It's just 'Genius,' thank you (for the $40 million, too) - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Jul. 24, 2014 8:59 am

It’s just ‘Genius,’ thank you (for the $40 million, too)

Did the firing of co-founder Mahbod Moghadam mark the moment at which Rap Genius grew up? Some $40 million later, we're not willing to bet on it just yet.
Rap Genius co-founders, with a TechCrunch staffer (the one in the vest).

Rap Genius co-founders, with a TechCrunch staffer (the one in the vest).

(Photo via TechCrunch, used under a Creative Commons license)

Say what you will about Rap Genius, it’s an interesting company. Sorry, by the way, it isn’t technically “Rap Genius” anymore. The Williamsburg company has announced a name change. It’s just “Genius” now, because they’re into all kinds of stuff.

The rebranding came with a nice perk: $40 million in investment from Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert. Not bad for a team that just had to fire a cofounder for making insensitive comments. The story of how Genius got to the investment and the two crises that arrived while the deal was being hashed out is detailed at length in something of a tell-all from Business Insider

The story itself is something of a story, in that it’s annotated using the Genius platform and it has extensive annotations from the cofounders of the site and investors. The company believes its embeddable annotations will take over the whole web one day. The annotations are some of the most interesting parts. Here’s an example:

Screenshot annotated by Genius in Business Insider.

A screenshot of a story (about Genius) annotated by Genius on Business Insider.

One point where the story gets especially interesting is when it breaks down how the company approaches crises. We linked to a story a while back about how the company ran afoul of Google and its traffic crashed. That happened while two of the cofounders were on vacation. We have always wanted to hear more about how they rectified the situation and a bit of light is shed on that here, through a few sources.

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First, the story quotes a plan (though it’s not clear who they are quoting) that the founders formulated as they came back from vacation: “Get together, love each other, and work really hard.” Genius is a company that says more about love outside of the dating startup scene than any other company we’ve come across.

However, it’s in an annotation by Tom Lehman where a philosophy of crisis is fleshed out. This may or may not have arisen from their reading of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which the founders are known to revere, but their four-point crisis philosophy comes down to this: Keep calm, take positive action, don’t fire anyone till everyone calms down and don’t get mad at each other. See more detail in Lehman’s note.

In the end, they got back in Google’s good graces and explained what they did to get there.

Interestingly, they did not appear capable of sticking to point No. 3 when the final Mahbod Moghadam crisis went down. As a refresher, Moghadam wrote some very insensitive annotations on the manifesto written by Santa Barbara gunman Elliot Rodger. He was let go almost immediately.

Betabeat has reached Moghadam since then, and he told them two things which seem telling:

  • Of his cofounders: “We talk every day. I tell them my hopes, my fears — we are BFF.”
  • Of his ill advised annotations: “I didn’t mean anything bad, but I feel really stupid and I know what I wrote hurt a lot of people.”

One other thing that stands out about this company more than others is that it does seem founded in friendship more than anything else. One can believe that Moghadam still speaks to his cofounders because over the course of the annotations to the BI story you see several instances where Lehman or Ilan Zechory leave annotations that come to their former partner’s defense or at least show appreciation for him.

Zechory, for example, points out that technically Moghadam never said that Mark Zuckerberg can suck his dick, as he’s said to have said. Instead, he said that he said it, without actually having said it. In conclusion of his explanation, Zechory writes, “So he actually sort of falsely accused himself of saying the thing that he’s now famous for saying.” Carl Sagan also never said “Billions and billions” and Mark Twain never called golf “A good walk spoiled,” but stories persist.  

Now, Moghadam is writing a book. The guy is funny. We want a review copy.

Genius has a sleek new front page where it puts all its verticals on par: Rap, Rock, Lit, News, Sports, Pop, History and X. X is a catch all category for texts that don’t fit anywhere else, such as speeches by Steve Jobs and bureaucratic documents.

Is the company growing up? The Business Insider piece argues that the founders have started to realize that their antics, which once won them attention, may now no longer be worth it. However, the leaders are conflicted. In one of his annotations of the piece, Lehman writes:

The universal prescription for people in our situation is to just act like normal boring adults and I just can’t do it. … I strive to be a living embodiment of my worse is better philosophy. Try things that suck, but constantly improve, just like the annotations on your website.

We’re going to bet that this company will be a source of more unusual stories for years to come.

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