Chien Lee is a marketeer, and the Founder and CEO of SparkAmplify, an AI powered PR.
At SparkAmplify, we believe there should be an easier way of building media influencerrelationships. You focus on telling your story, and let SparkAmplify take care of the rest. Ourmachine learning model analyze over 1 million press placements from 80,000+ media influencers,and will direct you to the right journalists at the right time with maximum results. Start buildingyour social proof today, with SparkAmplify!
(Shawn Flynn) On today's show we welcome Chien Lee, a marketer driven by data analytics and a huge basketball and tennis fanatic. He graduated from Cal Berkeley with extensive analysis consultant experience with fortune 500 companies. In 2016, he founded “SparkAmplify” an artificial intelligence powered media outreach SAS platform that helps brands maximize their press coverage.
(Shawn Flynn) Chien, please tell us about your company “SparkAmplify” and how it helps startups.
(Chien Lee) With SparkAmplify, we created an AI power platform that basically streamlines the media outreach process. And it helps startups because we basically allow the startups to be able to tell their story to the right people by getting them covered on the media.
(Shawn Flynn) How many other companies out there have a similar product to you or are doing the exact same thing? What separates you?
(Chien Lee) We try to focus a lot on the relationship building, so instead of the traditional sort of the email blasting, we provide the necessary information for the brands themselves to be able to build these long-term relationships with these media influencers.
(Shawn Flynn) Please go over what PR is exactly.
(Chien Lee) PR, is an acronym for press public relations or press release. The PR process is when someone or a company, such as a startup, needs to get information out to people to promote their brand and they use the presses for that purpose We take that to another level utilizing AI (artificial intelligence) to be able to analyze what the media influencers are currently writing about. We've analyzed over a million articles, and we profiled close to 80,000 Media influencers in this space.
(Shawn Flynn) That's just in California, the US?
(Chien Lee) It's worldwide. So currently, we're heavily focused on the technology sector. But we're also looking into gaming as well as other industries, such as design.
(Shawn Flynn) So if I'm a startup, when would I come to you and say, “we have a new product, we need people to know about it”. Do I wait until I've created it? Do I wait to have the MVP? Or do I just come to you with an idea on a napkin and ask you to help me out?
(Chien Lee) Usually people think of the PR process when they know the brand is all mature and ready to go. With PR, obviously there is that PR agency side of it, where you can actually go to an agency. However, our services, a SAS platform, which is just a self-service model, is different. For a brand or a startup, sometimes they can actually do this while their business model is evolving. It is good to engage with PR as early as possible because through that process, you're also validating, let's say, this model, or this product that you're building. And also, at the same time, through press releases, or through PR, you're actually engaging with potential early adopters of your product or service. So, these are all things that will help startups eventually down the road when they do become a more mature company. Again, they’re basically tapping into that resource and being able to validate their business model up front, early in the game.
(Shawn Flynn) Who's talking to the PR companies? Is it the marketer or the CEO or the salesperson because an early stage startup might only have two or three people in it? So, would the CEO be the one that would reach out to SparkAmplify and ask for some help?
(Chien Lee) Well, so that's the problem that we've identified as well. Usually with startups, the team's themselves are not as well-structured because potentially it's a three-man team and none of them have ever done social media.
(Shawn Flynn) And I'm guessing there's a lot of other entrepreneurs, early stage companies are in a situation where they don't really know the difference between PR and marketing, and when to use what.
(Chien Lee) PR, it's sort of low on the totem pole, because startups either don't have the budget for doing something that's full blown or maybe they don't have any sense of how to go about doing it. That's sort of the problems that we're solving with SparkAmplify because not only is it a subscription-based model, but also at the same time, we have lowered the barriers in terms of entering the space. In the sense of startups themselves, whether it be an engineer, founder, or someone you know, even though they don't have a PR and marketing background, we've tried to minimize the process so that they actually do tell the story that they know.
(Shawn Flynn) So if I'm an engineer, and there's three of us on the team, and the CEO or my co-founder wants me to go out and start contacting PR companies and I have no idea what I'm doing so I reached out to SparkAmplify for help, how long is the training for me to be able to figure out how to use your solution?
