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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Startup PR 102: Astroturfing

Edits and update, 10th Feb 2019: Upon further investigation and discussions, it looks like the website in question was not an official uBeam attempt at astroturfing, but a genuine effort by individuals to promote women in technology that ended prematurely in large part due to my blog post. While it highlights the rule of "never use company resources for non-company activities", those involved should be commended for promoting role models in an under-represented group (though clearly I'd not personally choose Perry as a role model for anyone). I think this post does make some important points on how companies can and do use PR (and clearly on how company history affects current reception) so while I won't delete the post I have made some updates to reflect this new information, I'd ask that everyone view the original website, and its creators, in the positive spirit that was intended.

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.

When I named my blog, it was to try to convey the idea that the PR you see from startups is not what it seems, in a different way than what you typically get from established companies. When you have no product and no revenue, all you can sell is the hope or the illusion - one being a genuine belief in your goal, the other simply saying whatever it takes to keep the next round of funding viable. One way of establishing this illusion is to get other outlets to make statements on your behalf, and make it seem like there are established and independent third parties backing your stance - for example getting one media outlet to quote you without checking the source of your claim, then later using that media outlet as a reference to other media. Very quickly, you end up with the myth you created seemingly quoted as fact, and your fingerprints are not on it, unless someone cares to dig a little deeper. Here's an example I quoted in a previous post:

The founder of Red Hat (now a ~$25 billion company) needed to gain credibility for his product, so he essentially gamed a 'study' of high Linux user growth, and got a small Linux journal to quote him. Then he managed to get BusinessWeek to quote the Linux journal, and suddenly this made-up statistic had all the authority of being stated in a prestigious national publication. He abused the lack of fact checking and diligence to plant an idea in the media as if it had substance, and used that to help promote his own company.

What can happen if you get this myth going enough? Let's see what Marc Cuban, uBeam investor, said about seeing a prototype of the uBeam system prior to investing:

Have you seen a prototype?

No. I trust her (Perry) enough that I haven’t gone out and said, ‘Show it to me.’ She’s shown it to enough people that I trust what’s going on.

So he'd not seen a prototype, or from this sentence spoken to anyone else that had, but invested on the premise that someone else must have. I'd be interested in hearing from any of those people she'd shown it to. This quote is from July 2015, and in a recent interview Perry admitted that no charge had ever been transmitted to a phone until 6th Dec 2016, nearly 18 months later. Hmmm.

One thing a startup often relies upon is the "Myth of the Founder", and in many cases this serves the company well, at least for a time. With Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was lauded almost right up until the SEC and DOJ pressed charges against her (and in the case of investor Tim Draper, long after), while Tesla sees great publicity, headlines, and stock performance due to the media presence of Elon Musk, though that has not been as effective recently. When the company has little in the way of product, puff pieces on the founders can still generate great publicity for the company. uBeam co-founder Meredith Perry was a great example of this, for example with this article from Fortune magazine in July 2015 entitled "Is this woman the next Elon Musk?".

Now the value of that headline for any tech company, regardless if the answer is "OMG no are you smoking crack?" or not, is incredible. Fortune magazine said it, so it must have some truth to it. Interestingly, despite the positive headline, the story itself contained a skeptical paragraph.

In late 2014, uBeam—flush after raising $10 million from investors—announced that it had finalized a working prototype. “There may be people on the Internet who don’t believe it’s true,” Perry says. But those who see it “are converted instantly.” (She declined to show the prototype to Fortune.)

So again, a working prototype claimed in late 2014, but how does that mesh with the "first charging in Dec 2016" statement? At least the journalist had the sense to ask for a demonstration, and indicate it wasn't shown despite its ability for a Damascene like conversion. Regardless, how many will remember this, and how many will simply look and think "Next Elon Musk!"? Priceless PR, and something any company should aim for. Overall, at least in the moment, PR done well.

PR done not so well
Now you may remember that Perry 'stepped down' as CEO of uBeam last year, and so it was interesting see recent coverage of Perry as a leader in technology. The website, Women in Technical Leadership, features Perry as their first, and currently only, woman who has made an impact in STEM. (Update, taken down as of 31/1/19, you can find the archived versions here and here) Now this is a laudable goal, as women are dramatically underrepresented in technology, and anything that encourages more women into STEM fields, at all stages, is to be encouraged. So what are some of the things it says about Perry?

In the early stages of her career, Meredith Perry has given a TEDx talk on how to be a technology innovator which IEEE boasts as "amazing" and certainly proved you do not have to be an engineer to create something. While Forbes has compared her to the likes of other entrepreneurs, she is in a league of her own that is near impossible to match. We celebrate Meredith Perry for being an exceptional role model to young women everywhere!

