A Houston expert shares her pointers on navigating marketing and communication strategies for startups. Photo via Getty Images

Marketing and communications remain crucial to startups. Building a more cohesive team dynamic between marketing and communications can offer a young company purpose, direction and language to differentiate its product or service value.

While marketing and communications have distinct goals, magic happens when the two work together to enhance the company's business objectives. Clients often ask me the difference between marketing and communications and how the two can complement each other. Consider these thoughts and steps to better collaboration.

Communication 101

Startups need support for creating a company narrative to help employees tell the story and show company value to customers and prospective customers. A communications plan includes the strategy for meeting business objectives, the target audiences, and the key messages that will resonate with each audience. Communications plans also identify the best ways to tell the story, i.e., media relations, social media sponsorships, website content, and presentations. In-house communications professionals might consider building a team of strong freelance writers to delegate writing projects.

Marketing 101

Marketing promotes products or services to a specific audience, whether reaching new customers or retaining existing ones. A strong marketing plan includes strategy, competitive analysis, market research, and identifying industry trends. Marketers use communications to develop and share messages with these audiences. Marketers should consider engaging freelance writers to create content.

How do marketing and communications work together?

Close marketing and communications coordination can be an advantage for customer engagement. That strong team approach offers an opportunity to ensure marketing and communication efforts center around the customer. For example, marketers may leverage company blog content (written by communicators) in marketing efforts, i.e., sales pitches, customer outreach, and company webinars, to help generate leads, and make conversions. Marketing teams can then provide analytics or customer feedback to optimize future content.

Examples of successful collaboration include a customer featuring a company’s newly enhanced product at an industry conference after reading the recent product launch in trade media, a series of thought-leadership blog posts after the marketing team received prospective customer inquiries on a hot topic or a successful case study provided by marketing for communications to leverage on the website, whitepaper, and social media accounts.

Data, please

Take advantage of the data most startups have at their fingertips because data sharing proves important in developing compelling content. For instance, marketers benefit from sharing industry trends, customer demographics and behavior, market research and internal data (how customers use the product or service) with communicators to enable them to produce more engaging customer copy. Also, marketers and proposal experts often receive requests for information from customers or prospective customers. Those requests can also be helpful to communicators in writing content. Then, once published, communicators can provide data on engagement to ensure that content resonates.

Report efforts

Find ways to share reporting of marketing and communications efforts. For instance, during a recent meeting, did a customer mention a company-bylined article in a trade publication? Did marketing receive a request for information from a prospective customer after reading a company white paper? Did a company expert get invited to speak at an industry conference due to a blog post? All these shared results help to optimize marketing and communications efforts and inform strategy pivots, if appropriate.

Break the silos

Break any silos for improved marketing and communications collaboration. Consider regular team meetings or create a Teams site or Slack channel to exchange information often. For example, one client recently held a successful all-day brand and team-building workshop. Open communication between marketing and communications teams remains critical to executing a solid marketing strategy and achieving business objectives. For a more cohesive communications and marketing approach, know the business objectives, define roles, and responsibilities, meet regularly, share data, and report efforts for better results.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.

A Houston expert outlines what startups and small business need to know about their communications strategy. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

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Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.

Set the framework for your startup's social media policy. Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels

Houston social media expert urges startups and companies to establish a sharing policy and strategy

Guest column

While employees mean well, they may share or post company information on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, among others) that could be misaligned with business objectives, creating a potential reputational risk for the company. For this reason, it is essential that companies big or small, including startups, develop, and implement a social media policy, so management and employees work from the same playbook.

Build the company’s social media strategy

First, management needs to define its social media to help inform its policy. How active do you want to be on social media? How do you plan to respond to comments? How involved do you want employees to be on social media as it relates to the company, specifically when involving company-issued devices or during business hours?

Companies must consider a proactive role in social media because if the company is not telling its story, someone else will fill the void. Plus, it's a great way to engage with the community and give everyone a glimpse of the company's culture.

Also, define what "social media" is for your company. Companies will likely want to cast a wide net to encompass blogs, personal websites, message boards, Wikipedia, as well as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

Determine the company's response process as well. Management's gut reaction might be to censor the content or take down less-than-flattering comments about the company. Management needs to understand the purpose of social media, and instead have a well-thought-out social media response process in place to ensure timely responses to questions and comments, so issues don't linger or snowball.

Once management determines the company strategy, establish tools, i.e., social media monitoring to help achieve the objectives.

Establish social media policy and identify a social media manager

While every company's social media policy is unique, make clear to employees that the company's code of conduct must be followed online as it is followed offline. Employees must protect proprietary and intellectual property and never share any confidential or proprietary information via social media, even through private messaging.

State clearly in the policy that employees can never represent themselves as official spokespersons for the company unless given explicit permission by the company. Moreover, while there should be management support of employee comments or likes on content associated with the company, employees need to make it clear that the views they express on social media are theirs and do not represent the company.

A company should determine one person that is responsible for its public persona and social media efforts, including monitoring and posting regularly on all social media channels. The social media manager must also be the one to handle any negative comments about the company, as well as any media requests.

Conduct regular training for employees

Companies must consider training for employees. Host a brown bag luncheon with social media training to provide employees an opportunity to understand the company's social media policy better, as well as ask questions. Employees often make social media mistakes when they don't know better.

Social media has changed the role of company communications. Companies — both big and small — that build a strong social media strategy and policy see the value of delivering company messages to a broader community, monitoring for feedback, and listening to conversations about their brands.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications professional serving energy, professional services, and healthcare companies. Contact her at mtaplett@taplycom.com or taplycom.com.

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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

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A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

Black History Month

In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

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Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.