Interview with Ben Parr – on the keys to Mashable’s success, future of tech journalism, UK startup scene

Ben Parr on the success of Mashable: 'the senior team at Mashable – made it a conscious decision to teach our users and explain how to share and why to share... ...and then guess what they shared? Mashable articles.'

Ben Parr

I caught up with Ben Parr – a past contributor at Mashable, and contributor to CNET. He’s now working on stealth start-up (The Peep Project), and recently spoke at London Web Summit (LWS), which took place on 19th March at The Brewery in London.

I spoke to him at LWS about how he came to work at Mashable – what he feels Mashable’s key to success is, about what it’s like working for the most popular, and most successful technology blog in the world – and on exactly what it takes to become a world-renown technology journalist.

He then spoke about what he makes of the current state of technology journalism, and how he sees technology journalism developing in the future. Finally – we Ben shared his views on how the London and European tech scene looks from across the atlantic – exploring the cultural differences and potential reasons behind them, and looking at some of the ‘US vs UK and Europe’ startup arguments many of which were raised during London Web Summit.

The audio for this interview is available via the player below – and the transcript is below in it’s entirety.

How did you come about your first role at Mashable?

“I worked my ass off” “I originally got the position because in 2008 I became a part-time writer for Mashable, I was actually a product manager back then. I just wrote personally in my personal blog and hit Digg a few times and they noticed, and I got recommended and I’m like ‘sure, I’ll write every once in a while, make a couple of extra bucks on the side.’ Then they really liked my work and I decided to move to the valley. I was actually looking for product jobs there, but the day before I moved Mashable gave me an offer as an editor and I’m like, ‘alright, I’ll see how this goes’ and it went pretty well. Two thousand five hundred articles travel across the world, it’s been great.”

Two thousand five hundred articles, that’s a huge volume of articles. What was working at Mashable like? Firstly – what was the best part of working with Mashable, what did you get out of it?

Ben Parr:It’s a couple things. One was I got to meet some of the most amazing people in the world, I got access to the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Niklas Zennströms of the planet and got to interview them, got to sit down with them, got to dine with them. It’s an amazing experience and I got to build up that network, and got to build out a reputation as an expert in technology. And so that was probably my favourite part of all of it, even more than, like, helping entrepreneurs and writing and that. It was really just meeting people.”

What, if any, were the downsides to working for Mashable? I mean, it seems to the onlooker like it’s quite intense, it’s quite, you’re under quite a lot of pressure, and what are those sides to it like?

It’s the same with any technology news publication. You work a lot and you are, like, working day and night all the time. You just have to keep on grinding. You see 2am a story, you’re like ‘I have to write that’ and it wears on you. Any tech journalist will tell you it just wears on you. I mean it wore on me to a point, like, where I just needed to do something else. Part of the thing too is, when you’re a journalist you’re on the sidelines still, you aren’t building things, necessarily, you are reporting on what other people are building. Some people love that, that wasn’t exactly for me. I’m more of a ‘I gotta go build something’ type of person.

Mashable

Ben Parr on working for Mashable: "You see 2am a story, you’re like ‘I have to write that’ and it wears on you. Any tech journalist will tell you it just wears on you. I mean it wore on me to a point, like, where I just needed to do something else."

On the ‘constant grind’: do you feel that that perhaps – this is a popular, widely adopted model, it’s profitable – but does that kind of diminish the quality of the content? Some commentators do criticise Mashable for page-view chasing, those techniques of using multiple galleries and things like that to increase the page-views. Is this a kind of circle – is it reducing the quality of content or not?

Ben Parr: How I see it is, there’s more information than ever, people want to consume more information than ever, but they have very limited time to do such. That the amount of time in the world’s never gonna increase, right? So they’re trying to find more efficient ways to consume more content, which is why I think you’ve seen shorter content on the web: ‘cause it’s quicker for people to absorb that information. If they want to dig deeper into a topic they read more articles, or they can find a long-form, or they can do the research on Wikipedia or elsewhere. I don’t think there’s any kind of, say, degrade across society or such that people really talk about. I do think it does mean some forms of journalism, like investigative journalism, aren’t as valued anymore but it’s been replaced by the ability to get information and create information from almost anywhere. So you gain something and you lose something, and it’s up to you to decide whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

What do you make, then, of the way technology journalism is developing? Do you think it could be improved? What do you feel is wrong with tech journalism at the moment? You touched on long-form journalism: is there a lack of this and are we going to see perhaps new models emerging, new sites that specialise in long-form journalism coming about?

Ben Parr: That’s a tough question. So, the first part, like, let me start addressing some of the things wrong with tech journalism: yeah, there’s a lot of people who’re trying to game for links, there’s a lot of reblogging where somebody just reports the exact same stuff as somebody else, which doesn’t really add all that much value on top but read ‘cause…they  do. I’d like to obviously see more original content and more original reporting. I like seeing more opinion and I wanna see what people think, and I’d like better tools that’d help me discern through all that.

…and what do you feel the key to success was for Mashable? What made it so successful, and what made it blow up in the way that it did?

