by Paul Wagman
Nearly a year has passed since the Gateway Journalism Review first reported that LockerDome, a prominent St. Louis tech startup, had become a company that partners with some of the most notorious right-wing websites in the country.
Serving as an advertising middleman, LockerDome was actually helping to fuel dozens of sites promoting election denial, white supremacism, Christian nationalism, Covid skepticism, climate-change denial and other far-right passions and fantasies, GJR subsequently uncovered.
St. Louis’s own Gateway Pundit and Rumble, a video platform that hosts Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, were two of the most prominent sites among perhaps more than 100 that had been or currently were the St. Louis company’s business partners..
LockerDome, which in February of 2022 changed its name to Decide Technologies, has its headquarters at 1314 Washington Ave. There, in the heart of downtown St. Louis, the company was quietly monetizing a substantial swath of the misinformation ecosphere that many observers see as not only spreading hate but as imperiling the foundations of American democracy.
A few spasms of outrage ensued. They appear, however, not to have had the slightest effect on Deccide’s operations
- On Feb. 11, 2023, BigLeaguePolitics.com ran a story, bedecked with ads from Decide, that gloated over a reported loss of revenue by Adidas stemming from its cancellation of its relationship with Kanye West. The cancellation followed expressions of blatant anti-Semitism by the celebrity, now known as Ye. Over the subhead “Get Woke, Go Broke,” the story invoked well-known anti-Semitic tropes of its own:
“Because Ye stated his controversial thoughts about Jewish power, he is being systematically destroyed by an open conspiracy of the world’s most powerful interests. Ari Emanuel, CEO of Endeavor and brother of former Chicago Mayor and Obama crony Rahm Emanuel, gave the orders for the corporate elite to sever ties with Ye in an op-ed last week.”
- On Feb. 15, WND.com carried a report that the U.S. Supreme Court “is going to look” again at the 2020 election because of claims of fraud. The story concluded with an editor’s note lamenting that the United States, “Long the world’s most Christian nation, … is being taken over by a new ‘official’ national religion … Wokeism.” Legal experts point out that the claim is legally baseless and already has been rejected once by the Supreme Court. The story was preceded and interspersed with four ads served by Decide.
- On Feb. 21, 2023, The Federalist reported, “The ‘Twitter Files’ Reveal Big Tech’s Unholy Alliance With The Feds Exists To Control You.” On the same day, it reported that an “occasionally incoherent” Biden had promised to “indefinitely squander U.S. taxpayer dollars on a proxy war” in Ukraine “while his own country crumbles.” Both stories were splattered with ads served by Decide.
- And finally, in a prospectus filed Nov. 14, 2022 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rumble Inc. reported: “A material portion of Rumble’s revenue is generated from a small number of key advertising networks. For the three and nine months ended September 30, 2022, approximately 19% and 33%, respectively, of Rumble’s total revenue derived from two advertising networks, Google AdSense and Decide (formerly known as LockerDome).”
Rumble hosts not only Bannon but also Alex Jones (“InfoWars”) and Nicholas J. Fuentes, the anti-Semite who famously joined West for dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. A recent Fuentes program on Rumble carried the title, “We Gotta Stop Dissing Nazis All the Time!”
When GJR reported on Decide’s activities in 2022, the company did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It was following the advice of legal counsel, according to a former employee who asked not to be named because he still has friends at the company. Decide has also refused to comment to any of the other media outlets that have reported on its operations and refused again to answer questions from the GJR for this story.
The company’s lawyers and executives may have calculated, as companies and individuals often do, that their best strategy was to keep mum and hope the story would blow over. If so, it appears to have been a smart calculation, because the only visible reactions to the revelations about the company came from sources far removed from the centers of power in St. Louis.
Several St. Louisans and a few people who follow the digital ad industry nationally expressed shock on Twitter. The St. Louis American newspaper, which focuses on the African-American community, carried a harsh denunciation of the company in its Political Eye column. St. Louis Public Radio also provided coverage, and EQ, a website that covers the startup community in St. Louis, followed up with two in-depth pieces (see here and here) that focused on the economics of the partnerships.
And finally, Bloomberg gave the story national exposure, noting, “Whereas many advertising networks refuse to work with sites accused of fomenting conspiracy theories and other misinformation, Decide appears to welcome them.” The Bloomberg story, however, was posted on the afternoon before Thanksgiving and was aimed primarily at a business audience.
To date, neither the St. Louis Post-Dispatch nor the St. Louis Business Journal has picked up the story. Nor, for months, had there been any visible response from the office of St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, even though St. Louis is impacted by the gun culture that Decide monetizes through its support of websites like GunpowderMagazine.com, and even though The Gateway Pundit has personally targeted the Mayor in his coverage — and at one point sued her. Just recently, however, a spokesman for the Mayor provided this comment by email: “Mayor Jones condemns hatred, bigotry, and misinformation in all forms.”
