2007-11-18 :: Kevin Murphy
Is it possible that I really only have two weeks left before I never have to deal with this again?
:: Read on
Is it possible that I really only have two weeks left before I never have to deal with this again?
:: Read on
While in England recently, I had the opportunity to meet with one of London’s leading technology venture capitalists, who told me he has been inundated with pitches from young startup CEOs since the “Web 2.0″ craze hit the UK last week.
He was good enough to share with me his “Top Ten Tips” for the plucky young British entrepreneur hoping to secure funding for his or her revolutionary idea with a killer pitch.
It’s all about energy, focus, drive, and some, but not too much, confidence.
I perceived some subtle but interesting differences between the art of wooing VC backing in England compared to my usual stomping ground of Silicon Valley, so I asked him if I could publish his advice here.
He agreed, but only on the condition that he remain anonymous, on the grounds of his being fictitious.
Top 10 Top Tips From a British VC
I realized today that Frank Shaw is one of my favorite bloggers. Unlike the majority of the few hundred blogs I find myself compelled to scan on a daily basis, I’ve found that I enjoy reading what he has to say, and I usually agree with it.
Take his post today, “How to Do a Great Interview“, for example. Spot on. Guy knows what he’s talking about.
Frank gives ten rules that we hacks, in a perfect world, really should aspire to in every interview. And he’s almost 100% bang on the money.
Of course, it’s not a perfect world. With that in mind…
How to Blag an Interview
Every now and then as a technology journalist, you’ll find yourself agreeing to participate in what is referred to a “Press Tour”. Vendors do these once or twice a year, when they have a shiny new product to talk about.
This means you sit in a room with them for 30 minutes to an hour and talk.
Their job is to persuade you to tell your readers that their new product is the absolute bollocks. Your job is to try to get them to say something interesting instead.
The first thing to remember is that these people always turn up 15 minutes early. This is because they know that you’ve set aside those 15 minutes to visit their web site and remind yourself just who the heck they are.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to remember what the name of the company is before adjourning to a meeting room, which should give you some indication of what they do. This is a bonus.
Interviewees generally come in threes.
There’s the Main Guy, the Other Guy, and the PR Bodyguard.
You can tell which is the Main Guy because he sits in the middle. You can tell which is the PR Bodyguard because he has longer hair and wears a skirt and smells nicer. Whatever remains is the Other Guy.
Sometimes, a fourth person will enter the room and sit down about ten minutes into the interview. This person was either parking the car or taking a piss. They can be safely ignored.
The job of the Main Guy, whose title will be either CEO or Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development (check later), is to read from a Powerpoint and generally steer you in the direction of thinking his new product is the absolute bollocks.
The job of the Other Guy is to know the answers to your interesting questions. His title will be CTO & Co-Founder or Director of Product Management.
Your job is to write down what the Main Guy says. Main Guys always speak in quotes. You can write down what the Other Guy says too, but don’t worry if you get the words in the wrong order or spell them wrong. Other Guys always speak in facts.
At this point, you should be sitting at a table in a meeting room with two business cards in front of you, belonging to the Main Guy and the Other Guy. PR Bodyguards don’t give you their cards — they’ll call you.
The first thing to do is to take a glimpse at the business cards. Don’t worry about the names. The Main Guy will be called Bob or Bill. The Other Guy will be called Steve.
Just look at the address. If they’re from out-of-state, ask if their flights in were good. If they’re from in-state, ask about traffic. DON’T write down the answer — we haven’t started yet.
Now it’s time for a lame ice-breaking joke.
“So, you guys haven’t been acquired by Symantec yet?” works in about 75% of interviews. The rest of the time, you’ll either get a slightly concerned look, which means they actually are in the process of secretly being acquired by Symantec, or a very puzzled look, which means they are Symantec.
If they are Symantec, write it down.
Whatever the response, just nod and smile until the Other Guy has finished booting up the Powerpoint.
As soon as the Powerpoint is ready, you have a very crucial decision to make.
Some Main Guys find it impossible to stop a Powerpoint once it has started. This leads to a situation 45 minutes later when the interview is over and you’ve got a general impression that the new product is the absolute bollocks but absolutely nothing to write about.
You wind up staring at the final slide in the deck, which says simply “Questions?”, and the only thing you can think to ask is “Anybody fancy a pint?”
However, if you dive right in at the beginning and start asking questions, you’ve got to hope that these people are interesting enough to sustain a proper conversation for at least 30 minutes.
