The other day, I talked to a business owner who wanted help with PR as she launched a new business venture. She was hoping to generate press around her new company from some of the leading tech and business publications.

I own an  agency that focuses on marketing and PR, and my team's been successful with these types of projects before -- but as soon as I learned more about her business, I knew I needed to turn her down.

Why? She didn't have a user base yet, so at this point, her company was little more than a concept.

I knew that if I went to my media contacts with a pitch for his company, they'd be asking the hard questions about how it's grown, and what kind of results its customers have seen. She doesn't have the answers to those questions yet -- and if she tries to take her company to the spotlight too soon, she won't get a second chance to make an impression with the media.

I told her what I'd tell any startup owner in this situation: What you really need at this stage isn't PR -- it's a marketing strategy.

What's the difference?

Building a marketing strategy is about defining, and refining, your messaging: What's the story you want to convey to the world?

Through targeted content marketing, you can influence prospective customers with messaging that helps them understand your industry and your place within it. You might have different messaging customized for each audience: If you offer a software product to both nonprofits and educators, they're likely to have different needs and use cases. By clearly identifying what your prospects need to hear in order to gain trust in your brand, you can nail a solid user acquisition strategy--and quickly grow into a thriving brand.

Only after you've gained solid traction for your company should you begin to consider PR.

When you're reaching out to journalists, do you think they'll be impressed when you tell them about your innovative software if you don't have any active users? At this point, it's just a bunch of code.

Instead, start with marketing, build your user base, and iron out the kinks in your product. Only then, once you have some strong testimonials from users who genuinely love what you're doing and are happy to speak about it, it might be time to consider media outreach.

At this point, you have a proven product, and can share the story of how you grew your company from X to Y. You can ask your happy customers to participate in interviews with you, talking about the state of your industry. You can gain a reputation as a leader in your space.

Many companies are eager for instant press attention--but it won't come without first doing the hard work of building an actual business.