Polymath, polylingual, poly-everything Tim Ferriss was an early investor in Twitter, even though he initially judged it to be a total time-waster.
"If you don't yet use Twitter," he wrote in March 2007. "Don't start."
Obviously, he's changed his tune since. Ferriss has amassed over 400,000 Twitter followers and is now using Twitter as a tool to evaluate potential start-up investments. More publicly, and perhaps more impressively, the author of "The 4-Hour Work Week" and "The 4-Hour Body" has also used social media to launch his latest, "The Four Hour Chef," to best-seller status, even though it was boycotted by several brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Below, we talked to Ferriss about his early investment in Twitter; the startups he's excited about now; and why he wrote a book called "The 4-Hour Chef" when he's so bad at cooking. You can read it below, and follow Ferriss on Twitter right here.
You were an early investor in Twitter. What's the biggest change you've seen since you started using it?
It's hilarious, but I was quoted at some point as saying that Twitter was “pointless email on steroids.” And I have revised that thinking over time as I saw more use cases come to light. Initially, I really saw oversharing of menial details. And I ended up investing in Twitter -- this is probably 3 or 4 years ago -- after I saw a particular case in which an Egyptian political activist had police outside of his home and he was going to be detained with most likely frightening consequences. And he sent out a tweet and the police were then surrounded by masses of supporters who did not want him to be taken away and ultimately that was the result.
And it was really that specific example that made me think that Twitter could be used for many, many different purposes and could be hugely disruptive in a lot of positive ways as a short-form broadcast tool, as a collaboration tool, and as an information-gathering source. I'm excited to see where it goes.
How do you use Twitter?
If you look at some of the most successful startups that I've ended up advising -- Evernote, Shopify -- these companies were effectively filtered through polling my audience, and then Twitter was the tool that connected me to the CEOs of those companies. Twitter and Facebook have been more effective for doing market research and picking winning companies than any degree of pro forma financial forecasting I could possibly do.
I typically do late-night polling. I can gather data oftentimes without necessarily leaving a permanent mark. I will poll audiences in different sizes. I'll have them fill out SurveyMonkey forms about which tools they like, whether it's calendaring, whether it is capturing data in the case of Evernote, whether it's e-commerce in the case of Shopify -- and I'll look for patterns in the data. I'll look for repetition. I'll look for shifts in answers. If [a company started with] 57 responses and now they have 120 so their percentage has increased dramatically, then I'll pay attention to that. And it's almost always indicative of company growth rate.
What are your favorite Twitter accounts?
I follow a lot of my friends, so Kevin Rose, Chris Sacca. I follow a fair number of venture capitalists, people like Ben Horowitz, Jeremy Levine. I follow musicians that I like, like Deadmau5. I follow hilarious entertainment figures like Harley Morenstein of Epic Meal Time. Then I follow all of my startups: Uber, and the founder Garret Camp. StumbleUpon. Duolingo, which is a language learning software. Those are a few that come to mind.
What are some of the startups you're excited about that you're advising now?
One that I'm very, very excited about it because it bridges the online and the offline is Quarterly. I curate a package or a box that goes out every three months to my subscribers full of things I'm obsessed with that have been introduced from me ranging from Fortune 500 CEOs to military snipers to some of the world's top DJs and I curate these boxes and they get sent out every three months with a personal video letter from me. I think my next box will have about 2500 subscribers and that gives me leverage to get one of a kind items that you cannot buy anywhere else. So that is super fun.
[Ed. note: Tim's last Quarterly box contained: Spectacle by David Rockwell with Bruce Mau ($49.95 retail); Edible Green Tea ($25 retail); LSTN Earbuds ($50 retail); AMRAP Refuel Bars ($23.95 retail); Creative Whack Pack ($16 retail); $20 DonorsChoose.org Gift Card ($20 retail); Hacker Credit Card, Mini Work Tool ($7.95 retail); Alpha Brain ($35 retail)]
Another one is perhaps a better well-known example, which is Automattic. That's the company behind Wordpress.com. So they just received another $50 million in funding. They're obviously powering a very high percentage of the entire Internet. With the recent news with Tumblr, it's a very hot topic these days, content creation platforms. Automattic is for my money definitely one to be bet on. I think the platform is fantastic.
You just came out with a book in November.
Yeah, The 4-Hour Chef, and the subtitle is important: The Simple Path to Cooking Like A Pro, Learning Anything, And Living the Good Life. My readers have been asking me for a book on accelerated learning for about four or five years now. If "The Four Hour Body" was for optimizing every aspect of physical performance, this book is about studying everyone from chess prodigies to memory champions to world-class athletes to figure out how anyone can acquire skills twice as quickly.
It's kind of a choose-your-own-adventure guide to accelerated learning that uses cooking to tell a lot of the stories. Because cooking uses all the senses.
What if you're a really bad cook like me?
I was microwaving liquid egg whites for breakfast in plastic containers before the book. I'm happy to have a competition with anyone for worst cook of their 20s and 30s. It's designed for people who don't cook. It's a cookbook for people who don't buy cookbooks.
It was Amazon Publishing's first big book, which was a pretty fascinating experiment and was boycotted by bookstores. It led me to have to do a lot of interesting experiments on Twitter and Facebook and partnerships with BitTorrent, for instance, since the book was boycotted at retail.
The boycott doesn't seem to have affected its success.
[Laughing] I would have sold more hardcover copies if it weren’t for the boycott but the book still hit the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and hit number one on the Wall Street Journal. So.. these times they are a changin’.
Is there a service that you wish Twitter offered that they don't currently?
I wish there were a built-in functionality that allowed me to identify the top 100 most followed people among my followers. I wish I had an analytics dashboard to get to know my followers better: where they're based; what time of day to post my tweets most effectively.
There may be some stats already baked into the platform; honestly there's a lot under the hood at Twitter that I haven’t even seen. It's a lot like Amazon: I mean, I didn't even know until a few months ago -- and I've had Amazon Prime for years since it came out -- that there are thousands of movies and TV shows I can watch for free with my Prime subscription. For all I know it could already be there, but I would love a way to get analytics on my followers and get a better understanding of the people who are most followed of my followers.
And there are some outside services that help with this. But it would be nice to have it built into the platform.
What's next for you? Do you have a new book planned?
I do not have a book planned at the moment. I would like to experiment in the visual medium, whether that's on TV or online. I think the power of teaching through video is really compelling. And I'd also like to shake up publishing. I'd like to innovate in the current spectrum of publishing models. So I’ll be hatching some plans to that effect shortly.
I filmed a pilot. I've experimented with TV in the past and done pilots here and there, and the biggest issue I have quite frankly is the culture clash between the San Francisco tech and Los Angeles entertainment mindset. The values are oftentimes at odds and entertainment is a very opaque business. It's not transparent in the least. And so there are questions of whether I want to work within that system or step completely outside that system. I think the options outside that system are gonna get very, very interesting as soon as we have millions of Apple TVs and Google TVs shipping.
When those hit critical mass -- and even before that, looking at Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, all theses various platforms -- the options for content creators have never been richer. So the big question is not so much what subject matter do i want to address in a visual medium, because I suspect it would be along the lines of lifehacking, life skills, with high stakes – but the question is really one of platform and distribution rather than the content itself.