So Sam Sethi, former TechCrunch UK editor, announced the closing of his Blognation blog network today. He lays 100% of the blame for the failure on me personally. I agree with Mathew Ingram, Techfold and others that it isn’t appropriate to lay blame on others for your own failure. But I also want to point out a few things for the record, and then let Blognation rest in peace.
My History With Sam Sethi
Sam is, in my opinion, a classic confidence man. When he was the editor of TechCrunch UK in late 2006, he kept talking about various sponsorships and revenue that was coming in, and pushed up expenses based on that promised revenue. We thought things were going great for a couple of months until it became clear that the sponsorship money wasn’t actually real. It’s easy for people to understand that others tend to exaggerate, but outright fabrication and lying is just so surprising that it can catch us off guard. Eventually we would have let Sam go based on the way he ran the TechCrunch UK business, but the LeWeb debacle occurred first.
At LeWeb last year Sam lashed out at organizer Loic Le Meur for including French politicians at the event. That was ok, except for the fact that Sam was simultaneously planning to hold his own competing conference under the TechCrunch banner. In a flurry of email exchanges last December I told Sam he had to take down his critical post because it was a conflict of interest. The last email I sent him said “Fix this or I can’t work with you” or something similar. His next action was to post on the TechCrunch UK blog and his twitter account, that he’d been fired. He hadn’t in fact been fired – all I wanted him to do was take down the post because I felt that he wrote it only to further his own goals of competing with Le Web.
At the time it served Sam to say he was fired to get people to sympathize with him. Later, he says he quit, which is actually the truth. But he changed his story because being fired probably didn’t help him with VCs.
When Sam left that could have been the end of things between us. We shook hands at a conference in London in February 2007. I was focused on other things, as was he.
But I believe Sam was either obsessed with continuing the fight, or else made a decision that being anti-techcrunch was good for business.
Rise of Blognation
Sam then started Blognation, a network of blogs in various countries that reported on tech news in English. A lot of the bloggers he brought on are people I knew and respected. And generally speaking, the more tech blogs there are out there, the more we can all grow. So other than being wary that the network would be used primarily to attack TechCrunch, I was, again, not very concerned one way or another.
But Sam made some very dumb decisions in the early days of Blognation. First, he booted the guy that actually came up with the idea, Lee Wilkins. It was probably not legal, but Wilkins, who lives in Romania, had little legal recourse. But Wilkins did tell potential Blognation investors what Sam had done, prompting Sam to lose his cool and threaten to kill him. I found out about this fairly quickly back in the Spring of 2007, but didn’t post on it. I contacted Sam by Skype (he’s printed part of the conversation on this blog, linked above). It was clear to me that, as despicable as Sam’s actions were, I was too close to the situation to write about it. I also felt vaguely threatened by him in that Skype conversation. Sam also threatened a number of the editors he brought on. Many of them came to me with emails and skype messages showing the threats. Sam always just said they were fired employees with an axe to grind. It was clearly bullshit, but again, I chose not to write about it.
Second, Sam said from the start that he had venture funding even though he didn’t. This was even written on the About page of Blognation. He used this non existent funding to lure bloggers to the network, promising them thousands of euros per month to blog for him. In his blog post today, Sam says that he was forced to lie about funding to stop me from posting that they were in the deadpool. But it looks to me like things were falling apart months before – he writes “The merest whif of litigation whether true or not caused our the potential investors to run for the hills back in July.” But the first time I ever mentioned Blognation on TechCrunch, or any other blog, was five months later in December. If funding fell apart, I had nothing to do with it.
In those intervening months Sam and some of his editors continued to take shots at TechCrunch. They approached our writers and tried to hire them. Tris Hussy, Blognation Canada editor, wrote a post saying I blew off a conference. He later apologized when it became clear that his story was factually incorrect, but by then the story had spread throughout the blogosphere. It was clear to me that Blognation was looking for any way to attack TechCrunch.
