ANALYSIS: Client Profile - How a new dot-com hit the PR motherlode With dot-coms dropping like flies lately, Internet companies are paying PR agencies exorbitant fees to build share of mind. Chet Dembeck checks in with one company that took a different ap

One thing that sets Lowermybills.com apart from the scores of dot-com start-ups is the stunning view from its office in front of the 50-foot tall Hollywood sign. But the company, which helps consumers lower their bills by listing the rates for a variety of services from electricity to home mortgages, is unique in other ways.

One thing that sets Lowermybills.com apart from the scores of dot-com start-ups is the stunning view from its office in front of the 50-foot tall Hollywood sign. But the company, which helps consumers lower their bills by listing the rates for a variety of services from electricity to home mortgages, is unique in other ways.

One thing that sets Lowermybills.com apart from the scores of

dot-com start-ups is the stunning view from its office in front of the

50-foot tall Hollywood sign. But the company, which helps consumers

lower their bills by listing the rates for a variety of services from

electricity to home mortgages, is unique in other ways.



Unlike many dot-coms who throw gobs of money at hi-tech agencies and

pray for the best, Lowermybills.com’s CEO Matt Coffin decided to snatch

the entire three-member PR staff of Goldmine Software and make them the

11th, 12th and 13th employees of the company, which launched in

April.



By doing so, Coffin not only lowered his own PR bill (natch), but

ensured that his fledgling dot-com would have access to the expertise

and experience of a seasoned PR team. In four years, the Goldmine PR

team had helped grow the privately held company’s revenues from dollars

4 million to over dollars 100 million. ’We saw a good opportunity and a

great concept we believed in,’ says PR director Gregg Steiner, the first

of the trio to come on board.



Soon after, both Jett Vercruse, who became manager of PR, and Christel

Wheeler, who became a PR specialist, followed Steiner to the North

Hollywood, CA-based start-up. Before making the break, all three

seriously considered the inherent risks of working for a dot-com -

especially in light of the ongoing shakeout. ’We really had to believe

that this company stood out,’ Vercruse recalls. ’The Internet world

doesn’t stand still and this opportunity offered us a chance to be

creative.’



And there was another factor, of course, and that was the chemistry of a

tried-and-true trio. ’One team member’s strength overlaps another team

member’s weakness,’ Vercruse says. ’It all fit.’





More bang for the buck



The proof that Lowermybills.com’s PR team is a good fit is seen in the

500 articles it has managed to get published in five months, according

to Vercruse. With an annual budget - not including salaries - of just

dollars 150,000, the start-up has managed to get a lot of bang for its

buck, getting ink in such national publications as Newsweek, Parade and

USA Today. The June Parade article, for example, drove millions of

consumers to the company’s Web site.



The site allows consumers to search using their ZIP code and compare the

rates of hundreds of telecommunication, utility, insurance and financial

services companies online. In return, the company collects one-time

referral fees ranging from 20% to 50% of the service or an ongoing

commission of up to 15% of the customer’s monthly bill. Before this,

customers looking for cheaper rates would have to do the leg work on

their own.



In a frenzied, ultra-competitive media climate, the PR team was able to

successfully communicate the message that Lowermybills.com was the only

site out there that could help people lower all of their monthly bills,

rather than one or two services.



Vercruse attributes this success to his team’s tenacity in soliciting

the media on a daily basis. In addition, the company often uses

guerrilla PR tactics: during the height of the gasoline price hikes this

summer, Lowermybills.com sent out vans filled with ’SWAT teams’ dressed

in camouflaged outfits, roaming the pumps and handing consumers dollars

10 to help them pay for their gas. Three local TV stations covered these

events.



Lowermybills.com has also recruited David Horowitz, a former consumer

reporter for both NBC and CBS, to be its chief consumer advocate. ’In

the beginning we came to him because we needed a hook,’ Vercruse

explains.



’Being a consumer advocate and vendor neutral, he gives the site

credibility.’ The start-up’s PR team also assured that its CEO would

stay in the limelight by listing him on PRNewswire’s Profnet

service.



Unlike many PR departments, Lowermybills.com’s in-house PR unit has

complete autonomy within the organization with Steiner reporting

directly to the CEO. And as a further testament to the strategy of

recruiting a team of PR pros en masse, the company has used the same

approach in staffing its marketing and technology departments.



Still, an experienced in-house PR team guiding a new dot-com is somewhat

of a rarity in today’s marketplace, according to journalists who cover

the technology sector. One reporter who covers this space says he has

found dealing with other dot-com PR pros less than satisfying: ’To tell

you the truth, even with the ongoing dot-com shakeout, many of these

companies haven’t changed their practices.’ Journalists often gripe that

dot-com PR pros know little about the companies they work for and even

less about the publications they are pitching.



And too often, top management becomes suddenly unavailable when the

company is facing a crisis. ’They won’t return your calls and when they

do, they tell you, ’My CEO is not available,’ ’ the writer says. ’Some

ignore you until your deadline has passed. This has become an

increasingly used tactic by hi-tech PR teams who are afraid - probably

because of what’s happening on Wall Street - to simply say ’no comment.’



Surprisingly, the source believes the shakeout will only exacerbate this

problem. ’It’s very likely that many of these companies are looking to

cut costs, or they simply don’t realize that having an in-house PR team

is much better.’



Vercruse acknowledges the segment’s problem and also attributes its

cause to a lack of vision by some start-ups. ’A lot of dot-coms may have

big plans or a model that doesn’t make PR a mission critical,’ he

explains.



’Often they’ll have a marketing liaison person doing it all because of a

low budget.’



But Vercruse also believes that an in-house PR team could be the

differentiator for surviving the ongoing shakeout. ’The shakeout will

determine who becomes the long-term winners,’ he says. ’The small guy

who didn’t throw money at PR will miss the boat.’



In fact, Shawn Willett, an e-commerce analyst at Sterling, VA-based

Current Analyst, believes the proliferation of so many start-ups has

made the job of in-house PR teams all the more difficult. ’Not getting

heard is a consequence of too many dot-com companies being out there,’

he says. ’Only 50% of them will survive.’





Survival of the fittest



Yusuf Haque, a technology analyst for 123.Jump.com also feels that the

full effect of the dot-com shakeout could force PR teams to burn the

midnight oil. ’Smaller companies will become acquisition targets as

venture capital becomes smarter,’ he says. Nonetheless, Haque believes

that Lowermybills.com could be one of the survivors. ’Actually it has

quite an envious business model and has the distinction of being a pure

Internet company,’ he says.



’You can’t really go anywhere else to lower your bills.’



Although Lowermybills.com offered competitive salaries and stock options

to lure the PR team over from Goldmine, each team member knows there is

no guarantee that any start-up will flourish in the long-term. But such

worse case scenarios don’t appear to bother members of

Lowermybills.com’s PR team. ’We could always work on our own,’ Vercruse

notes. With their track record so far, the PR trio probably wouldn’t be

hard up for work.





LOWERMYBILLS.COM



PR chief: Gregg Steiner, director of PR



Size of internal staff: three



PR team: PR manager Jett Vercruse and PR specialist Christel Wheeler



PR budget: dollars 150,000.



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