StartUp Podcast: Shadowed Qualities (Season 4, Episode 3)
October 21, 2016 1:21 PM - Subscribe

This week, Alex receives feedback about his job performance from his co-workers, friends, and family. Some of it is good, some less so. But there is something else that comes up during the review process that shocks him. We explore what happens when you unpack your emotional baggage—or someone unpacks it for you—and you realize the unexpected effect that it has been having on your team. In this final Gimlet-focused episode of season four, we take a raw and intimate look at a defining moment in the trajectory of a CEO.
posted by radioamy (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I listened to this yesterday, so it's not quite fresh in my head anymore, but I was left with the impression that I don't quite fully trust the CEO-therapist.

I'm not at all questioning the family structure/pattern stuff they uncovered, but it felt to me like the therapist -- perhaps not quite intentionally, perhaps just due to the inherent biases of being specifically a CEO-therapist -- was totally leading Alex into mapping the Mom/Dad and responsible/irresponsible binaries onto his current Management vs. Production dilemma.

I mean, there's nothing in the least irresponsible about founding a company and ultimately deciding that one's unique talents are best put to use as hands-on Creative Director more than as growth-minded CEO. But the CEO-therapist simply isn't going to suggest that there's this win-win-win solution available, and in fact actively steers the conversation away from that possibility.

In the first season -- maybe even the first episode of the first season -- one of the potential investors asks Alex what his company's "unfair advantage" is, and maybe I'm misremembering, but wasn't Alex's talent at radio storytelling precisely that unfair advantage?

The way I see it, the only reason for someone in Alex's position to step back from the day-to-day craft of this work is to avoid the risk of creative burnout a certain number of years or decades into the job, and it certainly doesn't sound like he's anywhere near that point.

Why focus on the business side much at all? Won't both the listeners and the producers/employees be best served by Alex taking as active a role as possible in the shows themselves? That's the real work here, no?

Just because it's also the choice that feels the most immediately gratifying or fun doesn't mean it's not also the most responsible, correct choice to make.
posted by nobody at 8:01 PM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

That was my thought too, and it annoyed me that it wasn't considered: does Alex have to be the CEO? Should he be the CEO?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:58 AM on October 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed this episode, but I agree with you both. The "mommy/daddy issues" trope in psychology is really oversimplified here!

nobody makes a good point about Alex's "unfair advantage." His experience is definitely the reason that they got funding, poached so much good talent, etc. OTOH, even if he does editorial work 100% of the time, he's still going to max out on time, and they could probably use a layer in between Alex and the show staff regardless.
posted by radioamy at 12:49 PM on October 22, 2016

Yikes. I feel for Blumberg, and I'm amazed and very grateful they're sharing this all with us. But, I'm also amazed anyone could listen to the CEO Whisperer without breaking out into giggles and or running for the hills. He sounds like a manipulative crank with as deep an understanding of human behavior as Eliza. What he says seems vacuous, but it's the way he says it gives me the "back away from the cult leader" heebie jeebies.

It's not at all weird to feel conflicted about transitioning into a management role where you spend little time doing the things you actually enjoy and are good at. (Assuming you enjoy things and are good at things, which I realize may be a stretch for some startup founders.) Even those of us who don't have Freudian obsessions with the entrepreneurial failures of our parents go through it. I'm going through it right now, as are most of the people I went to school with. It's real and ugly and hasn't got anything at all to do with home ownership or whether or not we heard our parents fighting over money.

Seems like the real questions to ask isn't, "why are you being a dumb child-man and insisting on having meaningful work," but rather, "is there a way to structure your role in Gimlet such that both you and the company actually benefit from your talents?" Is having two CEOs, one who spends all his time on generating new content a bad thing? It's not obvious to me that it is. There are plenty of media companies founded and nominally run by people who didn't care a jot about business or management. They surrounded themselves by talented people and did just fine. Is founding the company and then taking a non-CEO role as Chief Executive Producer an option? Might be hard for social reasons, but it sounds like the job Blumberg actually wants. More feasible might be sticking around until you're profitable, then taking a nice severance package and plunging it into some other venture. Making a thing, founding a company, and running a company aren't actually the same thing. Why waste talent trying to force someone who's good at two of them to change roles? Choosing the one you don't like isn't "growing up," it's wasting talent.
posted by eotvos at 8:53 AM on October 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Man, I'm about done with StartUp/Gimlet. 40 minutes of navel-gazing flim-flam and what feels like overly dramatic realizations about as convincing as when the RadioLab people do "Wow, really? No, really? That's astounding!" shtick. This wasn't worth kneecapping TAL for, and the more I listen to Gimlet the less I believe it will be sustainable.

Also, Amusing for about 4 minutes.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:22 AM on October 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

This was very frustrating to listen to. There's a reason so many start-ups have their Founder take on a Founder/VP of Development role instead of the CEO. CEO is a business role - spreadsheets, vc-glad-handling, hiring and firing. It's not something Alex is even at all cut out to do and he should be led to that recognition. He's got people who've left their jobs to work with him telling him they're not getting the attention they need to produce good shows; he doesn't want to do the CEO stuff (except to say he did it maybe but not because he thinks he's good at it or wants to do it) and would rather be in the studio. Has anyone bothered to tell him HE COULD?

