Earlier this year, Leah Culver appeared on the cover of a tech magazine blowing an enormous pink bubble. But the shrill-voiced San Francisco programmer no longer desires fame — even the modest sort afforded Silicon Valley's microcelebrities. The turnabout seems odd, considering how aggressively she once courted notoriety.
Culver is shutting down Pownce, a Twitter knockoff which served as her vehicle for entrepreneurial achievement. Pownce's origins are notable in the way they show that connections rule the funding of startups in Silicon Valley, an industry whose capitalists relentlessly brag about their devotion to meritocracy.
Pownce allowed users to send each other short messages and, most importantly, share files; bootlegging MP3s was a popular if unacknowledged use. But it was more notable for its main backer: Kevin Rose, the languid-eyed founder of social-news site Digg, funded Pownce at a time when one of his employees, Daniel Burka, was dating Culver.
Rose's Web fame lent Pownce Internet-insider buzz; Burka applied his design skills to the site. (Both men moonlighted on the project while working at Digg.) Culver broke up with Burka before the site launched, taking up with Brad Fitzpatrick, the founder of LiveJournal, an online diary site which had been purchased by blog-software maker Six Apart.
That relationship didn't last, either. But it brought Culver attention in the right circles. Six Apart is now purchasing Pownce's technology and hiring Culver. This kind of deal, known as an asset acquisition, is typically the least lucrative kind of startup sale, suggesting Culver, Rose, and others involved in Pownce didn't make much money. But at least she got a job where she can prove herself as a programmer, or not, out of the spotlight.
If she's sincere about avoiding fame, Culver will have to reform more than her work life. Granted, San Francisco's pool of straight men is on the small side. But besides Burka and Fitzpatrick, Culver also dated Cal Henderson, an engineering director at Flickr; MG Siegler, a writer at tech blog VentureBeat; and Nick Douglas, a former editor at Valleywag and Gawker. If she doesn't want to be famous, Culver might want to take a look at her relentless technosexuality, which more than hints at the acquisition of influence rather than intimacy as its goal.
Is it sexist to point this out? Perhaps, but not nearly as sexist as touting technical skills while sleeping your way to the top.