To find out more about Meredith Perry's company, visit www.ubeam.com

High praise indeed, and it's apparently going to be downhill from here in the quality of the awardees since she's so "impossible to match". And that's great publicity for the company she co-founded, even though there's no mention of her departure as CEO. (Quick question - does anyone have a reference for that IEEE "amazing" quote? Update: Someone found this brief Facebook post from the IEEE and let me know - hardly an in depth technical analysis, and slightly annoying from the IEEE given how she discusses engineers in a negative light in that link)

So who put this website and award together? According to the main page the copyright is "©2018 by Women in Technical Leadership" and reading the blurb:

Women in Technical Leadership is a culmination of engineers wanting to highlight the selected woman's accomplishments and make their achievements better known. Sponsored by a start-up in Marina Del Rey, the staff have decided to examine the women from the region of Southern California. 

Marina Del Rey? Why is that familiar? Perhaps it's because uBeam is based at 4086 Del Rey Avenue, in Marina Del Rey. Oh.

Let's delve a little deeper and take a look at the "Get in Touch" button which sends to an email at... ubeam.com. And a look at the WHOIS registry for the domain name, it was registered on the 15th January 2019 to uBeam, Inc.

So has uBeam has started a website for women in technical leadership which is fantastic, praising their own co-founder, but for some reason not prominently mentioning it's a uBeam owned site, which is a reasonable disclosure to make? If so, some might call this astroturfing, where an organization tries to make it appear the message they want out has come from an independent person or group.

Further, why would the new CEO, who had barely been on the job for two weeks, start a website to praise his predecessor, when he needs to be making product, licensing IP, or selling the company? Hardly something worthy of their efforts. And if not his doing, or official uBeam PR, then why does it use uBeam email and uBeam Inc as part of the operation? It's not like you need a company to get an email, register a domain, and start a website.

While there may be more, I see three main possibilities here:
  1. The new CEO is, for some reason, spending time, effort, and money promoting his predecessor, in a way that gains publicity for his company, but not overtly declaring that relationship.
  2. There's at least one uBeam employee that did this and while a very valuable site for the promotion of under-represented groups, it's tainted by the uBeam/Perry names. (Update: from LinkedIn and Twitter, it's looking more like this is what's happened, as well as it rapidly being taken down)
  3. It's an official uBeam PR attempt from a few months ago, only just becoming public.
None of them is a good look. The first seems, at least to me, as somewhat devious and effectively astroturfing, the second is really unfortunate as a worthwhile endeavour is tainted by association with uBeam and Perry, the third very similar to the first. Looking at the CEO's background, I'd say his competency should be assumed and that it's one of the other two, not something he probably even knew about. There's little he can do now, given the public nature of this, that's not going to look like damage control. I feel for him. (There could of course be a more innocent explanation I haven't thought of, feel free to add in the comments.)

So next time you read such positive publicity about a founder, or anyone else, take a look at who is behind it, it might be quite illuminating.

What would I do?
One of the things that people have said is that it's really easy to take shots from the sidelines, rather than be "the man in the arena". Fair enough call, so if I were CEO, here's what I'd do:

Own it, get out in front of it. Revamp the page to make it clear and unambiguous it's uBeam owned and sponsored, and do some blurb on how awesome the co-founder was and the company now wants to give back to the community and help women in tech based on her example (losing the SoCal restriction). I'd task the employees who were responsible that they need to be working on this and get a new person featured each month, in addition to their normal jobs, and have them supervised by someone with actual PR experience. And I'd have each of the featured women be able to allocate $5,000 from uBeam to a relevant charity of choice, get quotes from them, and then use that to get features in other publications and low cost PR. If asked why the original looked the way it did, I'd just say it went live early by accident. If it doesn't work out, drop it after a few months, as no-one noticed anyway.

Or just delete it and pretend it never happened. Flip a coin. :)

Update 30th Jan 2019: I'd originally titled this "Hagiography: a pejorative reference to biographies and histories whose authors are perceived to be uncritical of or reverential to their subject", but I felt "Astrofurfing" was a better term.

Update 31st Jan 2019: WOT Website has been taken down.


  1. Going out on a limb here but maybe Meredith was responsible for the WiTL. She's still hanging around ubeam and would be able to set it up with their info. She hasn't dropped the "big news" in regards to her next endeavor either. Probably realized no one wants to hire her and is astroturfing herself a little bit more in hopes of a Marc Cuban reading it and not doing due diligence.

    1. Hello and thanks for the comment. I'm not sure I think it's Perry doing this, if you have info about her hanging around uBeam offices I'd be interested. I also would expect she's had the uBeam Twitter account and other passwords taken, and it wouldn't surprise me if she's got an agreement that says she won't do any personal posts about uBeam either. I tend to go with the 'naive employee' explanation, along with 'utter lack of internal company structure and discipline'.

      The latter half of your statements I would agree with, IMO she's going to have a very hard time in any role or endeavour moving forward.

  2. Why are nearly one-third of your posts about uBeam?

    1. I cover most of this in the posts themselves, but basically *someone* had to cover the facts of the wireless power at-a-distance business and really there's no-one else with the technical and business insight, having worked at a high level of such a company, to do so. As promised, none of them are going to do what their marketing claims. None. I wanted to cover the reality so that the 'truth was out there', potential employees could see the other side, and potential investors could at least have a resource somewhere that helped them make informed decisions.