The tech press moves like clockwork, fitting company narratives into a predictable arc. Here’s how pros deal with it.
I don’t remember who told me company narratives were like a clock. I was at Google, where I’d taken a job on the communications team despite zero experience in communications. During my early days there, I tried to navigate my new profession by listening to the many comms experts already at the company from whom I would learn so much. One theory about narratives stuck with me:
A company’s narrative moves like a clock: it starts at midnight, ticking off the hours. The tone and sentiment about how a business is doing move from positive (sunrise, midday) to negative (dusk, darkness). And often the story returns to midnight, rebirth and a new day.
It was a passing remark, and hardly revolutionary — it closely followed thehero’s journey and other theories of storytelling. But it made a ton of sense.
Over the years, I developed the idea by filling in the times on the clock. It has helped to be in tech; startups in particular, always begin with a “founding story,” and follow a typical path through Silicon Valley Time (SVT). It’s not perfect, of course. Companies can skip an hour — or in some cases several. Others get stuck along the way, and with a stalled narrative (and broken clock) cease to be relevant.
Knowing the general time of a company has made it easier for me to see around corners and better do my job.
Part One: The Clock
Birth. (No one cares.)
If you’re already making news at 12:00, you’ve probably been successful before, since the mere founding of your company is of little interest. If you’re in the press this early for any other reason, odds are it isn’t good.
Once in a blue moon, if you’re really bad, you can circle the entire clock in one move. This usually requires a launch that alienates everyone with a mix of presumption and “star power,” exacerbated by the amount of money raised or an over-reliance on PR.
Shiny new toy.
It’s around 1:00 that the first real article is written about your company. With the right connections, anyone can make it to 1:00. You’ve launched your product, raised money from a few prominent investors, and your app makes for a good headline. People don’t feel strongly about you, one way or the other, but now they have heard of you, and that matters.
Today, many 1:00 companies are the “Uber for” something, like house painting.
Rounding 2:00 is a real accomplishment — many startups never make it this far. At 2:00, you are seeing real traction. You haven’t quite reached escape velocity, but the momentum is exciting, which you can see on Twitter and in the increasing amount of tech coverage you’re getting. Smart takes in Buzzfeed, Re/Code, and The Verge are accompanied by vanity metrics. Bigger companies start to wonder (a) why their version of your thing isn’t as popular as your thing, and (b) whether and how fast they can copy your thing and make it their thing.
Not every company spends time at 3:00. Some burn out after takeoff. Others skip to a later hour. But things get interesting at 3:00. Most importantly, mainstream business press (New York Times, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal) start to pay attention. They give your story credibility by attempting to paint the bigger picture.
Examples of once-3:00 companies include Airbnb, Square, and Uber. In each case, the early product was interesting — rent out your spare bedroom (or crash on someone’s couch); accept a credit card on your phone; hail a black car on demand. But as they grew, these companies’ greater potential — if nothing else, for “disruption” — became clear. For Airbnb, that meant upending the hospitality industry; for Square, increasing access to financial services; for Uber, cruising past the taxi market and changing the nature of transportation. 3:00 companies are a diverse bunch.
Zenefits, which Forbes writes is “disrupting a stodgy industry most people know nothing about: small business human resources,” is looking good at 3:00.
Hottest company in the Valley.
At 4:00, business (and media) momentum drives your recruiting. Everyone wants to work for the next big thing, which makes your company the hottest in the Valley. Your press@ alias is blowing up and you’re drowning in opportunities. So you do everything: that means founder profiles, hockey stick graphs — you even start to make news when you’re not trying to. If you’re a consumer product, you’re probably landing on the big morning shows.
Today, it’s 4:00 at Slack. Everyone loves Slack.
Rapid expansion and growth.
At 5:00, everything is gravy. You’re growing fast and your valuation is skyrocketing. Reports that you’re losing money? If you’re at 5:00, those reports are irrelevant. Your strategy is smart, your projections are sound, and your successful execution is inevitable. You’re a winner.
Greatest company in the world!
In a company’s journey, growth and success are followed by struggles and doubt. Which is why, at the top of the mountain, there is no where to go but down.
Greatest company in the world?
It starts at 6:01. From there, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure of negative storylines. “Failure to innovate.” “Monetization problems.” “Employee exodus.” The dreaded “privacy issues.” Each company’s turn around the clock is unique, but there are some common themes.
Their product kind of sucks.
Twitter — having rounded the clock several times — is dealing with a special“What is the future of [company]?” dimension of 7:00.
They’re never going to make any money.
Foursquare has been stuck at 8:00 since 2013.
FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).
Square (the company where I work) spent its fair share of time at 9:00 during mid-2014. At 9:00, everything is perceived to be bad news for you,even good news. Nonsense becomes canon. You can do no right.
The company is a mess.
10:00 is plagued by reports of executive departures and “turmoil.” It becomes harder to recruit new employees, which endangers your company’s ability to grow, ship, and drive a conversation.
What are they doing with your data?
And here come the privacy issues. It’s very dark at 11:00.
Worst company in the world.
At 11:59, criticism becomes personal. You see a lot of “Boycott [your company]” stories. People question your motives and impute your decisions with malice. You’re an evil, money-hungry company.
Today, the “worst company in the world” is Uber.
They’ve built you up. They’ve torn you down. So now what?
Everyone loves a comeback.
Today, a little over one year into Satya Nadella’s tenure as CEO, Microsoft has rounded midnight. (Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2012 cover about Twitter, “the company that wouldn’t die,” is my favorite rebirth story of all time.)
Also like a clock, once you round midnight you start over. They love you again, until they don’t any more, and then the clock (and this analogy) falls apart and your company can bend narrative space-time by existing in manypositive and negative storylines simultaneously.
Part Two: How I learned to stop worrying and love the clock
“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.” — Lou Holtz
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in my travels through Silicon Valley Time after dark.
Don’t get angry.
It’s not worth it. A negative story has nothing to do with you. It also doesn’t help. When you’re angry, you look defensive. You overreact and make mistakes. Don’t yell at reporters for doing their job — it gets you nowhere. Just take the punch and move on.
Don’t force anything.
In a crisis (after 6:00), you feel like you have to do something. At the very least, your executive team may be agitating for it. But it’s easy to forget: doing nothing is doing something. Stand your ground and be disciplined about press opportunities. Don’t attempt to land the “turnaround” story too quickly. It’s dangerous — narratives are sticky and create a frame through which all news is processed. If your frame is negative, everything is an uphill battle. Avoid unforced errors.
Your company isn’t perfect. You’ve made mistakes. It’s OK to own up to them. Humility shrinks the target on your back. What would you have done differently? What have you learned? How will you apply those lessons moving forward? Being reasonable also gives you credibility. You’ll have more battles to fight in the future — don’t waste your credibility fighting something that’s already been litigated. Save it: it’s a precious resource.
Focus on your customers and your team.
If you read the news in 2010, Google was over: Android phones couldn’t compare to the iPhone. Chrome market share was in the single digits. Facebook was launching a Gmail killer. We know how those stories ended. Instead of worrying about the press, Google focused on its users, made even more big bets, and built great products. They continued to make Google an amazing place to work that kept employees happy, passionate, and motivated.
We’ve tried to bring that same discipline of focusing on customers to Square, and it’s paid off. It’s helped that my boss believes this intently, having plenty of experience himself with the ups and downs of the press.
So just ignore the chatter and ship. If your business is a good one and you know how to manage the clock, your story will take care of itself.
Aaron Zamost is currently head of communications at Square. He formerly held communications posts at Google and YouTube.