Axes To Grind

Having and "axe to grind" is a phrase that means you’ve got a dispute to take up with someone or possibly an ulterior motive. I’ve seen and/or participated in several such axes in the past 24 hours and it’s gotten me thinking that the Internet, email, blogging, etc is a particularly great way to grind such axes.

Alley Insider and Valleywag have posts up today addressing the WSJ story about Insight Venture’s individual partner’s making a $3mm investment in Photobucket that turned into $40mm for them personally instead of their LPs. This is a tricky part of the venture capital business, full of conflicts, and one that I have had to be very careful about myself. When I read the story, my first reaction was why this story and why now? Photobucket was sold almost two years ago. It turns out that both Peter kafka of Alley Insider and Owen Thomas of Valleywag were pitched this story and didn’t bite. And Owen Thomas wonders outloud on Valleywag:

I was fascinated by the question of who wanted to get Insight, and
why. I’m still at a loss. Insight has a low profile in the industry; as
a late-stage investor, based in New York, it rarely dabbles in Silicon
Valley’s splashy younger startups. (Its sexiest investment is
SkinnyCorp, the New York-based parent company of Threadless, a website
which sells T-shirts.)

So: A spurned entrepreneur? A rival venture capitalist who lost a
deal to Insight? It’s useful to keep in mind that venture capitalists
can make a lot of money on side deals — deals they heard about in the
course of doing their day jobs. ‘Twas ever thus. The person who thinks
he ratted out Insight, though? He’d like you to believe that some
venture capitalists are so venal and so foolish as to torpedo
their entire careers over a tiny deal that happened to turn out well.
Insight’s opponent, whoever he is, underestimated the firm’s
intelligence — and some reporters’ intelligence, too.

Yesterday I got an email from a person who is unhappy with TypePad‘s data portability offerings. He is "trying to get the word out that TypePad’s users are truly locked in". He asked me to blog about it. Others have blogged about this issue, but I didn’t feel sufficiently knowledgeable so I forwarded the email to a friend at Six Apart. My friend wrote back that:

Since day one TypePad’s provided an easy way to get your content out of the
tool, with the well-documented MT import/export format, and for
years has supported domain mapping so that users can own their own URL
and keep that with them if they choose to move their blog to another
platform or service.

[He] rightly points out that the MT import/export
format doesn’t include the permalink of the entry. Our efforts now around data portability are focused on the IETF standard
AtomPub, which is fully supported in TypePad.

I then passed that back to the guy who emailed me. I guess I am now weighing in on and highlighting this debate, but I still don’t know where I come out on it. I am all for data portability within reason. But it’s also clear to me that the people who are taking on Six Apart have some sort of axe to grind and I don’t know what the motives are and that bothers me.

I’ve also had several email exchanges and one blog comment in the past day with people who have complained about one or more of our portfolio companies. This happens to me a lot, at least a few times a month, but it happened several times yesterday. I always refer these people to right people in our companies and take mental note of the complaint. Most of the time, these complaints are totally legit and I am well aware of the deficiency and trying to help our companies address it.  But sometimes the tone of the complaints, the level of anger and tone of the conversation, leads me to wonder what’s up with the people who are making them. Do they have an axe to grind?

I guess journalists deal with this all day long and have developed tools, tricks, and techniques to deal with this issue. I could use some advice as an investor and blogger to help me deal with it. I think it’s only going to grow as an issue for me.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. PKafka

    No tricks of the trade to offer here, I think. Just do what you’re already doing: Listen to people who seek you out, take note of what they’re saying, and trust your gut. But be aware that just because someone has an axe to grind doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or that there’s no underlying story/truth/whatever there. And as you probably know, if people didn’t have axes to grind, journalists would have a lot less to write about.

    1. fredwilson

      Right, I totally agree with this part”just because someone has an axe to grind doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or that there’s no underlying story/truth/whatever there”but the question we face is whether to write/blog about it or do something about it

      1. PKafka

        That’s just the judgment call we make all day every day. Often we (media) get accused of giving axe grinders a platform too often (especially those of us who work on the Web as opposed to print) but in my mind better to air it out than to let it fester. Interesting that in this case it was the WSJ who aired it out.

