Fail Fail Win: Never Give Up

Two 2009 tweets by WhatsApp (acquired for $16+ billion today) cofounder Brian Acton that show that even the most successful entrepreneurs need to face a little failure here and there:




Jesus, Vonage, This Is Pathetic

I’m a long time Vonage user, staying loyal even as Comcast offers a better (bundled) deal for phone service. But lately they’ve been calling me non-stop with sales calls. I stopped answering at some point but they just leave voicemail messages saying I need to call them back urgently. For a sales call.

Anyway, putting aside the fact that the person talking seems supremely uninterested in what she’s saying, the quality of the calls is atrocious. I’ve noticed this before, but this message today really shows how bad the call quality is, particularly near the end.

Vonage, is this really the brand image you want? At least make sure your calls can be heard.

Listen here.

“We Just Cared More”

When I reflect on the last 10 years, one question I ask myself is: why were we the ones to build this? We were just students. We had way fewer resources than big companies. If they had focused on this problem, they could have done it.

The only answer I can think of is: we just cared more.

Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s tenth anniversary, pondering the same question so many other people have asked.

Startups have a great disadvantage in resources yet consistently beat established companies in building new products that people want. This isn’t going to change.

The Disinformation

When Jessica Lessin’s The Information launched a month ago I was an enthusiastic supporter, paying the $400 yearly subscription fee right away to get access to quality tech content.

I remember blinking when I read about her joking to tech execs at the launch party that they could pay $10,000 and kill a story, thinking that it really wasn’t all that funny.

It was clearly a joke, but it wasn’t the kind of joke I would have ever made when running TechCrunch. People fawn all over tech reporters in the hope of getting good coverage or being able to squash bad coverage. A lot of reporters eat it up. Joking about being able to pay to kill a story isn’t just a joke, it’s a reminder about power relationships that often lead to bad reporting.

Anyway, I put that out of my mind almost before I finished reading it.

But now something has happened that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. They have apparently altered a quote in a story about Y Combinator’s Paul Graham. In addition to altering the quote, they left out all the context of his statement, which was an answer to a question that wasn’t printed in the final post.

Graham’s blog post on the issue is here.

A quote from an “interview” with me (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a minute) went viral on the Internet recently:

We can’t make women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

When I saw this myself I wasn’t sure what I was even supposed to be saying. That women aren’t hackers? That they can’t be taught to be hackers? Either one seems ridiculous.

The mystery was cleared up when I got a copy of the raw transcript. Big chunks of the original conversation have been edited out, including a word from within that sentence that completely changes its meaning. What I actually said was:

We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

I.e. I’m not making a statement about women in general. I’m talking about a specific subset of them. So which women am I saying haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years? This will seem anticlimactic, but the ones who aren’t programmers.

Lessin has so far stood by her the story, saying that their editing and excerpting were for clarity.

This is, in my opinion, one of the worst sins in reporting.

And really, three sins were committed. The first was changing a quote. You just can’t do that, ever. The second was omitting contextual information which would have made the statement intelligible. And the third was taking a background discussion about Paul’s partner Jessica Livingston and turning it into an “interview” in the first place.

It’s extremely frustrating to have your words rearranged, edited and taken out of context to make it seem like you’re saying something you aren’t. It has happened to me repeatedly, to the point where I rarely even consider doing interviews any more. More often I’ll make statements in writing, but only under the condition that my entire answer be printed, not just an excerpt.

When reporters do this they’re spreading disinformation and being unethical. The result is that people don’t want to talk about anything controversial, because they know there’s a chance that they’ll be made to look like fools.

Yesterday I said I will cancel my subscription to The Information if what Paul says is true. Unless Jessica has anything further to say on this in her defense, I’ll be doing that shortly.

Update: Jessica writes about this here. My response (and I think I’m done here).

Bravo, Mark Pincus

In a meaningless meeting with President Obama, packed with large political donors from techland, one tech leader said something he wasn’t supposed to. He asked President Obama to simply pardon Edward Snowden:

A source familiar with the meeting told CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper that one of the executives, Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, which makes on-line social games, suggested to the President that he pardon NSA leaker Edward Snowden, but Obama said he could not do that. The suggestion of the pardon was first reported by the Washington Post.

And sources told Tapper, anchor of CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” that Obama shared with the executives that NSA reforms will be announced in January, but those invited to the meeting got the impression from the President that bulk collection from the NSA would not likely stop any time soon, but that more attempts at transparency would be made.

Bravo, Mark.

App Store Top Five: QuizUp #1, MoviePop #4


Happy to see two CrunchFund companies in the top five App Store rankings today: QuizUp at #1 and MoviePop at #4.

Both of these apps use what I’ve previously called “simulated synchronous gameplay” – it feels like you’re playing against someone in real time, but really you’re playing against a recorded game.

