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Find Customers and Fund Your Startup -- Before You Even Have a Product

Typically, most startups begin like this: They have a business idea, they raise the money to build their product or service, and then they launch a marketing strategy to gain visibility and awareness.

Web company Eat Your Serial isn't operating like most startups. In fact, it's doing all of the above backwards, or more accurately, all at once.

Aimed at digital-savvy writers and readers, Eat Your Serial, when launched, will feature serialized stories online from up-and-coming writers, putting a 21st-century twist on the long-standing story-telling tradition.

The company will post chapters weekly, with multiple stories running every week. Readers will be able to engage writers in comment sections and through social media. While content will be offered for free online, says founder Shawn Abraham, when the serials reach completion, readers will be encouraged to purchase the completed work in printed or e-book form. The company plans to make most of its revenue through paid mobile subscriptions that will allow readers to access the content on their phones, and through bundling subscriptions as extras on mobile devices. "We keep hearing that people don't read anymore, and that's not true," says Abraham. "What's changed is that people are reading more online, and on their mobile devices. It's just the 'what' and 'how' that have changed."

Before his product had even moved past the conceptual stage, Abraham decided to crowdfund it via Kickstarter to get his company off the ground. His goal was to get enough supporters to kick in small amounts of money, which would collectively reach $7,000 or more; if he couldn't attract that amount in committed funds, he would be back to square one. (Update: He made it.)

But it wasn't just about raising money for the project -- after all, it wasn't much money. The Kickstarter experiment let Abraham simultaneously start growing his community as well as build his target market.

What is interesting about Abraham's approach to outreach is that it is all online and through social platforms. In addition, it adheres to several PR best practices, but in quite a unique way.

Consider adopting (and adapting, if necessary) these backwards public relations tactics for your own outreach:

1. Build your presence first on the social platforms that matter to you.
Since the EYS team already knows its target audience uses Twitter and Facebook actively, that's where they have been focusing their efforts on building fans. "Since Eat Your Serial, once launched, will be Web-based, we decided to build our community by reaching directly to the kind of people who'll use the service," says Jenn Pedde, the company's "brand & marketing nutritionist." And they're using video as well, as you can see.


What they're doing smartly here is that they are really "talking" to their community by saying "thank you" to those who have funded them. Pedde says Twitter and Facebook will continue to be forums for interaction with readers, writers, fans, and supporters.

2. Listen and participate in the relevant conversations.
In the old days, we called this "media monitoring," i.e. keeping tabs on relevant media outlets for reporters and stories relevant to our clients and organizations, and then pitching them.

It's the same principle, but now it's called "listening," and I wrote about listening vs. shouting in social media recently. The EYS team has been doing this in a very smart way; on Twitter they picked up on the #nanowrimo hashtag (short for National Novel Writing Month) and have been engaging with folks they identify as potential users there. In short, they're not pitching all and sundry; they're focusing their efforts on the narrow audience niche that is most likely to spread the Eat Your Serial story.

3. Create a 21st century press kit.
If you don't have a media kit on your website, create one. Make sure it has your FAQ (this is part of laying a good PR foundation), and anything else that will tell both the media as well as your target audience what they will want to know about you.

The EYS team took this one step further. They uploaded an electronic press kit onto SlideShare and direct people there to get official info on Eat Your Serial.

Why is this smart? Because in one fell swoop, the company makes its information accessible via a downloadable press kit on what is currently one of the world's largest document and presentation-sharing social platforms. While the company did not track true conversions from Slideshare to funding, it says it saw a spike in backers after the media kit went up, and received anecdotal feedback on how helpful the kit was to outsiders understanding the project.

With no monetary investment in outreach, except for Web design fees, Eat Your Serial has bypassed conventional wisdom with creativity and through social media to do what public relations has always been meant to do: build relationships that will benefit its business.

Eat Your Serial logo © Eat Your Serial, used with permission
Shonali Burke is Principal of Shonali Burke Consulting where she helps turn businesses' communication conundrums into community cool. She opines on PR and social media at Waxing UnLyrical and is considered one of 25 women that rock social media.