Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A quick note on journalism (in defense of BuzzFeed and Brooke Borel)

This note is quick, but for it to make sense, please first read the excellent article by Brooke Borel, Seed Money: How Kevin Folta got entangled with Monsanto, created a shady podcast alter ego, and spurred a hot public debate over conflicts of interest in big ag. I want to summarize the article, but the story is so bizarre and the writing by Ms. Borel so good, I can't do it justice with a summary. Just read it.

While the article is good, for me personally, it is painful. It's painful because I have been actively defending the scientist Kevin Folta over the past few months against media attacks on him. I am 100% pro-GMO. I know that the science Kevin promotes and teaches is sound and correct. I deeply appreciate the efforts by Kevin over all these years to dispel the myths around GMOs.

The problem is that Brooke Borel's article is not a smear campaign or a hit piece. It's an example of excellent journalism. When I first clicked on the article, I was ready to push back and defend Kevin. By the end, unfortunately, I found Kevin's actions indefensible.

And I know that many scientists and GMO-supporters felt the same way as I did. Many of us said this publicly or privately to Ms. Borel. The problem is that some people felt the same way, and given that there is really no way to defend Kevin here, decided to instead attack Ms. Borel or BuzzFeed. I won't point to the many different tweets on this, but essentially these are as follows:
  • BuzzFeed is clickbait and they just published it for views.
  • Brooke Borel shouldn't have covered it because it doesn't advance the conversation on GMOs.
  • This topic is too important to focus on Kevin Folta - should talk about GMO issues instead.
  • We've talked about Kevin Folta enough; why write another piece?
  • There are bigger problems in the world.
Journalism doesn't work this way. Good journalism is not about promoting an agenda - it's about good and important stories. GMOs are important. This story is good. Kevin was doing things that are likely to result in the opposite of his intentions - less trust in science and GMOs. If you know anything about journalism, it's almost unfathomable that Ms. Borel shouldn't have written this. 

It's not okay to bully journalists when they have written a thorough and factual article by telling them, "you are hurting a cause, so shut up." It's not okay to tell them, "there are bigger problems, don't write about this." If you do, you are practicing the My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage.

So I understand that it's unpleasant when we read something that we wish weren't true. But if it's true, we have to deal with that. If you can't defend the actions or dispute the content of an article, there's a problem, and it's not helpful to tell the media or the journalist to shut up. Most importantly, we should all strive to avoid doing things that will give us coverage like this. But when we accidentally make mistakes, which we all do, instead of attacking the journalist, we should apologize and work to prevent them from happening in the future.

P.S. I emigrated from what was then still USSR. That was a country where journalism worked with an agenda. Today, Russia still has a deep problem with free speech. A Russian citizen recently tried to defend Putin to me by saying, "We do have freedom of speech; we just don't have freedom of the press." There are good and healthy reasons to have freedom of the press and to have journalists decide what they want to cover, agenda aside.

Monday, October 5, 2015

VCs to startups: No food for 3 days? Well, you should really force yourself!

A few days ago, Neil Murray wrote an excellent post detailing the unethical startup conference Web Summit/Rise/Collision and how it hurts the startups it's supposed to help. Paddy Cosgrave, the head of the Web Summit group, wrote a non-defense where he decided to attack Neil and others instead of addressing the concerns. That didn't work too well as Robin Wauters, the EiC of, then responded with "Is Web Summit a scam? Well, if you have to ask." What is truly devastating to the Web Summit folks is the comments section, showing beyond any reasonable doubt that this conference is indeed a fraud.

Our startup nearly fell for the Web Summit scam back in April and I detailed our experience to warn other founders. After the comments above, there's really not much left to discuss about Web Summit itself - it's a lavish party, financed by the people least able to pay, with no benefit and a huge loss to the startups falling for the scheme.

There should be nothing left to say, except that I am deeply bothered by a condescending reaction to Neil's and Robin's posts from people who say that the startups falling for this scam deserve it. Many statements such as:

The reason scams against startups are so successful is that there is a fresh and steady supply of inexperienced first-time founders. Inexperienced and stupid are not the same. First time founders are, by definition, novices.

The notion that founders should carefully weigh the ROI for attending a given conference and ought to skip ones like Web Summit if the startup can't afford them reminds me of the joke:
A beggar walks up to a Jewish mother on the street and says, "Lady, I haven't eaten in three days." The woman replies, "Oy vey! Force yourself."
Even we nearly fell for the Web Summit scam, despite being a 3-year-old startup with great advisors, board of directors, at UC Berkeley's excellent Skydeck accelerator. I imagine founders in Ukraine or Brazil, spending the only money they have to travel to these conferences, hoping to raise capital for their effort. The Web Summit is a brilliant and successful scam, run expertly, and it's not trivial to spot that it is in fact a scam. It preys on the desperate and the inexperienced, as most successful scams tend to do. Blaming the founders for not spotting the sham is like telling cancer patients who resort to homeopathic placebos, "You deserve to die because you are so stupid."

Some VCs consistently forget that not all founders are serial entrepreneurs (I wrote before about this). And that's the part that allows these scams to persist. There would be no Web Summit if the VCs didn't attend it and didn't give the keynotes there. But when people like Mark Suster attend and defend such conferences, it lends legitimacy to the events and makes the inexperienced founders pause and say, "Well, perhaps this is exactly how you raise venture capital. If we can connect with people like Mark there..."

It is absolutely true that startups and founders learn from mistakes. But it doesn't mean that Web Summit is a mistake one should make. And it doesn't mean that scams are harmless and somehow select for good startups - that's bullshit. These scams waste money and more importantly time, both scarce resources for startups.  For some, attending Web Summit can be a lethal error, for reasons entirely unrelated to the strength of the startup's team/idea. It's important to take the side of startups rather than scammers in this case.

Note1. I am happy to see Mark making it clear that young startups should not attend Web Summit and the like. But he makes it hard for startups not to by going to them himself.

Note2. Some people have asked why thousands of people attend these conferences and don't speak up. If a scam and waste of time, wouldn't we know that? Well, they do speak up - see the comments here. And those who remain silent - can you blame them when people react with "you are so stupid your startup deserves to die"?