NMR sat down to chat with technology journalist and entrepreneur Ben Parr at La Boulange Bakery in the historic Chinatown of beautiful San Francisco, California. Former editor-at-large at Mashable, Parr now writes weekly columns for CNET, and is a co-founder of The Peep Project, a mysterious new venture that’s sure to draw attention once officially revealed. Ben Parr, after all, wasn’t named the “Coolest social media geek” by SF Weekly readers for nothing. We photographed Ben on the rooftop of his apartment building, which sits on top of a steep hill in the very heart of The City by the Bay. The only thing missing was the jubilant declaration, “I’m king of the world!” Scroll down to see Ben on top of San Francisco (as well as walking a bunch of dogs), and to read about his feelings on entrepreneurship, how YouTube is becoming more like TV, and his advice for people aspiring to create the next big startup.
What takes up most of your time right now?
Startup, CNET column, girlfriend, and sleeping.
Chipotle, things I cannot mention in an interview, and boba tea with large tapioca balls.
People taking pictures of me when I’m sleeping. I absolutely, utterly hate it. My biggest pet peeve. I’m at a party and I’ve been tired because I’ve been up since five in the morning, and someone would be like, “Oh! I’ll take a picture of you. You look sleepy.” I hate it. Despise it.
Least favorite food?
Tomatoes. Pure fresh tomatoes. I don’t know why I hate them. I just do.
Your favorite social media tool right now?
I don’t know if I have a “Wow, this is my favorite.” Let me look at my phone and I’ll have an answer in a moment. You know, it would have to be a tie between Facebook and Path right now. Path is what Facebook used to be, and Facebook is my biggest platform for pushing stuff out. I do have a new favorite now: Socialcam!
Your favorite city in the world?
Depends. Half of the year it’s San Francisco, and half of the year is Chicago, depending on the weather. Chicago has the better night scene. Chicago has more down-to-earth people, and Chicago has more culture. San Francisco has better food, better weather, more technology, and greater beauty.
Give us an embarrassing moment in your life.
I’m tough to embarrass so I have to think about this one. I’m sure there’s hundreds of moments. I remember one where I told my friends in high school that I would shave my head if they would get 500 signatures from the kids at school, and they got it, and I was embarrassed specifically because my mom would hate it so much.
Longest you’ve gone without sleep?
I remember there was a report that had to be done, and I was awake two straight nights. I gave up sleep so I can turn something in by five, and by the time I was done I was a zombie in the library at Northwestern.
You don’t have those nights anymore right?
I pull all-nighters for coding, yes. It’s a startup; that’s what you gotta do.
Give us a fun fact about yourself.
I’m trying to think of something beyond that I’m a scuba diver. I’m an adrenaline junkie; scuba diving, skydiving, I do pretty much all of it. I want to go cliff jumping at some point, you know, with the little bird suit. I don’t really have that “Oh my god, I should be scared” gene. I’m not very good at that.
Give us a funner fact.
I started the revolt against News Feed when it first launched called Students Against Facebook News Feed. 10 percent of Facebook joined my Facebook group against Facebook News Feed, which resulted in interviews with CNN and Time. Zuckerberg called me the next week.
What did he say?
We just talked about how to improve the site. He’s a very good guy. He’s very humble. He was like, “How can we improve the site? Let’s talk.”
Walk us through a typical day for you.
I wake up, and then I breathe air into my body, and I breathe it into my body about a couple of 10’s of thousands or 100’s of thousands [times] per day. I wonder how much the average human breathes in and out per day. Typical day is I wake up, and I’ll rustle a bit and then pull out the laptop and do a bit of work and check everything. Send e-mails and maybe write. I’ll have an agenda which my assistant mostly puts together. It’s like you have these meetings, and you can work between these times. Somewhere in between I try to put in a CNET article once or twice a week. There’s no typical right now. I was in London last week, I was in South Bay for investor meetings, up here for partner meetings. It just all depends.
In past interviews you said you that consider yourself a journalist and entrepreneur. Seeing that you left Mashable to become a full-blown entrepreneur, is it safe to say that entrepreneurship has always been your main passion?
Yes, that’s always what I wanted to do even before I first started with Mashable. Mashable was a stepping stone towards that. They knew and everybody knew that I was going to go back. It was just a question of when.
So you were really transparent about it.
Very transparent. This is what I wanted to do, and this is what I’m going to do to get to that point.
You’ve also said in the past that you’re an aspiring world changer. Tell us how you’d like to change the world.
Well, entrepreneurship! I have a core philosophy, and my ultimate core philosophy is that I have the ability and thus the responsibility to change the world for the better, and that’s how I live my life. That’s how I base all of my decisions.
How did you come to this philosophy or agenda?
It was in college when I realized that was what I needed to do and how I was wired. Entrepreneurship became more clear as I went through college as my path to change the world. Also, I have four life goals, and my final life goal is to build a commercial space station.
