Month: June 2017


The Birth of NSFWCORP, Part II: $125k in the bank, and the birth of the Scribble Dog

Tony Hsieh actually wasn’t NSFWCORP’s first investor. After I’d told him why my dream company would be – a massively unprofitable comedy news magazine – he offered to invest, but only if I agreed to found it in Vegas. I turned him down, mainly because I had only just quit TechCrunch and had no intention of diving into anything new.

Here’s how he got me to change my mind:

“What if you produced a pilot issue of the magazine and I gave you a hundred thousand dollars just for the rights to reprint the articles in my Downtown print magazine.”

“Just gave me a hundred thousand dollars, for no equity? Just for the reprint rights to articles that don’t exist, in a geographic region consisting of a half dozen streets?”

“Deal?”

The next day I called Mike Arrington and asked for his advice. I remember nothing at all of the call, except that it ended with Mike urging me to take the damn money and offering to become our first actual investor, via Crunchfund. My notes from the time say he offered to match Tony’s $100k. The check he eventually wrote was for $25k.

A useful piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs: Before receiving $125k in startup capital you first need to incorporate a company and open a company bank account. Two things I’d never actually done in the US. Didn’t even know if I could do in the US.

Fortunately, my friend Bastian Lehmann – the founder of Postmates – had the answer: Call Yokum! That is, Yoichiro “Yokum” Taku of the famous Silicon Valley law firm, Wilson Sonsini. Yokum and I met for lunch a few days later at Zuni in San Francisco, I told him everything I knew about my plans for the company – which was roughly nothing – and he agreed to become our corporate lawyer. He’d even defer his firm’s fees until we raised a real VC round.

“If nothing else, it’ll be an adventure to work with you,” he said. And then he took a photograph of the two of us, and posted in on Twitter.

Yokum assure me he would handle the paperwork, but first we needed a company name. My column at TechCrunch was called NSFW, so I figured that would make a nice placeholder, while we figured out something better.

Before flying back to Vegas, my then-girlfriend Molly and I (lots more on Molly in future posts) went to Iron Cactus for burritos. Molly was a flight attendant for Virgin America but she is also a spectacularly talented photographer and graphic designer. “NSFWCORP needs a logo,” I said, before heading to collect our food. She took out a notebook and started scribbling. “How about something like this?”

Another nice placeholder. Yunno, until we figured out something better.

Meantime, Mike called in a favor with his old pal Henry Blodget at Business Insider to “leak” the news of his investment, and Tony’s.

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-TechCrunch Star Paul Carr Is Starting A New Company Backed By… Michael Arrington’s CrunchFund!

NSFW CORPORATION was incorporated in Delaware on 10th October 2011. A few days later I sat in my free two bedroom apartment, high above the Las Vegas Strip, and hit refresh on Bank of America’s online banking. The balance turned from a few dollars to a hundred and twenty five thousand (and a few) dollars.

NSFWCORP was officially in business. Now all I had to do was decide what the fuck it was going to be.


The Birth of NSFWCORP (Prologue): Once upon a time

Las Vegas, September 18th 2011.

Early that morning I took a cab to a strip mall TV studio somewhere behind the Mirage hotel. Mic’d, wired and staring into a black void, I explained to viewers of Howard Kurtz’s CNN media show why I had suddenly and publicly resigned from AOL/TechCrunch.

My resignation came at the end of an increasingly bitter turf war between AOL’s Arianna Huffington and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington. Or rather it came at the end for me. With no new job lined up, and my pre-publication advance from The Upgrade already trickling away, I did what any sensible recovering alcoholic with limited funds and no better plan would do: I moved in Vegas.

Hours after my TV appearance, I went to see Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh at the Downtown Cocktail Room at Las Vegas Blvd and Fremont. I’d come to know Tony the previous April when I’d spent a month saying a single night in each hotel on the Vegas Strip at the behest of- quelle irony — Arianna Huffington.

During that trip, Tony had done what Tony does with visiting journalists: Invited me to tour the Downtown Project, his plan to spent $350m of his own money to reinvent downtown Vegas. He’d even tried to entice me to relocate to Vegas, offering me a blank check to write a book about his experiment. I’d turned him down flat, explaining that I don’t take money from people I write about.

Ho ho hindsight.

We sat at the bar. I ordered a Diet Coke and Tony drank shots of Fernet.

