Away we go

What was the VC versus journalist thing about?

Art: Burning ship (the episode of the Russian-Turkish War), Ivan Aivazovsky

You may have heard about a large-scale war between Journalist Twitter and VC Twitter happening a few weeks back. 

If you are fortunate enough that this has not crossed your radar, let me recap as much information as I’ve been able to collect while sifting through the sluice gates of the internet with my tiny Normcore butterfly net. 

Away We Go

Last year, Verge, a popular tech media outlet, published an explosive piece about CEO Steph Korey. Away is a startup selling fancy-looking luggage that, in the Before Times, you could signal to people on Instagram that not only are you going to Iceland, you’re going in style. 

It makes sense that Korey started this company, since she previously worked at extremely Instagrammable eyewear brand Warby Parker, where she met co-founder Jen Rubio. (Korey also, no surprise, worked previously for Casper.)

In the years since Away started, the media coverage had been effusively positive: Korey was hailed as a “female disruptor”, a strong entrepreneur who “accidentally” took a seed round, and a successful MBA graduate, and hustler, depending on the story angle. In a culminating high point she was, of course, featured on the cover of Forbes for its 30 under 30 issue.

All was well and good for a while - the suitcases were being Instagrammed, the influencers were influencing, and the hustle kept flowing- until reporter Zoe Schiffer at Verge got a tip about some shady practices at Away. 

Schiffer said her coverage of the alleged issue was borne out of an unrelated story focused on workplace bullying.

“After that came out, I got an email from a source and she said, ‘Have you heard of Away? The situation is a lot worse here,’” she said. “And suddenly the story started to really, really grow and there were a bunch of different angles and a bunch of different teams that had very similar complaints. So immediately I saw that there was a pattern, and that people had a ton of documentation.”

At least a dozen former employees in various departments of Away came forward in the weeks following that initial September email.

As Schiffer thought over how she could pull together a story on the alleged bullying and abuse, she realized most of the proof was in writing, over a popular workplace instant messaging program Slack.

“Suddenly I got airdropped to me just tons and tons and tons of screenshots of what this actually looked like in the office," she said. "Immediately that was when I knew, this is going to be a big story."

That turned into this blockbuster story about Korey’s record of harassment of employees, low employee morale, and very, very questionable Slack messages. 

The main angle was that Korey was a ruthless, cutthroat CEO who stopped at nothing to be “customer-obsessed” and cultivate hypergrowth. 

Employees were asked to work exceedingly long hours and limit their paid time off. Their projects were brutally criticized by executives on public Slack channels. They were reprimanded for not answering messages immediately — even late at night and on weekends.

The cutthroat culture allowed the company to grow at hyperspeed, developing a cult following with celebrities and millennials alike. But it also opened a yawning gap between how Away appears to its customers and what it’s like to actually work there. The result is a brand consumers love, a company culture people fear, and a cadre of former employees who feel burned out and coerced into silence.

Open and Shut (suit)Case

The impact, at first, was mixed. The tech community as a whole was seemingly outraged. But  VCs thought it was a non-story and that Schiffer was setting up Korey, the CEO of a very successful VC-backed startup, for failure by writing a hit piece. 

Who was right? Was Korey a monster? Or was she merely a successful female entrepreneur slandered by a sexist media hopped up on clickthrough rates and cancel culture?

This is Normcore, so you know the answer must be neither and both. 

It’s both possible that Korey was a bad boss, as evidenced by her Slack communications and further pronouncements on social media. It’s also equally possible that the original Verge piece exaggerated a bunch of stuff. 

As Jeremy writes in this (very long and thoughtful) analysis of the situation

What was described in that article certainly sounded unusually bad. But it was hard to tell exactly how bad without more context.

To give a few examples:

We’re told that employees were repeatedly (to some point in time prior to the reporting) coerced into working unpaid overtime. But we aren’t told how often this happened. Startup employees regularly work long hours at various inflection points in a startup’s growth (or in response to various fuckups along the way). Away had enough velocity to simply hire more staffers, which makes one wonder why they didn’t do this earlier if being behind was a chronic occurrence. My sense is that more rounded journalism would have asked and answered this question to give a sense of whether/how Away was a true outlier to industry norms.

