How does content build one of the web’s most popular brands?
As a writer and then as Editor-at-Large of Mashable, Ben Parr helped turn the site from a little blog into the tech world’s most popular news source, so I invited him to hear how it happened!
Since leaving Mashable, Ben created The Peep Project, which is in stealth mode, and is an ambitious project to change the way we interact with information.
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Ben Parr, The Peep Project
Ben Parr is the creator of The Peep Project, which is in stealth mode, and is an ambitious project to change the way we interact with information.
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Hey everyone, my name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, over 700 interviews with entrepreneurs who come here to tell you their story so you can learn from them and basically go out there use what you learned and hopefully come back here and do an interview yourself where you can teach other people.
And in this interview the big focus question is how does content build one of the web’s most popular brands? As a writer and then as editor-at-large of Mashable, Ben Parr helped turn the site from a little blog into the tech world’s most popular news source. I invited him here to find out how it happened and to learn what you can learn based on his experiences there. Since leaving Mashable, Ben has created the peep project which is still in stealth mode and is an ambitious project to change the way we interact with information. Ben, welcome and thanks for doing this.
Ben: Thank you for having me.
Andrew: So let’s talk, we could talk about numbers. In fact, what are the numbers for Mashable? How big is Mashable today?
Ben: Well, the public numbers, so I remember when I first joined it was about 3-4 million uniques and maybe, 20 million page views tops or not even. By the time I left it was 100 million page views and it was 25-28 million uniques. The company was less than ten people when I joined, and it got up to 60 by the time I left.
Andrew: And numbers sometimes don’t really tell the whole story. Do you remember when your mom discovered how big Mashable is and how big you are as a result?
Ben: Oh, that was a progression. I remember when I first told my mom I was going to move across the country, I lived in Chicago at the time, and I was going to write for Mashable. Well, what’s Mashed… Mashed Potatoes? I don’t know, she said. Like, it’s a technology thing. OK
honey, whatever. And then as the course of time went on, I think she started realizing how big Mashable was getting when I said Mom, turn on CNN. Why? Just turn it on. And then I was on it.
So like, oh, I could brag about this to my friends. But I think it was even bigger when she came to visit me last time in San Francisco and we were at dinner and somebody just walked up to the table and was like, you’re Ben Parr? I’m like, yes. Mashable, right? Yes. It’s a pleasure to meet you. And it was just a random fan. And that actually happens more frequently than I would suspect. Nowadays.
Andrew: Yeah, I can imagine. In fact, I was one of those people. The reason that you’re here today is because I was at a party full of lots of tech celebrities and there you were and I walked right over to you to just chat about the industry and also to see if I could get you to come on here and I’m glad that you did. By the way, do you believe this CNN Mashable acquisition for $200 million? Do think those rumors were true that CNN was trying to do it?
Ben: I have no clue and I’m very happy not to know anything. I try not to know anything about that so no clue. I will say that Mashable is definitely a very valuable property and anybody would be lucky to pick it up.
Andrew: Pete Cashmore denied the rumors, it looks like . . . oh, yeah, he denied the rumors, but $200 million, I don’t know if it’s true or not. I don’t know if they were talking about that or not, but it does give us an indication of how big the site had gotten.
A few years ago if anyone would have said Mashable and $200 million dollars, it just would have seemed like a joke that any blog would be worth that much. Since Huffington Post and, of course, Mashable’s growth, it’s seeming more and more plausible.
All right. So, what I invited you here to do is figure out the key moments and how you guys built it there. You and I talked before this interview started about some of them, about hiring decisions, about an acquisition, about key stories that got you there, about what you did to change the way your audience thinks about your product, that, frankly, all of us should be doing with our audience and customers and I want to learn all of it.
Let’s go back to when you first joined Mashable. What’s the first lesson that you learned before anything changed, when things were just as they were?
Ben: First thing, first thing I learned was that there is nothing that replaces pure work ethic and hard work and hard drive. Pete and I would pull like 12 to 16 hour shifts to make sure the set was covered 24 hours a day. Pete was working from . . . that was back when Pete was writing. Pete was working out of Scotland and I was covering out of San Francisco in Silicon Valley and trying to make sure that I had every single day that somebody was covering the site at all times.
Even later on trying to make sure that there was someone [?] staff requirements today, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to cover all the news and technology 24 hours a day.
Andrew: What does it mean to cover it? When you’re sitting on the computer for 16 hours covering the internet, what goes on that day? I mean in the beginning, what were you doing?
Ben: In the beginning I would say I was, I was combing the web looking for what was happening and trying to get at it first. I was trying to find out . . . the moment Facebook launched “Feature”, I would be able to write a story. The moment that someone got acquired . . . I remember when FriendFeed got acquired, like immediately getting it up and one of the first things I did was I lived at that time a couple blocks away from FriendFeed. I literally went walking towards their offices and tried to get and find them, but they were all gone. They were all at Facebook headquarters at the time.
The other thing was just starting the networking. The networking was really what involved the publication, at least from my end. I was the first and like only Mashable reporter in Silicon Valley for a long time after Pete left from San Francisco. And it was my job to be at all of the press events. It was my job to go network with all these Silicon Valley elites and chat with all of them and find all the startups. It was a tough job for just one person.
Andrew: I want to break down what you just said into two big categories. The first is it’s the writing and how you did that and the second is networking.
Going back to the writing which you started off with, if you saw that there was a feature article on someone else’s site or the FriendFeed blogged that they were being acquired, what would you do with that information?
I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m taking baby steps into this conversation, but, frankly, that’s what I am. I want to really understand this from the beginning to the top.
Ben: I mean lots of tech journalists and bloggers will know what . . . when you see something break, you need to quickly get an image, quickly get two lines of text and publish and then you need to update that thing quickly and get more information and more details and you need to e-mail or make phone calls and find out what’s exactly happening.
You need to get the rest of the staff online and be like we need to write follow-up articles, what follow-up articles can we write? What information can we find out? What else do we need to know? Can we confirm this? These are all things happen all the time.