(Chien Lee) It takes like less than 10 minutes of setup. Usually the first step is that we try to build an impression, in a sense, through our Facebook- like visual profile, that in itself is helping you to tell your story. Secondly, we have identified and, through our network of 80,000 profiled media influencers, are able to recommend to you, the ones that are more relevant to your product or industry space. And lastly, its data driven. So, we have the necessary analytics, the necessary insights so that tour users can actually go back and say, “what did I do right? What did I do wrong? and how can I improve on that”? So, we created this proprietary thing called social proof index which basically is our credit score. But the purpose of this is to be able to allow our users to know what they're doing and how they can improve on it.
(Shawn Flynn) How long does it take them to see results? Is it one of those things where if I start today, every month or two months from now, I'll see a little bit of change and then maybe two months from that I'll see some change or is it almost instant?
(Chien Lee) With Smart Amplify we're in the influencer marketing space. So, it's a process where you're dealing with a human interaction, so even when you're reaching out to people in the visuals, they're not going to write an article or mention you on social media immediately. So that's what I was talking about in a sense of allowing our platform to help you build that relationship, but also, at the same time, track it so that when that relationship does mature to a point where this immediate influencer is mentioning or writing about you, you're able to have a platform or two that you will be able to identify allowing you to be able to build synergy on that.
(Shawn Flynn) You're telling me when they're talking about my product? And you're helping me figure out who to reach out to? Do you also help with the communication between me and that person?
(Chien Lee) Yes. a lot of the startups are not very marketing savvy. Right now, we have over 600 users and a lot of these users are not very savvy about the content or communication side. So, we've actually created this process, utilizing ready data AI to be able to help them generate a media friendly pitch email. So, by answering just four questions, they can create a product related pitch email, and an event related pitch email, or even an award related email. That will prepare them to be able to do the next step, which is to engage with media.
(Shawn Flynn) Say I'm engaging with the media and feel things are going well, what results should I see? How do I know that good things are happening?
(Chien Lee) The traditional view of PR, and the expectation, is usually just looking, for example, at how many articles are placed out there. My view is actually a little bit different, it's more holistic in the sense of the social proof process build up. It includes not only just physical articles being placed, but also looking at social media mentions and social shares outlets in terms of the impressions and reach. Lastly, also looking at how visible your brand is on the search engine, or that type of stuff. Those three components are actually the key elements of our proprietary social proof index. So basically, by looking at the index, number one to 100, one can see information about the three components which I view as key success factors in having a PR outreach,
(Shawn Flynn) Say, I'm an early stage company, what type of media outreach or PR coverage would help me if I want to go to investors? Or what would investors be looking for?
(Chien Lee) Investors are like you and me, the average Joe. They just have to have a little bit more money. When they're doing an investment, aside from the traditional business plans and those types of information, they're also asking around. Often, we're not going to make a decision based on what we read as a promotion or, let's say, Apple website. We're also going to read up on the reviews and so forth. It's the same concept with the investors. Startups that are going to be engaging with the next round of funding, are wise to begin the process of media outreach, and also be able to get placements on some of these mainstream or very niched bloggers or news outlets, because an investor is also looking at some of the positive or negative things being said about, for example, your business model. This can actually help move the needle in terms of getting that funding.
(Shawn Flynn) What would I currently have to do to reach out to PR media company, or get some press releases? What's the current model for that?
(Chien Lee) The current model is more of the budget model, where, let's say, if you have the money, you can actually go hire a PR agency to do this. Cost wise, it could range anywhere from $3000 to $5000 and upwards.
(Shawn Flynn) So, that would be a little stiff for some. Do you guarantee results for that or is that just a retainer?
