On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, PandoDaily CEO Sarah Lacy discussed her new book “The Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug.” The longtime journalist also talks about starting her next project — a subscription site called Chairman Mom — without sunsetting her first company, and calls out Silicon Valley for its tolerance of “bad behavior in the name of being a creative genius.”
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. I’m part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m laughing because Sarah Lacy is laughing. She’s laughing at me right now.
Sarah Lacy: I like your radio voice.
Do you like ... That’s a radio voice? It’s my voice. Sarah, among other things is the CEO of Pando Daily. She’s an author, most recently of “A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug.” It’s a good title, Sarah.
You can buy this book immediately, as you hear this podcast.
As of today.
So go buy the book and make Sarah happy. Sarah, I’m going to describe this as part memoir, part manifesto. Language is important, so how do you feel about both those words?
Yeah. No, I think that’s right. It’s hard to wrap both of those into a book. The people who said no to this proposal mostly said no because they were like, “I don’t know how you’re going to do both of those in one book.”
I was going to make a joke about a uterus, but I’m not going to make a joke about a uterus. So, memoir we get, that’s part of your life, right? You’ve done a bunch of things. You’ve written books before, so this not your entire life story, it’s chunks of it. So we get that part. The manifesto is what?
Well, the reason, what drove me to want to do this book, and as you know because we’re in the same industry, the period in which I wrote this book was an incredibly crazy time for me and for my company and my family and my personal life. But I felt like I needed to write the book and needed to write it right then, because I was constantly struck by everything I had been told as a young woman, as an adult about what motherhood would do to me, and the juxtaposition of what motherhood actually did to me.
I felt like I was told for, say, 15 years of adulthood, that I would completely change. I would become unrecognizable from the person I was before. This whole talk of this biological imperative as soon as you hold a baby in your arms, it’s like suddenly every ambition, everything you held dear, everything you’d worked for in your professional life would be wiped away.
So for context, you’re a mother, you have two kids. You’re a CEO, you’re a company founder. You’re a working mom. You are now a single mom. People don’t know your backstory, they will know by the time we’re done with this. Your point is, being a mother and a working mother are good things.
They’re not mutually exclusive.
Which is contrary to what about 40 percent of the population thinks. About 40 percent of Americans, according to Pew, think it’s bad for society if women work.
Right, and so you’re not only saying, “This is only something I wanted to do and a choice, but actually it’s been good for me. It’s been good for my kids and it’s good for my company that I have both of these things in my life.”
Exactly, exactly. The lie that I was told for so long was it would be this untenable, horrible thing. I found after I had kids I was better at everything. I was more confident. My voice as a writer was better. I could write quicker. I was more productive. I became more successful. The exact opposite of what I was told would happen happened.
Sounds easy, we should all do it.
That was important. If only you had a uterus Peter, think of how much more successful you would be.
We could talk about the patriarchy. There’s a lot of patriarchy talk in this book. This is, I don’t know if this is the right way to put it, not bad timing to have a manifesto about women and the patriarchy and gender roles, coming out right now.
Yeah. When I pitched this book I thought we would be sitting here in 2017 with our first female president, so the world changed dramatically as I was writing it.
It is one of the things that has changed. And again, contextually I think the best-known book in the genre is the Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” You’re addressing professional women. You acknowledge in the book that a lot of the stuff you’re talking about is different if you’re not a successful upper-middle class white woman, right?
But if you compare this to the Sheryl Sandberg book, other books in that genre, what’s the major distinction that you’re making that wasn’t in previous books?
That’s a really great question. I think the biggest distinction is, the Sheryl Sandberg genre is what people call careerism feminism. It’s this idea of, “Let’s all accept we live in a patriarchy. Here’s how you, as largely an educated upper-middle class white woman, can make your way through this system and have a good career on your own.”
Here’s the world as it is, here’s how you can survive and adapt and succeed.
Yeah. I think my book, and I think the moment that our country is in right now, is very much about, we need to overturn the system and the system isn’t okay. One of the biggest disagreements that I have with the “Lean In” canon is the whole idea that the solution is 50-50 marriage.
I think the whole ... All of the books advising women if they want balance to seek a 50-50 partner are ultimately supporting a patriarchy because these books are telling women to negotiate with their spouse, that they should be able, and to kind of sell him on this idea that they should be able to have a career and why it will be great for him. I don’t think women should be selling anyone on the life they want to lead.
So your argument is, “Look, it’s not just enough to sort of navigate your own personal life,” and obviously everyone has to navigate their own personal life. But, “We’re not going to fix things unless we structurally fix things.”
That’s a heavy book.
It’s a heavy book, but it’s a heavy time. I think the big change from ... “Lean In” came out when I was pregnant with my daughter, and she’s 4. So this has changed rapidly. Back then, I remember thinking that “Lean In” was so radical for a woman in the tech industry to be saying. No one talked about motherhood. No one talked about pumping during meetings. No one talked about this kind of stuff. No one identified as feminist, even four years ago.
It was a radical book at the time. I think it’s amazing that now “Lean In” appears almost old-fashioned, in a moment when it’s all about intersectionality. It’s all about the 70 percent of people who are not in the base of 30 percent of people who are just fine with the hatred in America right now, banding together and doing something about it.