Both are a ton of fun. MoviePop is from the same company that makes SongPop; QuizUp has over a million downloads in its first week.

Thoughts On TechCrunch Disrupt

I wrote some tweets today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

At a very high level, here are the problems I see with where Disrupt is going:

1. I get that this is turning into a very big business for Aol. But TechCrunch Disrupt should be a conference with a focus on editorial, not sales.

2. Editorial at TechCrunch seems to be completely submissive to sales. If sales wants something, it happens. Way too many sponsors on stage, for example. And the speakers are nearly constantly herded to “VIP events” that are really just sponsor events where sponsors pay to have a captive audience of well known entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Speakers are being packaged and sold to sponsors, and they are complaining about it.

3. Picking the winner of the battlefield startup competition should be free of any influence of non-editorial people and judges. The only people who should be in the room to decide who wins the battlefield should be the judges and the editors, and the editors shouldn’t be voting or trying to influence decisions.

4. It should be completely reasonable for judges to discuss the option of not having anyone win the battlefield at all if the quality level isn’t there. TechCrunch management today didn’t allow that conversation to happen, saying it would send the wrong message. Those people shouldn’t even be in the room, let alone directing the conversation.

TechCrunch should be strong enough to withstand criticism, and I hope they understand that I give this advice out of love, not malice. In any event, I’m not going to participate in the battlefield in the future.




Google Should Buy Twitter Before The IPO

A few years ago Google had the opportunity to buy Twitter but passed on the opportunity because they were developing Google+ and didn’t think they needed it.

Today Google+ is supposedly the no. 2 social network after Facebook, but I don’t buy it. No one I know uses Google+ much, if at all. And I certainly don’t see people giving out their Google+ names on the cable news networks and other TV shows. Twitter dominates there.

Google+’s user numbers are juiced simply because Google forces the product on everyone, and if you use Google to authenticate yourself to third parties, you are using Google+.

Frankly I don’t see Google+ as being any more successful than Google Video was in competing with YouTube. I might be wrong, there might be a real base of hard core Google+ users out there who start and end their day on Google+, but I just don’t see it making any kind of mark on our culture at all.

Twitter, on the other hand, is the only really massive social network where the network effect has really kicked in. It is less than Facebook in some ways, and better than Facebook in some ways.

Google needs to buy Twitter just like they bought YouTube.

It won’t be cheap.

Twitter filed a surprisingly low range for its upcoming IPO today – $17 – $20 per share. That works out to a $11 billion valuation on the high end.

That’s lower than most people expected. And it’s just pocket change to Google. The company has added around $45 billion in market cap in just the last couple of months.

At the very least it would be a hedge against Facebook if Google+ fails (which I think it has). And on the upside Google could really let Twitter blossom, much like they have with YouTube.

Also, many people I’ve spoken with think that Twitter’s data alone would be worth tens of billions of dollars to Google’s search team.

Of course even if Google did make an offer to buy Twitter, Twitter would have to accept before it could happen. And Twitter’s current executive team is probably more interested in going it alone. “Giving up” and selling just prior to an IPO would feel like losing to them, I’d imagine.

But Twitter would still have to consider the offer because the board of directors has a fiduciary duty to shareholders. If Google offered substantially more than $11 billion, the board would find it difficult to justify turning them down.

As a user I’d like to see Twitter stay independent. But I’ve thought for years now that Google is crazy for not doing anything it could to buy Twitter. Who knows, maybe there really is something interesting going on at Google+. But I doubt it.

Disclosure: CrunchFund owns shares in Twitter. I personally own Google and Facebook stock.

Unveiling Stealth Y Combinator Startup URX

URX1-1Twice a year Y Combinator shows off its most recent batch of startups at a packed-house demo day in Mountain View. The goal of these startups is to attract investor and press attention. Sometimes, though, a particular startup wants neither, and stays in stealth mode until some later date.

URX, from the last Y Combinator batch, is one of those companies. There has been no press about URX at all, until right now.

Note: CrunchFund has invested in URX, although for now the company isn’t disclosing any other information about money they’ve raised.

URX is a mobile advertising platform. But it’s not about pushing app installs (~$300 million/year just for Facebook, around $1.2 billion/year industry-wide). It’s about getting users who already have apps installed on their devices to actually use and make purchases in them via product advertisements in other apps and websites.


URX helps app developers showcase all of the products in their apps with targeted ads. The desktop equivalent of this is Google’s Product Listing Ads, which have greatly simplified ad management for e-commerce operators on the web. Deeplinks are particularly compelling for mobile commerce companies (Retail, Travel, Local, Food, Deals, etc.) that want to jump in and offer a product to one of their users in real-time.