(Chien Lee) Sometimes, industry wise, there's not that much guarantee that things go right. So, it's more of a process that a startup needs to go through either through the traditional process where you identify a PR agency to work with or do this by yourself. Doing it by yourself can be very manually intensive because you wouldn't have that relationship with these media, so there will be a lot of groundwork in terms of doing the research to identify people who may be interested in your story. And so that's the sort of space where, SparkAmplify helps you. Instead of you spending the time doing the research yourself, we take that off your back because we have the necessary data and the algorithm to be able to analyze it. In other words, we let you do what you do best, which is to tell your story. And so instead of you doing the research and tracking it, we actually do it for you.
(Shawn Flynn) Say I want to do this on my own. And I reached out to the PR companies, what type of information do I send them? Or give them? Do I just cold email? Or do I give them a one pager on the company?
(Chien Lee) Usually an event-based PR outreach requires a formal press release that's from the company itself, identifying what's newsworthy about the product and then showcasing it to all the media to see if they're interested in picking up the story. This also includes a press kit, which in a traditional sense, is a folder with many files including, for example, press releases, the image of your logo, and some pictures of your product. It could also have some videos, basically everything that would allow the media individual or influencer to understand or know what you're doing. This is something that has always been the case when you're reaching out to these media influencers. And this is actually something that we've tackled. So, on SparkAmplify we transform something that was very traditional in the sense of the folder and file system, into sort of a Facebook like profile. So, that's more appealing visually, and at the same time, from the perspective of the media, allows them to get the information they want very quickly and pick out the information that they can use for the article itself.
(Shawn Flynn) So on your platform, you're creating a page that has all the information that would normally go in this press release and it's right there for anyone that has a link or access to view?
(Chien Lee) Yes. so instead of like in the past, where you would have to hand off a Dropbox link or a Google Drive link with a folder, when you're using SparkAmplify you will be able to provide them visually with, for example, your profile link.
(Shawn Flynn) Regarding this profile, do you have to have a specialist come in and create it? Or is it created in such a simple way that anyone, even someone with no experience, can do it themselves?
(Chien Lee) A couple of media has called us the LinkedIn for media outreach. As you know, LinkedIn does really well in terms of trying to build a relationship with professionals. And that's what we're trying to do as well, building that relationship with media. With the LinkedIn profile, or a Facebook profile, anyone can do it on their own, they don't need some expert to come to do it for them. And so, the same thing with us, anyone who has used any of these social media services would be able to very easily pick up our service as well.
(Shawn Flynn) Then, on this one page, it has all the information that someone would need to write a story about the company. So, I'm guessing this one page would have links to maybe the LinkedIn profile, the company Facebook, or the Instagram and the company news articles or anything else like that?
(Chien Lee) That's a good thing that you mentioned this because we actually provide not only the basics, but even more than what the traditional press kit offers. There is a section where it actually highlights past press coverages. I'm pretty sure you've gone through that process, trying to identify something a media has written about you, and that sometimes it's going through Google, their search engine. We actually have an update process that we update regularly on a daily basis, and, so for a brand, that's off their plate. They can actually get CD updates based on all these different social medias, take that content and put this on one-page examples or articles. And so, for the media itself, this will be interesting too, because they will sometimes want to see what's that social proof i.e. who's talking about this brand already. They want to be able to get those stories that are currently trending or being talked about.
(Shawn Flynn) We talked about how easy this page makes it to send your profile to all these potential PR companies. And that you're able to use your platform to kind of isolate which one we should target. What does that first email look like? I know you said before that you have something that can compile three different types of emails about an event or award? What was the third product? How do I decide which of those emails or different emails to send to a random PR person of the 80,000 that your platform offers?
(Chien Lee) So for example, you know, CES is around the corner which is one of the largest startup events in the world, and this time around about 1200 startups should be there. (I'm actually flying there right after this). Right now, over 100 users at DC such as ESPN are using our service.
(Shawn Flynn) Congratulations! That's amazing.
(Chien Lee) Currently, our users are from all different parts of the world. And what they do is, prior to the event itself, they've gone to our platform and set up the profile. They can actually set up an event-based pitch email, and then be able to send it out. And we've actually added something that's interesting, customization. So based on this event, we've actually analyzed who some of the media are that have been following the CES event or have written about it in the past and most likely will be there as well as will be interested in reporting about this event. So, by providing that type of customization, we've already done research for and about a hundred or so startups that are currently using our platform for this event. And so basically, it's allowing these startups to tell their story to the media and others simply and quickly.