However, there is not enough room for both those takes in today’s internet, because we simply don’t have time to think about all sides of the story before we are forced into having a take on something. As I’ve said before

I try to be skeptical but honest, critical, but even-keeled. In today’s knee-jerk-reaction world particularly online, it’s really, really, really hard to not turn out something that comes across as sarcastic and like you’re dunking on someone, just for likes. It’s also hard not to offer hot takes, and to really think about the issue from different angles. 

As a result, people picked sides pretty quickly, and the story continued to smoulder in the press until it gained enough velocity to the point that there was talk about whether Korey would be fired or not. 

Away She Goes  (Part I)

After the story came out, there was some waffling at Away about what to do. First, pushed by the social media reaction, Korey stepped down for a brief period.

Then, she stepped back up, but as a co-CEO. 

The episode, the latest example of a fast-growing company run by young founders that has found itself in a crisis, was viewed within the insular world of start-ups as a swift fall for Ms. Korey, Away’s 31-year-old co-founder.

The new chief executive, Stuart Haselden, plans to start his job on Monday, having been recruited from Lululemon Athletica, the company famous for its leggings.

But there is one new, significant wrinkle: His title won’t be chief executive — he will be co-chief executive with Ms. Korey. She isn’t going anywhere. The company plans to announce the move on Monday morning.

Finally, after that crisis settled, Away fell out of the news to be overtaken by essays about building and Elon Musk’s baby’s name, until very recently.

Away She Goes  (Part II)

 A few weeks ago, Taylor Lorenz, a journalist at the New York Times who reports on “internet culture”, (which, if we’re being honest, is not that different from Normcore’s regular beat so no real need for me to get snotty with the quotation marks), and as a result is extremely plugged into a number of different social networks, screenshotted an Instagram post that Korey had posted about how the mainstream media takes things out of context. 

As Jeremy again notes

What motivated Taylor here is unclear (and really only she could say). Korey had published a few other things around the same time and it’s possible that Taylor’s adopted tone was in response to some collection of them. (Though there are obvious shots here against Taylor’s colleagues, and the comments about defamation suits would irk/concern most journalists.)

Now, we get to the fun part. After Lorenz posted that commentary to her 169 thousand Twitter followers (nice), Balaji Srinivasan, the former CTO of Coinbase and a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz (of the “It’s time to build” Andereessens), called Taylor out

Taylor fired back.

Then, in a final, culminating blow, Balaji and others discussed Lorenz on Clubhouse. Clubhouse is the new app that VCs and other Silicon Valley illuminati love to hang out on, which seems unfathomable to me because, from what I’ve seen and heard from the leaked audio, it’s basically like volunteering to be part of a very long conference call full of buzzwords.

Taylor maintained that journalists should be allowed into Clubhouse to know what was being said about them. VCs fired back that the New York Times should then open their Slack full of editorial choices so the public can know how editorial decisions are made. Taylor wrote threads. Balaji paid people in Bitcoin to make memes (yes.) 

And all of this kept going well over the American Fourth of July holiday, and finally culminated with Korey saying that she’d be stepping down at the end of the year

Steph Korey, the co-CEO of luggage company Away, will be stepping down from her role within the year, co-founder Jen Rubio and co-CEO Stuart Haselden told staff today, after employees voiced concern over Korey’s recent social media behavior.

“Steph’s personal social media activity does not reflect the current priorities of the company,” Rubio and Haselden wrote. “We stand with you, our employees.”

Oh, and, lost in the middle of all of this, which actually no one emphasized and I think is pretty big omission is that Korey was away on maternity leave when she wrote these posts, ostensibly continuing to work or be in work mode. 

Whew. Still with me? 

Come together

Reading the past couple novel chapters, you probably are thinking, “So what? This is clearly a he said/she said Silicon Valley gossip thing.” 

Yes, it’s all very stupid. 

But also, I think this story very clearly illustrates a number of issues with our current tech and media environment that I’ve been talking about in different Normcore posts for a while now. 

In particular, there were three current problems that came to a head: a distrust of the media, a distrust of Silicon Valley, and the inadequacy of our public forums.  

