Dissecting Pando Daily's Hack Job Covering the Chicago Startup Scene

After writing this post yesterday, where I commented on the article titled The Midwest Mentality, I took some time yesterday to read all the articles that Trevor Gilbert has put out so far covering the Chicago startup scene.

The short version is that his coverage is a hack job, completely undeserving of a place in Sarah Lacy's new publication.  In all seriousness, Sarah, please go back and read through each article, beginning to end.  I think that if you're honest with yourself, you will see that this coverage is totally undeserving of being published in Pando Daily.  

And I'm not talking about whether the things about Chicago were good, bad, or indifferent.  I'm talking about writing interesting, compelling stories, that people might care about.

Let's break down the coverage.  Trevor spent two weeks in Chicago, and so far he's written 5 articles.

His first article, My first time in the Second City, was published on March 3rd, and it's essentially an introduction post. His second post, written on March 8th, was titled Breaking News: Chicago is Windy.  After spending 5 days supposedly investigating the Chicago Startup scene, he ended up writing a 958 word post about Chicago's weather.  That's right, the weather.  Although, we also learned that Trevor is under the age of 21.  He writes:

While I was living on the streets without a place to stay and slowly recovering from my illness, Sarah decided to allow me to stay a couple of nights in a hotel, which is great. Guess what I found out about Chicago? Approximately 90% of the hotels here require you to be 21 or older to check in.

So wait, let me get this right.  Pando Daily wanted to cover the Chicago Startup Scene, get the ins and outs of the community, see what's up and coming, and she sent someone who can\'t even go grab a beer with a few founders?  Are you kidding me?

I'm not knocking age here.  I'm knocking an editorial decision to send a reporter who can't legally participate in what is obviously the most natural place for someone to hang out and learn about the startup community: Bars.

In his third article, titled Trunk Club is Locking it Up, Throwing Away the Key trevor writes about a Chicago Startup that is trying to change the way men shop.  It's a fine article, but there's nothing all that interesting or remarkable about it.  He writes at one point when talking about the founding team:

Spaly was asked to join the Trunk Club team as the founding CEO. After noticing some accounting irregularities, Spaly made some changes and was left as the head honcho at the startup.

Oh really?  That sounds interesting.  What kind of accounting irregularities?  What happened?  Did someone steal money from investors?  Did something else happen?  We don't know because that's all the information the reader is given.  And that basically sums up all of the author's reporting on Chicago.  Very surface level stuff.  No depth. No inquisitiveness.  No asking questions to get to the bottom of something.

In his fourth article Enterprise: The Chicago Kiss of Life and Death we again see the author's lack of creativity.  When opening the article, he says:

When I first joined PandoDaily way back in the day, one of the things Sarah mentioned to me was that she wanted to report on the stories that other reporters were ignoring out of lack of pizzazz (my word, not hers), and inability to reach the top of TechMeme. The attitude was a little more inclined to cover companies that are rocking it, and less inclined to cover companies because they are the latest mobile photo sharing app. This means enterprise.

  Actually Trevor, no, it doesn't.  In Chicago, this means trying to find the next 37signals, or the next Threadless.  It means trying to find the bootstrappers who have turned down $400k from Lightbank because they think their product will be better without investors.  Covering startups in Chicago is going to be hard because there's no steady ticker of who invested how much money into what startup.  

You need to actually investigate.

But let's go ahead with your premise though.  Let\'s talk about all these Chicago Startups that are making products for the enterprise.  Some excerpts:

People in Chicago, as they are starting companies here, all want to have a revenue stream immediately — rather than take investment and figure out a revenue model down the road — and the best way to guarantee a revenue stream is to sell directly to businesses. Therefore, startups that don’t want to be ostracized go the enterprise route, even though they could be changing the world in a bigger way by taking bigger risks.
The second issue with being so focused on enterprise is that potential talent isn’t convinced of the importance of the ecosystem. Ask an engineer to choose between staying in the Valley and working for a hot new, untested, consumer product like Twitter and an enterprise company that already has a steady revenue stream that provides marketing simplification for insurance companies, and they will choose the hot new startup.
All of that being said, enterprise is largely the only option open to Chicago at this point. However, being the only option currently available doesn’t an excuse make. Sure, founders can sit back and say “well there are so many companies here to sell to, it makes sense to do enterprise!” That’s not a very good reason though, however pragmatic and however Midwestern. It makes sense from a business standpoint, but from an ecosystem standpoint it doesn’t.

After all this reporting on Chicago Startups, in this 1,125 word article, how many Chicago companies that are following this strategy did he mention and link to in his article?  Zero.  How many founders did he quote about why they took this strategy, and how it's worked out?  Zero. How many of their customers did he interview?  Zero.  How many of these startups, selling to the enterprise, are working on their own products on the side?  We don't know because he probably never asked that question.

In fact, we don't know whether this was even reporting at all, because there are literally zero sources.  Hack Journalism at it's finest.

And then there is the latest article The Midwest Mentality which I wrote about yesterday.

The only thing I'll add to what I've already written is that it\'s clear the author has absolutely no understanding about how challenging it is to build one's own self sustaining business.  If it was easy, wouldn't we all have our own small self-sustaining businesses? This part magnifies his ignorance:

Work a 9 to 5 job and see steady, predictable growth over time. You get a salary, and you are possibly acquired. You spend time with your family and get to send your kids off to college.

As the founder of a small web development company and as the husband to a woman who owns a yoga studio let me tell you, this is such bullshit I can hardly stand it.  

I don't work 9 to 5.  I don't have a "steady salary".  Sometimes I have to deal with clients paying me 60 days late.  My wife and I have taken what would be our retirement and invested it in our own businesses and our own products.  We've taken risks and the "pragmatic" thing for us to do would have been to work for Accenture. Being able to send our kids to college with these investments in ourselves is anything but certain right now. I wouldn\'t have it any other way, but to call what we're doing as pragmatic is complete ignorance.

The author's lack of understanding about what it's like to build a sustainable business is something that Sarah Lacy and Pando Daily should be utterly ashamed of.  Sarah has written entire books about Entrepreneurs.  She should sit down with her reporters and tell them what it's like sometime.

Because the thing is, you know how sometimes you read an article in the paper about a subject you know something about, and they get it all wrong?  And then you ask yourself, if they got this wrong, what else are they getting wrong? That's how I feel about Pando Daily right now. And I hope Pando decides to keep covering Chicago.  Because I still think they're kind of awesome.  But Sarah, do us a favor, if you're going to cover Chicago, do it right or don't do it at all.