Andrew: But it starts with an image and two lines? The image is what, just a picture of the founder, picture of the logo, anything?
Ben: Just depends. If you’re doing a breaking story, so there’s the standard, like, news story, which we will do a full thing of text. There’s the feature in-depth story and then there’s the breaking story.
Breaking story, you just find whatever image is in your database, that might be the logo, that might be an image of the founder, that might be a related of image of some sort that you created. You get that up, you put in the two lines of text and then you put ‘Developing story, more in a few minutes.’ You publish that thing and you get that thing shared on the social networks and you get out there as quickly as you can.
Andrew: And what does it give you to have two lines of text about a story that’s in more depth on say FriendFeed blog or on a wire?
Ben: Well, the first thing is most people aren’t following, say, a FriendFeed blog or a startup blog. We can disseminate the information, we can link to them, and we’re a trusted source of information. What happens is that within a few minutes you start getting the analysis. Really what getting those two lines of text does is start distributing the story out. By the time they even click on it and get to the story, you’ve had a few paragraphs and you will have talked about things that you know about the company. Maybe you heard rumors. Maybe you know that it would be a good fit. Maybe you are questioning whether it is a good fit. Maybe you know what the price is, that type of thing.
Andrew: I see. Sentence one might be, company A buying company B. Sentence two is the acquisition price. Boom, you hit publish. Then you work on what you know in background and so on, and you hit update, and you just keep updating that story. I see, all right. Sixteen fricking hours. By the way, that’s the thing about entrepreneurs, about that early start. I work on a floor space that’s shared between people who have branch offices and people who are launching their own companies here.
Clearly, the guys who are launching their own companies you can tell who they are because they’re here late at night, going to the coffee in the kitchen, they’re here on the weekends if I’m ever here to pick something up or do any work I see them here. Sixteen hour days. That’s what you guys are pulling. Part of it you said is networking. When you go to a networking event and you guys are, at the time, the also-ran, behind TechCrunch, how do you break through? How do you have conversations and how do you build those relationships?
Ben: Interesting. I’m going to first disagree with the also-ran, but TechCrunch was definitely bigger at the time. It’s interesting, I’ve found, especially now that I’m on the other side of the table, just how much access journalists get. If you’re a startup you want to get as much press as you can for all the things you’re doing. I’ve never found a startup that says, “I only want TechCrunch. I never want to talk to Mashable.” They want to talk to TechCrunch, Mashable, All Things D, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, New York Times. They want the whole gamut.
You just need to be able to say, “We have a different audience. We have a unique audience.” Mashable has always had a different audience. Mashable’s audience is pretty much exactly male-female, unlike most other technology news websites. Mashable has always been more focused on the mainstream audience. Less of the tech insiders and more of the marketers and those digital influencers that are in different homes. That’s what we focused on, and that’s what we told people. We reach a different audience.
Andrew: You know what? I actually saw a comment by Pete Cashmore, the founder of Mashable, on Business Insider where he described who Mashable caters to. He says, “We cater to a digital influencer demographic rather than a pure tech audience. That has two benefits. Digital influencers are a much bigger demo, and number two, digital influencers share content significantly more than ordinary web users.” When did that happen? When did you guys define who that niche was that you guys were going after?
Ben: Just like anything else, it takes time to define exactly what market you are going after. I think there were lots of iterations. We talked about it, maybe, even in 2009 or 2010 about the digital influencer. Really, I think it got more solidified in 2011 when we started talking about it more, and we had more of a clear message that we were going after digital influencers. We were not trying to be a tech insider publication. That’s why you don’t see Mashable talk about, “Oh, this executive left from Yahoo”, because the Mashable audience doesn’t really care about that. The Mashable audience cares about, how do I use technology to help myself at work? How do I use technology to make my life better? How do I use technology to find funny cat videos?
Andrew: Can you tell me more about how you do that? It is a challenge. I can see all the benefits that come from knowing specifically who your demographic is, who that niche is, but it’s a challenge for entrepreneurs to come up with that phrase, that digital influencer, and to understand the meaning behind it and to understand who they are, and to know that those are the guys you’re going after because there are more of them than the people who you think you should be going after. How do you come up with that demographic? How do you come up with that niche that becomes the one you own?
Ben: You have to look at the data, and you have to see.
Andrew: How did you guys look at the data?
Ben: All I can say is we looked at the data all the time. Not just Google analytics, but there was so much ad data, so many analytics tools. In order to understand what type of content was performing and what type of content was not. When you look at, like how I see data is a story. When you look at a big set of data, you start seeing those patterns. Like, oh, how does this fit into the overall scheme. We found that those insider stories didn’t really play but the evergreen stories of new Twitter tools or better ways to, or guide to Google Plus or Pinterest or such, would get huge play because our audience wanted to learn. The audience was, we’re not the Jack Doris’s of the world but we want to maybe someday become that or we want to be able to tell our friends about the next cool app. Those are the kinds of things that they valued and when you saw that you eventually came to that phrase, digital influence.
Andrew: OK. And when you’re walking around a party networking, what’s your goal there? Actually, it’s more like this, you have this look I’ve noticed now that I’ve been doing so much research on you I see your photo at events all the time and you have this look, tilted to the side, smiling at the camera in a certain way. Is that practiced by the way?
Ben: No. But I do, you know what, no, but I’m slightly aware that I have certain looks that I use for cameras. I think when a camera comes into play, you just have a look. You’re never really all that natural in a photo right? That’s not what photography is really about.
Andrew: I have one. I do some like this, I always make a face because I feel like otherwise my nose looks really big in photos so I have to do something to distract and so it’s always more.
Ben: I always like also the one where I just look away, like my mind is wandering.
Andrew: I’ve seen that, too. I thought, boy, that guy’s always thinking, he’s pondering something. Alright, so yeah, tell me more about when you’re walking around. The reason I want to know that is because I want my audience to know how they can approach journalists and what kind of conversations you’re looking for so that they know how to have those conversations with you and hopefully build relationships with journalists that result in more press.
