Unvarnished is no "burn book."

Above: Unvarnished is no "burn book."

After 15 years of covering Web startups, it’s not often that one strikes a chord in this jaded journalist’s heart. But one new Silicon Valley company strikes me as not just timely, but necessary. It’s called Unvarnished, and it aims to collect reviews about people.

This has caused predictable alarm among people who have reason to worry about their reputations. Michael Arrington hinted at the existence of the startup Sunday, calling it a “Yelp for people.” He argued that “reputation is dead” and that anything anyone might have to say about anyone else amounted to nothing more than youthful indiscretions or the gripings of disgruntled employees.

That’s nonsense, of course. Long experience has taught me that where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and that people have a way of falling back into old patterns.

The startup in question is almost certainly Unvarnished: A source in the recruiting business alerted me to Unvarnished’s existence a few weeks ago, and Pete Kazanjy, a former VMware product manager, who now lists himself as a “founder at Unvarnished,” advertised the startup as one that would “outperform LinkedIn and Yelp” in November. Kazanjy did not respond to a voicemail left for him on Sunday asking for comment.

From what VentureBeat has learned about Unvarnished, it’s far from an online version of the “burn book” in Mean Girls. Nor is it some kind of crowdsourced gossip sheet about Silicon Valley. (That already exists.)

Instead, Unvarnished aims to gather fair and honest reviews about people who wouldn’t normally hit the limelight — mid-level product managers, senior engineers, and the like. Recruiters and hiring managers struggle to learn forthright information about these types. It’s not worth the time to do the kind of exhaustive background check one might do for an executive hire. But LinkedIn’s fluffily friendly recommendations don’t give a full picture of the kind of foibles and personality quirks which might make for a costly failed hire.

The question Unvarnished is asking: Can Silicon Valley handle the truth? I think it can. The Valley runs on data. And yet we seem to think that the engineering culture of honesty and openness somehow doesn’t apply to people. Yes, there’s always a place for tact. But the best managers — and the best employees — are the ones who let you know exactly where things stand.

TheFunded raised a similar ruckus when it started letting entrepreneurs rate venture capitalists. But the better investors along Sand Hill Road eventually got over it and learned to take the feedback seriously.

LinkedIn’s you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours atmosphere is a direct outgrowth of the Panglossian optimism of its founder, Reid Hoffman. I think the tech world is ready for LinkedIn’s evil twin. Or rather, its honest one.

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