Celebrity or Entrepreneur?

Inside Redfin

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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