Start Ups and the New Social Empire

by Nick Thornton

“Engage or die.” That’s the kind of line we’re fed everyday, those of us attending or anyway attached to social media. An upcoming local education technology conference brazenly uses the same slogan to entice participants into shelling out nearly $500 to join a collective start-up self congratulatory affair. Don’t get me wrong, my friends run start-ups, work at start-ups and wax poetic about their next great idea. And I believe in what they do. Hell, I do what they do. We all want a hand up, a neck out and a dollar in.

I’m a cynical person and even I can find value in conferences. I love talking to professors, students, administrators, engineers, scientists and people just interested enough to give a damn about what the niche-marketers are up to. Coming together to share knowledge and ideas is an age old tradition I hope never dies. But something worries me: the increasingly high price paid by start-ups for simply attending one of these conferences, regardless of whether or not there is any direct pay off to the person registering.

We are told social media is king. But is it? What does 200 Facebook likes mean? What does 2,000 followers mean? Do any of those people buy anything? We all know how many self-appointed “social media experts” there are on Twitter. And sure, they may have 15,000 followers but do any of those “followers” ever buy something, do they leave a comment, do they even visit the person’s site?

I’ve spent around $150 this summer on Facebook ads for my start-up (which is a considerable sum for a poor student start-up such as mine) and I have found something out. People are sweet. I have punks from Pakistan, disenchanted youth and business people from Mexico, academics from the UK, Argentina and Chile and young people far more media savvy than my own country from Iraq and Afghanistan following me on Twitter and Facebook and yes, they do “engage.” They challenge what I post. And what I do is better for it. And you know what? I learned a lot more from them than I’d ever learn from a conference that would charge me $500 just to show up. Your audience is waiting; if your product sucks, they will let you know.

We don’t need conferences. We don’t need “experts.” We need people. Anyway, anyhow, they will change your life. And isn’t that why we do this, not to change lives but to have our lives changed?

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Nick is a 4th year History major at UBC, as well as the CEO (and sole employee) of Unboring, a free online learning site. His 5th grade report card said: "Nick is a conscientious student but distracts his classmates." You can follow him on Twitter: @unboringlearn