One morning last April, a FedEx worker showed up at Glen Hellman’s red-brick Colonial house in Oakton. Hellman typically works out of an office upstairs, posting entries on his blog, Driven Forward, which covers DC’s tech-startup scene. After signing for the package, he opened a letter that read urgent—for immediate review. Inside was a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer representing the co-founder of Trustify, a startup that has been a consistent target of Hellman’s blogging over the years.
“It was a complete surprise,” says Hellman, who considers himself an unofficial watchdog of the region’s tech industry. “I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be so fun.’” His wife, Nancy Nolting, was less thrilled. When she went out that night with friends, they’d already heard the news. “One of them looked at me and said, ‘What’s going on? Glen’s getting sued?’ I was floored,” she says. “That kind of stuff makes me nervous, but he seems to be fine with it.”
Hellman, 63, thrives on provocation. Launched as a marketing scheme for his executive-coaching business, Hellman’s eight-year-old blog aims to obliterate Washington’s self-image as a thriving technology hub. Hellman rails against a “Startup Industrial Complex,” fueled by industry publications that serve as “sycophants, cheerleaders and just reprinters of press releases.” He insists on the need to purify the tech “ecosystem” of failing and overhyped companies. He’s even given himself a brand: “Mr. Cranky.” He says his mission is to “out bad actors who are damaging the ecosystem.” When investors put money into startups that fail due to poor management, “they become timid and won’t invest in legitimate companies because they’ve been burned.”
The traffic to Hellman’s site is hardly server-melting: On an exceptionally good day, he gets a measly 2,000 page views. But as far as he’s concerned, they’re the right eyeballs. His broadsides provide leads for journalists at larger news outlets, such as the Washington Business Journal and the Post—and there’s some evidence that his posts produce results. One recent target was the venture-capital firm 3Si. Hellman called it a sham, questioning the credentials of the team listed on a page on its website; the page was subsequently taken down. Hellman devoted numerous posts to another local startup, Chalant Health, also questioning the credentials of the leadership. That website was pulled down, too, prompting a celebratory post from Hellman, who had been contacted by unhappy investors in a previous venture also led by founder Matthew Pugsley. Pugsley declined to comment on the record.
No fight epitomizes Hellman’s incendiary style more than his campaign against Trustify, a three-year-old company in Crystal City that has grown to 22 employees, thanks to an intriguing concept—an Uber-like app for private-detective services—and its telegenic, husband-and-wife executives, Danny Boice and Jen Mellon. It’s Hellman’s opinion that Trustify represents everything wrong with Washington’s startup culture: a company, he says, built on gloss rather than substance, sucking up publicity and luring gullible investors. In the years Trustify has existed, Hellman has devoted at least 30 blog posts to the company, leveling the kinds of uncorroborated accusations and innuendo that typically invite libel suits against mainstream news organizations. Hellman dismisses Trustify as a “dumpster fire,” refers to Mellon as a “publicity whore,” and criticizes the “incredibly stupid investors” who put their money behind the company. More problematically, he calls Danny Boice a “coward and a crook,” an assertion that Hellman’s editor—if he had one—might have axed on the grounds that Boice has not in fact been convicted, or even charged, with any crimes.
It also might explain why the firm has retained a pricey libel lawyer. In a statement, the attorney, Tom Clare, calls Hellman’s claims “reckless and irresponsible.” Hellman, he says, has “ignored prior demands from the company to cease and desist his false reporting. As such, our firm has been retained to review statements on Hellman’s blog about Trustify and its founders and advise the company regarding potential libel claims.”
Hellman’s highly personal diatribes against Boice and Mellon raise questions about whether he’s doing more harm than good to the very ecosystem he purports to protect. “It feels spiteful, the way he attacks some people,” says Jeff Reid, a professor of entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s business school. “My impression is some of the people he has attacked probably deserve it, because it seems like they’ve done really bad things. Others, I think he maybe doesn’t really have the full story and he takes a very aggressive stance.”
Jamey Harvey, a friend of Hellman’s who served as DC’s deputy chief technology officer under Mayor Anthony Williams, says the “tacit agreement that people in the startup community have to kind of not look too closely at each other’s foibles” has created an environment ripe for scrutiny. “Glen pretty much owns the fact that he’s an old man yelling, ‘Get off my lawn!’ ”
For a guy who spends his day railing at various individuals from his computer screen, Hellman’s home life is remarkably quaint. He met Nolting, a senior marketing manager at Intelsat, 11 years ago on Match.com and moved into her place five years later. His office is decorated with framed paintings of country landscapes and photos of the couple’s children from previous marriages. In the corner, there’s a display case of dolls, propped up and dressed in outfits from around the world.
Hellman worked at Progress Software as a regional manager in the early 1990s. He was given stock options in the company, which went public in 1991. He started a sales-automation firm, SaleSoft, with $100,000 of his own money. He parted ways with the company before it went under in 1997. Hellman had more success after joining Call Technologies, which was sold to 3Com in 2000.