Because this is a memoir, one of the things you talk about is the idea that this was not the way you viewed the world not that long ago, right?
Yeah. My son’s 6.
Describe yourself in your 20s.
Cool dude, Sarah Lacy.
Cool dude? Yeah. It reminds me, that was from “Gone Girl”?
Yeah, the Cool Girl.
The Cool Girl, right. That’s a variant on it. You’re professionally successful, you can hang with the guys. You’re a woman, you’re definitely feminine, but you can play ...
I think you say something to the effect of, “Yeah, I wasn’t sympathetic to a lot of feminist arguments.” So what changed your mind? Was it literally just having kids?
It was really motherhood. It was, just even being pregnant was such a transformative experience for me, because as you go along your career in a male-dominated industry, pretending to be a guy and being the recipient of a lot of benevolent sexism that you don’t even necessarily realize is benevolent sexism. You start to really resent a lot of things about being a woman. I think I resented so much about being a woman. I think by the time I got to having children, I felt like being a woman was like a net negative in my life.
Well, because there were still limitations. I could go to baseball games and I could be one of the guys, but then there would come that awkward moment when someone hits on you. There would come like these, I would hear something someone would say about me. As a woman in this industry, Jesus, the stuff that was said about me in public media. When I started at TechCrunch there was a poll on how long I would last because the commenters had driven off every woman ...
Published by TechCrunch, right?
No, published by someone else.
No, I think probably linked to by TechCrunch.
Because TechCrunch was a particular ...
They weren’t quite that callous. But you know, I was always bumping against these things, where I couldn’t totally be a guy, and where it was frustrating and it was upsetting and it could be offensive and it could be heartbreaking. So I felt like it was a negative. I couldn’t disappear into the world of men as much as I wanted to.
When I became pregnant, I was fortunate that I had really easy pregnancies, but it was not just that it was, I felt like a superhero. I felt like I could suddenly shoot spider webs out of my palms. I felt in awe and amazed at what my body, which I hated and sort of resented for so much of my adult life, was able to do. It totally changed this whole sense of where I found strength and where I found power. That was really the beginning of it.
You’re an accomplished technology journalist. You’ve written a bunch of books. You’ve created your own company. Now you’ve written a book that’s specifically about gender and motherhood, and it says uterus in the title.
I can’t promote it on Facebook.
I can’t do paid promotion because uterus is the title. Jew hater fine, uterus not.
You can’t ... You literally cannot promote it on Facebook?
If only you knew Sheryl Sandberg, maybe she could help. But related to that, so Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, No. 2 in the organization chart. Incredibly powerful position, Facebook’s an incredibly powerful company. In a lot of people’s mind she’s the “Lean In” woman. Do you have any trepidation about coming out with a book, you’re still running Pando, you’re still doing technology journalism explicitly defining as woman talking about her kids and motherhood and being identified as that person, as opposed to journalist?
No. Not at all. In fact, when I’m long gone and dead, if I’m only remembered and thought of for this book, nothing would make me happier.
For uterus lady. Unspeakable title lady.
No, I think it is so important. It’s like when I talk to women, before even writing the book I would talk to young women who felt like I did, felt this sense of terror about becoming mothers. I would say to them, “It’s going to be fine. It is going to be fine. You’ve got this. It is not as bad as people made it out to be.” They would be like, “Really? You’re the first person who’s ever told me that.”
If I can go tell every young woman in the world that everything everyone has said about this horrible weak debilitating curse of motherhood is a lie, that would be such a better life’s work than anything I’ve done in my career till now.
I’m not well prepared enough for this interview, because I would have brought the name of the book, but there was in the Atlantic essays, a book about having it all and basically saying, “You can’t do it.”
Yeah, Anne-Marie Slaughter.
That it is a well-meaning but wrong myth, to say that you can do all these things. You literally, there’s not enough hours in a day. Even if, by the way, you have a Sheryl Sandberg-size support staff at work and at home. You’re one person, you can’t do all of these things. But then you say, “No, it’s not true.”
Yeah. I don’t think it’s true. I think part of it is, part of what’s insidious about the patriarchy is this sense of guilt and perfection that’s put in women’s minds. This sense that you can’t be a perfect mother unless you’re 100 percent on-call to your children, and you can’t be a perfect employee unless you’re 100 percent on-call to your employers.
If that is your definition of having it all, then I guess you’re in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s camp. That is not my definition of having it all. I think most men are not 100 percent on-call to their employers and I think that it’s healthy for your kids not to be 100 percent on-call to them. I also feel like once you’re, when you first have a baby it seems very untenable because you don’t understand how quickly things are going to change. But by the time your kids are in school ...
I don’t have anything like a Sheryl Sandberg staff. I don’t have a husband. I have no family that lives near me. I don’t even have a nanny or any childcare right now. And I have two children and work about 11 hours a day. I wrote a book on like spare daddy weekends. I actually took on other stuff as my nanny left.
You know, it’s doable. They’re in school. They’re in school from eight to five. I don’t just feel like this, there’s actually data that I cite in the book. Once your kids are in school, stay-at-home moms only spend something like 15 percent more quality time with their kids than working moms. The rest of the day is housework, laundry, organizing lives, being the COO of a household. I have a super messy house. So if having it all is having ...
