PR Lies Destroy Your Understanding of How Business Really Works. – With Owen Byrne

You know that much of what you learned about how businesses were built is bull, right? It’s a collection of anecdotes created by PR people whose job is to promote their clients–not to give us an honest business education.

To help get at the truth, I invited Owen Byrne, the man who built the original Digg site, to talk candidly about how that great success story was built. Owen shattered some myths, but I think the account he gave us is even more inspiring, because it’ll leave you with a more practical understanding of how to build your startup.

Video Excerpt



About Owen Byrne

Owen Byrne

Owen built the original Digg site, and until the company’s series A funding, he was its primary technical decision maker. He’s currently Senior Manager at Travelpod Labs, a Tripadvisor company.

Text Excerpts: Myths We Discussed

Myth 1: Outsourcing you whole business is easy and cheap

Owen said: The PR story is that Kevin Rose found me on (outsourcing site) elance, hired me for $10 an hour and paid me either $200 or $1000–depending on who you believe. The actual story is that it was a larger amount and there was equity involved. The PR agency made it up because they tried to craft a story that will capture the public’s attention. A 4o-something programmer is something they probably wanted to downplay.

Andrew’s note: Entrepreneurs keep telling each other this lie as a way of saying how fast and cheap a business could be built by some stranger on elance. If you’re foolish enough to believe this nonsense (and I admittedly was) you start to wonder why your developers are sluggish and expensive.

Myth 2: All innovation comes from users now

Owen said: In the early days, I’d tell Kevin “That idea sucks” and he’d defend it. Or I’d tell him “That’s a good idea. I could probably do it really quickly.” Or “It might work this way with a slight change.”

Andrew’s note: If you listen to this interview, you’ll hear over and over the power of founders’ vision.

Myth 3: Everyone is treated the same in companies

Owen said: There’s one clause that I might have insisted on in my agreement: liquidation preferences.

Andrew’s note: This came up when listeners at the live program pointed out that Kevin Rose was able to sell some of his shares in Digg, but Owen wasn’t able to.

Myth 4: Internet startups are run by the young and photogenic

Owen said: It’s a bit of a myth that it’s all young coders. There actually lots of people in their late 30s and their 40s. I’ve been a programmer for 25 years and I’ve actually worked hard to keep up with new technology.

The full program includes

  • The inspiring story of how Digg was built.
  • More business myths dispelled.
  • Respect for the coders who built up internet companies.

[Thank you Andrew Tunnell-Jones for suggesting this interview. Thank you Thomas Hawk for the picture of Owen.]

Suggestions for your comments

  • What other myths are there in business?
  • What do you think of Owen’s story?
  • Did you feel we got the whole truth here?
  • Was the video excerpt helpful?

Get the full program

Like audio? “Right click” to get the MP3

Share

  • http://www.pixelnewsapp.com/ Jose Maria

    Interesting interview Andrew. This time I didn't learn that much specific tactics to build a great startup, but it is interesting to know the real story behind Digg and Kevin Rose. It would be cool if you could interview him to know his version of this story. It really looks like Owen doesn't like Jay Adelson at all. I also think that if Owen had belived more in Digg and had taken more risks, thigs probably would´ve been different for him.

  • http://kshuk.com alexhoule

    I'd love to hear Jay Adelson's version of the story…

    I really enjoy hearing the developer's point of view. I agree with you, that guy needs more credit for Digg.

    By the way, my name is pronounced “Hoole” not “Owl” haha
    It was fun to watch live, can't wait for the next one.

  • http://www.gotorque.com George

    needless to say, great interview. i like the part where you referred to charlie rose not having to put up with live questions during the interview.

  • http://how2livelife.blogspot.com NewWorldOrder

    Nice interview.

    You can hear Jay Adelson tell the Digg story here: http://www.venturevoice.com/2006/08/jay_adelson

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks. ;-)

    Having live viewers is helpful because they feed me info and help me ask
    questions.

    But it's a lot of work to manage the live feed, plus read the chat, plus
    take notes for the post-interview post.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I heard that interview with Jay when it came out. I could have sworn that he
    said Digg's people communicated by Skype in the old days. That's why I
    assumed in the interview that Owen did.

