Pando

We sold Pando

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 23, 2019

From The Inside Baseball Desk

If there is a single moment when it seemed like my journalism career suddenly caught fire, it was the 2006 Business Week cover story I wrote about the rise of Web 2.0 companies.

It was hated. It was loved. It inspired weird half-assed halloween costumes. And it won me a book deal which allowed me to buy a house in San Francisco and then led to my job at TechCrunch (v1), and eventually to founding Pando

At the time I wrote that cover, I was the most junior, least pedigreed member of the BusinessWeek tech team, but I knew a good story when I saw it. Just as importantly I was young enough that I could see the ever-changing Silicon Valley ecosystem through fresh eyes. A lot of much more experienced journalists expressed doubt over the story and subsequent book, arguing that I was wasting my time shadowing “has beens” like Marc Andreessen or upstarts like Mark Zuckerberg who was merely playing at the next incarnation of Friendster. Was this guy really the future of Silicon Valley?

The reason I’m thinking about this story today - fifteen years after that first big cover story - is because this post marks another personal and professional milestone for me. 

This is my last post as editor in chief and CEO. Paul Carr and I have sold Pando to a brand new owner. And for the first time in my career, I am no longer a journalist. 

I have so much to say about the sale, which is to BuySellAds - a company we started working with at Pando back in 2012. I want to tell you why I’m so excited about this deal. I want to tell you why I’m so proud of Pando’s legacy, and the dozens of fearless journalists who helped us build this brand. I want to talk about what I plan on doing for the rest of my career. 

But mostly, I want to explain to Pando readers why I’m leaving journalism. 

As I watched colleagues peel off for other easier more lucrative careers over the decades, I thought I was the one who’d be a lifer. But I realized in the last few years that I’ve become like those jaded journalists a generation before me who could no longer see the Valley through fresh eyes. 

Simply put: Over a 20-year run spent ahead of the story, chasing the story and sometimes becoming the story, too much has happened between me and Silicon Valley. 

Silicon Valley was a place that I so fervently believed in that I got here by any means necessary in my early 20s and rebuffed any offer for higher paid, more prestigious journalism jobs in New York. It’s a place where I’ve gotten to know some of the most fascinating people on the planet and made many lifelong friends. It’s a place where people have believed in me enough to give me millions and millions of dollars to build my own companies. It’s the only place I’ve lived and worked outside my hometown, and I’m only a few years away from having lived here longer. 

And yet.

It’s a place where I’ve been sexually harassed more times than I can remember. It’s a place where I’ve been lied about, where VCs have arm-twisted editors to fire me, where billionaires have threatened those doing business with me to cut all ties. It’s a place where I’ve had people turn on me again and again and again simply for doing my job. It’s a place I’ve been betrayed by people I trusted. It’s a place where one-time friends threatened my children because I wrote about things they did

And of course I’m not the only one, and my experience was far from the worst: In the last few years I have been overwhelmed by stories of sexual assault and harassment told by so many incredibley women in the Valley, holding back so much talent and driving so much talent out of the industry.

I have absorbed so many more stories than I have reported, more than I can ever report, about the dark side of Silicon Valley. And if you are a Pando subscriber, you know that’s saying something. 

Increasingly I feel like I’m suffocating from all the ghosts of my career in San Francisco. A few weekends ago, I went on a hike to the highest point in the city and looked down a view that once made me pinch myself. A view that I saw for the first time in my early 20s and vowed I’d do whatever it took to make it here. But the other day, all I could think was, “I’m so fucking sick of your shit, San Francisco.” 

That Sarah Lacy— the journalist who’d run out of fucks to give— was the perfect version of me to cover the run up, apex and colossal destruction of the bro era of Silicon Valley yet, where chasing unicorn valuations was really about chasing masculinity. An era I’ve called the bursting of the toxic masculinity bubble. While the early Web 2.0 era may have inspired a version of me who could believe in the Valley again, the era that has culminated in the evaporation of $40 billion in WeWork worth needed someone who could report out the absolute worst of the Valley without flinching. There’s a reason that in story-after-story Pando was months— if not years— ahead of peers in reporting the worst of the Valley. (We wrote lots of positive stories too, but we know from the data and every conversation I have with readers, those aren’t the ones you remember.)

I am hopeful now that once again things are being reset here. But I am no longer the right reporter to uncover it or the editor to guide a team of fresh eyes to cover it or the entrepreneur to ask people for money to fund it. And as soon as I realized that, I knew we had to find a home for Pando. 

