A week before Pandoland, a sexist douche gives us a great idea

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female-voices-silicon-valley1In less than a week our big annual event, Pandoland, kicks off in Nashville TN. I’m really excited to go back to the city and hang out with several hundred entrepreneurs, investors and other start-up folks from Nashville, the South and far beyond. In fact, I’m writing this from 30k feet on my flight from San Francisco to Nashville.

And yet, to echo something Sarah has written before, there’s one aspect of returning to the South that I’m not quite as excited by.

You might vaguely recall that a few months back, we filed a lawsuit against Launch Tennessee, the government-funded agency which we partnered with on last year’s event.  The purpose of the suit was to force LaunchTN to stick to the terms of the separation contract they signed when we ended the partnership — which they finally agreed to do. But there’s a lot of shocking backstory to that lawsuit that I was keen to share with Pando readers once the dust had settled.

I planned to hold my tongue at least until both we and LaunchTN had hosted our separate events this year. Ultimately having two tech events in Nashville is a win-win for local entrepreneurs and there’s no reason they can’t co-exist. Also, I didn’t want my telling of the story to seem like an attempt to discourage people from attending LaunchTN’s event.

And then, a couple of hours ago, something happened that makes it impossible for me to hold my tongue any longer.  If I weren’t writing this from a cramped airline seat, it would likely have made me punch my laptop screen, and shout something very loud and British.

This afternoon, at LaunchTN’s 36/86 conference, a (for want of a better word) man called Mark Montgomery took to the stage as part of a panel on music and technology. The panel consisted of all dudes, and, according to Southern Alpha reporter Kelley Boothe, it quickly descended in the kind of bro-fest that would cause outrage on the west coast, the east coast, most of America and — well — pretty much anywhere else, post 1975.

One speaker, a country singer, told the audience how he hears new music…

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After several minutes of crap like that, the panel decided that actually maybe one woman in the crowd — former Sony exec Heather McBee — might have something worthwhile to add to the discussion.

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But still, at least finally a women’s voice might be heard.

Or not…

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So far, so example of the kind of workaday sexism that we all hoped had been beaten out of tech events.

But then it got personal. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, panelist Mark Montgomery decided it was time to turn his sights on Pando and my business partner, Sarah Lacy…

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Woah.

The Nashville Business Journal has the full quote:

“Tennessee supports Tennessee,” Montgomery said. “Sarah Lacy does not give a shit about this market. Do not support her.”

Montgomery is described by the Business Journal as a “millionaire serial entrepreneur “ and by his Linkedin profile picture as an unspeakable douche. According to Wikipedia, Montgomery is preparing to move his company —  “FLO thinkery” — to  Nashville’s “SoBro” district. I really wish I were making this up.

So, where to start with Montgomery’s comment? How about…

“Tennessee supports Tennessee”

A couple of points.

First, from Wikipedia again…

Mark Montgomery was born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Sarah Lacy was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee.

Second… even if Sarah weren’t from Tennessee, does Montgomery really believe that supporting a state requires attacking or boycotting everyone else? There’s a name for people who think like that.

Ad homs aside, we’ve been clear from the start that the reason we chose Nashville as the venue of our conference is to offer entrepreneurs who don’t live on the West or East coast an event that’s closer to home. We also love bringing great entrepreneurs and investors to the South to show them all the amazing companies (and food and drink and music) that Sarah’s birthplace has to offer. Regular listeners to Pandolive might also be aware of my strange love of country music (strange for a Brit, at least). Trust me when I say, if self-interest were our motive, we could have made a metric ass-ton more money (rather than just barely breaking even) and felt far more loved if we’d have stayed in San Francisco or New York.

Also, as Sarah has explained, another important reason to bring Pandoland to Nashville is that whenever we travel away from the coasts we begin to get an inkling of how frustrating it can be to be a female (or black, or gay, or in any way non-white, non-straight, non-acceptable to the old boys’ network) entrepreneur in America. The tech industries in San Francisco and New York certainly have their serious faults but, compared to other parts of the world… sheesh.

What wasn’t spelled out in our lawsuit against LaunchTN was some of the breathtaking sexism the Pando team witnessed, and experienced, while working with the government agency and its cronies. (I’ll stick to the sexism for now, and save for another time the casual homophobia, or the story about how I was told that LaunchTN’s representative had vetoed a black musician from the entertainment line-up because he might attract “the wrong element.”)

During one memorable contract discussion, Sarah was warned to “watch herself” in the way she spoke to LaunchTN’s male representatives, and told that she has a “mouth on her.” On multiple would-be-funny-if-it-were-a-sitcom occasions, I witnessed LaunchTN trying to appeal to the male members of the Pando board and senior team to help deal with the “unreasonable” Sarah. Sure, Sarah looks nice on stage (until she starts “cussing”) but she can’t really be in charge of money, right?

