No matter what stage your company is in, here's what you need to know about navigating a communications strategy. Photo via Getty Images

The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers. Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice.

This article combines insights from investors, customers, advisers, and founders, with actionable recommendations that benefit both startups and growth stage leaders who are scaling the impact of their companies.

Why marketing communications is important

Marketing communications combines the use of messages and a broad spectrum of tools to communicate with target audiences in attracting customers, cultivating relationships, acquiring funding, increasing visibility, and growing influence.

To define marketing communications in singular terms limits its impact. “For some, communications is simply a pretty graphic,” says Adam Lipman, managing partner of Ecliptic Capital, “and they don’t think about the importance of communications that speak to the needs of their key audiences in language that will resonate with them.”

It can be tempting to jump straight to producing tools that you can touch, hear and see, but applying thoughtful strategies first has everything to do with how successful those tools will be.

A dangerous misconception

Regardless of how innovative your device, therapeutic or service, there is always competition, including the option of customers doing nothing. “We call it the good enough problem,” says Lipman. “If what’s currently being done is considered good enough, what is the incentive to improve or change it with your idea?”

Comparison is a common method for comprehending a disruptor’s unprecedented concept. Your wearable device that does something no one else’s does will, at the very least, be categorized and compared to other wearables. Your innovative concept for improving cardiovascular patient outcomes will be compared within the broad category of cardiovascular care. To believe there’s no competition to challenge your success, regardless of how unique, is a false sense of security that requires proactive messaging.

“If you don’t define your brand, someone else is going to do it for you, and it may not be what you want,” warns Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health.

The analogy we use when formulating messaging for our clients is to define their “seat at the table” so that no matter who or how many competitors are seated alongside them, the advantage their solution offers and the beneficial role they fill within the ecosystem is very clear.

Strategically connecting the dots

Distinguishing your company from its competition and motivating action on the part of investors or customers requires communication strategies that connect all the dots.

“Many entrepreneurs think their technology will sell itself,” says Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications for Houston Methodist. “But for me to understand what we gain by utilizing their product, I want to know what problem are they solving. Does their product increase efficiencies, improve patient satisfaction, or answer a financial problem? Answering these questions is fundamental.”

In addition to messaging that clearly defines how your company is uniquely capable of delivering valuable solutions, it’s important to apply strategies for speaking your audience’s language and identifying the pain points you are capable of relieving. It also requires considering the perspective and experience of an audience’s different members. For instance, if presenting to an investor who is also a neurologist, sharing scientific data will be appreciated. For others, the why and how of what you offer may be better told through story.

The homework you do to fully understand your audience’s needs will not only produce beneficial insights but also demonstrate a level of commitment that can impress influencers and potential funders.

“I’m drawn to founders who want to walk in their customer’s shoes. They are generally deeply empathetic because they've spent time literally walking the halls with them and sat in the chairs next to them,” says John “JR” Reale, venture lead for the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund. “It’s very endearing to see a founder who wants to understand and continue to learn from who they want to serve.”

Actionable advice

Just as marketing communications is defined by multiple components, there are several actionable strategies for getting past the understanding phase. Here are three key recommendations to implement, whether a startup with limited resources or a company experiencing accelerated growth.

As a startup

  • Develop brand messaging that distinguishes your solutions from the competition and captures the compelling purpose and passion of your company’s mission.
  • Establish a working relationship with professional communicators. Though your budget is small, it’s a great way to develop trust and familiarity within the parameters of a single project for when greater resources allow expanded assistance in the future.
  • Identify each of your key audiences, including strategic partners, community influencers, and end users, as well as potential investors and other funding sources. The list may be daunting, so rank contacts in each category and unleash your entrepreneurial curiosity to research their needs and priorities.

The growth stage company

  • Invest in comprehensive communication consultation to elevate your startup marketing communications to the 2.0 level of expected sophistication. This is when the working relationship seeds you planted with a professional communicator really pays off. Trust has been established and there is a fundamental understanding for who you are and why it matters.
  • Just as your business plan provides vital direction, a strategic communications plan functions as an essential blueprint for achieving your goals, including connecting with target audiences, increasing visibility, marketing your company’s services or products, and strengthening your bottom line. Strategies should be tailored to your organization’s specific needs and identify the tools necessary for achieving success.
  • Prioritize and produce marketing tools identified in your plan that promote the company’s impact and build on the brand reputation it has achieved.

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Kelli Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., where she leads a talented team of marketing professionals advancing the success of their purpose-driven clients.

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Report: Houston secures spot on list of top 50 startup cities

by the numbers

A new ranking signals great promise for the growth of Houston’s startup network.

Houston ranks among the world’s top 50 startup cities on a new list from PitchBook, a provider of data and research about capital markets. In fact, Houston comes in at No. 50 in the ranking. But if you dig deeper into the data, Houston comes out on top in one key category.

The city earns a growth score of 63.8 out of 100 — the highest growth score of any U.S. city and the seventh highest growth score in the world. In the growth bucket, Houston sits between between Paris (64.4) and Washington, D.C. (61.7).

The PitchBook growth score reflects short-term, midterm, and long-term growth momentum for activity surrounding venture capital deals, exits, and fundraising for the past six years.

PitchBook’s highest growth score (86.5) goes to Hefei, a Chinese manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, solar panels, liquid crystal displays, home appliances, and Lenovo computers.

The overall ranking is based on a scoring system that relies on proprietary PitchBook data about private companies. The system’s growth and development scores are based on data related to deals, exits, fundraising and other factors.

Houston earns a development score of 34.1 out of 100, which puts it in 50th place globally in that regard. This score measures the size and maturity of a city’s startup network.