He posts two to four blog entries a week. (Not exactly Maggie Haberman.) More often than not, they’re rambling and riddled with typos, accompanied by stock photos that Hellman doctors himself. When I visit, he’s working on a post about the dying state of venture capital, and he shows me how he used a combination of PowerPoint and Microsoft Paint to superimpose an image of a flaming car crash on a photograph of Sand Hill Road, the VC hub in Silicon Valley. “I don’t spend a lot of time on it,” he says, as if that bears explanation.
“When you’re Mr. Cranky, people tell you things,” says Hellman of his sources.
While his operation is about as bare-bones as they come, Hellman has valuable sources in the local tech world. “When you’re Mr. Cranky, people tell you things,” he says. Many are VC investors, he says, while some are CEOs of area companies or members of a DC-tech Facebook chat he messages frequently. Every once in a while, they go out for drinks. Hellman says three of them have founded companies and two are deeply embedded in the industry. He also speaks with former employees of the companies he blogs about, such as Trustify. It’s rare that he cites his sources—most people, he says, won’t talk to him unless he keeps their names out of the blog.
Hellman’s war on Beltway tech dates to 2012, the same time entrepreneur Allen Gannett proclaimed in the Post that the region was “on the cusp of a tech boom” because of a high concentration of young talent and the support of local officials. Six years later, Washington is still considered a top tech city—in 2017, it was ranked number one in the US for growth entrepreneurship, according to the Kauffman Index. A recent report found that VC investment in local startups was the highest in six years, topping out at $1.54 billion.
Count Hellman among the unimpressed. Most venture funding, he argues, goes to late-stage startups and not to new entrepreneurs. He complains that VC funds come from just a handful of powerful firms such as New Enterprise Associates and Revolution, which he believes eclipse smaller investors. Another gripe: The jurisdictional friction among the District, Maryland, and Virginia forces governments to spend money “to move people across a river, not to build an employment base for the region.” Hellman sees competition from the federal government as a negative, arguing that it means the best local engineering talent goes to agencies like NASA.
That skepticism underscored Hellman’s campaign against 1776, a tech incubator that Recode called “DC’s best hope since AOL of producing a breakout tech star”—not least because AOL co-founder Steve Case was among its backers. President Obama visited the space in 2014, and the city awarded it a $200,000 grant.
Hellman was doubtful. “It’s a place that’s more about the optics than the execution,” he wrote shortly after 1776 launched, as the firm basked in positive media. “It seems to be more about the press, PR and building individual fame than helping startups build sustainable business models.” There was some truth to Hellman’s critique. “A lot of people were giving money to 1776, but there was not enough of a conversation about why this was happening,” acknowledges Nick Martin, CEO of TechChange and a former member of the workspace.
Sure enough, last fall Hellman was at a tech networking event at an Arlington beer garden, and he picked up that 1776’s CFO, Steve Graubart, was abruptly leaving the company. Soon after, Hellman started working his contacts. He got a tip from an investor about a merger between 1776 and Benjamin’s Desk, a Philadelphia workspace. Hellman promptly reported the rumor on his blog. When the Business Journal got wind of the story, 1776 cofounder Evan Burfield denied the reports.
A month later, 1776 announced that Benjamin’s Desk was taking over operations. Coverage of the saga in both the Business Journal and the Post cited Hellman’s reporting.
Last February, Hellman contacted the executives now running 1776 before they visited Washington from Philadelphia. When they met, he gave them his “business card”—a Campbell’s-style can of soup emblazoned with the image of a boot over the word “WhoopAss.” By that time, he’d already moved on to his next target.
Jen Mellon and Danny Boice, the couple behind Trustify, have mastered the art of projecting polished confidence. Their Crystal City office features a sprawling view of the Mall; a bright, elegant kitchen with a chandelier; and pump rooms for nursing mothers—something cofounder Mellon is particularly proud of. Her bookshelf is filled with titles like John Mackey and Raj Sisodia’s Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business and Daniel Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
The couple are quick to highlight their accolades: a key to Arlington, for instance, and a Gold award from the Maryland Breastfeeding Coalition. Mellon was an ambassador for the Washington DC Economic Partnership and recently spoke at South by Southwest. Hellman dismisses it all as “glitter traction”—good press and buzzy events and awards that indicate success but say little about how the company’s actually doing.
When Boice first started shopping around Trustify to investors, he pitched it as an Uber-like app for private detectives. In interviews, he recounted having bad experiences with the private investigators he hired to handle his divorce from his ex-wife. The idea behind Trustify was to offer reliable investigative services to customers by the hour, at a discounted rate. The actual level of demand for this work was almost beside the point. An early-stage employee who helped run Trustify’s verification processes in the first year says staffers questioned the original business model. The employee and a few others thought Trustify could eventually specialize in back-end verification, providing background checks for services such as babysitting and dog-walking.
Hellman was suspicious of Boice’s business plan and made allegations about Speek, the startup Boice ran before Trustify.
