What does it take to start a successful business?

Peter Shankman is best known for founding Help A Reporter Out (HARO). HARO is currently the largest free source repository in the world, sending out over 1,500 queries from worldwide media each week. HARO’s tagline, “Everyone is an Expert at Something”, proves over and over again to be true, as thousands of new members join at helpareporter.com each week.

In June of 2010, less than two years after Peter started HARO in his apartment, it was acquired by Vocus, Inc. The New York Times has called him “a public relations all-star who knows everything about new media and then some,”, while Investor’s Business Daily has labeled him “crazy, but effective.”

Peter is an author, entrepreneur, speaker, and worldwide connector. He is recognized worldwide for radically new ways of thinking about Customer Service, Social Media, PR, marketing and advertising.

Say hi to Peter at shankman.com.

 Read Raw Transcript Now:

Success Harbor: Hi everyone, this is George Meszaros with Success Harbor and I have Peter Shankman with me. The New York Times has called him a ‘public relations all-star’ who knows everything about new media and then some. Once Investor’s Business Daily has labelled him ‘crazy but effective’. Peter is an author, entrepreneur, speaker, and worldwide connector. Peter is recognized worldwide for radical new ways of customer service, social media, P.R, marketing and advertising. Peter is best known for founding ‘Help a Reporter Out’ (HARO) which in under a year became the de facto standard for thousands of journalists looking for sources. Welcome.

Peter Shankman: Good to be here, thanks for having me.

Success Harbor: Thank you for being here Peter. In 2007, you had founded HARO, how did you get the idea for it?

Peter Shankman: You know, I’m a big believer in helping people. I grew up in New York City as a public school kid and one of the things I learned was, if you want something, it’s good to give something back first so I learned to help people at an early age and I talked to everyone, you know, I have really, really bad A.D.D so I talked to everyone and I talked to a lot of people and I know a lot of reporters. I just met them over time running a PR firm and they called me and they said, “Hey, who do we know? Do you know anyone who could do this, do you know anyone who could help; I’m doing a story on (whatever)?” And overtime I’d say yea I do, like pushing [inaudible 01:24] someone and it just sort of became–, it grew from that.

Success Harbor: What I love about HARO is; actually why don’t you just tell what HARO is, maybe there’s a few people in the audience who don’t know it, briefly you could describe what HARO is.

Peter Shankman: ‘Help a Reporter’ is a free service that three times a day sends emails to anyone who signs up with queries from journalists all around the world; if you can answer those queries you can get famous, you can get in the press, it’s totally free and everyone wins. You get quoted in the media which helps your business, the reporter gets the story they want.

Success Harbor: What I love about HARO is how democratic it is especially for small businesses, to connect with a journalist it used to be; it was possible but it was just so, so difficult. How long did it take for you to go from idea to validation to what HARO is today?

Peter Shankman: Well for me it was really about building something to help people and so I never really tried to make money from it in the very beginning and so I just launched it, you know; reporters would call me and say “Do you know someone who could talk about this?”, and I’d send it to my group on Facebook, my little Facebook list and then from there that sort of grew up and it became a real mailing list but again didn’t want to make any money on it and then advertisers started calling saying “Hey could we post a little ad on your list?”, and that’s when I realized there might be some money in it so from 2008-2010 HARO made about a million dollars a year in revenue. It kept growing so a million dollars the first year, little more in the second, more in the third and then it was acquired in the end of 2010.

Success Harbor: So what was the initial response of journalists in general to HARO, what was the feedback that you were getting?

Peter Shankman: They loved it; reporters were thrilled because they were able to get all this great information right when they needed it. So you have all these journalists who are really sort of on deadline, rushing their asses off and all of a sudden I’m like hey guys I have thousands of sources that know what they’re talking about who can really kind of help you out so why don’t you try it and I didn’t really pitch them, I didn’t try to sell them anything or you know; use it if you want, don’t use it if you don’t want, I don’t care and as soon as they realize the value of it they were like “Oh my God this thing is great”, so it was kind of cool like that.

Success Harbor: Did you receive any kind of criticism from people because it’s kind of a revolutionary idea, was there anybody that criticized it for some reason?

Peter Shankman: PR Newswire wasn’t a big fan because they had a similar product that they charged like 10 grand a year for, so they weren’t too happy but everyone else loved it.

Success Harbor: So what were some of the challenges with HARO especially during the first couple of years?

Peter Shankman: I think that the biggest thing was telling people about it. Once people realized what it was and how it would help people it was really easy. It was really about getting that message out there and so what I found was that the better experience someone had on HARO the better chance they were of telling someone about it and that really taught me about customer service and that’s funny because that’s what I do now, I really talk about customer service and marketing so you know, I learned that it’s really about customer service.

Success Harbor: So based on my research you didn’t spend much money on marketing HARO so…

Peter Shankman: I didn’t spend a penny on marketing HARO.

Success Harbor: Oh, not a penny, so did it basically just grow by word of mouth marketing or…?

