The Startup Religion

A long time ago, a very green boss of mine had the bright idea that he would help his people self-improve.  And when I say help, I mean use his authority to force us to self-improve.  It was frustrating to him that we were not improving as fast as he was, so one can hardly blame him.  He was improving so fast that by now he’s probably gone through perfect and come back around to being kind of a jackass.  I think you see the problem here.

robbinsBereft of social skills, his first foray into other-improvement was to hand us each a book and say “read this and do what it says”.  It was a self-help thing, pretty standard issue for those days with a heavy dose of self-hypnosis.  A quick glance made clear that this book was not about helping us in our work.  This Tony Robbins wannabe and his disciple were trying to tell us how to live.

I had no intention of reading the damned thing.  Twelve years of Catholic schools earned me a permanent pass on that stuff.  If you want to tell me how to live, you need to take a number and stand in line behind dozens of nuns, priests, brothers and of course The Holy Father himself who seems to have increasingly weird ideas about life.  Still, this guy was the boss and that made it a problem.  Fortunately for me, another guy publicly blew a gasket about it before I even got back from lunch and the self-help book club died “aborning in the cradle” as they used to say.  We, his troops, remained the sandpaper that smoothed this guy’s rough edges.

The surprisingly short-tempered colleague who spiked the whole thing, it turned out years later, was, unbeknownst to any of us, a member of a secretive religion small enough and weird enough that most of us would call it a cult, as the national press eventually did, and it all turned out badly for him in the end.  He could have used a new religion at that moment.  For my part, I was (and remain) a horrible employee and probably could have used some self-help.  But that’s really, really, really not the point.  Work and life are different things.  There is a line between them.

I read lots of startup blogs, mostly the VCs but also some of the entrepreneurs and occasionally hacks like myself.   I read these things for the war stories, and maybe a bit of insight on how to score me some of that sweet, sweet exit payout – Facebook style please.  There’s a trend in these things, especially among the entrepreneurs and hacks to tell people how to live.  “Work hard, play hard” and all that bullshit.  Admirably, 90+% of these bloggers have done something, and beyond that they usually simply say things like “this is how I do it” or “this is how I’ve seen other people do it”.

And then there are the others.  I flashed back to that long ago episode reading a blog post by a guy (no I won’t give the link) who is obviously very ambitious, probably very bright and achingly startup-y.  If you’ve read this far you’d probably like him.  But he’s also literally unaccomplished.  He hasn’t done anything yet beyond figuring out how to use WordPress.  I looked him up, and he has no business telling anyone how to tie their shoes, let alone how to live.  But that didn’t stop him from throwing a post out there telling his readers how to live. And that pisses me off.

Startups are not a religion, you are not a priest and we are not initiates in a transcendent new meritocracy.  There’s a damned good chance this whole thing is nothing more than a replay of the auto industry from the early 1900’s – that it, and we ourselves, will all turn out to have been nothing special.  No more special than the foam on top of a big wave.

So even if you’re part of a weird and secretive cult, I’ll try not to tell you how to live but here and now I will tell you what to say if I ever do.  “Fuck off”.

Rodley’s Law of Negotiation

My post about technical co-founders handing over contacts from their network for business development generated a fair amount of offline pushback, most of it being some variation of “well you obviously didn’t have a trusting relationship with your CEOs”. All of which put me in mind of Godwin’s Law.

Godwin’s law states that as an online discussion continues, the probability of someone introducing a Nazi analogy approaches 1. This is usually extended to mean that the first person to introduce a Nazi analogy has lost the argument and the Nazi analogy is an acknowledgement of that loss.

I’m here today to not-so-humbly introduce Rodley’s Law of Negotiation which states:

As a negotiation continues, the probability that one side will use the word “trust” approaches 1 and the first person to use the word “trust” has lost the argument if not the negotiation.

Hypothetical example 1 – you’re a technical co-founder negotiating an agreement to join a venture that’s already incorporated:

YOU: I need a clause that exempts vested stock from penny-per-share buyback on voluntary departure.

CEO: Why would you need that?

YOU: Because it could happen.

CEO: We’re friends. We’d talk about it and come to some reasonable arrangement.