    Thanks.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I need a pronunciation guide when I read those tweets. Sorry.

    And I'd love to have Jay on. If anyone reading this knows him, make the
    introduction. Otherwise, I'll have to reach out directly at some point, like
    I did with Owen.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    He did say that Kevin took all the risks. And I pushed to see if he was
    upset about not getting more shares. He said his only gripe was the
    liquidation preferences. Is that something you get because you take risks or
    because you have advisers who clue you in to its value?

    Your point about not getting enough specific useful value is one I'll have
    to think about. I think I might have to break these interviews into two
    categories: One kind of interview teaches specific techniques. The other
    will be “tales of entrepreneurship,” where the lesson isn't as
    straightforward, but maybe more valuable.

    Glad you told me!

  • http://kshuk.com alexhoule

    That could get complicated haha

    I think you need some kind of intern…

  • http://news.ycombinator.com/ hn

    Why do you think developers get the short end of the stick. Considering that these websites wouldn't exist without the technology, aren't they important?

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    If only Mechanical Turk could do this work for me.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Unlike the movies, there are no closing credits in business.

    I don't have a problem with people not getting credit, but…

    … I don't want to learn bad data about business. I want to learn the truth
    so it can help me build my business. (And I accept that the burden of
    hunting down the truth is on *me* not some PR company.)

    … It helps to have good advisers to protect your interests. I saw in the
    chat room how many people were upset that Owen wasn't given the same
    benefits as others in the company.

  • Joshua K

    I think I lost a little respect for Kevin after this interview. Of course there are always 2 sides to every story but there were a couple of statements that Owen said that really stood out to me. Owen said that he really got annoyed that there became more and more layers of “management” between him and Kevin. Owen then later commented about how “others” joined the Digg team that didn't give Owen the credit and sort of pushed him out. I really look at that in 2 major ways. Either VC funding creates such a burden on the founders that they have to sacrifice their values and the way they treat their employees just because of the money from the VCs. I also look to Kevin to be the one that should be “in control” of how the employees are being viewed. I really think Kevin should have held Owen in higher respect which would have in turn demanded that the “others” that joined the Digg team treat Owen as a co-founder. I can't speak of Kevin's actions too much because I wasn't there, but when Owen spoke of those few things his response definitely had emotion attached to them. I definitely feel that as a founder and leader of a company you need to give credit where credit is due and make sure your employees feel validated. It seems even tech companies like Digg become “corporate” at some levels at the expense of putting $$$$ over humanity!

    Andrew – great interview! The only thing I wished you expounded on was the infrastructure/languages aspect of Digg and Owens opinions. Any time you interview a coder I would love to know what they used in the past and what they use currently to quickly weigh in on hot topics like PHP vs RoR vs Java vs .NET. Also I would have loved to know Owen's take on “coding in the cloud” and what he thinks about Slicehost, Amazon Web services, etc. I think the perspective of a coder's opinion on what infrastructure/languages they use and why is invaluable for entrepreneurs to know when trying to build a web startup.

  • Mike Smith

    I really enjoyed the interview. I think this is the first time I've come across your site (got here from Hacker News). I'll definitely be coming back for more interviews.

    I'm a developer too, and so I liked hearing what Owen had to share about his equity and compensation. You mentioned that it helps to have good advisers to protect your interests. Do you have any thoughts on how to go about finding trustworthy and clueful advisors?

  • http://clovercontent.com donniefitz2

    Always good stuff from Andrew. I can't think of anyone more suited for the role of interviewer of entrepreneurs. He is always thorough and asks questions I would have never though to ask. Great depth and helpful information always.

  • http://www.pixelnewsapp.com/ Jose Maria

    You are right, it seems that what really upsets him are the liquidation preferences. That has nothing to do with risk.

    This interview has great value and very good lessons to learn on how to care about your employees and how to manage equity issues when starting a company. But I feel like this time you didn't push that much on how they grew the business step by step, specific things they did,etc. I would've love to hear more about the key factors that made Digg successful:

    - Focusing on the “techie” public
    - Building specific features to incentive virality
    - Building features to incentive competition among diggers to be a top digger
    - Etc..

