Ben Parr has had quite the career. He started his first gig as a lowly writer for rising tech blog Mashable back in 2008, but quickly rose the ranks to become editor-at-large in just three years’ time.
Shortly after, he left Mashable and launched DominateFund, an early stage venture capital firm that focuses on harvesting attention and making products go viral. His hard work was recognized when he made the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2012.
Now, Ben Parr has culminated his expertise and years of experience in the field of marketing, virality and attention-getting into a new book called “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention.”
Recently, we sat down with Ben Parr to talk about his backstory, his startup investment philosophy and of course — how to get people’s attention.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
Did you always want to be entrepreneurial?
When I was in college, I originally wanted to go into politics. Then I entered for congress after my freshman year and learned how terrible of an idea that was and got the heck out of that. Still have a poli-sci major, but what probably changed the course of my life was the class taught by one of my two mentors, Troy Henikoff, who’s now the head of Techstars, Chicago. What he was teaching was Entrepreneurship 301. This was a class was for juniors and seniors, and I was a sophomore so I had to work my way to get into this class. But, when I did, I worked my butt off. In this class, Troy made you basically start a company. Every single week, it was a whole different, new level: accounting, financials, building a business plan, pitch deck and every little aspect that you have to do to be a great entrepreneur. That really set me on a path and made me realize that this kind of things is what I really want to do. That’s why I’ve been in this game for so long and will continue to be.
Why did you choose to work at Mashable? Did you have a specific long-term plan?
A little bit of a plan — the plan to not be a journalist for the rest of my life. I knew I always wanted to be entrepreneurial. So what I saw in Mashable was this capability to make a difference and be a part of conversation, but at that same time also an opportunity for me to build a network and build a lot of knowledge especially. I knew eventually though I would leave and do something else. I didn’t know exactly what at that time. I knew Mashable was an incredible path towards it and would be tons of fun. I did get burnt out at the end though.
What have been the biggest critiques about you that you’ve heard from people online?
It’s kind of been a journey for me over the years; the critiques changed. For example, early on in my career, I became a co-editor of Mashable at 24. That was a lot of power for a 24-year-old. That was a lot of attention and I wasn’t ready for it. I got full of myself for sure and I’m not exactly proud of maybe some of the things I said or did at that time. So a critique at that time was that I was full of myself and that sort of thing, and it was wrong. When I really realized the error of my ways, I worked on improving myself. When I hear a critique that’s really true, I try to work on that. Nowadays, we’ll see what happens after the book. I hope what people critique is more things like my content — the things I’m putting out, rather than my personality. The example I learned from the book is that people have this great capability of building relationships with somebody even though the other person doesn’t know them. So as an example, people feel like they know Rachael Ray or Justin Bieber or Zoella better than they know their own parents or their own friends; this is actually a scientific phenomenon known as parasocial relationship. It’s our amazing capability to build this kind of one-sided relationship that makes it feel like its two-ways. It’s the same thing as idealization. As a result of that, whenever I disappoint people, maybe with opinions or politics, I’ll get an outpouring of anger or disappointment about what my parents might say to me, even though these people have never met me before, and maybe never will. Then you go to a level higher and some of the top celebs and the reactions they get are crazier. It’s a crazy kind of phenomenon when you see it.
Tell us a little bit about the #dominatefund.
We have very, very straightforward value-add that we give to startups, which is we coach them on attention, press, marketing, customer news acquisition, how to build viral products and how to work with influencers and celebrities. My partners and I have unique experience: my time at Mashable and from “Captivology” and all my knowledge and research from that; my partner Matt, who was the head of product at UStream and understands products better than almost anybody; our partner Mazzie worked with everyone from Lil Wayne to Cristiano Ronaldo. So combined, we work with all of our companies on these different aspects on how to launch and how to build a go-to market strategy and how to build long-term attraction.
How do you decide to invest into a certain startup?
We have 13 different points that we go through. They are all preparatory by the way. Yes, there are a lot of typicals like team and that sort of thing. For example, we do a lot of projecting of whether or not one of the founders can be the founder-CEO over the long term. You think about the best performing companies like dropbox, Airbnb, Uber, Facebook — what do they all have in common? Their founders are still the CEOs. In general, when you do the math, that produces your biggest unicorn, your billion-dollar companies, your companies that make it to exit and beyond. We look for founders that are able to grow and able to adapt on all different stages of building a company. Who is able to take the company from the beginning to end? There are a lot of people who are not capable of doing that. We have a capability of being able to see which of those factors work and doesn’t work for those entrepreneurs. There are tons of other factors; we look at every market individually. We just have so much experience from all the startups that we’ve worked with and from my time at Mashable. We’ve seen startups fail and succeed in tons of different markets and we understand a lot of times why and then apply that to some of the companies and industries that we invest in and don’t invest in.
What advice do you have for startups looking for celebrity endorsements?
