Victoria Song, a consumer tech reporter at Gizmodo, joined us on the Coffee with a…
On this week’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist, we’re joined by Becca Szkutak, a venture capital reporter at Forbes. Becca covers micro VCs, startups, and fundraising. She is also the author of the Midas Touch newsletter. Prior to joining Forbes, she was a reporter for Venture Capital Journal and Private Debt Investor.
During the episode, Becca talks about reading and responding to pitches, the range of stories she enjoys diving into, her favorite quarantine activity, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
[00:02:18] BB: And taking time amid this crazy funding climate we’re in. We were talking about that before this all started. So Becca, why don’t we start with just your inbox? How do you manage it and how crazy is it?
[00:02:30] BS: Okay. The first thing I’d say with how I manage it, probably going to sound crazy for saying this, but I actually don’t have my email notifications on. I know. I know.
[00:02:41] BB: You’re a purist.
[00:02:42] BS: And it’s funny because it was an accident. My Outlook app crashed on my computer. And when I re-downloaded it, I couldn’t get the notifications to come back even though I tried to turn them back on. But I quickly realized that that actually was like a blessing in disguise because then I can – I mean, I’m checking my email constantly. So I’m not missing anything. But if I’m on a call or doing an interview, I don’t have like an urgent or a distressing like notification popping up, which I found is really helpful. Especially like just mentioned with getting such high-pitch volume today and just such a crazy environment, I’ve found that that’s actually been really helpful because I can set aside time to do email. Like, “Oh, it’s five. I’m wrapping up. I’m going to go through my inbox now,” which makes it I don’t want to say more intentional because I don’t like how that sounds necessarily, but it definitely helps keep stuff separate, which makes it a little more manageable.
[00:03:37] BB: Well, it sounds like you have boundaries.
“So, if something’s unread and it’s from the day before, if I log on the next day I know it was purposely left that way. So I can check back maybe with like a fresher mind or just better time essentially.”
[00:03:39] BS: Right, accidental boundaries.
[00:03:42] BB: Accidental boundaries. I love it. Oh, that is so great. And then once you’re in there – Okay, so like it’s five o’clock. You’re in Brooklyn. You’re like, “Oh, okay, wrapping up the day.” Are you flagging, labeling, mass deleting? How are you going from there?
[00:03:57] BS: I really do try to read everything and try to respond as soon as I can if that’s possible. Sometimes it’s just not. But usually, I almost never pay attention to the headline of the email. I’ve learned that those can be pretty misleading.
[00:04:13] BB: The subject line.
[00:04:14] BS: Oh, yeah. So I’ll always at least dive in to the content. And then if it seems like, I mean, we do get spam emails sometimes or just stuff that’s way offbeat. I’ll generally put that to the side. But otherwise, yeah, just start plugging through. If things seem interesting, I try to reply right then and there so I don’t lose it just to see if I can get more information. Or I’ll make notes in my agenda to follow up with people if stuff sounds interesting, and maybe not right now, or things I want to take more time to go through if someone sends me say like a report or something a little more lengthy and I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m going to keep this as unread till tomorrow,” because I do clear the whole inbox every night.
Her Thoughts on Pitches
[00:05:21] BB: Clarity of mind. So real quick, you mentioned I don’t go by the subject line. I don’t go by that first opening line. And that’s a technique. So you just open everything to review it real quickly. Why is that? You said it’s misleading. And so what are in the subject lines that you’re just like, “Pfft. It’s totally not the topic.” Is it just like funding announcement and that’s like the subject line?
[00:05:50] BS: Well, sometimes people who I’ve worked with before or have at least had like intro calls with will be like this is perfect for you. And I’ll open it and be like this is nothing we would cover. Or on the flip side of that, sometimes people will pitch you something and the headline won’t make it seem interesting. And then halfway through the pitch, you’re like, “Wait a minute. This is actually really cool. They’re burying their own lead. Like why was this not the headline.”
So I’ve definitely found both ways, because it’s happened to me before where I’ve like completely ignored an email being like, “That’s not relevant to me at all. That’s not even within my beat.” And then the person follows back up with me the next day with more information and I’m like, “Wait a second. This is actually really interesting. Why was this not more upfront the first time around or in the headlines?” So yeah, I’ve kind of moved away from looking at that specifically.
[00:06:43] BB: It’s so distinct, because so often, at least on this show, we hear people saying if it’s not the subject line, I don’t get it in two seconds, forget it. And I wonder how many things are missed for what you’re saying with that technique of management of email because of course, we have all got to figure it out in our own way, shape and form. But interesting insight there.
“I think this is like not necessarily related to what’s in the message. But I really like when people are really upfront about the timing, because if you say next week but you really mean you want next Tuesday, like that’s a big difference.”
[00:07:02] BS: Because I know definitely gotten some interesting email headlines that don’t really represent the pitch very well on both sides of the board, both in a good way and in a bad way. I mean, sometimes if it’s really in a bind, I can’t say I’m like reading the whole email. But definitely trying to kind of always look beyond that because I have learned that that isn’t always the best marker.
[00:07:27] BB: What is the pitch ideal length you like most?
[00:07:31] BS: I don’t know, because sometimes some people will just send the whole release to begin with, which can be helpful. But as far as just like a pitch maybe with like a company or a firm I’m not familiar with or haven’t worked with in a while, generally pretty short is good, but not too short that I don’t actually know what it’s about. Because I definitely have gotten, “Hey, series b rounds in the fintech space next week, August 20th,” or say from last month, “does that work?” And I’m like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
[00:08:01] BB: What is it? Yeah, oh god. Yeah.
[00:08:04] BS: Because you can really – Like even like a paragraph, three, four bullets, you can really push a lot of what would be interesting across, because I don’t need to know the whole story of why the company’s interesting. Like I’m hoping to kind of find that out as I go through. But if it’s just like this is what happened, this is why I personally think it’s interesting, these are maybe data or numbers they’d be willing to share. That’s usually like all the information I’m looking for.
How She Writes Stories
[00:09:50] BB: When you’re thinking of the stories you’re going to do, Becca, and they’re quite a variety that you do, because sometimes it’s the fun, sometimes it’s funding announcements, sometimes you’re doing the newsletter kind of roundup and you have something – Like here’s one on Carrot of fertility benefit. Sometimes it’s on a sleep-focused super moon raising money, the night to market as it’s called. It does vary, although I think we understand the niche. Is there a way in which you think of how you do or come up with a story?
[00:10:21] BS: When thinking of different stories, I’m definitely trying to not necessarily write something that’s already out there. But I think some people sort of take that to the extreme. Like when I’m thinking of a story or if something seems interesting like the super moon story, for example, the sleep-focused, I’m not super tapped into sort of healthcare and funds focus on wellness and things like that. But it like felt like an opportunity to sort of contributing in an interesting way to a broader conversation that expands beyond VC, which is always kind of fun. Like I know I cover diversity a lot because that’s really important to me sort of beyond the industry. So that’s always a good setup for me looking for stories where I can kind of contribute to areas I’m interested in or give me an opportunity to learn about something interesting that I don’t know anything about. Like the fertility startup. I’m not super familiar with that, but that was a great chance to be like, “Let’s dive into something new, something interesting, something I’m not hearing about all the time,” but at the same point knowing it’s a big issue and knowing we can kind of contribute to that broader discourse around that topic without necessarily being repetitive or acting like an expert or things like that.
[00:11:29] BB: Would you say, and this answer varies widely from person to person, that your stories, a lot of them, a portion of them, any percentage of them, get generated or at least sparked by pitches?
[00:11:43] BS: Yeah. No. Definitely I would say I always tell PR people if they reach out to me and they’re like, “Oh, are there any areas or specific things you like to cover?” And they’re definitely things I prefer to cover more than others. But I always tell people if they find it interesting to send it to me anyway even if maybe it’s too small for me to cover or we can’t run it exclusively or things like that, because you guys end up seeing trends and companies raising money before we do.
So it’s like even if it’s not something I’m going to cover, it’s like I’ve definitely done stories before that were sparked with, “Hey, I haven’t heard anything about this category in a while and I got pitched four companies in it in the last two weeks.” And it’s like I didn’t cover any of those stories specifically, but like that definitely tips me off that like there’s something here to dive into.
“It’s still small potatoes compared to a lot of other markets, but I wouldn’t have really dove into that unless I had received like a pitch about that, or someone had sort of flagged that for me even though I didn’t end up actually covering what was pitched to me directly.”
[00:12:31] BB: I’ve heard that with other reporters where the signaling from pitches lets you know if there’s a trend, if there’s something erupting or kind of bubbling up and you go, “Wait a second, why did I get those six pitches? What’s going on in that something niche thing?” You’re like, “I didn’t hear anything about that before.” But then it indicates to you.
I’ve never thought of it as like in a way each publicist is doing an aggregate pitching strategy amongst ourselves not knowing of course. But when it’s all landing in someone’s inbox, a reporter, it might help your pitching success, because then the reporter goes, “Oh, wait a second. Five people sent me this. Okay, let me think about this.” Kind of interesting, because you’d never know it will connect the dots, but it’s so funny.
[00:13:12] BS: Oh, definitely. Because the stuff I see maybe like one or two pitches from the same sector or even like a location. Like I saw I got a pitch from a company in Vermont and then I was going back through the great deal roundups that they do in Parata and term sheet and discovered that there was like a couple other Vermont companies in there recently. And I was like, “Wow! You never hear about venture capital in Vermont. I’m going to get the data on that. And ended up finding that it’s been more has been invested in that market so far this year than the last 10 years combined. And it just ended up being really interesting.
Becca, like many other journalists, has her own preferences when it comes to pitching which is not limited to full disclosure about company metrics, texting her if you’re well connected already, and being up front about the timing of your pitch.
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