Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

When Two Apps Are Simpler Than One

If there’s one entrepreneurial mantra that Steve Jobs taught us, it’s this: Simplify! Complex products fail. The complex MySpace lost to the simple Facebook. The simplicity of Snapchat, Instagram and Dropbox transformed them into world-class products. Tumblr famously cut a feature when it added a new one, always keeping the interface clean as hell. Foursquare, in its current iteration, isn’t simple. It has multiple functions. Is it a social check-in app? Is it a restaurant search app? Is it a location discovery app? Frankly, I didn’t know, and it turned me off from using it as much as I could have. I haven’t used its discovery features as much as I should have. I keep being told its discovery mechanisms are amazing. That’s why I love the move Dennis Crowley and the Foursquare team made yesterday. They split Foursquare into two apps: Foursquare and Swarm. Foursquare is the discovery portion, while Swarm focuses entirely on the social check-in aspect. It even has a feature I’ve wanted for a while, which is the ability to check into a general location, like a neighborhood. More importantly though, Foursquare’s core app is now all about local discovery and search. It won’t be hindered by the complexities of having users go through two, three or even four different flows. It makes Foursquare more directly competitive with Yelp. And while I have lots of great friends at Yelp, and I quite love the product and how useful it’s been in my life, competition is always a good thing for sparking new innovation. Splitting the apps into two makes the user experience far simpler for both sets of users. I suspect Silicon Valley will quickly be swarming, while Foursquare will make faster inroads in cities and with local businesses. If Swarm succeeds, Foursquare can spin it off or set up two teams. If it fails, it won’t kill Foursquare. Sometimes simplifying means taking out lots of features. And sometimes two apps are simpler than one.
P.S. — While we are at it, can I just say I love how The Verge tells stories? It’s absolutely one of my favorite news sites. Screenshot via The Verge.

Announcing “Captivology”, My Book on the Science of Attention (HarperCollins/2015)

Dear friends, family, colleagues, and supporters, I’m thrilled to announce my first non-fiction book, working title “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention“, due in early 2015 from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. I hope you will sign up for updates on Captivology through my book’s website. You can follow @Captivology on Twitter or like Captivology on Facebook. You can also follow @BenParr for regular updates. And finally, here’s a link for sharing this announcement. Or you can just click this lovely button for updates:
Captivology is about the science and psychology of attention; why we pay attention to certain people, products, companies and ideas; and how to capture, maintain and grow attention. My book pairs the research of the world’s greatest scientists and psychologists in attention theory with the stories from the world’s Masters of Attention. The book dives into topics such as:
  • The role scarcity and working memory play on our attention.
  • How Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto created one of the world’s most iconic characters.
  • The power that framing and salience have in directing our attention.
  • The secret sauce of disruptive campaigns and viral products.
  • Sheryl Sandberg on the power of motivation when it comes to capturing attention.
During the course of my research, I have had the opportunity to interview more than 50 scientists, researchers, experts and Masters of Attention. I’m grateful to thought leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Dr. Alan Baddeley (leading researcher in working memory), Steven Soderbergh (famed director), Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit), Dr. Michael Posner (leading cognitive psychologist), Jeff Weiner (CEO, LinkedIn), Adrian Grenier (actor, producer and director), Dr. Eli Finkel (expert on attraction), Grant Imahara (Discovery’s Mythbusters), Susan Cain (NYT bestselling author, Quiet), Jon Armstrong (Magician, Chairman of the Academy of Magical Arts), Dr. John Sweller (leading expert on cognitive load), Alexia Tsostis (Co-Editor, TechCrunch), Shigeru Miyamoto (Nintendo), Josh Elman (Partner, Greylock), Dr. Dietram Scheufele (Expert on Communications, Framing), Michael Stevens (creator, Vsauce), and many more who have taken time our of their days to chat with me for this book.
Above: A screenshot from my interview with Adrian Grenier and Dr. Thomas De Zengotita. A special thanks to NASDAQ for letting me use their studios for the interview.
If you have suggestions for my book, please email me at ben@captivology.com with your ideas! I’m especially looking for interesting people to interview and unique stories about how you or somebody you know captured the attention of an individual, an audience or the entire world. A major reason we’re announcing the book now is to gather great stories for the book that I might have otherwise missed. I hope to complete this research-heavy book in the next few months, so please forgive me if I’m much slower than usual responding to your emails, texts and tweets until then.