  2. MartinEdic

    I exported a blog with several hundred posts out of Typepad and into WP with no problems. all the photos came over too. It was very simple. I wasn’t concerned about the Permalink issue as the readership was pretty low and I was focused on a forward looking situation.

    1. fredwilson

      Well that’s one way to vet an issue – blog about it and solicit comments/feedback

    2. RacerRick

      The problem isn’t Typepad’s data portability.The problem is Typepad’s wacky urls and when they get stuck in Google.It’s convenient for Six Apart but inconvienient for long time customers.

      1. MartinEdic

        I should point out that the Typepad site I exported was on my own domainwhich probably simplified things.

      2. fredwilson

        I have had my share of issues with TP’s ³wacky URLs²There’s no arguing with the fact that TP has some weaknesses relative toother blogging platforms

        1. sippey

          Obviously blogging has evolved to the point where different platforms are focused on different needs and markets. What we’re focused on with TypePad is providing an easy to use hosted blogging platform that gives users powerful tools to design their blogs; the freedom to extend their blog with widgets, advertising, third party content and tools; while giving users control over their content and their own brand.

      3. sippey

        @racerrick — we have made improvements over the years in how we render URLs in response to customer feature requests; and while as Fred points out in his post the import / export format doesn’t include those URLs, the AtomPub API will return them. I can say for certain that at no time have we ever designed URLs to make things convenient for Six Apart and inconvenient for customers; instead we’re focused on making things better for TypePad bloggers and supporting standards for data portability.

      4. Lloyd Dewolf

        Fred, thank you soo much for blogging about this issue. I’m one in the same as the person who wrote that article and that emailed you. My email include the signature:Lloyd Budd | Digital Entomologist | | | | Automattic.comAx to grind is a great way to describe this issue, because for a year I’ve been trying to work with Six Apart on this issue. It causes me great headaches trying to help people export from TypePad.There are no tools or documentation on how to export in a way that preserves the permalinks, and because of a bug in TypePad and an unpublished permalink creation rules that have changed over the years, it guarantees a tedious, manual process to truly backup or export a blog.I do describe this as a data portability issue, because for a blog, the URL to an article is content — it’s surprises me how often I notice that the URL is hand crafted (and cheeky). And as the w3 preaches, “Cool [URLs] don’t change.”MartinEdic was OK with leaking Google Juice all over the place, but others covet the goo. And other others don’t like loose strings or need more control over their online identity.Six Apart’s leadership team can keep repeating the mantra of “AtomPub”, but the simple fact is that you can’t truly backup or export a blog today (remember I include permalinks). Currently broken using AtomPub:* Can no longer retrieve comments on posts.* No longer contains Pages.* XML-RPC for trackback retrieval broke.If anyone wants to argue otherwise, show me a tool that I can get a full backup of a TypePad blog. Much better, would be such a tool being part of TypePad. Really, few people care whether it’s AtomPub or something else, just end the lock in.

  3. ispivey

    The only thing Peter didn’t mention that is worthwhile is soliciting comments from people in the know. The good part about being an investor is that people are more likely to be forthcoming with their opinions. Unless you’re in a hurry to make up your mind, there’s little downside to asking other smart people to weigh in — but it seems like you already do that.I don’t think the volume/venom of complaints on an issue is actually all that relevant. Some issues and products attract more vocal or less socially well-adjusted users than others. It’s worth asking what about the issue or product is attracting the kind of people that turn up the volume when they complain, or what is bringing the venom out out in users. But paying too much attention to the loudest complainers can be misleading.

  4. andyswan

    The more you take it on the way you have been, the more valuable you become to your readers, your portfolio companies and the customers of your portfolio companies. I say keep it up exactly as you have been doing….with the exception of possibly having a stronger filter for those with bad tone and an obvious axe to grind (send them to Lindzon so he can just tell them to unsubscribe)

  5. Jason_Chervokas

    From the journalists perspective I’ll only add this…it’s not so dissimilar from doing due dilligence. As a journalist I always assumed that everyone who approached me with information had an agenda of some sort for its use. This is something I tried very hard to young reporters who worked for me or who I had in the classroom–be aware that there’s always an agenda, and try to puzzle out what that agenda might be. Don’t buy anything hook, line and sinker.Second, of course, is independent confirmation. Whatever the agenda, making sure the information is not only true but represents the whole story is crucial… (putting a question out on a blog is a way of crowdsourcing this, but w/ a high ratio of noise to signal, old shoe leather reporting techiques like quietly asking people who might be in the know is probably more effective).

