Why I Started PandoDaily

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 16, 2012

From The News Desk

Several months ago I became obsessed with a colony of trees in Utah called Pando Trees. Measuring 43 hectares and weighing 6,000 tons, they're pretty impressive above ground. But what really matters is what is happening below. The interconnected root system is the oldest living organism in the world. No matter what happens above ground, that root system stays alive, and continually shoots up new trees.

It's the perfect metaphor for what I love about Silicon Valley. It's not just individual hot startups of-the-moment; it's that unique startup ecosystem that continually shoots up new companies no matter how frothy or scorched everything above ground gets. That metaphorical startup root system is undoubtably located in Silicon Valley, but increasingly it's stretching around the world, shooting up new colonies of trees in more and more uncommon places.

We have one goal here at PandoDaily: To be the site-of-record for that startup root-system and everything that springs up from it, cycle-after-cycle. That sounds simple but it'll be incredibly hard to pull off. It's not something we accomplish on day one or even day 300. It's something we accomplish by waking up every single day and writing the best stuff we can, and continually adding like-minded staffers who have the passion, drive and talent to do the same.

As a founder, I have a personal goal that's just as important and just as core to our culture: I do not want to sell this company.  I have opened nearly every meeting by telling potential investors and potential employees this, so I guess readers should know it from the beginning as well.

Of course, there's the caveat that if someone calls me tomorrow and offers $1 billion, I might cave. I do have investors after all, and everyone has a price. And I've been around enough entrepreneurs to know the journey changes you in ways you can't expect. I'm as aware as anyone this resolve might soften over time.

So let me put it this way: Selling is not success to me. If I wind up selling, I've failed in some way. We didn't get as big as we should, we didn't execute on the opportunity or I didn't hire the right team and got too burned out. Success is keeping our independence forever. Success is that I wake up and write about startups on this blog every day for the rest of my career. Success is that we become the place that every smart reporter in this space who wants to come to do great work on a great platform and get paid well to do it.

The reason why I'm building this site and why I feel so strongly about never selling goes back to September 2010. Michael Arrington was sitting on stage signing paperwork with Tim Armstrong to sell TechCrunch to AOL. He asked the audience if he should sell, and said if they said no, he'd tear up the paperwork. I yelled "No" loudly to little avail.

I wasn't mad at him for selling. As his friend, I'd seen what Mike had gone through to build TechCrunch, and he deserved to become a rich man. But I was furious all the same. I knew this was the beginning of the death of TechCrunch. How could it not be? We've seen it time-and-time again with startup acquisitions: The product may live on but the voice, the ambition and the culture almost always gets squashed. And with a media company, those are the reasons you matter.

We'd all covered startups long enough to know all of this going into it. What I wasn't prepared for was the feeling of helplessness when you aren't the person who gets to make that decision, but has to wake up everyday and live with the repercussions just the same-- when you're just an employee. Startups talk about the team and give out equity and operate flat-organizations where everyone has a say and a vote. And that equanimity is a big reason why Silicon Valley is so unique. But the hard truth is that even here the sell-or-not-to-sell decision is the time when even the most democratic organization turn into dictatorships. And rightly so.

That was the first moment in more than a decade of covering startups when I had founder-envy.

I've never been one of those people who just wanted to start a company for the sake of starting a company. I was more than happy to spend life writing about them. I'd thought about starting a blog in the past, but ultimately decided it would be more fun to work with Mike and Heather to make TechCrunch even bigger. We didn't agree on everything, but I always felt TechCrunch got the important things right-- things like giving a crazy founder the benefit of the doubt that his plan might work and things like flatly calling out bad actors in the ecosystem.

So this fall, when AOL violated the promises not to meddle in TechCrunch's affairs kicking off an exodus of talent and a subsequent decline of page views, I got a lot of very kind job offers. But I knew I had two real options: Stay and help put the pieces back together or leave and start something that I could decide not to sell to AOL.

To do the former, I would have to get over everything that had happened. And I knew I couldn't do that. And the idea of starting something new-- starting with a clean sheet of paper, surrounded by great advisors and knowing with everything we'd learned at TechCrunch-- was so intoxicating that in the end, that was the biggest reason I quit.

Once I made that decision, I wanted to get a blog in the market as soon as possible. Because none of my big plans for PandoDaily will amount to anything if we aren't writing great content every day.

