Home > PR > PR Agency Owner Started Making Homegrown PR Software; Today it’s a VC-backed Startup; Off Script No. 47: Zach Cutler Co-founder and CEO at Propel

PR Agency Owner Started Making Homegrown PR Software; Today it’s a VC-backed Startup; Off Script No. 47: Zach Cutler Co-founder and CEO at Propel

Zach Cutler says he built a $1 million PR agency by age 28 and when he couldn’t find a PR software product for managing the work that he liked, he started developing one

The idea that PR software is like customer relationship management (CRM) for public relations has been around for a while. For example, I remember kicking that terminology around in 2009 or so, but it never really took hold.

Perhaps as media relations continues to get harder, news organizations face cuts and experiences a decline in public trust, now is the time to revisit the topic. If the community is inclined to put the “relations” back into PR, and they’ll need new tools designed to help managed the process.

And there are a small handful of smaller, younger and different rivals vying to replace the incumbents. Zach Cutler of Propel is one of them. He’s my guest for this edition of the Off Script Q&A series.

Zach Cutler Propel CEO

1) Why did you start Propel?

ZC: I was growing my agency and once we reached about 15 people, I wanted to improve our workflow, data insights and accountability across the team and campaigns. There was no PR software that could help us do that – we tried pretty much all of them. We also tried CRMs like HubSpot and Salesforce, but those also didn’t work for us because they were not built for the PR workflow.

I started building a framework for making my agency data-driven and workflow optimized. But I quickly realized that to really do this well, it would have to be a SaaS [platform]. So, I sold my agency and went all in with Propel to invent the public relations management (PRM) category – which has significantly gained steam in the industry since we launched the first PRM in 2018.

Note: Muck Rack also describes itself as public relations management (PRM) starting in 2020.

2) What the company’s offerings (briefly at a high-level)?

ZC: The core of the Propel platform is the PRM (CRM for PR) – which includes the industry’s first and only full Gmail and Outlook plug-ins, contact and relationship management, and deep analytics into business outcomes from PR, team productivity and account/campaign performance.

In early 2020 we launched our media database, which includes 1 million journalists, 50 million influencers and 3 billion articles. In January 2021 we launched our full monitoring suite including online monitoring, social listening, broadcast monitoring and deep analytics into share of voice, sentiments, coverage over time, coverage by tier, domain authority and more.

3) What was the thinking behind a media database – there are so many of those on the market now – what’s different about yours?

ZC: Our database is different in that when a PR professional is doing a search, they can immediately see in the results which contacts have been pitched previously, what the engagement was with those pitches, and which team member has the best prior relationship with that contact. This enables smarter decision-making in choosing who to add to your list and who to assign that contact you within that campaign.

We then take it a step further and show the pitching preferences of each journalist, with our PitchPrefer engine. PitchPrefer tells our user the best day and time to pitch each journalist, and the topics most likely receive a response – all based on how that journalist actually engaged with previous pitches sent globally across Propel.

We created a media database because it helps our users discover the right targets to pitch their stories to – which is a fundamental part of the PR function.

4) How many customers do you have? Is there a category of customer that you’ve attracted? (i.e. big, little, agency, in-house)?

ZC: We just hit 75 customers. It really runs the gamut from huge agencies and brands, to midsize and small. One of the central principles that I built the platform around was making sure that it brought value to in-the-trenches account execs as well as senior leadership. The former love the timesavings and results producing workflow tools, and the latter are crazy about our insights and reports.

5) How much funding have you raised and what was it like raising your first round?

ZC: We have raised $1.3 million from LogicBoost Labs (an accelerator in California), Edan Dover (an angel investor who is a famous musician as part of The Score) and several other angels. It was very challenging to raise our first round of funding. All I had to sell was my vision – without having any product, team, revenue or customers to show for it.

6) Tell us about your former agency?  How has that experience helped or hindered you in building Propel?

ZC: We focused on the tech sector – especially focused on helping Israeli startups launch and grow in the US market. We became a $1M+ firm as I turned 28 years old (I started the firm when I was 22). Twenty percent the startups that we launched or worked with went on to become unicorns.

Having my agency was extremely helpful in building Propel. It provided the entire foundation of my knowledge of PR and the pain points of the industry – for which I built Propel to solve. It also created a very strong network of tech entrepreneurs and investors that I worked with – many of whom I have recruited to the Propel Advisory Board.

[Note: Zach provided examples of his former agency’s clients including Monday.com, ZoomInfo, Taboola, and dLocal among others].

7) Anything you’d like to add?

ZC: We are really excited about the future of the earned media industry, and our team is working day and night to bring relentless innovation and out-of-the-box thinking to a legacy sector. We will never stop pushing the boundaries and creating new products and paradigms that delight PR professionals and improve their work and lives.

* * *

Thank you for taking the time to participate, Zach. I look forward to watching how things unfold for Propel.

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