In past eras, a father would monumentalize his love for his daughter with an exotic menagerie, or some sort of obelisk. Today, our elites create money-losing startups for their beloved kids.
Ken Lerer is among the most influential people in the digital media business. He co-founded The Huffington Post, and helped facilitate its massive sale to AOL. He is the chairman of BuzzFeed, and had an early stake in Business Insider, where he sits on the board. He also adores his children, Ben and Izzie, both of whom he’s installed in positions of power in New York’s media and technology scenes. And why not? He’s said himself that nepotism is a lovely thing: “It doesn’t [bother me],” he told the Times in 2013. “What could be better than working with your children?”
Perhaps the only thing better than working with your children is just giving them gigantic piles of cash to make internet vanity projects without any sort of plan as to how they will actually function as businesses. Parents give their kids kites and Pogs and tops and tell them to go run off and have a ball—why not a media startup, too?
To be fair, it worked once: His son Ben’s media endeavor, Thrillist, grew from a popular website about dude stuff to a successful e-commerce business with a content apparatus attached. (The businesses have since detached, after Ben Lerer failed to find an interested buyer earlier this year.) Could Ken strike gold, or whatever precious metal Thrillist is equivalent to, twice?
“How an animal lover turned her passion into The Dodo, a booming ~$40 million startup, in 2 years,” proclaims a recent headline at Business Insider (where, again, Lerer père is an investor and a member of the board). The short explanation to the “how” of that headline is that the animal lover in question, Izzie Lerer, received money from her father and his rich friends. But this is a Business Insider post, by Alyson Shontell—an accomplished practitioner of the startup puff-piece genre, working at the top of her form—so there are actually many more words, none even remotely skeptical, about what is, actually, a train-wreck of a website that bleeds both money and staff.
The BI post starts, sans irony, by pointing out that Izzie Lerer couldn’t even name her company without her family’s help:
Izzie Lerer isn’t sure how she came up with the name for her startup.
It’s something her brother, parents, and cousins all take credit for. The one thing she knows is she bought the domain name, thedodo.com, while sitting at the dinner table surrounded by all of them.
But the jewel of the article is this gift from Shontell to the Lerer family:
The Dodo doesn’t generate much revenue, but its strong early readership helped Lerer raise an $11.5 million Series B round of financing at a post-money valuation between $40 and 50 million.[…]
Someday, The Dodo will have to learn how to pay its own bills. For now, thanks to the $11.5 million investment, Lerer’s team can continue to focus on building distribution.
On the subject of The Dodo’s ability to function as a business, rather than a father’s particularly expensive graduation present to his child, Business Insider, a supposed business publication, does the equivalent of shrugging its shoulders and licking an ice cream cone. Try to imagine a business reporter being so purposefully naive about literally anything other than a venture-backed startup: Someday, The Gap will have to learn how to pay its own bills. But for now, it’s just focusing on making cool shirts.
On the other hand, refusing to treat The Dodo as a functional business might be inadvertently apt, because—according to multiple sources I spoke to about The Dodo’s history—it doesn’t operate like one.
Izzie Lerer herself was an absentee CEO, according to a source close to the company: “Izzie was barely in the office, because she was taking a lot of time to finish her PhD…she would pop in once every month, month and a half.” When present, she rarely got her hands dirty: the source describes Izzie asking [former president Jonathan] Trichter to fire people for her because she didn’t want anyone to hate her or bad-mouth The Dodo.
Another source familiar with The Dodo’s editorial operations echoed this description: “Izzie has no experience and is not a media person—she would drop in and say a piece was going really well or share an idea if she saw something, but she was not involved in the day-to-day management of the site.” Another told me, “she didn’t know how to be a boss,” because “she’s never had a job before.” With tough decisions, Izzie was most distant: “When it came to firing people, she would makes sure she was very far away from that…she didn’t want to have any responsibility.”
As another source put it, Izzie Lerer simply didn’t know what to do as an executive: “She would take us out for drinks and coffee individually and want to gossip about shit, but never stepped up into any leadership role.”
The real operator, I’m told, was Ken Lerer himself, who acted both as VC benefactor and editorial chief:
Ken was there all the time. He would come every day and was involved in our editorial decisions. Something would go up on the site and he wouldn’t like it, and it would have to be immediately spiked or changed based on his two sentence email saying he didn’t like it.
A viral story about a 103-year-old orca that the Business Insider story flogs as a testament to Izzie Lerer’s editorial vision was in fact edited almost entirely by her father.
Critics of venture-backed media outfits often wonder about the influence an investor might exert over a given site, or how far he might reach over the editorial/business firewall. There was no such wall at The Dodo. Father Lerer’s micromanagement went as far as ordering employees to cease wearing headphones at their desks, and demanding that work emails not refer to Dodo co-founder Kerry Lauerman as “KL,” because those initials were reserve for Lerer.
