The Unauthorized Story of Andreessen Horowitz
Why media whisperer Margit Wennmachers is going direct.
Benedict Evans, Andreessen Horowitz’s former in-house analyst, has mused over the years that “A16Z is a media company that monetizes through VC.”
That observation becomes truer by the day.
While there’s a lot of loose talk on Twitter about cutting out the media and “going direct” – publishing your own story to the world without the press as an intermediary – Andreessen Horowitz is really doing it, consciously and methodically. The firm’s strategy has dramatic implications for the future of media and the venture capital industry.
This is the story of how Andreessen Horowitz disrupted the world of venture capital by cozying up to the media and then, how they purposefully threw that relationship away.
Let me tell you the story from the beginning.
About a decade ago, Margit Wennmachers sent an email to reporter Kara Swisher.
Swisher took a break from horseback riding to write that Wennmachers was leaving Outcast, the communications agency she co-founded with Caryn Marooney. Wennmachers was joining the one-year-old venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz as a full partner – a rare title for a woman in Silicon Valley, especially in 2010.
Wennmachers explained her strategy for positioning the firm in the early days, in an interview on Andreessen Horowitz’s in-house podcast. “I wanted to try and get a cover story because – this sounds old fashioned now, because everybody reads their news on Twitter and it's all online whatever – but there's still a statement that comes with a cover story that is in print, that you see at the airport,” she recalled.
With Wennmachers’ press savvy, Marc Andreessen’s idea-a-second patter, and Ben Horowitz’s gravitas, the trio took Silicon Valley by storm. The firm outbid competitors for sought-after companies, spun up a slew of services for founders, and pitched its story relentlessly to the press.
With Wennmachers’ encouragement Andreessen penned a now historic Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, titled, “Why Software is Eating the World.” The phrase became so ubiquitous that it can seem like everything eats the world these days.
“Margit is really a hidden founder of this firm,” a startup founder who has raised money from the firm told me. “The power dynamics there is, Marc, Ben, and Margit.”
Communications executives and reporters alike are in awe of Wennmachers for her sway with the media. “Comms in the Valley – she's the number 1 draft pick. She's very good,” one public relations person said. “I would never want to be crosswise with her.”
While Wennmachers’ strategy in that early period would have been familiar to many in Hollywood and Washington, it was less common in clubby and decorous Silicon Valley at the time. “She would say that was her job – to manage information so that she could shape the narrative,” one person who knows Wennmachers said.
Wennmachers deployed industry gossip and access to her firm’s partners to stay in the good favor of many reporters.
One communications executive at an Andreessen Horowitz portfolio company recalled Wennmachers fishing for information about an upcoming story on behalf of reporters. Wennmachers pushed to deliver the information to the reporters herself, this executive said.
A high-powered rival PR executive described Wennmachers as an enforcer: “You don't cross us and if you do, we shut off the information flow.”
One member of the press recalled Wennmachers chasing down a potential bit of news. When Wennmachers returned the call and threw cold water on the story, the reporter took it in stride. Wennmachers told the reporter that they were now a “friend of the firm.” The comment struck the reporter as odd. They were just trying to get the facts right. But Wennmachers’ attitude seemed to reflect a coziness that she had come to expect from reporters dutifully covering Silicon Valley.
Wennmachers regularly hosted salon-style dinners at her home near the Presidio in San Francisco with reporters, portfolio companies, and the firm’s partners. While it’s not unusual for a venture capital firm to host reporters for a dinner, Wennmachers did it better than anyone else. When I attended one of her dinners in 2014, it felt like I’d finally gotten invited inside the Silicon Valley.
“I was invited to dinner at her house with members of the media. It was incredible,” one founder recalled. “That was like a cool invitation. If you were in the press you were really excited about getting dinner at Margit’s house, which is kind of mind-blowing if you think about it.”
Wennmachers can put on a friendly façade, but if you spend much time with her you come to realize that she’s a profoundly serious person. She doesn’t win over reporters because she’s fun. It’s because she cuts through the bullshit. She fundamentally understands what makes a good story. She knows what motivates reporters better than many reporters. That’s part of what makes the firm’s turn against the media so worrying.
Back in that early media heyday, Wennmachers doled the firm’s partners out to media companies who were eager to have them speak at lucrative conferences. And the firm’s partners were game to prophesize in audacious terms about what the future might look like, filling column inches.
Swisher and Wennmachers – two women who climbed their way to dominance in an industry overrun with men – are friendly to this day. Many Silicon Valley insiders strongly suspect that Wennmachers was one of Swisher’s sources when she covered Silicon Valley’s day-to-day dramas. But Swisher describes Wennmachers as fiercely loyal to her own companies, though Wennmachers “also did not pretend a problem I might call about was not one.”
Marc Andreessen himself had a cozy relationship with reporters like Swisher. "Marc is fully in charge of his own communications and has over time stopped wanting to deal with the press for lots of reasons, including some mistakes he made.”