Ben: So this is probably one of the, this is by far one of the top questions I’m asked and so my advice to entrepreneurs that want to reach journalists is simple, you need to build relationships with these journalists before you need them. 80%, bullshit stat, but 80% or so, most or the vast majority stories come because of friendships and that’s just the hard truth. Just like most funding comes because of friendship. Most deals happen because of friendships. You build relationships with these people beforehand, reach out to them, get coffee, get introduced by somebody that knows them, get to know them and then when the time comes you need to do a story all you need to do is send an email like, uh, we’re launching. And they’ll be like, great, let’s write about it. You have to build those relationships early and often though.
Andrew: OK. So, getting someone else at the party. I probably should have done that too. I probably could have had Tyler from Mahalo who is helping to organize the event, could have had him make the introduction. Then you and I would have talked. How do I transition that into coffee? No one has time to go to coffee with a stranger.
Ben: People have time to go to coffee with strangers all the time. People just don’t ask.
Andrew: So if I was a stranger and you knew Mixergy was just, you know, in stealth mode the way you are now and would have said, you want to go out to coffee? I can’t yet tell you about my business or, you want to just go out to coffee because maybe when I launch a business we’ll be able to help each other?
Ben: It all depends. So, no, I’m not going to do that for every single person and I don’t have time for that. I do have time for people I find intriguing and interesting. So I mean, I do coffee for lots of reasons. I do lots of coffees specifically with engineers because I want to at some point hopefully hire them or get to know them better. It’s easier to recruit somebody when you know them first. But you have to have like, you can’t just be like, I’m some dude and I want coffee. Like, usually, there has to be something impressive or interesting, like I was an ex-Googler and I built this thing or I did these other startups before, or I know your friend Jack, or something like that that peaks my interest and I’m like, OK, yeah, I remember you. We should go to coffee. And if they email later and it’s like, I’d love to meet up some time, maybe I’ll be like yes and put them on a scheduled meeting with them.
Andrew: What about this? I think Keith Rozzi said this, before a conference even starts, I emailed you and said, hey Ben, we’re both going to be at this conference, I’m going to invite a few, a small group of entrepreneurs for coffee and I’d like you to come and join us and then go and tell those other entrepreneurs, hey, I’ve got Ben Parr, we’re going to go have coffee, I’d like you to join us. Would that be interesting?
Ben: Usually, they don’t do coffee. Well, usually they put in the word, dinner.
Andrew: Yeah, what if it’s dinner or lunch instead?
Ben: Well, journalists don’t get paid all that much so journalists like that kind of thing, but that works sometimes especially if it’s someone you’ve built a relationship with before, like if some stranger says do you want to do a dinner or a lunch I’m going to look and see if they’re interesting or they have interesting people coming. But if it’s somebody I really trust or somebody I know already I’ll be like, yeah sure, we’ll find a way to do that. Or if you’re bringing somebody that I’ve wanted to meet for awhile or I recognize a name then yeah. But that’s how it works for most things. Like, I can’t go to every event. Like, now I have to just pick and choose which events are going to have the highest ROI for myself and for the startup.
Andrew: All right, so in the beginning you and Pete, and there are other writers, are working non-stop to get the content up there. You’re starting to make some realizations about how to improve what’s already there. What are some of those early realizations?
Ben: I think one of the biggest ones, and this is the biggest lesson I brought to the project my current startup, is that you have to train your users. And so, Mashable, one of the reasons it’s done so well is that we, the Senior Management, made a conscious decision to train our users on how and why to share. We trained them on how to Tweet, how to re-Tweet, why to re-Tweet, how to share a blog post, ten ways to share a blog post, why to share a blog post. You do this over and over again and eventually users learn and guess what they shared first? Mashable [??] and they started following Mashable content and it helped us grow from there. You have to train your users and you have to do it consistently and constantly and you have to train them exactly what behavior you want them to do.
Andrew: I see. So when you were doing all those how to Tweet and those of us in the tech world were going, who the hell needs to know how to Tweet, you just go figure it out for yourself. What you were doing was training your users and getting all those Tweets for yourself early on.
Andrew: What about growing? You told me before the interview started that hiring a key person in San Francisco helped. This was the second writer after you, right?
Ben: Yeah. So, it was me for a long time alone covering all of San Francisco as a reporter and editor. And I remember actually when Jolie O’Dell who’s now at VentureBeat, she was at Rewrite Web for a long time and then she left. And I saw that news and I immediately DM’d her and I’m like, Jolie, can we talk? And then I immediately called Pete and said, Pete, you need to call Jolie and now here’s her number. And we moved as quickly as we could from there to talk to Jolie and grab Jolie and make Jolie the next reporter for Mashable and then that made double the amount of coverage we could do in Silicon Valley. Then we had Jennifer Vangrow [SP] move up and the office now at Mashable, in San Francisco, I think is like six or eight now.
Andrew: Why was Jolie O’Dell so important? Why couldn’t you, why was she so important?
Ben: She was a well-known, she is still a well-known name in the technology news world and had built a great reputation for being a strong, hard-nosed writer. She did a great job of helping create content and tracking down stories and being an editor as well. She didn’t get enough credit for taking late nights to help edit and run Mashable when nobody else could.
Andrew: What about her connections and her reputation?
Ben: The reputation helped us bring other people in as well when they saw like Jolie, I’d like to work with Jolie, I’d like to work with Ben, I’d like to work with Pete. I mean, yes, she had a lot of connections too. Especially in the early days, the more connections you have the better stories you can get. She got stories from like Richard Stahlmann and all these, she focused a lot on development on these leaders in the DAV world and that really helped with just like getting unique stories and getting interviews and those are the things that establish you as unique among other publications.
Andrew: You and I talked at, this was a lunch party where we met, and I asked you about hiring writers eventually at Mixergy and can you tell the audience what was a good, how much of what you told me do you feel comfortable sharing about what good tech blogger can earn?
