NOTE: This post was written in April 2008. In November 2008, The Brian Madden Company was acquired by TechTarget. TechTarget is just a larger version of The Brian Madden Company. So now we're 600 employees instead of six employees, but we're still 100% vendor independent and everything written here still applies to us today. In 2011, we launched a second site, ConsumerizeIT.com. These same disclosures apply to that site too.
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The Brian Madden Company is a tiny company--just a handful of employees. We don't have an office. We don't have any patents. And we don't have any "real" intellectual property. The only thing we have is our reputation.
This company started in 2001 when I published my first book about Citrix. I self-published the book, not because I couldn't find a "real" publisher, but because I thought "Hey, this is the Internet age. Who needs a 'real' publisher?" Plus I also wanted to be able to say whatever I wanted--however I wanted--without having a publisher cancel the project.
That book was very successful, and it ultimately led to me quiting my job five years ago and blogging / writing full time. (Check out my first blog entry from five years ago. I wrote it in the San Francisco airport on my way home from iForum Australia.) Since then I've traveled and spoken at events around the world, written more books, written about 1500 articles / blog entries, hosted five BriForums, taught about fifty training classes, and done a bunch of other really cool things that I'm forgetting about right now.
But one thing has remained consistent since I wrote that first book seven years ago, and that is my independence when it comes to vendors. Now that our website has become so popular and our articles and blogs are regularly getting 20, 30, and 40 comments, I'd like to take a moment to clarify what I mean when I say that I'm "independent."
What does independent mean?
"Independent" and "unbiased" are two words that are thrown around a lot, both by me and other writers/bloggers/journalists. But they are not the same thing.
I call myself "independent" because I don't work for a vendor, I don't sell or resell any vendor's products, and really at the end of the day I don't care if you buy a product from Citrix, Microsoft, VMware, or Bob's discount software. It just doesn't matter to me because that's not how I make money.
As for "unbiased"... that's a bit more tricky. In reality, everyone in the world is biased in some way. So I don't think I should say that I'm "unbiased," but instead I should say that "my bias is not bought or sold." In other words, it's "Brian's bias."
"Real" journalists try to cover the news in an "unbiased" way, but every human being has bias. (Just look at FOX News versus CNN here in the US.) And I guess if you look at this website, I certainly have my opinions and I readily share them. (After all, this website is "BrianMadden.com," not "UnbiasedCitrixNews.com.") But again, the key takeway is that my biases are based on my twelve years in this industry, learning about it from an "independent" viewpoint. So yeah, I'm biased because I think some products truly stink. But the REASONS behind my biases are based on my personal views and opinions, not based on which vendor paid me.
So yes, this website is biased. I think if you want someone to just report on the news of the industry, you can go to a site like InternetWeek or NetworkWorld (although one could argue that all they do is write stories based on press releases, but that's a conversation for another day). When you visit BrianMadden.com, you get Brian Madden's opinions.
I don't ask (or expect) that everyone will agree with me. After all, I have some VERY strong opinions about stuff. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.) But what I want you to know is that when you visit BrianMadden.com, you will get my honest-to-goodness personal feelings, and you can know you're reading my own thoughts and that I'm not writing about some product or saying good or bad things because someone paid me to.
The fine line: taking money from vendors
One thing that's interesting about BrianMadden.com is that this website is not a "side job" or a "hobby." It's my only job, and I do it full-time. (And it's Gabe's only job and Emily's only job and Lara's only job.) You could argue that I am one of the few people (probably less than 1%) of "bloggers" or whatever who has actually turned blogging into a full-time job. While that's kind of cool, it also means that I have to figure out how to make money. If I gave everything away for free then this website would shut down in a few months when I stopped being able to pay my bills.
To that end, there are several different ways that we make money, including:
- Public training classes and e-learning DVDs
- Speaking at conferences
- Book sales
- Advertising on BrianMadden.com
- BriForum (attendee registrations and sponsorships)
Some of this money comes from end users and the community, and some of this money comes from vendors. If we look at the ways we make money from vendors, it's just these three methods:
- Advertising on BrianMadden.com
- Sponsorship of BriForum
- Consulting (for example, the Tech Videos that we recorded for Citrix.com)
Yesterday I spent some time going through the past financial records of our company, from 2003-2007. In any given year, we have NEVER made more than 20% of our total annual revenue from vendors. And we have NEVER made more than 3.5% of our annual revenue from one single vendor. So for those who think I've "sold out" to vendors, let me ask you this: Do you really think I would damage my integrity and reputation--the only truly valuable thing I have--for less than 3.5% of our annual revenue?
