[FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve called into TWiST and received great benefit from it and will be a fan forever because of it. Also, although I’ve wanted to write about TWiST saying many of these things for a while, he is offering an iPhone for the best review, and that offer kicked me into gear.]
If you’re like me (and let’s face it, since you’re reading my blog, odds are you’re like me), you’re probably what I’d call a Hacker News Entrepreneur. By that I mean someone who probably grew up with computers, love them, have been programming for ages, maybe studied CS, and have an interest in starting a tech company. Hacker News, a community news website run by Paul Graham and YCombinator, is a fantastic place for people like us. There’s a mix of tech and startup related articles with some of the smartest and most civil discussion you’ll find anywhere on the internet.
If you read Hacker News a lot, you can’t help but have some of pg’s startup philosophy rub off on you. Some aspects of this include quick iteration, incorporating user feedback, making things simple to buy and use, and taking something valuable but difficult and democratizing it. The cornerstone principle and motto of YC is “Make Something People Want”. A side effect (or maybe driving principle?) of this is that there’s a tendency towards having many small customers who require little support or interaction to get value from your product. This does NOT mean pg discourages customer service – it just means you should make your offering so simple, intuitive, and well explained that most of your target market can figure out how to buy and use it without your help. Indeed, not only do YC companies have wonderful products, they provide the fastest, friendliest service I’ve encountered on the Internet.
This mindset and strategy is extremely alluring to computer nerds like us because we have a stereotypical (and let’s face it, well deserved) reputation for social awkwardness. For us, networking involves IP packets, not business cards. The media is something you burn isos on, not court for attention. Speak softly and let your code do the talking, etc. For people like me, Jason Calacanis comes off as a braggart, a schmoozer, a suit, a talking head, etc (I’ve heard worse but I’ll leave it at that). It seems to my kind that he cares more about the press than the product, more about promoting himself than creating value, that he’s got more hot air than great ideas. I know that before I started watching his new show This Week In Startups, this is the impression I had of him.
What changed? Lots of time watching listening to him talk and work. (And I do mean lots. Through episode 13, I’ve probably watched 25-30 hours of Calacanis TV.) The impression I described before is a caricature created by people who don’t know or don’t like him. Anyone can be caricatured – let’s do one of pg for fairness sake. This is a guy who sneaks around college campuses, encouraging people to quit their education and give him the fruit of their labor in exchange for the coins he has in his pocket. He’s telling the children (the children! Think of the children!!) that sleeping on couches and eating Ramen is the key to success. Ridiculous, but with a grain of truth, just like all caricatures. Given the chance to see anyone for who he is and getting to know what they actually do lets you form your own image of them. And I saw that he’s an enthusiastic, generous, hard working, just plain cool guy.
The grain of truth behind Jason is that he is a hustler, in the very best sense of the word. He makes things happen. His gift is in always making something happen. The contrast is striking on TWiST between the tentative callers unsure of how to express themselves and Jason’s fast talking, confident snap decisions. There were a couple times when a nervous entrepreneur described their project to him and he offered to invest in them on the spot. He’s often trying to move the conversation along when someone is belaboring a point that has already been made. He’s a talker, a communicator, a catalyst. He makes things happen in the real world.
That’s the key reason why all Hacker News Entrepreneurs should watch TWiST: For people most comfortable talking to a compiler, TWiST is your admission letter to Sales, Marketing, and Media University. You’ll pick up a ton just from the stories he tells, the way he interacts with people, how he manipulates the media, and the advice he gives. For instance, he demonstrated how to push peoples’ button to get attention when he made a PSA against Apple Fanboys that got a ton of attention. It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it. It might not be your style (it’s certainly not mine) but it is eye opening and even if you don’t do everything he does, you’ll be a better entrepreneur if you’re aware of all the tools he showcases.