If any part of the business community has come down on the company or its leaders, they did so in private, and, as noted, with no apparent impact.
In short, the story about Decide simply hasn’t broken through. And as a result, none of the company’s top executives — Gabe Lozano, chief executive; Mark Lewis, chief financial officer; Ryan Allen, president; or Carol Matthews, who until her recent retirement was the company’s longtime senior vice president operations – has faced scrutiny in a forum that might matter to them. The same goes for two prominent Decide board members and investors, Brian Matthews and Cliff Holekamp, who, in fact, continue to get only respectful coverage (see. for example, this recent Business Journal story.)
Holekamp, until recently the head of the entrepreneurship program at Washington University’s Olin School of Business, is one reason for the company’s close, multi-faceted relationship with Washington University, from which about one-fifth of LockerDome’s employees had degrees as of last year.
“They Know Everybody”
LockerDome/Decide is in some respects the “baby” of a powerful and well-connected St. Louis venture capital company, Cultivation Capital. Cultivation has made repeated investments in the company since it took its initial stake in 2012 and holds that stake in its very first investment fund, called Tech Fund I.
Cultivation Capital is Tech Fund 1’s general partner and, sources say, rounded up a large number of wealthy St. Louisans to be the limited partners. Public disclosure of the names of limited partners is not required, so there is no readily available list of them, but a person who turned down the opportunity to be one said many were friends and business associates of Holekamp. He is a co-founder of Cultivation Capital who now heads up the company’s office in Greeneville, South Carolina.
The connection between Cultivation Capital and Decide is said to be all the stronger because of what multiple sources described as a close friendship between another Cultivation Capital co-founder, Brian Matthews, and Robert Lozano, the father of Decide’s chief executive. Matthews is also a Decide investor from his own account. Additionally, he has been on the board of LockerDome since 2012 and has been connected to the company through his wife, Carol, who is not only the former head of operations but also, like him, an investor in the company.
Gabe Lozano now lives in Austin, Texas., where he moved after the death of his wife and where he has opened a satellite office of Decide. Lozano is, therefore, a much less visible presence in St. Louis now than he was just a few years ago, when he was a poster boy for tech startups here. Nevertheless, he is still CEO, and no one seems to doubt that he led the company’s adoption of its current strategy.
Brian Matthews and, to a lesser extent his wife Carol, have also been key players, a source with knowledge of the company said.
Brian Matthews is an eminence at the very center of the startup scene in St. Louis. The company he co-founded in 2012, Cultivation Capital, has played a key role in creating something all observers agreed was desperately needed in St. Louis – a promising environment for entrepreneurs, especially tech entrepreneurs. By plugging a gap here between very early startup funding and later-stage venture capital, Cultivation Capital has fostered the growth of a long list of St. Louis companies and the jobs that go with them.
Cultivation Capital’s Tech Fund 1 has now been followed by ten more funds. Crunchbase, a business information website, says the venture capital firm has now invested in 205 companies – some out of state but dozens or scores here – with more than $228 million. Under the circumstance, some might consider Cultivation Capital’s and Brian Matthews’ ties to Decide as little more than a peccadillo.
Cultivation Capital is now the dominant venture capital company in St. Louis, and its power and reach in its hometown are extraordinary. Many of St. Louis’s startup accelerators – Capital Innovators, SixThirty, Prosper, and Yield Lab – are in some way backed by Cultivation, either financially or through back-office support, an article in the St. Louis Business Journal noted in 2016. Here’s how the article quoted Jim Eberlin, a successful entrepreneur here: “Everybody finds them and they know everybody and everything going on here in St. Louis.”
. The majority of the sources contacted for this story asked not to be identified. “It’s a small community and I don’t want to get into trouble,” said one, echoing many others.
In Business to Make Money
What is perhaps most important in understanding the situation, however, is this: Decide exists to make money. And as long as what it is doing is legal – which it is – then most or all of those connected with it are not going to make a fuss.
Now retired, Jim Brasunas is the founding board member and former executive director of ITEN, a business incubator. Brasunas, who is widely respected, knows many of the players in the St. Louis startup community. GJR interviewed him last fall.
“In the early days of Lockerdome,” he said, “Gabe Lozano connected with ITEN. We offered advice and support, which he chose not to follow. He’s a very independent guy and that, of course, was his right. But as often happens with start-ups, their initial assumptions of how the business would grow met the realities of the marketplace.
“Investors, however, expect a return and Gabe had encouraged his investors to expect a really sizable one. Apparently it was those pressures that led them into the business with these right-wing websites. I know many of the company’s investors. And although we’ve never discussed political views, I don’t believe there’s a rabid right-winger among them. My guess is it’s more likely the opportunity to make money that’s the driver here.”
An interview this past December with a person who is a limited partner in Tech Fund 1 illustrated just that mentality.
The investor said that in its regular reports to investors, Cultivation Capital had never delved into operational details about LockerDome/Decide. Instead, he had learned of the company’s connections with the far-right from this publication’s previous coverage.