My favorite moment came when James Robinson, one of our writers, was stopped outside the event venue and told “I don’t know how you let that woman out of the house.”  James politely explained to the fellow that Sarah was his boss, and a grown adult, and thus he didn’t really get to decide when she was allowed outdoors.

Since then, I’d heard persistent rumors that the good ‘ol boys of LaunchTN had been backchanneling with local startups, urging them not to support Pandoland or “that woman.” (There’s no way to know how effective those efforts have been, but there are three Tennessee-based finalists in our $ 100k startup contest and plenty of locals have bought tickets so I’d say not entirely.)

It’s important to make clear at this point that I don’t believe — can’t believe — Montgomery or LaunchTN are truly representative of Nashville. Certainly tweets like these suggest they are plenty of men in Tennessee who were just as disgusted by the on-stage comments as I was…

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But the truth is, Montgomery’s behavior on stage this afternoon and the wider sexism I saw around LaunchTN and their associates last year, is at once horrifying and utterly banal.  Every female entrepreneur, reporter or other professional — without exception — who I’ve spoken to in the city has told a similar story. You either have to learn to live with the sexism, or move somewhere else.

Well, fuck that.

As I read Kelley Boothe’s tweets, and the responses from local entrepreneurs who were as horrified as she was, I emailed Sarah with a suggestion. As it turns out, she’d had the exact same idea at the same time….

With immediate effect, we’re dropping the ticket price for women to attend Pandoland… to zero. If you’re a female entrepreneur from Tennessee or any of the surrounding states and you can make it to Nashville next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (15th-17th June), your ticket is on us. Just go to this page and use the discount code “nobro” — without the quotes. That code also allows you to bring one guest — of any gender.

(If you’re a woman who lives in the South  and have already paid for your ticket, email me and I’ll issue you a full refund.)

In addition to the female entrepreneurs and investors already on stage, we’ve also asked Kelley Boothe to host a breakout discussion on gender in the South.

One other thing which shouldn’t need making saying but apparently does: We’ve worked incredibly hard to create an event that is welcoming to all. Swearing is fine, strong opinions are welcome, but we will not tolerate sexism, racism or any other kind of prejudice — coded or otherwise — at Pandoland. That rule applies to speakers and audience members alike. No high fives. One strike and you’re out, bro.

Mark Montgomery, you’ve already had your strike. Everyone else, regardless of gender, and no matter whether you’re coming from Nashville or across the globe, we can’t wait to welcome you at Pandoland on Monday.


Update: As I was preparing this post for publication, Montgomery responded to Boothe’s tweets…

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Baby.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]

PandoDaily

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Douche ex machina: “Silicon Valley” –and Pied Piper — find their savior in the show’s very own Sean Parker

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Both Silicon Valley and its protagonists’ startup Pied Piper may have found their savior — and it arrived in a McLaren the color of a Flintstone Push-Up Pop, blaring Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie.”

At the end of last week’s episode, Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper team faced one of two seemingly inevitable fates: Either the company could fight the baseless lawsuit brought against it by the Google-esque company Hooli and likely go bankrupt in the process, or sell the technology to the tech giant and receive hefty buyout checks, stock options, and cushy jobs.

But while I’m sure showrunner Mike Judge — who also made Office Space — would have little trouble spinning a hilarious show out of the day-to-day drudgeries of working for a massive conglomerate, killing off Pied Piper so early would be akin to Breaking Bad obliterating Walt in a meth lab explosion in the first season.

So as Richard approached Hooli’s Mountain View office park, its depressingly sterile polygons suggesting a cold, corporate gravestone for the young CEO, he is cut off by that upsettingly orange sports car blasting rap metal like it’s 1999. The purple-shirted driver leaps out of the car chest-hair-first to offer Richard a third way. Call it douche ex machina.

Meet Russ Hanneman, Silicon Valley‘s inevitable Sean Parker analogue. It’s a little surprising that it took the writers this long to introduce a character mocking the notorious Napster cofounder and Facebook investor, considering he’s — rightly or not — become one of the biggest targets of ridicule in all the Valley. But Hanneman comes not a moment too soon, offering Richard a $ 5 million check to keep building Pied Piper on his own, while conjuring some of the funniest lines and gags audiences have yet seen on Silicon Valley.

From the moment he accidentally scratches his own car with the rivets on his jeans, Hanneman — played by Chris Diamantopoulos, who fans of the most recent season of Arrested Development will recognize as activist/ostrich farmer Marky Bark — is a hilarious one-man amalgam of everything worth hating about the new tech gentry. That’s true whether the hater is as anti-tech activist or a seasoned veteran of the Valley.

