Alex Wilhelm at TechCrunch on Intriguing Investments, Eye-Catching Startups, and Exciting Tech

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s new Inside the Newsroom series, which presents highlights of our regular AMA sessions with today’s top tech journalists.

Irreverent and engaging, Alex Wilhelm, senior editor at TechCrunch, retains his sense of humor while writing or tweeting as a way to offset the stress of covering constant breaking tech news.

“I try to make myself laugh and to have a good time,” he says, reflecting the ethos of TechCrunch to inform and entertain. Alex rejoined the publication in 2019 after two years spent trying to build a couple of media organizations. Previously, he ran the Crunchbase newsroom and, prior to TechCrunch, he held senior editorial roles at Mattermark and The Next Web.

Today, Alex covers startups and early-stage funding rounds, and he keeps a weather eye on later-stage financing and is “TechCrunch’s unofficial IPO/finance person.” Early on in his career, Alex became enamored with business and the stock market was one of the first major intellectual passions of his life. “Then, I discovered startups and I was, ‘Oh, it’s like business, but totally crazy. It’s wacko business,’” he said.

During our recent AMA with Alex, we talked about what grabs his attention in pitches, his love of startups, and some advice for PR agencies. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:

How many pitches do you receive a day? What do you look for when you get pitched?

I probably receive 15 to 20 marked ‘important’ emails per hour, not counting everything Gmail filters out for me automatically. Everyone’s feeling the extreme differential between the number of very interesting startups that are raising capital, which is at an all-time high, versus the number of hands actually typing up the stories, which is at an all-time low. You end up with a discrepancy in how many stories can be written.

The media world hasn’t had the best couple of years so it’s not surprising that there’s few of us focused on covering funding rounds. We try to get to as many cool ones as we can, but you end up having to be pretty selective. There’s so much that you can’t even get to five percent of them.

My personal bias is towards covering companies that will share lots of data. We’re way past the days when people would try to pitch funding news without a dollar amount attached. Companies willing to share harder metrics around growth, like valuation let you determine who might be more interesting. I try to highlight early-stage companies doing things that are risky and might fail.

“Everyone’s feeling the extreme differential between the number of very interesting startups that are raising capital, which is at an all-time high, versus the number of hands actually typing up the stories, which is at an all-time low. You end up with a discrepancy in how many stories can be written.”

When pitching funding news to TechCrunch, how important is investor credibility? What other factors pique your interest?

Investors do come in handy sometimes in getting my attention because there are some VCs that I’ve known for 10 years. But I try not to cover companies strictly because some guy from Sequoia wrote the check because 1) why is it interesting, and 2) that person already has plenty of publicity and money.

I try to highlight rounds led by women in the venture capital world, and especially by people of color, as often as I see those. As we all know, there are not that many of them, which is a shame. Geography also helps because I’m trying to pay more attention to startups in Africa, in Latin America, and in other places that aren’t just London, Boston, New York, San Francisco, LA, etc. There’s a lot of really great stuff going on around the world.

With some VCs saying valuations are almost meaningless because every company’s now becoming a unicorn, what does company valuation mean for you right now?

No one dies if you say your valuation out loud, right? Nothing bad happens. I don’t understand the focus on being private about that information. If you just raised a new round, you just got re-priced, you’re now worth five or six times whatever you were before. Why wouldn’t you want to brag about that?

In my personal experience, the CEOs who are willing to share the most and who are transparent and open are nearly always the most interesting and best leaders, who tend to have the best results. The CEOs who obscure and hide the most tend to be the least responsible and the least ethical and their companies suck and have bad cultures.

“No one dies if you say your valuation out loud, right? Nothing bad happens. I don’t understand the focus on being private about that information.”

Are there industries or technology areas that are so saturated where it’s no longer enjoyable to cover them? What excites you?

I’m really bored of NFTs and neobanks are pretty overplayed at least here and in the UK. But startups are still very interesting. The overall idea of building high-growth companies, usually with a technology edge and taking on incumbent players, fascinates me.

I’ve been tracking insurtech lately. It’s one of those really broad parts of the fintech world that has a lot of great stuff in it, so not just marketplaces, but also the whole neo insurance space. API-delivered startups versus traditional SaaS as well as the overall move from SaaS pricing to on-demand, as a general kind of ethos are super interesting to me.

I’ve also been really excited about the last 18 months of unicorn liquidity. For six years previously, I wrote about how there are so many new highly-valued private companies and no one was going public. Then, suddenly everyone was going public. After waiting so long for this concert to start, the band has hit the stage, and that’s been a lot of fun.

I’m intrigued by how quickly VCs are willing to make bets on a company as if it was going to be the next Slack. There’s a lot more risk taking on the venture side in the earlier stages than there used to be because VCs essentially realized that they’re all dumb money with some services attached and that they’re all pretty fungible. So, we’re seeing them make more wild bets in the hopes of outsized returns. I don’t know how those wagers are going to work out, but the Notion round from a while ago is a pretty good example of this.

“In my personal experience, the CEOs who are willing to share the most and who are transparent and open are nearly always the most interesting and best leaders, who tend to have the best results.”

If you cover a company once, say a startup at Series A, are you and TechCrunch more likely to cover their future milestones?

I’d describe our approach as ‘longitudinal interest.’ If I know that I’m going to be covering a company in the future, leaving some bread crumbs along the way isn’t so bad. I do care more about companies that I’ve covered before because I know more about them, and frankly, I can do a better job reporting on them.

Do you have any advice for PR agencies on how best to work with reporters?

If I was running a PR agency, I would try to figure out who on my team had the best relationship with a particular reporter, and then I would make sure that all communications were routed through that person to the journalist. It’s because if I see a name that I instantly recognize, I’m going to click on that email, most of the time.

Do you ever cross-share pitches or news with your colleagues at TechCrunch?

Yes, we do share some stuff, but it’s not as collaborative as you might think. TechCrunch is not designed to be forced collaboration, it is designed as a place where you have a lot of independence. I don’t have to get anyone’s permission to say ‘yes’ to something or ‘no’ to 88 things. We’ve grown up a little bit but, organizationally, we’re still a bunch of independent folks doing some kind of Brownian motion forward.

We’ve only got a couple of dozen staff so we can get away with some stuff. That’s why I think TechCrunch is worth preserving as a publication because we’re one of the last well-read bastions of the old blogosphere ethos and TC is very dear to me on a really personal level.