  6. WayneMulligan

    You’re right, it definitely seems like whoever fed that story to the Journal had an axe to grind.I was mainly wondering how a VC is supposed to deal with situations like that in general. I guess there’s two sides to the argument:1. What’s appropriate for a VC as an individual might not necessarily fit the investment criteria of the fund (e.g. I’m more likely to risk my own money investing in a friend’s early stage company, but I might not necessarily feel comfortable putting an LP’s money into it).2. As a fund manager I’d have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of my limited partners, and therefore give them priority access to any deals I’m investing in.It’s a tough call, but for me I think #1 makes the most sense from an ethical perspective. If you look at the flip side of the Insight/PhotoBucket deal and assume PhotoBucket was a risky investment that could’ve just as easily crashed and burned, then what would that have done to the fund’s performance and the GP/LP relationship?As for how to handle “axe grinders” — I think you’re handling it well. At the end of the day, I think what’s made your blog so successful is that it’s about “Fred” as person. As much as you write about the VC/start-up industry in general, you always personally have a place in the story. You talk about your music, your family, your frustration/close call with adjustable rate securities (very timely), etc. — so as long as you continue to listen, ask the right questions and write about the stories (axe grinding or not) that affect you personally then I think you’ll do just fine.

    1. fredwilson

      Thanks wayneThe way we manage the conflict is partners at our firm can only invest up to 100k in deals that our firm doesn’t invest in. And, by the way, we don’t invest individually in deals our firm does invest inBut even so, my investment in wallstrip, which was only 50k, did generate some questions from our investorsSo we have tried very hard not to do this sort of thing at all. Being deal junkies (at least I am), that’s hard

      1. Jeremy Bencken

        Fred, I don’t know what your average investment size is, but my sense is you guys are early stage, so you probably don’t go much above $2m on any one deal.So if your firm’s limit is 100k, that’s 5% of your typical investment size. At Insight, Jeff Horing and Jerry Murdock invested $300k compared to a typical investment of $25M, or around 1.2%.Seems like there’s more potential conflict the closer a partners’ side investment activity is to their firms. Obviously you have to consider the sum of partner money going into side deals, but again, the point is we’re talking apples & basketballs.

        1. fredwilson

          Good pointAlthough our target investment over the life of the deal is $7mm to $10mm.We just start with $500k to $2mm (usually)Insight is 3-5x bigger than we are the way I think of itBut I want to be clear that I do not think they did anything wrong. And it’salso clear that their LPs don’t seem to think so either (at least publicly)

          1. Jeremy Bencken

            Yeah, I definitely agree. No wrong-doing from where I sit.When I was reading that story (with it’s huge photo and section-front placement) in the Journal over my morning smoothie, after 2 paragraphs it seemed like an obvious hit job.Or at best a tortured example trying to highlight the bigger concern over potential conflicts of interest. Must have been a slow news day.

          2. Steven Kane

            i think the only questionable aspect to the insight/photobucket situation is, disclosure, or lack thereof.did insight disclose their investment opportunity to their LPs?also, did they allow LPs to decide for themselves whether they may have wanted to invest directly?the partners at insight put together a little syndicate to make the investment in photobucket, so they could have accomodated LPs who wanted to throw in few bucks (fellow deal junkies).any case, while these kinds of situations crop up every day, firms that practice true transparency are the ones who avoid not conflicts, but the appearance of conflicts, whioch cn be just as damaging

  7. Gabe

    Not complaining about any of your portfolio co., in fact, usually singing praises, despite any short-term business matters that always come up…I am seeking a suggestion(s) for a twitter type of ready to breakout co, only in a online sales contact management tool.Ideally, we want an Act type contact management tool, that is online and free or low monthly payments.