“So, what are you going to do next?”

“Nothing. I’m going to do nothing. I’m going to sit by a pool and recover.”

“But if you could do something. Anything in the world, what would it be?”

“I’m not starting a company Tony.”

“I know, but if you could, what would it be?”

Two hours later I left the DCR and returned to my room at the Plaza. On September 23rd Business Insider scooped me on my own news:  I was starting a company that would come to be known as NSFWCORP.

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-TechCrunch Star Paul Carr Is Starting A New Company Backed By… Michael Arrington’s CrunchFund!

Paul Carr’s new company, one source says, will focus on a specific problem at the intersection of technology and media, one that Carr has often written about  in his TechCrunch columns.

That a former drunk with a string of business failures and a recent televised career suicide was able to almost immediately raise a small fortune (over a million dollars, all told) in venture capital to launch a comedy news magazine is wild enough. But in hindsight it was the least nutso chapter in the story of NSFWCORP – aka “Journalism’s Least Safe and Most Intriguing Site

And it was always going to be A Story: A cast of otherwise unemployable journalists locked in a fortified compound, burning through a multi-millionaire’s cash to create a daily website, nightly radio show and monthly magazine. And in the process making enemies of some of the richest, most powerful people in the world. And really it could only end one way.

Parts of that story have been told – here, there, and elsewhere – but mostly by other reporters at other publications. The full, loony, uncensored first-person version, though, has remained locked in piles of notebooks, gigabytes of emails, deep in my own tired brain and in the brains of the dozen or so other writers, illustrators, designers and other enablers who passed through NSFWCORPHQ. Trying to piece all of that  together in to a coherent narrative– not just what happened, but what it all meant – just seemed like too daunting a task. The scars were too fresh and the statutes of limitation to unexpired.

At least until today.

Today NFWCORP seems like a different world. A satirical news magazine born of the first Obama term using Silicon Valley cash. A media “startup” where writers were paid well, and paid quickly, for their work and where it wasn’t unusual for a reporter to submit an expense claim for a bright green Mustang, drive it into the middle of Romney Country and then promptly disappear for a month. Where it was almost expected that Anthony Weiner’s press spokesman would go on the record to call our 20 year old political reporter a “slutbag cunt” and threaten that she would never work in media or politics again. (Today that reporter is Washington Correspondent for New York magazine.)

Today I’m still a recovering alcoholic, but also a recovering journalist.  I’m writing this from beside a pool in Palm Springs where it’s 118 degrees and the only deadline I have to worry about – for a novel about some of the worst people in the world– is months away not days. Fertile conditions, in other words, for reflecting on the past and contemplating a work-displacing side project.

The deal was sealed when I consulted the calendar this past weekend and realized that almost exactly five years has passed since we published the pilot issue of NSFWCORP: 4th July 2012.

Over the next year and a bit, with the help of my fellow ex-NSFWCORPers, I’m going to tell the whole NSFWCORP story, mostly in real time. Between now and 4th July I’ll write a couple of prologue posts bridging that initial Tony meeting with the day we hit “publish” on the pilot. Then I’ll start the story proper on July 4th, describing everything that was going on at NSFWCORP on that day exactly five years ago. We’ll continue from there.

If all goes according to plan, the last post will appear on November 25th 2018, exactly five years after NSFWCORP was sold to Pando.

The ~daily schedule means some of the writing will likely be sloppy. I’ll certainly have to go back regularly and fix/add stuff I forgot. Will anyone read the results? I have absolutely no idea. NSFWCORP had almost 5,000 subscribers by the end, so I have to believe some of those folks might wonder what was really going on High Above The Last Vegas Strip. The specifics of raising money, the chaos of building a newsroom and the ethical gymnastics (and physical threats) involved in sending Leigh Cowart to spend a week with pornstar Marcus London  – all of the inside baseball crap might find an audience amongst would-be media entrepreneurs and journalism students.

If you have any specific questions, or memories of NSWCORP you’d like to share, just email them to highabove@protonmail.com or post a comment.

But readers, welcome as you are, are also just be gravy. Mostly I’m writing this for myself and for everyone else who made NSFWCORP a real thing. To make sure that all that pain and ecstasy and 24 hour days wasn’t for naught. Also, I want to have been telling the truth when I assured the team in our darkest moments that “one day this will make a hell of a story.”

More like 876 days. But I still think it will.

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