciplines of marketing and public relations. In both worlds, you need to protect your intellectual property, be that your computer code or storyline. But at the same time, you need to spread your message so customers and audiences can find you. Say too much, and you risk losing your crown jewels. Say too little, and you risk obscurity.
My first experience with PR (or the lack of it) was when I co-founded a Credit Suisse First Boston spin-off called Seer Technologies. With funding from IBM and some great technology, Seer was born with the business equivalent of a silver spoon in its mouth. In only five years, we grew the outfit into an impressive $118 million-per-year revenue machine and pulled off a successful IPO.
A DIFFERENT TACK.
The only problem was that no one had ever heard about the company. We were simply too cautious about every word that was said in public, and every press interview was carefully scripted and supervised by high-paid experts. We never cracked the code on doing PR.
The result was that over a period of seven years, I counted less than 20 articles that featured Seer. We had to work very hard to get sales leads. And on every sales call, we would have to waste valuable time explaining who the company was and highlight its heritage before we could talk about our products. Out of frustration, we used to joke that our corporate motto should be, "We've never heard of you, either."
When I founded my own business, Relativity Technologies, in 1997, I decided to take a completely different tack. My employees and I might make mistakes, be misquoted, and perhaps give out too much information, but I was willing to take the chance. We would have a policy of being accessible to and totally open with the media, customers, and investors.
We also thought very hard about how we could get attention. We decided that Relativity's best buzz generator would be our staff of Russian programmers, who had formerly performed top-secret coding for the Russian military and intelligence. We began selling ourselves as a cool company with a James Bond edge.
The strategy worked. Even though we were in the stodgy business of recycling old computer code, we were getting as much attention as the hot dot-com startups during the Internet bubble. First, reporters were interested in the Russian angle. Then, they began calling about other topics, too. Accessible CEOs are rare and valuable, I quickly learned. We were featured on all the major TV networks, and within a four-year period, Relativity and its people were featured in over 1,000 articles. Fortune even lauded us as one of the 25 "coolest" companies in the world.
Our mailboxes were flooded with inquiries from potential customers and job applicants. Our employees showed a much greater sense of pride. At a time when the worth of a technology company was measured by how well it was known, our market valuation increased by a factor of 12. We were able to raise millions to expand.
NOT SO OPEN.
True, press relations could often be time consuming, and just about every success and failure was amplified in the media. Yet we were able to gain enough momentum to survive the tech meltdown, as the customer inquires just kept coming.
As I wrote in my first column (see BW Online, 1/21/04, "Bollywood, Here I Come!"), fate and chance led me to become involved with the production of a film called My Bollywood Bride. I was now in Hollywood, and I thought that people would be even more open and flamboyant.
Yet the players here seemed as concerned about intellectual property and secrecy as some of my tech friends. I also learned that in the independent film world, PR is usually handled by distributors when the film is complete. And film producers, like technologists, always maintain faith that "if you build it, they will come."
However, my partners in this venture agreed to do things a little differently. We started talking openly about the project, sharing everything from financial data to critical casting decisions, talking about the difficulties and delays.
In no time, we were featured in publications all over the world, which brought inquiries from potential investors, aspiring actors, and crew members. This also gave us an edge in recruiting our main star, Jason Lewis, the Sex and the City hunk. Jason had received dozens of offers after the HBO series ended and was looking for the right project to make his big-screen debut. Even though he loved our script, he wanted to make sure that he was getting involved with a credible team and project. When he spoke to our producers -- and read all that had been written in the press -- he was sold.
With all the interest from potential investors, we also decided to double the budget to increase the production quality. We were also able to recruit one of the editors of Steven Spielberg's films to join our team and create a polished Hollywood look.
Not that we didn't offend some of our creative staff along the way. We were doing things differently than Hollywood is used to, injecting business and marketing into a creative realm.
I didn't realize that I was breaking protocol by inviting the press to a recent shoot in Los Angeles and scheduling a photo session with our stars. After all, when I was a CEO, our marketing people routinely scheduled interviews and photo shoots between meetings. Despite the occasional resistance, though, our success has only convinced me more that the best way to sell your company, your movie, or yourself is to embrace the media and accept whatever comes.
Wadhwa is the founder of Relativity Technologies in Raleigh, N.C. When not producing movies or battling venture capitalists, he mentors fledgling entrepreneurs
Edited by Rod Kurtz