In the 19th century, the Bay Area saw the rise of William Randolph Hearst as a new type of media baron. Now the Silicon Valley has Michael Arrington, founder and editor of TechCrunch. The blog has become an influential must-read within the tech industry and claims 884,000 readers. Arrington has been anointed a “Kingmaker” (Fortune) and a “power broker” (Wired) and was recently was included in Time‘s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Not bad for a guy who runs his blog out of a house where sleeps as late as he pleases and crams his small staff into the spare rooms. Here, Arrington talks about why he’s drawn to entrepreneurs, how he decides what to write about, and why Obama is ahead of the curve.
Congratulations on making the Time list of the 100 most influential people on the planet. Were you glad to be there — or disappointed you had to share space with the other 99?
I think it’s funny that I’m number 100. Technically they don’t rank them, but my category was last, and I was last within it. It’s cool to be the very last one.
Fortune called you the “Walter Winchell of Silicon Valley — part gossip columnist, part kingmaker, anointing the best of the latest wave of Web 2.0 companies.” Do you believe your influence is that great?
I don’t think I’m the best person to answer that. I will say that I don’t make or break companies. We just cover what’s already happening. If every single press outlet ignored YouTube when it launched or just panned it, I don’t think that would have reduced YouTube’s ultimate liquidity event.
What’s the most absurd thing somebody who wanted a writeup has done to get your attention?
One guy sent 20 Fedexes and each one had a different part of his pitch. One of them was opened. The rest are still stacked over there, and I haven’t even opened them yet. That stuff rarely works. In fact, it never really works.
What do you look for in deciding what to cover?
I look for something that’s new and interesting. A business model that hasn’t been tried before is always interesting, even if it’s likely to fail. It might give my readers an idea they didn’t have before. I like new ideas, even if they’re not billion-dollar ideas. Interesting founders — if you’ve done something interesting in the past, if you’re extremely young or extremely old or from a country that doesn’t generate a lot of entrepreneurs or there’s something unique about the founder. But if you’re a “me too” company, just a small twist on something that already exists, it’s unlikely you’re going to get written about.
You were a corporate lawyer, then worked for start-ups. Presumably you could make money doing something else. Why do this blog?
Some people are drawn to movie stars and rock stars. To me, entrepreneurs are the interesting people in this time and our society because they drive the economy. They have whacked out marginal utilities for risk in the sense that they seem to value risk instead of trying to shy away from it. They tend to walk away from high-paying jobs to do things that are highly risky just because they want to change the world and hope to make some money even though it’s very unlikely they will. That’s what’s drawn me to this particular beat. I love blogging just because it’s a direct channel to your readers that’s very raw and unfiltered.
If you were a venture capitalist, who’s a person you’d bet on?
Two-time winners are rare. Part of the reason is the best start-ups generally come from somebody needing to scratch an itch. They have a problem, and they realize there’s no solution so they make it themselves. Second-time entrepreneurs usually don’t have that second itch. Sometimes they don’t have the hunger to prove they can do it, so maybe they don’t give all they have. Now, there are exceptions. Marc Andreessen is clearly one. A lot of the Pay Pal guys have done interesting things even though they’ve already made a lot of money. Steve Jobs, on a much different scale, with Apple, Pixar and NeXT clearly has something. It’s very rare, and those people I find infinitely fascinating.
What will be biggest stories in the tech world in the next year?
Certainly social networking is interesting. It will be interesting to see how the big companies transform themselves, really as a result of the success of Facebook in particular. Its massive growth over the last 18 months is just going to change how public Internet companies think about their business.
Mobile is also something I’m really interested in. The iPhone launching, a little less than a year ago, has completely changed the way we think about mobile in the U.S. A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on the future of the mobile device and how social networking will play a part. I expect in a few years to walk into a room — say a cocktail party, bar, or subway — and have some basic information, subject to privacy issues, about the people in that room. I really expect the mobile device to be front and center, the most important Internet-connected device, and just flat out the most important device in our hands.
