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 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…

  • Andrew Sinclair

    Interesting debate, and I broadly agree with the article. I think the last sentence sums up how I feel, “just focus on creating awesome startups”.

    I often get the impression that there is a “parade circuit” in the London startup scene where people feel they need to attend events to feel part of that scene, they need to blog, Tweet, etc to feel “in”, I sometime feel that pressure too. You can use the scene to network, get advice, publicize your startup – and once you have experience, help others with advice and guidance – these are all worthwhile activities. But sometimes I wonder where they find the time to run their startups as they juggle all these peripheral activities. Personally speaking my blogging/tweeting etc has declined as I build my startup, in fact I feel guilty even writing this comment as I should be coding!

    The reality is that you need to focus on building your startup, building your product and keep distractions to a minimum. At the end of the day all that matters is running a profitable business, that is sustainable in the long term – the rest is just noise.

  • Kirk Wylie

    I think you’ve hit the nail partially, but not completely, on the head in terms of high profile VCs.

    There are some high profile VCs who go to a lot of conferences, engage in social media consistently, and are generically “out there” on a regular basis (think Fred Wilson, Fred Destin, Brad Feld, Roger Ehrenberg). There are also some more “traditional” VCs who engage somewhat, but not to the same level or with the same size bullhorn (think David Barrett from Polaris, David Skok from Matrix, Lawrence Lenihan from FirstMark).

    But there are also a lot of VCs (and I find this particularly prominent with European and East Coast VCs) who aren’t “out there” almost at all. In addition to Barry Mahoney from Balderton, add Kevin Comolli and Bruce Golden from Accel, Felda Hardymon from Bessemer, David Orfao from General Catalyst, Bernard Dalle from Index. These guys are brilliant VCs, and you should be willing to chop off a major limb to get any of them on your board. But Bruce Golden (as my concrete example, as he’s on OpenGamma’s board so I have the most experience) doesn’t tweet, doesn’t blog, I’m pretty sure he’s not on Facebook, and I’ve never seen his name on a conference listing except for Davos.

    Why? Well, almost all of these guys are traditionally Operator VCs. They spend their time working with existing investments (and as an entrepreneur, I don’t want to hear that a board member can’t respond to an email because he’s busy at Yet Another Conference), they constantly talk to new potential investments. That’s what drives them.

    So my roundabout point is that both types of VCs are useful, and useful in different ways. Getting Fred Wilson or Dave McClure or to invest gives instant credibility and the experience of someone who’s living out there in the new social universe. Getting Bruce Golden or Barry Mahoney gives you an experienced operator who lives and breathes building big companies for the long haul.

  • Milo Yiannopoulos

    You’re absolutely right when you say “Some of the most powerful people in the tech industry are the ones you literally never see” – a point I should have made in my piece. Great contribution, Mike.

  • Shaa Wasmund

    Glad I don’t take myself seriously! I didn’t comment on Milos piece as I was in US on holiday and for 48 hrs away from wi-fi or phone. Did anyone think to check how long these ads had been running? No. Or that they started when I did the Facebook ad blog? You see, I don’t know about others, but wherever possible, I’d rather try something for myself before I tell other people if I think it’s useful or not. So many small businesses are thinking about using Facebook ads and ask whether it works. I didn’t know, so I tried it out. Old school way of doing things I know.

    You see, if you check, you’ll see that Facebook isn’t my ‘social media’ of choice, thats Twitter, so I don’t have all the answers to people’s questions straight away. Yes, I am a Social Media Evangelist, I truly believe in it’s potential to help small businesses, but I’m human, not a guru, so I need to actually check things for myself. So no, I won’t be taking them down for a couple more weeks as they haven’t been up long enough for me to gauge whether they actually work, but rest assured, you won’t have to see my face over Facebook for too much longer!

    Oh yeah and Im American too, born in Silicon Valley.

    Maybe that’s why I think this is kind of silly.

    • Steve O'Hear

      All publicity is good publicity, I’m Old Skool too.

  • Marfi

    Great post, kudos Mike!

  • Fred Destin

    I’m Old Skool too. Milo is right:

    – Celeb frenzy has entered the world of innovation. We’re awash with B-List celebs who are famous for being famous. They are held us a role models when they have achieved very little. Milo may have been picked on the wrong target but the point is valid (though you have to admit some of the testimonials are kind of funny).
    – Success is indeed a team thing and no individual has magical powers that sometimes seem ascribed to them. Power is the eye of the beholder.
    – Success has many fathers. How many people claim to have had a hand in Skype for example ?
    – Role models should be few and far between and that status should be hard earned. Fred Wilson, Andreessen deserve that status, few others do.