Peter Shankman: When you’ve got quoted in the news, when you get quoted in the Herald, in the New York Times whatever everyone was like “Oh my God, how did you get quoted in the paper?” Isn’t that cool because all you want to do is share it right so you would post it everywhere; you’d be like, “Look what I did” and they’d say “How’d that happen?” “Oh I used a service call HARO you should sign up too.” I realize that everyone loves to be a finder; everyone loves to find new things before it becomes public so that was helpful.

Success Harbor: So HARO is kind of like a market place right? To bring people together and market places are inherently difficult to build or more difficult because it’s almost like you have to sell something twice. Did you find that difficult at all to bring those two people together to serve the needs of two different types of, you know, the journalists and small businesses or peer professionals?

Peter Shankman: Well because it was free, it was really easy. It’s like you sign up; you don’t sign up I don’t have to sell you anything. We had very simple rules and the rules were like ‘Make sure you be nice to the journalists, be nice to the sources’. The fifth rule; there were five rules and the fifth rule of HARO, honest to God, it said ‘Be excellent to each other’. It’s a line straight out of Bill and Tedd’s ‘Excellent Adventure’; it was really about playing nice, if you could play nice you could be on my service, if you didn’t play nice I kick your ass off.

Success Harbor: Yeah. You mentioned that HARO was making about a million dollars a year in the first couple of years, did that surprise you?

Peter Shankman: Oh it shocked the hell out of me; I didn’t expect to make a penny, I got really lucky and I mean I worked my ass off for it but it was pretty amazing. It was pretty amazing; we had a really good run, it was a lot of fun.

Success Harbor: So how did you have to work a lot; you mentioned you worked your ass off, what was the difficult work about it? Even though it sounds like you loved it and all that but still there was a lot of hard work.

Peter Shankman: I had to talk to everyone; everyone had a [inaudible 6:50] I had to explain what it was; I had to make sure that I was curating the lists properly. The lists went out at 5:45, 12:45 and 5:45pm. If I wasn’t up at 4:30 in the morning putting out the HARO, people would complain where the hell’s the HARO, what happened? This is right around the meaning of social and so I really learned to start understanding my audience and listening to my audience and things like that.

Success Harbor: So most companies do an ok job serving their customers but they’re not so great at being news worthy, what can companies do to be news worthy especially small businesses?

Peter Shankman: I think the best thing they can understand; the best thing to know is that you have this ability to tell your story and you can bore the world with your story or you can figure out trends. You can find out what’s going on in your industry that’s interested and exciting and include your company in it, when you do that it stops becoming about you and it starts becoming a much bigger picture that includes you; reporters like that a lot more.

Success Harbor: Can you think of an example recently maybe or just an example that kind of stands out for a small company that does?

Peter Shankman: There’s a huge market; I just bought a drone, a camera drone and there’s this huge market for camera drone, if I was a drone company and I pitched that “Hey look at our drone, we have the greatest drone in the world”; more than likely no one would pay attention to that but if I posted “Hey, you’re a reporter, I’m seeing a really interesting trend in New Jersey where more and more people are using drones to film high school athletics or using drones off their boat to film the ocean; you might be interested in that, I can find some of my customers who’d be willing to talk about this new trend if you’re interested in this bigger story.

Success Harbor: It seems that so many companies want stuff to go viral; it’s almost like a disease, let’s go viral. For me it’s almost like chasing something that is not there for the most part; most things never go viral but I believe in word of mouth marketing a lot more, how can we use PR to enhance word of mouth marketing or can PR be used for that?

Peter Shankman: I think the best way to use PR, in terms of growing your business, is to create great stories, allow your customers to tell these great stories. Show what the company is doing by way of how much the customers enjoy it and how much the customers are happy with it, once you do that it’s usually a lot easier to tell your story because you’re not creating–, it doesn’t sound forced. It’s the equivalent of, if I go into a bar and I see a hot girl and I go “You know what, I’m awesome in bed you should sleep with me”, she’s probably going to throw her drink in my face but if her best friend says “Holy crap that’s peter I’ve heard a lot about him you should probably go talk to him he’s pretty cool”, you know, at the very least I’m getting her number and that’s a start.

Success Harbor: Let’s talk about social media; in your opinion in what ways is social media misused today?

Peter Shankman: I think that so many people are focusing on the word ‘me’ in media; it should be called ‘social you-dia’. You should be able to talk about what’s going on in your client’s and your customers and your friends’ worlds much more than you talk about what you’re doing. I spend every morning; I take a half an hour and I email ten people in my network, I just ask them what are you working on, how can I help? I don’t try to sell anything I just ask what’s going on and from that I’ve gotten so much business and so many people remember me and talk to me and who I am and say things like that, it’s pretty amazing.

Success Harbor: So when you build your network, how should somebody build a network? Let’s say it’s a small business; what do you think is a manageable size of network and who should be in my network, is it people that are potential customers? Is it influences?

Peter Shankman: It doesn’t even matter because in two years everyone in the world is going to be in your network. It’s no longer about adding friends or clicking or liking or confirming. It’s going to be whoever you interact with; you meet a person, he’s in your network, how much you interact with them, how little you interact with them, what you do with them, the sentiment of that, that will determine where in the network they go but in terms of who should be in your network it’s irrelevant, everyone will be in your network within 48 months. Every business, every customer, every company, every person, every ex-girlfriend, anyone you interact with.

