HOW TO PITCH: WITH NANCY DAHLBERG

Top influential journalist from South Florida speaks on the local news landscape, her startup ‘babies’ and dots necessary to connect

By Yulia Strokova

It's hard to meet any entrepreneur from Miami who doesn’t know Nancy Dahlberg. And it's hard to find a Miami-based startup Nancy Dahlberg doesn’t know. 

But if you don’t know Nancy Dahlberg, let us introduce you to one of the top business journalists in the industry: 

Dozens of stories about high-impact ventures come out from her pen every month. Born and raised in St. Petersburg, FL, Nancy has been a journalist for over 30 years. She’s a University of Florida alum, and cut her teeth at the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald, which transferred Nancy as a young journalist to San Jose, California, to work with The Mercury News, the Herald’s sister company. That was the early 90s, and that's when, for the first time, Nancy found herself among rapidly growing tech startups. She was hooked.

After 25+ years with the Miami Herald, Nancy now is a freelancer and works with a number of clients, including Refresh Miami, where she hosts Refresh’s blog for tech and startup news. Miami's startup scene is full of young and hungry innovators looking to shake things up, and Nancy’s seen these transformations. Local innovators share her writings with special pleasure because they know she is picky; her story is not just a press release. Nancy supports, educates, and inspires others early-on in their entrepreneurial journey.


Nancy, what role do you think local media plays in the current business ecosystem? Particularly with brands’ access to social media and the opportunity to build their own communication channels?

Getting into the local media is excellent to level-up your exposure and recognition, but it's getting harder every day because there are fewer business reporters. During my work with the Miami Herald, we had up to 14 business reporters, and now they have far fewer. It's tough, but that's the reality. 


On the flip side, the good thing is that with social media and Medium and all these other forums, including specialty blogs, there're a lot of ways to get the messages out. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get in with the local media. It's just the bar is higher.

What would you recommend to entrepreneurs who are trying to reach out to journalists and pitch their stories?

The first thing is to get to know the reporters that cover startups or your industry and how they cover it. For instance, for Refresh Miami I'm looking for companies that have already launched and have had some traction. They don't have to be far along, they can be bootstrapped, but they have to show me that they have customers, that they have some key partnerships. I also host a blog on growbiz.fiu.edu, which is about growing small businesses. I keep my contact information open. Please email me at ndahlbergbiz@gmail.com. I'd love to learn about your entrepreneurship journey.

Sometimes, I get emails like ‘I'm launching my product next week, and this would make a great story. In those cases, I usually say, ‘Great, I don’t cover launches but come back to me in a couple of months, let me know how your traction is, and keep me posted on your milestones. There may be an opportunity down the road a bit.’ I understand there is no opportunity now to go to events and build face-to-face connections and pitch reporters on the spot. But always keep ready to send your one-pager or pitch deck to the reporter to keep them informed.

If you don't hear from a reporter right away, if you don't even hear from a reporter for months,  it doesn't necessarily mean they're not interested in you. It just means that it doesn't fit into something they're doing right now. Continue your email communications. I'm not talking about three times per week, but just once a month or when you have some milestone, send them a quick note to keep it on their radar. So once they're writing about some startup issue or an article about a specific industry, they'll remember you and may come back.

I think it's essential to be able to connect the dots and relate your story to the general interest. Try to look at the bigger picture through the journalists' eyes of what would be an interesting story angle for them and their readers, not you. 

According to the latest Knight/Startup Genome study, Miami demonstrates a lower number of relationships between founders helping founders, investors, mentors, so-called ‘sense of community’ compared to other big cities. Do you agree?

I think there are a lot of things that we could do better, and we could do more. But it's not as dire as the report made it out. I see how far we've come and, of course, there's a lot of room for improvement.

I know lots of founders, investors and organizations that work together really well to change this situation. They collaborate all the time, and they're especially good with people who are now coming to Miami. They set them up with meetings to get to know the players in the community. So I've seen a lot of that, and I see less of what the report found. But of course, it's not perfect, and I know the Knight Foundation has a push now to work harder getting connected with the underrepresented communities, and I think that's great.


For nine years, I ran the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge Contest for small businesses and startups of all types. When I first took it over in 2009, I noticed very few women founders were entering, and so to change that, I realized that I needed to do much more outreach. So I started with every small business and every startup organization out there to help get the word out that this contest is going on. I also assembled more diverse judge panels.


The first year it was 15% women entries, the second and third year we drew around 30%, and for the years that followed nearly or about half of the 200+ entries were from women. Because of the much wider outreach efforts, more entrepreneurs of color were entering too, and that was just as important to me. As a result, both groups were making it into the winners’ circle much more often.

I tell that story because individual organizations have to be proactive about making sure that they get the word out about their workshops and events to all communities in the area. They need to make sure that panel discussions, judging committees, speakers and staff represent the entire range of the community. And why not vary the locations and partner up with an organization representing a different community or geography to offer a workshop, accelerator program or a networker? Venture Café’s Thursday Gathering does a good job with outreach, I think.

What’s your favorite project/startup born in Miami?

No, no, no. They're all my babies. I don't feel it's right for me as a journalist to shout out in that way to startups, to young companies, because they're all growing. For one of my clients, Emerge of Americas, I do a venture capital report once a year. You can find trends in those reports. I would say that health-tech companies are bubbling up the most right now, followed by fintech. I’m also seeing more edtech startups flourishing and South Florida has always been a great breeding ground for terrific food-related startups.

I think it's great that we have so many strong groups like the Center for Social Change, Social Venture Partners, Radical Partners, and many other organizations supporting social entrepreneurs and, in some cases, nonprofits as well. I also see a lot of high-impactful startups in the social entrepreneurial space, whether it's edtech or financial inclusion. I'd love to see more environmental tech companies coming up, addressing social and ecological problems.

What are three values you exemplify throughout your journalistic career?

You can't please everybody, but I would hope that fairness, integrity, and empathy come through my work. I still believe that journalists need to be as objective as they can. It doesn't mean that they can't be very interested and passionate about a particular space. I'm passionate about entrepreneurship. Others are passionate about environmental journalism. They can be passionate about different subjects but still making sure they're being fair and objective.

Have you experienced any positive side effects from the pandemic?

It's hard to come up with anything positive about the pandemic because I see how small businesses are struggling just to survive.  But I guess for my husband and me -- and I've heard from other people, my friends, startup founders -- we see the value of spending more time with family, and having dinner time. I think that's a real positive trend, and I hope that even after this crisis, there's a way that it can continue.

P.S. The cover image is by @lasucculenta, who helps people discover their green thumb & repurposing.