Gimlet can't just keep expanding by launching show after show forever especially as it takes an incredibly long time to bring them out (months from the sounds of it?) - they're putting in a ton of money upfront before they even know if something's going to be successful. I'd like an update on when the VCs are going to get their money back and how because many of them must see this podcast boom can't last much longer and are wanting to see their return. I don't think Alex is at all prepared for that.
posted by marylynn at 10:49 AM on October 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can't say I'm surprised by the revelations of this and the previous episode. When the news broke about Mystery Show and what happened to Starlee, my first thoughts were that the producers probably didn't have managers who were very good at managing people, or Alex was stretched too thin to realize something wasn't working before it was too late. I guess both were true. Seems like some sort of Chief Creative Officer would be a better fit for him. Let him manage editorial content and Matt manage the business side.
posted by noneuclidean at 7:20 PM on October 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I really do relate to Alex here. A similar transition point is probably a couple of years in my future, and since my executive functions are basically a near-empty cardboard box with a few pages of The Now Habit lying at the bottom, I can't really say that I'm looking forward to it. If someone told me to add something to my morning or evening routines, I would probably be torn between laughing and despair: despite years of effort at trying not to be a garbage fake adult, the last consistent morning or evening routine I've had was in high school, when my parents would wake me up in the morning! That criticism would make me feel fundamentally unsuited for management. (I also wonder if there weren't some undiagnosed ADHD-spectrum disorders in Alex's family...)

But I think other people are totally right that a real therapist would have asked, yo, is this a job you even want in the first place, and is there some kind of false binary going on here? I was also wondering about what exactly is keeping Alex as CEO: is Alex kinda hamstrung by the perception that the insane risk of founding a company is only "worth it" if he retains that title? Is it that he'd feel like a failure for taking that position? Is he worried that giving someone else the keys would give them the power to undermine his vision for Gimlet? Does he just not want to be someone else's employee? Is there a financial aspect? Or has he just not thought very much about it? Those could all be interesting questions to poke at, for practical and psychological reasons.

Despite this I don't find myself as negative about the show (or Gimlet) as a lot of commenters though. I personally enjoy some longwinded introspection/navel gazing and I think the CEO whisperer, for all his bathos and eyeroll-y dramatic readings of Jung quotes, actually did have an interesting point that a lot of leaders are not self-aware enough to realize how their negative traits shape the culture around them. And regardless of whether this guy's advice was misguided or useful, the fact that VCs require founders to see someone who is basically an unlicensed (?) therapist is an interesting piece of insider info about odd SV rituals, and I definitely wouldn't have had such an up-close look at what that actually involves otherwise.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:11 PM on October 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

When the last episode aired and Alex said that he was hurt to be called "management," I actually yelled out loud "Grow up, Alex!"

As eotvos said, it's not easy to transition into management & regardless of whether Alex is CEO or CDO or a VP, he DOES need to shift his focus onto bringing out the best in others rather than doing himself. That is what being a boss is. It seems clear from the last two episodes that Alex was hoping that he wouldn't have to see himself as a boss or do this type of stuff.
posted by CMcG at 5:10 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Side question: I've heard several references to "kneecapping" and "poaching" TAL for Gimlet. But as someone who is a TAL devotee but doesn't follow this inside baseball much, it seems to me TAL has benefited from an influx of new, talented producers, and as an additional benefit, several of those newer staff producers are people of color, and it's helping shift TAL (slightly) toward a more diverse set of story ideas, so to me it seems like a positive.

Hmm, I guess that wasn't a question. But I wonder if people feel that Gimlet has somehow harmed TAL by recruiting some of the staff.
posted by latkes at 7:51 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hmm... looking at the TAL website, those "several" newer producers I'm thinking of are Neil Drumming and Stephanie Foo.
posted by latkes at 7:54 AM on October 24, 2016

it seems to me TAL has benefited from an influx of new, talented producers

I don't follow This American Life so I can't speak to its perceived change in quality, though Gimlet did absorb a lot of the talent from Planet Money, which is still thriving (but seems to do a lot of rerun episodes now)... but those are both more "ensemble" productions anyway. I would be curious to get the reaction from WNYC or the A(ustralian)BC when they found out that the hosts of TL;DR/Reply All and Science Vs. were crossing over (and in the latter case, taking the show with her).
posted by psoas at 8:45 AM on October 24, 2016

In my case, I stopped listening to Planet Money because I couldn't stand Chana Joffe-Walt and Zoey Chace, who have since been 'bumped up' to TAL. Partly a voice thing - though I've never had a problem with Sarah Vowell - probably mostly an 'olds' thing. You youngs get off my radio lawn!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:56 AM on October 24, 2016

I didn't actually mind the tack that the Executive Coach took on this, for a couple of reasons.

First, we were only getting snippets of what I'm sure was a much longer conversation in a series of conversations. The "daddy issues" thing didn't flow naturally out of what we heard, but the impression I got is that it's not the first time it's been discussed.