Even here I know there will be a gender tax. When male entrepreneurs reach the end of the road with companies they’ve bled to build, they are frequently congratulated for staying the course so long. Female entrepreneurs are just as frequently criticized for “giving up.” So let me be clear: The years I spent building Pando have been the most rewarding of my career, but also the most brutal. 

I started the company on maternity leave, and now Eli is eight. That is a long slog as an investigative journalism company that pissed off most of the industry it covered. Losing friends and valuable business relationships is nothing compared to the six figure debt I incurred going without a salary to make sure Pando stayed alive. It was nothing compared to the week I spent in the hospital from pneumonia due to over-work, which was so bad it gave me chronic asthma that persists today. 

Even the early chaos of TechCrunch couldn’t have prepared me for building Pando. It was a different game with higher stakes by the time we came along. Highly paid operatives were paid to spread baseless lies about me. Multi-billion dollar corporations threatened our advertisers, so we pivoted our entire business to a subscription model rather than quit. We withstood a combined threatened $400 million in baseless legal fights. We fully legally indemnified every reporter - including freelancers - involved in those fights, agreeing to pay every single legal bill and offering them unlimited access to lawyers, even if it meant I almost lost my house (more than once) and Paul spent half his life on conference calls between lawyers and our reporters, because it was the right thing to do. (Thank you in particular to our amazing first amendment attorney, Roger Myers of Bryan Cave and to our accountant Noah Hopton of Finvisor who somehow kept the wheels on our financial bus during all those legal dramas.)

For a time, especially with stories like Uber, it felt like a very lonely journey. While we were calling out the company’s toxic culture and (we now know) the company was plotting to destroy my family, other “fearless” media companies were giving Travis Kalanick a friendly platform to do damage control, or inviting him to headline their conferences (conferences our reporters were banned from, lest we upset the stars). Our policy of reporting on our investors just as fiercely as everyone else - if not more so - meant operating in the certain knowledge that, after a certain point, we’d never raise another dime of venture capital.

Fortunately, things have started to change. Along with the #metoo movement and the collapse of some of the headiest private valuations, it seems like everyone is suddenly writing about the evils of tech companies. We won our fights. Like Mary Poppins at the end of the movie, the wind has changed and the world no longer needs that iteration of Pando, and Pando no longer needs me. 

And at that exact moment - as if by magic - Todd Garland from BuySellAds sent us an email asking if we’d be interested in discussing the possibility of selling the company. A few months later, the deal was done.

Back in 2012, we were introduced by a friend of a friend. (I’ve forgotten who, but I probably owe them a drink right about now…) Todd took over all of our ad serving operations, and what’s more, he did it for free. Skeptical journalist that I was, this never quite made sense to me. In 2013, just after we’d acquired NSFWCORP, begun our long land war with Uber, completed our Series A, and I’d given birth to my second child, I was in New York for a PandoMonthly and I met up with Todd, face-to-face for the first time. 

“Why are you helping us?” I asked him. 

“I don’t know, it just seems like the universe has its own way of situations like this working out over time,” he replied.

(Good one, universe.)

So what’s next for Pando? I’m thrilled to see what it’s next chapter will hold, confident it’s in good hands. I’m also intrigued by BSA’s strategy of buying much beloved but somewhat neglected online media brands and reinventing them for a whole new audience while still serving the existing audience with (hopefully) an even better product. (In a fun ironic twist, BSA also recently acquired Digg, the main subject of that Business Week cover that started it all.) 

For months, Paul and I spent a lot of time talking with Todd about what we felt Pando needed to become next— what its unique strengths were but also how it could evolve beyond us. We’re incredibly excited that a company with the resources to invest in hiring new talent and building a new team is taking over at a moment in the industry when I think we’re poised for another dramatic new beginning. 

I look forward to discovering new Pando bylines, and I hope some of our regular voices like Dan Raile and Kevin Kelleher will still show up on these pages. I know it’ll be a must read for me, and don’t be surprised to see the occasional guest post from me whenever I have something to say. 

What meant the most to me about the deal: We had others who were interested in buying Pando and locking Paul and I up in long contracts. But Todd had the vision to see the immense value in Pando itself. 

That means a lot because Pando is a lot more than just Paul and me. 