He was not pleased, he said. “I do know the harm.”
But his main concern was financial. “Investors want money back,” he said. “They want a return on their money. We’re all looking at a pretty good profit from LockerDome at this point.”
Some of those consulted by GJR even said it might be legally perilous for Decide’s leaders to move the company away from its far-right partners if it meant financial harm. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s shareholders, they said, and Cultivation Capital has similar responsibilities to the investors in Tech Fund 1.
“Basically (it’s a) mess because you’ve got a true fiduciary responsibility at that level,” said Ben Burke, a veteran of the St. Louis entrepreneurship scene who is now executive director of a nonprofit in Arizona. “You know it’s not like a little startup just figuring things out with a couple of bro’s in a basement, You’ve got true fiduciary responsibility to investors. So even if Gabe (Lozano) was like, “This is all BS, I can’t believe we did this, I want to turn this off and focus in another direction,’ … he would have such an uphill battle to do that.”
For any limited partner who wanted to cut his ties with Decide, selling his or her stake would be another mess.
“These are pretty illiquid investments,” a person in the venture capital business explained. “So it’s hard to exit. Can you find somebody who will buy your investment for a fraction of what you pay for it? Yeah, probably but it’s a small part of the investor’s portfolio, and so they’d just as soon leave well enough alone.”
In any case, Decide can always argue that it is politically agnostic, because it also serves ads to some liberal web sites, such as the Euclid Media Group, which publishes The Riverfront Times, and the online version of the National Catholic Reporter. As GJR noted in its earlier reports, however, the company’s own list of the “publishers” (websites) with which it does business shows that far-right sites greatly outweigh those that are on the liberal or left side of the spectrum. Industry analysts say the far right is where the money is for publishers, advertisers and advertising platforms like Decide and Google, because that’s where the clicks are.
This argument that the company impartially serves all parts of the political spectrum is one, however, that leadership used internally, said the former employee who asked not to be named because he still has friends at the company. Many of the company’s own workers seemed to have no idea how much Decide’s business was concentrated on the right, he said, because the company promoted this impression of neutrality. He didn’t know himself when he joined the company, he said, and he only gradually figured it out on his own.
But some employees did know, he said. And at least a few of them keep doing their jobs even though they personally appeared to oppose everything that the far-right stands for. Three current high-ranking employees, for example, demonstrate – in one case, even boast — of liberal bona fides on their personal social accounts.
“If you start exploring the employees of this company and even by extension the wider space, it’s almost like they’re being hit men,” the former employee said. “’Just give me the cash and I’ll do whatever you ask. And that was the biggest thing that shocked me once this came out. I know there are plenty of these employees who don’t believe in it (alt-right thinking) right up to the point where they’re getting paid to do it.”
The Tech Downturn
In any event, it now appears that Decide may be in a slump. Another former employee told GJR that the downturn in the tech industry caused the company to call off a private fundraising last winter that would have injected still more capital into its operations. Tech stocks fell more than 30 percent in 2022, a decline that also dramatically affected the valuations of privately held tech companies like LockerDome.
“I think they were all really excited about it (the fundraise) when the market took obviously a turn for the worse,” the former employee said. “They were attempting to fetch a valuation that was fairly high, that became — I would say — certainly unreachable in the market’s current conditions. That I know for a fact.”
In advance of the fundraise, Decide had been on “basically a hiring spree,” the former employee said, so that it could demonstrate rapid growth.
But the market’s downturn has meant that the company has recently had to lay off as much as a fourth of its 100-person work force, he said. Decide’s LinkedIn page, which listed nearly 90 employees last summer, now lists 78. The page says 28 of those employees are based in the St. Louis area; last summer it said there were 44.
The downturn also means that investors — who, given the 10-year horizon for most venture capital investments, have already been rather patient — may have to keep waiting if they are going to get a rich return.
Their hopes have been dashed before.
In 2015, the Business Journal reported, “LockerDome, the social media website that has long-been a darling of the St. Louis startup scene, is among a group of clubhouse leaders anticipated to exit in the next year or so.” Rick Holton, a general partner in Cultivation Capital, was sufficiently optimistic that the story quoted him as saying, “We need LockerDome to go out for a billion dollars so people turn around and say, ‘How’d I miss getting in on that?'”
The wait, apparently, will continue.
In the meantime, some in the misinformation ecosphere are beginning to face consequences. The Gateway Pundit, with which Decide did business for years and may still, stands accused of defamation in two suits – one in St. Louis Circuit Court over his accusations against two Georgia poll workers, the other in Denver over his accusations against the security chief of Dominion Voting Systems. Alex Jones has already been fined more than $1.4 billion for his falsehoods about the Sandy Hook massacre. Fox News is being sued for $1.6 billion in another defamation case brought by Dominion.
But the company that helped spread the misinformation through dozens of websites around the country has not stirred more than a few harmless peeps of protest.
Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant.