Pando

Y Combinator's Sam Altman goes full-on Donald Trump, makes astonishing threat against Pando/Sarah Lacy

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on July 3, 2017

From The Venture Capital Desk

The past few days have been a rollercoaster for anyone following the tangled stories of gender, harassment, discrimination and bro-entitlement in the tech industry.

On Saturday, the New York Times’ Katie Benner published a bombshell story alleging that several high profile VCs – including Dave McClure and Chris Sacca – had behaved inappropriately towards women during business meetings and other work events. Coming on the heels of the Binary Capital scandal and the resignations of Travis Kalanick and Emil Michael from Uber, the story triggered yet another round of hand wringing and introspection across Silicon Valley.

Across most of Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, whilst all this was playing out, at least one Valley bro apparently decided that a little bit too much progress was being made. That at least one woman too many was speaking out.

That bro was Y Combinator President Sam Altman.

The story that follows involves smears and threats rather than physical harassment or assault.  For that reason, it will likely (and rightly) be drowned in today’s much bigger story: Dave McClure’s resignation from his role as a GP at 500 Startups. It’s hard to overemphasise what a shift McClure’s departure - and the subsequent “key man” questions triggered - represents in what might now happen to other VCs, CEOs etc who are exposed as harassers.

Still, drowned or not, the story of what happened between YC’s Sam Altman and Pando’s Sarah Lacy this past weekend needs to be put on the record. After all, it’s a story of how too many tech bros still believe they can threaten and smear critics (especially female critics) into silence.  It also highlights clearly something we saw when Chris Sacca was named in Katie Benner’s story just days after being applauded for his promise to be part of the solution not the problem. There’s often a huge gulf between how tech bros say they behave, and how they really behave.

Our story begins on Saturday morning, while Sarah was busy fielding calls, emails and texts from a seemingly endless stream of women with stories to tell about harassment and discrimination in the tech industry. Thanks to Katie Benner’s amazing work, it was that kind of Saturday. (Just like it was that kind of Friday, Thursday, Wednesday…)

At around brunch time, Sarah took a break from the horror stories to post an inspirational “tweetstorm” about the various indignities she’s suffered as CEO of Pando. Her message: That women should not to be scared of retaliation. That there are also plenty of good people in Silicon Valley who will support strong, outspoken women.

One example Sarah offered was her/Pando being banned from events like Code conference (over her Uber coverage) and YC Demo Day (over a single critical story we published about YC portfolio company Stripe.)

If you’re curious to read more about our YC ban, Dan Raile wrote about it here back in 2015. Honestly, though, not much in the piece will be news to anyone familiar with YC’s modus operandi: YC President Sam Altman is infamous for blocking critics and other undesirables from his events. As one reporter explained to Dan, “Sam Altman hates journalists.”

Of course, we couldn’t possibly speculate why Altman would be nervous about reporters snooping around YC events…

Perhaps he learned his press strategy from his attendance at the notoriously media-shy Bilderberg conference…

What we do know is that Sarah’s tweet on Saturday clearly unlocked some kind of long-simmering rage in Altman against Sarah and Pando, all apparently stemming from that single critical story about Stripe. A story that we published in 2014.

Rather than simply responding to the specifics of Sarah’s tweet (or, yunno, ignoring it and going back to his Soylent and money milkshakes, or whatever young Bilderberg attendees drink these days) Altman decided to make an absolutely astonishing claim about that Stripe story.

Specifically he hinted that our critical coverage of Stripe was in some way influenced by Stripe’s biggest rival, Braintree.

 

According to Altman’s tweets, at the time we published our story about Stripe in 2014, Braintree was Pando’s only advertiser. Given that total financial dependence on Braintree, we were – so his logic goes – hopelessly conflicted. And by not disclosing that conflict we were showing (as he would later write) an unforgivable lack of “journalistic integrity.”

It’s hard to know how to respond to this claim.

How about this: It’s a total, 100% lie.

As our ad server logs show, Q1 of 2014 was our biggest ever month for new advertisers. On the week our Stripe story was published, we were running (or preparing to run) campaigns for SageOne, Insightly, Vegas TechFund, Stitch Factory, Life360, Braintree and several other companies. (We offered to show Altman screen grabs from our ad logs to prove it. He didn’t respond.)

But even if Braintree (or any other company) were our only advertiser, Altman’s claim that a relationship with an advertiser affected our editorial coverage of Stripe (or any other company) would still be entirely without merit.