Ben Parr: Because back in the early days we – the senior team at Mashable – made it a conscious decision to teach our users and explain how to share and why to share. Way back in the early days when Twitter was very young: how to retweet, why to retweet, the value of it. Sharing all of that. And because of that we taught them how to share, we gave them new tools to help them share, and then guess what they shared? Mashable articles, and it really grew from there. I think that’s the biggest reason for success almost over anything. Once you build that kind of community, like, it’s the community building. It’s really, really, really tough to build that kind of community and once you’ve built that kind of community it’s really tough to lose it.

How important, in online journalism is the community? Is it the most integral part of any online journalism venture?

Ben Parr: Oh yeah, absolutely. If you don’t have a community, you don’t have a site. You build a community that follows, that retweets, that shares, which talks about you, that goes to your site every day that promotes you, that defends you. Without it, you’re nothing. Your readers are your lifeblood.

And so what were the biggest things that changed at Mashable over the time that you were there? How did it evolve and how did you evolve, and how did competitors effect you and what happened over the time you were there?

Ben Parr: I mean, Mashable’s become more mainstream and focused not just on social media and technology, but has expanded to politics and entertainment and lots of other areas that interested the readers. It’s a digital lifestyle publication. They get about, competition was never a big part of the equation, it was just like: what do our readers want, what is the direction we wanna go in, and let’s go build for that and let’s hire people that can help with that.

…and what would you say to an aspiring technology blogger, or an aspiring commentator? Who aspires and wants to be where you got to and built up that huge following.

Ben Parr: You need to be very out there, you need to be very vocal, you need to build your own reputation, you need to build out an audience and you need to have an opinion. I meet a lot of journalists who just like to write, they don’t like to go network, and they don’t like to be the centre of attention. Which, I understand that, but to be a great journalist that is valued by publications that is an asset that they’re willing to pay for. You have to have an audience, you have to have a following, you have to have those connections, you have to have that reputation. That’s built by having a distinct voice, by having an opinion that you’re not afraid to write about, by meeting lots of people, and by focusing on how do you build out your audience, your following, your subscribers. Not everyone likes thinking about it, but you have to do it in the modern era of journalism.

This obviously extends right through to mainstream journalists as well, but how similar is this to someone who wants to start a start-up? I mean, what does it take to start a start-up in your opinion, given your experience and what you’ve seen and start-ups you’ve seen evolve. What does it take?

Ben Parr: What does it take to start a great start-up? It takes number one: fearlessness. Two: insanity. And three: the talent to actually build things. I’ve met a few start-ups even recently, they’re like ‘we’ve been a start-up for five months’ ‘how many line of code have you written?’ ‘zero!’ ‘you’re not a start-up’. You have to build, you have to test, you have to iterate. You need to just build and be insane and be able to take it when people say no. You’re gonna hear ‘no’. You hear ‘no’ more often as a founder than, I think, anywhere else. But if you keep pushing and you keep testing, and you look at the data, and you throw away bad ideas and you embrace the good ones and you focus, you can win. But it’s a really, really difficult job and it’s for something that you don’t just do haphazardly, you have to be really committed, and you have to really be prepared for how high the highs are and how low the lows are.

London Tech Scene

Ben Parr on the UK and European Technology scene: "European entrepreneurs have been raised differently, maybe they’re more risk-adverse then some, maybe they got money from different places, maybe they don’t get as much attention as they get in the US."

So on start-ups, as someone based in the US, what does the London and the European technology scene and the UK start-up scene look like to you? What impression do you get when you come here and you see these events going on, and what does it look like from across the Atlantic?  What does it look like when you read our tech blogs and our coverage?

Ben Parr: It’s growing, but it’s still not there yet, right. So the Silicon Valley-based publications like to talk a lot about the Silicon Valley-based companies. With a few exceptions like, in Europe, Soundcloud or Spotify or such. It’s tougher to break out. But when I come here and I see the start-ups, I mean, I see entrepreneurs are just as driven. They have a different way of going about things as they’ve been raised differently, maybe they’re more risk-adverse then some, maybe they got money from different places, maybe they don’t have as much attention as they do in the US. But it’s really just about do you see that drive, do you see that talent, do you have that talent to build something amazing. And it’s here. It’s everywhere in Europe. It’s growing, but there’s still a long way to go.

You touched on it just then, you touched on it in the panel – that there are cultural differences. Perhaps people in the UK and in Europe are more risk averse. Why do you think that is? Have you got any insight, or do you just think it’s literally just a cultural difference?

Ben Parr: Well, it’s history. You have hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years of history in Europe, with older systems that really focused on classes and structures and wasn’t really about entrepreneurship. In the US it’s a much newer country, it is kind of like a start-up of a country. It’s much entrepreneur because the people came there to make a new start, because that’s what the focus is on. It’s like: let’s build things, let’s build business. It’s not always the same in Europe. That’s why I think, for example, Israel has more start-ups than most other European countries; ‘cause it’s a newer country and so it has that more mindset. So, it eventually changes, I find that most in their twenties or so, in almost all European countries, really wanna go into technology because they see its potential and they wanna be more part of it. It’ll just take longer to really take root in Europe as ’I’m starting a company’ and people saying ‘that’s fantastic’, rather than them scratching their heads.

