On Tuesday, Bryan Goldberg announced he’d raised more than $6.5 million for a women's site called Bustle.com.
“Isn’t it time for a women’s publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips?” he wrote on the tech blog PandoDaily. "What about a site that takes an introspective look at the celebrity world, while also having a lot of fun covering it?"
Goldberg, who sold sports site Bleacher Report to TBS for around $175 million in 2012, writes regularly for PandoDaily. Though this particular post smacked of a press release, entrepreneurs and media pundits were more incensed by Goldberg's vision of a one-size-fits-all site for women that combines lifestyle with hard news. (As well as the assertion that such a site had never before existed, despite the presence of The Hairpin, Jezebel, and others.)
"My job, as CEO," he wrote with a nod to the editorial team, "is to hire the right people. My job is to know a lot of engineers, editors, venture capitalists, and salespeople--and to bring them together. Knowing the difference between mascara, concealer, and eye-liner is not my job."
But if Goldberg wants eyeballs on Bustle.com, he's doing a lousy job of it. Or a great one, depending on who you ask and whether you think all publicity is good publicity.
The backlash on Twitter was astonishing--see #goldbergstartups and Slate for a primer. Goldberg declined to be interviewed for this story, but in the comments section of PandoDaily, he called the backlash "disappointing."
Of course, "no launch is flawless," says Elizabeth Spiers, digital media consultant and founding editor of Gawker. "Remember Portfolio? But there’s a difference between a rocky launch and a disastrous one," she says via email. "Bryan isn’t doing himself any favors with his launch announcement, but having looked the site, the bigger problem is that the product is all over the place and right now the content is very duplicative of what’s already out there. And frankly, it’s not very compelling. Crap product is a much bigger problem than a crap funding announcement."
Rachel Sklar, another new media veteran, concurs. "Whether it becomes a destination, a must-share, or just the link we click on Google is yet to be seen," she says. "He has the money, he's hired a ton of young, smart writers who have nowhere to go but up--and are now itching to prove themselves. So we will probably be seeing more of Bustle."
Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups and one of Bustle.com’s investors, admits that Goldberg's announcement hit the wrong note with the start-up's target user. "Whether he meant it to be a meaningful comment or not, the flippant remark about mascara didn’t need to be made," says McClure. "There are ways that you want to go out of the door that aren't disrespectful to your audience."
But McClure says the controversy surrounding the launch doesn't rankle his confidence. “If [Goldberg is] clueless about women’s issues, he’ll fail, and if he isn’t, he’ll be successful.” Like Spiers and Sklar, McClure agrees the long-term trajectory of the site will be based on its content, not how it's received on its official launch date. "I'm not too worried about the initial shitstorm. Bryan's a smart guy, he'll bounce back."
Without a doubt, the controversy has drawn more attention to the new site. "Even if it runs the risk of being negative," as McClure puts it, the criticism is an opportunity for Bustle.com to connect with new customers--and learn what they want. We'll see if Goldberg takes that chance.