Connect with as many people as you can in an authentic way. Listen and become genuinely interested in those around you — whether you’re in a board meeting or at the grocery store.
Elliot Tomaeno, founder of Astrsk, understands the intersection between tech and PR. As one of Business Insider’s “50 Best Public Relations People in the Tech Industry” and one of The Next Web’s “50 People in the NYC Tech Scene You Need to Know,” his expertise goes beyond the years of working in more traditional PR roles.
Upon founding the company, Elliot pledged to do 10 percent of his PR work pro bono for startups that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford expensive consultants.
Before Astrsk, Elliot built his PR portfolio working as the assistant to the director of public relations at his alma mater, Franklin University Switzerland. Since 2008, he has built experience working with clients at Spin Communications, Wyndstorm, Ballou PR, and Enloop. In 2012, he left his position as head of consumer technology at Morris & King Co to build his own PR firm.
Since it was founded in 2012, Astrsk has helped launch more than 100 startups and tech products and has been a part of four exits.
Where did the idea for Astrsk come from?
After working in PR for about seven years and never really feeling like any one PR agency I’d encountered had put its focus on startups in a way that made sense for both early-stage startups and later tech companies, I decided to start my own.
Prior to Astrsk, I worked in tech PR in San Francisco, London, and Paris. Working with startups and technology companies from all over the world, I developed a love for helping companies find their voice, audience, and champions.
For me, it has always been about the people I get to work with in this industry — some 20 years old with crazy new ideas, some 60 years old with 20 successful companies behind them. The founders and executives at startups continually inspire me. I often say, “If we are even 50 percent as innovative as the companies we represent, we’re doing good!”
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
At 8 a.m., I go to the gym (S10 Training). Exercise is so important for stress release and productivity, but if I don’t go at 8 a.m., I’ll never make it. I started with this awesome personal trainer about four months ago, and it’s already changed my life for the better.
At 9:30 a.m., I get to the office, touch base with the team, and read the top news of the day. (I often start on Techmeme and Twitter.)
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., I have client calls. A typical day could include a call with our client Trello, then Frank & Oak, then Zola.
At 1 p.m., I eat a quick lunch with the team. We love to eat at Astrsk, and we order in pretty much every day. Some days are healthier than others.
From 1:30 to 6:30 p.m., I have calls, meetings, and internal brainstorms. Usually, these are scheduled back-to-back, but when I get a free 15 minutes, I like to take a walk around the block with one of my senior account leads. It’s a great way to let off steam and brainstorm.
At 7 p.m., I eat dinner with a journalist or client.
Between 9 and 10:30 p.m., I get back home and wrap up any outstanding items from the day. This period when I’m not in the office (wrapping up the day and prepping for the next day) is so important for me. It really helps me feel prepared for the day ahead by fully closing out one day and getting ahead of the next.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I tend to weigh options quite often. But once I decide on something, I put my all into it. Some of the best (read: most fun) ideas come to life through a team brainstorm that we didn’t even realize we were having. The main thing for Astrsk and me is pushing really hard and not taking initial failure or speed bumps as discouragement. Oftentimes, the best (read: most rewarding) ideas are ones that don’t have simple solutions or simple roads to actualization.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
True and authentic compassion in business. Startups do business differently. Sometimes that can be frustrating for folks who aren’t used to interacting with young companies and young founders, but I love it.
One of the key things I’ve noticed in dealing with business partners, employees, and outside vendors is a more human approach that feels pretty unique to startups. We spend most of our days at the office, and creating a compassionate, authentic culture starts internally and has to be perpetuated by the leadership team. I’m really grateful that I get to work with so many leaders who take this approach and inspire me on a daily basis.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Getting up before 8 a.m. I used to hate mornings, but they’re truly the best time to get your hardest, most creative work done.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
I used to be a door greeter at a Cold Stone Creamery in Arizona. My whole job was to entertain people while they were waiting for their ice cream. I was 14 with a blow-up guitar and a purple clown wig. This job taught me a lot about humility and how to have fun with myself — and, most of all, not to take myself too seriously.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
You can always learn from your mistakes, but the mistakes are part of the journey. I wouldn’t sacrifice any of those mistakes (even the big ones) because they were crucial to my and Astrsk’s development.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Connect with as many people as you can in an authentic way. Listen and become genuinely interested in those around you — whether you’re in a board meeting or at the grocery store. I like to think that every single person knows something or does something better than me, and I try to take each encounter as an opportunity to learn something.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Humans first, business second. Everything can be boiled down to a spreadsheet, and everything can be boiled down to the humans involved — their lives, their dreams, and their fears. I think that taking the human-first approach has helped Astrsk connect to our clients, journalists, and partners in a more authentic way.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Last year, one of my top executives came to me and told me that she was going to leave Astrsk. Although I’m not big on regrets, I do wish I had been able to see that coming and anticipate her needs better. We’re still very close, and her departure sparked an increased desire to build the best company culture I’d ever seen or been a part of. Since then, I’ve started a whole new set of traditions, incentives, and perks.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’d love to see a company truly overhaul the rental broker relationship in New York City. Urban Compass is doing awesome stuff, but I think there’s a gap — an opportunity for someone to do for apartment brokerages what Oscar did for healthcare. (Maybe this is just near and dear to me right now because I’m in the process of finding a new place!)
Tell us something about you that very few people know.
I love “Doctor Who.” I’ve never been a sci-fi guy, but I discovered the Doctor in 2010 and have been a superfan ever since.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Trello: It keeps my whole day organized from project to project. (I even used it for my Christmas shopping list.)
Cision: It’s still the best PR database out there.
Muck Rack: It’s a great way to follow journalists’ conversations online.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. Written in the ’30s, this is some of the best and most concise business advice I’ve ever seen in one book. (I’d like to give a big thank-you to the founder of Kaufmann Mercantile, Sebastian Kaufmann, for the recommendation!)
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Thích Nhất Hạnh (@thichnhathanh): He’s a really awesome Buddhist philosopher who has lots of lessons for us startup folks.
Matt Hartman (@matthartman): Matt is an investor at betaworks and a super smart and inspiring guy.
Kellee Khalil (@kellee): She’s the founder of Loverly and one of my best friends and biggest mentors.
Amanda Peyton (@amandapey): She’s the co-founder of Grand St. and someone who really taught me how to negotiate and stand on my own in business.