A Seattle man says he hoaxed the media, including GeekWire, to get publicity for his startup.
The man, named Steinar Skipsnes, admits in a blog post that he posed as “Sarah Hanson,” a 19-year-old woman who claimed to have auctioned off 10 percent of her future income to fund her startup, garnering a winning bid of $125,000 from a California investor. Pretending to be “Sarah,” Skipsnes pitched the false story to a variety of tech news sites — communicating and answering questions only via email to hide his identity while generating coverage.
Skipsnes went public with his confession Tuesday night, after GeekWire discovered his real identity and left him a voicemail. He has since responded to our emails but refuses to talk on the phone or meet in person to answer our questions directly.
He insists that the startup at the center of the story, Senior Living Map, is his and is real. However, we have yet to find any evidence supporting its existence in state corporations filings or anywhere else, beyond the bare-bones site that was the subject of the fake auction.
The photo of “Sarah Hanson” used for the auction bears a striking resemblance to Skipsnes’ wife at a younger age. We asked Skipsnes if he used a picture of his wife to perpetrate the hoax, and if so, how she feels about that. As of publication of this post, he has yet to respond to that question.
Unfortunately, the “Sarah Hanson” hoax is not the first time Skipsnes has lied to us. Last year we posted about an attempt by Skipsnes to drum up attention for what he described as his startup at the time, Replyboard, a Craigslist user review and rating service. Skipsnes recorded bizarre interactions with Craigslist sellers in a series of videos that garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
He insisted the videos were real, despite the fact that elements of them looked staged and scripted, as we noted at the time. However, he did admit to initially providing us with a false last name for the friend who accompanied him in the videos, a fact that we corrected at the time.
Skipsnes has made a habit of staging events and then informing the press, while refusing to communicate in any form other than email. This 2011 CIO blog post describes a stunt in which Skipsnes posted a fake job opening for a fake company and then recorded the applicants giving strange responses.
The CIO post notes that Skipsnes “didn’t have time for a phone interview because he had just been married and was preparing to go on his honeymoon.” The videos were posted on what CIO described as Skipsnes’ site, buystock.net.
In its post about the job interview stunt, TechRepublic described the videos as “almost off-the-wall enough to make you think they are staged.”
In a sign of how twisted this situation has become, we’ve actually been asking ourselves: Is Skipsnes himself real? He’s refusing to meet or talk with us in exactly the same way he did in his role as “Sarah Hanson.”
He does have a Facebook profile, and a LinkedIn profile listing his experience at the Cobalt Group. And King County records do show a marriage license on file corresponding with the public site for his 2011 wedding. However, a proposal video that he posted online has an on-screen date stamp from almost a decade before, 2002-09-22. An errant camera setting? Probably. But at this point we honestly don’t know what to believe about this guy.
In his post Tuesday night, Skipsnes says he concocted the story about the female teen entrepreneur to appeal to the interests of the technology press. “I started to think ‘what if I took the elements of what the press loves and created a story?’ ” he writes. “So I did.”
After receiving the fictitious pitch via email, GeekWire conducted an email interview with “Sarah Hanson” and was one of several tech news sites that ran what turned out to be a bogus story. On Tuesday we published a follow-up post detailing our suspicions about the story. Throughout this process, Skipsnes has repeatedly declined our requests to talk on the phone or meet in person.
After seeing our follow-up piece, a GeekWire reader used the premium domain search service DomainTools to find a previously unavailable phone number connected to the Senior Living Map site. Cross-referencing that number with public records made it possible to identify Skipsnes as the person behind the site.
We left a message for Skipsnes Tuesday afternoon at that number, and later sent him an email. He responded via email with a link to the post in which he admits he was behind the hoax.
As we pointed out in our post earlier today, it’s our obligation as a news site to verify stories and separate fact from fiction — especially when someone is trying to pull off a hoax. Clearly we fell short of that mark in this case, and we need to do better. Our subsequent attempts to identify and get answers from Skipsnes are part of our effort to set the record straight.
In his post, Skipnes writes, “Getting publicity to stand out from the sea of other startups is hard. Getting publicity with no PR connections, no money, and for a service that is as unsexy as it gets is virtually impossible.”
The irony here — and what makes this hoax truly idiotic — is that we have a regular GeekWire feature, Startup Spotlight, that addresses this very issue. The goal is to identify and feature early stage startups that otherwise don’t get noticed. If only Skipsnes had dropped us a note about that — as himself — this could have been a very different story.