Nobody wants to go on the record saying negative things about TechCrunch, arguably the most powerful news blog in tech, for obvious reasons.
Entrepreneurs and investors in the startup scene tend to be very cagey when making public statements about anyone else in the same scene, with the rare exceptions of bomb-throwers and those who have succeeded past the point of caring. It’s also never smart to trash-talk the hose that feeds you users.
Sources even refused to go on record with New York Times media bulldog David Carr for fear of “editorial retribution.”
First, everyone’s shaking in their bootstraps in fear of Mr. Arrington; now that he may have been fired, according to Fortune, hands are wringing over what will happen to the blog.
But come on, we thought. People read TechCrunch, but it’s not that influential. Is it?
But TechCrunch, as the de facto trade publication in Silicon Valley, commands a special reverence. Sure, Mr. Arrington has a temper. He’s notorious for taking things personally and holding a grudge–a scary prospect for young entrepreneurs who consider the blog crucial to getting exposure to the right users and validation from the right people. But the devotion stems from the fact that insiders feel that TechCrunch is important. TechCrunch gets it. TechCrunch has prestige.
Mashable, for example, writes about similar topics and has more traffic–but a Mashable hit isn’t as coveted as a TechCrunch hit. Investors don’t read Mashable. Your friends don’t read Mashable. Same goes for the stodgy New York Times, which still refers to tweets as “Twitter messages” and “live Twitter posts.”
For startups, the blog’s meat and potatoes, TechCrunch is “grade AAA,” said one local hacker and entrepreneur who also picks up work getting web traffic for high-end clients. “TechCrunch has always been the standard,” he said. “Me and my partner would always joke around, if you ain’t on TechCrunch you ain’t shiiiiit. Like they say it on The Wire. You ain’t on TechCrunch but you claim to be a baller in the Valley? Shiiiiiiieeeeeeeetttttt.”
The fear and awe of TechCrunch is strongest for entrepreneurs who are just starting out. When hackathon baby WhoWorks.at was featured in TechCrunch, hacker John Britton got over 20,000 user signups. “TechCrunch is a force to be reckoned with,” he said. BillGuard, which got to the final round at TechCrunch Disrupt, got 10,000 sign-ups in a matter of hours; another finalist, Sonar.me, got a few thousand.
Other entrepreneurs said it’s about quality, not quantity. One local founder said a prominent TechCrunch post got him 2,000 users–the same as a post in TheNextWeb, and twice as many users as a post from a prominent Silicon Valley tech blogger. But it wasn’t until the TechCrunch post that anyone seemed to have heard of his startup. “TechCrunch is not all-powerful in driving traffic / user acquisition,” he wrote in an email. “In fact I heard Mashable is way better for user acquisition, like 3,000 top 4,000 … [but] TechCrunch is the king for awareness.”
In the early days of TechCrunch, one Silicon Valley vet told Betabeat, the comments were combed over: “People put so much import into the comments on TechCrunch … now it’s more scanning the headlines.”
The blog has respect among more experienced entrepreneurs and investors as well. Top VCs read the blog or at a minimum, skim the headlines. TechCrunch is the number one source for stories that end up on TechMeme, by a wide margin: 10.57 percent of the stories on TechMeme in the last 3o days came from TechCrunch, versus 4.82 percent for runner-up AllThingsD.
Not to mention that influences gather at TechCrunch events, where luminaries meet each other and deals are made and startups are born, and a booth in Startup Alley will cost you around $10,000.
Besides being one of the best outlets for launch, TechCrunch (usually Mr. Arrington) has occasionally dipped a rake into the muck, as when he wrote a series of posts titled “Scamville,” about what he felt were manipulative practices by social gaming companies like Zynga, which earn revenue from advertisers through shady lead generation. “A typical scam: users are offered in game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey,” Mr. Arrington wrote. “Four simple questions are asked. The answers are irrelevant. When the user gets to the last question they are told their results will be text messaged to them. They are asked to enter in their mobile phone number, and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they’ve done that, they’ve just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription.” The stories prompted at least one user to bring a class-action lawsuit against Zynga. (She lost.)