The first thing is that both the entrepreneur and the celebrity need to realize that there is a structure that works and a structure that doesn’t. The structures that don’t work include giving a celebrity a bunch of equity hoping that they will do something. You have to be able to give it in stages for being able to complete certain tasks, not to micromanage them but at the very minimum having benchmarks so that both sides know that things are getting done so that the celebrity is more invested. It’s always better for the celebrity to directly invest because then their skin is in the game and they get a lot more equity by doing that and it puts them up in that higher pantheon of celebs who are making real money from entrepreneurs and from the tech industry. Sometimes you have to explain to some of the celebrities who aren’t used to this that this is how celebrities are gonna make their money now. You think about, where has the majority of money for 50 Cent or Dr. Dre or Ashton Kutcher or Nas come from? It hasn’t come from the record sales or TV shows, it comes from their investments. Britney Spears is probably gonna make millions of dollars from Uber. Ashton Kutcher is gonna make millions from all of his different investments. It’s leveraging their platform in a unique and new way which is getting equity. Equity is much more valuable in a startup than being paid. So we work with the companies to figure out how to structure and what works and what doesn’t, but it really depends. So it’s not about endorsement as much as partnership, and it’s always better if the celebrity directly invests. That builds the deepest relationship and deepest commitment and it always, in our view, produces the best results.
Can you pinpoint a notable company that is doing publicity well?
I would say Airbnb has done a good job over the last few years. Early on, they had some struggles with publicity. They had famous case a few years ago where an Airbnb renter ransacked someone’s place, and they didn’t respond and took a long time to respond. When they responded, it was with a lawyer’s speak and that didn’t stop that crisis. I talk about this in “Captivology,” which is, you need to complete the loop. When you have something like a crisis in the press, what you need to do is immediately address it in the most human, straightforward, apologetic way. “This is exactly what happened, here’s what we did right and here’s how we acted up. We are sorry and here’s exactly what we are gonna do to fix it.” So we leave nothing to the imagination. Because if you don’t address everything, the press is gonna start speculating for you. Ever since then, Airbnb has done a very good job. Now when there is a crisis, they immediately address it and they are very open and public about addressing it. I think the Uber is in the position as Airbnb was a few years ago, where they are learning how to handle those some crises and respond really well. They are starting to get better at it, but clearly they still have more work to do to be better at responding to some of the real incidences.
Do you think it gets harder to respond quickly as a company gets bigger?
It only becomes harder if you make it harder for your organization. I know some organizations that can respond really fast because they have very nimble press team that’s given a lot of autonomy. Microsoft is very good at press and PR; they have a nimble team and a lot of autonomy and they are well-trusted, and they know what the brand and identity is. They are all on the same page. There’s a lot of other older companies where you have to wait days for permission and sign-on from CEOs. That doesn’t work in modern days. The more autonomy you give to those teams, the quicker they can respond to those things. Is it a risk? Possibly, but the reward greatly outweighs the risk in my opinion.
What inspired you to start “Captivology”?
The reason why I did “Captivology” was because of my investing. When I first started doing it, all of the startups were asking for advice in all these areas — specifically marketing, how to talk to journalists, how to build up their user base — and all these thematically boiled down to attention. As I did more research into attention, because I was curious about it, I just became really fascinated. I’ve had book offers over the year but this was the first time I was like, ‘I need to write about this,’ because there is so much research out there and so many great scientists out there doing great work in this area, but none of them were put together in a way that was both cohesive and accessible by the general public.
Why did you choose to interview the people that you did in your book?
What I tried to do is to interview as diverse a group as possible. I didn’t wanna make this a tech book or a entrepreneur book; I wanted to make this applicable across different industries. I interviewed Sheryl Sandberg, but also Susan Keser, who is a street violinist in New York City and understood the secret of why she was able to make a living in New York while Joshua Bell, the famous violinist wasn’t able to get anyone to pay attention to him when he played in a D.C. subway. I interviewed Steven Soderbergh, the director of “Erin Brockovich” and “Magic Mike” to talk about storytelling. I interviewed people from the Obama campaign. I interviewed countless PhDs on the subject of attention. People have done great research in psychology and neurology. I interviewed Adrian Grenier from “Entourage” to talk about celebrity culture, because he did the great documentary called “Teenage Paparazzo,” so I wanted to cover a multitude of different industries and different types of personalities and different genres to really get a true breadth of attention in these different industries and how it can be applied across. I don’t just talk about business; I have stories about teachers, about the beginning of deodorant, about storytelling and storytellers. I really wanted to get that broad sense of attention.
Many brands in the past have resorted to publicity stunts in order to get attention, can you briefly explain why publicity stunts can be so effective?
The book is divided into the seven key triggers of attention. For publicity stunts, that trigger specifically is what I call the disruption trigger, which is scientifically, we pay attention to things that violate our expectation. There is actually a psychology theory behind it; it’s called expectancy violation theory. As a classic example, imagine you and I are sitting at a coffee table at a restaurant, and we are just chilling, and suddenly a man in a clown suit comes and sits down right at our table — we are gonna pay attention to that person. But the reason why is what matters. The reason why we pay attention to that person is because we need to figure out whether or not the person is a threat or a positive thing. Maybe it’s one of our close friends who is dressed up as a clown from the day for a charity or something. Or maybe it’s a person we need to run away as quickly as we can before we get stabbed. This is the kind of process that we go for whenever we see something that violates our expectations of the world. That’s why it captures our attention strongly and acutely.
Lastly, what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
My grandfather gave me four pieces of advice that stuck with me: one, do what you say; two, be on time; three, always finish what you start; four, don’t forget the people you love.
Check out Ben Parr’s new book Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention
Photography by Melly Lee