Still very much at TechCrunch, also off next week

My short post announcing my exit from Crunchbase that I’ve had pinned to my Twitter page has picked up some reads in recent days, and at a few notes from VCs and founders either asking where I’m heading next, or, in the case of one investor, which venture capital firm I am joining.

I am heading nowhere next, and am still happily employed at TechCrunch. But I do suppose that it’s time to update my pinned tweet. Hence this short entry.

In other news, I am off next week for a bit of a recharge, so if you email me in the coming days expect even slower service than usual. Back the week after next.

Hugs — Alex

All hail our corporate truth overlords

This is my personal blog. There will be the stray typo. All corrections to press@coinbase.com, thanks! — Alex

I’m bored of the tech companies vs. media discourse because it’s nearly entirely bullshit. Sure, there’s a little public angst between a small cohort of investors and investors arguing with a few folks in the media, but that’s the entire affair.

You might think that there’s more to the narrative given how much attention it receives, but there really isn’t. If you could peruse my inbox or DM folder you’d see what I mean. Nearly every single venture capitalist, venture-backed startup, and bootstrapped upstart wants TechCrunch’s attention. And the investing groups and startups that they back spend handsomely each and every month to buy themselves PR mercenaries in an effort to to snag our ear.

So when you hear companies discussing going direct to their audiences over engaging with the media as their lead communications strategy, bear in mind that you are hearing the decidedly minority perspective.

Not that there’s any problem with being in the minority. In fact it’s often where you want to be. But in this case the less-popular view is convincing a lot of NPCs that it’s actually the leading perspective. It’s not.

I’m circling towards Coinbase’s news this week that it wants to go direct to its audience more, and talk to external media less.

The company’s decision to bulk up its internal content operation is just fine. I don’t really care if Coinbase blogs more or less. But I did want to point out a few passages from the CEO’s note that are worth chewing on, from my perspective, as illustrative of the mindset that has led to Coinbase’s decision.

The first is something worrisome. Here’s Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong discussing the option of taking the “fight” to the media (emphasis added):

The opposite end of the spectrum [to “Option 1: turn the other cheek”] is to actively fight back. Any time someone posts false information about your company, it’s war. Come out swinging and never back down.

This is a legitimate strategy that some companies have engaged in. Amazon’s recent responses to Andrew Yang or Elizabeth Warren are in this direction, along with FedEx’s CEO aggressively pushing back on a story they found inaccurate. And Peter Thiel’s takedown of Gawker may be the canonical example.

The advantage of this approach is that you are standing up for yourself.

After reading this a few times I can’t escape the read that Brian is arguing that funding someone else’s lawsuit against a publication you found rude, leading to its financial execution simply because it made you mad and you had lots of money, is “standing up for yourself.”

You can learn more about someone when they have power over others than when they don’t, and I think the above excerpt — do read all of Brian’s post here, for fuller context — tells us quite a lot about how the Coinbase chief views himself, and the place he thinks that he and his fellow billionaires should hold in the world.

(Pausing for a moment: Brian’s entire piece is built from his personal politics, ironically. I also find it humorous that the putatively-libertarian leaders of the tech world are essentially conservative monarchs, serving their own claim to a crown.)

If Brian is morally content with arrogating to one’s bank account and grudge reserve the right to kill off troublesome publications, it’s not surprising that his argument against such activities is not that it’s wrong to do so. Instead, he writes that it’s “time-consuming [and can take away] your energy away from building.”

He closes this part of his larger riff by comparing the media to mud-and-shit-encrusted pork:

You need to be prepared to go all the way, and it needs to be in line with your brand. There is an old quote which says “never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it”.

What’s the solution? In Brian’s view, for corporations to become the source of truth:

I believe there is a reasonable middle ground between these first two options [pacifism, war], which is to simply publish the truth, in a thoughtful and respectful way, and build a direct relationship with your audience. Companies no longer need to go through biased intermediaries to communicate with their customers and stakeholders. They often have equal or greater reach via their blog, podcast, or YouTube channel. In many cases, the only organization that knows what really happened is the company itself.

He goes on to cite a 2013 Tesla post arguing that a review was unfair. Never mind that that company has a history of losing in court on the matter of lying — here’s a 2020 example from Germany — from Coinbase’s perspective, Tesla offers a positive example of how to deal with the media.

Anyone who has ever had more than a passing chat with a company’s communications team should have a pretty averse reaction to the idea corporations deciding what is true. Brian may have felt some of that tension, perhaps leading to the following attempt at finding middle-ground:

This “fact check” approach is not about antagonizing or embarrassing others, but simply sharing what happened through your own channels. It also means sharing the good along with the bad, with radical transparency. Companies are often reticent to share negative facts, in their inherent desire to look good, and therefore also have a conflict. To become a source of truth, companies will increasingly need to be comfortable sharing facts which paint them in a negative light as well. There is nothing like sharing mistakes, to build trust.

To which we can reply, like hell.

The expectation that companies will be able, let alone willing to regularly self-police is silly. We know this because we have legion history of companies doing precisely the opposite. It is nearly never in the interest of a corporation to be entirely honest even internally, let alone externally.