(Shawn Flynn) You said you're working with about 100 startups that are going to be at this event? Your platform sounds like it'd be used for any size company and actually pretty much anywhere in the world. Is that true? Are you focused right now only on early stage companies?
(Chien Lee) Right now about 70% of our users are startups. There's about 100 using our product now and we actually have enterprises, like car startups that are using our platform service as well. In fact, one of the largest delegations this time is a company representing a Taiwan line only. It is using our service as well. Right now, the startup is definitely something that I have a great passion about. So, I definitely want to be able to facilitate and help them as much as possible, but also at the same time, in addition to startups, a lot of the SMEs, a small medium sized business, even the Enterprises are looking for new ways of engaging with media.
(Shawn Flynn) I don't want to date this episode, because I know it's going to be a popular episode for years to come, but what is the outlook for SparkAmplify? What are some of the milestones you're going to try to hit this year?
(Chien Lee) We're actually very excited about 2019. 2018 was a year where we wanted to beef up on our team building. So, right now, we have about 15 people, from software engineers, data engineers, UI UX designers, and even growth marketers. We've built up our solid team, people with solid experiences as well as from top notch universities and the same time, we wanted to have a solid product. So, our product will be coming out of beta in 2019. So that will be also a milestone for us. And lastly, I think, is building references. Because 2018 was a good year for us, we were able to build customers, not only from the individual brand perspective, but also, we are working with a lot of the startup organizations as well as events such as M WC. So, in 2018, it was to build a beast, and 2019, will be to accelerate growth on top of that foundation that we built.
(Shawn Flynn) It's only been a little over 2 years for the growth of the startup that you started, will you give some advice to some entrepreneurs out there on starting a company that first year and that second year? The challenges you faced and, some hurdles you overcame?
(Chien Lee) I'm late in the game, I'm actually 42 this year. But we've done a lot in just two years. In fact, from day one, we set out with the idea that this is going to be a global startup, it's always going to be a global startup. But, at the same time, we want to engage with users. So, like I said, right now we have over 600 users coming from 25 countries, and we've actually put together a smart Gamma Phi early adopter program, identifying where we want to be able to engage with users from different various parts of the world. Currently, we have been called brand and brand ambassadors in different parts of the world that are heavy users of our product, and they would like to learn about new releases, new product functions and so forth. So, these individuals are helping us to, not only shape the direction of the product, but also to be able to put out a solid product in a sense of from a UI perspective as well as a user experience perspective.
(Shawn Flynn) How do you find these brand ambassadors?
(Chien Lee) They are users at the beginning, they're obviously, heavy users. These people are definitely in need of the service. And so, these are our key individuals that we reach out to. On top of that we give them some perks like additional credits as well as, like being able to access some of the newest functions. So, creating right now, we're running two weeks spreads. We're doing Scrum, Scrum development. So, every two weeks, we have new features coming out. And those are people who get first dibs on accessing those features. And they pride themselves on that type of leverage, I guess.
(Shawn Flynn) So, to recap a little bit of what we talked about today We talked about the whole process from being a CEO or founder wanting to reach out to PR companies, to your company creating different types of emails for them, and finding how they are actually creating a press kit, and figuring out when the right time is, either before the event or after an award. Also, your company lets you know how it can help build your brand and get you noticed out there. It sounds like there's quite a bit to this PR thing that most startups probably have no idea about.
(Chien Lee) Could you tell the audience a little bit about who your ideal customers are and the best way to reach you guys? Our ideal customers are not limited to whether they are startups or small to medium sized businesses. It's more that this brand has a story that needs to be out there and currently there may be awful challenges in front of them. And so that's where we come in. Because we are a data driven process, we put the right people around them. So as long as these brands have a story that they want to tell and at the same time want to be able to build that social proof, these would be the ideal users of our platform.
People can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.