Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Epilogue

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First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


Several people have described my "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" tale as a classic case of "Founder's Syndrome"...an inability to let go, manifested by endless peevish frustration with "the idiots who took over my company".

Perhaps it's true. But I don't think so. As I stressed repeatedly in the series, I completely expected the new owners to do as they liked. I expected the operation to change. I expected the promises made to me not to be kept, and my suggestions to be disregarded even though they'd hired me on, ostensibly to run things. Above all, I expected changes in the name of profitability, with insensitive regard for the quality of the resource (though I have warned, all along, that the quality of the resource is crucial to its profitability; there are lots of places to randomly squawk about restaurants, but Chowhound's value - the lure for its traffic and the basis for its wide public recognition - has always been in the startling expertise of its contributors).

I've also heard, over the years, from a number of entrepreneurs, both massive and modest, who've described this series as a painfully accurate depiction of what we go through. Of course, this may just represent confirmation bias from like-minded whiney control freaks - my fellow sufferers of Founder's Syndrome!

So which is it? Is it that founders maintain a rigid, narrow-minded view of what's best for their creations, or that things tend to go south once founders sell out?

I think the answer can be found in the distinction I've often returned to, between creative and non-creative people. Founders are creative types able to make something from nothing. Corporations are vehicles for relentless management of Something. Ideally, the two would constitute a symbiotic yin/yang, and, indeed, the standard course is for the former to launch and the latter to acquire (it's very rare for founders to remain in charge as their companies mature; Zuckerberg's a mutant).

As I wrote a few installments back:
The best route for creative people with business impulses (or vice versa) is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pudpuds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it.
Both sides screw up when they encroach too far on the other's territory. I am absolutely a poster child for the woes of a creative founder hitting a wall after sticking around too long. With some funding, I might have instituted the revenue scheme on my own early on. But I lacked the funds and the time, and that's on me (though, in my defense, I was perennially being drowned by relentless scaling). I should have been talking to investors (learning to polish my shoes, to carefully modulate my voice, and to project gravitas), when I was mostly freaking out about the latest spammer, or getting the newsletters out on time. But, as I've explained, there's a point where you're so locked into daily overhead that the marginal time to push ahead disappears.

I make a terrible pudpud, and CNET made a terrible creative founder. I stuck around too long and, paradoxically, they jumped in too early. The operation suffered from my poor pudpud skills as well as from CNET's poor creative skills.

The pass-off was the problem. If my boss - who mistakenly fancied himself as highly creative - was a few notches less cocky, realizing his limitations, as I understood my own - he'd have left the creativity to the creative and motivated founder he'd hired, and supported with the tools, skills, and funds I lacked. And I'd have gladly passed the result on to him to manage. And he'd have done a fine job with it, as would have CBS. Sure, it would have degraded, but it wouldn't have rankled me. Again: I went in expecting degradation! I had no illusions.

Instead, bad creativity was injected, and corporations, which are not vehicles for deep vision, have flailed in their attempts to undo and redo. And since that's my skill set, it's been awfully tough for me to watch from the sidelines.

A prescient version of this entire arc was posted by a blogger named John Wilson, shortly after Chowhound was sold. Noticing my sole public gasp of exasperation, he wrote:
Oh, the joys of becoming an employee in a big company.

Lifecycle:

1. Talent starts innovative business

2. Big company buys talent & their company

3. Big company "B listers" sit on top of talent, using their experience of never having had to build value from scratch to direct the new division activities

4. Big company can't figure out why it hasn't continued to see the success achieved by the business it acquired, in the period since purchase and decides even tighter control of new division is required

5. Acquired talent leaves in disgust [taking most of their riches] and lives on yacht for a while

6. go to 1.


Yup. Only no yacht for me (2005 was not a time when tech founders were being paid yacht money), but I have definitely moved on to new projects. Watch this space!

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