Ben Parr is an American journalist, author, venture capitalist and entrepreneur. He is Co-founder and Managing Partner of DominateFund, a seed-stage venture capital fund. He is the author of "Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention", to be released by HarperCollins in 2015. He was previously the Co-Editor and Editor-at-Large of Mashable and a Columnist and Commentator for CNET.
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I’m Ben Parr, here to talk about anything from why certain things capture our attention, to the tech industry, to journalism, to entrepreneurship. I started my career as Co-Editor of Mashable, where I stayed for nearly 4 years. Now I’ve started investing in tech startups through DominateFund. I’m releasing my first book this week, CAPTIVOLOGY, which dives into the science and psychology of attention and how to capture the attention of others. I interviewed dozens of researchers and thought leaders for the book, including /u/kn0thing (Reddit), Grant Imahara (Mythbusters), Steven Soderbergh, Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Super Mario), David Copperfield, Jonah Peretti (Buzzfeed), Adrian Grenier (Entourage), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and many more. Long-time Reddit user, mortal enemy of duck-sized horses everywhere.
Now let’s do this. AMA!
Update 1: I have to go give a talk at the NY Metropolitan Museum, but I'll be back in an hour to answer more of your questions. Every question. Yeah, I'll answer every question. I'm also gonna start posting random Alexis Ohanian quotes from my interview with him in the comments, just for you guys! LMK what else you'd like to see/know!
Update 2: I'm BAAAACCCKK!!!
How do you feel about the rise of "clickbait journalism"?
Conflicted. It is giving people what they want in one sense, but it's also manipulating people in another. I explain in the book why "clickbait" works. Hopefully that knowledge will help people defend their attention against blatant attempts.
Give us some dirt on behind the scenes at Mashable. What is the craziest way someone quit? Any drama in the office we haven't read about? Don't cop out on us this is an Ask Me Anything :-)
I'm thinking about dirt I can actually talk about!
You have to remember that, throughout most of Mashable's life, it was a remote working company. So not a lot of office drama until we got the NYC and SF offices!
Gotta be more specific when it comes to what dirt you want to hear. Mostly it was the same growing pains of any startup -- young teams learning how to manage.
I did get a few lawsuits threatened my way though!
What are your thoughts on tech PR? Would you start a firm today, knowing what you now know?
Your question basically is -- should someone start a PR firm today? The answer is: sure! It's a growing industry and is only going to keep growing. But tech journalists are more jaded than ever, so you have to be ok with dealing with that on a daily basis.
I personally wouldn't start a PR firm, only because I don't want to do PR!
How did the book deal come about?
What is the best tip you can give in 3 sentences about capturing the public's attention?
It happened fast! I had a great agent -- David Vigliano -- who repped Britney Spears, Shaq, Mike Tyson, and even Pope John Paul II! So the deal gone done in just a few days.
Best tip for capturing the public's attention? I'd start out with violating people's expectations. We are fine-tuned to pay attention to surprises and things that challenge our view of the world. So wear something different, be creative with your campaigns and go against the grain! There's science behind it!
Thanks for doing this AMA and congratulations on the book. I look forward to reading it soon!
A few questions about startups and early stage investment if you don't mind!
What are the main things that investors like yourself look for in a business/founders?
And on the flip side, what are things that founders should be looking for in investors?
Do you have any key advice for people who are wanting to start a new business?
1) Every investor is different. I look for founders that scale. I want founders who can grow with their companies and remain as the leaders/visionaries. Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, Facebook, Workday, almost all the big success stories in Silicon Valley have founder CEOs. I also look for market potential -- the market you tackle means a lot.
2) VALUE ADD! Will this investor truly add value to my startup in some way? Is he or she an expert in a key area, or highly connected, or just a great soundboard? And, even more important, do I like this person? Would I get a drink with this person? Do I respect this person? Money is easy to come by if you have a great product -- great partners are not. THink of adding an investor like getting married.
3) I'll pick just one -- make sure you're starting a new business because you want to solve a problem that's bugging the shit out of you, NOT because you want to be an entrepreneur. I've fallen for that trap before, and it was a hard lesson. I remember Leah Busque, founder of Taskrabbit, starting her copmany simply because she thought her product simply had to exist, not because she was born an entrepreneur.
Hope that answered your question!
What industries do you think are the least hyped about that have the most game changing potential?
The right kind of mobile advertising platform.
Almost every enterprise industry. Specifically ones that deal with networking and security. Large enterprises pay top dollar for even incremental improvements in these areas, but the tech press goes to sleep the moment you mention "enterprise".
Hi Ben, looks like you interviewed a wide array of people for your book. Which was the most fun interview? Most interesting?
Most fun: Shigeru Miyamoto comes to mind. Mostly because I was a giddy kid getting to sit down with the creator of Mario, Zelda, Link, Pikmin... the man's a legend! And he's just such a nice guy! And I got to do the interview on the floor of E3!
