Startups, Orion, & Buzz Management 101

It usually starts with one of the two big dogs of technology journalism: John Markoff of the New York Times, or Don Clark of the Wall Street Journal. Having tipped a few key analysts to what your new company is doing, you turn to Markoff or Clark to take things to the next stage by writing a profile article. Then, of course, you stand aside as the venture capital and customers flow in the door in a steady stream — or so the cheery theory goes.

For all of this to work, however, a bunch of things have to be done right. For example, the story in the Times, the WSJ, or elsewhere can’t feel like a plant. While we all know that Markoff and/or Clark didn’t find the story on their own, that there was a PR person pushing somewhere, there has be to some spontaneity and a degree of edge to the piece. It has to feel like found journalism, not like a loosely rewritten press release.

It should go without saying, but it also helps if Markoff or Clark has the story, but not both. If they both have it on the same day then the story feels overly orchestrated; it lacks spontaneity and doesn’t feel real. It is hard to imagine how those two decided to run the same story on the same day about the same early-stage company without some external coordination.

That is why stories today about Orion Multisystems don’t sit well. Both Don Clark and John Markoff run profiles in their respective papers, and both take the same perspective: workstations are on the rebound, and Santa Clara-based startup Orion is astride the change.

It feels wrong. Not only do both pieces (and another one on “discover” the same startup on the same day and take the same essential perspective, but they include the same external authority: Horst D. Simon, director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computer Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is quoted in both Markoff’s and Clark’s pieces — pursuant, of course, to some PR flack’s background document with suggested Background Contacts.

Orion may work out, but this is a textbook example of an over-engineered media splash. Instead of wanting to find out more about Orion, I feel irritated, like I have had my chain yanked by an over-eager PR person somewhere.