I remember when I first had Eli, I was talking to Kara Swisher and she was like, “Yeah, you’re just going to follow around your nanny and refold things because they won’t do it right.” I’m like, “Wow, you and I are really different human beings.” If you only saw my house. My house is a disaster, and I’m fine with my house being a disaster.
I’m trying to picture Kara folding laundry.
She says she follows around her nanny when she’s gone.
Then she redoes it, because she doesn’t like how she did it. That isn’t my life.
I’m going to ask her about that. I’m not going to do it right now but I am going to take a break so we can all gather ourselves and also hear from our fine sponsors. We’ll be right back.
We’re back here with Sarah Lacy, friend of Jason Hirschhorn, one of our favorite guests. Jason was the first guy to hit the hour mark, I don’t think we’re going to do that today because you’re time-pressed because you’re doing a bunch of stuff because you’ve got a new book to promote. Book is called ...
“A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy.”
You’re sure Facebook didn’t ding it because it says patriarchy? Did they tell you?
Did someone say uterus is a problem?
No. The ad got returned because of uterus. If only the Russians had been trying to promote uteruses, Hillary would be in office.
This is book two, book three?
Book three. Do you make money doing books?
I make money. My publishers have not made money.
Yeah, do you ever think about, you’re in a business about disrupting stuff, new models. Do you ever think, “Maybe I’ll self publish?” Or, “There’s another way to do this,” or are you like, the model where they give you an advance and you write a book and then you do it again.
Yeah. It’s not just that, I think one of the reasons that writing books has been really good for me, it’s one of those last things that if you go through a publisher not everyone can do. I think that there’s something about that gatekeeper in the media world that gives you a lot of credibility.
With my first book I was lucky enough to get a really great bonus that will never unfortunately earn back. But then it was not just that, it was after that, I was the person who had written this book and I couldn’t believe how much more opportunity I got, how every job offer I got seemed to have another zero on it. I was really stunned at the difference.
Then my second book actually has earned back but I got a lousy, lousy, lousy advance on it. With that one I made a ton of money off speaking gigs after it.
That seems to be the model, the realistic model for making money off books, because generally the advances, even if they’re good advance, it’s paid in chunks and you’ve got pay your own bills. Is that if you can do something and if you’re slightly — cynical’s the wrong word — practical about it, do something that has the ability to do paid speaking afterwards, that’s where you can really make your money.
Yeah. My second book was brutal. It was about entrepreneurship and emerging markets. I spent 40 weeks traveling through the emerging world. That book cost me money to do. I was relieved that I made money from speaking gigs on the other side.
So this one you did the research but the research was in your own house.
Yeah, exactly. I’d lived it.
No, I went to Iceland for this book. I relied on some travel and reporting that I had done in China. There’s some other places I had to go and things I had to do, but it was nowhere near as extreme as that second book.
But it is a memoir, there’s crazy stories in it. I want to ask you about a few of them.
I’ve had a crazy six years.
Did you write this after you were divorced?
So you were divorced, you were in a new relationship. You said, “Now I’m going to write about this.” You talk about that relationship, you talk about divorcing your first husband ...
My only husband.
... and the fact that you’re now in a relationship with Paul Carr, who is your co-founder.
It’s the first time I’ve talked about this publicly.
Right, so it’s in the book.
I was going to ask that. Had you talked about that publicly before?
No. No, we don’t hide it and he’ll go to things like the lobby with me and industry events. So people know, it’s not a secret. But you know, after the life that we’ve both had, we don’t really feel a need to invite people into our lives.
So if you’re not in the Sarah Lacy universe, just to explain this, Paul Carr is your co-founder. What’s the best way to describe him?
We acquired his company. So he kind of became my co-founder.
You guys both launched public ...
You had both worked at TechCrunch together.
Yeah, and we had actually, even before then we had written both of our first books at the same times. So we talked on the phone every day and were informal writing partners and best friends during that process. Then we worked at TechCrunch together, we both left TechCrunch at the same time. He started Not Safe For Work Corp and I started Pando, and then Pando bought Not Safe For Work Corp.
Right, and then at some point you guys started dating.
We started dating.
Now, is he watching the kids back in San Francisco?
No, he’s here. The kids are with their dad.
Okay. In addition to just being a crazy story, I think one of the parts about the story that’s particularly interesting is, you were in the middle, you were the subject of this huge Uber story.
For a long time, you’re going at Uber, and then at one point they ... You can tell the story about Uber and the dinner and Ben Smith and BuzzFeed, then we’ll get to the Paul Carr part.
Yeah. We had been really critical about this company. I’d particularly been critical about their treatment of women and what I viewed as a fundamentally misogynistic culture at this company. It was things like, when we were ...
One of my reporters — actually Carmel, who then worked for you guys — she was writing about some of the stuff with background checks. Executives were saying things to her like, “Well, sure, maybe that woman got sexually assaulted, but she was dressed provocatively and she was drunk.” The total lack of empathy and morality, to talk about one of your customers that way, who’d been assaulted using your service, at the same you were trying to get laws changed and using the defense that you’re helping women get home safely, was too much for me to handle. That was one of many things I found deeply misogynistic.
You were an early critic of Uber when for a long time it was almost entirely positive coverage about them.
Yes, we were.
Unless you were in the taxi business, everyone was sympathetic to what they were doing. Again, unless you were really deep into it, you really didn’t understand the company culture that much anyway, just that they were a car service.
Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty brutal. Look, as you know, we’re a small publication. It’s not like what we wrote about Uber was going to meaningfully affect their downloads, but where we were having an impact was that we’re a deeply read publication by the people who are very close to the company and close to the founders. I think I’ve heard from many anecdotal cases that we were hurting their ability to hire certain people. We were asking a lot of hard questions about the culture of this company.
So at a minimum you were an irritant, then you were on their radar. You know this because there’s this dinner. Uber has a press dinner, they invite a bunch of journalists.
Yeah, and it was like one of their many attempts to reboot Travis Kalanick’s image and try to make him seem like a nice guy. While he’s doing that on one end of the table, at the other end of the table is his alpha bro protected A-list guy, Emil Michael.
This is the No. 2 guy at the company, basically.
Yeah. Emil Michael was at the other end of the table, detailing to Ben Smith from BuzzFeed this really disturbing plan, particularly, as he phrased it — and this is second hand from Ben — to try to shut me up by going after my family. There are so many accounts later on about what was said or not said at this dinner, but he’s tried to say it was like a drunken rant, he was blowing off steam, but he detailed a pretty precise plan.
There’s no debate that he was talking about you. The only debate is precisely what he said and whether or not he was kidding about a plan to shut you up.
And what they had already been doing. But he did detail like a headcount, the type of people he wanted, a budget. It was pretty precise.
By the way, contextually, now that we’ve seen the reporting about Harvey Weinstein and what he’s done, who he was paying to follow journalists, to follow the women who were accusing him of harassment.
Certainly Susan Fowler has talked about the company doing these things to her.
Right, so it’s not unheard of that this would happen.
We saw a court case where the judge ordered the emails be decrypted, that showed they were doing this to a plaintiff and a plaintiff’s lawyer that was coming against them. They had hired a firm Ergo which had ex-CIA people. It was clear they had hired this firm before. Then worst of all was the report that Emil Michael, same guy, had his lieutenant obtain medical records from a woman in India raped using their service in order to discredit her.
That’s the story that finally pushed him out of the company.
Yeah. For years people wanted, the company wanted to paint a picture that I was hysterical and blowing this out of proportion, when we’ve now seen at least three examples of them doing this.
So what do you think they thought they were going to uncover or tell people about?
From what I can understand, I don’t think they had started doing any oppo research in my life because I was ...
They just thought there was a there there.
I was already getting divorced. If they had done any they would have known, because the idea was trying to break up my marriage and me being a protective mother I would back off because of that. They wanted to destroy my home life.
So, and this is getting around to the book, is there anything that’s in the book that you’re writing about now publicly that you think would have come out through their oppo campaign?
No, I mean the things that he detailed to Ben weren’t true. So as far as I know they were just going to make a bunch of shit up.
But I think had they ... maybe that would have changed if they had followed me. But look, I have lived much of my professional life being written about and dissected on sites like Valleywag, so I don’t think there was really much for them to uncover.
You took it super seriously, right? You had guards at your house.
Well, once it became a reality ... First of all, oppo research isn’t Googling someone, they’re following you, they’re following your kids. It’s a pretty intense thing. Once the story became really big, I’m sure anyone who’s been the subject of this kind of thing, once you’re on the cover of that many newspapers, you’re on television, you’re being painted as the enemy of this company and this company has millions of drivers that work for them that are angry that may or may not have passed background checks. It’s not that hard to understand why this rapidly evolved to something that could have been really dangerous for my family.
So you had guards at your house for some period.
And going with us everywhere.
Then you’ve got this scene that you talk about, where your husband’s there, still married. Paul Carr is there. You’re all sitting in your living room.
We were separated.
You were separated, but you’re all in the living room together. You’re not dating Paul yet, but you are going to date Paul and sort of headed that way, but you guys haven’t discussed that.
We’d had this weird conversation.
Yeah, and meanwhile there’s a guard out front getting your Indian food.
Yeah, because I wasn’t allowed to answer the door.
So that’s a scene.
It’s totally weird. Paul and I had had this conversation where in the process of Jeff and I getting divorced I was like, “I am never going to date again.” Because my life was crazy and my kids were completely living with me. I had the insanity of this company. I had a company that was doing oppo research, part of which is people going undercover to find things out about you. I was still being written about and trashed on Gawker all the time.
So it was like, there’s no way I can just meet someone. I can’t date anyone in the tech industry. My life is so messed up. I had so many trust issues. I was like, “I’m never going to date anyone.” I was explaining this one night to Paul. It was a long, long, long list of all this stuff. He just sat there sort of quietly, and the end of what I was saying he said, “You realize everything you’ve described that you would need in a relationship is our relationship, except we don’t have sex.” And then we didn’t talk for the rest of the night. It was just awkward. It was out there for months, until this weird night in my living room.
Can we credit Emil Michael and Travis and Ben Smith with getting you together with Paul Carr?
Yeah, weirdly enough.
Okay, congratulations gentlemen, you made a love connection.
I don’t think that was Emil Michael’s intention.
What kind of thought did you put or not put into whether or not you were going to tell that story in the book?
Again, I don’t think ...
Or any of the part about your divorce and relationship?
I don’t really get into the divorce. That’s really the only thing that I don’t get into in the book, because I haven’t decided what I’m going to tell my children about the divorce.
