This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Survivorship Bias and Startup Hype

Luck plays a significant role in business success. Not just in the mere fact of success, but in the magnitude of any given company’s triumphs. We tend to overlook this reality because of a mental distortion called survivorship bias. It is a common cognitive failure, and a dangerous one because it obscures the distastefully harsh nature of the world.

We love to fantasize that emulating the habits of extraordinary entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk will catapult the most talented imitators to the stars. In reality, there are plenty of would-be titans of industry who simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. Even with a great product, they could have failed to make the crucial personal connection that would have accelerated their endeavor to the next level.

Survivorship bias is best summed up by a sardonic XKCD comic: “Never stop buying lottery tickets, no matter what anyone tells you,” the stick figure proclaims. “I failed again and again, but I never gave up. I took extra jobs and poured the money into tickets. And here I am, proof that if you put in the time, it pays off!”

“The hard part is pinning down the cause of a successful startup,” a pseudonymous commenter on Hacker News wisely noted. “Most people just point at highly visible things,” such as hardworking founders or a friendly office culture. “The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups that did all those same things, but failed.”

Ambitious people with incisive minds may be fewer than schmucks, and certainly multi-billionaire CEOs tend to be both brilliant and driven. Yet there are scads of brilliant, driven people who will never make it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine. Or any magazine.

Consider the mythology around hoodie-wearing college dropouts. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham once joked, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” The quip is funny because it mocks a real tendency among venture capitalists: Pattern-matching to a fault.

In the same vein, a stunning proportion of partners at VC firms graduated from a handful of tony universities, as if the seal on a person’s diploma were what indicated investing abilities. (Granted, the incidence of leveraged social connections and postgraduate degrees may amplify that trend.)

Steve Jobs, along with Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, became fantastically successful after quitting school to start a company. “How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed?” Scientific American asked rhetorically in 2014. “Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.”

The press inadvertently helps perpetuate survivorship bias. People find famous entrepreneurs fascinating and inspirational, so journalists write about them extensively. The general public is primarily interested in the fates of companies that are household names or close to that status. And of course, reporters themselves are susceptible to survivorship bias just like anyone else. This is reflected in their coverage.

So what’s the antidote? Well, it’s boring: Being careful and thorough. Make sure to look for counterexamples whenever you think you’ve identified a trend or a pattern. Resources do exist, although not always on the first page of Google results.

For example, CB Insights compiled a list of 242 startup postmortems from 2014 through 2017. The analysts wrote, “In the spirit of failure, we dug into the data on startup death and found that 70% of upstart tech companies fail — usually around 20 months after first raising financing (with around $1.3M in total funding closed).”

Most of all, don’t let the headlines rule your worldview. “The press is a lossy and biased compression of events in the actual world, and is singularly consumed with its own rituals, status games, and incentives,” as three-time SaaS founder Patrick McKenzie put it.

Listen to Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 book Public Opinion. “Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live,” Lippmann wrote, reflecting on the inaccuracies of tick-tock reporting during World War I. “We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”

Filters, Funnels

Gotta restrict the inflow somehow.

Thinkin’ bout selection effects. In particular, adverse selection. The concept has been on my mind since February, brought top-of-mind by this Twitter exchange:

See also: Siderea’s “asshole filter,” summed up by Reddit user Kinrany as “issuing a rule and not enforcing it can lead to encouraging people to break the rule and offending people who don’t want to break the rule.”

Some industries have adverse selection effects. Journalism, for instance (writes the myopic journalist, obsessed with her dysfunctional industry). There’s a half-joke among reporters that you don’t go into media if you’re able to do anything else. And it’s true — if you have any common sense, along with the ability to put up with sycophantic corporate nonsense, then you’ll go make more money in PR or marketing.

It’s similar to the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Those who can’t do, chronicle.

But of course there’s an “on the other hand.” The terribleness of journalism, as much as it repels competent professionals, also filters for people who are really passionate about reporting. (Plus those of us, myself included, who have a bizarre craving for attention from strangers.)

Originally posted on Substack.

Hopefully the Last Update to the Drupal Fiasco

The following blog post won’t make sense unless you followed the contentious process of Larry Garfield being exiled by Drupal’s community leadership. A substantial portion of the community itself found that decision appalling, so there was a lot of backlash. Followed by counter-backlash. Then counter-counter-backlash.

