Celebrity or Entrepreneur?

I was just reading Chris Dixon’s notes on starting your first company, and noticed that five of his eleven recommendations focus on becoming a social-media player: reading “all tech blogs every day,” starting to blog and tweet yourself, cultivating advisors in part to “build your credibility,” searching Google for your own name, and going “to all good startup events and talking to everyone.”

Chris’s argument for participating in your industry’s conversation is indisputable. But I’ve begun to worry that the risk for most entrepreneurs just now starting out is that they’ll spend far too much time worrying what the world thinks, and not enough building products or listening to customers.

Just reading the blogs that Chris recommends by name would, on Friday, have encompassed 134 posts, totaling some 60,000 words. This is nearly the length of Catcher in the Rye, a comparison that makes me sad just thinking about it. Even skimming the articles would take an hour. Writing your own takes longer.

I know that I’m hardly one to complain. I love contributing to this blog, and believe that communicating directly with the public is, more than ever, an essential CEO skill. But not before you have a product.

For someone just starting out, the celebrity culture now forming around entrepreneurs with thousands of Twitter followers is a sideshow. Almost anybody who works hard enough at social media can become the Weird Al Yankovic of the Internet, the kind of B-lister who hangs at the Playboy Mansion on a Tuesday afternoon, playing poker with people in bikinis.

But each five-minute interruption costs you 15 minutes of work, and building a product is a lot of work. So my advice is to take Chris’s advice, but ship first. What’s beautiful and precious about the opening six months of a startup is that you get to spend all your time in the garage, not upstairs entertaining guests.

Even after that, if your product takes off, you’ll have to say no more often than yes. In the past year, I’ve been invited to speak to the Singapore government (no), at the Hard Rock cafe (no), the island of Alcratraz (no), Yale University (yes), the New York Forum (yes), with a group of Parisian startups (no), and a rabbi’s Jewish gathering (yes), all about entrepreneurship.

Each invitation is an honor, but I mostly resist the urge. I read only two blogs regularly, TechCrunch and AVC, and often go days without consulting either one. I began contributing to this blog twice a week in 2006, but only after we launched our service, and only as a hobby. I have never once thought I should spend more time on it. Whenever I take time out to write a post, I nervously reflect on Coco Chanel’s insistence that there is time for work, and time for love — which leaves no other time.

Of course, making time for blogging can benefit your business: it helps you think through problems, it sustains what is weird and wonderful about your culture, it promotes your company. It has done all of this for Redfin. And Chris’s blog has done even more for Hunch. But Chris isn’t a first-time entrepreneur: his A-list following grew out of his first company, and his current company already has a fantastic service; he also has the rare ability to write well while remaining completely engaged, operationally and technically.

The risk that any other CEO faces with social media is that she’ll end up like Russell Hammond, the groupie-hounded rock star from Almost Famous who lost his way.  When William finally gets to interview him at the end of the movie, the teen-aged journalist asks only one question: “What do you love about music?” Russell sits up, turns the chair around, and leans in. “To begin with,” he says shyly, pausing and then smiling, “everything.”

If you asked Chris the same question about technology, I bet he’d give the same answer.


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  • http://www.drewmeyersinsights.com drewmeyers

    Hey Glenn-
    Couldn't agree more. With the amount of time it takes to build a good product, I can't imagine a startup entrepreneur spending an inordinate amount of time reading tech blogs & getting into the social media scene. But that said, who you know is vitally important to success in business — so if the co-founder on the business side of a tech startup doesn't know anyone in their industry, SOME of his/her time should be spend on networking so as to have at least a few decent relationships once they actually do have a product to show to people.

    “I read only two blogs regularly, TechCrunch and AVC, and often go days without consulting either one.”

    A VC is the only blog I read religiously. I used to reach TechCrunch, but they now produce too much content for me to consume on a regular basis. It seems Fred Wilson has avid followers all over the country (and world); glad to see you're one of them :)

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Great comment Drew. When I was introduced to the world of blogging, the blog I first read was Fred Wilson's…

  • http://jamesnissen.com/2010/09/the-art-of-small-business-marketing/ James

    I really liked your ideas about this. I think that Dixon's approach and your approach are good, but the balance between building products and getting involved in the community only comes from trying both. Getting involved in the community can help establish credibility away from your main site, and build links back to your site. But if you've got no premium level content on your blog, that's no good either. I say try both and see what works for you

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Definitely James. There's always a balance…

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  • alexlod

    Too often I find myself anxious that I didn't read today's TechCrunch posts, or yesterday's RWW. Amazingly, though, I likely only read 5% of posts from said blogs. Yet I still have Inbox 0 syndrome, constantly striving to read anything and everything.

    It seems that so many people these days have an addiction to consume information, expecting that new ideas and innovative thinking will come. Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From talks about connections and how they're critical for connecting hunches and stumbling across great ideas. I tend to agree with Johnson for a founder or group of friends longing to find that idea worth pursuing. But when it comes to starting a company, I completely agree with you that it's all about product. Let your work speak for itself, not your Twitter account.

    Anyway, great post, Glenn. Death Ride registration on December 9th at 10am!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      I love Steven Johnson's new book, or at least the whiteboard summary of it on YouTube. And yes! DR on 12.9!

  • Mike Bolen II

    Since I am involved with Redfin albeit remotely via a “partner” agent in the Napa Valley real estate market I always read your blog. This post was interesting and made me think about Redfin and wonder why the company was absent from the NAR convention and expo in New Orleans this past weekend. I attended the convention and heard the name Redfin brought up in many a booth on the expo floor. It seems a booth presence at the Expo would have added additional credibility to the brand among not just Realtors but vendors too. In addition it would have enabled Redfin agents, like myself and other Realtors to give feedback on the brand and their experience working with Redfin. I see some, what I think obvious improvements Redfin could make but I am at a loss on how to share those. It would have been great to see you at a booth on the expo floor at NAR and exchange some ideas….

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Mike, great comment and sorry we couldn't make it. Maybe next year.
      In the meantime, I'd love to hear your feedback: glenn (at) redfin (dot) com.

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  • http://www.michaelvandertol.com Michael Van der Tol

    Some days I just delete everything in my RSS reader – *POOF* inbox zero – then head to the beach to watch the waves. Sometimes you just need to be alone with your own thoughts instead of consuming someone else's.

    5 start-ups under my belt – best advise: Always ask for a lower price & let your companies success speak for itself.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      The worst part about an RSS reader is that it counts all the articles you haven't yet read…

  • Luisandsusi

    I love this entry.

  • http://www.mn-houses.com/stillwater.php Stillwater MN Homes

    Glenn, I really appreciate this post. As I was reading, this article was making my mind jump all over the place, almost in probing fashion, in an effort to challenge how committed and focused I am on my own business growth…versus maintaining overall mental/social balance. I find that when I do have incidental face-to-face dialogue with my colleagues or potential future real estate clients…I almost always (unintentionally) end up shifting the conversation to my business arena. So really without consciously trying to network my social sphere…I am doing so in an auto-pilot fashion…but very subtly. For me (a real estate agent), this likely is easier done than for a one-product tech start-up…but in the end, this article has left me feeling good about my “balance”. Thank you!

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