You’re someone who wants to constantly try something new. What is something you want to do right now but haven’t yet?
Learn how to play guitar. I can play saxophone, clarinet, and piano, but guitar is on my list. Also learn how to hang glide.
We recently had an interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark regarding online journalism, and he said, “A novel problem is that there’s too much of it, and that it’s hard to find the really good stuff, the most trustworthy reporting.”
You just have many more sources for the price, which means you get more opinions but you rarely are going to get one longer, more informed opinion, so it’s a tradeoff. That’s a tradeoff where we have people’s attention but it’s more spread out, and they lose focus quickly. Sifting through it, there’s more and more tools that are being built for it. As for which ones are trustworthy, the real way to do that is judge the writers and publications yourself, and pick the ones you really enjoy the most. There’s not a much better way.
With mainstream video content starting to make its transition online, what are your thoughts on how social media has changed the entertainment industry, and do you think that online video outlets like YouTube and Blip will eventually take over traditional television?
Traditional television is going to be here for a long time. YouTube has been heading more towards long-form premium content because it’s better, and there are more pauses. I guess people want a little bit of both, right? TV is still growing. What people are just doing is that they are having a second screen right in front of them. I don’t think Blip and YouTube are going to take over. I think they may become a larger distribution channel for that kind of thing, like how Netflix is picking up shows. It’s just beginning, but it’s a long transition process. By the end of the transition, it’s just basically going to be television networks, but on the web.
Give us the latest scoop on what you’re working on since leaving Mashable. Anything you’re excited about and anything you can share?
Unfortunately, our startup, which is codenamed “The Peep Project,” is still stealth. You can still sign up for it at thepeepproject.com, but we haven’t talked much about what we’re doing yet. Later this year. I also have the column with CNET where I write twice a week about whatever topics in technology pique my interest. I advise a couple columnists and startups on the side. Combined, I pretty much don’t sleep.
Being a content creator yourself ,what are the key differences in creating content for new media compared to media like print and television?
The difference is how people get to it. You have to worry about SEO, you have to worry about titles, you have to worry about what’s shared socially, is it easy to scan the information? All those different things. You worry about a completely different set. It changes how you write. Traditional, it depends. Television, people are willing to sit around longer. A computer, you can’t have a 30 minute broadcast because people will get distracted and go on another web page. I think on the Web is a world of bigger distractions so you have to get information to them in a smaller amount of time.
Do you think it’ll always be a world of distractions?
More and more so over time. Until we’re eventually like the dog from “Up.” “Squirrel!”
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced being an entrepreneur?
It’s internal not external, the emotional toll of being an entrepreneur. People tell you about it, the emotional toll will venture back. It’s brutal. No one tells you how high the highs are and how low the lows are. You don’t understand until you actually go through it. That’s the most brutal part, I think. If you can handle the emotional toll then you are far better off than most people, but the emotional toll is so strong. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to be depressed. I’ve been shaking on my couch before. On the other hand, I’ve been jumping around in celebration. It’s a real, real spectrum of emotion. The lows don’t just affect you, it affects the entire team. You’re responsible for 5,10, 20,100, a thousand different souls. Your mistakes hurt all of their lives if you fuck up.
How do you know if you can handle the emotional toll?
You don’t know until you go through it. You can get used to it. You develop mechanisms, and once you go through the first set or the second set you understand it better.
What do you like about entrepreneurship?
You can change the world and control your own destiny. You make an impact faster than if you were working for a company.
With startups being a hot topic in this day and age, what advice do you offer for someone who aspires to create the next big idea?
Learn to code, and if you give me an excuse, go learn code. If you don’t know how to learn to code, then learn to code. Seriously, learn to code. If you want to really build something and unless you have some special skill set, then you’re nothing without code. Even if you want to be a business co-founder, knowing code makes you better because you understand products better. You get the respect of engineer teams more.
Do you have to necessarily be a pro at code or just be proficient at it?
You only have to be proficient at it especially if you’re the co-founder, but it’s best if you are the proficient one because you can build the product rather than try to find somebody to build it for you.
Here’s a scenario: Your son just turned 14 and says he wants to skip school and start his own company. What do you tell him?
14, I wouldn’t quit unless venture capitalists give you money because you probably aren’t ready for the emotional tolls. With that said, even if you’re 20-something it’s important to have a plan in place. You can build a company on the side whether it’s school or work. Do that first, and then build things out and prove your assumptions and get people interested and get customers. Get money, and once you have that it’s easy for you to leave and justify. Don’t do it without having those things though.
How do we stalk you?
If you want to stalk me you can go visit my house at…
Just search “Ben Parr” everything. @BennParr Twitter. Ben Parr on Facebook, Ben Parr on Google+, Ben Parr on every other social network. BenParr.com. ThePeepProject.com