Adrian Grenier was awesome too, because I 1) did a joint interview with him and Dr. Thomas De Zengotita and 2) did the interview in the NASDAQ. I even have video I'm gonna post later this week!
Most interesting: Jon Armstrong, former chairman of Magic Castle, comes to mind. He did amazing magic tricks with cards while we ate lunch in the Magic Castle! David Copperfield was great as well -- he really thinks about every aspect of the performance, and I feel like I could keep learning from him nonstop.
What's a lesson from tech startup investing you learned the hard way?
Investing isn't just about picking great entrepreneurs -- it's about how you manage those investments and your portfolio.
Another lesson: great co-investors don't always correlate to a great startup. I mean... look at Clinkle. (Not an investor in Clinkle btw.)
On of my former co-workers works at Mashable now. Why are websites so concerned with clicks rather than quality of content?
Depends on the publication how much they care about clicks vs content. But clicks are still the main driver of advertising revenue. That's the lifeblood of a media company, so naturally they're gonna worry about anything that affects the bottom line.
I think you've seem some great websites find a good balance in recent years, though. I like what Vox Media does. Buzzfeed has added a lot more investigative journalism recently. But we have a long way to go.
What ecommerce / eretail plays are you most excited about currently and why?
I think Jet will do great -- the Quidsi founder is super intelligent and talented. He built Quidsi/Diapers.com into a behemoth that Amazon couldn't ignore.
And yes, I'm bullish on bitcoin. More specifically, blockchain technologies and lowering the cost and barriers of transactions in general.
Will quality journalism ever take precedence over the kind of low effort bs that Buzzfeed and its contemporaries put out everyday? Like it's great they have an opinion on some entertainment and take ten minutes to find more "mindblowing facts about harry potter you thought you didn't know," but the old guard journalism institutions still produce like 99% of the investigative journalism that people read and talk about
I think you'll see more investigative journalism from the new media companies like Vox. But yes, NYTs, WSJs and others still produce a lot of the investigative journalism you're talking about. Luckily people like Amazon's Bezos and First Look Media's Omidyar stepping up to the plate to make sure these institutions thrive.
I think it's gonna be a rocky 3-5 years as everybody figures out, but I am not worried about the future of journalism.
Do you ever look to your former high school Scholastic Bowl captain as inspiration? I hear that guy was pretty awesome. :) Congrats on the book, man. Though if I remember correctly, this is your second book. I remember reading something back in Junior High. Any plans to revisit that now that you're a published author?
You're right -- second book, first published one. I will NEVER publish the fiction sci-fi novel I wrote though. It's terribly written. But I have plans for a new fiction book based off the same world that I do want to write. And will write.
what colors did you see in that popular dress ? :)
At first, white and gold. Then blue and black. And now I can't un-see blue and black.
I'll cut anyone who says it's white and gold. We all know what color the dress is now!!!
Hi Ben! Congratulations on the book.
I have 2 questions:
Funny you should mention Andrew Keen -- he actually interviewed me at CES! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFB_nAsJ-RQ
I think tech journalists are critical of the tech industry, but not critical enough of its greater influence because they are part of that influence. I certainly felt the benefits of being part of one of the most powerful industries around when I was at Mashable. I think that technology is fundamentally a force for good, but that journalists are there to keep us in check. I hope we'll see more pieces discussing that broader impact this year.
I think you'll see traditional newsrooms try (and fail more often than not) to copy what Vox and Buzzfeed have done -- a combination of hard-hitting journalism with light fare and memes. But the company to watch right now is the Washington Post. Where Bezos takes that company will be huge for traditional journalism.
In 5 years, nobody will care if they are on A1.
Hi there, Ben, and thanks for doing this AMA. I've been an avid follower of yours for quite some time. I have been working as a Virtual Assistant/blogger/social media/community management extraordinaire since 2006. I've been fortunate, even, to work with some of the biggest "names" in the space and have excellent references. The trouble I'm having repeatedly, though, is that the clients I find end up either only needing someone temporarily or they end up no longer able to afford services. I have been trying for nearly a year to get a foothold into a much larger company/personality with zero luck... all because I cannot move. I've worked quite successfully with a very proven track record for nine years, yet companies are almost terrified (it seems) to trust a remote worker. My question to you is: why do you feel it is so difficult to find a rewarding and well-paying job (in the above fields) with a reputable company as a remote worker? Is it only due to the fact so many people ARE able to move where the work takes them? The economy? Any insight (or tips) you may have would be greatly appreciated, as well.
Note: I am NOT asking for help finding a job. I am asking thoughts on the seemingly back-push against remote workers in the tech industry lately.
I used to have a virtual assistant, but when I needed full-time, I hired and made sure she was local, because there are just certain things you can't do remotely.
"Culture" is a huge part of the Silicon Valley mantra. And culture is built by having teams close together, in the same space. That's why you see so many tech companies not doing remote teams (Automattic/WordPress and 37signals being the most notable exceptions).
Most people are willing to move, so you're always going to have to fight to get a job if you can't move. It sucks but it's the truth.