      1. RacerRick

        I second Highrise. Awesome tool.

      2. fredwilson

        That URL isn’t working for me

    1. Jeremy Bencken

      Check out Highrise is good too (I pay for it) but it has ZERO sales features.

      1. k00k

        Agreed, Batchbook by Batchblue rocks! They’re also some really good and really smart people.

  8. Dan Cornish

    This also gets back to public vs. private information discussion a while ago. The kind of information in this story should have remained private, but was made public to embarrass Insight Ventures. Negative does work, judging by the tone of the Presidential Campaign this year. In these kind of things I always look for the narrative of the story to validate it. Private information about a VC who is greedy and is screwing their LPs fits the narrative about VCs. This is when my BS filter turns up a few notches.When we deal with customer support issues the fine line here is what to take seriously and what to ignore. Just this morning a large customer of ours called to say a part of our application did not work. After a long and angry phone call with the customer which got escalated to me, we found out that it was user error and was all a big misunderstanding. The problem was another potential customer found out about this before it was discovered out to be user error, so I have had to do a lot of work smoothing this over. The moral of the story is ALWAYS take it seriously. As you become more public, more people try to take you down. If private information gets out, it becomes a much more effective weapon if someone has an axe to grind.Which takes me back to the horse I am beating to death about medical information. For the average Joe, medical information made public does not matter much. For a public person such as Steve Jobs, it become a very sharp axe.

  9. Josh

    Isn’t it amazing how consumers/bloggers/commenters can be so vicious toward companies giving them a free product?Typepad can act as it pleases. They have accumulated plenty of users without pure data compatibility. If they begin to lose users, they will reconsider. Someone pissed because they are getting complaints from their own users about why they can’t export Typepad data needs to do a better job explaining to their users who is at fault and not focus their pain with Typepad.

    1. ivanpope

      Josh, I pay for Typepad. It’s not a free product. So I have to go on paying year on year on year or lose my blog?

    2. Lloyd Dewolf

      A big part of the frustration for the WordPress customers I work with when trying to migrate them from TypePad is what a surprise these issues are for them, because Six Apart presents itself as being about freedom, open standards, open technology and the open web. It seems fair to call them on it, especially when they have been given plenty of time to address this issue.

  10. Kevin Elliott

    Thanks for the article.I think you touch on a real reality of the nearly lawless, moral lacking Internet, that to me is much less a melting pot (as some would suggest by connecting the international participants around the world) but more a place for people to virtualize portions of their personality that they’re incapable of materializing in the “real world.”I’ve been here since the birth of the Internet, and have heavily participated in chat rooms (IRC), discussion groups (Usenet, bulletin boards, forums, and voice conferencing), and observed articles and comments on blogs. On most occasions, I’m an observer, because I simply find that I don’t have anything of value to add to most discussions occurring (in an almost unnerving quantity throughout the Internet). But I’ve noticed one thing holds true, at almost every fulcrum or gathering place in this technical paradise: many people still seem to drop their value on moral, kindness, courtesy, and reason as they “surf the web” when they would not otherwise do this to their real life networks.Perhaps the reason is that people feel untouchable on the Internet. After all, why do I need restraint when I don’t know these people? And the fantasy to reach out and realize your alterior personality traits might just be too unresistable for some. Is this acceptable? Is my observation even significant? Modern philosophy will most definitely address it (if it hasn’t already).The “axes to grind” that you thoughtfully mention, are definitely a reality. One perceived misstep from a company (“They didn’t implement the feature I DEMANDED”, “I hate the people that use that product, so I hate the company that made it”, etc) or even a true miscalculation on behalf of the company might set an unreasonable tone in the minds of people “living out their fantasies”, lending them yet another opportunity to dispose of their unruly thoughts.I think that I might be digging too deep here, and focusing too specifically on one character trait that your article addressed, rather than give you advice, tips, and techniques to actually deal with the issue at hand. But… I had an “axe to grind.”Thanks,Kevin

    1. fredwilson

      We all do have axes to grindBut how we grind them is also important

      1. Kevin Elliott

        I couldn’t agree more.What is the best way to encourage people to grind their axes more positively?-Kevin