You talk a bit about it, right? You talk about wanting to commit violence to him, hypothetically.
Yeah. No, there is a lot of backstory there that it ... Look, everyone who gets divorced, there’s your public story and there’s the shit that really went down. I haven’t decided what my kids should know or not know about it. I didn’t want them to read about it.
You’ve got a line in there about telling your husband that you were pregnant again, and that he’s surprised that you’re pregnant and that it was not a surprise on your part. You kind of leave it out there and don’t go into it, like, “Uh, that’s a story.”
I think part of it was we were living in two different cities and we had a newborn, so I just feel like there have not been that many times we’d actually been together in order to get pregnant. It took a long time for me to get pregnant with Eli. Evie was like this miracle baby in every way. She is a miracle young human being who really kept our family together, but she also was ... it was this like, “How are you pregnant already?” I was nursing and we were living in different cities.
I read it as, “I decided I was going to get pregnant but I didn’t tell my partner.”
Well, I was definitely the one driving that train. I was for sure the one who was like, “No, Eli is going to have a sister.” He would have been, “Fine.” One of the things that did come between us is I wanted more kids and he didn’t.
So back to that idea, writing about it did you go to your ex-husband? Did you go to Paul and say, “Just so you know, this is what I want to do,” or, “What do you think about me doing this?”
As you know, Paul’s written several memoirs himself. In his second book, which is about him getting sober, which I was a big part of ... When we were friends I said — back then I was much more private — and I said, “I don’t want to be in your book if we’re friends,” because that was kind of what he did at the time, was write about himself. He put me in his book anyway, over my objection, so I didn’t really feel like he got a vote.
You had that chip.
Yeah. I think he was fine with it. It was a harder thing for my husband and I really give him a lot of credit for, he didn’t ask me to change anything in the book. He really gave me the freedom to do it, but it’s painful. We were together for 15 years, it was a painful divorce. We’re in a really, really great place now, which is one reason I didn’t want to hash out a lot of what happened, because my kids will never remember us being together and will never remember that period when we were not on good terms. We’ve been on amazing terms since and I almost feel like what happened doesn’t really matter.
You’ve got this great line here, “My personal life on paper is a cautionary tale of a million things you shouldn’t do, but in practice it’s one of the most balanced supportive co-parenting arrangements of anyone I know.” That’s the good part of it.
Yeah. No, people, I’m like the divorce whisperer. I was the only divorced mom at preschool, and I remember vividly coming back from the holidays one year and passing a mom in the stairwell. I was like, “How was your Christmas?” She looked like she had been through the ringer for three weeks. She was like, “We’re doing construction on this house, and I had in-laws in town, and the kids are driving me nuts.” She was like, “What about you?” I was like, “I just got back from a yoga retreat in Mexico.”
There is a little social contagion, right? Once, within a social group, one in the group gets divorced, like, “Oh, you can do that. That’s how that works.”
Yeah, there’s life on the other side. No, I mean right now, right now if I were still married and I were here promoting this book I would have so much guilt. My kids would feel like something had been taken from them for me to be gone. They’re just spending time with their dad now and they spend time with their dad without me all the time.
Your time is precious, so I don’t want to take your time more, but I do have so more questions for you. We’re going to hear one more quick word from a sponsor. We’ll be right back.
Back here with Sarah Lacy. You’re still texting?
She’s still here.
She can multitask.
I’m a working mom.
I’ll read, you’ll talk. Want to talk about the business that you run, Pando. You started a second business, you sort of slipped that in as an aside.
Chairmanmom.com. I went there, there’s nothing there yet.
Yeah, it’s going to launch soon.
Okay, do you want to talk about the new business or the existing business?
We could talk about either.
Let’s do both.
Let’s start with the one that doesn’t exist yet, or has not launched yet, chairmanmom.com. I’ve got a sense of what it’s about but you tell me.
It’s a community for working professional moms. The idea, it’s going to be a subscription community.
What’s a subscription community?
You pay to be part of it, so it’s like $5 a month. Which is part of what’s important about it, because you want it to be this place where there’s not going to be trolls, there’s not going to be mommy wars. There’s going to be moderation, but also having a subscription community helps keep that under control.
Message boards, listserv.
It’s going to a couple different things, but it’s mostly going to be curated question and answer with some content. The idea is working moms helping each other solve the really hardest problems of work and life that you usually can’t discuss anywhere else.
It’s interesting, right, the professional mom, yuppie mom, whatever adjective you want to use, market huge, right, online should be huge and we’re a little bit past this now but I remember when our kids were younger my wife was spending time on the Park Slope Parents listserv, which is a Yahoo email group. It’s super clunky, still a really effective way to get advice and to trade strollers, or whatever it is, but really archaic in terms of tech.
There’s actually been a lot of stuff built for moms, but it’s really mostly dominated by stay-at-home moms. There’s not a lot that expressly built for professional moms who are, to me, some of the most isolated people. Again, they’re judged by society as not being good mothers. If a woman out-earns her spouse by even a dollar, the odds of his infidelity go way up. So they’re frequently isolated within marriages. Even if they work in a company where there’s other working moms, because of maternal bias you have to project you’ve got everything together, so they feel very isolated at work. And frequently isolated in school communities too, like if you’re the only working mom.
