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June 7, 2011

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What I Learned From 3 Months Of Writing At VentureBeat (Part 1/3)

I served as a contributing writer at VentureBeat for 3 months and had a view into reporting that most entrepreneurs do not have. There is a lot of information on PR (particularly with startups), but most information is written from an entrepreneur’s point of view. This article is written from the other side of the table.

This is Part #1 in the series about what I learned in those 3 months as a writer:

Part #1: How I ended up writing for VentureBeat and thoughts for those looking to get involved with writing/entrepreneurial ventures.

Part #2: How to pitch reporters (on developing a story, writing a press release, identifying how reporter’s find leads, etc.) I will include good and bad examples of press releases (we were bombarded every day).

Part #3: How to meet and interact with reporters and what it is like being on the other side. I’ll end with some additional tips that can curry favor (Ex: Always send a thank you if an article is written on your company. The entrepreneur should do this, not the PR person).

As a note, I was a contributing writer, not an editor, and though my time was limited, I hope the following provides insight.

VentureBeat Writers

Old VentureBeat Writer's Photo: Recognize MG Siegler in the back

Also, although I no longer am affiliated with the company, I have nothing but positive things to say about VentureBeat. The company has amazing people who I learned so much from. If you do not know, VentureBeat (http://www.venturebeat.com) is one of the largest tech media websites and has syndications with the New York Times and Reuters.

At the bottom of each article there will be a list of resources that helped me at each point in the process.

Part #1: How I joined VentureBeat

I did not have a writing background going into VentureBeat. In fact, when I first contacted Owen Thomas, who was the executive editor at the time, he let me know he knew this right away.

I had been introduced to Owen by Matt Marshall, founder and CEO of VentureBeat. Matt and I had met in NYC, where he was promoting the tech conference DEMO. Trying not to take up too much of his time, I told him I enjoyed the site and if there anything he ever needed (introductions, etc.), that I would be happy to help. To my surprise, he talked to me about writing positions that were opening and gave me his business card.

After following up through email the following night, I was relieved when he responded and I was forwarded to Owen Thomas.

Owen was the celeb-writer of VentureBeat and was infamous for his bold articles. He had been involved in a very public feud with Elon Musk (of Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX), and was known for ruffling the feathers of billionaires. At VentureBeat, Owen cared tremendously about the quality of writing. He was the leader of the writer-pack.

After reviewing my blog, Owen let it be known that (I am summarizing): “I was not the right fit” and “Probably wasn’t talented enough at the time.” Despite his direct words, he gave me a chance. He always ended his emails with “I don’t think this will work out, but if you really want, you can send an article for me to review.” I will always be grateful to Owen for this.

Sitting at my computer, I knew I had to pursue the opportunity. However, I did not know where to start, as I had never written for a newspaper or publication before. I had no choice but to do as all entrepreneurs do; I was as relentlessly resourceful (from Paul Graham), as I could be.

I looked up recommended books on writing (Tim Ferriss and other popular bloggers recommended “On Writing Well”—listed at bottom). I reached out to a TechCrunch reporter I was in brief contact with (Steve Cheney of TechCrunch), and I began writing.

Sleepy MarketerSoon after my first lesson was learned: The key to good writing is rewriting.

Every day onward I would write until 4:00AM, and immediately after waking the next morning would call close friends for a review. The entrepreneurs at the incubator I work out of became my extra sets of eyes, and with the help of friends my writing improved faster than I could have expected. I would make revisions in the afternoon, and would send the article to Owen at night. A few hours later I would receive a response from Owen.

(Summarizing here): “Tone isn’t right”, “This is not the type of article we are looking for”.

And as always, “But if you really want, I’m not really sure this is going to work, but you can send another article.”

This process of writing articles, receiving the review from Owen, and creating new articles, continued. The other entrepreneurs in the incubator were concerned at the little sleep I was receiving, and asked whether I should continue. My mind had been made up though: As long as Owen gave me the opportunity, I was going to continue.

Looking back, it was at this time that I truly appreciated the culture of entrepreneurship that I was a part of. With startups (and VentureBeat is absolutely a startup), meritocracy rules. It may not rule with an iron fist, but it does to a far greater degree than in any other industry. It did not matter to the VentureBeat team that I did not graduate with a degree in English from Harvard. What the team wanted to see was that I would hustle, that I was responsive, and in the end, that I could add value.

By the end of the second week, I received an email from Owen asking me to take on a larger role, and soon after I began writing daily for VentureBeat.

Reading the email that night, I happily went to sleep early.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in writing or are an entrepreneur looking to write for a publication on the side

If I were looking for writing positions in the future, this is what I would do:

1. Attend events hosted by publications/media companies: When a publication hosts an event, the management team and reporters will attend (these are also great opportunities for entrepreneurs to network with reporters). Although it may be difficult to pay for a TechCrunch Disrupt ticket, there are a number of smaller and free events held throughout the year. A great way to keep updated with these events is through StartupDigest and through Charlie O’Donnell’s website if you are based in NYC (Listed at the bottom). Face to face contact is critical, as editors prefer to take on people who they have met and like.

2. Create a blog: Regardless of who you are writing for, the company will want to see the quality of your writing and ideally will want to see an audience. Steve Cheney started his blog and, after his audience skyrocketed to 100K monthly uniques, was recruited to write for TechCrunch.

3. Look at the job boards of publications: This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised about the number of opportunities.

Resources

1. On Writing Well http://amzn.to/llweSu
2. Great PR article from Vinicius Vacanti http://bit.ly/h5LTly
3. Tim Ferriss has some great videos about how he developed his writing style (one of his many videos) http://bit.ly/lNjxdM
4. Startup Digest: Great resource for Tech events. Every Sunday you will be sent an email with the upcoming week’s events http://bit.ly/5PBJe4
5. Charlie O’Donnell (for NYC): Great resource for weekly Tech events in NYC http://bit.ly/2Nhz4K

  • Great resources, and interesting story, thanks. Would be interested to learn more about how you find your companies to profile and what makes a good ‘story’ for coverage by something like Venture Beat or Tech Crunch? 

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