While this blog is about Tristan Walker (@TristanWalker), it also isn’t. He just happens to be a perfect example of the world of tech/venture capital/start-up social media that I’ve stumbled upon over the past few months while starting 3Degrees.
Let’s start at the beginning.
I consider myself a bit of a tech geek, but I’d always been more of a “user” than a “creator.” I knew going into 3Degrees that I had no idea how to code. When I was looking for a tech founder/development firm, I’d politely excuse myself from the conversation whenever they started with the “CSS…” talk. However, I thought I had a good handle on the product side. I considered myself savvy in a social media sense; I read every word published on TechCrunch, was mayor of 3 coffee shops on Foursquare, and I hovered comfortably around 92 WPM.
Then Tristan Walker came along and turned my “social media savvy” world upside down.
Tristan has 300k followers on Twitter. 300K! I came across his name as I built 3Degrees’ Twitter page. I followed various VC’s, Angels, and other people relevant to start-ups. Twitter often suggested that I follow him. I clicked on his profile to see which of the above three buckets he fell into, when I noticed his massive following. He worked at Foursquare, and my immediate reaction was “oh, he started it.” Nope. Maybe he started some other company and is now helping them grow? No sir. So what is his deal, and how the hell does he have a following that can fill Giants Stadium more than 3 times? I was intrigued.
A simple Google search brings up his TechCrunch Profile. He’s the Director of Business Development at Foursquare, a former valedictorian at Stony Brook University, and a Stanford Business School graduate. Damn. A video of him speaking at SXSW reinforces his resume. The guy definitely gets it. But…300k followers? Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch and someone universally recognized as one of the most influential people in the tech industry, has 88k followers.
So how did this happen, and what does it mean?
The answer to the first question, I truly don’t know. I’d have to ask Tristan himself. Hopefully he reads this and I get to. My suspicion is that he’s an early adopter who is extremely social media savvy; characteristics which helped him land an uber-competitive Foursquare gig straight out of b-school. But that’s not really the point. As I mentioned earlier, while this article is about Tristan, at the same time it isn’t. It’s about the unique environment that currently promotes entrepreneurship more than any tax break from President Obama ever could. Entrepreneurs can create grassroots movements through viral videos, twitter accounts, and blogs to get their product in front of their target audience – and it’s free. This environment allows someone like Tristan to showcase his talents daily in front of 300k people. Even A-Rod can’t say that.
I think people who dismiss Twitter followers are crazy. While putting a monetary value on what 300k followers means is difficult (I’ve seen a follower being valued anywhere from $0.13 to $0.85), there’s no debate around the cost of creating and maintaining an account (free).
To illustrate the point, let’s say Tristan leaves Foursquare and wants to start a company. He immediately has a targeted audience of 300k beta testers. These are most likely people in the tech space, his demographic, and I bet many are early adopters. If you had to choose between funding two identical projects, one with no tangible channel for social influence, one with the eyes and ears of 300k people, which would you fund?
So what does this mean for 3Degrees, and entrepreneurship in general?
It means a whole lot. As someone starting a company, I can’t afford to pay for 300k eyeballs. I can barely afford to pay for 1,000 clicks on a Facebook advertisement. For arguments sake, let’s say my targeted audience costs me $0.35 per click (roughly the going rate for targeted Facebook advertising). Access to 300k members of my demographic would run me about $105,000. I don’t have that. And that’s for ONE CLICK. How much does it cost to reach a Twitter audience daily? Nothing. It’s free. Sure, it took him time, effort and talent to get to this point. But time and effort I got. Money I don’t. Talent? That’s up for debate.
Getting in touch with your target audience for start-up entrepreneurs has never been this cheap before. If you can successfully create buzz around a product, landing page, or twitter feed, you can show proof of concept to an early stage investor without a product. Followers on Twitter and Like’s on Facebook won’t always amount to subscriptions, but they create an infrastructure for future contact.
Additionally, Tristan’s followers prove that people passionate about the industry are more informed than ever. VC’s and angels tweet about new technology and opportunities all day. It’s free for those interested to follow these threads, providing unprecedented levels of clarity into the industry. Niche applications are able to spread quickly, allowing the Instagrams of the world to get a million users in 3 months.
I subscribe to Eric Ries’ philosophy of iteration over idea, especially in this environment. The initial product is less important now than ever. The ability to get a product to targeted beta testers, have them spread it to the masses, all the while iterating the hell out of it, is the current model for success. This wasn’t possible in the past, but the channels for distribution and constant feedback have been opened and will yield a new product life cycle. Free advertising and viral spread within these channels will mean success or failure for 3Degrees. It’s that simple. And while the underlying idea of 3Degrees – meeting friends of friends online and bringing the relationships offline – must stick, the initial functionality, layout, and business model can change.
As someone who loves technology this is a great time to be alive. The best products have cheap (free) channels to reach customers, are easy to support and iterate on, and can quickly show proof of concept and raise initial funding. This rising tide should light a fire underneath any potential entrepreneur – it has never been easier to get something off the ground. If only the economy would cooperate, we would be poised for an entrepreneurial revolution.
It’s never been a better time to be a tech entrepreneur or work at a start up. Just ask Tristan Walker. (And hope he re-tweets it).
Sign up to be a beta tester: www.3DegreesNation.com