Ben: So, I mean it ranges. The thing is it ranges a lot. I mean you can be paid, it really depends on location that, you can be paid as little as 35, but you can be paid in the six digits if you’re really good. Or there’s been rumors of like seven digit deals, I remember the, like it was reported that Nick Bilton’s CNET stuff, when CNET tried to acquire Bilton. I don’t know whether those numbers are true or not, but I do know a lot of people were going after Bilton for a fair amount of money. Because when you build out that brand and you build out that reputation, you become a lot more valuable to a publication because you can bring in connections, you bring in readers, you bring credibility, all those things. It goes across a high scale although I will say your, on average, going to make a lot more money if you decide to work for Google or work for Facebook. It’s funny, I think a lot of journalist could make a lot more money if they went to the other side of the table or they decided to become consultants or even in PR they probably could make more money.
Andrew: And so, when I asked you, well can I buy my way towards hiring a few of the better writers, you said, moneys not enough. Well, what else is it that they’re looking for?
Ben: So, the best journalists are looking for a platform. They want to be able to have their voice heard, they want to be able to make an impact. It’s tough if you are a journalist at Tech Crunch and you’re making the same impact all the time and you’re getting approached all the time by all these amazing people and getting invited to these dinners. It’s really, really tough frankly to give that up. If you were to go in-house with a startup, you’re going to lose a lot of those connections because a lot of those people won’t want to talk to you because you don’t have anything to offer them. That’s something that’s tough for a lot of journalists to swallow, especially the ones that have gotten used to those perks.
Andrew: So how do you go from being just another blogger on a site that’s popular to being one of these marquis names that people look for, that if you move from site to site, your audience will follow you? I mean, I followed MG Seagle [SP], I went from Tech Crunch I followed him to his own Tumblr blog and I read that every day and I’ve done this with a few writers. How do you become someone like that? Someone who people follow.
Ben: One, you write great content. Two, you also have an opinion. Those people that you follow from place to place have opinions, they’re opinion leaders. They’re not afraid to voice what they think and what they believe and get into the muddy fray and pick up a fight. They are people who have thought about building up their brands. They’ve thought about making sure they respond to people on Twitter. It’s easy for people to follow them across social networks. Those are the types of people that stick into people’s minds and that’s why I like the Facebook journalist, Facebook picked a lot of people who they knew built their brands and thought about this stuff and they recognized and they were the ones they picked to get features and that’s why you see a lot of journalists with a 150,000 to 200,000 to 250,000 subscribers.
Andrew: What was the impact of acquiring Blip on Mashable?
Ben: So Blipper…
Andrew: Excuse me, I said Blipper, I Blip because my spell corrector changed it from Blipper to Blip, yes.
Ben: Blipper isn’t a well known, it’s not well known Mashable made that acquisition. I remember Mashable made that acquisition in ’09 not long after I became an Associate Editor. Blipper is a micro [??] site but that wasn’t really the benefit we got from the acquisition. The acquisition was acquiring talent, technical talent that helped build Mashable’s current features. Things like the Mashable Follow, the social layer in Mashable. Pete’s always had an eye for development and product and really wanted to make Mashable not just a publication but a place building great products and in order to do that you have to have talent. Acquiring Blipper acquired that talent.
Andrew: You know, before I ask you a follow-up question on that, I have to acknowledge the mistake I just made there by calling it Blip instead of Blipper, when you’re talking to someone, you need to be the authority, right? As the reporter, as the person who knows this space and is going to report on their story accurately. What do you do when you make a mistake like that, where you call the, you know in real like if I make a mistake and call someone by the wrong name or refer to their co-worker by the wrong name, ah, it’s one of those things that happen, you laugh it off and we move on. But what do you do when you’re the authority and you make a mistake like that?
Ben: It depends on the egregiousness of a mistake. I’ve had everything from like a small name change and you just make the quick name change and nobody, no harm done. To you post an update or correction, previous version of story said something, to issuing things like formal apologies. I mean, I can’t talk about some of the things, but I’ve had, like if you’re a journalist, you’re probably going to get like threats to be sued. That’s like happened to me several times. I remember when I got a story wrong on Facebook iPad app, my sources were wrong on it and I made an apology on my personal blog about getting it wrong and I didn’t have to do that but I wanted to do that because I thought it was the right thing to do.
Andrew: What’s the most painful one? The one where you look back and go, oh, such an idiot, how did I do that?
Ben: That’s a really good question. You first of all have to be able to block those things out very quickly, both as a journalist and as an entrepreneur, you’ve just got to block out the bad things and you got to keep pushing forward. I can’t talk about the details of one, but one results in a legal fight because I basically accused one company of doing something heinous when it was actually another related, a different company with a similar name. And that blew up pretty badly and that one, I was like, that one hurt. I remember also reporting this vastly incorrect story and I don’t even know why I did it or why I allowed it to happen but it hurt my credibility at least in my mind and I was just so apologetic for it.
Andrew: Can you talk about that second one?
Ben: It would, that one’s really bad.
Andrew: Go for it. Open up.
Ben: That one’s about rumors I had heard about Facebook potentially being acquired by Apple, which I’ve heard still all the time with rumors but I reported on it once and it was vastly wrong. And I don’t know why I picked up on that but the end result was that obviously it was not true and it just was embarrassing and I was totally embarrassed by that.
Andrew: Why does that matter? You still get the traffic, you still get people talking, does it even matter with Apple news if any of it is right or Apple rumors are right?
Ben: Oh, absolutely, it can hurt your credibility with both those organizations you reported vastly wrong stuff in. Great reporters, you get stories based on great relationships with these companies. When I was a journalist and was a journalist and wanted to be invited to their press events, if you’re reported wrong things you’re not going to get invited.
Andrew: I see. All right. So, back to the acquisition, why was Mashable Connect so important?
Ben: Mashable Connect and Mashable Follow, those are two different.
Andrew: Oh, excuse me, well what is the difference?
Ben: Mashable Connect is conference, Mashable Follow is the social layer.