So there’s a lot of judgment and isolation that these women face all the time, even though 40 percent of American households have female breadwinners. They’re doing a lot of heavy lifting in this economy. There’s places ... There’s not a lot of places they can discuss things they go through. Whether it’s an issue with a spouse, whether it’s, “I have a five year old who I think is transgender, what’s the best way for me to support him?”
Your argument is that there’s a distinction between a working mom addressing that question and a stay-at-home mom addressing that question. They get to the same answer?
But there’s a different set of factors going in there. That’s going to launch when?
We’re building it now. It’s about ready. We were hoping to have it in beta by the time the book came out, but you know how startups go.
“We are.” Who’s we?
It’s me and Paul and we have a team. We have a couple of developers who are right now on contract, all-female developer team, which has been amazing to work with. We have this amazing New York journalist, Lily Herman, who’s been doing our Mama Bear newsletter, and a couple other folks like that. We’re hiring a few other people right now.
Company No. 2, still running company No. 1. Running a company’s hard. You reference a bunch of different times, and how old is Pando?
I started it on maternity leave and Eli’s 6, so five-and-a-half, six, yeah.
So six-year-old company, a lot of work, and I think again in the book you’re more candid maybe than you have been publicly about how difficult it’s been, how close to failing the company was several time. Now you say it’s profitable?
Generally don’t start second company while you’re running the first? Or what made you decide, “All right, we’re at the place where this thing ... we’re going to do a second thing.”
It was a really hard decision. I really wrestled with this for about a year. It took me a long time to get to the point of feeling like I really could do it. I was running Pando and I had this side project of the book, and then I had a side project of the podcast that went into my reporting of the book, and then I had a side project where I was doing a dinner every month at my house for female entrepreneurs and VCs. Then that turned into a side project of a Facebook Group.
Everything I was doing around working mothers was growing so fast, and growing faster than Pando ever did frankly, and was making me much happier and was providing a lot of value in women’s lives. It just kept exploding and running away with me. I got to the place where I was like, “That needs to be where I’m putting my time.”
So then what happens to Pando? Because Pando is, and you talk about this in the book, this is the thing when a founder, someone starts ... Very often when someone starts a media company, that media company is them. They hire other people, other people do work and they work hard, but if that person is not running it, if a person whose name is attached to it is not creating content, it kind of doesn’t work. We’ve seen a bunch of examples of that. So if you’re doing company No. 2, what happens to company No. 1?
For now, Pando is still doing its thing. We’re not doing any more events, so that takes a big chunk of the workload out of Pando. We’re still doing what we’re doing. Paul helps do a lot of the admin stuff around Pando and making sure the bills get paid, making sure that stuff, that as the CEO I was much more on top of before. I mostly write for Pando and spend the rest of my time on Chairman Mom. But we’ll see when Chairman Mom launches what it becomes. We’re taking it day by day.
So, imagining in six month seeing an email or a post saying, “We’re sunsetting Pando. We’re pivoting Pando into something,” or, “Sold Pando.”
I don’t know, we’ll see. I don’t know, right now I’m in the middle of reporting a major investigative story that I think is really important, that I’m spending a lot of my time on, that’s hopefully going to be on Pando in the next couple weeks. It’s like I’ve been a journalist my whole career and that part of my life is difficult to let go of. In some ways the two companies are complementary.
Certainly one of Pando’s biggest stories over the last couple years has been bro culture, and a lot of issues around sexual harassment and discrimination. So a lot of things we’ve been writing about are of huge interest to the potential Chairman Mom audience, but they’re different. Chairman Mom is not going to be a content site. I’m going to want to write something somewhere.
Pando also is 85 percent male audience. Chairman Mom will have a very female-heavy audience. So in some ways if you want to impact change, it’s nice to have both of those outlets. A community where moms can help each other and an aggressive investigative journalism site, where you can tell people and expose things that are happening. I want to keep doing both as long as I can.
You wrote about startups, founders, investors, for years, then you entered that world as a participant. What did you learn from starting a company, from running a company that you didn’t get in all your reporting about that world?
I think the emotional impact of it was what surprised me the most. I think I knew it was hard. I think I knew a lot of the mechanics of raising money. I think I knew it’d be easier to raise money before something existed. A lot of things like that that might be surprises to people. I think the emotion of when it’s your company and how things impact you and how protective you feel of it and how personal everything feels. I think probably that was heightened because I was also pregnant and nursing for the first three years of the company, so I had a lot of mom hormones.
But you really feel this deep sense of responsibility, not only to your employees and not only to your investors but to your readers. My life would be easier, frankly, if I could just sunset Pando and move on, but I feel like everyone who’s come through and worked for that publication — and the community that has supported us when frankly most of the tech world didn’t — I feel like those people have invested as much of their blood, sweat and tears in this brand and what it stands for as I have. It is really a deep, weird, emotional connection.
There’s the thing you used to hear/read about a bunch, I think less so, I think there’s probably less startup coverage in some ways than there was. But a journalist would write something about a startup that was critical or they’d point out that it didn’t work or something, and then we’d get feedback saying, “Why are you being a hater?” or, “Why aren’t you being supportive of startups?” or, “Why are you anti startup?” or, “Why are you pro big media?” any of that.