  11. Deva Hazarika

    Someone clearly had an ax to grind wrt IVP and while they couldn’t get most to bite, they managed to get the WSJ to bite pretty hard (even though every online source points out the non-story here with partners at a late-stage/mezz fund doing a personal small early stage investment). What better proof that an email blast w/ a juicy sounding nugget can pay big ax grinding dividends? Web/email/blogs are the perfect medium for this because they often lead to informal, off-the-cuff responses that are perfect for taking out of context, and in people’s rush to be the first to cover something, fact-checking and research is often very lax. The WidgetLab/Ning story this weekend that first got TC to cast Ning as the bad guy, then come to a completely different opinion once the actual emails were released comes to mind.I think bloggers can benefit from two things. One is to simply not be quite so fast to jump on the juicy sounding rumor/allegation before checking things out in the rush to be the first to get the story out. And the second is to simply do the online version of taking a deep breath and counting to 10 before responding to something when you have any element of an emotional reaction.

  12. awilensky

    There is a venture for you, pappy Fred, “”, outsource that chip on your shoulder to us, and get on with yo’ life. We will file the complaints, spam the support forums, and pester the gentile venture capitalists for you, even though they are NOT responsible for your Web20 grief.

    1. fredwilson


  13. kidmercury

    there will always be haters, just ignore them. rejoice instead that you are not as pathetic and weak minded as they are, and pity them for the fact that hate has conquered their soul.or tell them 9/11 was an inside job, that will usually scare them away so they won’t come back with their petty complaints. 🙂

  14. ivanpope

    Your friend at TypePad might say they provide an easy import/export format – but apart from anything else, it doesn’t export images. In fact there is no way to just export images. You can go through and download them one by one, which isn’t exporting them and doesn’t help reconstruct the blog. You also can’t actually save down their own Photo album format. They suggest you back up your blog, but don’t provide the tools to do it. To suggest otherwise is stupid. This from support yesterday: “Using the export utility will save your weblog content (text) but not the resources such as images and other files.” So yes, I have an axe to grind with them – which is that after four years of art blogging with hundreds of images I am trapped – no data portability there then. And I have to pay year on year to remain trapped. Thanks Typepad.

    1. Lloyd Dewolf

      Hi Ivan, our (WordPress) export tools are a work in progress, so we’re looking for substantial blogs to confirm they work well with — assuming Six Apart fixes the show stoppers. We have some tricks to get all of the images, but as you said, no joy for the albums. Feel free to get in touch.

  15. Guest

    Personal conflicts and pettiness are highly unattractive to third parties; generally these situations reflect poorly on the “ax grinder” and have an opposite ,or backfiring effect.Unfortunately, this very dynamic has been very well understood and exploited by the Bush administration to undermine and distract legitimate criticisms. Joe Wilson, Paul O’Neil, Scott McClellan and many others went public with legitimate concerns and criticisms and the response has always been not to address the factual matter but to attack the personality and to imply some “ulterior motive” or “disgruntlement”. It has been very effective, I must say.

  16. Ethan Bauley

    When you kicked this blog off years ago, did you ever think you’d be doing customer service for your portfolio companies through it?The thing that I love about this post is that it gets into the “Who actually calls the 1-800 number on the back of a cereal box?” question.What are these people’s M.O.? Should I take them seriously?I love the “customer service is the new marketing” heuristic…there’s a lesson in here somewhere 😉

  17. Bryan Woods

    I think we, the early adopters of free software, need to get together and write up some kind of agreement that keeps us as much as possible from grinding our axes on free software services.