A Few Other Announcements

I’m working on Captivology on top of my day job as Co-founder and Managing Partner of DominateFund, the early-stage venture capital firm I started last year with Matt Schlicht and Mazy Kazerooni. We’ve expanded the fund from its original focus on connecting Hollywood with tech, though that is still a component of what we do. Our focus now is on helping startups capture attention for their products and accelerate their growth through our expertise in five key areas: Strategic Celebrity Partnerships, Press, Marketing, Customer and User Acquisition, and Building Viral Products. The fund is the reason I decided to write this book. We will be making more announcements about DominateFund in the near future, including several new additions to our team and updates on our amazing portfolio companies. Because I had all of this on my plate, CNET and I decided to retire The Social Analyst, my column at CNET, last year. I want to thank CNET, and especially Jim Lanzone, Mark Larkin and Jim Kerstetter, for being so supportive of me and my column, for being amazing bosses, and for putting up with me and my hectic schedule. I won’t be bringing The Social Analyst back. At least, not in its current form. The column, which I started at Mashable in 2009, has been my place to opine on the most pertinent issues in tech. CNET was kind enough to let me continue my column. I will eventually be back writing columns and thought pieces on a regular basis, but ones that are about more than just technology. There is a mountain of research from my book I want to discuss and advice I want to dispense for every entrepreneur who struggles to get the attention of users or artist who wants to be heard. I also have a lot of other insights in media, entrepreneurship, investing and science I hope to eventually share. One final announcement — I’m proud to announce that I have signed with the Worldwide Speakers Group, which now represents me for all my speaking engagements. You can check out my speaking topics or book me by sending a message to Keith Lambert at KLambert@wwsg.com or calling WWSG at 703-373-9806. I primarily speak about attention, attention for brands, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. I want to thank a few people right now for all of their help the last few months. Thank you to everybody I’ve interviewed for the book so far. A special thanks to the best agent in all of publishing, David Vigliano, for always having my back. The same is true of Will LoTurco, who works with Vig. Thank you Marcy Simon and Melinda Mullin, for going above and beyond the call of duty for me. Thank you to my editor, Genoveva Llosa, for being just sensational. Thank you to my partners Matt Schlicht and Mazy Kazerooni for being my unofficial brothers (Nat, you too). A thank you to Hallie, my badass EA. Thank you to my family (love you mom & dad!), and finally a special thank you to my girlfriend Julie, for being my rock. Onward and upward! Thank you for kindness, ~ Ben

Please follow me and Captivology on social media!

(p.s. — Happy birthday, sis!)

