Startup Teams trump tech Celebrities – but if you've got it, flaunt it

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Keen On… Alexia Tsotsis: Do We Really Have the Minds of Fish? (TCTV)

An interesting debate about the cult of the ‘celebrity entrepreneur’ piqued my interest today. The Telegraph argues that since “we live in an age of aggressive, vacuous self-promotion” this has helped produce a kind of entrepreneur who is far more media figure than credible business person. In particular it says this is happening “especially within the technology industry”.

I agree with the view that as a society we do now tend to hear a lot more about people who are doing nothing in particular other than just look good or sing the odd song (Cheryl Cole et al) versus the people who actually make shit happen. My own theory is that this is just a function of the fragmentation of media. As more media arrived to fill ever-growing niches, it required more and more people to write about in order to fill each niche of print and air-time. Thus we’ve ended up with a situation where we require a constant turnover of ‘celebrity’ (or more accurately, notoriety), in any form we the media can get, in order to fill all that space, thus generating ad and subscription revenue.

But back to ‘tech celebs’.

Entrepreneurs use every weapon available to themselves to promote their business. If they are a smart, sassy, good looking woman, then why not use that? I daresay I might also use those weapons – if I had them.

The Telegraph’s Milo Yiannopoulos singles out Smarta.com founder Shaa Wasmund, a smart, sassy, good looking woman, as engaging in self promtion by buying a Facebook advert to promote her Facebook page.

Now, would we be asking why an entrepreneur had bought a Facebook advert if we were in the US? I rather doubt it.

I’ve met Sháá Wasmund a few times and I have to say, with no word of a lie, that I found her to be an impressive business person and a natural communicator. And her startup, Smarta, while not a pure tech company so rather off-grid for TechCrunch, does seem to contain a lot of useful practical content for the general entrepreneur.

And it’s not like she doesn’t eat her own dog-food. Her own blog has pretty detailed advice on setting up a Facebook fan page.

Maybe the advert was an attempting to understand the dynamics of Facebook ads? Who knows.

But in trying to promote herself, Wasmund is doing nothing more than using herself to as a vehicle for her business – no bad thing. I repeat, if this was the U.S. we wouldn’t be so prudish.

However Yiannopoulos does have a valid point – if people are any good at giving advice about social media you tend to find that they are in the thick of the online conversation – not buying adverts, but engaging with the debate in terms of blogging, Tweeting etc.

Leaving aside the issue of celebrity, my main argument is that tech startups are about teams not just individuals.

And this is where the reality is different from the media perception. Because true technology businesses are about a combination between an obssessive focus on product and the ability to execute. Now that focus can come from an individual or a team – but without the team it simply will not happen.

That’s why I’m often impressed when I come across a startup that gives me three of four names behind the product rather than just the name of CEO or founder.

And that is why, time and again, if you talk to a VC, they will always say they look at individuals and at teams and their ability to execute. The ideas come second to those elements. They almost never talk about whether the entrepreneur has a high media profile or not.

So what of the young impressionable entrepreneur? Are ‘celebrity entrepreneurs’ leading them astray, as Yiannopoulos argues?

This is hard to say, scientifically speaking. And I also think that tech is quite a different game. You can look at a ‘celebrity entrepreneur’ but if their technology product doesn’t work, or is not best of breed, are you really going to be impressed?

But more realistically there is probably a kind of natural selection going on here. The people who think success in tech startups is entirely about media visibility are probably the ones who will find they are not cut out for this game – although I added the word ‘entirely’ there because there is an element of this which can sometimes help. Loic Le Meur of Seesmic for instance is not afraid to enter into a fight with the media and court publicity and this probably does not hurt the attention Seesmic gets.

So it’s perhaps fair to say that there are one or two people in the entrepreneur scene who do court the media. But then they are better at playing the media game. If tech startups CEOs want to change that they need to improve their media skills. The media will naturally gravitate towards people who can explain things clearly and who can give a perspective. If they are presentable televisually then I’m afraid the TV producer will pick the televisual people because it’s a visual medium. But that leaves plenty of other media to play with.

But it is worth saying that a person who describe themselves to the media as a VC, and constantly appear on 24 hr news channels or on government advisory boards or running conferences, can’t possibly be real VCs. Indeed, nearly all the real VCs I know actually shy away from the media and are too busy at rea board meetings.

And it’s also fair to say that some of the most powerful people in the tech industry are the ones you literally never see. How many people bump into Barry Maloney at tech events or on panels or on TV? No idea who he is? He’s only the guy at Balderton that invested in Bebo and shepherded its sale to AOL for $850m.

In addition, it’s often true that some of the best entrepreneurs I know are the ones I have to hunt down and badger for a lunch date, not the ones hunting me. They are simply too busy building their businesses and doing deals. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t resent the startups wanting to meet with me to promote their startup. But the ones who don’t are the ones generally killing it and just don’t require the press. It’s the nature of the game – Mark Zuckerberg does not need to court the media, right?

That said I would say that European entrepreneurs are sometimes not media savvy enough. I am not talking about talking out ads. I am talking about engaging with the media and exciting them about their businesses.

One of the features of the British press in particular is an over-arching scepticism about technology and people trying to make things better. It’s not until it has the words “from Silicon Valley” printed on it that they take much notice.

So perhaps if the media were presented with a few more technology entrepreneurs who were both genuinely successful, as well as able and willing to talk to the media, they might well change their minds.

But then again I’d like to reserve my right to play my own devil’s advocate: Perhaps the least media savvy tech person on the planet is the product-obsessed but utterly media-useless Zuckerberg.

So maybe we should all just get back to focusing on creating awesome startups and leave the wanna-be celebrities and the media to their own devices…

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