Saw your tweet, came to be first. How is life?
Life is awesome and hectic! It's not -25 degrees here in NYC, lucky me!
Hi Benn, where do you see the wearable industry in 5 years? Watches are the perfect solution for now, but tastes change.
I am bullish on the wearable industry! The biggest issue it faces now is battery life, which is a thing I wrote about a few months ago: https://medium.com/@benparr/the-three-weeks-problem-the-real-challenge-for-wearables-33b17f170eb3
Once the power issue is solved, I think wearables will really take off, because it just makes sense to have a computer on you, wherever you go. Whether it's the Apple Watch, fitness bands or something else remains to be seen.
What are your thoughts on the hurdles that Meerkat is going to face with connectivity/data issues? Seems like a great idea but thus far, almost every livestream has had connectivity issues of some sort, causing me to just close and miss livestream due to lack of patience. I have reopened yours 4x and it is now working great!
First, disclosure: I'm an equity advisor in Ustream, an enterprise live video platform.
To answer your question: I think it's fun and novel, but faces long-term adoption issues. The big problems are: it's mostly tech industry insiders using it at the moment (very few products who start out that way make it big) and it takes a lot of work to live stream stuff! Color tried it. Qik tried it. A lot have tried it. But it has never stuck, because it's hard and because users don't want to be "on" all the time. Photos are easier.
I think meerkat is cool, but has a lot of negatives going against it.
Bam! I have to say that watching/listening to your thought process of answering my question and thinking through the details is an amazing experience.
Unfortunately, I lost your connection as you answered!
I agree to your points. I do think that if usability can improve it may be able to gain traction, although these connectivity issue will push away even us techies.
That's why photo-sharing apps have done much better, or at least non-livestreaming video apps. Livestreaming works best in specific circumstances -- workshops, seminars, teleconferencing, remote viewing of key life events (weddings, etc.)
What are you NOT enthusiastic about? What do you think is overhyped or will fail?
I'm NOT enthusiastic about any social network whose value add is "you're not a product". So apps like Ello. I think great products add real value to a person's life, making it easier in some way.
There are other industries that I think make for good businesses but don't get me up in the morning. Most ad companies bore me, for example. Give me a wireless electricity company anyday! (I'm an investor in one)
What's your taken on augmented reality?
Sort of merging with virtual reality technology. I LOVE what Microsoft is doing with the Hololens -- it's REALLY cool. I think smartphone augmented reality never really took off because it never found a way to truly add value to people's lives beyond the novelty of it.
I think augmented reality hasn't come close to the promise it holds. I think virtual reality may be where it really shines.
We are flooded with amazing visual content via platforms such as Vine, Instagram, Youtube, and many others each second. With a background in journalism and now an investor, how do you see content aggregation evolving? Niche aggregation platforms? etc...
Aggregation is more important than ever to filter the noise. THat's why companies like Prismatic and Flipboard do so well -- they help us find the signal. In the same vein, companies like Circa find a way to make the news more digestible.
It's hard to be an investor in that space though, because SO MANY companies are tackling the issue of aggregation and very few really stand out. It's HARD to pick the winners in that category.
I find your ascension in the tech world interesting, as a fellow liberal arts major. What would you attribute to your success as a non-technical person in the tech world and what advice would you give to another vaguely technical person looking to follow a similar path?
-(international relations undergrad @UCSD)
I got lucky -- I got mashable as a platform to build my career. But I also worked 10-hour days consistently to break stories and build my visibility and brand. I think the big thing for me was building an expertise in social media and technology through my blog posts and social media. It raised my profile.
Networking was the other big thing. As Editor of Mashable, I got to meet a lot of amazing people and I kept in touch. I made it my mission to meet as many people early on in my career as possible. When a college grad moves to Silicon Valley, my first piece of advice is for them to focus on meeting people at events, at coffee shops, everywhere. Build the network, then focus on building a great product.
I will say, though, that I taught myself programming so that I could understand the industry better. I taught myself PHP, I took C in college, I even taught myself a bit of Scala (I love Scala).
Are you familiar with Apollo Robbins? As a fellow magician I've been a fan of his work on misdirection and attention for years.
Apollo came up early in my research. I already had Copperfield and Jon Armstrong, so I didn't need another magician, but his TED talk is amazing for anybody who hasn't seen it yet.
What do you believe to be the best technology related investment for the next 15-30 years?
Uber, Wireless electricity, virtual reality, self-driving cars. So hard to see that far into the future. By then I suspect we won't be interacting with the Internet via laptops and PCs.
How big of an industry will IOT be in the home/commercial appliances industry?
HUGE, but it will take time. The big issues are: most Internet of Things devices cost too much for the average consumer, most products are still a bit buggy, and hardware is just plain difficult.
But I want lights that will change on command. I want sound systems that are interchangeable room to room (that's why I love Sonos). I want more control over my home. But the cost has to go down.
Once the cost goes down, it'll become huge. Just don't expect it to be huge immediately.