“They’ve kept people honest as well and kept it real,” said Shervin Pishevar, a managing director at Menlo Ventures. “TechCrunch has been an important part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Arrington and TechCrunch, they’ve changed lives in a very positive way. It’d be a shame to lose any of that.”
But Mr. Arrington may be his own greatest threat to maintaining TechCrunch’s credibility with stories like Angelgate, in which Mr. Arrington made allegations of investor collusion and pumped with controversy immediately before TechCrunch Disrupt. The piece fizzled into irrelevance after the conference. (Some skeptics have pointed out that the current Aol controversy is also hitting immediately before the conference.) A vindictive post about Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake earned him mostly disgust and bafflement. Several sources we spoke to related stories of Mr. Arrington’s vendettas–making calls to try to prevent his perceived enemies from getting businesses–but also of his ability to “get over it” if it means getting a good story.
And the ongoing pay-to-play game in which entrepreneurs promise TechCrunch “exclusives” in exchange for good karma undermines Mr. Arrington’s real reporting, when he gets on the phone and asks hard questions and plays inside baseball with the pros. When you regularly refer to getting the first press release for a star entrepreneur’s new startup as a “scoop,” the word starts to lose its impact.
Assessments of TechCrunch’s pull range from “all-powerful” to “shouldn’t be ignored.” But most everyone agrees: any influence TechCrunch has comes from Mr. Arrington. He may have gotten the blog to the point where it can continue to exist without him, but it wouldn’t be a must-read.
The dispute over Mr. Arrington’s $20 million CrunchFund threatens to change the blog’s coverage permanently with the institution of new rules and leadership. (Fun fact: Mr. Arrington’s entry in Time’s 100 Most Influential People list was written by Arianna Huffington.) The Times story alleging journalistic malfeasance led victims and beneficiaries of Mr. Arrington’s influence to vocal defenses. “Everyone is getting tired of these battles between blogs, I think it’s really tiresome,” the Silicon Valley vet said. “I don’t want to see Kara and Arrington and Henry Blodget and all these people duking it out over who got what first and it’s really a bore.”
Mr. Arrington is good, the defenders said. Nothing else matters.
Sounds like startup logic.
But as to whether someone like Yuri Milner reads TechCrunch daily? Sources were skeptical.
It’s less important the more successful you become, other sources said. One bi-coastal entrepreneur and investor went so far as to say, “it’s more influential the further outside of the industry you go.”
“TechCrunch’s traffic impact has decreased over the years, both from what I’ve observed and from what I’ve heard other people,” said Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-VC Elias Bizannes, who has chronicled Mr. Arrington’s rise to success and pontificated on the tech blogosphere on Quora. “Part of the reason for this is simply it’s a more competitive landscape and TechCrunch doesn’t have the monopoly on talented writers and relationships … the reason it’s been so dominant is because its bloggers are firmly entrenched in Silicon Valley, with special relationships among multiple groups that have enabled TechCrunch (and especially Mike Arrington) to break news.
“I think something more important isn’t so much TechCrunch, but the aggregators like TechMeme and Hacker News. It’s those curation services that drive awareness of posts, and what is construed as TechCrunch traffic actually originates from those two aggregators.”
But even entrepreneurs who have “made it” can’t help but care what TechCrunch writes, as when Mr. Arrington seriously irked, we heard, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey after insinuating his new startup was facilitating illegal transactions. “Founder Jack Dorsey has told me that exactly zero drug or prostitution transactions have been completed through Square. I believe he believes that, but I wonder how he really knows for sure,” Mr. Arrington wrote in a thinly-sourced post last year.
It’s tough to ignore when an infamous blogger tells a readership of your peers that your startup serves hookers.
We started this post wondering if TechCrunch’s power is really due to the perception of TechCrunch as powerful–and whether there’s effectively any difference. TechCrunch doesn’t “make or break” startups, contrary to what some starry-eyed young founders believe. But despite the unfortunate names of competitors, Mr. Arrington made sure TechCrunch was the most insider-y tech news blog of them all.