Distrust of the Media

First, there is an enormous distrust and dislike of the corporate media, and for good reasons, actually many of the ones Korey had mentioned in her Instagram post.  

As I wrote in, “Why don’t we get the news we need,”

Then what gets added to that pressure cooker is the enormously hard task of getting a story out on a deadline, into the relentless, ceaseless news cycle. If you’re a journalist and you’re working on a story like this, you need to be able to break it first, before anyone else does, or you won’t get ahead of the news cycle. You need to balance accuracy with getting this dynamite story out the door as soon as humanly possible.

And, if you’re an editor, you need to be able to package up this story with as much outrage and fear as possible so that people will click on it so that you can justify your advertising and subscription revenue to fight against shrinking margins. So then you pick a headline like, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It”, even though the end of privacy has already been declared at least once in Russia, and maybe more times in China.  You need to get people to click. 

The media, pressed between the Scylla and Charybdis that are shrinking attention spans and shrinking pay for doing the same amount of legwork, plus advertising, squeezes through the rocks the only way it knows how: writing stories that don’t anger corporate sponsors, that do just enough investigation to form a narrative, and stories that are designed to be consumed in tweetable pieces. 

The media's traditional job is to synthesize information, but in the current media environment, they have to also be attuned to how their synthesis will play on social media, with advertisers, and with large audiences. They also have to do all of this very quickly so that the story doesn’t fade out of the news cycle. In addition to all of this, everyone is a brand now

As I wrote, 

In spite of the fact that I don’t always tweet anything interesting or important, people always seem to be listening. This is extremely dangerous. As I wrote almost when I started this newsletter, our internet is now fundamentally broken in that it doesn’t allow us to preserve Dunbar’s number

For lay people, this is dangerous in that our reputation is always on the line when we’re tweeting. For journalists, it’s a disaster, because they are now the voice of both their publications and themselves on Twitter, and they have to keep that dichotomy in mind with every single tweet. Many don’t. So when Taylor tweeted about Korey, she was offering an opinion that was her personal opinion, but it was also the opinion of a New York Times writer.  

The goal of journalism today is to tell the truth, but to tell it through the lens of a narrative people can grasp on and share quickly, and to also promote a journalist’s brand in a positive way. 

So in this way, the VCs are right. How are we supposed to know the journalists represented accurately without a complete view of the inside? If you’ve ever read a story about an industry or person you know, you know how much is left out. 

In a very good essay discussed in Marginally Compelling (which is a fantastic newsletter, by the way), Liora writes

The reality is that journalists are ultimately professional middlemen, standing between informers and the rest of us, and adding their own spin along the way. Middlemen are not necessarily a bad thing, as we certainly don’t all have time to synthesize the facts on our own, and great journalists make the relevant facts more accessible - but this crisis has shown both how problematic our dependence is, and how far many will go in search of truth.

In response, this crisis has been a boon for citizen journalism. Twitter, Medium, Substack, and Facebook have played an instrumental role. No one’s making a career change; rather truth-seekers of all backgrounds are synthesizing facts and sharing their findings.

This was written about COVID, but it applies to nearly anything these days. I mean, just look at the piece you’re writing now.  My full-time job is parsing JSON and being a mom, and in the few hours a week I have left over,  I write this newsletter. I am not a journalist. But the situation is so mixed in the real media that I can no longer trust any one place to give me the full story, and so I have to put together these pieces on my own. 

Why doesn’t the media do this? Because this story happened two weeks ago and is already in many ways old news, while I’ve been sitting and marinating on it, waiting for all of the facts to come out, reading a lot of background, both in the news and in older texts, and figuring out how to write this thing before I do an analysis. 

Put simply, yes, there are very good journalists doing important work today. But, the mainstream media, for the most part, and due to a number of systemic factors rising over the past 20 years has become entertainment. And, as a result, we treat it as such, and mistrust it for actual news. Balaji’s outburst against Taylor is just the latest indicator of a trend that will continue.  

Distrust of Tech and VCs

The state of the media today is not the only systemic problem here. 