Main Guys can build a 20-slide Powerpoint around a single trivial feature upgrade that is entirely 100% identical to something their competitors introduced and briefed you on three weeks ago. In that case, if you start asking questions right at the start, the interview really only needs to last about five minutes, then you’re left in a prolonged uncomfortable silence.
“Oh, you’re doing the same shit as your competitor? Entirely the same? No? Oh, yours is better? Ok. Cool. Anybody fancy a pint?”
In this case, you’re far better off just listening to the Powerpoint. Just have at least two questions ready for that final slide.
It’s a fucking tightrope, and no mistake.
How interesting do these people look? How lazy a reporter do you want to be today?
The Lazy Way
If you choose to passively go along with the Powerpoint, you can switch off completely.
This is what Powerpoints say:
The first slide tells you the name of the company and the name of the person giving the presentation. The name bears no relation to the name of the person actually giving the presentation, so don’t write it down. But please write down the name of the company if you haven’t done so already.
The second slide tells you that the company raised $7.5m in a round led by Sequoia Capital, and that the Main Guy used to work at Intel.
The third slide tells you that the company has “almost 25″ customers, and that one of them is a credit union in Florida.
At this point, you need to show that you’re paying attention. So ask, “What are your target verticals?”. The answer is “healthcare and financial services”. They’re the only verticals with a) shitloads of cash and b) federal regulations telling them they have to buy this crap.
The fourth slide tells you that IT managers have a problem that, to date, nobody has been able to solve. This problem was caused by the vendor you interviewed last week.
The fifth slide introduces the product, and contains the first tantalizing hints that it may in fact be the absolute bollocks.
The sixth slide has a diagram with some boxes on the left, some people typing on the right, and a cloud in the middle.
The seventh slide has a big colorful circle divided into four sectors with arrows around the outside and words in each of the sectors. At the top, it says: “An End-to-End Solution”.
The eighth slide has a checklist of features, in which the vendor’s shiny new product is compared to products that two competitors were selling a year ago.
The ninth slide tells you that the product supports LDAP and Active Directory.
The tenth slide has the name of an analyst you can call if you’re a fresh-out-of-college rookie or just totally fucking clueless and lost.
The trick to doing an interview the lazy way is always to know what the next slide is going to be. That way, you can keep asking questions that you know the next slide will answer and still appear that you’re actually listening.
“Does it support LDAP?” works 100% of the time. No exceptions.
If you’re bored, but want to look like you’re paying attention, it’s a good idea to look thoughtful, chew on the end of your pen for a moment, then say “I think I understand, but I’m just trying to draw a diagram in my head” in order to immediately skip ahead to the middle of the deck.
It’s not necessary to know what LDAP is, so don’t worry about that.
The Hard Way
If you choose to do it the hard way, the ball is in entirely in your court for the next 45 minutes.
Asking a question from Slide 8 before the Powerpoint is even warm is a surefire way to throw the Main Guy utterly off his stride. He’s got his patter down sequentially, in slide order. If you start going all random-access on his ass, you risk shutting him down completely and you’re going to spend the rest of the interview mainly talking to the Other Guy.
And all he has for you is facts.
Remember, the Main Guy is probably the CEO (check later). He hasn’t got a clue how any of his stuff works, and he hasn’t been prepped with answers to any of your interesting questions. That’s what the Other Guy is there for. If the Other Guy says something interesting, the company has plausible deniability.
If you are insisting doing this the hard way, you’re probably going to have get your story from the Other Guy. You’ll feel bad about this. Sitting in a room with a Main Guy and getting all your juicy information from the Other Guy is just embarrassing.
You’ve got to get at least one quote from the Main Guy.
The simplest way to deal with the Main Guy is to ask him the difficult questions that he has been prepped for. These are generally questions of a financial nature.
If the interview is going badly, the easiest way to fuck with the Main Guy and get a lazy story at the same time is to ask him what the company’s exit strategy is.
There is no correct answer to this question. Nine times out of 10, they’ll tell you they’re on the IPO track.
This is obviously ridiculous. This isn’t 1998. If this outfit is still getting excited about $7.5m of Sequoia money, it means that their product is a feature of a Cisco box that just doesn’t know it yet.
The Main Guy knows that. But if he tells you they want to get acquired, nobody will want to buy their stuff any more. So he’ll tell you he’s going for an IPO, which gives you a lazy headline.