  • nick Stuart

    Two angles and that is leadership and experience.
    Agreed any successful conpany will have a top team but without leadership it will go nowhere. That applies to small and large companies, and the public sector. So if part of that leadership involves promotion of the ideas and company thats fine.
    The other side is experience and it constantly amzes me that people who have been involved in a specific sector and a couple of companies extrapolate that to all companies and sectors. Surely the consultants, the insolvency specialists,
    the SME business support people eg in strong Science Parks, are the ones with knowledge. We need good teachers not one trick ponies!

  • Lucian Tarnowski

    I like this.

  • Lucian Tarnowski

    Great points here Mike. I think it can be tempting for young entrepreneurs to lose focus on what’s most important in the business. I can hold my hand up here on occasion. Media coverage can help but it’s limited and is certainly a double edged sword. At the end of the day success lies with the business and the teams that come together to make the business.

  • Nick Pelling

    Damn, I’m going to have to go out and buy a wig, get myself TV-ready. (;-)

  • Arguments online, are they good for your reputation? — Social media marketing and business promotion

    […] was a series of tweets back and forth with many others joining in and a well written article on TechCrunch which you can see here. I have to say my favourite part of this was Shaa’s response to Milo after several exchanges […]

  • Rebecca Hollis

    How on earth can anyone be complaining about ‘celebrity’ entrepreneurs? Are they not the kind of driven, passionate and inspirational celebs that we need in today’s society of skinny models and dishonest footballers. There are some that have been able to cheat their way to the top but Shaa Wasmund is not one of them.
    The great thing about Shaa is that she adds real value to the people that follow her and does not paint the picture of a yellow brick road. She’s honest and a great role model.

    • Rebecca Hollis

      I am team Shaa! ;)

    • Chris Harris

      Hey, what’s wrong with skinny models?

  • Evan Rudowski

    I think this kind of phenomenon has a lot to do with the culture of the location in which the entrepreneur operates.

    As an American who’s been working in the internet sector in the UK for 13 years now, and came from Silicon Valley and New York before that, I think I’ve got some perspective on this.

    Although Mike suggests that celebrity self-promotion is a somewhat American phenomenon (and it is) it’s not particularly a Silicon Valley phenomenon. And I would say the US has nothing on the celebrity-obsessed tabloid media culture of London and the UK.

    As Mike notes, many Silicon Valley celebrities become celebs because of what they’ve done — like Mark Zuckerberg. Then as they become successful, they become more media savvy (and by all accounts, Mark has improved tremendously in this regard).

    Before Mark, it was Sergey and Larry, and before them it was David and Jerry. All geeks. No one cares about you in Silicon Valley if you’re a self-promoter, they want to know what you’ve done. Then you’re sexy. Mark Zuckerberg may be the sexiest person on the planet right now by some measures.

    Silicon Valley is a one-horse town, however. It’s all tech, all the time. The main news sources there are TechCrunch and the Palo Alto Weekly.

    London, on the other hand, is a diverse, historic, global city with media, theatre, arts, fashion, finance, government — and yeah a little tech too. The noise level is immense. So if you want to make it in London, you play by London rules — which means courting media, attracting attention, getting noticed in the same way the game’s long been played in London. Same is true to some extent in New York.

    So there’s nothing wrong with playing that game as long as it’s the means to an end — attracting attention and therefore building greater success for your endeavours. If it is the end itself — the business of being a celebrity, well more power to you if you can pull it off.


  • Andrew J Scott

    Also depends what type of start-up you are running. Awareness in the throth and bubble of consumer tech may not be so helpful to those running an Enterprise related start-up; but then in turn they SHOULD be courting the appropriate business press for their vertical – or preferably having an intern set up the calls for them.

    The fact is other than exceptional circumstances, often an entrepreneur at the beginning of their start-up life has little more to go on than being “just another tech start-up nobody” unless they can make themselves heard and convince others that they are not only saying the right thing but that their product, service, company has something of value.

    The best person to do that is the Founder himself in the early days.

    If however, you are self-sufficient (as MarkZ was at Uni and had a rich friend to pay for his servers) and thus can just knuckle down and build a product which achieves amazing traction, then go for it.

    Balance this though with the value of help from other available and the network, which can be of great assistance.

    With a start-up you need to get it all right; so while I agree with this being a valid topic, the very LAST thing we need to do in Europe is encourage entrepreneurs to be more quiet or reserved.

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