Andrew: Oh, I see. OK, Mashable Follow is what I keep seeing on the right side of the page, it tells me to log in to talk to other people. Oh, because, I see, that’s the one, I take it back, where I get to follow the stories that I care about. Am I right, right?
Andrew: That’s the feature. So, I see now why it’s important. That’s a dopey question too. Now I’m now paying way too much attention to all my mistakes here. Can we edit this out? No, we don’t allow any editing, we go straight through.
Ben: People forgive and forget. That’s another thing. People forgive, as long as you’re contrite and you’re not an asshole.
Andrew: Actually, no, sometimes they remember that one little thing and it sticks with them forever and it’s an indication of, in their mind, everything that you represent and that can keep me, I know when I’m on camera and mic, I sometimes think, well, I start to hesitate. I start to get in my own head because of it. Do you ever get that way as a writer? No, you don’t, you just let her rip.
Ben: I have a very, very, very thick skin. You have to be especially if you become a high profile, if you become high profile in any way, shape or form because people are going to say things about you all the time. And I just like, I brush it off. I’ll internalize criticism but I’m going to keep pushing forward. I always do. I’m like, we’re going to keep pushing forward, we’re going to keep doing, I know we’re doing the right thing, we’re going to keep moving. You just have to like keep moving and let those things bounce off you. I don’t let it like cloud or affect my judgment. I just press the go button. That’s really it. I only have go or go faster.
Andrew: What was your goal as a writer? When you were writing at Mashable, where’d you say you were going to be, to yourself, where’d you say you were going to be afterwards?
Ben: The truth?
Ben: The truth is I was going to be an entrepreneur. The people don’t realize that I did product management before Mashable. I was a developer of Facebook apps before Mashable. I kind of just fell into Mashable, kind of randomly really.
Ben: I just applied to be a part-time writer when I was a product manager at a web health company and I hit Dig with my personal blog and I got two recommendations from friends that knew the editor and I got, you know, a job where I got paid a little bit for every story but they liked what I did so much that they offered me a job the day before I moved. I was, I had decided long, like I was in Chicago and I just got sick of it. I decided in like late ’08, I was just going to move and I was looking for product management jobs but then Mashable made me the offer and I’m like, OK, I’ll try this and see what happens. I would say three years later that that turned out pretty well.
Andrew: What have you been able to do as an entrepreneur now because you built up the reputation at Mashable?
Ben: I mean, there’s the network cannot be underestimated. The network is the most powerful thing. I have friends and I have access to venture capitalists to Angels to grants to CEO’s to all these people that most entrepreneurs would saw off their left foot to have access too.
Ben: But I was lucky enough to like build relationships with all these people and they know me because I wrote stories about them and chatted about them and being able to get invited and go to those events that most early entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to go to. It’s being able to have that reputation or following more so than when I launched something hopefully there will be a lot of press because I have those relationships and I have that name brand and it’s something that people care about. It’s all that and it’s also that I have all that experience in managing teams of writers. That’s something people don’t realize as well.
Andrew: You know what? I had something happen to me yesterday. I recorded an interview with the founder of Live Person and when we talked about his co-founders, you know people who, I guess they weren’t there at the beginning but they were essentially like co-founders, and he said eh, we parted ways pretty amicably and everything was good. I wanted to really push hard to say, no one parts ways that easily even with a designer who they’re not happy with but with someone who’s like a co-founder it’s not that easy and I wanted to push back on it but I also thought, hey, you know what, I like to maintain a friendship with this person so that we can keep doing interviews in the future so that we can keep working for my audience together in the future and I back off.
If I were also thinking, well, I’d like to invest in his next company, if I’d like him to invest in my next company that would really skew my coverage and my questioning with him. Is there an inherently, in this kind of issues, in tech reporting because guys go on to become venture capitalist and want to invest in the companies they invest in or launch businesses like you did and get funding?
Ben: I don’t think can really, you can’t make that part of the equation because you can’t know what someone is going to do next. You, it’s, that’s a tougher thing to say. Any time, like I said before, relationships really effect who gets funded or who gets covered, all those things. They make an effect but at the same time, as an investor, you have to make, you’re going to still do your financial duty and make sure that like this is actually a good investment. They can actually do this, they’re the right team to do this thing. It’s, I don’t think that it really comes into the equation as much as people might think. Not more than it normally does.
Andrew: I feel like friendships count more than anything else. And you’ve said this before, that people will back off of a story if it’s a friend, people will back off asking a sharp question if it’s a friend, I worry that I do that sometimes. So going back to becoming friends, who does it especially well? Have you come across someone who just clearly has a method, it’s not necessarily comes natural to him, but he clearly has a method of bringing people like Ben Parr into the fold and bringing other entrepreneurs in.
Ben: As like, oh…
Andrew: I want someone who’s structured because I can learn much more from structured people than I could from Neil Strauss, a past Mixergy guest, would call a natural. I want the structured relationship builders. You come across so many relationship builders, who are they and what’s the process that one of them has taken?
Ben: So, you have, well first of all you can’t have too much, you can have a framework but you can’t have a true structure because all relationships go in all these different directions.
Ben: You have to kind of go off on that, but I’m thinking, there’s been, who are the best relationship builders? Those are, that’s a very good question. I mean, there’s part of the reason why people like Ron Conway have done so well, because of their network. It’s crazy the introduction someone like a Conway can give you because it’s taken years to build up those relationships. People like, we saw like Peter Sam of Science Inc, is a great example.
Ben: Someone who’s incredibly well networked and that’s because he’s a personable guy. You have to just be personable and you have to be somebody who’s like happy to help people regardless of a situation because you never know where somebody’s going to be. And then there’s always like a few reporters, I would say like Nick Bilton’s a very good networker, Jim Lanzone of CBS is a good networker, great relationships person.
Andrew: What does Nick Bilton do that you admire about building relationships?