I wrote two articles about the events as they were unfolding, back in early 2017, and you can catch up on the broad outlines by reading them:

As for primary documents, I recommend Larry Garfield’s five blog posts about his side of events:

And of course the two blog posts from the Drupal Association:

You’re also welcome to dig up the copious Medium, Twitter, and Reddit conversations.

At the center of the conflict — although the Drupal Association danced around saying so outright — was Larry Garfield’s former Gorean partner. She was going by the name Ayelet at the time, and it’s also the name she asked me to use when writing about her. Garfield and Ayelet had a Gor-style Master/slave relationship, a twist on the common BDSM arrangement.

Another twist: Ayelet was, and continues to be, nonverbal by choice. She also suffers from intense social anxiety. According to Ayelet and her partners, these symptoms are manifestations of her acute autism. Ayelet was in her early thirties during her relationship with Garfield.

Garfield brought Ayelet to a Drupal event, and people were confused and concerned by how they related to each other. Ayelet was perceived as oddly standoffish — to be fair, she is — and people didn’t like that Garfield told her what to eat. In general, people interpreted their interpersonal dynamic as authoritarian. The worry was that Ayelet was being abused in some shape or form.

Larry Garfield told me:

The article implies that my telling ayelet what to eat was an M/s thing. While that is a common attribute of M/s relationships, in her case it was because of her autism. She dislikes making small, inconsequential decisions where there’s no clear right/wrong answer (what to eat, what shirt to wear, which roll to take from a bread basket, etc.), so we got into the habit of me selecting that for her. She would lock-up in analysis paralysis if I didn’t. (Larger decisions with a stronger deciding factor she was able to make; she’s a vegetarian even though I am not, for instance, and I never pushed her to change that.)

The Drupal Association got wind of this, along with sundry documentation of Garfield’s interest in Gor. It’s worth noting that Gor is a controversial flavor of kink, and enthusiasts’ commitment can range from casual hobby to complete personal philosophy. On the continuum, Garfield appears to be closer to the latter, although he has disavowed the misogynistic aspects of Gor.

As you may have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, I’ve spoken to Ayelet, as well as her current partner, and the therapist she worked with while she was living with Garfield. In an extraordinary display of transparency, Ayelet and her current partner obtained all the notes that her then-therapist took when she was a patient, and shared them with me.

She also authorized the therapist to speak with me, so I could ask him questions. I verified his identity and contacted him independently. He requested that I not use his name because he doesn’t want to be professionally associated with the whole drama. At this point I’m just going to quote directly from the therapist’s email to me, just cutting out Ayelet’s legal name:

I am the therapist that worked with [redacted] aka Ayelet aka [redacted]. At the request of [redacted], Larry Garfield participated in sessions. At no point in our sessions did I communicate with Ayelet without Larry Garfield.

During the duration of our work together, I did not see any physical signs of abuse. No abuse was reported to me by [redacted] or by Larry. If there was any abuse going on, I was not aware of it. In my observations of [redacted] and Larry were operating in a fully consenting relationship between two adults both able of making independent decisions with regards to each person’s well-being. It was not apparent that either [redacted] or Larry were a threat or danger to one another.

He added, “At no time in the course of the treatment did I feel I need to activate a duty to warn. In fact, the records reflect accurately my experience with [Ayelet] and Larry as best I can recall.” What the records reflect is a profoundly emotionally troubled woman, who struggles with interacting with others, but is strongly bonded to her partner. My own interpretation is that Garfield acted as caretaker as much as romantic counterpart (as does Ayelet’s current partner).

The therapist’s statement, along with having reviewed his copious notes, leads me to personally feel about 95% sure that Ayelet’s relationship with Garfield was unorthodox, certainly, but not abusive or otherwise unethical.

But there’s that one complication he mentioned: “At no point in our sessions did I communicate with Ayelet without Larry Garfield.”

Gathering the information for this update was difficult because of Ayelet’s communication limitations. I don’t blame her for that — disabilities are what they are — but it does make me uncomfortable from a reportorial perspective. Along with being nonverbal, Ayelet doesn’t like to have her thoughts recorded permanently, regardless of the medium. She requested that I not quote her directly at all, only paraphrase her thoughts.

We were only able to speak with her current partner present. They flew out to San Francisco for this purpose, and we met at a hotel on September 22nd. She typed on a computer to me, and also used American Sign Language with her partner, which he translated. She did correct him at times, and she showed me the computer directly, without always showing it to him too.

The most in-depth communication I got from Ayelet was a written statement that she prepared beforehand. This was a substantial concession on her part, she said, even though she was able to erase it immediately after I read it.