In fact, even the slightest suggestion that an advertiser might pay us to write a hit piece about their biggest rival is the stuff of Gamergate fever dreams. It is also a slur against the reporters of the Stripe story– Carmel DeAmicis and Michael Carney – and of course against Sarah as Pando’s founder and CEO.

As editor of Pando, I suppose it was also a slur against me. After all, it’s me - not Sarah - who is responsible for what appears on the site every day, and for maintaining the firewall between editorial and advertising. (The fact there are currently no ads on Pando shows what a bang-up job I’m doing).

But I’m not offended! Mostly because I wasn’t the editor of Pando in 2014 when we published that Stripe piece. Awkwardly for Altman, in January 2014, the editor of Pando was someone whose name you’ll likely recognize: Adam Penenberg. Or as he’s known to his students at NYU’s journalism school, professor Adam Penenberg. Or as he’s known to everyone else, Adam Penenberg the LEGENDARY journalist who famously exposed the New Republic’s Stephen Glass as a fraud. Y'know - the Adam Penenberg they made this movie about.

That, unbelievably, is the editor whose integrity pipsqueak Sam Altman is challenging when he tries to smear our editorial output from January 2014. Adam Goddamned Penenberg.

But Sam went even further. So certain was he of his slur that he offered to give $1k to a charity of our choice if we could prove him wrong…

 

Which of course we did, immediately…

(The charity we chose was recallaaronpersky.com.)

But then Altman pulled the last desperate trick of a guy who loses his own bet: He changed the terms. He had meant to say “display advertisers.” (Again, we had numerous other display advertisers at the time.)

Then, when all else was lost, Altman wrote this….

“You haven’t made anyone feel better about your journalistic integrity yet.”

Hopefully I don’t have to explain how crazy that is. That a tech bro would feel so entitled that he’d make a 100% baseless claim about Pando/Sarah’s ethics and then think it’s our/her job to disprove it and thus satisfy his fantasy test of “journalistic integrity.” As Sarah pointed out, this is the shit that women and female-owned companies have to deal with every single day in Silicon Valley and beyond: Prove yourself! Prove yourself better! I’m still not satisfied!

But, hey ho, charity is charity so we shared even more proof that Altman was wrong….

Meanwhile, more women continued to share stories of being bullied into silence by Y Combinator…

 

By late Saturday night, we thought the whole bizarre episode was finally over. Altman was still digging his heels in and refusing to retract his smear…

…but we figured he’d eventually have to relent, or at least go away. After all, what was he going to do? Double down on the original lie by adding in even more smears like some kind of hoodie-clad Donald Trump?

He’d have to be insane to do that. Certifiably batshit.  (Especially given how many people were demanding his stop, including my absolute favorite tweet from McClure whistleblower and all-round unspeakable badass Sarah Kunst who reminded Altman of his refusal to fire Peter Thiel and encouraged him to “take all the seats.”)

And so obviously it came to pass that, on Sunday afternoon, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman poured himself a steaming cup of La Croix, zipped up his hoodie… and went full-blown Donald Trump…

 

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

“someone claiming to formerly work with you…” “some interesting info”?

That’s straight-up “I’m hearing incredible things from my investigators in Hawaii” lunacy, ripped straight out of the Trump playbook. It’s also an almost exact replay of the time Tinder’s Sean Rad hinted to the London Evening Standard that he had unspecified dirt on Vanity Fair reporter Nancy Jo Sales.

I have some dirt on Pando and/or Sarah Lacy. But I’m not going to say what it is. I’ll apologize once my investigation is complete.

Fuck that noise, as Shakespeare once said.

Sarah and I have spent years dealing with that nudge-nudge-wink-wink crap from Uber. We didn’t tolerate it from the most valuable private company in Silicon Valley history and we sure as aren’t going to take it from the substitute teacher of Paul Graham’s bro creche.

We replied, immediately, from the Pando account, asking that he publish whatever dirt he claimed to have…

And again…

And again…

Meanwhile the outrage from other Twitter users was swift and – I have to say – heartening….

Oh lordy, we hope there are tapes.

Eventually, as the outrage became deafening and at least two users said they’d reported Altman to Twitter for “targeted harassment” of Sarah he finally – finally – retracted his claim.

Except not really. And once again, he managed to do it in a way that channeled Donald Trump so pitch perfectly that he might have been wearing a long red tie and an orange comb-over…

Read that “apology” again…

I received some anonymous information about this topic that I couldn’t verify, so I decided it’s best not to share. I asked for some time to try to verify it, but Pando is bullying me on Twitter while I’m waiting. The irony is not lost on me that journalists are pushing me to publish something potentially damaging without verification.