Ben: He’s just very good at being everywhere, I would say. Part of networking is that you just have to be there. You have to be in that room and make that connection and get their card and email them and say, ‘Let’s chat and do coffee sometime.’ That’s really the core of networking. You’ve got to follow up. People don’t realize, and I’ve trained some of the startup founders that I advise, you need to, there is a systematic, you need to meet them. You need to say something interesting that they’ll remember. You need to get their card. You need to follow up with them and say, ‘It was great. I’d love to get coffee some time.’ And then you need to make sure you do coffee with them at some point.
Andrew: It’s that straightforward?
Ben: Pretty much, yes.
Andrew: What do you admire about Peter Pham, the way that he does it?
Ben: He’s just a personable guy. I admire people who are personable. Being somebody, there’s just entrepreneurs who are very personable, very likeable guys. Like yesterday, I met up with Dennis Crowley. Dennis is one of the most personable entrepreneurs I know. He’s someone that is tough not to like. He’s somebody that you want to go out and have that beer with. That’s actually one of my rules for investors. They have to be somebody that Hilary, my cofounder, and I would get either a beer or tea with. You don’t want to work with assholes. There’s very, very few where you’d say, “I’d not be one of those”.
Andrew: Peter Pham’s a really good example, because I do believe that Peter is very structured. Maybe now it’s second nature to him, but I had him on as one of my first interviewees because we both were living in Southern California at the time, and the process that he described in that interview felt like it’s organized, it makes a lot of sense, and it could be followed even by people who are a little bit insecure who need something to just get them going. Who else that I was going to say? I was also, never mind. Let’s go onto the next big idea. There’s something about this. There’s something about people who do this well and spend a lot of time doing it that I really admire, but it’s also not something you talk about, right? No one sits down and says, “OK. Look, here’s…” Well, I guess you just did. I take it back, right? You advise your startups. You advise startups? What’s the relationship you have with them?
Ben: It’s the relationships a lot of advisors have with startups, a couple hours a month and help where I’m and expert and things like: introductions are always the major thing an advisor can give. As well as, I’ve helped some of my startups with how to launch a product with the press, PR help, product help because I’ve seen so many products and I have a UX background, so I understand user experience pretty damn well, all those different things. And I’m one of those people where I warn them before.
I’m very, very harsh when it comes to product reviews because I know what makes for a good product and what makes for a bad product. I’ve seen too many complex products and too few civil products. Like, I subscribe to the Jack Dorsey [SP] way of thinking, in terms of, great design isn’t can you add one more thing? It’s how do you remove everything that isn’t necessary. It’s also like Tumblr where, in order for you… at Tumblr, if you want to add a new feature, you have to subtract a feature and that makes you really think about: do you actually truly need this feature?
Andrew: What did you guys have to remove at Mashable that was especially tough?
Ben: Removing people is always the toughest thing.
Andrew: What about on the site?
Ben: I would say with Mashable, we had to focus on our audience first and then we had to expand slowly but surely from there. Mashable now is a whole bunch of different verticals, but it was tough to remove content on, like I care a lot more about insider content of this person moved to this company, but I had to remember that the general audience doesn’t. So I cannot write about that or I should not write about that. It was tough sometimes because I wanted to report on that, because maybe it was a friend, maybe it was whatever reason. That, I think, is like the biggest thing, where you omit a piece of content for the greater good of the publication; for the greater trend.
Andrew: What about one of the features on the site? I just realized that I still have a “dig” button, I still have a “read-it” button. No one is ever going to “read-it” my stuff and need the button to do it. I’ve got to go in and remove it. Anything like that from the product itself, that you guys had to remove, which was a tough one, a tough decision to make?
Ben: I think we realized there was lots of limited space. So when you go to a Mashable article you’ll see that there’s a priority. For example, on Stumbling things versus Digg. You have to prioritize where you put ads. It’s tough because Mashable has a good deal of advertising, but it could have put up a lot more.
Andrew: ‘It could have put up a lot more ads,’ you’re saying.
Ben: It could have put up a lot more. Mash was a bit of a busy site compared to maybe a straight product, because it’s about content. But there have been lots of potential ads removed, lots of features removed, where we could have maybe made a lot more money, but would have made the experience a lot worse.
Andrew: What was an especially tough feature to remove? You’re a product guy, what was one that you saw and thought, ‘I’m not sure we can do this,’ or
‘I’m not sure we should be doing this,’ and it ended up being right? Is there one that comes to mind?
Ben: There are lots of little things. How I see it, there’s always this large list of features that you want to have. I remember when we were launching the first version of the iPhone app, and there were all of these sharing features that we wanted, but at a certain point, you have to say ‘If we add this feature it’s going to take another three weeks to get to market.’ ‘Do you absolutely need it in order to get to market’? Usually, the answer is no. Usually, the answer is: you can just launch.
I’m trying to think if there was a very singular feature. I think Mashable Follow was probably the biggest thing. We could add StumbleUpon; we could add these things, but we were like ‘Let’s get the Facebook and Twitter out there, and then we can move on from there, and just launch the Facebook and Twitter.’
Andrew: Business Insider wrote an article about Mashable where it analyzed why Mashable does so well on Twitter and social networks. Here’s the key quote: ‘Unlike most media which may produce bigger news stories for more immediate pop, Mashable writes news stories, and stories that live 200 days or longer on Twitter.’ How do you write a story that lives 200 days or longer on Twitter?
Ben: You write a guide like “The Complete Guide to Google+” which was one of my most popular articles. That’s something you can use, whether it’s the first week of Google+, or a year later. That’s evergreen content. Mashable has an entire division for ‘featured in evergreen’ content, for insights into how to better use [??]. Something that is useful no matter when you read it. Or like I said, how to Tweet, or how to share, or things like that. That’s the kind of content I still see people share hundreds of days later. I still see some old articles like “How to Use Social Media to Travel”, which is something I wrote in ’09. I still get re-shared because it’s still relevant.
Andrew: We talked before the interview about some key stories, like the Ashton Kutcher And CNN Race. You said that was a key story. Why was that a key story?
