Entrepreneurs Should Say No to Silicon Valley’s Bully

As the head of a PR 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.

Vanessa Camones is the founder and principal of theMIX agency, a communications agency based in San Francisco. Follow her @vanessacamones.


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