Second, he's an Executive Coach. I'm (again) assuming that his goal was to help Alex (and Matt) be better Executives, and further their Goals for Gimlet. Part of that, I'm sure, was figuring out what the goals actually were, and Alex remaining in a CEO role was one of them. Alex is only just now (well, Julyish, I guess) figuring out what remaining as CEO will mean for him, maybe Alex will decide that that is actually not what he wants going forward, but all we got is him realizing that it's going to be harder than the thought.

And now for my expert advice as to exactly what Gimlet needs:

As far as finding the "win-win-win" and wanting to still be creatively involved, etc. etc. If Alex wanted to be a senior editor, he could (and should) have stayed at Planet Money. If what he wants is to build a company that can produce great podcasts, he needs to be more than an editor. Maybe that doesn't involve spreadsheets and investor conference calls, but maybe it does involve setting up a creative pipeline/mentoring/collaboration system that can scale to X shows, and Y staff.

I'm honestly kind of surprised at the number of episodes that I listen to that have "Edited by Alex Blumberg" in the credits. He needs to be backing off and empowering his editors and producers to succeed without him listening in on every edit. Even for the new shows (if they are launching so many that he can't guarantee his full attention to all of them).

I've heard several references to "kneecapping" and "poaching" TAL for Gimlet.

So, beyond the fact that TAL is not an NPR show, and when people say "Gimlet stole all these people from TAL" they are really thinking of folks who have worked across US and Canadian public media (which for some people is equivalent to NPR) for a variety of shows and many of the voices that people associate with TAL-proper were not full time employees of TAL.... I was tickled by the fact that NPR has launched its own Sampler clone.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:58 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was tickled by the fact that NPR has launched its own Sampler clone.

And this comment seems to take a different tone now that I am listening to Sampler Episode 31.
posted by sparklemotion at 6:03 PM on October 25, 2016

The entire time I listened to this episode (and I honestly enjoyed this episode -- the Startups that are focused on Gimlet are the ones I'm most interested in, usually), I was also wondering why on earth Alex has to be the CEO.

However, after finishing the episode, I realized (as mentioned by sparklemotion) that this is probably just a very small portion of all those conversations. Maybe the necessity for Alex to remain CEO is in the bits we didn't hear. Maybe there are contractual or legal reasons for Alex to remain CEO, perhaps to do with raising rounds of funding? Alex is a big part of the reason that Gimlet is different, as radioamy said, so is it possible that not having Alex as CEO is just not a good plan when it comes to facing investors and such? I'm not sure.

Additionally, if you were Alex, even if you love love love the content side of things more than anything else, would you really want to relinquish your vision to someone else? To anyone else? Plus, even if it's seen as a re-allocation of Alex's talents, one that's probably a better move, would that not potentially cause problems in terms of confidence in the company and its future? (Okay, maybe not, given the episode that just aired, but still.)

The way I see it, Alex should absolutely be in charge of the creative, but definitely needs to take a step back from the day to day. Like sparklemotion said, Alex seems to edit an inordinate amount of episodes that are produced at Gimlet and that is going to be an issue eventually, if it isn't already. Possibly the best thing for him to do is to have an editorial staff, train the crap out of them and have them do the editing as per his recommendations and style, no matter how difficult that is to do. Delegation is the hardest part of being "management" -- and honestly, even though I sort of snorted at Alex's woe at being management, I can understand it. He started the business two years ago and it's grown rapidly in the last year and I know from my own experiences that this kind of quick change is hard to process. It's not hard to imagine that, a year ago, everyone knew each other and saw each other much more regularly while now there are probably more managers in place, more layers sprinkled through the organization and people are really only now starting to notice it.

But we're not Alex, we're not working at Gimlet, we're not investors. We can't say definitively what would be best. That said, I do hope Alex can consider moving to another C-level title with less of the business crap and more of the content stuff (without being so hands on). My opinion, after following the journey for two years, is that he'd probably be much happier.
posted by juliebug at 3:29 AM on October 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

He really needs to train his own editors and new podcasters (eg, not people who already make a podcast with a different company) because if he wants to keep expanding, the pipeline of poachable talent is going to dry up. Sure, he started by taking people who had some talent, and you need to do that at the beginning, but eventually if he isn't developing new talent, the company is going to stagnate. I really wish they would discuss this -- there have been hints in this season of StartUp that they are hiring people who are not from public radio/podcasting already, but I would like to know more about talent development, which is supposed to be part of what they're doing.

As for being in charge of creative -- they brought up advertising, which (according to Mad Men) has two sorts of tracks, creative and business, and there's no reason that Blumberg couldn't figure out a way to cover the creative vision and future of the company without doing all the day to day podcast editing. Maybe they're growing too fast and don't have enough editors (because there is no internal growth yet?). But he doesn't have to give up creativity, he has to make choices about where to spend his energy on the company. And I think he wants to do both the higher level strategic thinking and the editing, and I guess is coming to terms with the fact that he cannot.
posted by jeather at 3:06 PM on October 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

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