In 1998, I invested some money in a start-up Silicon Valley company called iSyndicate, an online syndication marketplace for content; and, for a while, it seemed like a competitor to Moreover, the web monitoring company I co-founded. Now, iSyndicate is in colourful, messy trouble.
Some of its investors, which include NBC, Microsoft, News Corporation and Bertelsmann, have refused to disburse funds they had committed. The company's sales fell 70% below target. The CEO's workplace romances got him into legal trouble. The company is in a firesale, but a potential acquirer is deterred by the liabilities.
Very little of this has been reported in the mainstream media. iSyndicate is just not important enough to warrant coverage on News.com or The Industry Standard.
So, how do I know all this? Well, in part, because we are interviewing recently laid off employees from the company. But mostly they are just confirming what I have already read on Fuckedcompany.
This is an online bulletin board for disgruntled employees and customers of vulnerable dot.coms and has become a potent source of information about internet companies. The name drives terror into the hearts of CEOs, investors and PR professionals.
Its implication is shocking: that there's a new information food chain; that management should expect all internal information to be shared with the outside world within hours; and that there may be no such thing as a corporate secret.
The site takes no responsibility for the content, though it will take down postings in response to ferocious cease-and-desist letters. Many of them are puerile, slanderous or just plain vicious. They need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but anyone with an eye, such as a journalist or a competitor, can tell quickly which are written by well-informed insiders.
As Fuckedcompany is to the internet sector, so Vault.com is to blue-chip companies: less vitriolic, but all the more credible for that - a reader can get a breakdown, sector by sector, of the investment banking profits of major financial institutions. The pharmaceutical industry has the Biotech Rumor Mill, and some companies, such as Ford and AOL, are privileged to have web sites dedicated to making their lives a misery.
None of this would matter if the readership was limited to disgruntled employees, but investors, customers and competitors have become avid readers. And, most importantly, mainstream journalists.
A well-disciplined company used to be able to present a smooth and impenetrable wall to reporters. When I was one, I remember trying to get the inside scoop on the problems at Warburg, the UK merchant bank, before it was taken over by SBC. Everybody had been instructed to avoid comment to the press, and they lacked the anonymity to break ranks.
Now every good technology reporter I know checks on the online bitch boards. They provide an opening gambit for the call to the company's PR team. 'I heard you're closing your European operations' will prompt some kind of a response, particularly if true.
In the good old days, the head of PR could develop a cosy relationship with the right person at the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, and the approved version was placed. But the new information food chain is complex and unruly: disaffected employee, to bulletin board, to scrappy online newsletter, into the mainstream press, and then amplified by a network of weblog sites that highlight the juiciest stories.
On one level, this is a management nightmare. A little bitching on the boards can spiral out of control as moderate voices are drowned out, and company culture is poisoned by the bitterness.
But there's a silver lining. A manager reading an online bitch board becomes more aware of the resentments that seethe under the surface of any company. The greatest sins: broken promises, overhyped prospects, or fickle strategy.
No wonder Jack Welch, CEO of GE and management guru, embraced online bulletin boards. A former sceptic, he became enthralled by the internet when he discovered the GE discussion on Yahoo!. Any good manager has to have an appetite for information, even if it is uncomfortable.
The media industry has its own gossip web site, Jim Romenesko's Media News, which often gets first wind of stories. When the San Jose Mercury News was going through a rough patch recently, internal news was so quickly slipped to Romenesko that the managing editor joked: 'Maybe we should just send him our internal memos directly.'