Who You Know Vs. What You Know

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 05/24/2006

A sore point of late has been that my professional edge has always come from staying up late, waking up early, and general excessive toiling. This worked well when my primary duties at work were aligned to the same extracurricular activities, and compounding returns could occur. Unfortunately, that is not the case with my recent endeavor, where I accepted the blessing and the curse of a prestigious title. I’m now the VP of a public relations firm in NYC. Sounds impressive but think what that means for someone whose effectiveness came from WHAT I KNOW, and not WHO I KNOW. Never has the battle between the two methods of power and influence been as clear as when I entered the profession of public relations.

Let’s face it: in the long-run, “who you know” is more powerful than “what you know.” It gives you access to shortcuts that are not available to the average Joe. Some may argue that knowing George H. B. may have somehow helped G.W.B. But in a broader sense, being well connected just tends to open a lot more doors. In a very real way, the Web has helped fix the situation (yes, I view it as a situation that needs fixing), and the system of venture capital helps the little guy achieve some measure of wealth if their pitch and business plan (what they know) is strong enough. But even more than the system of VC, Internet search has further leveled the playing field. In a way, this is why I was attracted to search optimization as a profession. I was always good at organizing information, which could be applied to engineering, graphic design, or even music—all careers you are unlikely to get rich at. But SEO… ahhhh, that is a different story. You could get rich.

For someone so drawn to SEO, because I favor the whole “what you know” approach over “who you know”, it was a rude awakening going into the PR world. First-off, as a newly minted VP, I had much less time to delve into real development work. This was a real problem as maintaining my value as that VP relied greatly on the knowledge I acquired in such immersion. Consequently, the more distracted I was by day-to-day activity, the less valuable I was as a VP—a real conundrum! It had to be fixed fast.

So, following my standard way of addressing such problems, I started staying up late, waking up early, and generally obsessing over work. Not only is it unhealthy, but it ended a relationship (albeit indirectly) that I greatly valued. I still feel 18 years old—until I miss a night or two of sleep. Then I realize I’m almost 36 years old and can’t/shouldn’t switch in and out of college-finals mode quite so easily. I have to regain my edge and not become a worthless VP. My answer was getting my comrade-in-arms, Adam Edwards, to cover for me while I, as Stephen Covey would put it, sharpened my saw doing my most important development work to date.

So, how do you solve the “who you know” problem, when you’re a “what you know” guy in the middle of NYC who can’t talk about what you know for fear of giving away the secret sauce of your profession (in this case, SEO)? You make the trade secrets no longer a secret, and you talk about them prolifically. You take the secrets and wrap them into a new Web 2.0 services, give it a nifty logo, make sure people can understand it (yes, it is obtuse or else everyone would already be doing it). You tap the “who you know” connections of your employer to jump-start the process, and you start practicing what you preach, in order to promote the site once it exists.