I’ve written enough about why I think Silicon Valley hypergrowth culture is generally harmful to tech and humans (source: the entire Normcore archive), and the answer comes down to good things don’t scale.  It’s in the interest of that culture to encourage CEOs and founders to grow the company at any cost, to build things, to disrupt people, without much examination if what’s being built is actually a net positive for anything except the balance sheets of the people who invest in the growth, and Steph Korey has done phenomenally at that. 

Additionally, Balaji, particularly as someone who is bullish on crypto (another thing that seems to ruin all the businesses it touches), is at the forefront of that culture and has a vested interest in maintaining and protecting it, particularly away from the prying eyes of journalists and the public. 

He is correct to call out disingenuous media culture, but in doing so, he calls out from his own bubble, which is his circle of VCs and other people in that sphere that he talks to. In VC circles, growth is good at any cost, and someone who pursues growth and returns on investments like Korey is someone to be admired, not shamed. They are of course angry about the spilling of company secrets, and they are equally angry that journalists would call them out on the things they think should be happening behind closed doors without external scrutiny. 

These are all trends that have been going on for years, but now that the media has picked up on them over the past three years or so, and started really honing in on the ways tech monopolies and hypergrowth are becoming dangerous to both the business ecosystem and the people impacted by them. 

As the scales fall from the eyes of both the public and the media about Silicon Valley companies, people are becoming more critical of the general tech platitudes like “move fast and break things” or “Don’t be evil”, and are not taking them at face value anymore. 

Distrust of Public Forums

Finally, this clash happened because of two things: first, it is impossible to have good debates in public forums anymore, because the public forums are too big.

Even Silicon Valley has picked up on this. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, tweeted recently, 

This explains both why it is not a great idea for journalists to have debates on Twitter, and why Clubhouse is so popular among VCs. One of the parts of the fight between Taylor and Balaji was that Taylor didn’t understand why VCs didn’t let journalists into Clubhouse. That’s easy. Because it’s not a space for journalists. It’s a small group for like-minded VCs to discuss ideas. 

Everyone has a right to these small spaces, and people will organically create them. This is not a new concept or exclusive to VCs. in 2007, Journolist was a private Google Group (remember Google Groups?), really a mailing list, started by Ezra Klein, for "several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics." Its existence was revealed in 2009, and set off an enormous debate about whether it was ok for journalists to band together this way. 

I can guarantee you there are private Slacks or Whatsapp chat groups or what have you of journalists out there discussing the very same things, for the same reasons most of us have these same groups: we want to process things privately instead of publicly. 

So what? 

There are no heroes or villains here. What we have are three people performing the actions that this insane system incentivizes them to perform: the role of the media ruined by corporate interests, the role of VCs spoiled by extremely high returns for the past 10 years, and CEOs who are taught by our corporate culture that apologizing and not taking the lead is a sign of weakness, all of the trust built up in our public sector wiped out by the ravages of COVID, apps that have millions of users who are just basically shouting at each other. 

There is nothing that is going to disincentivize any of this behavior until a couple things happen: Twitter stops being popular, more people turn to newsletters and blogs and local for news than the New York Times or other corporate media, adtech starts to see a downturn, the VC funding bubble pops, and we start regaining some trust in our public institutions. 

I know, I know. It sounds bleak.  I mean, I might as well say, “Things are gonna be great once we have a vaccine.”

But here’s the thing: there are already small and big changes in this ecosystem. There is a lot of public pressure against tech monopolies and VC plays. There is a lot of talk about journalist and media giant accountability. Newsletters are booming. Our public institutions here in America aren’t doing so hot, but remember I resolved to be more optimistic in 2020, so I have faith they’re gonna be on an upswing, particularly with the pressure on police accountability potentially spilling over into other sectors. 

The system is slowly changing, the variables are shifting the players are changing, and so are the incentives. We just have to stay tuned and find out which (a)way the winds will blow. 

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Ethical Hackers on Instagram

  2. Mermaid (I love Edith’s newsletter)

  3. Is scrum bad?

  4. I miss salad bars

  5. If you have a LOT of free time

  6. Machine learning in prod class

  7. Bonobos

The Newsletter:

This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!

Swag: Stickers. Mug. Notepad.

The Author:
I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.