Occasionally, the Main Guy will say that his company is “open to strategic partnerships”. This, you should infer, means that it is six to 12 months away from being acquired by Cisco.
(If you’re feeling particularly cruel and lazy, you can hang a story on this quote. Just bear in mind that, if you do, nobody will buy the vendor’s products for the next six to 12 months, and when Cisco does acquire them it will be at a bargain basement price. You’ve just helped a monster get even more monstrous for cheap. How do you feel about that? Hmm?)
If you’re relying on the Other Guy, your best bet is to goad him into trash-talking his competitors. Other Guys are far better at this than Main Guys, because the company has plausible deniability.
It’s actually fairly easy to do. You don’t even need to know who their competitors are.
“I can think of at least two of your competitors who have been doing this for months. The usual suspects. Can you tell me why your product is better than those two?”
You then have two options. The lazy option is to write a story that has the word “Slams” in the headline and burn all your bridges at once. The smarter option is to sit on the trash-talk, and only bring it up next time you talk to their competitor.
The Wrap Up
Clicking your pen, putting it on the table, and sitting back in your chair is a good way to let your interviewees know that you’re ready for them to leave.
You may want to compliment them on their product around this time.
If you can’t think of anything nice to say, just remember that all IT products are designed to let IT guys like your IT guys make life miserable for regular people like you.
So just say: “Gosh, I sincerely hope that my company doesn’t buy this product!”
The interviewees will assume it’s a compliment. They’ll believe that you believe that their product is the absolute bollocks, and they’ll fuck off moments later.
Anyway. That’s all. I hope you appreciated it. The above text is absolute fucking gold-dust. I could charge PR agencies $500 an hour for this kind of insight, and you just got it for free you lucky sod.
(with apologies to Neal Stephenson)
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There’s a possibility that I’m just really old fashioned and/or blinkered to the possibilities that lay before me, but I still don’t understand what Dave Winer is trying to achieve with his campaign against traditional reporting.
How to improve professional reporting has a few pieces of good advice, but it also has some shockingly bad advice presented with no real explanation of how it would improve reporting.
Remember, some of us still don’t “get it”. If we’re being told to de-emphasize conversation and start sourcing more material from blogs, then we need an explanation as to why that is not just a terrible idea.
Winer’s first bit of advice for reporters:
1. Encourage your sources to have blogs. One simple way to do that is to de-emphasize the phone interview, and take quotes straight off the blogs of experts in the area you’re reporting on. They’ll get the message pretty quickly, if you want to be quoted (and most people still do) it’s more likely if you have a blog.
How does this help reporting? Winer doesn’t say.
To be clear, Winer is saying that, in some cases, instead of a reporter calling up a source and asking a bunch of questions, they just read a blog instead.
This is the absolute opposite of the advice I give. Lifting quotes from a blog is lazy journalism. Sure, I do it, when I’m being lazy or my options are limited, but I don’t feel good about it.
A blog is a great thing to hide behind when you don’t want to answer difficult questions.
Large technology companies already do this. Over the last year, I’ve noticed a steep rise in the number of times a PR guy “can’t track down” somebody for me to interview, and instead refers me to their blog. It’s usually when there are obviously going to be difficult questions.
You can’t ask a blog these questions.
You can’t ask a blog for clarification.
Not everybody who has a blog is an adroit writer. Not all of them can convey their ideas with clarity and precision. In an interview, you can ask the interviewee to explain or to paraphrase or to clarify. You can’t ask a blog to do that (well, you can sometimes post a comment and hope the blogger replies before your deadline).
A blog isn’t going to tell you something off the record.
A blog isn’t going to talk to you at your level. It’s going to talk to a broad audience. A blog doesn’t know how much you already know, and tailor its content to that baseline.
A blog is going to be party line, all the way. Often they will be vetted by PR, IR or counsel to ensure they are.
You can’t differentiate your reporting if you’re sourcing the same blog as all your competitors.
Talking to people is the fundamental building block of journalism. It’s more important than the ability to write. Seriously. Some of the best reporters can’t write to save their lives.
If Winer gets the CTO job at a publishing company, and tries to get his reporters to de-emphasize talking in favor of reading blogs, they will tell him this too.
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If you’re a geek over the age of 24, old enough to have experienced the dot-com crash first-hand, you can still tell your younger geek friends that you beat Web 2.0 or Star Wars Character?.