As someone who would frequently write that stuff, be the person writing the critical stuff, I thought that’s a really narrow-minded way to respond. But I do have some sympathy/empathy for people who say, “Look, building a company is different than writing about a company.” Sounds like you’re in that camp, even more so now.
Yeah. I do think there was an additional level of empathy that I got. Although I was early enough with TechCrunch and helped building TechCrunch that I had experienced some of that. But at the same time I also think I became way more adversarial as a journalist once I was running Pando. So from the outside I don’t think people thought I got more sympathetic.
Yeah. What did you learn about media that — again, you were at TechCrunch while it was growing up — running a media company that has surprised you?
The biggest surprise is that we wound up being a subscription site, because when we started and Paul started Not Safe For Work, he went that route and I didn’t. We had a lot of disagreements about it
He had a subscription service.
Yeah. I think ultimately I’m really glad things played out the way they did because I think if Pando had started at subscription we wouldn’t have developed the level and value of the brand that we did. I think we made that shift at the right time.
What does a Pando subscription cost?
$10 a month.
When did you move to that?
After we were threatened by Uber, because they started threatening our advertisers and we had to.
That has enabled you to become profitable now?
Yeah. Yeah, and we actually had a pretty good ad business, because we had such a small but juicy group of people. We had, I don’t know, maybe I think when we shifted we had about eight big six-figure advertisers, we had several more teed up. We were actually building a pretty good scalable ad business for a small publication, but it started to, as we got adversarial towards the industry, we started to feel that thing where who’s your customer and who’s your product? If you’re an ad-supported company then your readers are your product and your customers are your advertisers. The direction that we thought the value was going, that was not going to be tenable.
A lot of folks have reached that conclusion. Like, “Oh, subscription business looks good,” so there’s a renewed interest in selling stuff directly both for media startups and media companies.
There’s this purity of it. Yeah, which is really nice.
Do you feel like your readers are going to be at some point saying, “Well look, you’re asking me to pay for Pando and The Information, and, I don’t know, Wall Street Journal. At some point I’m going to stop subscribing to things. By the way, I’m already paying for Netflix and Hulu and whatever else. I’m going to get the rest of it from free media.”
I don’t know, we’ll see. We’re lucky in that we’re in a vertical where people expense it, so I don’t think really individuals are paying for us that much. In fact, in January we had this big legal bill we had to pay, and we’ve had a bunch of frivolous lawsuit threats we’ve had to fight off. This was another one of them, and they’re annoying and they cost money, but it’s part of running the kind of company that we do.
You had a number that you said, $400 million in lawsuits over six years.
Threats and lawsuits, yeah.
That’s what damages people, actually, lawsuits or threats of lawsuits?
Threats and lawsuits. No, they’re always baseless, you just have to spend tens of thousands of dollars showing that you’re going to fight it and then they don’t actually file it.
Peter Thiel is one of your backers.
Okay, so obviously you know where I’m going with this. Peter Thiel bankrupted Gawker, because he got his judgments. But even had he not gotten the judgment, he would have, it turns out, because he was bankrolling the Hulk Hogan thing, could have tied up Gawker for years. Spending millions of dollars — which is literally nothing for him since he’s a billionaire — and could have been just as debilitating for Gawker. As a publisher and as a journalist, what’s your discussion with Peter Thiel about that, his role in that?
We have not spoken.
Since, well, that happened about the same time as him supporting Donald Trump, and we have not spoken.
He was an investor, right? He’s an investor?
Did you consider returning his money?
We didn’t have the money to return his money, for one thing. But no, we didn’t consider it. We talked about this a lot because we had people asking us about it. He wasn’t directly an investor, Founders Fund was an investor. Actually, I initially went to him because I knew him and we had been friends. He said, “I would love to invest but I have to give right of first refusal to Founders Fund,” and they actually took it from Peter. It was actually Brian Singerman who did the deal, so it wasn’t quite as neat and clean as “Peter Thiel wrote us a check.” He would have, had Founders Fund not taken it.
Because you reference him in here as someone who gave you good advice at one point.
He did. He was one of my favorite people in Silicon Valley for a really long time. That’s been a really painful thing.
So you stopped speaking last summer I guess, last spring, or a year ago?
Actually, I don’t remember the last time that we talked.
Did you have a break up? Did you say, “I am no longer speaking to you because of Gawker, because of Trump?”
No. I don’t know how well you know Peter but it’s like he’s not ...
Not at all.
He’s not really someone who has those emotional friendly conversations.
That’s what I hear.
I know even from what I’ve heard between conversations that have happened between he and Reid Hoffman, who he’s super close to. I remember even when I interviewed Max Levchin, who he founded PayPal with. I asked Max, “What is the conversation you’ve had with Peter about Trump?” He’s like, “We haven’t talked about it.” He’s not someone who has a lot of real emotive personal conversations, even with people he’s close to.
When you launched Pando you went and got a bunch of money from a bunch of different VCs. You said, “Obviously we’re going to have conflicts of interest with all of them, and that’s the point. We’ll have so many conflicts of interest that no one can blame us and no one can accuse us of having conflicts of interest.”
As you’re starting this company, you’re not going to be writing about tech companies, but there is a renewed or new scrutiny about where your money is coming from and where does that money actually come from. When you take money from DST, what is ... is that from Putin? So how are you thinking about funding this project? Do you want investors?
