Post by Michael Dempsey (@mhdempsey) – Research & Data Analysis at CB Insights
Early April marked the end of my first full year at CB Insights. While I’ve learned about many different aspects of scaling a startup, I wanted to focus on a few writing-related things, as a large portion of my time at CBI comes in the form of data analysis, and subsequently writing research reports/briefs. In fact, in 1 year I’ve published just south of 200 research briefs on our company blog, and at least 15 more posts on my personal blog. This volume, paired with guidance from Anand, and a sounding board in Matt, have changed the way I write. A lot.
It all started with understanding two closely-related points – having a customer and writing for an increasingly diverse audience.
Writing for Everybody
Coming from the hedge fund world, the only thing I had to worry about was the ability to prove an investment thesis worthy to the rest of the team. While LPs are technically customers, in the end they are investing in the team’s ability to make its own decisions. That changed once I got to CB Insights.
At CBI, we have hundreds of customers, 70,000+ people that receive our newsletter 4x/week, and probably even more that read the research briefs that I write. When I first joined the team, the hardest thing was simplifying my thoughts for a broad audience.
As we’ve scaled the business, understanding that content is one of the main inputs into the top of the sales funnel has been incredibly important. While our customers are filled with institutional types that are in-tune with the “inside baseball” of VC or PE, the top of the funnel could also include a variety of corporates who are trying to understand which startups could be potential partners, or more importantly, threats.
In order to effectively make sure that an increasingly large audience that ranges from students to entrepreneurs to institutional investors can derive value from our data, I’ve had to focus on writing in a simple, clear, and concise manner.
If you look back into the archives of my personal blog, you’ll see that my writing hasn’t always been incredibly concise. While personally I love reading a well-written 1500+ word piece, for our research, that often isn’t how a VC on his phone wants to spend his only free 20 minutes of the work day. So we focus on these four words: Don’t bury the lead.
Burying the lead: To begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts.
For example; if I’m writing a post about the Tiger Cubs, I have to be aware that there is probably a large portion of the world that has no idea what a Tiger Cub even is. What they might find interesting is that a group of ex-hedge fund analysts are now competing in the private markets with tens of billions of dollars at stake. So get that point across in 2 sentences or less, and on with the data.
Every now and then, I still think there is a balance to be struck that can provide a better narrative around what we write, but that is what being a good writer (and employee) is. Understanding when to pick your spots, who your audience is, and how to maximize that potential audience.
So how do you build credibility with your audience?
Data as a Weapon
At CB Insights we take data seriously. Learning how to use that data as a weapon has been incredibly useful to me both personally and professionally.
As a data company that operates in the echo chamber of tech, everything we post or tweet is going to be scrutinized by the internet. Because of this, backing up our insights and opinions with data is incredibly important.
Any qualitative opinion can (unfortunately) be publicly invalidated or shot down with a 40-character tweet by someone with a strong enough reputation. And while that may not seem fair, with data, the “playing field” gets even very quick.
The opaque nature of venture capital can lead to a high number of hand-wavy, broad statements, I think the prevalence of data is starting to become more important in VC analysis.
At CBI we’ve started to use the line “In god we trust. All others must bring data.” in our marketing. For my personal blog, CBI’s slogan isn’t perfect, but fact-checking my opinions by incorporating data when possible has absolutely had an effect on my writing.
Whether it has been in my newsletter when I publicly opined about a potential long-term difficulty for EU startups to scale using macroeconomic statistics, or when I used other socioeconomic data to provide an in-depth look at India’s emerging online grocery delivery industry, with data one can establish credibility much faster.
Continuing To Improve
In August 2013, I said this about my first two years of writing:
Looking back at previous posts at times is embarrassing, but I imagine this is similar to the feeling of that first time you looked into your Facebook timeline. You cringe, you smile, your face turns red, but you’re glad you have it all.
And that’s the beauty about improving: A year and a half later, this still sounds about right.