Ayelet wrote about how disenfranchised she felt by the whole Drupal ordeal: Her ability to consent dismissed, her perspective not sought by the Drupal authorities (according to her and her partner), and her loved ones endangered. She is now very concerned that her current partner, who takes her to professional events with him, will face the same outrage and ostracism that Garfield did. Ayelet described how hard it was for her to get to a place in her life where she could be herself, autism and anxiety and all, without having to contort her personality in order to survive. That sense of safety and comfort felt threatened. She and her partner say that the fears won’t subside.

That’s something I worried about a lot in writing this story. It’s hard for me to imagine any other scenario where strangers’ casual observations would cause me to question whether a couple’s relationship was consensual. In general I go through life assuming that people’s relationships are kosher, absent clear and obvious evidence otherwise, or an overt allegation from one of the partners. But because Ayelet is autistic and doesn’t communicate in the ways that most people do, I was charged with falsifying the idea that she was essentially being held hostage.

I’m not sure what else I could have done. I still feel uneasy, worried about whether I handled reporting this update correctly. Should I have pushed harder to speak with Ayelet alone? Or would that be a cruel imposition on her? I don’t know. Even though I feel that abuse is an extremely unlikely possibility, given the preponderance of evidence, there’s no way for me to definitively state that Ayelet’s relationships are healthy. I’m not qualified to make that judgment, and the level of access I’d require to even try is impossible. Andrea Shepard pointed out, “Would having ‘healthy’ relationships be framed as a prerequisite for access to love and public life for anyone else?”

She added, “Allegations of abuse by third parties without the support of one of the partners can be a rhetoric of delegitimization, and particularly for someone with a lot of mental health history, are likely to have resonances of forced separation and denial of agency.”

So I don’t know if I did this story justice.

And to be honest, when you really want to get a story right, that can be paralyzing. You write and rewrite and go to sleep thinking about how to frame the events. The dual responsibilities are keenly felt: You have to be fair to the subjects of your story, and prove worthy of your sources’ trust. Equally, you are obligated to be as transparent as possible with your readers and represent the information accurately. That’s a hard balancing act, especially when you can only have an incomplete picture. The facts you’re able to definitively state may be straightforward, but the way in which you contextualize them often isn’t.

All of that is to say, I’m sorry that this update is messy and inelegant. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. I’ll edit this blog post with clarifications as needed. Here’s a snapshot of the original version, for accountability’s sake.

Some feedback relayed by Ayelet’s partner:

I asked her if she thought anything was untrue or wrong, and she did correct that she’s been to more than one Drupal event. She also doesn’t think she’s emotionally troubled, but wonders if that’s more of an opinion. And she doesn’t think social anxiety is accurate, because she doesn’t feel anxious in social settings, so long as people leave her alone or don’t think she’s being rude or worry there’s something wrong with her.

PR Advice for Startups From an Actual Reporter

“How I got press coverage for my dinky seed-stage startup” is a common topic in places like /r/Entrepreneur, but it’s pretty rare for a journalist’s perspective to be included. Well, I’m a full-time tech reporter who’s been following and writing about the industry for several years. I don’t claim to be a veteran, but I certainly receive a lot of pitches from or about startups. I would appreciate it if the caliber of those pitches improved!

(I also owe a hat-tip to Sean Byrnes; last week he asked me how I decide which emails to pay attention to and which companies to cover. That’s why this subject is top-of-mind.)

Before we get into the suggestions, one caveat: Unless you have a Trumpian sixth sense for publicity, you will probably get farther by following my advice than you will by following your instincts. However, that doesn’t mean that my preferences generalize to literally all reporters.

Optimal Attitude

You’re not heading into a fair contest.

For one thing, the supply-demand dynamics are against you. Tech journos are inundated with pitches on a daily basis, and we only have so much time. That’s why you should adjust your approach to make our lives more convenient, whereas we can delete three times as many emails as we respond to.

For another thing, reporters are strongly biased in favor of companies or founders that our readers already know about. Especially at general-interest publications. “Popular Entrepreneur Does Thing” will usually generate more reader excitement than “Unknown Entrepreneur Does Thing” and journalists are keenly aware of that. Companies like Google or Facebook could be terrible at PR and they’d still get covered nonstop, because readers love hearing about them.

I’m sure it’s frustrating, but that’s just how the incentives work out. You’ll have a better time if you accept the unfairness and tailor your approach to giving your company the best chance possible.