But I won’t do this to Pando.

I have said far worse things about male journalists than I’ve ever said about Sarah Lacy.

Now read it in a Donald Trump voice. Uncanny isn’t it?

“I could have hit them so hard… but I won’t do that to them. I’m the one being bullied here.”

[Let's not even get started on "I dislike bullies of both genders equally" -- Emphasis mine.]

To recap:

  • First, Altman posts an easily disprovable lie about our relationship with an advertiser
  • When we rebut that lie, with concrete proof, he changes his claim
  • When we rebut that lie, he goes silent for a few hours before…
  • He doubles down by darkly hinting that he has compromising/damaging info about Sarah/Pando’s ethics
  • He posts a statement insisting he’s the victim and repeating the claim that he knows something dark and secret about Pando. A claim that will continue to float around the Internet despite being entirely baseless

Which brings me to the moral of the story, where my outrage at seeing Sarah and Pando smeared by a unremitting scumbag like Sam Altman butts against my own guilt at being part of the social group – well-off white dudes in Silicon Valley – who are almost exclusively responsible for all of the shit we’ve witnessed/read about these past few days.

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH US?

How is this the culture that we built? How did we end up creating an industry in which lying pipsqueaks like Sam Altman are heralded as “thought leaders” and “visionaries”? Where those same entitled white bros are put in charge of the incubators and startup schools responsible for raising the next generation of entitled tech bros, and the next?

Where we weep and applaud at self-serving woke platitudes like this…

…while at the exact same time the guy posting it - and hosting events like this - is busy smearing a female CEO who dared to challenge his portfolio company’s valuation three years ago. A guy at whose own events harassment allegedly goes unchallenged.

How has it taken some of us so long to understand how bad it is? And why in god’s name are others amongst us - the Sam Altmans – working to make it even worse?

On that last question - what is wrong with the Sam Altmans amongst us - there’s an obvious Occam's razor answer, and it really doesn’t have very much to do with Pando.

Truth is, the Sam Altmans don’t care who edited Pando on any given day, or who our advertisers were, or whether the Stripe story was accurate (he hasn’t refuted a single fact), or even the inconvenient fact that Pando is a fucking Stripe customer.

What the Sam Altmans care about is that three years ago a website run by a woman wrote a mean thing about one of their portfolio companies. In the Sams’ world, there must be consequences for that kind of insubordination. She must be brought to heel.

And so for the past three years, Sam Alman has held this insane seething grudge against Sarah and Pando. And this weekend – when everyone else was taking a small step closer to understanding how messed up the gender dynamic is in the tech industry – his rage finally reached breaking point. In an explosion of dust and rubble, he came bursting through the wall like some kind of Alt Right Roger Rabbit screaming “THE REAL STORY IS ABOUT ETHICS IN WRITING ABOUT MY PORTFOLIO COMPANIES.”

Actually, Sam, it isn’t. The real story is about assholes like you and how your toxic entitlement continues to be a cancer at the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s also about how women in tech have reached their limit with dudes who look like you (or me) telling them to sit down and shut up or face sustained and disgusting consequences. It’s about whether dudes like us choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

And, Sam, judging from today’s news, I hope you like to binge watch because that story is just getting started.

Meanwhile, let’s end this micro-chapter with some journalistic housekeeping, and one last WTF moment…

Given Altman made clear he was speaking as a Stripe investor and that his attack on Pando came in response to our coverage of that company,  I reached out to Stripe CEO Patrick Collison for comment.

Collison didn’t respond, but his press spokesperson issued a statement saying they “have no interest in rehashing a story from 2014.”

Which is a perfectly fair response. After all, Altman might be a Stripe investor and he might be attacking us to defend Stripe but that doesn’t mean Stripe put him up to it, or that Collison supports him. Patrick Collison isn’t the boss of Sam Altman.

Except, in one final twist, it turns out that Patrick Collison is literally the boss of Sam Altman.

Take a look at Sam Altman’s announcement of Y Combinator’s “board of overseers”, the group “responsible for hiring and firing the YC President [i.e. Altman]"...

The members are: Brian Chesky, Adora Cheung,

John Collison, Patrick Collison, Drew Houston, Jessica Livingston, David

Rusenko, Emmett Shear, and me.

That’s right, the board whose job it is to prevent Sam Altman doing insane things like using YC’s platform to smear and lie about journalists in defense of portfolio companies like Stripe includes… Sam Altman and two founders of Stripe.

Take all the fucking seats, indeed.