    I'm sure you will ask this kind of questions to Jay Adelson when you interview him ;)

  • Chris Heath

    Great intrerview, inspires me to actually work on my startup idea rather than stare at the design some more.

    Downloading more interviews now

    Chris

  • FPCat

    You really shouldn't have kept harping on “Kevin getting all the girls”, you kind of come off looking shallow. Owen seemed uncomfortable every time you mentioned it.

    Also, you seem to try to equate Owens role with Kevins in Digg. Sure, he undoubtedly had influence on the early site, but even he admits that Kevin took all the risk. If Digg had failed, Kevins savings would have been gone, but Owen would have been in the same position he was pre Digg. It sounds like he got a pretty decent share of the company for an early employee who didn't take any risk/

  • Matt

    I'm surprised this interview hasn't been dugg up on digg yet!

  • http://www.garlin.org Garlin Gilchrist II

    The “luck as probability” comment remind me of a quote by Michael Jordan:

    “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”

  • J Alabi

    @ Garlin: supposedly Wayne Gretzsky also said “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take”. Been trying to find out who quoted from whom but no luck so far.

    Andrew, this is the first time I've been to Mixergy, and this is a very valuable interview. I hope you get the chance to interview Jawid Karim, one of the three co-founders of YouTube, and get his take on how he was stiffed when it came to all the attention being focused on fellow co-founder pretty-boy Chad Hurley, and on co-founder Steve Chen (even Oprah Winfrey made absolutely no mention of him when she did interviewed the YouTube guys during the launch of her channel).

  • Fish

    I don't think “getting all the girls” has much to do with his founder status at digg anyway.

    It's more about him getting fame from his television work and later the widely circulated “the broken” videos and later the diggnation podcasts.

  • http://justinthiele.com/ Justin Thiele

    I definitely agree with FPCat. Kevin was leading the vision of digg, had the original idea, was paying Owen an hourly rate, taking all the risk, etc. It seems like Owen was compensated fairly. I'm actually pretty surprised to hear he still has about 5% of the company. That's a pretty sizable chunk at this point. I do understand that he's not happy with his liquidity, however.

    Good interview, I've seen Kevin & Jay both talk about the early days of digg but never Owen. Interesting to get another side of the story.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks Joshua.

    Owen handled some tough issues with tactfully.

    I don't know enough about the tech to ask those smart question. I wish I
    could get a developer on the phone when I interview a developer. Or at least
    have more in the audience.

    If you have a standard question that I could ask developers, let me know and
    I'll keep it handy. I want to ask smarter questions. I'm anxious to keep
    growing as an interviewer.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks.

    Here's the rub on advisers. While you're busy working, there's some
    schmoozer having a drink with potential advisers. If you & the schmoozer end
    up working together, he'll get the good business advise and you'll get to
    keep working.

    My recommendation is that you email some top business people in our space.
    Tell them that if they'll spend a few minutes giving you advice on a
    business issue, you'll reciprocate by helping by giving them your input on
    any tech questions they have.

    They'll appreciate the outside input. And I bet you'll benefit from helping
    them think through their issue.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks. I really feel like I'm doing what I was put on earth to do.

    I still need to get better, so whenever you have any advice, please send it.
    Love to keep hearing from you.

    My goal is to know you for the rest of your like Don. I have no exit
    strategy on this mission.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Now you got my curiosity all fired up Jose.

    I'm going to see if I can get Sarah Lacy to introduce me to Jay so I can
    interview him.

    But getting the inside info might be hard since he's still working there and
    Digg is a work in progress. The details seem to come out only after someone
    moves on.

    I'll try Jose. Like I said, you got me wound up.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    So you're in “staring at the design mode.” Hmmm.

    Would this Kiva.org interview help? Or are you pas this already?

    http://mixergy.com/just-launch/

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Girls issue: I was trying to spice up the interview a bit, but it may not
    have come off. Fair point.

    Kevin's shares: Every time I even suggested that he should have anywhere
    near as many shares as Kevin, Owen said “no.” I hope that gave you a sense
    of who Owen is and where he comes from on this issue. Basically, he agrees
    with you. (And you make a good point here too. Kevin took a big risk, like
    you said.)

