Nathan Latka is a bestselling author, a podcast host, and a sweet talker.
And, depending on who you ask, he’s either a motivational hustler or a con artist.
On his podcast, The Top Entrepreneurs, Latka uses interviews to pressure founders and CEOs of software startups to cough up financial metrics, like their company’s annual recurring revenue and churn rate.
The cut-to-the-chase, gimme-the-numbers style has garnered Latka a certain level of fandom in the software-as-a-service world.
But it has also created enemies. A half dozen entrepreneurs who’ve gone on Latka’s show, seeking publicity for their companies in part to attract technical talent, allege that the host’s pitch for coming on his podcast is misleading.
They believe Latka’s podcast was not just an opportunity to “focus on your launch/growth story” or to “share thoughts on the space” or to explain “why you set up shop in the city,” as email invites from Latka and associates said. Instead, some of the founders claim that one of the podcast’s main goals was to extract financial data from founders that Latka then packaged and sold to investors and other interested parties.
The harm? The financial numbers laid out in any given interview may paint an incomplete or inaccurate picture of the health of their businesses, which potentially impacts future hiring, business partnerships, or investor interest, they say. Latka, who has bragged that he is the “most sued podcaster,” has also been known to hold back the publication of podcast episodes by more than a year unless a guest introduces him to three other entrepreneurs that he can pitch on the show, according to emails.
“I advise any founder who gets approached about being on Nathan’s ‘podcast’ to ignore the email and report it as spam,” Jordy Leiser, one of these entrepreneurs, told Recode.
Latka’s tactics are a window into the broader ecosystem of hustlers who are trying to make money in a frothy tech market. Venture capitalists and founders are often approached by hyper-aggressive service providers who are looking to earn a cut of Silicon Valley’s winnings, and some people said that made Latka’s particular hijinks unmemorable.
But some entrepreneurs who were guests on Latka’s podcast are now seething. Leiser was surprised to learn that Latka was marketing his data, after one of his investors came across a spreadsheet of financial data from Latka that included Leiser’s company, StellaService.
Michael Katz, an entrepreneur who runs a data startup called mParticle and who sold his previous company to Yahoo for $270 million, was also surprised to learn of Latka’s data business.
“They pursued me pretty aggressively, and I had no idea that they were going to sell data based on anything we discussed on the show,” Katz said. “I wouldn’t have gone on if I knew what their intent was.”
While these entrepreneurs felt deceived by the invitation that landed in their inboxes, Latka actually is up front about his strategy in some public forums.
His LinkedIn profile, for example, actually lists his data company ahead of his podcast and describes asking guests for financial information and publishing the data.
And he runs audio promotions about his data collection enterprise before some of his podcast episodes.
These facts back up Latka’s defense that “it’s all public,” as he told Recode in a phone call. He insisted there wasn’t a story to tell.
Still, shortly after Recode interviewed Latka for this story, he published a LinkedIn post and a podcast episode saying he was discontinuing the podcast. “Shutting podcast down today (nasty attack)” was the episode title. He refused to answer a follow-up question about why he planned to end the show if he feels his tactics are above-board.
And the entrepreneurs are correct that Latka was not up front about one of his main goals for the interviews when pitching to entrepreneurs, according to emails viewed by Recode.
Latka has admitted as much himself. “See, the podcast now isn’t about the podcast. It’s an excuse to talk to every private B2B SaaS founder. ... My pitch is, ‘Come on, get exposure,’” Latka said on a podcast on which he was a guest, called Mixergy, earlier this year.
But Latka has also admitted that “a bunch [of his interviews] don’t even go live on the podcast or on the website,” according to the same podcast episode. “Only to paying customers.”
“So there’s some people that you’re talking to just so you could fulfill the data for the private members?” Mixergy host Andrew Warner asks Latka.
“Well, yeah,” Latka said. “Sometimes the CEOs get mad because my ... follow-up after the interview is done is, ‘Hey, your go-live date is February 3, 2020.’ And they’re like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Leiser, one of those unhappy CEOs, sat for an interview in March of 2019 but was told afterward that the interview wouldn’t run until November 2020 unless he introduced Latka’s team to three other entrepreneurs.