How significant do you think the language barriers are? Do you think that plays a big role or, I mean, people are talking about how German start-ups, French start-ups should start thinking about global markets but how can they, I mean, it is almost naive for us in the English-speaking countries to suggest they should be looking beyond their borders, and why should they look beyond their borders? What’s wrong with just creating a start-up to appeal to your local market?

Ben Parr: So, the issue is this: if you’re a start-up in the US and you quote-unquote ‘crack’ the US market, you’ve cracked 300+ million person market. So that’s a lot of users. If you ‘crack’ the French market, you have nowhere near that amount. Or the British market, or the German market. You have to, like, you’d have to go and learn, you’d have to get someone else who can help you ‘crack’ that new market, and translate and then build the product for those cultural differences. In the US you can get to that big scale and then you’ll have the money to able to hire those people more. I think that’s the biggest difference. It’s just the sheer, like, trying to open yourself up in another market is very tough, and it’s easier if your first market is a very, very large market. That’s why I think China’s said to be huge, because you ‘crack’ the Chinese market, it’s very, very big. And you can, you’ll have a lot of resources to move on when you’re eventually ready.

Going back to cultural differences: there are a lot of UK VCs funding US companies, and they tend to be almost more averse to funding their own company’s domestically. How much of that is a problem, and how much can governments do? How much of a role does the US government play in America, and how much of a role should the UK government be playing in assisting start-ups? There’s been a lot of debate about that here today.

Ben Parr: The US is unique in the respect that it tries to stay out of the way of start-ups. With exceptions like, people, like the SOPA act, which got defeated by the people because it would be more regulation on top of start-ups which could really harm their innovation and growth. In general though, the US, there’s not a lot that allows start-ups to really have that freedom to build things and raise money, and move fast and hire fast and fire fast. It takes longer to hire and fire in most European countries. It’s a very key difference. I don’t know if or why London VCs spend more money in the US than the UK. I think just a lot of it’s probably just because the market size and the track record of US companies in entrepreneurship is very strong. The track record has to be built up in London and elsewhere. When there is a Google that comes out of Europe, that’ll be the turning point. There hasn’t been that 100-200 billion-dollar market cap internet company from Europe in a very long time, if ever. Like, it’ll come eventually but it has to come first. That’s where the money will come from for future start-ups.

On the issue of hiring, someone asked the question during your panel: Do you have to move to the US to find the talent? Is that just a non-issue? I mean, I believe and most people would probably believe that there is talent to be found here, but what happens is a lot of the computer science graduates, they tend to go and work for investment banks and in the financial industries. They don’t go and work for start-ups, so do you think that it’s a non-issue really? The whole ‘there’s no talent in the UK’ argument?

There’s talent everywhere, but Silicon Valley has a unique mix of not just talent but lots of entrepreneurs that support fellow entrepreneurs, and VCs that support entrepreneurs and local businesses that support entrepreneurs. That support structure is probably the biggest thing that you have in the Valley, it’s not just talent. You can find talent anywhere, and if you’re really charismatic you can convince that talent to join you. It’s just the support structure. The countries, the regions with more support for their entrepreneurs, specifically from other entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, are the ones that are growing and blossoming. There’s a whole bunch that, there’s that community growing in LA, in New York, in Dublin, in London, in Israel, and more are coming.

Do you think that’s the case that a startup needs to raise millions in order to perfect a revenue model?

Ben Parr: Depends on the business. You see huge businesses that start off without any business model –Facebook – and then they figured out business model on the way. It happens more often than you think. But there’s a lot, I think there’s more companies than ever that think about what is the business model before you even get in. So to me it’s a moot point, just depends on what kind of company you’re building. If it’s one that builds out to scale I think you can find ways to monetise users, it’s been proven time and time again. But it’s not a bad idea to think about your monetisation strategy in the first place.

You currently advise start-ups and you’re working on your own company. Tell us a bit more about that.

Ben Parr: I’m the co-founder of a start-up called The Peep Project which is unfortunately stealth, so can’t talk about it too much quite yet but thepeepproject.com, that’s my plug: go and sign up and later this year you’ll get an invite and see awesome things. And yeah, I do advise several start-ups, value start-ups as well as an entertainment company across the board. It’s nice for me, it’s nice to be on the other side of the table where I’m building things. It’s really, really, really difficult and not glamorous at all, but it’s the only way I’m wired and sometimes you’re just wired that way, and you just have to do it that way. That’s how I am, and I know that’s how a lot of fellow entrepreneurs are. You just have to go and build because it’s in your DNA.

Do you think going down the blogging route first and then going on to found a start-up, gives you a leg-up at all? Do you recommend others try that approach?

Ben Parr: I think you can build a reputation; it helped me build a reputation and build up a network. It depends what you need. If you build up a lot of technology skills outta Facebook or Google you’ll also be able to get lots of funding. It just really depends. You just have to excel at an area and you have to build a reputation, and if you build a reputation people come knocking.