On September 4th, Kevin Rose, the Digg founder turned partner at Google Ventures, sent out a series of texts to the folks who were beta testing his new photo-sharing app, Tiiny. People were curious about the similarities between Tiiny and another photo-sharing app, Cap, made by Rose's protege Danny Trinh.
"No drama," he assured them. No drama, just the fact that Rose was actively involved in Trinh's $1.8 million funding round and had just launched a competing product—a product with features that Rose encouraged Trinh to implement.
Also, a couple of you have mentioned Danny Trinh's new app "Cap" and the similarities. Danny and I have been brainstorming ideas for months, we're trying more or less two different takes on a similar idea. No drama, just ideas in the same playground. I hope you'll try them both :)
Let's be clear: neither Tiiny (on the left) nor Cap (on the right) matters. The odds are not in their favor. Both Trinh and Rose are also working on other projects. That's what makes the backchannel buzz so bizarre. The other nine hundred photo-sharing apps didn't come with Machiavelli vibes and a record-scratching addendum from TechCrunch.
Addendum: After publishing this post, some people have suggested the larger issue is not that the apps ended up being so similar, but that Kevin Rose has built a product which competes against a company he invested in as a VC at Google Ventures.
Cap wasn't Trinh's focus at the time Rose invested, but as he knew that it was in the works when he began working on Tiiny, it could represent a possible conflict of interest for Rose and for Google Ventures itself. As Cap shareholders, that conflict would violate a fiduciary responsibility, which is the strictest standard in U.S. law.
That update was tacked on to a 1,900-word exegesis (prominently featured on the site) about the overlap between two apps no one had ever heard of. But the author, Ryan Lawler, missed the forest for the trees. He spent the space equivocating on the similarities between both apps—a photo grid and tiny looping videos—and not on inconsistencies in Rose's narrative.
After interviewing a number of sources familiar with both sides of the situation, it's still difficult to say with certainty who had which idea first, what was proprietary, and what constitutes a breach of fiduciary responsibility. But one thing is clear: Kevin Rose is acting like everything's copacetic when it's not, gaslighting Trinh, his longtime friend, in the process.
Rose has overexerted himself trying to recreate history and invent a founder story, one source told Valleywag, arguing that Rose's own screenshots and mockups show that he didn't start working on Tiiny until a month after he had access to Cap. The source pointed to the TechCrunch article, as well as to two Medium posts about the genesis of the idea and how the app was made in three weeks.
Earlier this week, we heard Google Ventures was "absolutely freaking out," about the implications in the TechCrunch addendum. In November, you see, Google Ventures debuted a new "founder friendly" public image. But why would founders want advice from anyone who might turn around and found a competing product of their own?
The TechCrunch writer who penned the founder-friendly post took a job at Google Ventures seven months later. Lawler, meanwhile, called Rose an "overall Internet good guy," last month, apropos of nothing. TechCrunch has mentioned Tiiny in four separate posts: before it launched, the day it launched, in the explainer, and listed as one of the TechCrunch stories "you don't want to miss this week." The coverage seems less like an order to from on high and more like a weak-kneed complacency when it comes to Silicon Valley stars.
But let's start at the beginning, shall we?
Rose and Trinh first met when Trinh was a 17-year-old Digg fanboy turned intern. When Trinh raised money late last year, it wasn't for Cap, it was for Free, an app that was supposed to help users figure out which of their friends were available to hang out with at any particular moment. Tony Conrad from True Ventures was the lead investor, but Rose was active as well. The deal included the typical confidentiality agreements.
When Trinh did a short-lived beta test of Free in March, the app had tiny looping videos. It's basically like a quick gif of your face from an always-on camera, but thumbnail-sized. It was a distracting but addictive feature—now that social media has made narcissists of us all. Rose used those tiny little Vine-tendrils multiple times in March.
At that time, the video loops were part of a chat feature in Free, similar to TapTalk. But Trinh decided to spin them off into Cap, as their own product, and Rose encouraged him to do so.