In Episode 13 (from August 28) he used several of these tools. Every week he dhows how to advertise by example but this time he was more explicit about what he was doing. Several times throughout the show he has a sponsor break where he has everyone on Twitter thank the show’s sponsors. This starts with the couple hundred of people that watch the show live and then there’s a long tail over the next couple weeks as people download and watch the show on their time. This gets a ton of tweets for the sponsors and cements them in the viewers’ minds since he gets them to take action in response to the ad rather than listen passively. (BTW, thank you to DNAmail, Ustream, WebSpy, and Audible!)
Another lesson (it really was a lesson, he prefaced it and everything by saying “I’m going to teach you marketing”) was about intelligently using money for marketing. He had three contests for three different purposes. First, he offered a $500 Apple gift card to the person who wrote the best review of the current episode. This is straightforward marketing (using money from one product to market the same product) but amplified by the contest. Next, he used one platform to promote two others. He offered a Mahalo prize pack, a schwag bag with a Mahalo hat, beach towel, mug, iPhone case, etc to the first 100 viewers to see the movie We Live In Public that a friend of his made. Finally, at the end of the show, he gave the promotional ad for audible (50% off first 3 months) and then chipped in $1000 of his own money to cover the other 50% for the first 50 viewers. This was adding money to increase the value to the sponsor (people signed up faster – 7 signed up before the end of the show), increase the value to the viewers (by $1K) and increase the value to his show (because more people are participating in it and will talk about it). So in a couple hours he showed three different ways to amplify marketing dollars and get the most attention and action for your buck.
There’s no way this next trick would work, not on savvy readers like you. You’d never fall for an inflammatory statement that manipulated you into action would you? Twice Jason use that trick. First, when announcing the episode review contest, he said “I don’t know if this will work. Probably only 5 people will do it.” I wrote in my notes right then “Fat Chance”. I suspect Jason knew exactly how that statement would motivate people and I just want to know how close his estimate was to the final number of reviews. Second, when talking about We Live In Public, he called out anyone that considers themself a social media guru and said if they don’t see this movie, they don’t know anything about social media. I’m sure this caused a lot of people to bristle and say “I’ll show you Calacanis, I AM a social media guru. I’ll see your little movie.” And they will. And the beauty of it is, Jason got them to do what he wanted, and he doesn’t even know who they are! Watch and learn.
Enough about Jason, what else can you learn from the show? Every week Jason and his guests answer questions from listeners who call into the show. It’s a great opportunity for rookie entrepreneurs to get advice from two or more veterans, and the questions have covered a wide range of topics. They spend 10-20 minutes with each caller so there’s a lot of quality discussion. For instance, this week someone called asking about doing a consumer electronics startup, and another person asked about tips and pitfalls when consulting for a big company. Previous calls have been about what to do if you’re have a family but want to do a startup, what to do with a stagnant product that’s no longer competitive, and many more. All of them have been interesting, and if your topic comes up, it’s pure gold.
Something that debuted this week was Jason’s Shark Tank, where people call in with a two minute pitch. After the pitch, they receive a critique of their product and their delivery. Jason is even looking to angel invest in pitches he likes. I don’t think they’ll ever settle an investment on the air but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does invest in some of the people that call in. The first two were about a Digg for emotions, and a LinkedIn for teens (they both sounded better than the 3 words I gave them).
The biggest single part of each show is the interview. Because of his media background and the fact that he’s in Los Angeles instead of Silicon Valley means that he gets a different set of guests than the usual Silicon Valley faces. This week was Matt Mickiewicz, founder of SitePoint, 99designs, and Flippa. Like most of the interviews, he talked about his life and entrepreneurial background, current projects, future plans, and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. I hadn’t heard of any of the guests before they came on the show so it’s refreshing to meet a whole new set of faces.
So after 1,700 words mostly praise (with the occasional backhanded compliment), is there anything I don’t like about TWiST? The biggest drawback (which is also a strength) is the length of the show. Most shows are about 2 hours, with some crossing the 2.5 hour mark. I dread the day when there’s a Return of the King length episode what makes my iPod catch on fire. On the other hand, the content is all entertaining and valuable, so I consider it an investment. You really have to care about startups or the show just won’t be worth the time. But if you do care about startups, consider it a free survey course from the University of Mahalo School of Business.