In late September, a post by Mike Arrington on TechCrunch ignited a firestorm that roiled the close-knit Silicon Valley tech startup community, garnering attention as far away as Europe. Promptly christened “Angelgate,” the scandal involved allegations that a group of influential, well-connected “Super Angels” met at Bin 38, a wine bar in San Francisco’s Marina district, on the evening of September 21, 2010, with allegedly collusive objectives to depress the valuations of early stage startups, exclude traditional VCs from deals, and counter the rising power and influence of Y Combinator, among other things. According to Arrington:
This group of investors, which together account for nearly 100% of early stage startup deals in Silicon Valley, have been meeting regularly to compare notes. Early on it was mostly to complain about a variety of things. But the conversation has evolved to the point where these super angels are actually colluding (and I don’t use that word lightly) to solve a number of problems, say multiple sources who are part of the group and were at the dinner. According to these sources, the ongoing agenda includes:
- Complaints about Y Combinator’s growing power, and how to counteract competitiveness in Y Combinator deals
- Complaints about rising deal valuations and [how] they can act as a group to reduce those valuations
- How the group can act together to keep traditional venture capitalists out of deals entirely
- How the group can act together to keep out new angel investors invading the market and driving up valuations.
- More mundane things, like agreeing as a group not to accept convertible notes in deals (an entrepreneur-friendly type of deal).
- One source has also said that there is a wiki of some sort that the group has that explicitly talks about how the group should act as one to keep deal valuations down.
I won’t rehash the whole Angelgate saga here; these posts and emails by Michael Arrington, Dave McClure, Ron Conway and Chris Sacca give the best overview for those who aren’t familiar with the story. What caught my attention was that Arrington’s piece included some serious allegations of white-collar crime — what he called “collusion and price fixing” — that could reasonably be expected to prompt investigations by the FBI or other law enforcement agencies. Beyond the obvious, my particular interest in this story relates to the role of anonymity (and its close cousin, pseudonymity) in social media, its facilitation of information flow in a way never seen before, and the fragility — under some circumstances — of that anonymity.