Snapchat and the Logic of Turning Down $3 Billion

In July 2006, a two-year-old company received the offer of a lifetime: a $1 billion acquisition offer from Yahoo. While its board was ready to accept the offer, its founder and CEO instantly dismissed the offer. “I don’t know what I could do with the money,” the CEO said. “I’d just start another social networking site. I kind of like the one I already have.” That company, of course, is Facebook, and the CEO is Mark Zuckerberg. Today, that decision seems wise, considering the company’s current $118 billion market cap. Zuckerberg has cemented his place among the greatest entrepreneurs of all time as a result. But nobody would have blamed Zuckerberg if he had sold to Yahoo in 2006, just as nobody can blame Kevin Systrom for selling Instagram for $1B. While Instagram has thrived since its acquisition, it’s easy to see how it could have become a Groupon, whose decision to spurn Google’s $6B acquisition offer seems flawed in hindsight. Today, the rumors are flying around Snapchat, the hot new mobile social networking startup with millions of users and hundreds of millions of “snaps” and growing. It reportedly spurned a $3B all-cash acquisition offer from Facebook recently. My Twitter stream is filled with commentary on the rumor that boils down to either “I’d take $3B” or “the founders of Snapchat have balls”. But let’s put the mindset of the founders into context, because while turning down a $3B acquisition offer is unfathomable to most of us, it makes logical sense for Snapchat. 1) Snapchat is still growing rapidly: If Snapchat’s growth were slowing down, the decision to sell would be significantly harder. But when you’re sitting on a fast-growing entity that should only increase in value, taking a $3B offer can look small in just a few months. 2) The founders will cash out regardless: From the last line of the WSJ report: “If Snapchat pursues an investment early next year, Spiegel has told investors he would like to sell a block of his own stock, according to people familiar with those conversations.” Spiegel and his team are going to make millions either way — more than enough to live a happy and comfortable life. It frees the team to “go the distance” because even if Snapchat totally collapses, they will never have to worry about money again. 3) The chance to become one of the greats: Q: How do you become the next Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs? A: You take your company all the way to IPO. Changing the world is certainly on the minds of the founders of Snapchat. So is legacy. While you can certainly change the world as part of a larger company, it’s easier to fulfill your vision when you’re CEO. These thoughts must certainly slide through the thoughts of the founders. They’re only human. — Turning down billions of dollars seems insane on the surface, but can have a payout far greater than money if you succeed. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg. Regardless of your opinion of Snapchat, it’s tough to blame the founders for wanting to hit the Grand Slam. They have a rare opportunity to build a legacy and change the way people communicate. I wish them the best of luck.

The Tech Community Must Invest More In San Francisco

Several years ago, when Square was just eight people, I was invited by Jack Dorsey to his loft in SOMA to meet the team and get a sneak peek at the Square device. After I interviewed Dorsey, he took me up to his roof and showed me his neighborhood. He specifically pointed out the outdoor tables and chairs, which he helped get placed in his neighborhood. It was just phase one of a bigger plan he had to help his neighborhood. You see, Dorsey’s always been active in his community, whether it’s his neighborhood or San Francisco at large. Dorsey and other Square employees picking up trash in San Francisco on Fridays is an extension of his values and his long-held sense of civic duty. Unfortunately, Dorsey’s the minority here. The stereotype — and the tension — has been, for as long as I have lived here, that the techies who fill the ranks of Facebook, Google and the startup community’s rosters jump on their air-conditioned shuttles, drive up housing prices and don’t respect San Francisco’s unique, quirky and downright amazing culture. A blog post by a tech founder and recent SF transplant only helped to confirm this stereotype in the eyes of many. And who can blame long-time San Franciscans for thinking that techies are ruining their city, with unfortunate blog posts like these? It’s clear that the city is changing and that unlike the tech bubble of the late 1990s the techies are likely here to stay, along with the higher rents that come with it. In some ways, this is a good thing — it means that San Francisco and the bay area are economically booming in an era of stagnant job growth, although it’s also clear that not everybody is sharing in the wealth or the benefits. From the LA Times:
“Unlike in previous booms, the tech industry isn’t creating as many middle-class jobs or as much goodwill. The gap between Silicon Valley’s high and low earners is widening, with average per-capita incomes going up while median household incomes have fallen for the third consecutive year, according to Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a private group that publishes an annual report card on the region. In a region that lays claim to some of the world’s wealthiest companies, food stamp participation has hit a 10-year high, and homelessness has increased 20% in the last two years, the group found.”
We can do better than this. This is not a (complete) indictment of SF’s tech community. There are some that have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help San Francisco (Dorsey, Conway), and others who volunteer with a favorite charity or keep active with their neighborhood. I suspect, though, that the vast majority of us techies aren’t doing the things that we, as civic-minded individuals, should be doing. Simple things like volunteering, attending neighborhood meetings, manning the polling booths, meeting our neighbors. Oh, and did I mention volunteering? But we need to do more. No matter if you’ve been here for three months or thirty years, this place is now your home. Our home. And while you may be overwhelmed by your startup, it isn’t an excuse to ignore the state of your home and the plight of others. Make it a company activity if you have to. Every little bit helps. I love this city. I love being able to walk from my apartment in Russian Hill and dance away at a blues and jazz street fair. I love being able to hike through Lands End to the beach and relaxing with friends. I love the city’s secret pop-up art gatherings. I don’t want these things to go away. I also love the tech community, and its idealism and its innovation. I don’t think that the tech industry and San Francisco are incompatible in any way. I simply think we, as a tech community, need to make a greater individual effort to be part of the community at large. So if you haven’t been very civic thanks to your startup or your long-ass ride on the Google bus, ok, I understand. But let’s start something now. I’m committing to volunteering in San Francisco — something I haven’t done enough of since my Eagle Scout days — and I hope you’ll join me in embracing San Francisco as well. Go to the Opera and donate if you love music. Go check out VolunteerMatch or the Bay Area’s volunteer information center. Even just going to a local show does a lot to support the community. Grab some friends while you’re at it. Start small to get started and you’ll find that it’s incredibly rewarding and fun. I’m also calling on the startups and tech companies of San Francisco to do more as well. Give your employees opportunities to give back to the community. San Franciscans — if you have a great cause or charity, tell me about it by posting in the comments or tweeting at me. I will add it to this post and to a new post I’ll write with more ways people can get involved in their city. And if your company is already giving back, I want to hear about it so we have more examples of how companies and startups can be more involved. Start with one small act, and others will follow. Let’s be good citizens to our neighbors and our community. Badass image by Ubeam’s Meredith Perry. Seriously, she’s amazing.

