Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Techcrunch, Soap Operas, Start-ups, Exit Strategies and Hunter Thompson - This Ain't The Bubble of Love

If you missed the news -- or failed to Tivo your soaps -- the drama surrounding the staff at Techcrunch has continued through the week and into the weekend. Sunday morning while going through my usual blog-reading ritual, I came across this story, TechCrunch Writer Skewers New Editor In Resignation Letter, over on Talking Points Memo. Anyone that's been watching already had some idea of where this was going, it was simply a matter of which writer.

Here's a link to Paul Carr's last post, I’m Leaving TechCrunch. Here’s Why. It's worth a read. If you're into the soap opera, you can also read Erik Schonfeld's, Paul, I Accept Your Resignation. The whole thing is probably the best example of a Silicon Valley gossip story since Valleywag was gobbled up.

Still, I found Paul Carr's piece interesting and inspiring on a number of levels. This post isn't so much about the current events at Techcrunch. Let's start with brief synopsis of the big picture story of the Techcrunch events:
  • Guy founds start-up based on unique product and experiences unexpected success. 
  • Start-up grows and grows, hiring people and expanding their audience.
  • Eventually, a larger company sees that success and thinks that they need them some of that money.
  • The big company eats the little company and two things happen:
    - The people at the little company realize that it is not a little company any more
    - The people at the big company run around saying, "Oh my god, oh my god, can you believe what they were doing? We have to fix this."
  • Big company people try to fix, little company people become former, and the combination makes that which was acquired not be that any more. 
In essence, this is little more than a cycle of life in the world of start-ups and M&A. Within this cycle, you'll also see the people from the little company -- people who have lived and breathed the birth of the little company entity -- passionately morn the demise of the little company. These people have tasted the fire and have dreamed of changing the world. They have seen the world of possibility.

What Does It Mean When You Buy A Blog?
So what does it mean when you buy a blog -- do you buy a writer, do you buy a voice, do you buy an audience or maybe even a community? Is it similar to what News Corp. got when they purchased MySpace? Is it what Time Warner got in it's deal with AOL? Perhaps it's like buying a cast of puppets, dreaming of all of the new ways that you can use them to make money, then pissing off the puppeteer and pushing him to quit -- even if you own the puppets, do you really own the characters, the voices, or the show?

It's hard to fault the founders of a start-up for finding an exit strategy and a payout. Finally, there is a financial return on all that work, all of those hours invested. Perhaps it stabilizes the business, perhaps it brings the infrastructure that you need -- there are many reasons that it may be a good idea, strategic justifications for the choice. But for the big company with the fat wallet, the equation is different. I think that I would have a hard time recommending the purchase of a web media property or the idea of 'buying' a relationship. Sure there are a host of meta-justifications that you can use -- it will look good to investors, expand our market opportunities, open a whole new world of consolidated advertising options, etc. -- but you can't buy the audience.

Paul Carr's post opens with a quote from Hunter S. Thompson. Full disclosure, I've always been a fan of Thompson and invested in many of his published works. It goes without saying that I'm not the only fan of Thompson. As with successful start-ups, there have been many that have attempted to mirror Thompson's style, to clone his formula -- maybe make it gonzo journalism in the cloud or gonzo journalism for web 2.0 -- then expect success. A common formula for the Thompson wannabes is lots of drink, maybe some drugs, a dash of crazy, then maybe try to write something. But try as they might, it's never the same.

Like many start-up guys, I think Hunter Thompson carried a certain amount of loathing for the take-over and monetization of the culture that was before it was 'The Summer of Love.' As a cultural record, gonzo journalism like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is deeply nuanced. Much of the joy and the humor is only really available if you understand the history, if you understand the culture, if you are the audience. For the rest of the world, it's just some silly story about some crazy guy who takes a lot of drugs. Inspiration? Or perhaps it's similar The Man Show once Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla left.

In life, in history, there are moments. They last for the blink of an eye and then they are gone. Even Bob Dylan is amazed by the things that he wrote when he was younger. But it's not a recipe. Sure, you can look around and find an amazing amount of genius cooking right here in the bay area -- the perfect environment to culture sourdough and free-form ideas -- but you don't get there just by being here. So while the world imagines a bay area like The Social Network or they dream of their 2.0 riches, perhaps they will sit back and think, "what we need is an office like Yelp with a beer keg and an Xbox room". We were just outside of Atherton when the VC funding kicked in...

Over the past day or two, I've found myself occasionally skimming through the Techcrunch headlines and bylines, looking for something... toothsome. Instead, what I've felt most strongly is a sense of absence. Something is gone now. Sure, I've seen a couple of posts from people who were theoretically in the drama, some from people who didn't appear to be involved -- but there is a meta-layer of energy that's gone.

And for Paul Carr, I wish him well and I'll probably follow him on Twitter. For Paul I would borrow this quote from Where the Buffalo Roam.
Well I guess if I had to swear one way or another, I'd say Lazlo wasn't insane. He just had very strange rhythms. But he stomped on the terra. Lord Buckley said that. It's hard to say he got what he deserved, because he never really got anything, at least not in this story. And right now, this story is all we have ... It's sad. But what's really sad is it never got weird enough for me.

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