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Steve's ITK: Playing it long


Steve's ITK

October 1 · Issue #33 · View online
Steve's In The Know: Everything I published recently, commentary you won't find elsewhere, write-ups of events I attended or spoke at, and industry rumours.

Photo credit: Takashi Hososhima
Opening thought: Playing it long
As readers of this newsletter will be aware, a fortnight ago I was stressing to finish a 4,500 word feature for TechCrunch: The subject was a profile of GoCardless co-founder and CEO Hiroki Takeuchi who, just over a year ago, was involved in a serious road accident that has left him paralysed below his chest and unable to walk again.
The resulting piece centred around an exclusive interview with Takeuchi - his first with the tech or business press since the accident - but also included interviews with three of GoCardless’ investors - from Balderton, Notion and Passion - GoCardless co-founder Matt Robinson, and Takeuchi’s wife Rachel Swidenbank.
However, what you won’t be aware of, even if you’ve already read the feature, is that it wasn’t my original intention to go so deep or interview five people, which eventually amounted to transcribing over 8,000 words (which I learned is no fun at all).
I was approached in late July by GoCardless’ PR firm asking if I would be interested in interviewing Takeuchi for his first and potentially only on-record discussion of the accident, the events and challenges that followed and to get an update on the company. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, even though at this point I didn’t have a clue what the eventual piece may look like. This was then followed by a brief call with Takeuchi to get a sense of what he had in mind and for me to gauge if there were going to be any red lines. I also made the decision that the interview should take place face to face: I’d need to visit the GoCardless offices for creative inspiration and to see how Takeuchi was holding up for myself.
The only other real preparation I did prior to my visit a few weeks later was to have a call with Matt Robinson, GoCardless co-founder and Takeuchi’s close friend, who I’d kept in semi-regular contact with over the past year, mainly to cover his own startup Nested but also to check how Takeuchi was doing. My intention was just to get a feel for the kind of things I perhaps should or shouldn’t ask, given that I wanted to handle the subject sensitively whilst still staying as close to the truth as possible. This was someone’s life I was going to be writing about after all.
The call with Robinson was short and basically amounted to him asking me to keep in mind that Takeuchi can be very open (‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to stitch him up!’ I assured him). In a challenge of sorts, he also pressed home that this was an opportunity to write a very different piece to my bread and butter output on TechCrunch.
After visiting and interviewing Takeuchi, however, and then electing to interview five other people, including Robinson himself, who didn’t really want to be in the limelight, when I sat down to write the resulting feature I had a hard time figuring out what the story should be, even though I knew right from the start the kind of piece I didn’t want to write.
As inspiring as Takeuchi’s story is, I didn’t want to produce a piece of inspiration porn that told an overly simple story of one man’s triumph over adversity, devoid of the subtle reality of living and coming to terms with a major disability. That was undoubtedly based on my own experience of disability and as a lifelong student of how the media portrays people with disabilities. Nor did I want to brush aside the challenges faced and overcome by Takeuchi and those he continues to confront and will do for the rest of his life. “It’s hard,” are words he used on more than one occasion during the interview.
But in the end I realised that above all, his is a story of friendship and, related to this, loyalty. Between husband and wife, between co-founders and the closest of friends, between investors and founders, between founder and startup. And, perhaps more than anything else, Takeuchi’s loyalty to himself to not let the accident change him too much. I hope I went some way to capturing that aspect of the narrative.
As a writer it was undoubtedly an opportunity to challenge myself and overall a creative endeavour that I really enjoyed. That’s not to say it wasn’t quite stressful – at times, it was – and by the end I was just relieved that Takeuchi and Swidenbank were happy with the piece. Neither asked to see it before it was published either, which demonstrated a significant amount of trust.
Feedback after I hit publish has been really positive. I’ve been quite taken aback by all of the public and private messages I’ve had and it was nice to see the piece so widely read. Hard work sometimes does get its just rewards.
It also got me thinking about why Takeuchi chose to have me write the feature and to trace back how I first got to know him and GoCardless. If I recall correctly, the first time I made contact with him and Robinson was to run a slightly negative story about GoCardless losing a second co-founder. This then led to my inviting Takeuchi to be the first guest on my ‘Talk is cheap’ audio interview format for TechCrunch and I’ve subsequently covered both GoCardless and Robinson’s Nested a few times. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even a negative story – or at least a story that not everyone wants told at that time – can be handled in a way that doesn’t burn bridges.
Lastly, this might surprise a few people but I’m not always the most confident writer. I’ve always considered myself to be a really good communicator, but writer, in the sense of going beyond simple prose, not so much. A long-form piece, with all of its storytelling and structural challenges, really tested my writing skills and the way it was received has given me confidence to experiment more with longer content and in different settings.
One thing that came through loud and clear was that people enjoy my conversational style and are crying out for more reporting on the human side of startup life or how tech is impacting lives from a human interest point of view. That is definitely something I want to focus more on, although I doubt I’ll come across many stories as compelling as Takeuchi’s or one that I was quite so uniquely placed to write.
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Things I wrote
GoCardless CEO: ‘I still feel like I’m the same person’
Pi Labs, a ‘pre-Series A’ property tech VC based in London, closes $10M second fund
Inkitt, a ‘reader powered’ book publisher, raises $3.9M to discover the next best-selling author
Photo marketplace Picfair raises £1.5M, aims to ‘weaponise’ photographers
Deliveroo raises $385M in new funding, now valued at ‘over $2 Billion’
London and Antwerp-based Hummingbird Ventures closes new $95M fund
DogBuddy, the European dog sitting marketplace, scores €5M Series A
Pointy, a startup that lets local retailers easily put stock online with a simple gadget, raises​ ​$6M
8fit, a health and fitness app that offers tailored workout and meal plans, closes $7M Series A
BP Ventures, BP’s investment arm, leads $20M in private jet charter marketplace Victor
Funnel raises $10M led by Balderton Capital to help companies analyse online marketing spend
GoCardless, a fintech that makes recurring payments easy for subscription businesses, raises $22.5M
Closing thought: Where next?
In a Kanban board hosted on Zenkit (the project management tool that makes Trello look like a toy), I’ve created a list of potential features and long-form story ideas, which I’d happily share with ITK subscribers if it wasn’t for the fact that Business Insider’s James Cook reads this newsletter, along with many rival journalists at other esteemed publications.
However, to give you a flavour, the ideas range from profiles of interesting startup founders, yet untold stories of VC betrayal, an in depth look at a particular sector of tech and the fierce competition surrounding it, and profiling a number of the more interesting VC firms (along the lines of the piece I recently did on LocalGlobe).
But there’s room for more – and this is where you come in. What are the bigger stories in European tech that I’m missing? Who are the interesting personalities that warrant some investigation and a possible profile? What are the human stories that haven’t been told? As always, send me your thoughts and suggestions, but please don’t just pitch me (yes, PRs, I’m talking to you). I want this to be a genuine conversation.
As inspiration, I’ll leave you with the words of one VC at a leading London venture firm, who recently emailed:
I think, really, it’s about the humanity behind the tech world. Too much time is spent focusing on the technology itself or the financial aspect of what our industry does. Obviously as an engineer turned investor I get why, but I think it’s the social application of all of this that is interesting - whether it’s the impact on the people who are affected by the tech (I have seen very few articles about what it’s like to be an Uber driver - I mean really follow an actual driver who’s left a family, moved somewhere, is struggling to get by, using services like Uber to build a new life, etc) or the people who move tech, and the hidden parts of their lives.
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Till next time,
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