It’s possible Ken was merely taking himself back to his time working with Arianna Huffington; he often invoked the publication they co-founded (“Kenny was always talking about the beginning of HuffPo”) as a justification for why everyone should be as miserable as possible, in mimicry of that site’s early days. But for all his meddling, former employees tell me he did virtually nothing to grow The Dodo in accordance with its original mission: a news site about animals and animal rights. “He understands spin, he understands business, he understands money,” one ex-Dodo told me, but “he doesn’t understand journalism. He has no idea what it means to actually create a narrative or to draw people in or to have ethical reasons to do things.”
(Ironically, animal lover Izzie, too, interfered with the company’s ostensible mission: “We didn’t really cover anything about horse-racing, for example,” one former Dodo employee told me, “because Izzie loves horseback riding—there are pictures of her in her little helmet jumping horses [in the office]. It felt like we couldn’t cover topics because of that.”)
The Dodo was a family project from top to bottom. Various employees, executive assistants, and actual executives were connected to the Lerer clan by blood, marriage, or friendship. The most notorious was Jonathan Trichter, the site’s former president. Trichter is married to one of Lerer’s nieces, and, despite a lack of experience in media, let alone the editorial side of media, he was made head of editorial after actually experienced editor Kerry Lauerman left the site. One source described Trichter as “a tiny man who doesn’t know anything about media or being a human being,” and described a time he berated two female subordinates to the point of tears on his very first day.
You can get away with being vicious if you’re brilliant, maybe, but sources tell me Trichter was as incompetent as he was mean: “[Trichter] had no experience working in media, no experience working in animal welfare and animal rights.” He embodied “a combination of poor management and incompetent management” that was systemic at The Dodo.
“Jonathan was a very odd choice,” a source close to the company told me. “He would make jokes about about vegetarians, [and] would eat meat and make jokes about how much he loved eating animals.” The employee continues Trichter had “no credentials that would make him make sense there, and nothing to do with animals—the way it was presented was that he worked in finance, so he’ll help with the money stuff, but he became a micromanager, and you got rid of this extremely smart editorial person [Kerry Lauerman] and put in a family member.”
Another former employee elaborated on just how unpleasant and dense Izzie’s righthand man was. He typically “sat reading the Wall Street Journalat his desk every day,” and once asked the entire newsroom who Jane Goodall was, which is something of an awkward question from the editorial leader of a website devoted to the protection of animals. On another occasion, the source says, “he had to give us a password for some site we used, and the password was ‘fucker12.’” Eventually, “Kenny realized he was torpedoing the newsroom and destroying morale, he moved him downstairs to a separate office.” (Trichter did not reply to a request for comment.)
So what is The Dodo, if not a functional web publication by and for people who care about animals? Why does it even exist? At this point, according to one former employee, it’s effectively an exploitative animal snuff film content mill:
I actually think that Izzie, from the outset, really wanted to make the site into something powerful and positive. And I still believe that she wants that. But I think she is a weak leader and caved to pressure from her dad for traffic. She has no idea that were The Dodo to focus on serious journalism and respectable reporting, it could be far more successful than it is now. Right now, it’s actually benefitting off of animal cruelty, in my opinion. The site rakes in views from stories about individual animals being tortured and then rescued. But nothing goes back to actually helping them; it’s like a sick counterintuitive machine.
In order to create viral successes, The Dodo dumped tens of thousands of dollars a month into Facebook promotion, artificially juicing the site’s otherwise paltry traffic to create the simulation of a successful media property.
With a hefty budget for Facebook promotion, Izzie and her father could appear to have viral hits on their hands. But purchased traffic can be as fleeting as a sugar high, and at The Dodo, stories that hadn’t been given a paid Facebook boost would often only have visitors in the double-digits, one source told me.
The mission of The Dodo is less the betterment of animals than the betterment of two rich children placed in competition against one another by their powerful father. Izzie would often joke about wanting to outdo her brother as a web entrepreneur, a source told me, but there was an obvious and sad reality behind the jokes.
All Ken Lerer seemed to really care about, meanwhile, was trying to recreate the viral factories of his peers. Sources characterized Lerer as jealous of the apparently easy success his one-time protege Jonah Peretti had with Buzzfeed, and which Ken Lerer hoped to replicate with his daughter’s project.
But the biggest story of The Dodo, and the one Business Insider didn’t even attempt to get, is the misery the company’s familial psychodrama has caused its actual employees. Firings have been a regular occurrence, a source says:
Morale in the office was lowest after someone got fired. They would usually get us bagels after a firing to cheer us up—it was pathetic. People who got fired knew it was coming, too. Their jobs would be more and more curtailed, and they’d start saying things like, ‘I know im next.’ It was like ten little Indians, waiting to see who’s offed next.
Saddest of all, another says, is that the people working there genuinely did believe in the mission, before they got churned up and spit out:
There were so many people who bought into this idea that something altruistic was happening, that something good was happening, then it became clear that the opposite was happening. That’s the part I really resent the most. All these people who were being offered this dream job were tortured.