Let's be honest: everyone has a price! And I'll say this right now: if any vendor wants to give me several million dollars, I will gladly spend the whole year writing about their products. :) (With proper disclosures, of course.) But in the meantime, I'm not going to "push" one vendor over another for a measly 3.5% of revenue. It's just not worth it.
It comes down to disclosure
The single most important thing for any information source (especially in this Internet age) is disclosure. Sure, it's important for everyone to have a policy about what they will and will not do for money. But it's more important that the nature of the relationship is disclosed.
Our industry (the application and desktop virtualization industry) has a major problem with disclosures. It's not appropriate for me to call out specifics, but there are many, many cases where white papers, podcasts, blog entries, and "news" items are completely sponsored and paid-for by vendors where the site or author does not disclose this. There are many cases where a blogger "stumbles on a 'cool' product," but does not disclose that this was simply because a marketing person from that vendor called them and bought an ad and said "can you also mention our product?"
I know this happens because vendors ask me to do this all the time. I receive probably five-to-ten emails a week from vendors. Many of them ask questions like "How much does it cost for you to write about us?" or "How much does it cost to do a podcast with us?" This is not a problem with the vendor--they are simply asking questions they're used to asking. This is a problem with this industry and the blogosphere-at-large. It's a problem that many sites do write and record podcasts based on advertising from vendors.
I want to stress that taking money to do a podcast is NOT a bad thing. But taking money to do a podcast, and then not disclosing that podcast was done for money, is a very bad thing.
What we will and will not do with vendors
We've had an internal policy in place for years about what we will and will not do with vendors. But we've never made this information public. So here it is:
- The fact that a vendor spends money with us does not impact whether we will write about or cover that vendor's products any differently than if they didn't spend money with us.
- We will not accept money from vendors to record podcasts, write reviews, be involved with marketing or promotional campaigns, or to publicly compare one product to another.
Here are some examples of things that vendors have asked us over the years, and our responses as to whether we did or did not do this (YES or NO):
- We record a video or write a paper explaining how a vendor's technology works - YES
- We perform a scalability test of a vendor's product - YES
- We write a paper explaining why one vendor's product is better than another's - NO
- A vendor hires us to be in an ad campaign about their product - NO
- A vendor pays us to record a podcast with them - NO
- A vendor buys an ad on BrianMadden.com - YES
- A vendor says, "Now that I bought an ad, will you write about me?" - NO
- A vendor sponsors BriForum - YES
- A vendor says "We will give you an internal use license of our product if you agree to write a review" - NO
- A vendor wants to pay me to talk to their management team about this industry, and what they can do to make better products - YES
- A vendor wants to pay me to look at their product and tell them how I would make it better - YES
- That vendor wants me to publish the results of the previous item as an article on BrianMadden.com - NO
For the vendors out there who want to us to write about them, I will say now the thing that I've been saying for years: If you want to be "covered" on BrianMadden.com, you must:
- Make cool products.
- Tell me about your products. (Send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
I read every single email I get (even though I cannot possibly respond to them all). So if you're a vendor, send me your press releases. Send me notes about what you're doing. Brag to me. Add me to your newsletter. Do whatever you need to do to flood my inbox with stories about how cool your products are. Just don't expect anything to happen unless your stuff is actually cool, unique, interesting, and/or relavant. And also, please understand that there are about 500 vendors in this space on only about 200 articles per year on this website, so we can't possibly write about everything.
And if you're a reader or visitor of this site, be happy that my inbox is receiving the brunt of vendor information, and that I'm not just blindly copying-and-pasting this stuff to the front page.
Will this plan backfire?
Maybe. If other websites continue to not disclose their vendor relationships, then BrianMadden.com will look bad because we're the only ones disclosing anything, and that will have the unintended effect of causing people to think that we're the only site that has something to disclose. But at the end of the day, each of us has to be able to sleep peacefully at night, and (one hopes) we each need to feel that we're doing the "right" thing.
For me, the "right" thing is to disclose, disclose, disclose; to remain true to myself; and to keep on sharing the opinions that I have.
Again, you may not agree with or like what you read here, but you can know for sure that my opinions have not been bought.