In the meantime, Latka added the sensitive financial data that Leiser revealed about his company to a spreadsheet marketed to prospective buyers of this data.
“Everything about this says ‘scam,’” Leiser told Recode.
And that’s what’s complicated about Latka’s approach. Leiser and other unwitting guests feel scammed, but if they had listened to a few episodes of The Top Entrepreneurs show, they would have quickly realized that Latka uses the interviews to dig for data.
They could have also declined to provide the financial info Latka asks for, though some of the entrepreneurs told Recode they were caught off guard and feared the interview would go off the rails if they did not answer in some way. Others said they provided him inaccurate information because they did not want to reveal sensitive data.
So what’s the harm to them anyway?
“Well, we never decided to sell [our data], and we weren’t given the ability to choose, so my problem is first that we were misled,” Katz wrote to Recode. “The secondary problem is that those data points don’t tell the full story, for better or worse, so it could mislead those looking at it.”
Some of Latka’s success seems to be predicated on certain guests not having done their due diligence to know what to expect from the interview, beyond what they were told in Latka’s outreach email.
“This ... CEO is busy so I’m sure he didn’t listen to any of my episodes beforehand,” Latka wrote about one of his podcast guests in a recent email to his mailing list. “Thankfully, he played ball.”
Others, though, did not mind the discussion topics or the host’s approach. Some founders have even referred the podcast to their own investors and asked them to consider appearing.
“I was ... comfortable sharing,” one entrepreneur, Erik Kostelnik, wrote to Recode. “I also subscribe to his data to leverage as baselines for the companies I am involved in. I believe in the transparency of markets so you can cut through the bullshit and see how your metrics compete with best-in-class organizations. This did not exist prior to Nathan’s data.”
In a phone call with Recode, Latka dismissed the complaints from entrepreneurs like Leiser and Katz as sour grapes.
“I ... celebrate bootstrap founders,” Latka said, referring to entrepreneurs who build businesses without outside investment, unlike those that take on venture capital like Leiser and Katz.
But venture capital-backed founders aren’t used to being probed about their financials and don’t like it, he claimed.
“Nobody digs,” he said. “And I dig and I get the answers.”
That digging has led to a business that generates $60,000 to $70,000 a month in sales, Latka claimed in an interview on another podcast.
“When smart people pay me, I give them more data (always with CEO permission) like what you got in this email,” Latka wrote in one email offering his services, which he said started at $1,000. “Valuations. Deal terms. Cap table info direct from CEO mouth - The BEST source possible!”
One investor told Recode he has wised up to Latka’s strategy. He said that after his founders had negative experiences, and after he himself was pitched to buy the supposedly proprietary data, he figured out the ruse.
“I would never let any of my founders go on the podcast because I know where it’s going on the backend,” the investor said.
Latka had also previously bragged about the anger that his strategy sometimes elicits.
“I can almost guarantee you I’m the most sued podcaster and I love it,” he said on the same above-mentioned podcast on which he was the guest.
“The CEO will come on, I will charm the hell out of them, they will reveal so much in 15 minutes,” he added. “I release it ... The board hears it. Cease and desist three days later. I mean, I should start printing these and putting them on the wall, a wall of cease and desist. By the way, I win every time because the CEOs have to sign a thing that says, ‘I own the rights to the audio.’”
And Latka isn’t satisfied yet.
In one recent email blast, Latka said he was now “testing something new” and charging buyers $79 a month for “The Latka List,” a monthly report chock full of the same financial metrics that he’s derived from his interviews.
In April, Latka also wrote a post on Product Hunt, a technology industry message board for new digital products and ideas. Latka was introducing something he called Operation Pie, a tool that would show founders how their financial metrics stack up against other companies.
The catch? They’d have to link their company’s Stripe payments account to Latka’s tool, which could reveal who their customers are and what those customers pay.
“Yeah we need to add this,” Latka responded. “[T]otally looked past it.”