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Startups & Media

Thoughts on the relationship between startups & media.

Mar 20, 2022

when conflict becomes unhealthy
when conflict becomes unhealthy (credit Gratisography @pexels)

If you follow the 🇮🇳 startup scene, it’s hard to miss this story about Gaurav Munjal, the founder & CEO of Unacademy. Going through this article, I was bothered enough to tweet about it. Critiquing anyone’s work is always tricky and riddled with the risk of coming across as judgemental and preachy. But sometimes that risk needs to be taken. I can only hope that I was successful in avoiding the pitfalls.

I also decided to write a post here, to focus on bringing out questions & food for thought, that hopefully encourages us to develop a richer quality of conversation in a startup ecosystem that’s still in very very early stages.

Perspectives & words

At an offline event in Oct 2019, I was chatting up with a (relatively young) founder and a reputed journalist from a business publication. This founder says to the journalist “aap log kabhi hum logon ke baare mein bhi likh diya karo” (maybe you folks should write something about us too sometimes). At this moment, I’d like some of my fellow founders to think about what response they’d expect to this.

The journalist snapped back (something along the lines of): “Why do you expect us to simply do what you tell us to do? The moment I actually start covering, you will have a 1000 opinions on what to cover vs not. You will ignore the difficult questions when I pose them to you. I’m a journalist, not your PR”.

Suffice to say, this founder stood there, shocked, and (based on the look on his face) trying to figure out what exactly did he say wrong. Later in the event, the founder says to me: “meri to fat gayi thi, maine aisa kya kaha? I was just requesting her to cover our emerging sector too” (I was shitting my pants, what did I say wrong to her? …)

Reading the above (a 100% true event), is there a picture forming in your head? What if I used “responded” instead of “snapped back”? I can attest (based on conversations) that different people will have very different interpretations of this same event. But such is life, and a large part of growing up is to recognise & acknowledge these differences. That journalist, jaded from all the requests, must have seen plenty of dictations, than journalism. To put it in the words of another journalist friend: “A lot of founders revel in their celebrity status that us in the media bestow upon them, yet cry foul the moment any notion of accountability is brought in”.

The thing is, there’s an inherent tension in the nature of jobs that media & the founders do. I’m specifically referring to startup founders here, as I feel the ambiguity, uncertainty & judgement faced by them is of a different nature than those of mature companies.

Natural tension

Truth is, startups are a messy affair. You’re fighting fires everywhere. There’s an unsaid understanding - if you’re not letting a few fires burn, you need to question your speed. It’s not for everyone. Obviously, this also gets exploited at times. Horrible cultures emerge, word spreads around, and the community sort of works their way around such folks. But in my biased opinion, startups have had a significant net positive addition to our country, and to the quality of talent.

Media, by nature, thrives on identifying what’s not known, and bringing that to light. It’s literally their job. When applied to startups, that creates a natural tension because in startups, it’s very easy to identify (and amplify) a fire that’s burning (or is being allowed to burn). You name a startup, and I can tell you (with reasonably good accuracy) which fires are burning there.

This tension, I feel, is natural, and not a major problem on its own. Folks in the media have mostly been thoughtful & considerate to me (in terms of struggles of a founder), and when a few haven’t, I’ve tried my best to reciprocate the kindness of their peers, than to question their integrity or intent.

Asymmetric relationship

One of the things that doesn’t get talked about as much, is the fact that media is also ultimately a business. They face the same challenges, attracting customers, retaining them. Heck, even seasoned journalists show a lot of the quirkiness of startup founders, and some actually are founders themselves.

However, the ability to study the practices of another company, pass commentary on it and the founder(s), is a uniquely one-way relationship. Media can do that to a startup, but not vice versa. Yes, one could argue that “founders always have the ability to respond to the questions in a way that they deem fit”, but the reality is that the framing of the questions do not always allow to respond effectively without being seen as overly defensive.

Bottom line is that this relationship is asymmetric in favour of the media. And I dont mean it in a complaining way necessarily. I just mean to convey the responsibility that comes with this power. I know that most of my journalist friends take this responsibility very seriously, but never hurts to restate 😄

When tension becomes toxic

I’ve conversed with a lot of folks, both on the media side of things, and with founders, and I’ve seen an increase in mistrust. Founders are increasingly wary, of being misinterpreted or a comment being taken out of context, or simply being judged. Obviously there’s a fair bit of self serving interests in this kind of argument, but I also know that not all of the mistrust is attributable to selfishness.

Likewise, enough journalist friends have mentioned in private conversations about founders not being particularly open, or only interested in taking and not giving. I don’t have easy answers to these, except that we won’t get to a healthy place, if we don’t try, with at least a little bit of faith.

The US already has a very deep divide between startups & media, to a degree where positions seem to have gotten entrenched beyond repair. Fortunately for them, they’ve also gone past a certain maturity curve in terms of the number of successful startups that have emerged. I’m not sure if we’re past that point in our community.

Conclusion

It’s easy to misread the above as keeping a lid on toxic cultures. Far from it, toxic cultures need to be talked about more often than we currently do. But the more evidentiary a fashion we can use when talking about this, that much higher our ability to use public media conversations as a way to improve the community. Not just toxic cultures, but authenticity in marketing, consumer safety, treatment of women, quality of governance - all of these are matters of great importance, with limited conversation currently.

There’s no committee or regulator that can define these things for us as a community. We have no one but ourselves to set the standards here.