From 2009 through 2015, Andreessen Horowitz earned a run of truly phenomenal press coverage, catapulting itself into the very top echelon of venture capital firms – at least based on its reputation. The media loved that bald headed internet geek and his gruff business guru sidekick. And over cocktails or lunch at the Battery, reporters probed Wennmachers for information, even if she rarely earned a mention in their stories.
Then the magazine writer Tad Friend pitched a profile of Marc Andreessen for the New Yorker. Wennmachers already saw the firm’s position in the popular consciousness beginning to shift. The firm was no longer an exciting upstart. “At that point I was at a stage where it was like ‘enough.’ ‘We're done talking about ourselves,’” Wennmachers said in the podcast interview. On the other hand, she reasoned, “The New Yorker is the New Yorker, so how often is the New Yorker going to write the definitive piece on venture capital? Once in a decade? Maybe? Well, do I want that to be about whoever or do I want that to be about us? At that point, I want to occupy that spot?”
She decided to do the story – though of course she wouldn’t occupy it. She merited a single passing mention. Marc Andreessen’s shiny head was the focus instead.
The story ran in May 2015, with the title, “Tomorrow’s Advance Man.” The glowing portrait instantly became one of the seminal stories on the venture capital industry.
Despite running more than 10,000 words, the article made a single passing mention of one of Andreessen Horowitz’s most important investments, Zenefits. The firm had backed up the truck to invest in Parker Conrad’s human resources software company and hyped it in the press. But cracks had started to appear. By the end of 2015, Buzzfeed reporter Will Alden had planted the seeds of Zenefit’s unraveling, raising questions about whether the company’s health insurance brokers were properly licensed.
That same year, John Carreyrou revealed that Theranos had “struggled with its blood testing technology.” Theranos had mostly raised money outside of Silicon Valley. But some venture capitalists tied their reputations to defending the company anyway. Marc Andreessen, who tweeted prolifically at the time, appeared to develop an affinity for blocking people who tweeted negatively about Theranos.
For reporters – and especially their editors – the Theranos story was a sign that tech reporters needed to take a more critical eye towards the startups they covered. Carreyrou was an investigative reporter, not on the Silicon Valley beat at all. Tech reporters shouldn’t have missed Theranos’s shortcomings. So, they redoubled their efforts.
Then, indeed, Andreessen Horowitz found itself with a troubled portfolio company of its own. In May 2016, I reported in Businessweek about Zenefit’s self-disruption. Many other tech reporters also dug into the company’s failings.
Behind the scenes, Kim Milosevich, then Wennmachers’ top lieutenant, went to task pointing much of the blame for the company’s implosion on its co-founder Parker Conrad – who certainly deserved a big portion of the credit for the company’s problems.
But Andreessen Horowitz partner Lars Dalgaard had cheered Conrad on, telling Conrad to double the company’s revenue growth target, I reported back then. Zenefits was the company Andreessen Horowitz wanted to grow, grow, grow. Years earlier, Ben Horowitz himself had penned an essay making the case for “fat startups,” ones that spend aggressively to block out their competitors. Zenefits seemed to be running that playbook.
But as the company’s business started to falter and with mounting regulatory risk, Horowitz stepped in to help push Conrad to step aside. The firm laid the blame at Conrad’s feet. And David Sacks, who had been the company’s chief operating officer, was sold to the world as a turnaround CEO.
That same year, the press started to turn its attention to Andreessen Horowitz itself, wondering if this firm really lived up to all the hype we’d been fed over the years.
My occasional bridge partner, Wall Street Journal reporter Rolfe Winkler, wrote in September 2016 that the firm’s returns trailed firms like Benchmark and Sequoia.
In an early sign of things to come, Andreessen Horowitz published a meandering public response.
It’s a style of rebuttal reporters are all too familiar with. Publicly the subject shouts that the story is all wrong and after the story runs, it publishes a blog post without specific contradicting details. Internally the communications team doesn’t object to anything credible in fact-checking, nor do they ask for a correction after the fact. Really, it’s the impression generated by the story that the subject is contesting – not any particular factual assertion. Andreessen Horowitz wants people to think it’s doing well, not poorly. And, of course, the blog post triggers a swarm of fanatic loyalists on Twitter who attack the media messenger.
Andreesen Horowitz partner Scott Kupor’s post carried the philosophical title, “When is a “Mark” Not a Mark? When it’s a Venture Capital Mark.” To this day, the firm takes issue with the story’s conflation of “marks” with “returns” — the word the Wall Street Journal used.
I asked Kupor to talk for another story and he declined. “For now, we are going to stick with our twitter wars :)”
I replied, “Go direct.” And he sent me another smiley face.
Just a few weeks after Winkler’s story, Marc Andreessen deleted his old tweets and largely disappeared from the social network.
(I suspect that Winkler’s story holds up in hindsight, but someone will have to leak me their returns.)
By 2017, the election of Donald Trump had, I believe, solidified reporters’ intentions to ferret out unscrupulous founders. Reporters and their coastal readers couldn’t remove the strong man in the White House, so the least they could do was hold Silicon Valley leaders to a higher ethical standard. Couple that with reporters working to replicate the Harvey Weinstein #MeToo reporting, and journalists set off on a course of much needed radical accountability.
