“I drive myself forward with a bit of low-level information anxiety”, Ned Desmond, COO of TechCrunch tells me from the other side of a stalling video chat. He’s in sunny San Francisco and I’m in Berlin where the skies are currently operating on the basis of ‘any colour so long as it’s grey’.
“I feel that anxiety every time I take a new job”, he says. That info-angst is understandable coming from a man who’s the driving force behind TechCrunch. It’s an environment where I can only imagine the pressure to be on top of your game is enormous. Still, I can’t help but find this extremely reassuring.
While Ned isn’t part of the editorial team, he appreciates the huge demand on journalists bearing the weight of the TechCrunch brand. “The readership is very expert and weighs in very quickly on opinions or mistakes so they have to be very good and very brave I think to stand that pressure every single day.”
Having become the bible of the startup industry, the magazine expanded its remit by setting up CrunchBase in 2007, which provides a comprehensive database of startup and investment activity. Events like TechCrunch Disrupt and startup awards, The Crunchies, are both highlights in any entrepreneur’s calendar.
Disrupt has become famous for its interviews. Undoubtedly you’ve seen videos of prominent CEOs, VCs and other execs wilting slightly under the strain of the TechCrunch line of questioning.
“Tech Crunch has a very distinctive voice. It’s very natural and it’s a little bit fun and a little bit surprising and it’s got a good deal of spikes to it, you might say.”
Those spikes are what make their content so compelling, but the direct, sometimes dogged approach that the interviewers take isn’t for the sake of entertainment.
“When we take people on stage we treat it as a very serious journalistic endeavour so we ask the hard questions even if it makes everybody uncomfortable and that’s a real hallmark of TechCrunch and I think incredibly important.”
Startup CEOs also know that to be featured on TechCrunch is to have access to a huge trove of publicity. The startup competition that takes place during Disrupt, Battlefield gets between 600 and 800 applicants each time. Those applicants get whittled down to between 15 and 30 contenders, who then compete for notice of investors.
415 companies have now gone through the startup competition, and of those who’ve made it to the stage, they’ve collectively raised more than $3.5billion. There have been over 50 exits among those 415 companies, which if you consider as a portfolio means that TechCrunch has a damn good eye for a promising startup.
Before taking his job at the helm of TechCrunch, Ned’s career included stints as Bureau Chief in India and Japan for Time, launching one-time Google competitor Infoseek, and President of Time Inc Interactive. He’s also been founder and president of GoSportn.com, an enthusiast media company.
“You know if you’ve been working for thirty or forty years you have a lot of opportunities to change trajectories, change careers and change roles so sometimes I think younger people imagine that it all happens at once but it doesn’t.”
The common thread throughout all of his career moves were steps that gave him a lot of personal excitement. He says he always looked for “roles in organisations that demand a lot of integrity”.
And this is where the information anxiety comes in. When he was working for Time in Tokyo during the mid-‘90s, he became interested in the Internet, and read about it constantly. Then, when a “crazy completely serendipitous opportunity came along to take a role in Silicon Valley that I was totally unqualified for, I did it! I was predictably miserable for about six months.”
Once he got up to speed with how everything worked in that startup however, the job became extremely rewarding. In fact, it’s a method he’d recommend to others, and says you shouldn’t be afraid of what you perceive as your own lack of knowledge. You can always get yourself to that level. “I think you need to keep learning [and] be genuine. It’s always a mistake to pretend you know that you’re doing when you don’t. But I always think it’s good to err on the assumption of other people’s generosity and willingness to help.”
One might argue that having that ability to ask so-called stupid questions is what makes a good journalist. But you also need to balance your own ‘information anxiety’ with a sense of where you want to drive your own career trajectory.
“I read constantly and I always assume that I don’t know anywhere near as much as I should for either what I’m doing professionally today or what I might be doing tomorrow.”
That sense of apprehension is probably familiar to anyone who’s working in a startup where the excitement and the learning curve both have a steep incline. “I think it’s great because working in a startup you inevitably learn how to do many, many different things and learn to live by your own wits which isn’t always the case if you join a giant corporate.”On the other hand, startup employees are aware that sometimes those anxieties are realistic, and to be swept away in the narrative of the laid-back startup dream is a mistake. “I worry sometimes that people who are signing up for the startup life don’t realise how incredibly difficult it is… inevitably there’s no straight, short path to success.
We’re not going to see easy money forever. We’re not going to see a surplus of investment capital forever.”
While the current startup climate is booming, tech entrepreneurs live with the constant threat that the company may not exist in a few years’ time. “That’s not a bad reflection on startups, it’s just the nature of… I think it was Edison said ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work’.
People who really love startups and are really born to work in startups understand that kind of logic and understand that it’s all about applying what you learned the last time, so you’re more likely to be successful the next.”
That’s clearly the mentality that Ned has brought to his own career journey – implementing what he learned last time in each move. I reckon there are worse things to be propelled by than a search for integrity and fearing a dearth of knowledge.
Image Credits: “TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013” CC by TechCrunch | “View of Tokyo Roppongi Hills downtown from Mori Tower” CC by Laitr Keiows (both via Wikimedia Commons)