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Let's see what Mr. Baby Man thinks of Digging this story about Digg's first
    developer. Owen does give a lot of insight into Digg. I wonder if I
    presented it in a diggable way.

    I'm CCing Mr. Baby Man on this note.

    Good suggestion Matt.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    J–

    I just spent 2 hours responding to every single comment on Mixergy–and if I
    got nothing out of it but your suggestion it's worth it!

    This is why I have comments. Guidance from people like you is why my
    interviews get better and why I'm not interviewing the same 5 people every
    week!

    Thanks.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    The most successful online entrepreneurs keep trying new ideas.

    I wonder if Kevin got discouraged or felt like a failure after the previous
    ideas didn't pan out. It could't have been easy to keep going.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    That's something else I learned in this interview.

    I didn't realize Diggnation was such a help.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Owen says he has less than 5% of the company. He's not holding a grudge.
    Still, he wasn't as well advised on shares as others were. Now he's here to
    teach you.

    When someone reading this benefits from Owen's experience, I hope they'll
    let him know.

  • http://www.yappler.com/ Michael Khalili

    You have a typo TIS “It might work tis way with a slight change.”

  • jon

    There are tons of typos in Andrew's comments. It doesn't look so good.

    Presentation matters.

    Cheers!

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Thanks Michael. I fixed it. Glad you have those eagle eyes.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    I'm going to intentionally let the typos in the comments go for now, as much
    as it hurts me to know they're there.

    My focus needs to be on improving the value of the interviews. Until those
    interviews are so good that you're practically walking on air after hearing
    them or reading about them, I can't allow anything else to distract me.

  • jon

    Andrew,

    There are also typos on the main pages, not just the comments. You can hire a virtual assistant in the Philippines to go through the website and clean it up. You'll look more professional with no typos.

    You have great content, but typos make it look amateurish and reduce the impact.

    Spell check is easy for some things, and then you need to also review for the difference between “there”, “their”, and “they're”, “where”, “were”, and “we're”, etc.

    Show you care about the details of your spelling, and people trust you to care about the details of the info.

    Would you buy a suit from a man sloppily dressed?

    I’m not trying to be snarky, but just giving some friendly suggestions/feedback.

    _

  • http://www.ventnation.com/ Alex

    After I first heard how digg started, I to went on elance to try and find a programmer for around $300, $400 bucks, I had no luck.lol After that point i knew Kevin Rose had to have paid a lot more then what the media was claiming. Its nice to finally get the real answer.

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Jon, I'm not sure how I didn't see this comment and respond to it sooner.
    Sorry.

    You're right about the spelling errors. I'll put a post up on guru.com and
    see if I can hire someone.

  • http://twitter.com/cojadate Nicolas Holzapfel

    That was a really great interview, full of insights in the reality of being a start-up. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on this site — is it possible to get the audo-only versions as a podcast?

  • http://mixergy.com AndrewWarner

    Not yet, but I'll add it soon.

  • http://www.smartsellingtools.com/ Nancy Nardin

    Hi Andrew – I love your site. Very inspirational, but not JUST inspirational. I don't know how you manage to get the real stories, but you do and you have figured out that the real stories hold the most value.

    I have one suggestion for the site… move your “suggested comments” section below the video just before the “add new comment” box. I plan to add your idea of suggesting topics for comments. Its a good way to start the conversation.

    Keep up the great work. You're making a difference.

    Nancy Nardin
    http://www.smartsellingtools.com

  • NotABear

    Very interesting interview. Good to know that it is still possible to get a good developer from a site like eLance and make a vision reality.

    I would be interested in finding out how much he estimates the first version of Digg cost…

  • NotABear

    Very interesting interview. Good to know that it is still possible to get a good developer from a site like eLance and make a vision reality.

    I would be interested in finding out how much he estimates the first version of Digg cost…

  • Pingback: Quora

  • Pingback: Should I Outsource My Startup Development To A Middleman Website Like ODesk? | Social Matchbox

  • Pingback: What are some examples of tech companies that were started by non-technical founders? - Quora