Pando amassed so much talent over its lifecycle and it’s amazing to watch superstar alums like Erin Griffith turning out scoop after scoop at internationally renowned publications. It’s no less fantastic to follow the career paths of folks like Michael Carney - now a rising star venture capitalist - and Hamish McKenzie who went on to co-found Substack. And then of course there are legends of journalism like Mark Ames and Adam Penenberg, the former who joined us after Pando acquired Paul’s NSFWCORP along with other superstars like John “The War Nerd” Dolan, Yasha Levine, Matt Bors, and James Aylett (who also built the CMS you’re reading this on) and others. Kevin Kelleher’s earnings stories were a joy to behold (Yes! Earnings stories can actually be works of art!). The amazing work of Dennis Keohane and James Robinson. It was more fun than you can imagine to see young journalists like David Holmes, Nathaniel Mott, Cale Guthrie Weissman, Carmel DeAmicis and Dan Raile find and hone their unique and powerful voices here. (The time Paul sent Dan to crash the Code conference after Pando was banned, should be at the start of any future Pando highlights reel.) Then there were the thousands of original Brad Jonas and Hallie Bateman illustrations. And of course this list barely scratches the surface of all the full time and freelance contributors who worked to make Pando unique.

On the business side, Andrew Anker helped give me the confidence to start Pando. As our Executive Chairman, he taught me how to be a CEO, always stood by us, and once reached into his own pocket to help cover our legal fees. Brad Bowers sold millions of dollars in ads and sponsorships for us, despite the thousands of red lines we drew that made his job all but impossible. I still haven’t forgotten how many journalist salaries were paid by that Meebo ad bar that so many people bitched about, well after Meebo had sold to Google. (Thanks Seth.) Long time advertisers like TriNet and Braintree and Atlassian and Rackspace who simply believed in what we did. 

Our hundreds of hours of PandoMonthly’s captured an era and are still watched by thousands of entrepreneurial hopefuls all around the world on YouTube. That’s all made the brand beloved and reviled. It’s why our switch from advertising to paid memberships allowed us to stay in business for so long, even when certain nameless companies tried to bully our advertisers into abandoning us. And I should note all the investors who didn’t turn on us-- even those we cost a lot of money. They knew what they were funding when they invested in Pando, and they kept their promise never to try to meddle in editorial. 

I’ve linked to some of my favorite pieces by all those journalists above. There are so many things that Pando did well beyond calling out Uber. Not only did Mark Ames blow the lid off the Silicon Valley wage collusion suit, our reporting was cited as evidence in the case that got animation workers their record-breaking settlement. The vintage Paul Carr takedown of Secret, boosted by Secret executivesown words. (The company collapsed not long afterwards) is one of my favorites, but he’d probably tell you that his personal highlight was when he made Eli, my (then) four year old an accredited investor on Crowdfunder to highlight glaring flaws in their compliance process, as part of his multi-part investigation into TellSpec. 

Hamish wrote one of the first investigations into how political machinations was tearing Silicon Valley billionaires apart back in 2013. There was the last big investigative story I’ll ever do, on systemic gender discrimination inside UC Berkeley. Then there was James Robinson’s expose of fraudulent health devices on Indiegogo, Yasha Levine on Surveillance Valley (which later became an amazing book of the same name), and David Sirota’s killer investigation into Chatham Asset Management and Chris Christie which brought forth some of the most insane (and baseless) legal threats we ever had to deal with, and even saw Sirota attacked in the pages of the National Enquirer (neatly foreshadowing years of Trump-era smear scandals tied to that same magazine). Lanny Davis, Marty “Mad Dog” Singer-- you name it, they’ve all come after Pando at one point or another. 

If anyone reading this has poured more than they thought they had into a startup, you know the load it takes off your mind to know it will stay alive and be in good hands without you. It means the world. 

So what’s next for me? Well, you probably know that Paul and I raised money and co-founded Chairman Mom in 2017, a subscription-based, troll-free, abuse-free platform designed for working moms, but open to anyone. I’ve spent the first act of my career believing in Silicon Valley when few others would, the second act of my career exposing the worst ramifications of that runaway success. I’m proud of both of those decades. But now, I’ve switched to simply building something better for women. 

We have thousands of paying users, companies that provide access to Chairman Mom as part of their benefits package, 30% of our audience actively asks and answers questions, and we’ve never had a single flagged or toxic comment. Our contrarian idea a few years ago was that women don’t wake up in the morning wanting to tear each other down. We have proven it, and we’re onto something huge in our next product reveal, coming any day now. 

It’s only in building Chairman Mom— with my best friend and long time partner and an absolutely phenomenal team— that I’ve gained the thing that those Pando years kinda destroyed. Hope for the future and hope for Silicon Valley. I hope you’ll join me on that journey, and I hope you’ll keep supporting Pando. Thank you again for believing us and believing in us.