Topping the overall list is San Francisco, followed by New York City and Beijing. Elsewhere in Texas, Austin appears at No. 16 and Dallas at No. 36.

The ranking “helps founders, operators, and investors assess locations when deciding where to expand or invest,” says PitchBook.

“Network effects matter in venture capital: Investors get more than half of their deals through referrals, according to research led by Harvard professor Paul Gompers,” PitchBook goes on to say. “So it stands to reason that dealmakers should seek these networks out when deciding where to do business.”

4 Houston universities earn top spots for graduate programs in Texas

top schools

Houston's top-tier universities have done it again. U.S. News and World Report has four Houston-area universities among the best grad schools in the state, with some departments landing among the top 100 in the country.

U.S. News publishes its annual national "Best Graduate Schools" rankings, which look at several programs including business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, and many others. For the 2024 report, the publication decided to withhold its rankings for engineering and medical schools. It also changed the methodology for ranking business schools by adding a new "salary indicator" based on a graduate's profession.

U.S. News also added new rankings for doctoral and master's programs in several medical fields for the first time in four years, or even longer in some cases. New specialty program rankings include audiology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, pharmacy, nurse midwifery, speech-language pathology, nurse anesthesia, and social work.

"Depending on the job or field, earning a graduate degree may lead to higher earnings, career advancement and specialized skill development," wrote Sarah Wood, a U.S. News Education reporter. "But with several types of degrees and hundreds of graduate schools, it can be difficult to narrow down the options."

Without further ado, here's how the local schools ranked:

Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business maintained its position as No. 2 in Texas, but slipped from its former No. 24 spot in the 2023 report to No. 29 overall in the nation in 2024. Its entrepreneurship program tied for No. 8 in the U.S, while its part-time MBA program ranked No. 15 overall.

Houston's University of Texas Health Science Centerearned the No. 3 spots in Texas for its masters and doctorate nursing programs, with the programs earning the No. 31 and No. 45 spots overall in the nation. The school ranked No. 25 nationally in the ranking of Best Public Health schools, and No. 36 for its nursing-anesthesia program.

Prairie View A&M University's Northwest Houston Center ranked No. 5 in Texas and No. 117 in the nation for its master's nursing program. Its Doctor of Nursing Practice program ranked No. 8 statewide, and No. 139 nationally.

The University of Houstonmoved up one spot to claim No. 4 spot in Texas for its graduate education program, and improved by seven spots to claim No. 63 nationally. Its graduate business school also performed better than last year to claim No. 56 in the nation, according to the report. The University of Houston Law Center is the fifth best in Texas, and 68th best in the U.S. Most notably, its health care law program earned top nods for being the seventh best in the country.

Among the new specialty program rankings, UH's pharmacy school ranked No. 41 nationally, while the speech-language pathology program earned No. 44 overall. The graduate social work and public affairs programs ranked No. 67 and No. 76, respectively, in the nation.

The full list of best graduate schools can be found on usnews.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Op-Ed: Removing barriers is critical for the future of Houston's health care workforce

guest column

Houston houses one of the most renowned medical communities in the world. However, Texas' current health care workforce shortage has severely impacted the city, with large swaths of the Gulf Coast Region deemed medically underserved. Thousands of Houstonians are impacted year after year due to the lack of access to life-saving medical care.

The obvious solution to this problem is to form a pipeline of health care workers by equipping students with the necessary skills and education to fill this gap. Sadly, many individuals who lack opportunity yet aspire to pursue a career in the health care industry face barriers related to childcare, transportation, mentorship gaps and life's unexpected circumstances.

Dwyer Workforce Development (DWD), a national health care training nonprofit, has recently expanded its footprint to Texas and has joined Houston Community College (HCC), one of the largest community colleges in the country, to provide life-changing support and create a pipeline of new health care workers, many who come from underserved areas.

Last year, our organizations launched the Dwyer Scholar Apprenticeship program, which is actively enrolling to combat the health care shortage and bring opportunities to those lacking. Working together, we are supporting apprentices each year to earn their Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) certificates, where students can choose a Phlebotomy or EKG specialization, helping our city meet the demand for one of the most essential and in-demand jobs in health care each year. Our program will help address Texas' loss of 36 percent of its CNAs over the past decade while providing gateways for highly motivated students—Dwyer Scholars—to thrive in long-term health care careers.

We know financial barriers prevent many potential health care workers from obtaining the certifications needed to enter the workforce. That's why we are bringing our innovative programs together, enabling Scholars to earn while they learn and opening doors for those who do not have the financial luxury of completing their training in a traditional educational atmosphere.

After enrollment, DWD continues to provide case management and additional financial support for pressures like housing, childcare, and transportation so Scholars don't have to put their work before their education. Scholars are placed with employers during the program, where they complete their apprenticeships and begin full-time employment following graduation.

The Texas Workforce Commission has identified apprenticeship programs as a key area for expansion to meet employer demand for skilled workers. Through our partnership, we are doing just that – and the model is proven. More than 85 percent of DWD Scholars in Maryland, where the program was established, have earned their certificates and are now employed or on track to begin their careers.

Our work doesn't end here. Over the next decade, Texas will face a shortage of 57,000 skilled nurses. Texas must continue to expand awareness and access to key workforce training programs to improve outcomes for diverse needs. Our organizations are working to vastly expand our reach, making the unattainable attainable and helping to improve the lives and health of our community.

No one's past or present should dictate their future. Everyone deserves access to health care, the ability to further their education and the chance to set and achieve life goals. The opportunities to reach and empower underserved populations to participate in the health care workforce are limitless.

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Barb Clapp is CEO of Dwyer Workforce Development, a nonprofit that supports individuals who aspire to pursue a career in the health care industry. Christina Robinson is the executive director for work-based learning and industry partnerships at Houston Community College.