At first, Mr. Cranky was just trolling the company, calling it “the Uber of crap you don’t need often.” Over the years, his attacks have become more vicious. He’s written extensively about the Boices’ personal lives, divulging details about their million-dollar homes in Alexandria and on the Jersey Shore as well as their previous marriages. In May, he posted a link to a GoFundMe started by the sister of Boice’s former wife, Joanne. In the post, Joanne wrote that Boice had left her broke and stopped paying alimony.
But Hellman doesn’t rely just on the testimony of people who know Boice; he’s perfectly willing to hurl unsubstantiated invective himself—even though he has never met Boice in person: “I would say he has a lot of the traits of a sociopath—no empathy, he believes in his own vision of grandeur so that when he’s out pitching, he believes what he’s saying.” More recently, Mr. Cranky has targeted Mellon, posting photos of her with a man who isn’t her husband. “Things at the Boice/Mellon household appear to be deteriorating faster than anticipated as Jen has been seen around town canoodling a Mr. SR, a VP at a Major Insurance Company who is recently estranged from his wife,” he wrote in a September 25 update. That Hellman would make such tawdry and unverified insinuations only underscores the extent to which his campaign against Trustify has started to look like a personal vendetta.
Most egregiously, Hellman accuses the couple of federal crimes such as tax and wire fraud as well as embezzlement, without providing much evidence besides information from anonymous sources who claim to have worked for the company. The doctored images of Danny Boice behind bars on Hellman’s blog aren’t just for laughs—he truly believes that the founders belong in jail. But it’s another thing altogether to publicly accuse the Boices of committing crimes without offering proof to support it.
“Glen Hellman’s statements about Trustify, Jen Mellon and me are and always have been demonstrably false,” Boice says in a statement. “We have historically ignored Hellman because people almost universally recognize that he is not a serious player. In an effort to garner attention for himself, he has stooped to even more false outrageous claims about the company and false personal attacks on us and our children. This has left us no choice but to retain experienced defamation counsel to protect our hard-earned reputation.”
Hellman defends what he’s written but acknowledges that “most of those things were opinions.” He says that since its initial threat of a lawsuit, “Trustify hasn’t come back—they’ve given up. And the reason they’ve given up is because they can’t afford to have these facts exposed.”
Whatever the cause, Boice and Mellon have, in fact, reinvented their firm. Infidelity investigations are just a small part of what they do these days. The duo say their PIs are now focused on reconnecting adopted children with their birth parents and helping innocent people accused wrongly of crimes get exonerated. But there are signs all is not well for the startup. Last December, Trustify was fined by Virginia for operating without a proper license. Former employees say the company is plagued by turnover, and several of them doubt it’s making money.
In early October, Hellman reported that he got tipped off that Trustify had missed payroll. He ended the post with a warning that “this death spiral is about to hit the ground.” (A spokesperson for Trustify, who asked not to be identified, disputes this, saying the company is in “great” financial health.) In another post, he noted that Mellon’s Twitter page had gone dark. When I spoke with Hellman by phone this fall after his return from vacation in Israel and Turkey—where he’d apparently been firing off these posts about Trustify’s demise—he claimed victory. “Many of the things I’ve been looking into are winding down,” he said. “If Trustify goes down, I’m happy for all the effort I spent and the fact that people will not be suckered into that stuff. I’m happy that we’re done with it.”
In a perverse way, Hellman might be evidence of a new maturity in a tech scene whose supposed small-time, boosterish ways he so loudly disdains. In the startup world, there’s no shortage of bad ideas that manage to attract investor money, or overhyped companies that fall short of expectations. In Silicon Valley—where the “move fast and break things” ethos has spurred the success of companies like Facebook and Amazon—entrepreneurs proudly wear past failures like battle scars. In a more nascent culture such as Washington’s, gigantic failures might be less sexy but are certainly not uncommon. What this area doesn’t have, though, is a robust technology press that scrutinizes the inner workings of these companies. This is where Hellman sees he can fill a certain gap.
When he’s right, he gets the kind of attention he wants. This careful crafting of brand and image may be, in some ways, where Hellman and the Trustify founders are cut from a similar cloth. The problem is that the kind of personality it takes to play contrarian in Boosterville is also the kind of personality that can so easily slide from wanting to shine a light to wanting scalps for their own sake. At some point, it’s hard to see how Mr. Cranky retains his credibility as a serious watchdog while making claims about the moral failings of people he’s never met.
“Glen pretty much owns the fact that he’s an old man yelling, ‘Get off my lawn!’ ”
Earlier this year, I asked Hellman if he ever feels guilty about creating bad press for Trustify, or that his attacks could jeopardize the financial prospects and reputations of Boice, his wife, and their employees. As I braced myself for his speech about purifying Washington’s tech ecosystem, I realized exactly whom he’s doing this for: himself.
“Having Danny Boice hate me,” he says, “is a badge of honor.” Hellman notes that he’s had many people contact him in recent months about his executive-coaching services, thanks to the increasing popularity of his blog. “Business,” he says, “is going very well.”
This article appears in the December 2018 issue of Washingtonian.