Success Harbor: Why do you think so much of social media doesn’t translate into sales for companies?

Peter Shankman: Because people are idiots.

Success Harbor: Can you be more specific?

Peter Shankman: No that’s my answer. No, I think a lot of the reason is because people don’t understand how to–, they hire people to handle social and they don’t necessarily understand that it’s not about creating social it’s about marketing, it’s about selling things. At the end of the day your job is to generate revenue and if you can’t do that, you’re doing it wrong so your job is to hire people who understand marketing, not social media geniuses but marketing experts.

Success Harbor: Can you share the Morton’s story with the steak house when you tweeted and what was the impact of that?

Peter Shankman: Yeah, it’s my favorite story. So I was at the airport flying home and I was starving and so I jokingly sent out tweets that said “Hey Morton’s, I’m hungry. Why don’t you meet me at the airport when I land in two hours and you work with the porter house ha ha ha ha ha”, and I land ok and they showed up at the porter house and it was mind blowing and it was totally unexpected and I think they got so much press out of that, it was just ridiculous. Crazy; crazy, crazy stuff so it just shows they shouldn’t have to do that every day, that’s not their job. Their job is to create awesome steaks and they do that already, this is just sort of an advance.

Success Harbor: So why do you think we don’t hear more of these types of stories or do you think companies are afraid to do this or they don’t believe in…

Peter Shankman: They don’t believe that there’s value in it and you could show them that there is, as time goes on it’s very easy to show there is value and once they figure that out then they start to understand a little more.

Success Harbor: Are you still involved with HARO? Even though…

Peter Shankman: No I sold it and I have absolutely nothing to do with it. I had a 2 year earn-out; it is no longer my company.

Success Harbor: Ok, are you working on any new ideas? What do you do now, you’re a speaker now so what are some of the topics that you talk about?

Peter Shankman: I do a lot of talks, I’m a speaker, I’m a consultant, I run a mastermind series called ‘Shank-minds’, which is all you can find at shankminds.com and that goes all over the country; all over the world actually where we help small businesses really take it to the next level. It’s exciting stuff; we’re having a lot of fun with that so I’m doing the speaking and I’m doing consulting in the masterminds, I’ve just written my forth book it comes out next winter so I’m having a lot of fun.

Success Harbor: What is the new book about?

Peter Shankman: The new book is called ‘Zombie Loyalists, and it’s all about creating amazing customer service; such incredible customer service that your customers actually become zombies, they want to bring more customers to you.

Success Harbor: Why do you think that so many large companies have so horrible customer service?

Peter Shankman: Because there’s a huge; huge, huge disconnect between the CEO who believes that everything is great and the people on the ground who know that it’s not and they don’t listen to each other. CEOs don’t want to hear it, they’re surrounded by ‘yes-men’, they need to get their shit together and need to understand that it’s never been easier to lead a company. Thirty years ago you wanted to leave a bank you had to take five trips to the bank, if you’re a woman, forget it you had to bring your husband. Today I could switch banks and all my money and move it in two seconds by clicking a link, they got to get better.

Success Harbor: What is the best advice you’ve ever received Peter?

Peter Shankman: Fail often. Someone told me to fail often and make sure that I fail a lot and document every failure and only then can you succeed because you learn from it. I actually created a podcast around that called ‘The Mistake Podcast’ and in the Mistake Podcast every week we interview people, with CEO’s and ask them their biggest mistakes.

Success Harbor: What do you think is the most important thing for an entrepreneur to focus on during the first one year of being in business?

Peter Shankman: I think It’s really about getting a product out there, getting something out there that’s [inaudible 15:36] getting something out there that works. Getting people to understand why it’s valuable; never losing that passion, letting the people who understand why it’s valuable tell your story for you.

Success Harbor: And what do you think is the biggest time-waster for small business owners?

Peter Shankman: For me it was really about paying attention to what the haters said; I wasted too much time paying attention to what the haters said. Doing it over again I wouldn’t even bother listening to them.

Success Harbor: Well do you have any last word of wisdom for our audience about either customer service or entrepreneurship?

Peter Shankman: The expectation of customer service and even entrepreneurship in this country is that we expect to be treated like crap, if you can figure out a way to treat your customers; if you can be one level above crap, it doesn’t even have to be good. Just one level above crap; your customers will remember you, be five levels above crap, they’ll take a bullet for you, that’s how you grow a business.

Success Harbor: Well Peter how can people connect with you or find out more about you or maybe find out more about your upcoming book?

Peter Shankman: Well my entire life is at shankman.com, that’s easy and everything I do runs in shankman.com. My twitter handle is @PeterShankman, on facebook.com/PeterShankman, LinkedIn.com/PeterShankman. You can pretty much find me in all the places in the world as Peter Shankman and you can email me [email protected], I answer every email I get.

Success Harbor: Thanks you very much Peter and everybody out there go and check out shankman.com, connect with Peter. Thank you for coming on Success Harbor.

Peter Shankman: Pleasure was mine.

Success Harbor: Bye.