“I’m not looking to be a PR firm,” Brooke Hammerling, founder of Brew Media Relations, a boutique agency that represents tech startups, said a few weeks ago from her company’s sunny Soho offices. “When I interviewed for jobs at PR agencies, I was given personality tests,” she said. “Seriously, that’s what large agencies do—to see if you’re a dolphin or an owl.” Ms. Hammerling, a vivacious blonde with a raspy laugh and doll-like features, called back to the young women sitting in two rows of desks behind iMac monitors. “What was the test called, the Myers-Briggs?” They giggled in the affirmative. At the neckline of her black silk dress, Ms. Hammerling had the ruddy glow of someone unafraid to spend time in the sun.
“They put you in a room and give you a topic to write a press release about and give you 30 minutes and boom you’re judged on that,” she continued. “And that’s not really how I think of PR.” Ms. Hammerling likes to think of Brew’s services as more strategic. Along with the help of her business partner Dena Cook, who is based in Los Angeles, Brew has represented a striking number of recent success stories to emerge from the tech scene, particularly in New York.
In August, Skype acquired GroupMe, a group messaging startup and Brew client. (Josh Kushner, part-owner of Observer Media Group, is an investor in GroupMe through Thrive Capital). In July eBay acquired another Brew client, Zong, a mobile payments startup for $240 million. And in September, General Assembly, the Flatiron co-working space announced a round of venture capital funding from the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, whom Dealbook described as the “the man behind” Goldman Sachs’ Facebook deal.
“We make introductions to them that lead to investment, that lead to partnerships, that lead to customer acquisition,” said Ms. Hammerling. “It goes beyond getting a story in a publication.”
It’s a pity, because she’s pretty good at that too.
“Press is basically free advertising and it’s often better than advertising because your company or product is being promoted by an editorial voice,” said Dan Frommer, a former tech reporter at Forbes and Business Insider, and currently editor of SplatF.com. “So anytime you can get good press that helps in the startup world and helps them find a buyer.”
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this story,” Fred Wilson told The Observer in a recent interview, interrupting his own yarn with a laugh. “I’m not an investor in GroupMe and I wasn’t at South by Southwest.” Mr. Wilson, principal at Union Square Ventures was second-guessing an anecdote about a party at the annual Austin festival.
Brew decided to rent out a burger stand across the street from the convention center and call it the “GroupMe Grill.” It was a bid to win what tech bloggers were calling “the group messaging wars” waging between five startups at the convention all pursuing a similar concept. Over three days Brew gave away 2,500 free grilled cheese sandwiches encrisped with the company logo and 13 kegs of Shiner Bock—in exchange for downloading GroupMe’s new mobile app, of course. GroupMe left Austin with the SXSW Breakout award. The TechCrunch headline? “How GroupMe Won SXSW: Grilled Cheese.” Five months later, Skype acquired GroupMe for $85 million.
Apparently, word-of-mouth traveled across the Atlantic. “We don’t have grilled cheese in London,” Shakhil Khan, an investor and head of special projects at Spotify, a Stockholm-based music startup, said on the phone. “It became very famous that GroupMe were the guys who gave out grilled cheese sandwiches. Ever since then I’m like, ‘When are you taking me to grilled cheese sandwiches?’”
At least some of the credit for getting investors to talk about something as prosaic as cheese on bread like it’s Peter Thiel’s Facebook stock goes to Ms. Hammerling.
Skeptics may have questioned the startup’s decision to sign on with Brew so early into the company’s trajectory. “When I heard they hired Brooke for PR, I went, oh no, that’s going to be the GroupMe direction—really big stories that are overblown,” said one source who chose to remain anonymous. “The reality is that they have to prove the concept before you get in the Times.” But as the news of the Skype acquisition exploded on Twitter, venture capitalists like Mark Suster, tech journalists like Mr. Frommer, and social media scensters like Rachel Sklar were congratulating @brooke and @brewpr as much as the startup itself.
That may have a little something to do with Ms. Hammerling’s outsize persona and long-standing clout in tech circles, which traces back to her days a fearless 20-something in the go-go years of Silicon Valley. In fact, a 2009 feature in The New York Times highlighted her technique of “whispering in the ears” of Valley influencers—and tendency to name-drop, although the paper noted that was a function of her impressive network.
“She became that person who everyone knew randomly. Basically it would be like if in seven years all the people I’m friends with were suddenly billionaires,” one source told The Observer. “She’s good at what she does. But her network was organic and it’s really, really powerful now.”
It also has to do with the fact that she might know more about the inner-workings of media than some reporters. “She knows who just got dumped, who had a baby, who’s gay, who’s straight, who got moved off this beat, who’s competing with this writer. You might not be Facebook friends with Nick Bilton, but she is,” said Kate Pokorny, one of Ms. Hammerling’s early employees from the days when Brew was still run out of her apartment on West 10th Street. Mr. Bilton is the lead technology writer for The New York Times’s Bits blog.
Power publicists in the fashion and film world have, on occasion, climbed the ranks as industry influencers in their own right. Ms. Hammerling, whose loyalty matches her impetuousness, might be the best contender to become the Peggy Siegal or Lizzie Grubman “before she ran over people,” as one source quipped, of New York’s startup world. It doesn’t hurt that one-time investor in The Spotted Pig, friend of Mario Batali, and ex-girlfriend of REM bassist Mike Mills are not credentials most tech folks can claim.