The First Round Review, the content arm of First Round Capital, has earned a reputation as one of the best publishers of startup and tech content on the web. That's thanks largely to its first content hire, Camille Ricketts.
Camille joined First Round after stints at Tesla, VentureBeat, the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Digital Service. On her watch, the Review distanced itself from the thousands of other sites writing about startups. First Round's ethos is to “get out of the way and let experts speak directly to you about what they believe is most important.” This is a noble mission—and one that Camille and the team achieved in spades—but it's not a one-size-fits-all content strategy.
Camille was kind enough to let us pick her brain about her time at First Round. We'll share some of the excellent insights she passed along, but first, we need to explain why not all content marketers should aim to replicate the Review.
Draw Inspiration, But Create Your Own Formula
In a 1974 speech at the California Institute of Technology, the famed physicist Richard Feynman explained an idea he calls “Cargo Cult Science.” Feynman describes an island in the South Pacific that was introduced to airplanes for the first time in World War II. Here's Feynman (PDF):
During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right ... But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.
The default content strategy is to borrow someone else’s formula, but what makes First Round successful is exactly what makes it hard to replicate.
We often hear content marketers say, “We'd like our blog to be the First Round Review for [X].” Yes, we'd all like our blogs to break new ground, earn massive traffic and set a new bar for quality. But Camille's strategy may not be the right one for your company.
First Round is a venture capital firm, which means they think about content and ROI completely differently than a SaaS company or a startup. Their goal isn't to convert people to a free trial or grow their email list—it's to expand the First Round brand and increase awareness among their potential partners.
This changes the way you think about content strategy. “The model was non-traditional compared to what content marketing is generally trying to achieve,” says Camille. “This business was not conversion-driven for me. We wanted to build as big of an audience as we possibly could to expand the group of brilliant founders that we could work with. It was a broad awareness play.”
This is distinctly different for most SaaS companies. Experienced content marketers know that a key tenet of good strategy is to follow the money. Prioritizing beautiful prose over trial signups or demos won't get you far. Because First Round is a VC firm, they are highly motivated to (1) reach a broad base of entrepreneurs and (2) help the companies they invest in hire great talent. You absolutely should draw inspiration from her content advice, but we also encourage content marketers to acknowledge the company's business model before blindly embarking on an interview series.
Now that we have this very important caveat out of the way, let's look at lessons from Camille that every content marketer can benefit from.
1. Match Your Content to Your Business Goals
Camille started the Review with this in mind: “What is the number one thing that all of these early-stage founders want? They all want to be able to go to coffee with somebody who's already done everything that they are thinking of doing.”
So she created coffee meetings at scale. The interview series unlocked knowledge from operators that would otherwise never see the light of day. She essentially outsourced subject matter expertise and focused her time on honing interview skills to extract the most useful information from the operators that she spoke with.
“With SaaS companies,” she explains, “there's a major temptation to publish a lot of customer stories where their product is the solution. I think it's more valuable to start with a few questions,” like:
Who are these customers you're trying to reach?
What are their personas?
What are the other problems that are extremely painful in their lives?
How can your brand work on solving those, whether they have anything to do with your product or not?”
Asking these questions ahead of putting pen to paper should steer a content strategy in the right direction. Instead of writing a lot of content and seeing what sticks, ask the fundamental questions over and over again.
2. Develop a System to Maximize Quality
Camille developed an interview process designed to extract the kind of detailed answers she knew readers would benefit from. This is an art in and of itself.
Interviewees tend to offer vague answers to nearly all questions, so Camille came up with a three-tiered system for getting better answers. “You might ask something like, 'How did you build that extraordinary team?' A lot of people will give you an answer like, 'We only hired the A players.' And that's where I think a lot of content stops.”
“We would move instead to a second tier, where we'd ask, 'Well, how would you do that?' We were looking for very granular details. What was the interview process that you used to hire said A players? What questions did you ask during the interview?”
And it doesn't stop there. The third tier is where she asks for examples. “If you look back at most Review stories, you can see it: here's the general advice, here's exactly how it was executed and here's an example of it working in practice. I think that that ended up being really sticky and high leverage for readers.”
Camille's system resulted in great content over and over again. By establishing the three-tier system upfront, she didn't need to reinvent the wheel every time she interviewed a new operator. She focused on finding interesting subjects, then plugging them into her proven system.
3. Obsess Over the Details
Writing only scales if it's interesting. This is a fundamental challenge of content marketing.
Instead of publishing interviews as Q&A transcripts, Camille invested time developing a narrative for each piece. “People don't speak in full sentences and paragraphs,” she notes. “It's really hard to turn verbal communication into written text.” This is the sausage-making that turns an interviewee's scattered thoughts into a valuable resource for a reader. It's slow, tedious work that puts the reader first.
When First Round hired a second writer, Shaun Young, he and Camille spent time editing each other's work line by line, explaining each change so that they could absorb each other's styles. They landed on a combined style that championed non-obvious tactics and kept the content very consistent.
Camille also obsessed over the site design and user experience. She worked closely with boutique web design agency Marquee to build The Review's site from scratch. She wanted a great reading experience, easily accessible content and an emphasis on photographs and other visuals. They actually hired a photographer (Bonnie Rae Mills) and an illustrator (Alex Garcia) to make sure the people they interviewed were front and center.
Interestingly, the great experience on the site helped level-up the writing game. “It looks good, so you feel like the work you put there has to be as good as the experience is. Paying that extra attention is compounding,” she says. “It adds up over time.”
We'd like to thank Camille for her generosity and her significant contributions to both the content marketing and startup communities. She has recently joined Notion, and we're looking forward to seeing what new ground she breaks there. You can follow Camille on Twitter at @CamilleRicketts.
The First Round Review continues to deliver excellent content under the guidance of editor Jessi Craige Shikman. Recent pieces on Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra and Suki CEO (former Flipkart CPO) Punit Soni make it clear that the Review isn't slowing down.