This is ‘Sarah Hanson’: Startup founder confesses to idiotic plot to hoax tech press

A Seattle man says he hoaxed the media, including GeekWire, to get publicity for his startup.

steinar

Steinar Skipsnes

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.

The picture of "Sarah Hanson" used on the online auction site.

The picture of “Sarah Hanson” used on the auction site.

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.

  • Guest

    Pathetic! In the end this guy does get all the attention and coverage with his stunt, while we other entrepreneurs work our behinds off to make our respective startups work. There’s definitely something wrong with the current startup world. And the way tech bloggers preferably report on the loudest ones (not just this clown).

    • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

      Well, maybe he got some attention, but, in the end, it’s all bad. Who’s going to trust this guy in the future? As Ellen says (roughly), Skipsnes should have been working really hard instead of trying to dupe people.

      • Guest

        He’s just one clown relying on gimmicks. There’s more that I have seen being showcased here on GW, and they seem to benefit. Skipsnes just pushed a bit further than other posers. It all reminds me somewhat of the dotcom bubble.

  • Guest

    Ha! Nicely done GeekWire

  • Guest

    Todd, the only thing “idiotic” is that self-styled journalists like yourself believed an obvious hoax and that you have neglected to apologise to your readers for misleading us.

    An apology, please. Front page, non-snarky headline and article. You were had. Apologise.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Absolutely, we’re sorry for our mistakes and shortcomings on this story. I apologize. As I’ve said repeatedly, we screwed up here and didn’t live up to our standards, and the best way we can make it right is to do exactly as we’ve done, trying to set the record straight in these follow-up stories.

      • Guest

        Todd, please apologise in a story, not in the comments. This pattern of being overconfident “above the fold” and contrite “below the fold” debases this site and insults your reading public.

        • Ellen

          Guest, I’m going to assume you are Skipsnes or a friend of Skipsnes… just my gut based on your reactions here.

          That said, just in case I’m wrong, here’s my thoughts:

          Todd did apologize in the follow up stories. You don’t have to say the words “I apologize” to show sincerity. He was very very clear about being disappointed in not identifying this hoax upfront and that’s enough of an apology in my opinion. On top of that, why be so entitled that you think an apology is even warranted? As noted below, Geekwire wasn’t the only one had by this guy so it’s awesome that they’ve taken the time to keep following up and keep their readers informed.

          As someone who has worked 80+ hours per week for 3 years now running my own startup, I’m personally offended that Skipsnes would do something like this to try and garner attention and cut corners – this is likely why he hasn’t been successful in other endeavors either as he seems unwilling to do honest work. I have some senior sites myself and they do quite well… why? Because I work extremely hard to ensure they do well.

          Skipsnes deliberately tried to dupe the public to get ahead, and it seems like this is a continuing problem for him. His actions display a huge lack of credibility as a businessman and he deserves to be called out for it. I’m grateful to Geekwire for bringing this to my attention because I’m very active in Seattle’s startup community as well as the senior living space and feel better knowing to steer clear of this guy.

          Thanks Todd for taking the time to get to the bottom of this! It’s highly appreciated!

          • (Different) Guest

            Fully agree. The best GW can do in the future is to dedicate more time to us serious entrepreneurs who work 80+ hours/wk on their startups instead of putting the spotlight on clowns trying to get attention through gimmicks (whether that’s Skipsnes or an actual “Sarah Hanson”).

          • http://www.facebook.com/joe.emenaker Joe Emenaker

            The only thing Skipsnes really did was use the unfair biases of the tech-press and their readers to his advantage. The fact is that the value of Skipsnes website has *absolutely* nothing to do with whether it was coded by a 19-year-old girl, or a 70-year-old grandmother, or a run-of-the-mill 30-something, white, male programmer. The site shouldn’t get more press because we thought it was coded by a cute girl, but it did. So, Skipsnes turned the tables on our own, unjustified prejudices. Maybe this will erode those prejudices a little bit.

            To me, this doesn’t strike me as all that different from, say, a black person, on a job application, marking themselves as being white. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter *what* they put as their race, but the fact it that their odds are improved if the employer thinks the guy is white. And, just maybe, it will cause the employer to start disregarding the “race” section on the applications once they realize that it’s not reliable info. And maybe *we* will stop giving undue extra attention to startups which seem to be from cute, unmarried, doe-eyed females.

        • (Different) Guest

          Relax, he didn’t run his car over your dog. So chill. Best case we can hope for is that GW comes out stronger and with more journalistic integrity from this lesson.

    • Anon

      Yes, GeekWire was had. But so were other publications. VentureBeat and the HuffingtonPost both published earlier articles. GeekWire didn’t just copy their articles — they conducted an email interview, and the guy seemed real. The site was certainly real, and they followed up to learn the truth after questions were raised. The 14 people commenting on the original article were taken in too. Can you honestly say you would have done better?

