Powerset’s Launch and Sell Strategy

The Powerset deal with Microsoft being approved, here's a look back at the great press coverage the startup got before exiting successfully.

Powerset today announced on their blog that the transaction with Microsoft has been finalized. The cool natural language search engine isn’t a wriggling fresh startup anymore, but has made the Darth Vader’s move towards the dark side of Microsoft’s heavy search infrastructures.

So Powerset isn’t one of the hype search startups of the Valley anymore. There has always been much ado about Barney Pell’s ability to buzz and sell startups, but I think that Powerset’s story is a case study that should be taught in tech economy classes.

First, consider the unusual amount of press they got in Techcrunch since August of last year:

This is more than 15 articles featuring Powerset in a year. Web startups usually get an average of 0.4 reviews a year on Techcrunch. In the case of Powerset, their news got covered when they were looking for a new CEO, when they made a case study with Miss South Carolina, and 4 articles were about their acquisition. Rather unusual… Undoubtedly, the PR firm contracted by Powerset did a good job creating compelling news about the company. Nonetheless, not all their clients get such good coverage. Powerset’s strength lied in their intrinsic buzz strategy:

  1. The company is a search engine – it positions Powerset as a virtual threat for Google (i.e. as an opportunity for Microsoft).
  2. Their first product is a Wikipedia search tool – it positions Powerset as a portal for one of the most popular Websites of all times.
  3. The search engine focuses on natural language search queries, a fantasy world – As Lorenzo Thione states in the interview above: “If you can crack that nut of understanding human language, with algorithms, with computers, then you open up the door to something that has been part of the collective imaginary for a long time”.
  4. The Founder’s got a great deal of startup experiences – Barney Pell has an impressive resume in the fields of search and VC activities.
  5. Powerset is part of the Silicon Valley’s cool kids gang – they co-organize exciting events for the local tech community.
  6. They get social media coverage – I don’t know what is their deal with top bloggers, but it works.
  7. All the factors above creates a bubble around the company’s name that consequently over-values the initial search engine project.