We did. We raised a seed round, and we have about 13 investors and only two white men, so we raised a very different seed round than we did for Pando.
And you did that intentionally?
Said, “We would like women, we would like people who are not white men.”
Women, people of color, and then people who ... it was less we don’t want white men in this company, it was more we wanted people who really were going to be aligned with this mission and felt like this mission was really important. Because there were a lot of people who thought the mission of Pando was important and said it was, and I think there’s probably half of my investors I don’t speak to now.
It’s a rough world out there in the media tech sectors.
Yeah. It’s been a hard six years. I think it’s going to continue to be that way for a lot of people. We’re seeing every day really ugly stories come out about what VCs have been doing to women, about what they’ve turned a blind eye to. Look, if you’re in my house one day, holding my children and saying you want to invest in my company because you think my fierce adversarial truth-telling is so important, and then you’re totally cool with your portfolio company threatening those same children the next day, I don’t know what you are but you’re certainly not a friend to me and you’re certainly not a human being either.
Do you think — we’re recording this early November, mid November. We’ve had a couple months now of stories about sexual harassment, abuse, “sexual misconduct” is a new weird euphemism for masturbating in front of women at a club. I don’t get that.
They’re generally about media personalities and people in media companies, generally in the Acela corridor and then there’s some VC, Silicon Valley stuff, and now we’re moving into politics. But it’s really been a lot of tech and media stuff. Do you think there’s something particular about those industries that those incidents have happened there, or particular about those industries where we’re hearing reports about it? Or do you think we’re going to hear about this in every industry?
I think one thing that’s very similar about Hollywood and Silicon Valley is you have small numbers of gatekeepers who control a lot of what gets produced and what doesn’t get produced.
So it’s not just they have money and there’s that power and balance. They can actually turn stuff on or off.
Right, and it’s also these small partnerships. A firm like Benchmark has like five or six partners that just sit around and make these decisions. So it’s like they don’t have a big HR team. There are these big multi-layered organizations. They also haven’t had a lot of scrutiny and a lot of expectation that they have to have that. I think it’s similar when it comes to movie producers. It’s frequently one individual.
I think both with Hollywood and Silicon Valley too, there’s been this asshole excuse and this like, “Oh, he’s a creative genius, so it’s fine that he’s an asshole.” I think there’s been a lot of forgiveness of bad behavior in the name of being a creative genius, that you probably can’t have in a lot of sectors.
I think one reason we’ve seen more of it out of Hollywood than out of the Valley right now is 3 percent of venture-backed companies have female CEOs. There just aren’t that many women who are even getting funding in the first place, whereas almost every movie is going to have an actress. There’s more women who are part of the Hollywood economy because of what that product is, than there are women part of the startup economy. But I think there’s something about that celebration of rogue disruptive asshole creative male ego that ...
So you do think it ...
You have children. If you don’t put rules on your children, what happens?
Like this morning. Save that for The Different Parent podcast.
I’m jealous of your chaos this morning, I hate when I’m away from my kids.
You can pick my kids up from school and deal with them.
All right, we could go on for a long time. I want to bring it back for one last question here. You were talking about diversity in the Valley and how there isn’t any. Lots of head scratching and lots of earnest, “We need to fix this.” You say, “No, it’s easy to do this.” Everyone says it’s hard, you say it’s easy. You hire diverse teams early on, hire and promote women and people of color from the beginning.
The talent is there, the desire on the part of the industry’s gatekeepers simply isn’t. So you’re saying when you hear various VCs, when you hear CEOs saying, “Yeah, I’d like to fix it but ...” Jeff Bezos reportedly said something to the effect of, “We’d like to hire more women in positions of power, but we’ve got all these dudes here.” You’re saying this is easy to solve, it’s not brain surgery.
I think compared to the other things the tech industry does, yeah. You’re telling me it is harder to hire a woman of color than it is to launch rockets into space, to beam internet down from planes and satellites, to build virtual worlds, to create companies where the audience is larger than any world nation? It’s ridiculous.
When Silicon Valley leaders tell you something is too hard, whether that’s figuring out if something’s real news or fake news or whether it’s finding more women to hire, what they’re telling you is they don’t prioritize it. Because this is an industry that by its definition looks for hard problems to solve, looks to find new ways to do things.
So you think they are genuinely not interested in solving it.
I think it’s not a priority.
Right, so whether or not it’s because they’re pro patriarchy or they just don’t care, you just think they don’t care enough to fix it.
When Mark Zuckerberg announces in his earnings call last month that he’s really taking the Russia stuff seriously, do you take that at face value?
That’s hard to know. I’ve had a lot of discussions, as I’m sure you guys have, with people inside Facebook right now. That is a company in the middle of an existential crisis that I have never seen at that company. Unlike someone like Uber, which has always been really happy to be hated and has always had an us-versus-them mentality, even when most people thought it was amazing. Facebook has never been that company.
They seem genuinely confused that people are questioning them.
I know a lot of people inside that company are genuinely horrified at what they may have done and unleashed.
What they built.
And what do they need to do as a company and how they get out of this. So I hope they’re taking it seriously.
Want to come back and have a second podcast discussion about that?
All right, deal. You’ve got to promote a book, I will let you go. Thank you for your time. I know it’s precious.
Thank you for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.