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Do investors need first hand experience?

Please note that the views and opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer.

A few weeks back the venerable Malcolm Gladwell wrote a striking peice around the limited impact of Twitter and by extension social media, in bringing about concrete change.  Chris Dixon raised an interesting point: Gladwell isn't all that engaged in social media, so his analysis is limited to that of an outsider looking in.  To be honest, this was my first take on this article as well. Chris takes this discussion a step further and considers the limited first hand experience some investors have in platforms (generally social media platforms) that these ventures capitalists seem to be placing a great deal of interest in.  Wouldn't it be a sound investment strategy to personally immerse oneself in the dynamic in which one is investing to heavily?

I've found something interesting in my own professional experience that I believe illustrates the fulcrum of this discussion. 

Having been in the "social marketing" space since the good old days, I used to spend a good deal of time thinking that they don't get it.  They were generally the marketing leads often tasked with driving a concrete, limited, short term objective - sell more.  They didn't appreciate the softer approach of relationship building, and often looked to the conversational, relationship-based platforms as messaging and media channels.  But in the real world they were acting rationally.  They had goals.  We as an industry didn't have meaningful precedence to demonstrate that we could solve their goals better.  Their risk differential didn't justify the investment.

A couple of years later, these same types of people were looking to productize and therefor confine the rich and colorful world of conversational marketing.  While those of us deeply entrenched in the space often struggled with the compartmentalization of these rich ecosystems into defined products, their approach ultimately helped deliver sell-able products that brand marketers knew how to buy and execute against at scale.  The counter-intuitive creation of a far more linear, structured approach to social marketing was like trying to plan a jazz session with sheet music.  It felt wrong to us as improvisational musicians but it served us better in the long run.

In this instance, the social marketer's intimate experience and the mainstream marketer's knowledge of the bigger picture came together to create an industry.

They weren't missing the forest for the trees.

Because they were outsiders.

Who needs an outsider?

Who makes a better coach:

  1. A former athlete who retired after a successful personal career in this sport
  2. A career coach who studied coaching professionally and served as an assistant coach for years
  3. A sports commentator with years of perspective

There is no absolute answer.  The athlete has the best understanding of the players on the field.  The career coach has the best understanding of overall strategy and what it takes to get the team as a whole to where they need to be.  The sports commentator has a very broad knowledge, a close connection with the fans (who pay for the whole shebang) and in depth fantasy league experience running a team without the constraints so many coaches or managers probably assume they must live with. 

The same dynamic expresses itself when it comes to emerging channel development. 

  1. There are experienced investors who have been through similar emerging channel investments in the past and can bring their many lessons learned in parallel markets to bear. 
  2. There are technology or platform development experts who know how to build not only the right platform, but the right team. 
  3. There are agency and brand leaders who understand the ad/sponsorship/integration side of the equation (often a monetization solution). 
  4. And then there are the platform evangelists who are the thought leaders in this developing platform. These just may be the visionaries you need to get the big picture. 

Just as in the sports example, everyone brings a nice skill to the table. 

So does one really need first hand experience as a Twitter user, blogger, Facebook user or mobile-social user to gauge the future of a startup in this space? 


  • If you don't have first hand experience you cannot fully appreciate the platform dynamic. 
  • Outsiders often have a clearer picture of the bigger picture.  The outsider's perspective isn't influenced by the provincial outlook of the those living in the fishbowl.
  • Investors care primarily about what they take out, not how it gets there.

Why Gladwell was wrong (but I still respect him)

Change doesn't occur in a fishbowl.  Change demands varying levels of commitment, but it starts with the recognition that change is needed.  Yes, talk is cheap and memes are often short-lived.  But talk is generally a necessary precursor to action.  To Chris Wilson's point, I wouldn't have even heard of Chris had it not been for social media.  I have met hundreds of people via digital social media, many of whom I have since formed personal and professional relationships with.  These relationships have led to referrals for jobs and more than a few partnerships in bringing our respective marketing plans to life.  Through introductions and networking, relationships worth millions of dollars are forming via social media every day.

Social media has made talk cheaper.  But don't think it's made good relationships any less meaningful.  And yes, good relationships often end up living beyond Twitter, but this doesn't make Twitter any less valuable as a relationship catalyst (all be it one with a lot of noise). 

Why Chris is right

There are two types of outsiders: those who think they know it all and those who appreciate that which they don't know.  The former is a recipe for ignorance, the latter is the formula for succesful collaboration.

In the personal example I shared earlier, the social marketers and the mainstream marketers couldn't have found success had we not taken the time to learn and appreciate one another's disciplines.  The same is true for investors in emerging channels and in particular, social media.  You owe it yourself to at the very least understand the basics of the industry and the human drives behind the platform.

Social is built for the common man, this should be easy for you

The barriers to entry and understanding in social media are unbelievably low.  If Facebook, Twitter or blogging were difficult to grasp they wouldn't have succeded.  As a media built on talking, thought leaders generally share most of what's on their minds with alarming regularity.  It doesn't take more than a good guide, a few good books and 30 minutes a day to get a decent grasp on the user behavior, platform dynamics, technology solutions and market challenges/opportunities.

There is a role for the investor who is a social guru and a role for the investor who doesn't have as deep a knowledge, but great supporting experience and a desire to learn and collaborate.  There is a lot of value in bringing in the outsider.  However, when faced with low barriers to entry, a radically evolving dynamic and strong upside opportunity it is irresponsable to rely on old methods to build new solutions. 

It's time to roll up our sleeves and start acting.  By talking.  Welcome to the conversation.