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Steve's ITK: A year in scoops (2020)


Steve's ITK

December 30 · Issue #67 · View online

Steve's In The Know: Thoughts from a European tech insider.

In this edition of ITK:
  • Burnout
  • Things to be thankful for
  • What’s in a book?
  • Scoops of the year
  • My debut album
  • My latest TechCrunch articles

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Opening thought: Workaholic
If I had to sum up this year using just two words I’d choose: “anxiety” and “workaholic”. Ex-girlfriends would probably say I’ve always been too focused on work and side projects, but during a pandemic - as in other stressful times in my life - I’ve certainly lent on work as a coping mechanism. Staying distracted can be good for your mental health, until the demons catch up eventually. 
During the last few weeks in the run up to the Christmas break, I was definitely close to - if not beyond - burnout. The telltale sign was an unusual inability to focus, followed by an overwhelming feeling that if I could get through the working day, tomorrow would be easier. Tomorrow never really came so I’ve booked two weeks leave starting on 4th January, in addition to a few mandatory days off over the holidays.
As an experience junkie, part of me was quite pleased to learn about burnout first-hand. Now I can hopefully spot the signs earlier and take better care of myself and others. It also forced me to think about how I got here.
As I wrote in ITK: #65, I’ve been in total lockdown for almost a year. That’s kind of insane when you think about it. Right from the beginning of the pandemic, my coronavirus strategy has boiled down to ‘don’t catch coronavirus’. For the first few months, that seemed quite smart (since I enjoy my life), but wasn’t especially well thought through given the lack of an end date. This meant I didn’t book any leave all year as I couldn’t see the point. In lockdown, one day rolls into the next, while precious time off with nothing to do and no one to do it with seemed like a waste. I likely won’t be making that mistake again. 
On the other hand, as strange as it sounds, there have been many positive things this year and I have much to be grateful for. 
The first is that my main personal assistant - who, thanks to this Tory government’s chronic underfunding of social care, hasn’t had an official pay rise in over 10 years - has remained in lockdown with me. That’s quite the sacrifice and testament to his steadfast and generous nature and the promise he made to get me through the pandemic safely. I’ve tried to do right by him too but I’m still left with a slight feeling of guilt. Of course, he says I’m being ridiculous. 
Second is that my career has ‘levelled up’ in unexpected ways. The move to a more virtual world has seen more than a six-fold increase in event and other profile building opportunities. I’m hoping it also means that when people say something can’t be done unless I’m able to travel and be there in person, I can say, yes it can, and point to the evidence. I’ve always preferred an environment where people are judged on the work they do, not on how they do it, including any reasonable adjustments they may require. In tech, sometimes it has felt like everyone is a self-styled iconoclast until you actually challenge the conventional way of doing something. It only took a global pandemic to break this particular ceiling. Whodathought!
As an aside, my own pandemic experience has really reinforced my understanding of the social model of disability: the idea that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. If you’re not familiar with the social model, please do take a moment to educate yourself.
Third is kindness. From friends and family, yes. But also from virtual strangers or people I know only loosely online. Doom scrolling has become a term often used to describe the experience of social media in 2020 but I mostly experience it as a warm and inherently human place. It starts with the vibrations you choose to send out and how they are reciprocated. For everything else there’s the unfollow or mute button. 
Throughout the year, the offers of help from Twitter followers and industry colleagues during the pandemic has been heartwarming but also practical (which in turn has made me feel less anxious about basic things like running out of food and other supplies). This has seen people grocery shop on my behalf and pick up prescriptions in a covid safe way (but, arguably, at their own risk). Others have sent me treats, like posh cheese and some amazing chocolates, or an emergency COVID-19 test kit and masks. You know who you are. Thank you.
Looking ahead, I want to wish all ITK readers a very happy new year. And whatever 2021 brings, including that damn vaccine, please be kind to each other.
What's in a book?
The answer: I am. 
It turns out that the way to get me to stay up late and pretty much read an entire book in a single sitting isn’t only to get the publisher to send it to me two weeks before rival journalists, but to tell me I’m in it. Call me vain, but if that’s not a page turner, I don’t know what is. 
I’m talking of course about Starling Bank founder Anne Boden’s book, Banking On It. I reviewed the non-memoir memoir for TechCrunch, including a robust interview with Boden. I also got the scoop that every fintech journalist, myself included, had been suckered: there never was any gagging order preventing Monzo (then called Mondo) founder Tom Blomfield or Boden talking about the Starling-Monzo split. It’s old news now but fun inside baseball nonetheless. 
In the name of fair use, here’s an excerpt from the book:
Top ten scoops of 2020
This year has been another decent one for scoops, at least in the VC and fintech realms, even if there wasn’t exactly a Watergate in the mix. There’s a reason I remain non-award winning, after all.
In my defence, Sifted (which is backed by the FT don’t you know!) recently called me ‘TechCrunch’s scoop master general’. Amy Lewin isn’t usually one for hyperbole.
Sticking to tradition, below are my top ten scoops or other original reporting for 2020. However, before we delve in (and do tell me if you agree or disagree with my choices), here’s a quick recap of how I think about scoops (from ITK: #49):
The problem is that scoops are never really within a journalist’s control. The seeds of the next scoop are often entirely in the hands of your sources, existing or new ones. If they dry up, it’s pretty much game over.
All a journalist can really do is lay the groundwork by talking to the right people as often as possible and following up on any and every possible lead, always with an open mind. It’s a cliche but in journalism the old adage of 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, mostly holds true. There’s a fair bit of luck involved, too.
This scoop involved little work, just a really good network of eyes and ears. A tip came in from a contact that Google had quietly acquired a European startup, and, as fast I could WhatsApp, further in the know details were sourced before quickly hitting publish.
I make no secret of the fact that I like scooping VCs on their career moves and other endeavours, even when it’s just to keep them on their toes. VCs tend to be force against information symmetry, and my job is to set industry information free. Later in the year, I was even able to break news of d'Iribarne’s new fund.
This one was right under our noses (I think I first spotted a Twitter bio change). After quitting SoftBank, where would former Atomico VC Carolina Brochado land? The answer, multiple sources later: EQT’s new (then unannounced) growth fund. 
Talking of EQT, I remember when this tip dropped in my inbox. My first test was to email the VC in question to see if I received a bounce back. No such luck, but it didn’t take very long to second source and close the loop anyway. 
Pollen is an interesting company, to put it politely and this one took much sourcing and some legal work to hit publish. I don’t believe in ambulance chasing journalism but I do believe in transparency. I then followed up with a second piece, after more sources came forward.
Monzo is the one company I’ve scooped the most over the last few years with an array of well-placed sources. Plural. This one is likely going to come back to bite me if it turns out that Blomfield’s new title is pretty much by name only. See ITK: #60 for added context. 
This was an easy scoop and prefaced the demise of Bó, the short-lived challenger bank brand from RBS.
This wasn’t a story Monzo wanted public, especially since it was obvious to me that somebody went off message. Awkward. 
Another Monzo scoop right as the pandemic began to take hold. It’s never fun writing about job losses but I felt it was good to make this one public as perhaps it could start a conversation on how fast growing companies handle fast moving events. See also ‘Monzo CEO won’t take salary for 12 months after limited number of staff offered voluntary furlough’ and my attempt not to cause a run on a bank. 
Scooping Facebook - or any of the big tech companies - is the best signal that you’re still on your game. And let’s be honest, most of the time, this is a rather silly game. But, as I always like to say, if I’m in it I may as well be in it to win it! Shortly afterwards, I reported on another Facebook acquisition that had seemingly gone unnoticed. 
Bonus: In case you’re wondering, I published over 275 stories this year. It may seem a high number but it’s about on par with most years. I also discovered that in aggregate I’ve done just over 10 years at TechCrunch. A decade of my life dedicated to European startups with absolutely no skin in the game! At least TechCrunch pays me well :-)
The album
The other big win of the year was that I finally released by debut ‘solo’ album written and recorded with friends. I received the test pressings right before the first UK lockdown and it actually feels like a lifetime ago. Inspired partly by a long distance relationship, one listener recently said its subject matter felt more relevant than ever in these unprecedented times. Either way, now there’s some distance from when I finished making it, I remain very proud of the record. 
Recent TechCrunch articles
Estonian proptech Rendin raises €1.2M seed for its long-term rental platform
Liberis, the embedded finance provider for SMEs, raises additional £70M in debt
V7 Labs raises $3M to help AI teams ‘automate’ training data workflows
Better Dairy picks up £1.6M seed funding to produce animal-free dairy
GoCardless raises another $95M as it bets on open banking alongside its recurring payments network
New Wave is a new European seed fund headed up by ex-Accel VC Pia d’Iribarne
MessageBird acquires real-time notifications and in-app messaging platform Pusher for $35M
Taxdoo, the tax compliance platform for cross-border e-commerce, raises $21M Series A
Cledara, the SaaS purchase and management platform, raises $3.4M funding
Gorillas, the on-demand grocery delivery startup taking Berlin by storm, has raised $44M Series A
Stay in touch and here's to 2021!
Have feedback or something to say? Hit reply. I answer every single ITK email (as long as it isn’t a pitch).
All the best and see you on the other side,
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