December 2007 – The End of Blognation
When Lee Wilkins, the original founder of Blognation, started a new blog network to compete with Blognation, I felt that it was time to take the gloves off. In my post announcing MyKinda, I finally posted the death threat from earlier in the year. As far as I knew, that that point Blognation had been funded since Sam had told everyone that it was. I didn’t post that email to hurt blognation – I simply stopped not posting it out of fear of backlash from Sam.
Anyway, I once again assumed that things would die down and that Blognation, which I assumed was funded, would continue on its path.
But then Marc Orchant had a massive heart attack. And the reason he had a heart attack may have been because he was working for Sam, not being paid, and massively stressed out about supporting his family. That is a debatable point, but for another Blognation editor and Marc’s good friend, Oliver Starr (who also used to work with me), it was too much. He decided to destroy Sam and Blognation by attacking him publicly.
Oliver went from writing “I have to say, I like Sam. He’s smart, creative, brimming with integrity” in his first blognation post in August to saying “So… that’s a pretty ugly litany of yours up there; lies, more lies, still more lies, exaggerations, evasiveness, manipulation, usury, fraud even – honestly Sam I think there’s a good chance that what you’ve done is actually criminal not just pathological and antisocial – perhaps even psychotic behavior” just four months later.
Other editors then jumped on board and the floodgates were opened. It was clear that Blognation had never received funding, had never paid anyone for any work, and did not have a workable business model at all. If you care to read it all, see Oliver Starr’s and Debi Jones’ blogs. over the last couple of weeks. The clear pattern is that Sam would say anything on the phone or skype – apologize, lie, etc. but then not follow up with any promises he made. The mountain of recorded evidence against him is staggering, from bank fraud to recorded conversations. Again, it’s all chronicled on Oliver and Debi’s blogs.
My plan was to stay out of the fight. However, Duncan picked up the story in the middle of the night and ran with it. Given that Sam and Oliver both worked for me, there was no way to not be part of the story.
But then I got word that funding might actually be coming through, and I got a copy of the term sheet from an anonymous source. I posted it, saying that Blognation may yet live. Most people assumed that Sam leaked the term sheet to me to get word out that the startup wasn’t dead. That is certainly possible, although Sam is now claiming someone somehow stole it from him.
Sam claims that my posting of that term sheet killed the financing, and blognation. That’s just not true. What is much more likely is that the term sheet was a fake created by Sam, or the fund did due diligence on the financials and realized you can’t start a blog network with no revenue and dozens of editors being paid thousands of Euros per month each. Blognation had no advertisers, no page views and a lot of debt and other baggage. It was not fundable. If the deal made sense before the term sheet was published, the fact that it went up on TechCrunch would not have killed the deal.
It is hard for people not directly involved with Sam to understand the extent to which he will lie and manipulate to achieve his goals. As I said early in this post, people just don’t understand outright fabrication and so they often get sucked in to believing that, at worst, someone is just exaggerating a little. I can’t tell you the number of people who came up to me at the Le Web conference this week in Paris to tell me they’d been cheated, duped, or otherwise hurt by Sam. Many of these people attacked me last year when Sam left TechCrunch. Every single one of them apologized to me and said that they now know the truth about this guy. Some of these people called themselves Sam’s friend a year ago. Now, they just think he’s a jerk.
This is, hopefully, the last time I ever write about Sam Sethi. I’m sure that he’ll take some time off and then start his bullshit again. I hope for his sake he realizes that this time he hurt dozens of people who trusted him and worked for half a year with no salary to help make his dream become a reality. He has to stop blaming everyone around him for his actions and come to terms with the kind of person he is. And then live the rest of his life the way he decides to live it.
Blogging is supposed to be about transparent honesty and conversation. As the community grows it is clear that people like Sam can use and abuse it to achieve their own goals. They can lie repeatedly, get caught, and continue to spin and spin and spin and will at the end have at least a few people who still naively support them. Unless we, as a community, stand up and say we won’t put up with it, this kind of thing will happen again.
In his final post, Sam forgets to thank his editors who worked for free, or express any regret for lying to them during the entire process. I hope that some day Sam fixes that and tells the real story of Blognation. I hope he expresses regret for the death of Marc Orchant. His editors, Marc’s family, and Blognation readers deserve that honesty. And it will help Sam understand just how despicable his actions were.