Startups And Their Coverage

31.03.2018, Critique

Tech reporter

“What kind of a company is a startup, and why are all these young people are working there?” That’s the kind of question you would often hear from people you know that either only, or mainly, watch television. (Moreover, when writing this article, my grandmother asked me what I was doing and I answered that “I am writing about startups,” to which she responded what is the “sarsap” (terror)?)

Over the past few years, the IT sector has been developing rapidly in Armenia, creating a new culture of companies which have already achieved great success. The number of startups is increasing.

Startup founders are usually young, they complain that they don’t have time, they live according to a strict daily schedule, they make notes about their schedule on their phone’s calendar, and when they meet they ask, how many minutes you will take from them. They do not remember the last time they slept, and they usually try to indirectly find out whether their acquaintances are using their product or not.

They constantly participate in various “events,” which is how they end up creating a “startup community,” where, as startups often say, tech is the future.

I shouldn’t forget to mention that in parallel, when meeting with journalists, they ask the rhetorical question, will the interview be in Armenian or English?

It’s rhetorical because very few of them manage to speak only in Armenian, startup-talk is filled with English terminology, whose Armenian equivalent is difficult to find.

Regardless of the language, talking to startups is always interesting because we’re talking about a new, fast growing company, so you do not have to wait long for the developments. I’m not just talking about success, of course. In the case of startups, failures or a wave of unjustified consumer expectations are not a cause of less interest.

And now, as a journalist who has “invaded” the startup community for the past few months, let me try to explain how to let your coverage keep up with the pace of the rapid rate of this developing and changing industry.

What do I do?

First of all, I make arrangements for an interview with the founder of the startup, which is often done by sending a Google Calendar invite and receiving confirmation, so that they don’t suddenly forget about our prior arrangement.

For the interview I prepare both ordinary questions as well as questions that, to some extent, I already know the answers to, and I never avoid giving stupid questions during the interview.


 

The role of ordinary questions cannot be underestimated. Classical preparation, classical interview. You hear about some kind of company, and try to explore it, maybe even superficially understand it, for example, what kind of a problem is it trying to solve? Who is it solving the problem for? How much of the problem is it solving (how well it does its job is usually discovered during the interview)?  Then you create a list of relevant questions.

However, besides the usual questions, it’s always desirable to ask a few questions that you know the answers to, to some extent.

Before the interview, it would be better to read a lot about the company. If information about the company is scarce, try to find acquaintances who can tell you not only about the overall functions, but also the specifications.

Why? Because startups are used to presenting their product to investors, different representatives of the community and mention only those points, advantages and sometimes weaknesses, that would interest them, forgetting the nuances that are important for the users or in this case, for journalists.

The pre-existing information helps you to get answers which you know are important, but a startup founder would not talk about without guidance. For example, if I didn’t know ahead of time, that the startup Renderforest has refused all possible investments, it’s unlikely that it would have been brought up during an interview, and it wouldn’t have turned into one of the key and important “points” of the article.

It’s very important to give questions that seem stupid.

At times, there are companies who’s offered service or product is not so easy to understand right away.

Often they are very technical and are only understandable to those who deal with or need those types of things.

However, if you’ve ever decided to write about it or make a video, then you have to completely understand what it is, or at least as much as possible. So that you can present it to your audience in a clear and understandable way.

Therefore, stupid questions are unavoidable. They are conditionally called stupid, but eventually they become very useful.

For example, when preparing for my interview about the Armenian startup, XCloud, I realized that I asked the same question a few times, because at that moment the answer was not clear, or perhaps things that were understandable from the perspective of the interviewee, caused questions for me. But later when I wrote the article, I understood just how important those “extra” questions were in helping me to get clear formulations.

Before or after the material (as needed) I read articles about technical solutions tied to that specific topic, so that I don’t feel “barefoot” going into the interview, and in order to make things as simple as possible to explain.      

For example, imagine that I am preparing materials about the Armenian startup, Shellguard, knowing ahead of time only that it helps companies to keep safe on online platforms.

During the interview, for the first time I am hearing the term penetration testing, whose protection, as it turns out, is the aim of the startup. Writing that the startup provides penetration testing and moving on would mean to say nothing at all.

You have to read and completely understand what penetration testing is in order for you to present it correctly. Then move on with the interview and writing about the activities of the startup.

Another example is an article about blockchain, where there is reference mainly to initiatives dealing with that technology. I did not know in advance what blockchain was, and I decided that it was something I could find out during the interview.

Without preparation, I start my interview, then because of a lack of time it was left incomplete, with an agreement to continue the next day.

Based on the information I received that day, the one day break became a reason to explore the subject more, watch different videos, get acquainted with the topic etc.. But what questions do I need to give in order to understand and speak to people who are not fully specialized in it? What questions interest them that cannot be answered in other materials?

This helped to make the next day’s interview more constructive, continuing with questions that demanded concrete examples, for example to clarify whether it is possible to “deceive” the blockchain system, from the point of view of making transactions. If at least one of the videos did not address that question even partially, we might not have talked about it, because it seemed that fraudulent schemes were impossible.  

Before preparing the material I always clarify what stage the startup is in, and before I publish the material I always suggest that the interviewee reads it.

Now, there are many events and competitions organized in Armenia, during which different startups present their products, their work and future plans.

The events are usually open for anyone who’s interested, including journalists. In other words, the information is public, so it is easy to prepare material about any subject.

However, before preparing the material, it would be better if you understand what stage the startup is in and what can be expected from the team in the near future.   

Why? Because when you write about a startup, people already expect to see the product or service in real life, but it turns out that the startup still didn’t receive the necessary investment to turn their product into a reality and are participating in international contests in order to get acquainted with potential investors.  

But you must also take into account that it is still in its patenting phase, and publishing about it might cause problems for the startup and hinder the process. Since we do not have a specific intention to harm  startups, it would be good to make a few adjustments before publishing the material.

When the material is ready, I often offer the interviewee to read it before publishing. This is important when covering this sector, because often there may be new terms or concepts, which, depending on the context, can have different meanings, and sometimes it’s possible to be wrong or misrepresent a concept.

But reading the article doesn’t necessarily mean editing. The interviewee can only address errors or offer an idea a clearer or more understandable explanation.

I try to explain all the words and concepts which may be incomprehensible to the reader.  

You need to clearly understand, are you writing only for IT representatives, or for a broader audience? If you write about this startup for only startups, then there is no need to focus on the terms.

If you are also writing for your mother, who is a teacher, and who wants to be a user of, for example, a startup which digitizes discount cards and stores them in one application, then you must explain all the terms which might not be clear.  

If these terms do not have an equivalent translation, then you have to simply explain it using a few words or by bringing a tangible, applicable example.

For example, the term telemedicine in Armenian is հեռաբժշկություն (herabjshkutyun), but there is a fear that because it’s such a rarely used term, that many people wouldn’t have a good idea as to what it’s about.

Therefore, it is better if you explain in a sentence that, for example, telemedicine is the application of telecommunication and information technologies in health care, to provide remote counseling.

If you’re talking about something more complicated, then you should understand that the material has a much more narrow audience, and instead of trying to give long explanations, try to find the correct Armenian equivalent and in some cases, even use the English version.

Startups, in any case, are not as terrifying as my grandmother thought they were. Startups simply create a new culture, they give a new tempo to market competition and therefore coverage of them ought to stay in pace with them and make them accessible to wider platforms.

Mane Gevorgyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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