Still, it’s what Brian wants:

Companies are now emerging as a third source of truth, and can create accountability when misinformation is spread via other channels.

Amazon and Netflix built their own studios, Hubspot acquired the Hustle, a16z is going direct, Stripe has Stripe Press, and many more tech companies are quickly ascending the stack from mere “content marketing” to full-on media arms, complete with editors-in-chief and original content. As Balaji Srinivasan points out, this is the mirror image of legacy media corporations hiring engineers and declaring their aspiration to become world-class tech companies. There is no distinction anymore between app, distribution, and content — everyone is going full stack.

Wishful thinking is my most generous read of what Brian is arguing for.1

But it’s not up to me. Readers, broadly, will decide what to consume, whom to trust, and where to place their time and attention. And judging by the growth we’ve seen at publications like The Block and others, it appears that even the crytpo world understands the value of journalism despite what some of its more towering figures want you to think.

Regardless, all hail our new corporate truth overlords.

Let’s see if they can convince more folks that reading coverage from people without a financial stake in what they are covering is worse than listening to folks who have a direct incentive to paint their own activities in the best possible light.

1

I won’t detour on the Balaji citation for the sake of time, but media companies trying to build better tooling to stay alive in a digital world is not the same thing as deciding that your company is the correct source of truth. How you view this particular false equivalence will depend on your politics and place in the larger corporate world, but I don’t buy it.

Amazon, MGM, and fucking hell

How about using some of that money to better pay your staff?

I only get to write for this little personal blog here/there in snatches of time. There will be the stray typo. Don’t let it get to you.

I am supposed to be writing up a neat little funding round at the moment. It can wait.

The big news out this morning is that Amazon is buying MGM, a move that has been expected for some time now. And, as always, the transaction is being treated as something neat. This happens whenever BigCo1 buys BigCo2; folks can’t help but genuflect when confronted with a huge purchase price. Surely the rich of the world know what they are doing?

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they do not. Some rich people are dumb as hell. Jeff is trending towards camp two in my books after designing a yacht that can’t hold a helicopter, necessitating a second, chase yacht. Ah yes, that’s the solution.

More money, more problems!

Which appears to be what’s going on with this MGM deal. Sure, it’s fun to note that Amazon increasingly feels like Ballmer-era Microsoft, presuming that advantage in one market means that it can dominate any. But I can’t help but note the embarassing, awful, soul-crushing tension between Amazon the cutthroat ecommerce machine that grinds up its warehouse staff, steals ideas from its marketplace retailers, and has about as much contrition whenever it does wrong as a dog staring up from a dinner plate it just cleared — and the company that just threw billions at a movie studio.

If Amazon had all that money all the time why didn’t it pay its staff more? Or treat them better at a tiny expense to its margins?

The company’s implicit argument in its The Jungle style of employee management is that the harsh conditions are needed to make its economics work. Anyone who can read an income statement knows that that isn’t true. But now we have another strong indication of just how not true it is.

Amazon bought MGM. I can’t stop laughing while being somewhat angry.

Whenever we read about how the company had to publicly admit that its workers are pissing in bottles, or being pressured to drive unsafely to meet quotas, or having their union quashed, just recall that Jeff will soon be able to helicopter from his support yacht to his main yacht, and then settle down in his own floating cinema — I presume that any Bond Villain of the sort that Jeff surely considers himself would build a theater on their main boat — to watch a movie about another aging boomer who outfoxes his age with moxie, produced by a studio that he bought on the back of underpaying the folks who made him his money.

Huzzah.

Five years of not boozing

Holy shit

This is my personal blog. All typos to holden@finledger.com. Thanks! — Alex

I was supposed to write something longer for this milestone, but it crept up on me and I didn’t. Here we are.

Today is the fifth anniversary of not drinking, if I have my dates correct; Liza promises that I do, and some of my favorite humans like Cullen also have it on their calendars. If my dad calls me this afternoon to mark the occasion, I’ll be certain.

Regardless of whether we have the date right or off by a single day, what matters is that I made it. I made it a half fucking decade without drinking.

It’s an unfathomable period of time.

By the end of my active alcoholic period, not drinking during breakfast was impossible. I couldn’t a last few hours without without suffering the consequences. Now I can do five years? Wild.

I’ve written about every yearly milestone since 2016. This might be the final yearly entry in this series, I suppose. Not that I am going to start drinking again; I am not. But instead I might halt the yearly notes as I have sufficiently rebuilt my life to the point that am no longer counting the days, let alone months, of non-boozing time. So these notes have become less celebrations of relief, and more a chance to publicly ruminate. And I do too much of that already.

No longer tabulating booze-sobriety in months, let alone hours, is thanks to a full-life remodel, my incredibly steady, supportive, patient, and brilliant spouse, and a number of other changes (exercise! therapy! anti-anxiety meds! and so forth!) that, in aggregate, help me to stay moderately centered a good chunk of the time.

I still have to keep tabs on myself. But over time my fantasy of giving everything up and moving to a small patch of beach to drink myself rapidly to death has lost more and more of its luster. And spending a bit more time planking after hitting the Peloton has made fractionally more sense.

