Geeks, Yarn Buses
and Skydiving CEOs
Peter Shankman definitely has a schtick, even if it’s a little hard to pin down. But it boils down to thinking creatively, letting people know who you are, and finding ways to help people that will eventually resound to your credit.
Shankman, CEO of the Geek Factory, a marketing and public relations strategy firm located in New York City, is a networker par excellence, and he works his Facebook page for all its worth. But he warns that even all the social networking possibilities of the Internet do not automatically help. “Probably if you’re a bad networker, having the tools is not going to make you better,” he says. “A bad carpenter going out and buying the latest power saw is not going to become a better carpenter.”
He talks about one woman who has become a joke in the youth marketing world. “She is renowned for adding anyone she meets to her Facebook as a friend,” he says. “If you say you don’t want to be, she adds you again.” In the end all she does is waste people’s time and is making a name for herself that she would be far better off not having.
Shankman will speak about social networking at the River Communications Group on Monday, May 12, at 5:30 p.m. at Marsha Brown’s Restaurant, 15 South Main Street in New Hope. Cost: $30. For more information, contact Beth Brody at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Much of what Shankman likes to share about networking are his own experiences in hopes of inspiring others to go off in their own.
Create a Facebook page that lets it all hang out. Shankman has crafted a Facebook page that does everything it can to let people know exactly who he is. His site is full of pictures, links, details, and random thoughts that give visitors an excellent idea of who they are dealing with. “You want to introduce yourself to people you can help,” he says. It’s not just conveying who you are and what you do. “It’s more about karma.”
Shankman is clearly the type to let it all hang out. One of his public relations stunts, after all, was getting 150 CEOs to jump out of an airplane (he jumped too and now makes it a weekly activity to get his juices flowing). So if you’re looking for someone who gets attention in unique ways, he may be your man.
Shankman says his site allows people to get a bigger picture of him. Here is what they learn: He works on his own, is an entrepreneur, has a small business, has a couple of cats, intentionally throws himself out of planes, and is a decent Scrabble player. “It’s about creating your brand,” he says, “whether you are a writer, publicist, or bricklayer, your brand is that you are good at what you do.”
Link up. Put links on your page to items of interest to your friends and clients and include more standard information about yourself, as well as links to articles where you are featured. Another possibility, he suggests, might be creating a newsletter for visitors to read or including a news feed with current stories about the industry a person works in. Or a business owner might want to invite others from the same industry to become “friends” on Facebook (meaning they can visit your page and you can visit theirs).
Create a free service to help other people. As a publicist, Shankman found that he got a lot of requests from journalists and created a service he called “Help a reporter,” which requires about 15 minutes a day of his time. Journalists are always calling him up and E-mailing him looking for sources for stories. So what Shankman does is to send out these requests, several to an E-mail, to people who are willing to receive them and be or provide sources if they know of any.
Why does he do it? “It proves you are trustworthy and willing to go on the line for people when they need help,” he says. “Most people think along the lines of ‘What’s in it for me, me, me?’ My whole concept is that if you work or live in an industry or a world where people do that, the ability to be a degree different and the willingness to help people with no return brings business.”
Use Facebook to arrange real-life get-togethers. This is something kids do all the time, and Shankman, not quite a kid anymore, has successfully created what he calls a “gathering of useful thinkers,” a calendar item on his page for a face-to-face networking drink night at a hot spot. “I foot the bill and meet tons of people in different cities,” he says. And for a publicist the more people you know the better.
Develop a set of Facebook friends. “Start with people you know,” he says, and try to find the kinds of groups where people like you are hanging out. Then join them. “There is a group out there doing whatever you can imagine,” says Shankman, “and people who want to buy whatever you can sell.”
Use Facebook information to reach out to people. Every morning Shankman checks his Facebook to see who in his network has a birthday. Then he always takes three seconds to write, “I see it is your birthday today; have a great day.” He muses about why more people don’t do this and his answer is a little sobering. “We live in a society of the least possible amount of work being done to get what you want,” he says. “My whole take is that doing one-half percent more than the rest of the masses gets you everything.”
After Shankman graduated from Boston University in 1994 with a degree in journalism and photojournalism, he went to work for America Online as a senior news editor — one of the founders of the AOL newsroom, he says.
At AOL, he did a lot of what amounted to public relations, for example, explaining what a newsroom is all about and how it could be used. Then in 1997 he returned to New York to start a public relations firm. But he had one little problem — no money.
Then he had a great idea. The film “Titanic” had just come out on video, and he had 500 T-shirts printed with the words “It sank, get over it.” They sold out in six hours at $10 each, and he pulled in $5,000. Then, smart guy with good journalistic instincts, he called a reporter at USA Today and told his story. The guy said, “That’s really funny. Are you selling T-shirts online now?” Shankman gave the obvious response: “Of course I am.”
He built a website in 10 minutes, he says, and the article was on the front page of the life section in USA Today. “The media reads USA Today to find what they want to talk about,” says Shankman. In a little under two months, he sold more than 10,000 T-shirts at $15 a pop and cleared $100,000, giving him enough money to start a company.
The name he chose was the Geek Factory, and he dealt primarily with Internet clients. In 2001, after building the firm to over 20 employees, he got an offer to sell, packed up his bags, and went to Thailand, where he expected to stay a year and not do much of anything. But after two weeks he got bored, returned home, and started a second public relations firm, also called the Geek Factory.
His company’s approach was nontraditional. “You can get into the Wall Street Journal if you want,” he would say to his customers, “but I think you can get more value if you do something crazy and work with the social media space.”
For example, you might build a “yarn bus” with giant balls of yarn on the roof to take customers 20 miles to a knitting store in upstate New York and back home again for free, on the assumption that if they were there, they would buy yarn. The bus increased business over 224 percent over a year, says Shankman.
Shankman also convinced some companies he works with to sponsor Achilles, the largest group of disabled athletes in the world, in the New York marathon, and they got huge exposure and a story in the New York Times.
Shankman started a networking company, AirKarma, the parent company of AirTroductions, for business travelers that allows members to choose a seatmate before getting on an airplane. Once passengers have created a profile and submitted an itinerary, they can see every other member scheduled on the flight. After building the company to 50,000 members, he sold it in January, 2007, and it was relaunched as TripLife, and Shankman sits on its board.
“We like to be thought of as different,” says Shankman, “and we turn down more clients than we accept, because they are not very into fun. We are big believers that clients have to be fun.”