The co-founder of Rap Genius has long been a trainwreck. So where the hell was Ben Horowitz?
Yesterday afternoon, Gawker's Jordan Sargent spotted something bizarre, and appalling. Mahbod Moghadam, cofounder of lyric annotation site Rap Genius, used his own platform to annotate the 141-page manifesto of Elliot Rodger, who stabbed three people then shot three others in a college town outside UC-Santa Barbara.
To the manifesto, titled "My Twisted World," Moghadam added comments like "beautifully written" and even speculated that the killer's sister might be "smokin' hot."
Less than 24 hours after the annotations were brought to light, Moghadam was fired from RapGenius (initial reports stated he had resigned, but sources close to the company told Re/Code's Kara Swisher that he was forced out). In a statement, CEO Tom Lehman wrote that Moghadam's annotations "not only didn’t attempt to enhance anyone’s understanding of the text, but went beyond that into gleeful insensitivity and misogyny. All of which is contrary to everything we’re trying to accomplish at Rap Genius.”
Sounds pretty open-and-shut right? Co-founder does something indefensible, is appropriately ousted.
But there is one question that remains: Where the hell was Ben Horowitz?
Horowitz, the former Netscape executive, invested $15 million in Rap Genius through Andreessen Horowitz (disclosure: Horowitz's partner Marc Andreessen is a personal investor in Pando.) More than just a faceless cash dispenser, Horowitz has become known for mentoring young founders. Sarah Lacy even called his book, "The Hard Thing About Hard Things," the "most valuable book on startup management hands down," and recommended it to anyone, founder or not, who wants to better understand the pain of being a startup CEO.
Horowitz, an avowed rap enthusiast, was particularly bullish about Rap Genius, going so far as to compare its model to the "Talmud." And Rap Genius' "Ben Horowitz, Explained" page even includes a disclosure that refers to Horowitz as "true fam."
This is hardly the first instance (though it's certainly the most deplorable) of Moghadam courting controversy. In an interview with an email newsletter, he suggested that Mark Zuckerberg could "suck my dick" and called the New York Times "Carlos Slim's ho." He was also accused of racism after a number of questionable lines used in a "diss" track against Das Racist, a now-defunct rap group from Queens that once referred to Rap Genius as "white devil sophistry." Moghadam called one of the group's members, Dapwell, who is of South Asian descent, a "dirty cigarette." In the track he also complained about not being able to use the N-word. Later, Moghadam attributed much of his questionable behavior to a now-removed brain tumor.
Moghadam's irresponsibility extended beyond diss tracks and interview faux-pas's, however. Last December, an email leaked that caught Moghadam offering to tweet out somebody's blog post as long as the blogger embedded a bunch of links to Rap Genius’ Justin Bieber lyric pages. By proliferating more inbound links to those pages, Google search crawlers would rank those pages higher in search results -- a clear violation of Google's policies. The search engine responded by obliterating Rap Genius' standing in its search results, causing the site's traffic to fall off a cliff.
So why didn't Horowitz -- the patriarch of this dysfunctional family -- step in sooner?
Horowitz declined to comment on Moghadam's ousting*, but based on his past writings, it seems like he has painted himself into a corner. On one hand, Horowitz says he loves founder CEOs and founders in general, believing that they are the best individuals to guide a company through the hell of startup life. On the other hand, Moghadam's actions violate everything he stands for as a mentor, like personal responsibility and treating people with respect.
Lehman's statement suggests the decision for Moghadam to leave was made internally within the company: "Were Mahbod's annotations posted by a Rap Genius moderator, that person would cease to be an effective community leader and would have to step down. And Mahbod, our original community leader, is no exception." However, according to Re/Code, "pressure from investors" played a role in the firing.
(In a tweet recently posted by Ben Horowitz, he says he had nothing to do with the ousting and that it was Lehman and co-founder Ilan Zechory who made the "hard decision.")
What's certain is that Horowitz was forced to choose between enabling a founder and putting a stop to an ongoing trainwreck. Until today at least, he chose the former.
- After the story published, Horowitz wrote in an email, "In my view, the board can remove the CEO, but should not override the CEO."