The trick is to forget Web 2.0 and just fill in the Star Wars answers, then pretend you did it the other way around.
You don’t even need to know any of the characters from the prequels. I just scored 33 out of 43, which has to be a pass mark.
Along with the fact that I now also have an ironic, vaguely geeky T-shirt in my closet, I reckon I may be able to pass myself off as a young ‘un at the next Web 2.0 party I go to.
(Any ICANNers reading may want to put something about “artificial scarcity of domain names” in the comments section. Cheers.)
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Having dinner with some non-geek friends the other night made me realize what a sad bastard I have become.
Friend 1: I had this briefing at work [an ad agency] about “mashings”. It’s this new thing on the internets when you cut together videos and music and stuff.
Friend 2: Sounds complicated.
Friend 1: Yeah, I didn’t really get it. Then there’s this other thing where you can watch real baseball games recreated inside a video game with all these other people.
Friend 2: Why would you want to do that?
Friend 1: I don’t know. I didn’t really get it. You can buy and sell clothes and stuff on it with real money. But they’re not really clothes. It’s just for your avatar.
Friend 2: It won’t catch on.
Friend 1: I expect some people have too much time on their hands.
Me: You guys are just so totally out of touch.
I was wrong, of course. Only a sad bastard who lives his entire life on the internet could say that somebody who hasn’t heard of Second Life is out of touch.
I have no idea what these people would make of a compound nested meme like this:
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Amanda’s gone from RocketBoom. I just can’t understand it. This will take some time to absorb. I mean, what’s going to happen now?
Some are saying she jumped. Others are saying she was pushed. There are so many questions going through my mind, I’m not quite sure where to start.
But I think these are the most important five questions:
1. Who the fuck is Amanda Congdon?
2. What the fuck is RocketBoom?
3. Why is every one of the 200 blogs I subscribe to talking about this?
4. Am I just totally out of touch?
5. Or is this really just not very important?
Microsoft isn’t going to Netscape the antivirus vendors, it’s going to RealNetworks them.
That’s my take on the “predatory pricing” claims that are being bandied around as a result of Alex Eckelberry’s recent insightful post at the Sunbelt Software blog.
Rather than believing Microsoft is “going to kill their competition through predatory pricing”, I believe Microsoft is going to use another of its competitive tactics — scare the bejesus out of its competitors to the point where they shoot both of their feet right off.
Microsoft killed Netscape by giving away a browser free with the operating system. But it made RealNetworks irrelevant as a desktop software company by forcing it to make a number of really dumb mistakes.
My opinion of RealNetworks software is pretty much in line with what Jogin posted a couple years ago: “a small bastard with inferiority complex and delusions of grandeur”.
I see parallels between the RealNetworks-Microsoft battle and the new face-off between Microsoft and Symantec. Symantec will have to make the right choices to stay relevant.
I should note first that I don’t track RealNetworks on a day-to-day basis any more, and my views on it are based mainly on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. That and the fact that its software revenue has been basically flat for the last three years.
Both Symantec and RealNetworks are/were market leaders at the point when Microsoft entered their respective markets. Both make/made bloated, overpriced software.
Now, Symantec, faced with the Beast of Redmond, shows some worrying signs of making the same mistakes as RealNetworks. I fear the company is in some danger of pissing off customers, or at least a certain subsection of them, in much the same way as RealNetworks did, in its efforts to fight off Microsoft.
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I went to Valleywag’s Web 2.0 free booze party at the House of Shields last night, desparately trying to recapture my youth.
I’m 29 now, and a bit old to appreciate this whole “Web 2.0″ thing.
Towards the end of the evening, I tried to inject myself into a conversation between two of the cooler younger dudes. It went like this, more or less:
Hipster #1: “Yeah, totally, why is it that everybody on the internet wants to be as cool as something awful?”
Me, interrupting: “Wow, that’s pretty profound. It’s true though, everything cool out there is really awful, and everybody wants to be just like them.”
Hipster #1: [awkward silence]
Hipster #2: [awkward silence]
Me: “You know, like everybody wants to be just like Google, and Google is probably the most awful of the lot.”
Hipster #1: [awkward silence]
Hipster #2: “Actually, I think he was talking about SomethingAwful.com.”
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Valleyschwag will send you free promo T-shirts, pens, buttons, etc, the kind of stuff that tech reporters everywhere consign to the trash immediately upon receipt, for $14.95.
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