Entrepreneurs Should Say No to Silicon Valley’s Bully

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By Vanessa Camones (Founder & Principal, theMIX agency)

As the head of a public relations firm that represents tech startups, I’m well aware of the pressure that entrepreneurs face to get attention for their young companies. There’s no question the goal of hundreds, if not thousands, of startups is a profile in TechCrunch. It can make a company — or at least that’s the commonly held view.

But it’s also a gamble that’s often not worth taking because TechCrunch founder and editor Michael Arrington has proven he’s willing to use TechCrunch as his personal vehicle for settling scores. It’s why I advise my clients to steer clear of him.

Take the most recent example of the many instances of bad behavior on Arrington’s part.

Caterina Fake, a serial entrepreneur best known as a co-founder of Flickr, apparently learned that Mike was going to write a post about the funding she had not yet announced for her latest startup. She left Flickr and helped launch another company, Hunch, before diving into this new, stealthy startup. I don’t know Caterina, but she seems to have learned Mike’s game enough to beat him at it: She quickly posted about the funding herself on her own blog, beating TechCrunch to the scoop.

For any normal publication, that’s where the story would end. Not with TechCrunch. Arrington went to his blog and posted the following awfulness: “Last year when she left Hunch it was an extremely sordid situation. Because of some very chatty people close to the company I had all the details about her leaving, and why. And I never posted … I’m still not going to write about why Fake really left Hunch, because it’s not something that should be written.”

This wasn’t just Arrington getting even: it was a warning to any others in the Valley not to mess with TechCrunch. If you don’t give Mike dibs on writing about your company’s latest milestone, you too risk having your personal reputation publicly smeared on TechCrunch, and all of your peers, competitors and potential investors will see it. He will, in his own words, “blindside” you. Mike has already established that TechCrunch isn’t exactly “journalism” and he’s clear about his biases. But no self-respecting publication that aims to really inform and be the “pulse” of an industry would publish this kind of undocumented, sideways smear.

Unfortunately, TechCrunch’s parent company AOL (and editorial chief Arianna Huffington), seem fine with it.

If a less-known blogger had written this, it would be weasely. But it’s inexcusable from the editor of a top “business” publication; it sends the message that everyone else should lower the bar, too, if they want to compete with TechCrunch. Say whatever you want about anyone, as long as it gets you the scoops. Plus, it’s fun to vent your personal grudges to a million readers, because even though they’ll say you’re awful, they’ll keep clicking for the latest personal dirt. As one journalist joked to me, “Gosh, that post was unconscionable and by the way, who do you think Caterina Fake slept with?”

This isn’t “process journalism,” it’s bullying. It’s also unethical.

That’s why I tell clients to skip TechCrunch and reach the same influential audience with a story on a site like Business Insider, GigaOm, VentureBeat or AllThingsD. If it’s a big story, you can go to the Wall Street Journal. To be clear, I still think TechCrunch is a valuable publication, and I advise clients to pitch other TechCrunch writers. But there’s always the risk of winding up afoul of Arrington’s rules of the road.

That’s what GroupMe did last month with news of a major acquisition. Arrington’s response was classic Tony Soprano. Speaking at a CEO summit in New York, he berated a GroupMe executive in the audience. “You fucked me over,” Mike said from the podium. He told everyone GroupMe was now cut off from his site, and threatened to do the same to anyone else who doesn’t let him dictate their press coverage.

I have free advice for GroupMe: You win. If your name never appears on TechCrunch again alongside a disgusting personal attack over his latest grudge, Mike is doing you a favor. To the rest of the entrepreneurs working hard to build great products, I say this: Don’t let TechCrunch bully you.

This post was originally posted at DIGIDAY:DAILY.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Vanessa Camones is Founder and Principal of theMIX agency, a communications agency based in San Francisco specializing in counseling start-ups and stealth mode technologies focused on the business of social web services/software/tools, gaming, and wireless/mobile. theMix agency also helps traditional brands navigate the social web through workshops and premiere consulting services. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessacamones and her company at @themixagency.

  • Anna Rascouet-Paz

    Threatening targets for spiking their scoops with well-timed press releases: that’s one thing Rebekah Brooks & Mike Arrington have in common. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/blog/2011/jul/12/phone-hacking-scandal-live-coverage#block-14

  • http://www.commercedrivers.com Carissa Ganelli

    Wow, Vanessa, you have balls – and I mean that as a compliment. I respect you for going out on a limb to expose this type of behavior but I hope it doesn’t bite you in that your clients might be blacklisted from TechCrunch. You might think they are better off but they may not engage your firm in the first place if they think working with you will prevent them from getting picked up in TC. Hopefully, only good karma will come your way for this warning.

  • http://twitter.com/bigeasy Alan Gutierrez

    I’m wondering when we’re going to have an embargo on behavior like this in the startup circles. In the programmer realm, I’m really exhausted with conversations dominated by code ninjas, how we show deference to whoever is most likely to run around calling other people names. When someone is giving a presentation and says, I know that (insert blowhard hear) is going to say, “you don’t know enough crypto, but this is a simple case for illustration.”

    That is, I find people stepping around these shrill narcissists, and in doing so, giving them more props and attention. Answering to them in advance.

    It’s really absurd. Can’t we just reach the point when we can just say, I know that (insert blowhard hear) is going to have a hissy fit.” Can’t we all agree dismiss it? Can’t we let the narcissists and their sycophants have their own little breakout session, while we talk civilly among ourselves?

  • JD

    Very well done Vanessa. This needs to be said by more people in your profession & done with this kind of style & class.

    The best way to get rid of garbage like TechCrunch is to keep shining a spotlight on classless bullies like Arrington so people will once & for all avoid their website.