YOU: I want it in writing.

CEO: Why would you need it in writing – don’t you trust me?

ingodwetrustAhhh .. the T word. Now, you’re close to a deal (be honest, you’re probably already working with them gratis) and you want to join this outfit but your prospective partner just played the trust card. Rodley’s Law says that you’re screwed here and that it’s pretty much guaranteed that your prospective CEO will buyback all your stock for a penny a share if you leave for any reason.

The example clawback-clause negotiating point here is not hypothetical at all. Read this to see how Skype did exactly this and turned a bunch of people who should be startup-fucking-rich to older-but-wiser-poor.

But there’s an important thing to realize about our example. If you’re dumb enough to “trust” this guy, and you do get into a voluntary departure situation, it’s his job to screw you in that situation. A CEO’s responsibility is to the corporation, not to YOU. And the bigger the stakes, the more obligated he is to screw you.

Now I’m not saying to never trust anyone. What I’m saying is that you’re worrying about the wrong guy. As a techie negotiating a co-founder agreement the person you really can’t trust is yourself. You don’t negotiate stuff for a living, legalese is harder to understand than bad Objective-C, and you really, really, really just want this agreement to be done so you can go back to writing the damned code. You know this and it’s scary. You need help. What do rich people do when they need help? They hire it.

The real problem is not that suits are untrustworthy. It’s that guys like me are too lazy to find a decent lawyer and too cheap to pay him. Which leads us to Rodley’s Second Law of Negotiation:

If you’re struggling with a founders agreement, shut up about the shady suits, find a fucking lawyer and pay him his fucking money or go be a W2 slave like everyone else.

Once you engage that help, it turns the issue from an emotional issue of who to trust and how much, to a technical execution issue of finding the right lawyer and paying him his fucking money. And if there’s one thing us code monkeys are good at, it’s execution.

Mistakes … I’ve Made A Few

… but then again, too few to mention.  Ah yes, I’m dating myself with that reference but if I don’t, who will?

I spend a lot of time slagging the business guys and believe me, they’ve earned it.  That said, even when the business guys weren’t in the building, mistakes were made, and if you looked at them a certain way, you might even attribute a scintilla of responsibility for some of these missteps to me.

So without further ado, here are the autopsy results from a few of the ones I think I understand and am willing to admit to.  Believe me, there are a few that are worth their very own post, and there are a few I’m taking to the grave with me.

Waiting too long to fire underperformers

lucyshowTrue story: I inherited this guy from another manager, and he was useless – “hello world” useless.  Not only that, but he had no shame about dragging other people in to get him out of whatever hole he’d coded himself into.  I watched for a couple of days and saw, in action, one of the fixed axioms of software: there is no upper limit to the amount of damage a low-performer can do.  Watching three people try to debug “Hello wo$#%@%^!” for this knucklehead proved that.  But, one of the few professionals we employed at the time was our HR person who told me how firing was done:

  • written warnings
  • improvement plan
  • constant monitoring and feedback
  • deadline for improvement

This was before I knew what an “at will” employee was.  So … a month later, after wasting countless hours on this guy and on a day when he brought in food for the entire team, I fired him.

That was a lack-of-aggression mistake.  I had the juice to just deal with it, but I asked for guidance and got timidity instead.  It still grates.  We were in a “hot” space and had great IP.  Deals and very important people were swirling around us.  We were running out of runway.  And I wasted a month firing an at-will employee who would never be more than a bad coder.  This episode and the fact that we went Chapter 7 are probably unrelated.  Probably.

Quick and dirty coding

flappingEven if you’re God’s gift to technology, you’re gonna commit crimes against computer science on your way to the promised land.  If you’re a huge dumbass you’re gonna commit lots of those crimes and for terrible reasons.  Let me illustrate:

  • In the early days of one venture, I wrote some C++ Win32 code that I wasn’t particularly proud of – lots of global variables, timing hacks, failsafe graphic refreshes – stuff I knew would need a rewrite.
  • In the later days of another venture, I wrote a pile of equally dreadful C# Web Services. Not thread-safe, non-transactional SQL, duplicate code everywhere …

In the first case, I was alone, literally doing the best I could and had to hit deadlines or we’d lose a contract.  In the latter case, I was bored and wanted to write code, but I had plenty of help and was just too lazy to do it right.  Equivalent crimes, but motive matters. You could also consider the latter a case of taking too long to fire a low performer – myself.