Mark Zuckerberg Is an Awesome CEO. Watch Me Explain Why on CNBC [VIDEO]

I was on CNBC earlier today to answer the question, “Is Mark Zuckerberg In Over His Hoodie?”, facing off against Silverback Social CEO Chris Dessi. My argument was simple: Facebook stock has been on the rise in the last six months, and replacing a founder with a manager at the CEO level is usually a disaster (just ask Apple). Check it out and let me know what you think.

Announcing “Startup Attention & PR 101″, Now on Udemy

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of “Startup Attention & PR 101: From Launch to Damage Control and Beyond“, my 19-lecture online Udemy course. I’m also thrilled to announce that half of the course’s proceeds will be donated to THRIVE-GULU, a not-for-profit dedicated to building rehabilitation and community centers across Africa, starting with Gulu, Uganda. “Startup Attention & PR 101″ is a deeper look at how to better work with the press. This is not a course about traditional PR. Instead, it’s a deeper dive into what makes a journalist tick and how you can can take advantage of that for your company or cause. The course covers four broad themes:
  • How Journalists Think
  • How to Launch a Product
  • How to Keep Users Interested
  • How to Deal With a Press Crisis
This course won’t make you a journalist’s best friend, but I hope it will give you more clarity to how journalists make decisions and how that affects you and your company. As I noted above, I am donating half the proceeds from this course to THRIVE-GULU. Thrive was founded in 2010 by Professor Judy Dushku to assist the communities of Northern Uganda to heal from the traumatic events of war, sexual enslavement, extreme poverty and lost opportunities. It’s a charity I’m honored to have supported in the past, and one I’m thrilled I can support now with this course. So take the course, tell your friends and send me some feedback, because I will be adding more material based on your feedback. ~ Ben

My Column Is Heading to CNET!