  18. ASherter

    No tricks of the trade here either, but I’d expand on Peter’s comment to say that trying to determine if something is true is a different sport than trying to determine someone’s motives for telling you something. The latter is tough. People’s motives for telling you anything are often complicated and frequently undecipherable.No one wants to be a dupe, of course (pace Judy Miller), and you have to be on guard not only against being used (that comes with the territory), but also of being used in ways you can’t perceive. Because if you can’t spot the con, you may be less likely to seek a second opinion, as you sensibly did on Typepad.The biggest problem with the Photobucket story is that it insinuates wrongdong without proving that it was committed. That’s no good.At bottom, not to get all high-falutin about it, these questions are epistemological. How do I know what I know? What’s the basis for my opinion? Am I even qualified to hold an opinion on this issue? What’s the origin of this idea in my head, and why do I trust it? Etc. Be thankful that your TypePad axe-man was so clumsy. It’s harder when people slip the dagger in gently enough so you don’t notice it.In your case, there’s a complication in that you’re an investor and a blogger. How you respond to someone commenting about a USV portfolio company is be definition colored by your financial investment (btw, I don’t necessarily see that as a conflict of interest, a slippery notion if ever there was one). If you can’t be certain of someone else’s motives for telling you something, you can be certain (more or less) of your motives in deciding how to treat what you were told..I’m quite sure this was of no assistance whatsoever. Gin helps.

    1. Guest

      That’s really insightful…I have a somewhat related question. There was this story about Ralph Reed and John McCain a few days ago. McCain was on the Senate committee that had to investigate Reed in the Abramoff case. McCain never called him and now Ralph Reed is fundraising for mcCain.According to your criteria the media should not be onto this and they aren’t. After all, as you say, ” it insinuates wrongdoing without proving that it was committed”…Yet the story smells very bad and raises tons of questions about John McCain in my mind. Why is it that you folks are so delicate and cautious on an extremely important story like that, yet you feel it is OK to bombard us with nonsense about arugula? The media’s “indisputable truth” vs. “insinuation” filter is extremely stringent, at the same time your “critically important” vs. “mindless excruciating minutiae” filter is non-existent…(my take from your comment was that you were a journalist, I am sorry if that is not the case…”

      1. Alain Sherter

        Krassen–I’m not suggesting the media shouldn’t investigate possible malfeasance. That’s our job (yep, I’m a journalist). And in the McCain-Reed relationship you cite I would be in favor of exploring a possible quid pro quo between the two related to Abramoff. The question is whether you can muster enough evidence to prove impropriety. if you accuse anyone of unethical or criminal behavior, you better damn well have the goods. If not, then you’re a tabloid, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. That’s what I mean about being sure, at least within reason (no “indisputable truths” in journalism that I’ve ever encountered), of what you know.But I agree with you that the press is often gun-shy about investigating power. Why is a complicated subject, and in my view the reasons are historical (ie, there’s a long tradition of the media sucking up to govt in this country); economic (media consolidation and falling ad sales) and even social (journalism was “professionalized” in the 60s, so it began drawing reporters from the same class as the people they cover).Whether something is important or trivial is a judgment call. Reporters and editors discuss what to write about, and why, every day. Often the coverage is lacking, and sometimes we take our eyes off the ball.

        1. Guest

          Thanks, Alain,my mom is a journalist too, but she spent her entire career on covering the media itself. I know that people like you, who can cast an analytical view on their own guild, are rather rare.

    2. fredwilson

      Gin? I’ve never tried it. I prefer vodka and scotch.

  19. andyswan

    The more you take it on the way you have been, the more valuable you become to your readers, your portfolio companies and the customers of your portfolio companies. I say keep it up exactly as you have been doing….with the exception of possibly having a stronger filter for those with bad tone and an obvious axe to grind (send them to Lindzon so he can just tell them to unsubscribe)

  20. fredwilson

    I read it yesterday and had no idea what to make of itFirst, tapulous has no real VC investors, just angelsSo certainly VCs were not responsible for Mike Lee’s firingAnd his points about VCs ruining the iPhone ecosystem seem also off baseLook at Facebook for exampleThe VC funded companies are largely responsible for the apps with stayingpower and qualityThe ³app spam² was largely a function of thousands of small developerstrying to strike it richSo I don’t really get his point

  21. fredwilson

    That is not always the caseSometimes its the under funded scrappy startup that produces the bootstrapped itself through launch and did one round whichthankfully we participated inTheir competitor has done something like three rounds,raised almost $20mmAnd according to comscore, indeed has 5.3mm monthly unique visitors andsimplyhired has less than 2mmThat’s but one example and there are many