And someday when they walk into a bar, someone’s mobile gadget might say, That guy over there was one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
More interesting is you’re a guy walking into a bar — I think dating will always be a big application — and on your phone pops up every woman on the bar, her picture and maybe her first name if she’s willing to share that. Maybe you can message her and say, “Hey, I think you’re cute.” She sees your picture and she blocks you, or she says, “Yeah, I’d love to talk to you.” It’s a way that you can see who’s single, who’s not, who’s looking for a job and who’s not.
What’s an example of a story TechCrunch broke and how did your approach differ from the mainstream media?
This is probably the most popular story in terms of page views that we ever wrote. In 2006, I broke the acquisition of YouTube by Google. The time between hearing the news from a source and writing was probably about 15 minutes. It was a single-source rumor. I think most mainstream journalists, particularly in larger publications, would say that was a fairly risky move. The difference with blogging is I posted and said, Look, this is a single-source rumor, but it’s a good source, and I think there’s a good chance this is partially true. If you’re wrong you correct it very quickly.
You’ve had some notorious spats with critics in the mainstream media. What’s your view of the mainstream press today?
I see mainstream media moving towards blogging. The New York Times, CNET, and even the [Wall Street] Journal have embraced blogging, user comments, and things like that. You see USA Today with social networking. It’s been an absolute transformation, and it will continue, I believe. I think blogging has moved more toward mainstream media and moved away from some of the sensationalism and lack of fact checking. I think the two are meeting in the middle, which is probably what makes sense.
In what ways does the outside world misunderstand Silicon Valley?
When you get into a situation like we’re in now, which is almost a duplicate of 1998 and 1999, there’s so much hype around companies and personalities and it’s easy to say, “What is this?” It’s too bad. I wrote a post about this. You know, the marketing people move in, all the PR people move in, and it sure would be nice to have a downturn because when people stop investing, only the true entrepreneurs stay. All the attention that comes to Silicon Valley in the good times is sort of the worst possible form of itself. The fascinating times are the years when there’s no money.
So what do people fail to grasp?
Silicon Valley is transforming the American and world economies into information economies and moving away from industrial economies. It’s so important we develop policies that make sense and help Silicon Valley grow, or at least stay out of the way of growth. One example would be H1B visas. We restrict them. Why? Why would we restrict the smartest people in the world from coming here, working at our companies or starting their own? Things like that are really ridiculous.
Which presidential candidates have had the most intelligent tech policies?
I endorsed Barack and McCain in the primaries. In my post on this, I said McCain is largely the best of the Republicans. I certainly don’t think he’s a perfect candidate, particularly around immigration. He’s very free market and low taxes, which is good for tech in general. Barack really made a point, early on, of defining his positions on net neutrality and all of the major tech issues, including the 700 megahertz spectrum, immigration, Internet taxes, identity theft, things like that. He created policy papers, published them and got feedback from the community. It was brilliant. No one else has done that. I think he’s way ahead of the curve and has a lot of support here because of that.
How will TechCrunch look different in coming years?
Video is becoming more and more and important to us. We have dabbled in video but haven’t really launched our big strategy, and that’s coming later this year. Text will always be an important part of what we do, though. We want to cover basically all areas of the news where technology plays a part. The way to do that is through multiple properties that serve niche audiences — green tech, bio tech, gadgets, automobile tech, mobile. There are probably 20 categories. We’ll have sort of a master property that rolls up the most interesting parts into one big tech newspaper.
Sometimes you remind me of a 19th century newspaperman, back when voices were more idiosyncratic, partisan, and on the frontier — in your case it’s technology. You staked your claim in a boomtown.
I attribute 99 percent of my success to finding a parade and getting in front of it.
So if you had done a dog blog you wouldn’t have made Time’s top 100 list?
It probably wouldn’t be as popular. But you know what? I’d be happy with dogs. I like dogs, but I don’t think I could write 2,500 words a day about dogs. I tell people to be successful in blogging, they need to write about what they love, not what they think is going to be successful. If it’s knitting, then it’s knitting.