Dear friends, colleagues and supporters, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m joining CNET and CBS Interactive as a contributing columnist and commentator! Ever since my departure from Mashable, I’ve posted my personal take on the big technology news of the day on BenParr.com. The response to my work has been overwhelming, and traffic to this blog has skyrocketed. Thank you all for reading, commenting and sharing. But now I have a chance to make a much bigger impact with my writing. Starting this week, my commentary on technology, social media and startups will appear on CNET several times per week. I will not be doing any straight reporting — CNET has a talented team that already does an amazing job at that. Instead, I will be doing what I’ve been doing here on BenParr.com: breaking down the big issues and players in tech and explaining what it actually means for both the tech industry and society as a whole. To do that, I will be writing a combination of thought pieces, analysis stories, response pieces and the occasional long-form column. My CNET column is called The Social Analyst, just like my column on Mashable. It’s going to have more bite than my old column, though. I intend to keep tech’s biggest names honest. I decided to join forces with CNET/CBSi because CBS Interactive CEO Jim Lanzone and CNET General Manager Mark Larkin have an ambitious vision for the future. CNET is huge: it is one of the 100 most visited websites in the world, but Mark and Jim are not content with resting on their laurels. I believe in their vision and their leadership, and I am thrilled to be working with them. CNET isn’t my only gig, though. For the last few months, I’ve also been working behind-the-scenes on a startup, which we can’t wait to talk more about! My co-founder and I have a clear vision, as well as a duty to our investors, and we will move heaven and earth (and forgo sleep) to make sure our company succeeds. My new role at CNET and CBSi is the best of both worlds. I get to reach millions of people with my thoughts on technology, but still retain the flexibility to be an entrepreneur, build amazing products and change the world. Don’t take your eyes off of CNET. Big things are happening over there, and you won’t want to miss all the action. 2012 is going to be an amazing year. Cheers, ~ Ben

The Rise of the Smart Assistant

Almost everybody wants to have an assistant, even if people won’t freely admit it. Who doesn’t want an extra set of hands to help out with chores, scheduling, reminders, meetings, reservations, and the myriad of other tasks that we need to complete every single day? Just a few years ago, the only way you could get yourself an assistant was to pay one a full-time salary. Very few people can afford the luxury having somebody help them with all of the tasks and information in their lives. But that has rapidly changed with new technology that makes it easier to outsource our lives. This is what I call “Smart Assistant” technology, and I group it into three distinct buckets:
  1. Technological Assistants: The best known of these is Apple’s Siri, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Evi, for example, is far better at searching for relevant information on-the-fly.
  2. Virtual Assistants: Virtual assistants have been around for a while, but now they’re far more affordable thanks to services like Zirtual (which I use and love) and FancyHands. Rather than paying somebody $50K a year, you can pay $50 to $200 a month and get almost all the same benefits.
  3. Task Outsourcing: I’m a huge fan of services like Taskrabbit and Zaarly, which lets you outsource chores like food delivery, IKEA furniture assembly, laundry and grocery shopping. The convenience is worth the price.
While each bucket is vastly different, they help accomplish the same things — they help people save time, and they help put people’s minds at ease. We’re only at the beginning of this phenomenon though. I believe it’s especially true for technological assistants, which are in the best position to deal with (but have yet to solve) one of the biggest problems of the Internet age: cognitive and information overload. Smart assistants are huge businesses. Five years from now, you’re going to wonder how you lived without them. Siri image courtesy of Flickr, Kaptain Kobold