In 2018, Facebook – with Wennmachers’ Outcast co-founder, Marooney, serving as one of its key communications executives – dramatically published information about Cambridge Analytica ahead of an imminent New York Times report. It was a key instance of getting ahead of a negative news story. Facebook’s defiance of the New York Times only seemed to solidify the media’s perception that there was a real scandal there. It was another signal of a deteriorating relationship between tech communications executives and the reporters who write about the tech industry.
As the relationship between Silicon Valley and the media was breaking down, Andreessen Horowitz pursued an alternative marketing strategy. The firm had been building up a media operation of it own. In 2014, Andreessen Horowitz hired Sonal Chokshi who was an opinion editor at Wired magazine. Chokshi serves as the firm’s editor-in-chief, running an expanding fleet of popular podcasts.
Today, roughly 10% of the 200-person firm works on its marketing team. The company is expanding its editorial operation.
Talk to anyone around the firm and Chokshi’s in-house media strategy is the future of the firm. One communications person remarked to me, “They've become a media company basically.”
Companies and venture firms have long tried their hands at content marketing — that’s what all those Medium posts are for. The thing that’s unique about Wennmachers’ and Chokshi’s operation is simply that they do it well and at a greater scale. Their podcasts are actually interesting. And since the media has adopted an extremely negative posture toward the tech industry, there’s a big appetite for coverage with a more upbeat slant. Andreessen Horowitz can fill that market demand.
At the same time, the firm has largely stopped cooperating with the media. I’ve talked to a number of reporters at top outlets and that’s the consensus. For the past couple years, the firm has been quiet even anonymously. Andreessen Horowitz has mostly abstained from participating in media coverage except for a story for the Midas List in Forbes – among the most shamelessly positive sources of media in the tech industry today.
Andreessen has taken to dropping in on chats on the firm’s portfolio company Clubhouse. His comments have raised eyebrows. How much of the firm’s silence is tactical? And how much simply reflects an anti-media ethos that has penetrated the firm’s leaders?
It’s not lost on me that I’m writing this story from one such platform for “going direct” — Andreessen Horowitz portfolio company Substack.
This past Thanksgiving the cryptocurrency company Coinbase published a blog post warning about an impending critical news article. Coinbase is essentially a satellite orbiting the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. The company’s Vice President of Communications is Milosevich, the long-time Andreessen PR handler who had managed the story of Conrad’s ouster.
“The New York Times is planning to publish a negative story about Coinbase,” the public notice read. By posting its blog post before the news story ran, Coinbase made a daring and conscious faux pas in the delicate dance between the tech press and the companies they cover, one facilitated by behind-the-scenes communications professionals. The post included the line, “we don’t care what The New York Times thinks.”
It was an eyebrow raising statement given Milosevich’s years helping to court the media at Andreessen Horowitz and the many magazine profiles written about Coinbase board member Marc Andreessen.
Before the newspaper had even published its investigation, partisans took to their sides. Mike Isaac – the New York Times reporter with a Charmin bear avatar – tweeted, “this attempt at a front-run is mindblowing. They’ve guaranteed readership for the coming story AND torched any semblance of trust or relationship they had [with the] media.” Balaji Srinivasan – the chief apostle at the church of “going direct” – quoted Isaac’s tweet and replied, “Who trusts the New York Times Company?”
That Friday, The New York Times ran its story, headlined, “‘Tokenized’: Inside Black Workers’ Struggles at the King of Crypto Start-Ups.” The story read, “according to 23 current and former Coinbase employees, five of whom spoke on the record, as well as internal documents and recordings of conversations, the start-up has long struggled with its management of Black employees.”
But Andreessen Horowitz has carried on publicly like nothing happened. In December, the firm published an elaborate illustrated package of stories called “Social Strikes Back.” It looked like something you might see in Fortune or Wired. But, of course, no space was earmarked to examine the firm’s culpability for Coinbase’s corporate culture.
“The question that tech companies have to ask themselves is whether they have a commitment to the role of media in an informed society,” says Adam Mendelsohn, who ran communications for TPG and is the long-time media advisor to LeBron James. “Just because it's easy to put out your own information doesn't necessarily make it right.”
Wennmachers understands the media like few others do. But she’s also seen its dark side. When the tech media wanted utopian fables, she saw how eagerly they took her calls. And now that the press has soured on tech, her brand of media molding is less powerful. Now that reporters are stuck on a narrative that she doesn’t like, she’s come to the conclusion that she doesn’t need them anyway.
She might well be correct that non-cooperation is a good strategy for Andreessen Horowitz. The firm has the tools to speak directly to its audience. But is her strategy good for the world? Isn’t there value in engaging with an independent press?
I talked to Wennmachers for over an hour for this story on the condition that I wouldn’t quote her. She asked me to write that she strenuously disagreed with many of this story’s characterizations and facts.
I wish I could tell you what else she had to say.