Peter Shankman on Building a Million-Dollar Business: Use Facebook!

At 8:30 this morning, April 24, Peter Shankman, founder of public relations company The Geek Factory, Inc. and Help a Reporter Out, was standing on a stage in New York University’s Schimmel Auditorium on West Fourth Street. He’d had just a couple hours of sleep “with an annoying cat,” having flown in on a 2:30 a.m. flight after a 24-hour trip to Orange Country in California.

This is how he describes the entrepreneur’s lifestyle: “I’m going to work 50 times as hard as any of my friends who have a 9-5 job, I’m not going to sleep. Basically, any time I have sex, it’s going to be with my BlackBerry by my side,” he told to a crowd of well-dressed businessmen and women gathered for an all-day series of panel discussions for Entrepreneur Week. Everyone giggled.

“You’re all laughing,” he said. “But you’re like, ‘He’s right.'”

Mr. Shankman was invited to NYU to deliver a keynote speech titled: “It’s not web 2.0. It’s not web 3.0. It’s simply life.” His main points on building a business? Be more transparent, keep your message short, stay relevant to your audiences and get on Facebook and Twitter—and actually use them.

“You know what my morning is?” Mr. Shankman asked. “I get up a half an hour early, I get up, go downstairs, make coffee—best thing in the world—I go down in the living room, push a ridiculously obese cat off my laptop, open up the laptop, go to Facebook and all the profile pages of people who have birthdays and write something to them.”

Mr. Shankman said this is the modern-day practice of what IAC’s Barry Diller’s did to build relationships in the media business: Pull out his Rolodex and call 10 people a day, just to say hi. Now, according to Mr. Shankman, you can poke people on Facebook instead.

“We interact with an average of 3 percent of our network, which means that 97 percent of the people we connect with on Facebook we do not give a crap about and it’s very true,” Mr. Shankman said. “You add people on Facebook when you’re drunk. You follow people on Twitter because they’re at the bar and they look cute and the next morning they don’t look so cute and we don’t care about them. But right now top-line presence is very easy to do because of Facebook.”

It’s no surprise that Mr. Shankman is a mini-cheerleader for Facebook, if only because he started his free Help a Reporter Out service on the site. Each day Mr. Shankman pings out three emails, each with 30 to 50 questions from journalists seeking experts and sources. Small businesses and PR professionals who have opted in for the service can get back to the journalists directly. It started as a Facebook group in November 2007 and now has its own Web site with 75,000 members. Help a Reporter Out is also “approaching” $1 million in revenue, according to Mr. Shankman, thanks to the ads embedded in the emails. (Sorry, Profnet!)

Mr. Shankman said he became “that guy” that reporters went to find sources because “I just talked to everybody,” he said. He often describes himself as having attention deficit disorder. But one of his clients, a scientist at NASA, said he really has A.D.O.S. “I had never heard of that before, what is that? He said that’s even worse, that stands for Attention Deficit—Oh, Shiny!”

But most of those oversharing, A.D.D.-addled folks on Twitter and Facebook are still using these social networking tools to just make noise—not necessarily build relationships, Mr. Shankman said. “Right now, social networking is just the ability to screw up to a much larger audience in a shorter amount of time,” he said. “Don’t believe me? Take five shots of Jack and Twitter something.”

“The concept of not being found out anymore is going away,” he said. He mentioned Facebook applications that use facial recognition software to automatically detect and tag friends in photos or videos you upload to Facebook from a party. “A little scary, isn’t it?” Mr. Shankman said. “You know what that does? It kills cheating.”

“That’s what’s happening now. But what it’s going to become is a way for everyone to communicate better with everyone else.”

People are already building their networks simply to get recommedations on where to travel or what restraurant to try out in real time—which makes big media recommendations irrelevant, according to Mr. Shankman. “The newspapers that are dying—they’re not all dying as fast as we think they are—but the ones that are dying are being bled to death by the restaurant reviewers, by the movie critics, by the film critics, the theater critics because we don’t need to know their information anymore because our trust is in our circle of friends on Facebook and Twitter,” Mr. Shankman said. “That’s our circle of trust that we’re starting to listen to more and more.”

“We are now in a society where we sit and we have more ways to talk about ourselves than ever before,” he said. “The problem is, is that we are now a society that no longer knows how to listen. Every single waking minute, tweeting about how we’re doing, what we’re doing.”

Beth Schoenfeldt, co-founder of Collective-E, a resource for women entreprenuers, said she was “tweeting” his talk. “I would hate to think that something I said wasn’t being live-tweeted, what’s the point of saying it otherwise?”

Peter Shankman on Building a Million-Dollar Business: Use Facebook!