The Talent Crunch Will Define the Tech Industry in 2012

The unemployment rate in the U.S. is 8.6%, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the tech industry. There is an all-out war for engineering and design talent here in Silicon Valley, and the battle is driving up salaries and making a lot of us wonder: where are all the engineers? The Wall Street Journal is just the latest to write about this phenomenon. It had an article last week about the battle for engineering interns, and this week it has a piece on how startups are finding it difficult to raise funding without having a full team of engineers ready to go. There are simply not enough qualified programmers to fill the rosters of tech’s biggest and smallest companies. Google and Facebook are rapidly expanding, while more and more engineers are deciding to strike it on their own and start their own company rather than work for one. This phenomenon has only grown with the falling costs of starting a company and films like The Social Network, which I believe have sparked a renewed interest in entrepreneurship. The talent crunch has been a problem in tech for years, but I believe 2012 is going to be the year that it hits the breaking point and the general public starts paying attention to the engineering talent wars. A couple of factors are going to make the race for talent even tougher:
  • Facebook’s Impending IPO: What do you do if you’re the Internet’s hottest company and you suddenly are given $10 billion? Simple: you hire a shitload of engineers. Facebook is well known for keeping its headcount relatively low, but it will always content for the top-tier talent.
  • Google Doubles Down: Did you know that 2011 was Google’s biggest hiring year ever?. Don’t expect that rate to slow down in 2012. The company is erecting new buildings to accommodate the new talent.
  • Starting Your Own Company Has Never Been Cheaper: Five years ago, you would have had to buy a bunch of servers and a whole team to manage them. Now we have Amazon EC2 and Rackspace to deal with that problem. All you really need is enough money for personal expenses and decent hacking skills, and you can launch something.
  • No Startup Visa: The U.S. is not doing enough to bring foreign technical talent into the country. The Startup Visa, introduced by Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Mark Udall (D-CO), has gone nowhere. It’s a rich pipeline of talent we are ignoring for some reason.
  • There are just not enough students becoming engineers in the U.S.
There will be a lot more stories about the lack of engineering talent in the U.S. in mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal in 2012, and it will result in a lot more attention on the issue, especially as more people realize that their old jobs are never coming back. A laid-off manufacturer would be smart to retrain and rebrand himself as an IT guy. There will also be a greater focus on getting U.S. students trained in programming and engineering, especially as China and India continue to swell with bright engineering talent. It will take some time, but I hope and believe that U.S. schools will eventually make programming a required course in high school and/or college. Hopefully it’ll happen sooner rather than later. The result of this attention will eventually be more foreign engineers (can we please pass the Startup Visa Act already?) and more students who become engineers. But it will be years until these talent flows enter the pipeline. So for now, there’s going to be a talent crunch. The most innovative companies and savvy entrepreneurs will end up being the winners, while lots of startup ideas will begin to wither and die because they couldn’t recruit the talent needed to support them. Begun, the Talent War has.

What Makes for a Bad Startup Idea?

Earlier today, I received an email from SpeakerGram, announcing that it was shutting down. The service helped speakers manage their inbound speaking requests:
“We have decided to shut down SpeakerGram. While we are thankful for the support that our users have given us, we have changed our focus to a new product, and need to shift the balance of our energies towards that effort.”
This kind of thing happens to startups all the time. It’s just not something the media reports on because most of these startups don’t reach the name recognition that makes them big stories. But why was SpeakerGram the wrong idea? Why do thousands of ideas end up in the deadpool? And what makes for a great idea that captivates the masses? I’ve heard, seen, analyzed and written about thousands of startup ideas over the years, and while the reasons most of those ideas die varies, there are a few consistent themes that I’ve noticed typically signal a doomed idea. Here’s the short list:
  1. The idea is too narrow: It simply addresses too few people and too small of a market. In SpeakerGram’s case, the issue is that there are just so few people that actually need something to manage their speaking engagements. It’s a very small group of people that engage in significant public speaking.
  2. The idea isn’t fully formed: Many startup founders just come up with an idea, jot it down and start building. The problem is that they haven’t thought the whole thing through before building. Will people actually use it? What are the idea’s flaws? Will it survive against the competition? Don’t start building until you’ve really thought about and addressed these questions.
  3. The idea doesn’t evolve: Ideas need to evolve as the market evolve. If the idea or the team is too rigid, then the project starts to suffer and can’t pivot fast enough to survive.
  4. The vision isn’t ambitious enough: This, above all, is what kills a startup. Big ideas derive from a big vision. Radical product changes are easier to implement if they fall within an ambitious vision that the founders are willing to fight for.
Great ideas take years, not months, to emerge. Facebook wasn’t a billion dollar idea when it launched at Harvard. It became a billion dollar business when it launched the single most important feature in the history of social networking: News Feed. Very few entrepreneurs nail the idea on the first try. That’s why VCs always say that they prefer to invest in “A” teams with “B” ideas instead of “B” teams with “A” ideas. The “A” team will eventually get its act together and throw for the game-winning touchdown, while the “B” team will get a few first downs before settling for a field goal or fumbling the football. My advice to anybody with a great startup idea: think it through first. Make sure you ask the hard questions, go through all the scenarios and have a bold vision that can carry the team to the finish line, even when the original idea doesn’t catch fire. A little patience before you jump into the building process will save you from building a product that nobody wants. Image courtesy of Flickr, Twenty Questions