Maybe part of that is just growing up. Maybe part of it is simply distance from the last time I went through terror-inducing alcohol withdrawal. Whatever it is, I am different than I was, and I get to rest a little bit on those changes as they become more than forced habits.

Keeping brief, it’s been more than a pleasure over the last half-decade to get to talk to so many of you about moderation (hard, not for everyone), quitting (hard, not for everyone), rehab (boring, worth doing if you need it), and balance (hard, good for everyone), and the rest of it.

I am still figuring things out, so regardless of whether you are -12 hours sober or 24 years off the bottle, thank you for the conversations, the honesty, and your patience with, and trust in me.

We’ll get through this together.

News, media, marketing, and power

Let's talk about Coinbase

It’s early and I am late for work. There will be stray typos in the following paragraphs. Please ignore them. All complaints, corrections to ryan@scrawler.co (Scrawler Media). — Alex

News is out this morning that Coinbase is getting into the media game. The revelation shouldn’t surprise. Coinbase, part of the larger a16z family, has seen its long-time backer build up its own media operation through internal team-building, and external investment.

a16z backs Clubhouse and Substack, two companies that could be construed as empowering smaller creators, talkers, and writers outside of the traditional media landscape. That parental ethos, mixed with Coinbase’s liquid wealth, gisting down to a crypto media arm is not a shock.

From Axios:

While sources say the media operation would act as a top-of-the-funnel marketing vehicle to draw more people to its cyptocurrency exchange, it also could be used to help the company drive its own narratives. […]

Between the lines: The idea, still in its early stages, is to hire an in-house team of roughly 30 to run a cross-platform media operation. The operation would be led by a VP Content & Editorial, which the company is still searching for, according to two sources.

(For reference, that’s an editorial team probably around the size of TechCrunch’s writing staff, if I am counting correctly.)

A company building its own internal content creation machine is standard in today’s startup economy; as on-demand pricing becomes increasingly common, and self-service sales takes successive bites out of the traditional enterprise SaaS sales model, building out libraries of content to attract externals to the corporate site is table stakes.

But then, there’s that Axios point noting that Coinbase’s media arm “also could be used to help the company drive its own narratives.” That stuck in my craw a bit.

This is where internal media-ish operations (normal, fine) try to do a bit more than just talk a company’s — or an investing firm’s — book. And the idea is becoming more and more popular. And confused.

There’s a key difference between building a media-ish operation and a news operation; the latter, I think, is what many folks conflate the former with. And it’s an error.

In the Coinbase example, Axios notes that “unlike a typical newsroom, that person would report into Coinbase's marketing team.” Got it. Let’s talk about that issue, and what it means regarding media-ish work, and news, at for-profit, non-media companies.

Media?

I have had the somewhat unique experience of starting news media organizations at two different startups (Mattermark and Crunchbase). In both cases, I reported to the CEO. That was a key part of my acceptance of the work, as I was not interested in doing the company’s marketing job. (And, to be entirely clear, am wholly unqualified to do so.)

What I was interested in doing is building an independent team to cover the private markets — the focus of both Mattermark and Crunchbase. And in both cases it went medium, more or less. Mattermark, for example, was a messy year for me as I had to dip to rehab for a half month. And then the company’s cash issues became sharp, dooming the news project.

Crunchbase went better for a few years, until I ran out of internal political capital and, after around 2.5 years of independence and work that I am very proud of — a bunch of the Crunchbase News team are now at TechCrunch with me, doing kickass work — wound up at a crossroad that involved my either accepting my team being moved into the marketing org, or leaving.

So I left. No hard feelings, welcome to startups. Things change. You just have to know what your hard lines are, and what you want to do next.

But with some folks saying that Coinbase is building a media arm, the answer is only sorta.

It’s building something that will produce content. But that output not going to be more than pre-chewed, pro-crypto blather. That’s because marketing’s job is incredibly different than a news’ teams own; its metrics are different, its timeline is different, its approach to writing is different, its approach to paying attention to sales’ needs (it wants to) and potential customers (it has to), are antithetical to what a news team does.

And the editor that they hire won’t have much ability to push back against the head of marketing, a person inside of startups who has way more budget than the media group, frankly, and pull with other divisions inside the company that the media group won’t be able to combat.

So the term media in the case of what Coinbase is building feels a little bit much. It’s building out its personal megaphone. It’s bolstering its own Coinbase Is Great message. Cool. But media? The word implies some sort of independence, I think; it learns towards news.

To call what the company is doing, working to hire a vassal to its marketing head to write more blogs about the company, media just feels wrong. No matter from where it hires its impending editor from. That person’s heritage is moot once it runs crossways to the company’s messaging, positioning, or market focus.

Coinbase is not alone in looking to build out a large content operation, seeded with traditional journalism experience. I know because one tried to hire me the other week. I declined, as I did not want to trade a job that trusted me to do journalism for a place where I’d report to someone who’d report to someone who probably didn’t like journalism. You know?

Anyhoo, the much-ballyhooed media-push by startups to drive their own narratives smacks more of CEO hubris than it will likely engender in real-world impacts. But who cares, it’s not our money.

Loading more posts…