6 Lessons From the Demise of Gawker

Gawker was crushed by a libel suit brought by Hulk Hogan and financed by Peter Thiel. Gawker founder Nick Denton is no victim; he did this to himself.

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By Steve Tobak

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Univision is buying Gawker Media for $135 million, but this week, it will shut down its namesake site, Gawker.com. The publisher, Nick Denton, sees himself as a victim of an unjust $140 million judgement in a frivolous invasion of privacy suit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan and bankrolled by billionaire bully Peter Thiel.

What's more, the gossip site's posting of a secret sex video of Hogan with his then-best friend's wife should have been protected by the First Amendment. It should also have been protected from Thiel – a powerful Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has held a grudge since Gawker outed him back in 2007.

At least, that's the story that Denton continues to spin to what's left of his readership and anyone who will listen. But it's neither accurate nor the real cause of his and his company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Rather, he did this to himself. He took an enormous risk and lost. And now he's paying for his own bad decisions, big-time.

The demise of Gawker is a cautionary tale with critical lessons for entrepreneurs, business owners, and anyone who posts any kind of online content. That means you.

Lesson #1: The First Amendment has severe limitations.

Most people have no real understanding of the First Amendment and how it's applied. Federal and state governments cannot infringe upon your right to free speech, but that does not apply to private individuals, businesses, institutions, or corporations. You can be sued for libel, defamation, harming others, violating others' rights, and a host of other civil statutes … and lose.

Related: Peter Thiel on Gawker: 'If I Didn't Do Something, Nobody Would'

Lesson #2: You can be sued by anyone, for any reason.

"Can he sue me for that?" You hear this question all the time and, to blunt, it's remarkably naïve. With rare exception, you can be sued by anyone for any reason. The plaintiff may not win, but you can be compelled to spend a lot of time and money to defend yourself in court. And judgements can always go either way, especially in a jury trial.

Lesson #3: It isn't smart to poke a bear.

Some people have a death wish. Others are their own worst enemy – shooting themselves in the foot at every turn. If you're going to go out of your way to make life miserable for rich, powerful people, be prepared for consequences. You can mess with them; they can mess with you. Turnabout is fair play, as long as everything's on the legal up and up.

Lesson #4: If you can't afford to lose, don't roll the dice.

Denton is no neophyte. He's a savvy and formidable media entrepreneur who knows his way around a courtroom. I'd be willing to bet that his decision not to comply with Hogan's request to take down the video was in part based on the belief that Hogan wouldn't sue or would lose if he did. That was a poor decision – an unforced error he should not have made. He bet the farm and lost it all.

Related: Besieged Gawker Media Files for Bankruptcy Protection

Lesson #5: Don't let hubris rule your judgement.

When your company is worth $250 million, it's easy to let it go to your head. Don't. There are lots of reasons why otherwise successful businesses fail, but more often than not, they're caused by business leaders' oversized egos writing checks that reality can't cash. Arrogance and overconfidence are both company and career killers.

Lesson #6: Real leaders don't whine.

Making excuses and blaming others is a sign of poor leadership. Denton's long, convoluted posts about the alleged motives of Hogan and Thiel are both telling and reminiscent of similarly defensive tirades by disgraced ad-tech entrepreneur Gurbaksh Chahal and embattled Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

If you're looking for an effective predictor of leadership potential that will stand the test of time and the myriad of challenges we all face throughout our careers, look for humility and accountability. Real leaders don't think they're better than anyone else and they don't point fingers. When things go wrong, they look in the mirror. So should you.

Related: The PR Costs of a Legal Fight

For more on what it takes to be a successful business leader in today's highly competitive world, get Steve's new book, Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur, and check out his blog at stevetobak.com.

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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