So here we are. My maternity leave-- such as it was-- is over, and I've hired an amazing nanny to help with my more important startup, my son Eli. I've paid a Wordpress designer named Sara Cannon $8,000 to build this site. I've got a temporary desk at i/o Ventures in the Mission.

I've signed up some of the best tech writers in the world as regular contributors including Michael Arrington, MG Siegler, Paul Carr and Farhad Manjoo. And I've hired three full-time writers. Two I can't announce yet, and the other is a hungry, entry-level kid named Trevor Gilbert who I think will rapidly become a blogging superstar. As a writer, I'm creating the ultimate club of which I'd want to be a member.

I've also raised a bunch of cash from some of the people I respect most in the industry. This includes: Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Tony Hsieh, Zach Nelson, Andrew Anker, Chris Dixon, Saul Klein, Josh Kopelman, Jeff Jordan and Matt Cohler, all investing as individuals. Also investing are a handful of seed funds including the CrunchFund, Greylock Discovery Fund, Accel's Seed Fund, Menlo Ventures Talent Fund, Lerer Ventures, SV Angels and Ooga Labs. (Note: In the spring of 2013, we raised a follow on investment from Redpoint Ventures, Lerer, Greylock, Accel, Founders Fund, and Nelson.)

It's a long list. And there is a simple reason we spread the syndicate widely: This is a news site built for the startup community, so the more of them that are a part of it, the better. Some people will call this a conflict. Even though it's become standard for tech sites to be backed by investors they all cover, it's certainly messy. But things were already messy for us. We are unashamedly part of the startup community. We love it and are advocates for the best parts of it, while we'll aggressively call out the worst parts of it.

Sometimes our investors will be in the first category; sometimes they'll be in the latter. I mean, they've already written the checks, so it's not like they can take the money back, right? Either way, we'll disclose everything.

Another note on conflicts: I won't be investing directly in startups, nor will the staff-writers of PandoDaily. But we have plenty of contributors and opinion columnists who do, because frequently those people are informed enough to write the best stuff. And that's no different from the policies of many old media brands like BusinessWeek and Fortune who've paid investors to write opinions and columns for years. News is news, but great opinion pieces are supposed to have bias and a point-of-view.

A note on how we'll operate: We are insanely competitive. We want to break every story. But we also want to bring more civility into the blogosphere. We'll link to people who beat us on a story and be good sports about it, as much as it pisses us off. We'll welcome competitors to cover our events, and we'll cover theirs. We'll still publish the rants you've come to love from our mouthy contributors, but unless they're newsy, they'll go on something we're calling "The Back Page."

And yes, we'll honor embargoes, but here's how it works. That thing on the left side of the homepage is called the PandoTicker. It will contain every piece of notable news that happens every day in the startup ecosystem. It'll be constantly updated and as thorough as we can humanly make it. We'll get better at that over time.

But here's the thing about the PandoTicker: Each post will only be a paragraph long, with one sentence of our analysis. We'll link out to longer stories if you want to know more. Sometimes those will be our own stories. Frequently they'll be stories from competitors who broke the news or nailed why it mattered. Sometimes it'll be a link to TechMeme.

Think of the PandoTicker as the news and information you can find elsewhere, we just want to make it easier on you. If we don't have value to add, we won't waste your time with a longer post. That frees up our time (and the rest of the page) for things you won't find anywhere else: Exclusives, edgy opinion posts, stellar product analysis, insightful people and culture stories and *real* breaking news, which we define as something someone doesn't want you to write, not re-writing a press release faster than anyone else.

We'll honor any embargo to put a piece of relevant news in the PandoTicker. But if you want your news in the main blog, you have to give us something exclusive.

We hope this approach is a more reader-friendly way to give people a daily snap-shot of what's happening in the startup ecosystem. It has another big benefit for our editorial staff as well: It makes the commodity news that consumes so much of bloggers' time these days even more of a commodity. That allows us to reserve our time, firepower and space for pieces that we're really adding value to. We hope that makes the site a joy to work for and a joy to read.

Oh yes, and one last note: Remember that money I mentioned that we raised? That's because we're hiring. We're looking for at least two more full time reporters, a very experienced full time event coordinator, a copy editor and someone who can sell sponsorships. I can't promise you the largest salaries in the world (yet), but I can promise this journey won't be boring. Email resumes to [email protected]

There's a lot more I'll be telling you in the coming weeks about PandoDaily, but that can wait. For now, I have to get to work. News isn't going to break itself.