Hanneman is sexist and racist, telling Richard, “I got three nannies suing me right now, one of them for no reason,” and greeting Dinesh, a Pakistani-American, by shouting, “What’s up, al Qaeda?” Beyond these social grievances, Hanneman is a terrible businessman who got lucky and made $ 1.2 billion in three days for “putting radio on the Internet” twenty years ago. His net worth today, two decades later? $ 1.4 billion, which Richard tells him is the same rate of return he’d receive had he put that money in a Certificate of Deposit. “No one ever got laid putting money in the bank,” Hanneman responds, making his priorities clear.

But hey, $ 5 million is $ 5 million, right? Who cares if it comes from a guy Dinesh describes as “the worst man in America”?

Apparently $ 5 million isn’t $ 5 million… it’s a fixed payment every two weeks that Pied Piper will receive “unless you fuck up too badly,” Hanneman warns. Moreover, the flashy investor can and does dip into these checks at will to buy, say, 16 unneeded billboards for Pied Piper from an advertising company he owns. What’s worse, Hanneman has taken to hanging out at Pied Piper’s headquarters all day shouting expletives over the phone and inviting mysterious associates over to play video games. As promised, his approach is “hands-off” — that is, until Richard utters that dirtiest of seven-letter words: Revenue.

“Why would you go after revenue?” Hanneman asks. “If you show revenue, people will always ask, ‘How much,’ and it will never be enough.” He instead suggests that the company stay in a “pre-revenue” state, before asking the Pied Piper team if they know what ROI stands for. The group dutifully answers, “Return on Investment” before Hanneman corrects them:

“Radio On Internet,” he says. “Did you put Radio on the Internet?”

In addition to delivering some of the show’s funniest lines, Hanneman brings value to the show because there’s now less for the desperately unfunny Erlich (T.J. Miller) to do. There are now two brash, offensive assholes at Pied Piper, and when audiences watch Hanneman steal Erlich’s thunder they’re in fact watching Diamantopoulos steal Miller’s. Miller had all of a half a dozen lines in last night’s episode, most of which were delivered sheepishly and forgettably. And with Miller relegated to the sidelines, it’s no coincidence that last night’s episode was also the funniest of the season and possibly of the series.

Hanneman’s hilarious performance runs counter to one of the most common arguments used by fans of the show to defend Erlich, which basically comes down to: “He’s obnoxious! You’re not supposed to like him!” But as Hanneman shows — as do a number of classic television assholes from Richie Aprile to Pete Campbell to Eric Cartman — you can play an obnoxious, hatable goon and still have the audience love whenever you’re on screen. On the contrary, nobody “loves to hate” Erlich. They just hate him.

The episode, written by Alec Berg, also gave a great deal of screen-time to Hooli CEO Gavin Belson, another one of the show’s funniest and most spot-on performers. His subplot is a nod to legendary venture capitalist Tom Perkins who last year compared the treatment of billionaires in America to that of Jews during Nazi Germany. He quickly backpedals on his statement and tells a group of Jewish leaders, “In an effort to hardwire sensitivity into our corporate mind-space, I’m having a scale replica of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem constructed right next to the bike shop.” Thereafter, one of his corporate lackeys approvingly says he came off as an “anti-anti-Semite.”

And finally, “Bad Money” features a subtle and smart piece of commentary on how companies are built in Silicon Valley, and why the lack of hierarchies at these firms aren’t always good things. Hanneman recommends that Richard hire 15 people each to assist Dinesh and Gilfoyle as the company scales. Even with the extra $ 5 million, however, Pied Piper lacks the cash to hire so many new employees, and the pair of co-CTOs are unwilling to accept any fewer than 12 employees each. Finally, Richard lays the hammer down and says they can have three each, a compromise to which both Dinesh and Gilfoyle quickly agree.

When Richard asks why they asked for 15 in the first place, Dinesh says, “Because we’re negotiating against each other.”

“No, we’re not,” Richard says. “We’re on the same team. We want the same thing.”

“Disagree,” Dinesh says. “I just got you to give me three guys for a job I could easily do with two.” Indeed, the open work relationships that have been a cornerstone of building companies in Silicon Valley since the days of Fairchild Semiconductor can often lead to internal jockeying for resources which in turn leads to inefficiencies.

With a script that plays up the show’s most entertaining characters — new and old — while highlighting the dangers of taking cash from the worst actors in the Valley, “Bad Money” is one of the best episodes of Silicon Valley yet. It also unearths a villain that practically any viewer can rally against in Hanneman, who exemplifies the worst traits of both brogrammers and billionaires. In the parlance of the show’s social media-addled audience, “More of this please.”

Grade: A

[illustration by Brad Jonas]

PandoDaily

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