      • Guest

        Thank you for missing the point. I want an apology, as an article, complete with steps Todd is taking to ensure this doesn’t happen again. All I’ve seen is bitter posturing in articles and contrition in comments. Such whining is unbecoming.

        • Anon

          Thank you for missing the point. And I seem to have missed your comment about the “obvious hoax” on the original article. Where’s your apology for missing it? Contrast GeekWire’s reporting and contrition with the response of the Huffington Post, which still has the original, unchanged article, no correction or update, and certainly no apology. VentureBeat has posted a conditional apology “if we were taken in …”

          Your indignation is unbecoming.

          • Guest

            I don’t owe you an apology. I don’t run GeekWire. Todd has not apologised in an article.

            You are not Todd. You are not apologising. Because of your complete irrelevance to this discussion, I shall ignore future replies.

          • Glenn

            Maybe you can do everyone else a favor and stop posting all together.

    • http://twitter.com/thelance Lance Haun

      Anonymous internet commenter demands stricter journalistic standards! This a story that I hope GeekWire covers in greater depth,

  • Chris

    Maybe it’s actually Sarah Hanson posing as Steiner Skipsnes posing as Sarah Hanson? I mean really, which name sounds more fake?

    • Chris

      Right, I did a few different first name + “Skipsnes” searches on Google – looks pretty fake to me as nobody else in the world (except 1 Jessica) has that last name. Don’t tell me GeekWire has been had yet again? Russia dolls anybody? Pretty gangsta though to have an extra layer to protect your real identity from the fall-out of bad press coverage.

  • scot

    My thought when reading his post was twofold. 1) If there’s nothing special/unique/worthwhile about your company maybe THAT’S your problem and not the press, and 2) if he had worked as hard to come up with something special/unique/worthwhile about his company, he might have actually figured out why someone needs it and a reason for the press to talk about it. Of course that’s assuming any of it is real.

  • The Terminator

    I am looking for Sarah Connor!

    • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

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      C:TADTextBIBLE.TXT

      y
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      14:8 If the LORD delight

      • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

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        • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

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          • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

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  • Len Brown

    Bottom line: This guy is to startups what the three-put is to golf. He needs to be DQ’d.

    • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

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      C:TADTextWEALTH.TXT

      e
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        Calling Dr. Who! God says…
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  • MG

    Instead of giving a well-known, deceptive repeat offender like this yet more media coverage following a new hoax, how about devoting valuable editorial time and ink to real, genuine local entrepreneurs who work hard to get their start-ups off the ground? Seriously …

    • Guest

      Exactly!

  • Stanley Shaw

    “If only he had used his powers for good, instead of evil.”

  • TacoTime

    I guess GeekWire feels it is necessary to post links to somebody’s personal wedding website as some sort of revenge for getting tricked into writing a story without first checking very basic facts? Pathetic.

    • Guest (another one)

      The wedding web site link helps Skipnsnes. It makes him seem a bit normal instead of just a scam artist.

  • cfo

    Clowns like Skipsnes are nothing more than modern day snake-oil salesmen who would have have been run out of town in bygone eras. But watch: some VC will invest in a future company of his, paying no attention to the rancid character of this habitual liar.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joe.emenaker Joe Emenaker

      Except snake-oil doesn’t do what it claims. This guy, on the other hand, really did make the website in question, and he’s probably really going to give 10% of his future income to the person who funded him. All he really did was punk the tech-press and their bias toward stories about nubile girls getting into programming. The tech blogs got more hits, the banner-ads got more click-throughs, we all got warm fuzzies from a heartwarming story for a few days. Would you care to point out to me who, if anybody, paid for a product or service from this guy that he didn’t deliver on?

      • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

        Joe, under the circumstances it doesn’t appear that there was any real person making a legitimate winning bid (other than Skipsnes). And it’s highly doubtful that he’s giving anyone 10% of his future income for 10 years. This is one reason I want to talk with him on the phone or in person, to answer these types of questions. He is still refusing to do that. I can continue to pursue this story to get to the bottom of these issues, but as noted by others on this thread, we’ve wasted too much time on this guy already.

        • cfo

          His refusal to talk with Todd says a lot.

          Also, anyone who operates on a “the end justifies the means” model is certainly not the type of person most people want to work with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

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    shut “

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

    We have time travel. Calling Dr. Who!C:TADTextWEALTH.TXT

    an who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not
    only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year,
    executes the greatest quantity of work.

