Should VCs publicly denouce companies?
To be honest, I'd love to live in a world where everyone was just upfront and honest with each other--where if you didn't like something or someone, you could just say it, and it wouldn't be a huge tweetstorm. The reality is, we know that there are people out there that don't like us or don't believe in what we do--some of them are justified and some will have to eat crow when we eventually succeed. In the meantime, it's really all just talk, and, personally, I'd rather get the feedback as the recipient of the complaint. I'd rather someone voice what's in their head to me or in public, because they're probably saying it privately and at least I can deal with it when it's in public. Whispers are hard to deal with and eat away at your credibility without you even noticing.
However, two things...
One, we simply don't live in that world. Public criticism isn't ever taken well. Some companies are seemingly fair game to kick in the teeth (Monsanto?), but it's not always clear, and if you say something bad, people will think you are a jerk. Even if you justify it, someone's still going to think you're are a jerk. In fact, someone always thinks that you're a jerk, even if you're not--just more people will think that when you pick on a startup in public.
Two, and more importantly, negative commentary and what we've seem from Keith Rabois and Dennis Crowley isn't a good use of either of their time. Keith is just starting a career as a VC, so he has a unique opportunity to build up a reputation as to what kind of investor he wants to be seen as. In the long run, it probably serves him best right now to be a relationship builder and a listener, and to stay positive.
In the same vein, Dennis has a more than fulltime job as CEO of Foursquare--working on his fundraising, helping direct the product vision, and turning Foursquare into a viable business that will justify whatever the private valuation of the company is. Responding from the hip to criticism on the web probably isn't a good use of his time and doesn't do a lot for the company's PR. I support the company because I like him, like his team, and I still like using the product--but if I was an investor, I would have cringed at his responses. I would say either actively maintain a transparent and public dialogue about the company's vision and strategy, or keep your head down and ignore it. Going halfway, PR strategy by way of reactive public tweets not vetted by anyone on the communications team of the company--that's just at minimum a distraction and at worst, a recipe for disaster.
Either way, it really doesn't seem like minutes spent pushing the company forward. A while back, I posted a thought piece about Foursquare's product direction from the perspective of a user. I thought it might create some interesting dialogue with the folks at the company. There was none. No one at Foursquare responded to it. It got lots of retweets and created a lot of interesting conversation, but the company was silent. Silence isn't a good sign when when an early and active user puts some time into publicly thinking about the product. Then, seeing a response when, in a lesser moment, someone who obviously isn't a user anymore just makes a callous, offhand snipe, makes me feel like their communications are in a bit of disarray. Who should Dennis and Foursquare be talking to most right now? Who needs to hear from them? The driveby "haters" or the early users who are still hanging on hoping for a win? I don't think it does anything for Dennis or the company to react to Keith with equal negativity.
On the other hand, jerk or otherwise, Keith IS one of the most experience startup execs in the country, and he's seen several mutli-billion dollar companies get built. What if the public response to his negativity was, "Hi Keith, as you know, there are always successes and problems in the life of a startup, and we're no different. We clearly have lots of work to still do, and you seem to have some strong opinions on where we are. I'd love to sit down with you to chat about what you would do if you were in our position."
What happens then is that the ball is now in Keith's court to make a choice--be helpful and prove out that he is, in fact, a very experienced guy who can add a lot of value to a startup company, or ignore it or turn down the offer. In the latter case, his criticism would ring hollow because he would just be a complainer unwilling to do anything about the situation. Either way, Dennis would come off as pretty mature and thickskinned and it would be a PR win. Nothing about this episode is a PR win for anyone. At best, maybe Keith could actually be helpful to the company. I'm sure he probably could be, but instead, now they're fighting like two kids in a schoolyard about to break out into a "Yo Mamma's so fat" competition.
Engage the people who love you, listen intently to the people who hate you--and reach out further to the latter category with respect, and an open mind. They might be right, and if they're wrong, it won't matter anyway--but either way you'll win.
And on the other side, just treat people how you would want to be treated--especially if you're already successful and they're going through trying times. Over the last year and a half, in any situation where I'm tempted to respond to something that gets to me, I think about how I can be that much less of an asshole and how I might be able to turn the situation into a positive. It has paid enormous benefits.