Ben: That brought a lot of attention to Mashable and social media in general as a rising trend. We take social media for granted now, but in the early days it was like ‘Why should we care about it’? The Ashton Kutcher story was a prime example of how social media was changing both entertainment and news. That was the perfect story for Mashable. People came to us to find out about this race and what was happening. We had pictures and everything. A lot of us got interviewed about it because we were talking about it so much.
On a random side-note, I even remember my first story on Mashable; I made the argument ‘Why social media jobs are here to stay.’ I can’t believe I even had to make that argument, but Gawker actually wrote a counter-article saying I was wrong. I’m still proud to say I proved myself right with that article.
Andrew: What’s another key story?
Ben: The Iran Election was definitely another key set of stories. When the Iran Election crisis happened and there were stories about how Twitter and Facebook were being used by the Iranian people. That was something we covered strong and covered the aspects like that famous YouTube video with the woman that was killed on camera in Iran and those kind of things.
It was a display of the true power of social media and how it has the potential to change the course of a country. I think the follow-up, when it happened with the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolution, just proved that social media can change governments. When you realize that, you’re like ‘I really need to follow what’s happening in the social media space.’ And Mashable became that authority in social media. It really helped with Nationals Brand creditability and helped shed light on how important social media was as an industry, as a technology.
Andrew: You guys did become the voice of social media. There was a time when you guys were about covering the web startup, it was a time when you became about covering the industry but once you started taking on social media, you became the voice for it. You were arguing in public both on your website and in the media and it also helped you grow because, as you said earlier, by teaching people, you were helping them take on your social media cause and promote you using media. Were you ever at a point where you said, “Who cares about Twitter, I want to talk to about the latest battery and how it last and how could change technology. I want to talk about more stuff that my friends care about.”
Ben: I guess in technology, my friends cared about social media, so that wasn’t so much of an issue but one of the nice about [?], we covered that stuff. We covered a lot of that stuff too. I wanted to talk about the private space race. It was actually something that our audience was interested in, so I got a chance to write about that more. Sometimes, yes, some of the social media were like, “Why are we talking about this?” Why are we talking about Olivia Munn getting a part in “Iron Man 2″? I remember that one very clearly, in my head; it’s one I didn’t want to do. But audiences care about that. As a publication, you have to write for you audience and what they want to read.
Andrew: A lot of companies have blogs, of course. What advice do you have for a startup who is blogging and today, feeling like, what the hell is the point is the point of blogging, we’ve all moved past it.
Ben: Go to look at Mints blog. Mint is one of the most successful content marketing operations ever. They wrote not about their startup nut they wrote about how people can better financial decisions and financials tools and financial trends. People shared that veraciously and they did well that and that really spread the message that Mint was about financial security and financial assistance. That is how you do a blog for a startup. You talk about those things and you provide additional values that aren’t marketing. You will gain an audience and people care and people appreciate it and people tell their friends and people will tell their friends to use their service. It helps incredibly with branding.
Andrew: What other advice do you have for entrepreneurs, having seen them from the other side and seeing so many of them? Like what if you. . . I’m sorry, go ahead.
Ben: No, I was going to say, there are always a common set of mistakes that entrepreneurs typically make. They boil down to a few. Simplistic is probably the first one that comes to mind. What happens with a lot of companies is they hear . . . if you say in a focus group, “I’d love to have this feature. I’d love it if it did this.” and then, they say, “Oh, we should build that, we should build that, we should build that.” You just really, fully know what the hell they want. It the Steve Jobs thing, they want things, they don’t realize that when you add too many things, its tough to understand what, the user phone users and users just leave.
You have to be one, very clear, like, user flow, these are the feature sets that we are giving you and you don’t have to thing to hard about which feature or which things to do. When you give people a 100, you just confuse them. If you give them three options, it’s easier for them to understand. It’s the same thing with an iPhone; there are only a few versions of the iPhone for a reason.
Andrew: What about this, Eric Reese came on here and talked about the danger of operating in startup mode and by not showing your stuff to the public, you’re not getting crucial feedback and you end up having a group thing, internally. I was surprised that your company, The Peep Project, is in stealth mode. Why?
Ben: There a couple of reasons. One is, whatever product we show is going to get a lot of scrutiny. Because of my reputation, we need to make sure that whatever we launch is not a half hazard product. We will launch as quickly as we can. Promise you that. But it’s something that can stand up to that scrutiny. The other thing is, even if you say [?] that doesn’t mean you can’t do lots of testing without launching the core product. We launch private experiments, all the time.
People just don’t realize that we just don’t put our branding on it. You could probably find some of the products and surveys and experiments that we launched on the web and you wouldn’t even know it was us. We’re trying to gather data, all the time, on user behavior, how they consume content, why they consume content. On how they behave. What kind of UIs they want. Launch experiments as often as you can. You can get that information.
Andrew: What kind of experiments do you run when you’re in stealth mode? I think that’s something else that we can all learn.
Ben: Well I can’t tell you exactly which experiments, because that would give away a little bit of exactly what we’re doing.
Andrew: But are you buying ad words and throwing them again? No? Are you doing Mechanical Turk and seeing how people respond?
Andrew: What kind of tests can you do in stealth mode, without being explicit about what you’re doing?
Ben: We come up with a thesis, say like: I wonder if this is true or if this is true.
Ben: Figure out what kind of thing you have to build, or what kind of survey you have to create, in order to answer that question. And then have a few trusted friends go spread that around. And that’s it.
Andrew: They just spread the survey or spread the simple product around?
Andrew: I see. So when you ask your friends to spread something around about your business, you’re telling them what it’s about and then they have an incentive to go and tell a reporter, don’t they?
Ben: No, because they’re my friends and my friendship is more important to them than blabbing to a reporter. The other nice thing is a lot of, especially technology reporters, realize: when in doubt, this is actually one that MG wrote about, when in doubt defer to the entrepreneur, because it’s not the same getting a scoop from a little small entrepreneur than it is getting a scoop on Google. Google can handle you scooping them. Small startup, that could ruin them, and it’s not something any journalist wants to have on their hands.
