Journalism

Perspective

Last weekend, Forbes treated us to an excerpt from Dan Lyons’ upcoming book entitled “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” which paints a not-so-glowing portrait of his time at marketing automation startup Hubspot.

Lyons isn’t the first journalist to chronicle his time at a fast-growing tech company. The canonical example is probably Michael Wolff’s “Burn Rate,” which detailed the author’s attempt at running a startup and raising venture capital during the dotcom boom, but there have been others over the years.

And I doubt Lyons will be the last — no doubt we’ll get other inside accounts of companies gone bust appearing on digital bookshelves if winter ever comes and the financial markets start to get really ugly.

Lyons’ account of Hubspot is funny at points, but the thing that stood out to me was how earnestly surprised he seemed to be about Hubspot’s attempts at building a sustainable culture, and well, how cynical he was about the whole thing. And for someone who supposedly had covered the tech industry for more than a decade, it appears to me that Lyons was pretty ill-informed about what startups look like on the inside.

But maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising.

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation in which I talked about some of the things I wish I had known about investing before joining 500 Startups. The heading for one of the slides was simply “Startups Are Fucked Up,” something I’ve learned very quickly over the past several months.

If you already work at a startup, you probably already know this. But for someone on the outside, the extent to which things are broken at startups most of the time might be cause for alarm.

That’s probably true for many who cover the industry, but it’s not necessarily their fault. In a world in which most writers only hear about what’s going well at startups — the most recent fundraise, the big new customer or partner, the huge number of users they’ve accumulated — there’s little perspective into how much of an unmitigated disaster most young companies are.

The whole thing was pretty well illustrated in a tweet shared by one of my colleagues a few weeks ago:

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.07.11 PM

My guess is that if you put any reporter in ANY startup for a year, he or she would be able to write a tell-all book. That doesn’t mean those companies are bad… Just that their problems are the ones people would actually be aware of.

Journalism, Twitter

The Scoop That Wasn’t

A few days ago, Bloomberg reported on the true identity of Startup L. Jackson, one of Twitter’s most beloved pseudonymous accounts.

While I’ve known that Parker Thompson was the guy behind the account for a while now, there was a period of time back when I was a reporter in which I didn’t know that fact… and in which I was doggedly trying to figure out exactly who was tweeting such brilliant stuff.

Anyway, the result was me spending about three weeks working on a story that never got published — and thankfully so, since I ended up being wrong about who I speculated was behind the account.

Looking back on that post, which I subsequently put up on Medium, I’m reminded of how imperfect the practice of journalism can be. A lot of times as a reporter you will hear a bit of scuttlebutt and then spend a lot of time just trying to confirm what you think to be true.

In this case, it was a piece of factual information — the name of a person — which can be pretty easy to confirm or deny. The fact that I couldn’t get someone to confirm the name of the guy behind Startup L. Jackson made it easy not to run with the story.

But then a lot of times the things you hear will be more nuanced — say, Company X is raising a big round of funding, or Company Y is having serious issues — in which it’s more difficult to get to the truth of the matter. At those times, it’s easy to get caught up in the opinions of people, many of whom will have an agenda.

Of course, it’s the journalist’s job to try to distill all of these pieces of information and report on what they believe to be the truth. But it’s an imperfect art, to be sure.

As a side note, this is something my former TechCrunch colleague Alex Wilhelm and I talked about on the podcast we’ve been working on over the past few months. Give a listen if you’re at all interested.