At a bar one night in July, Rose had been toying around with versions of Free and Cap that both had the tiny looping video feature. Rose couldn't stop making them. When Trinh arrived at the bar, Rose recommended displaying the thumbnails as a grid. Multiple people overheard this.
In the middle of August, news broke that Rose was getting back into the startup game and going part-time at Google Ventures. As far back as November, he had been toying around with building an Android app, according to a source familiar with the situation. The app may have included small pics and video. But it was never built.
Now Rose launched North, an incubator for rapidly prototyping apps. His first product was assumed to be a blogging service called Tiny. He'd made a video about that idea all the way back in December 2013, long before his decision to return to startups.
Soon after launching North, Rose informed Trinh that he was going to move Tiny toward photos instead. He assured Trinh that although there might be some overlap, it would not be in the same space. Trinh said no problemo—neither Free nor Cap were on target yet.
Here's where the narratives really split. Two days later, at a dinner Trinh saw the mocks for what would become Tiiny. It was a mobile app with looping videos and a grid, just as Rose had advised Trinh to do.
One camp says that Trinh was stunned, but held off on expressing his shock and frustration until a week later. The other camp says Trinh was fine with it because he was focused on Free. But why would he have given up those looping videos that Rose played around with just one month earlier?
A source described the collision of products this way: "I believe ideas are a dime a dozen and execution is everything. I've just never seen an investor steal a founder's entire execution like that."
That may be overstating it. What complicates the who-was-first argument is that Tiiny's execution is further along. Cap is still in alpha, while Rose was faster and first to get into the Apple App Store. Tiiny was clean and fun and quicker than the version of Cap I played with earlier this week, but once you have a "friend," the two apps feel very similar, as you can see from the screenshots above. Still Trinh, a designer by training, has yet to launch. There is no doubt that they are in competition.
Rose's message to beta testers that "Danny and I have been brainstorming ideas for months, we're trying more or less two different takes on a similar idea," isn't consistent with this bit from TechCrunch:
"That said, Rose didn't know Trinh had implemented the grid element he was working on with Tiiny until after he and North co-founder Marc Hemeon had finished their design sprint."
If they were brainstorming together, how could Rose not have known the gist of the app? Especially if Rose advised using the grid in July.
Rose had originally planned to work on a blogging platform called Tiny for his first project, but decided to build a new type of photo-sharing app instead. The idea behind it came from playing with the Instagram tag page several months earlier, and being able to skim through multiple images quickly.
It had the same grid design element he had suggested for Cap, but Trinh wasn't the only one to get that advice. Rose had also suggested the feature to other founders he worked with, including Cluster founder Brendan Mulligan. At the time Rose started working on Tiiny, however, he hadn't seen anyone successfully implement it, and so decided to build it himself.
Photo-grid, looping videos may have been in the aether; no one can deny Silicon Valley's tendency to groupthink. Rose may even have fooled around with the notion in November, but he recommended Trinh implement a grid in July and then "decided to built it himself," one month later. Again, perhaps legally fine, but it sounds like a snatch-back, no matter how Rose tries to spin it.
Rose has buddies all over the Bay Area, including Trinh's lead investor Tony Conrad, who appears to have recused himself. He did not return repeated requests for comment. Trinh's legal advisor Josh Cook is also friends with Rose. And just look at all the insiders using the app. There's Twitter cofounder Biz Stone, Matt Cohler from Benchmark Capital, Harper Reed, Gary Vaynerchuk, Megan Quinn, and Google Ventures partner MG Siegler, another former TechCrunch writer.
So, why hurt your own investment? Perhaps reputational capital was worth more. Rose infamously gave two thumbs up to this Businessweek cover before Digg started flailing. His last stab at startup glory—Milk, an incubator just like North, was bailed out by Google Ventures. He's made successful investments, but as a source explained, "You go from being the cool kid to just another VC in khakis." Now he has a chance to be a creator again.
To contact the author of this post, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Image via Getty]