Andrew: It can ruin them and it also doesn’t end up going as far as you’d expect it to go, with most small startups. True?
Ben: Yeah, true. It doesn’t matter which startup. Most of the time, a lot of people, in this entire industry, have such a deference to entrepreneurs for good reason, because they’re putting their heart and soul into changing the world. I’m always humbled by how much help a lot of people are willing to give when you are building a startup and you want to change the world.
Andrew: Let me just do a quick plug here. For anyone who is watching this and is a premium member, I suggest as a follow-up to this, you take Annabelle Candy’s [SP] course on how to be a, it’s a Mixergy course available on mixergypremium.com, on how to guest blog. When I got started, by the way Ben, I don’t know if you know this, I didn’t have a big enough audience to recruit big names to do interviews. Or maybe, I was self-conscious about the size of my audience and didn’t think I could.
But in order to get big interviews with guys like Seth Godin, I think even with Tim Ferriss, I would email them and say, “The interview will go on my site, but I will also write the five big lessons that I learned for you and I’ll put it up on Mashable. And I will also clip the key ideas and put them up on Mashable.” Pete let me do it and Adam let me to it. And it was a huge help for me to get started and, of course, the Google juice was nice, coming in from Mashable. And the relationship with Mashable, the feedback they gave me, about how to write, because they kept wanting me to rewrite my stuff, helped me become a better writer.
Anyway, Annabelle Candy of successfulblogging.com came to Mixergy and she taught how to be a guest blogger, how to get those guest blogging opportunities. It’s available on mixergypremium.com. And if you want to blog for your website, Laura Roder [SP] did a great course on how to do that, including what to write about and that one has been really popular. We gave that away for a couple of days, and people who took that course said, ‘If everything on your site is that good, then I’m going to sign up.’ We ended up getting a lot of registrations on mixergypremium.com, which if you’re a member, all this is a part of it, if you’re not, I hope you join. What was it like to get fired from this place where you worked so hard, where your reputation was made?
Ben: There’s a lot of back story to it and I’m not going to go into all of it. What I will say is that I personally have no hard feelings and, on the other side, I don’t think there’s hard feelings either. It’s just that in the end, it’s all business. The individual is never bigger than the brand. You see that with Bobby Petrino getting fired from Arkansas this week. No matter what you do, you are never bigger than the brand. So the brand has to do whatever it feels is right and better for us. In the big scheme of things, I always wanted to go back into entrepreneurship. To me, it was a relief and an opportunity because I wanted to do startups and I had wanted to go back a while. I even told them in the very beginning that I would leave at some point to do a startup. So for me, it was a relief and I got to start building something I could say was my own thing. There’s a difference, a huge difference, between being an early employee and being a founder. There’s a massive difference.
Andrew: What’s the most painful difference that you’re feeling now?
Ben: Entrepreneurship is such an emotional high and emotional low and I didn’t really realize it fully, how emotionally difficult it is and how emotionally draining it can be, until you get into it.
Andrew: Where did you get that low? I feel that, too. That we don’t talk enough about it. We’re all trying to build something as big and at the same time, feeling the most miserable pain ever.
What was one of your recent lows?
Ben: I mean, I’m trying to see how much I can talk about it. I will say this, we had an original product and we had to scrap it. After user testing. That was a miserable, miserable low. Then we came up with a different product and it has faired so much better in testing and in investors and in research and everything else. That was a much higher high. But you’re going to have to fail at least once, hundreds of times, I should say, as an entrepreneur. It’s when you realize you put all this effort and it’s not going to come into fruition into a billion dollar product, that’s painful.
Andrew: Well, thanks for doing this interview. I’m looking forward to seeing the website when it launches. Where do we found out about, where should we send people to get on the waiting list for the peep project?
Ben: So the waiting list for the peep project is at thepeepproject.com. You can also follow twitter/thepeepproject and you can also follow my blog in My Accounts because I’m definitely going to be announcing it when it’s time so @BenParr, Ben Parr in Facebook and twitter, Google plus or whichever social network you prefer.
Andrew: Of course, every social network out there. Ben Parr, thanks for doing this interview.
Ben: Thank you and good luck to everybody.
Andrew: Thank you all for watching. Bye. All right. Cool man. How do you feel it went?
Ben: Went pretty well. I hope you got everything you needed.
Andrew: I did. Any feedback for me? I admire the hell out of the way that you think about this space.
Ben: No. I mean, the only thing that’s like my, I’ll tell you the question I always end with at panels, is always like a piece of advice for the audience, that’s how I always like to end it actually.
I always like to give a piece of advice because I always like to make it never about me. It’s always in the end, like what kind of wisdom can you take away to make your life better as an entrepreneur or something, because these interviews are really not about you or me or the person you’re interviewing. It’s always about that person trying to absorb that information so, I like just getting directed…
Andrew: I tell you what. We’re still recording. I can ask Joe to keep this in the interview, complete with me saying goodbye, then you coming back and with this. So what is it? What’s your piece of advice for the audience?
Ben: I’ll focus on the entrepreneurs. OK. You need to gather as much data as you can and you need to gather as much data as you can in order to make the best decisions as quickly as possible.
You need to look at it as a story. You need to be able to say, you need to be able to see these trends and say, ‘That my gut says that’s the direction things are going and this is what we have too do”.
Entrepreneurship is part data, part gut, right? You have a thesis and you need to test it out and you are never going to get pure answers, never going to be fully correct or incorrect. You just need to look at the data and then you need to make a gut decision as quickly as you can. So, if I said anything, look at data, make quick decisions.
Andrew: All right, and you talked about how you did it. You look at data and as a result of that data, you had to decide you have to kill one of your first projects and re-launch. Painful. I’m looking forward to having you back on here to hear about what that decision was and how you did the research that helped you launch and then what happens after that. All right. Thanks, Ben. Thank you, all. Bye.
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