Facebook JUST announced that they’ll be supporting ads that deeplink to other apps:

However, app discoverability is only one of the challenges of building a mobile app. Developers are also faced with the challenge of getting installed users to return and remain active within their apps. According to a study by Localytics, a Mobile Measurement Partner, 66% of app users only open apps between one and 10 times.

Facebook’s announcement is a extreme validation of this nascent market. We can expect Twitter, Google and other platforms to provide this type of mobile re-engagement ad unit as well. URX is in a good position to include this new inventory on their advertising platform.

Why is this so important? With these new ad formats, there’s no easy way for developers to manage 1,000’s of deeplink ads for their products today. URX indexes the knowledge graph of apps’ deep content, and uses machine learning to recommend relevant products to individual users.

The potential market size is tremendously large. Mobile is gobbling up an increasing percentage of total ecommerce retail sales. By 2017 eMarketer is guessing that 25% of U.S. retail ecommerce sales will occur on mobile devices, up from 15% today.

And yet…the mobile advertising market is still way behind where it should be given the tremendous growth in mobile transactions. Tens of billions of dollars behind. URX believes that product ads will raise the price floor of mobile ad inventory.

Mobile advertising is no longer just about installs and other crude first generation tools. URX is a company that is poised to introduce what’s next in mobile advertising.

URX was founded by John Milinovich, Andrew Look James Turner and Nathanael Smith. Watch the video below for more information.

(Trying To) Face Down The Evil At TechCrunch Disrupt

I’ll be on stage in just a couple of hours at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. I’m interviewing a lot of people over the next three days, including CEOs, entrepreneurs, VCs and politicians. See here for my interview schedule, here for the full schedule.

This conference is a little different for me than the dozens of ones that have come before. Why?

Last night Paul Graham asked me if I still love startups. I think what he was asking was if the chemical full on in love affair that I had with startups in the early days of TechCrunch is still going strong, or has morphed into something else over time, as all great loves mellow and evolve.

What involuntarily came out of my mouth had little to do with the question. And I’m pretty sure it’s a theme, bubbling under the surface, that is going to take up a big part of my brain space at Disrupt:

“I’m scared of our government and I’m disgusted by what little Silicon Valley has done to fight it.”

Just today I’m reading yet a new NSA document that laughingly refers to us (the people) as “zombies.”

Who knew in 1984…that this would be big brother [picture of Steve Jobs with iPhone}…and the zombies would be paying customers [pictures of people with phones, tablets]?”

We’ve been dehumanized. At best our government considers us meaningless sheep to be herded/slaughtered at will. At worst they consider us all terrorists or potential terrorists, needed to be watched at all times.

I’ve watched the months of debate. Debates where the government sucks up every bit of information on everyone it can, then argues that as long as it isn’t looking at that data the Fourth Amendment is intact.

But then argues that since they got the data legally, they can certainly look at it, too.

It’s a vicious cycle. Collecting mass data isn’t a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Then once they have it, looking at it doesn’t require a warrant.

As I’ve written before, I don’t believe this is a system to fight terrorism. I believe it is terrorism, against the American people and everyone else in the world.

I’ve brought this up in every one of my preparation meetings with the people I’ll be interviewing.

There has been some pushback. Some people don’t want to talk because lawyers. Others say this isn’t their fight and they can’t effectively lead their organizations from behind bars.

Others say they are willing to speak their mind.

In all cases I will ask the questions. We are inundated with denials and narrowly tailored “transparency reports”, but no company has stepped forward to tell us exactly what is really going on, and why the government seems so optimistic about being able to get user data from companies in real time or near real time, without any judicial oversight.

I’ll ask the CEOs if they feel any responsibility to protect their users against clearly unconstitutional (and just plain icky) government data grabs. I’ll ask them what they are willing to do, if they do feel responsible, to protect those users.

I’ll also ask the VCs and others about this, too.

For example, Right off the bat this morning I am going to ask Ron Conway, who has pushed for gun control via his Sandy Hook Promise for nearly a year now, hasn’t said a word about Silicon Valley’s role in the wholesale destruction of our human rights by the United States government.

He could do so much by leading an effort at real transparency, and a real pushback against the government. But he hasn’t lifted a finger. I want to know why.

He knows this question is coming, we discussed it last night.

And we’ll go from there. At the end of the conference I’ll write again and see what kind of answers we got from our leaders. Because I think we can handle the truth. I think we deserve the truth.

One thing I won’t do is ask the easy “gotcha” questions that I know can’t realistically be answered and that will only serve to make people look stupid. I’m not trying to just stir up the crowd at the expense of the speakers. But there are plenty of constructive and forward looking questions, including personal philosophy questions, that I think can be asked constructively. And secretly I think many of these people are just itching for the chance to say what they really think.


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