Necessary Elements

Emails that don’t satisfy these requirements are wayyy more likely to be trashed immediately.

Within the first few sentences, say who you are and what your relationship is to the company. If you’re the founder, I want to know that. If you’re the head of comms, I want to know that. Etc, etc.

Explain the company’s purpose — what it does and what the product is. Be concrete and use plain English! Cliché or baffling jargon is an immediate turnoff. (This step isn’t necessary if your company is well-known, but if that’s the case, why are you even reading this post?)

Don’t pretend that you closely follow my coverage of blah blah blah, unless it’s actually true. Acceptable: “Since you wrote about [whatever topic], I think you might also be interested in covering [similar topic].” Annoying: “I really enjoyed your article about [whatever topic], and [insincere flattery].” C’mon — I am skeptical for a living.

That said, please do look at what I’ve written about before, and don’t pitch me if your company is not even remotely on my beat! It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The automated “spray and pray” approach to PR can work when executed well, but only if you manage to reach journalists who write about your subsegment of the industry.

Sparking Interest

Beyond the basic email etiquette outlined above, here are the criteria I use to evaluate whether a startup is worth more attention:

Does the product sound like it’s useful, and does the company have a business model? Yes on both counts = you pass this round. Yes on product = maybe. No to both = do not pass Go; do not collect $200.

Did the company actually do something? “Hey, my startup exists” is far less compelling than a genuine event. If you want to be in the news, do something newsworthy! Examples:

  • raising money
  • launching a product
  • changing strategy or pivoting
  • hiring a notable person

Side projects and internal initiatives can also qualify.

Will the company share metrics? Revenue is the best one, but hardly anyone discloses that. DAUs, MAUs, number of paid seats or licenses, MRR, burn rate — going on the record with financial details of any kind automatically makes you more interesting to me. Especially if the figure hasn’t been reported before!

Is there external validation? VCs can serve this purpose, as can advisors or notable customers. If Elon Musk called the founder a brilliant person, you will have an easier time getting covered.

6/15/2017 Update

I got the following text from a PR person who introduced me to a relatively early-stage startup:

I’m wrapping up the freelance gig with [company] and wanted to re-engage before I do and see if you wanted to revive this. Any feedback is helpful to them, too. What they’re doing is unique but I honestly struggled to get their name out there.

I responded:

Hey! So, in this case I wanted to write about the company or do a video but didn’t have buy-in from my editors for a dedicated piece.

Also, PR operates on long time-cycles. (You can tell them I said so.) it wouldn’t be surprising if I have a reason to mention [company] in the future. Knowing about the company and how it works means I have someone to tap if I’m going to write about [industry], for example

I probably didn’t do a good enough job distinguishing my enthusiasm about the idea from a guarantee of coverage — I can’t really ever guarantee that, and I’m trying to be more proactive about saying so

Tl;dr you did a fine job, but the stars didn’t align on my end

Hopefully that exchange adds some context about how this works in practice.

That’s it! Let me know if you have any questions. I’m, (checked much less frequently), and @sonyaellenmann on Twitter.

Expectations & Etiquette for Interviewees

If you’re reading this post, I probably sent you a link because I want to ask you some questions for an article. The interviewing process can be weird if you’re not used to it, so this is intended as a straightforward guide. Don’t worry, it’s short!

  1. Instead of relying on the various definitions of terms like “off the record” and “on background”, I prefer to define how I’m allowed to quote you in concrete terms. Can I use your name? Mention where you work? Etc. Tell me what you’re comfortable with! If you don’t specify that you want to stay anonymous, I will assume that your comments are fully public.
  2. I may ask about subjects that don’t usually come up in polite conversation. For example: “How much money do you make?” Some questions might even feel adversarial. For example: “People have accused you of XYZ. What is your response?” You are free to refuse to answer any questions, or to answer partially. It doesn’t mean that I won’t bring up those issues in whatever I write, but it’s totally fine for you to set limits on what you will talk about.
  3. I encourage you to make your own recording of any verbal conversation we have, and to keep transcripts of our textual communications. (This is a good interviewee habit in general! Archive those emails!)
  4. You can’t approve the final article before it’s published. However, if I edit your quotes for readability, I may ask you to approve the revised text, to make sure I’ve preserved your meaning. Those edits will always be disclosed to the readers.

The four items above are based on the industry’s standards. If there’s anything else I should add to this post, email and let me know. Thanks!

Sign up for my newsletter to stay abreast of my new writing and projects.

I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you).