The fall of the evangelist CEO

The fall of the evangelist CEO

The chaos at Technorati and PodTech, two startups which saw outside CEO searches end in failure last week, should be instructive to company founders everywhere. If you're asking yourself if it's time to step aside, it's too late. Entrepreneurs are often excellent evangelists — the peculiar Silicon Valley breed of marketer who seeks to create fervor for a product few even understand, let alone think they need. Sifry and Furrier are both typical of this kind. But the career of evangelist bears a particular occupational hazard: The risk of starting to believe your own preachings, and of thinking that no one else is fit to deliver them.

For Sifry at Technorati, of course, the sermon was blogs: That the "blogosphere," a term he helped popularize, was growing exponentially — never mind that many of the blogs Technorati counted were fakes, created by spammers to fool search engines and Web surfers. That this realm of blogs required search tools to navigate, tools that would somehow be distinct from workaday search engines. That the currency of blogs was not traffic, readership, or engagement, but "inbound links" — the back-scratching links provided by one blogger to another, in the name of bloggy solidarity.

The sermon proved false, of course. Blogs are just another form of content, easily searched with existing tools, once they were updated to account for a faster pace of publication. And advertisers rapidly learned that "inbound links" counted for little, and existing Web-tracking research firms could easily turn their attention to those few blogs which grew large enough to draw the interest of marketers. Sifry, spurred on by fervor, refused to see that — or acknowledge it. And finally, faced with the inability to reconcile his vision of the blogosphere's endless growth with the reality of cutting Technorati's expenses through layoffs, he avoided the hard decision by abdicating his role as CEO.

Furrier, too, has delayed facing hard realities. He's typical of the early podcasters: A geek with a lot to say, convinced that his self-involved patter is interesting. Furrier is clearly a persuasive type, enough so to have lured spokesblogger Robert Scoble away from Microsoft and to have gotten him to stay at PodTech, despite the increasing damage to his reputation.

What he hasn't done, however, is assemble content that a mass audience finds interesting. PodTech's lineup of channels remains thoroughly niche, and the company's flirtation with humorous programming ended disastrously, with the public meltdown of toxicly unfunny "comedian" Loren Feldman.

For Technorati and PodTech, these are exactly the moments when professional management is needed: Someone clear-eyed enough to see opportunities others might miss, but clear-headed enough to recognize when a founder's vision doesn't match reality. But hiring someone like that require the evangelist to swallow his ego and admit he might be wrong. Sifry, replaced by a temporary committee of underlings, hasn't done that; nor has Furrier, who tapped his COO to replace him.

Evangelism has a place in the business of technology. Without it, we'd all be scrapping over tiny slices of stagnant markets, instead of embracing growth. But evangelism is no substitute for achievement. Nor, in the end, is an evangelist a replacement for a real leader.