    In cheap years it is pretended, workmen are generally more idle, and
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    their industry. That a little more plenty than ordinary may render
    some workmen idle, cannot be well doubted; but th

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregory.mcintyre.31 Gregory McIntyre

    it’s not an idiotic hoax when it works, maybe next time do some damn research.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joe.emenaker Joe Emenaker

      EXACTLY! I was going to post the same thing, almost word-for-word. “Idiotic” plots don’t succeed, and this one *did*. I imagine that it played out exactly like he had planned. In the ocean of startups and ideas, reward is given to those who can figure out ways to make themselves more visible (whether it’s applying for a job with a YouTube song, or auctioning future income…. or what this dude did). Now, this has been done, and everybody has to think of something else.

  • oasisob1

    I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.

  • gamergeek

    Steiner Nintendo64? Whoa.

  • http://www.facebook.com/phillip.green.96780 Phillip Green

    Here’s an original idea….How about you guys investigating a story you ‘have suspicions about’ BEFORE you post it? It’s called journalism; try it you might like it.

  • Billish_Returns

    His wife has really put on the pounds in the later photos….wow. She was CUTE at one point…

    • D

      Yikes. That’s a bit uncalled for.

    • Guest

      You’re a dick.

  • Van Wolverton

    A few anagrams of mystery man Steinar Skipsnes:
    peskiest sinners
    risks steepen sin
    penises risk nets

    Could be a clue there.

  • Joseph Robinson

    Old school hucksterism meet the new school blog world.

    My inspiration to comment on this most intriguing story is to not shame Geekwire (nor defend bad journalism) but to take this noise maker for what he/she is at face value.

    Not authentic.

    My experienced observation about success, now more than ever, is the more authentic, real, sincere, earnest a person can be every second of the day; the more people will be attracted to you. If getting attention for yourself, idea, business, product is what you are looking for, being authentically you will help. Our huckster friend missed the part about Richard Branson everyone should understand. Be attention getting – but be REAL about it.

    Doesn’t mean you will be successful unless what you are working on has a market, meets a need, creates demand, is subsequently priced right, and you are hard working to make happy customers (80 hours a week people – really?).

    Wake up, show up, deliver.

    Cute-young-girl-in-picture-tries-novel-idea-to-raise-money is a damn good idea. Kind of one those “why didn’t I think of that” things. Well, because I’m not cute, young, nor nearly that creative.

    But the duped were hoping the “innocent’ young entrepreneur with a novel way of approaching fund raising for an equally interesting way to provide a web service was real. We love those stories.

    Geekwire and others were right to try and cover it.

    I urge everyone to keep the faith that creative ideas will continue to come forward and continue to be talked about in-spite of what wrapper they appear.

    And in this noisy Calliope of “me-too” remember it will be the Authentic You which is most attractive and will get recognized (or not) based upon the fickle nature of our world.

    That being said, it is because of blogs and hucksters who abuse them, we are all thirsty for what is real. So be real and quench our thirst. (That means you, “initials” anon, and “guests”)

    Thanks for the apology Geekwire and the promise to do better next time. I truly believe the real story is being shared now.

  • Cornelius

    So much for male privilege.

    This guy knows what’s up. If you’re cute girl, people will throw money at you. Skipsnes was just leveling the playing field. Good for him.

  • http://twitter.com/jubal_ince Jubal Ince

    Now you know how Manti Te’o feels. #catfished

  • Chris

    Just a sign of what happens when people no longer trust media and when media runs a story (because they just *have* to strive for being first – something nobody outside of the media industrial complex cares about at all) without verifying sources. I’m sympathetic to GeekWire though. These things can be hard to catch and whilst it is your job, we all make mistakes. It’s also important to draw a distinction between innocent mistakes of incompetence and deliberately being sensational and misleading just to boost ratings, clicks, circulation, views, etc… and then quietly issuing corrections later. Don’t kid yourselves, all media outlets get ‘had’ at some point (some more than others, admittedly) but it’s how they handle the follow-up that reveals their true colours. The only way in which GeekWire has disappointed me in this sense is the ending of this story: “If only Skipsnes had dropped us a note about that — as himself — this could have been a very different story.” I know that statement is packed with weasel words but to imply that all one has to do is follow guidelines set down by media outlets in order to get coverage is highly disingenuous. People resort to hoaxes generally because the traditional ways tend not to work. That’s also not media’s fault but you can hardly blame people who pull PR stunts for trying to beat a rigged game. After all, isn’t that what startups do? Ultimately though, this guy should never do a startup that requires good PR as he’s seriously burned his integrity, credibility and any chance of being given a fair shake by the media.

    • http://twitter.com/TechinBellevue Steve Gilbert

      Glad to see such passion here and the high standards we set for GeekWire. It seems that Todd and John hold themselves and GeekWire to the same high standards and hit the mark with impressive accuracy.

  • http://brianrowdy.com/ Brian Rowdy Hamby

    So, even though you are still not sure about this guy being real you now wish he had submitted his start up to your ‘startup spotlight’? LOL.

    So to sum up this article. This guy might not be real, thanks for reading and do take a look at or even submit your start up to our Start up Spotlight column.

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