Bad Leases

leaseMy last venture launched when my kids were 20 months and 1 month old respectively.  If you can work in a small house with two children under two years old, you’re a better man than I.  That’s focus.  Me, I have noise cancelling headphones and a nice home office with a door that locks and I still couldn’t do it.  For awhile I was a nomad, I worked everywhere, Starbucks (g*d****d fruit flies!), the bar at Chilis, the commuter boat .. even the lobby of the Boston Harbor Hotel. I still have their guest wireless access code that we paid 10$ for back in 2005.  But all that’s barely better than working with a one year old in your lap.

So we sublet space at a lawyers office and that early space was key, not a mistake at all because some of us needed it, and some of us needed to be together  But space takes on a life of its own.  There came a moment when we had more people than the lawyers office could hold, but we weren’t in a position to make a decent deal for space anywhere tolerable.  People started piling up.  We weren’t happy.  The lawyers weren’t happy.  There were people (yours truly) making demands about location.  The pressure mounted.

What should we have done at that moment?  Gone virtual, at least partly.  Would it have been a pain in the ass to manage?  Yup, but lots of worthwhile things are a pain in the ass.  What did we do instead?  We made a deal for more space than we actually needed or could use.  Dreadful space.  No build-out, horrible floor plan, nasty carpet, 8 thermostats none of which controlled the temperature, lighting better suited to a Turkish prison and as a bonus we got the landlord as a shareholder.  When our exit came, we were still in the same shitty space because part of the shitty deal was a lock-in.  Maybe I didn’t make the deal, but I made it all but inevitable that a deal like that had to be made.

What kind of mistake was this? Failure to look at the big picture maybe, but actually more just inexperience. I didn’t know the space bit until I’d lived in it for awhile.

Shooting from the hip

cf-yulBrynnerWestworldIf you have any success with your startup – last a few years, hire a few people, get some traction – you get pretty good at shooting from the hip.  The first technology that pops into your head does the job, the first algorithm you think of is “good enough”, your first take on an interviewee proves out.  You’re a bright guy and it never takes you more than 90 seconds to figure anything out.

Trouble is, with all that shooting from the hip, you forget how to do it right – the take-a-deep-breath-aim-and-fire method.

Guy comes into my office with a code problem.  He lays it out, I get impatient and my mind starts to wander, eyes start to glaze over and as he gets toward the end I lose patience and blurt out “Just do X” where X is something plausible, but probably quick and dirty.  Usually, my saying “Just do X” ends the conversation but this time the guy doesn’t move.  He just stands there because, first of all he likes to do things right, and second, X isn’t plausible, in fact it’s stupid, and proves that I wasn’t listening and just want him out of my office.  I realize in a flash that I’ve been doing this to this poor guy for months.  What I kidded myself was decisive and incisive, was actually glib and dismissive.  I tell him “okay, sit down and start over” and force myself to focus patiently on the problem.  And whenever he comes back to my office, I take a deep breath and do it all over again. Leading sucks sometimes.

You can file this one under “scaling with the organization” I guess. It took me awhile but eventually I learned to stop looking at my own navel long enough to actually manage my crew.

So there are some of my mistakes. Got any good ones you’d like to share?

Networking for Dummies

When you’re in the swirling cauldron of a seed stage startup you pull out all the stops.  No hour of the day goes unworked, no dirty coding trick goes uncoded, no rock remains unturned.  Just Do It is a reflex, not a tactic.  JFDI is dangerous and fun and “living on the edge” and that’s why we do it.  There is one area of startup life though where I wish that I had Just Not Done It and that’s handing over connections to non-technical co-founders to help the business.

I have had some version of the following happen at nearly every startup I’ve worked at, with at least two striking examples that still sting years later.


Me: Hey Mr. CEO, I talked to my buddy, Mr. X and his good friend, Mr. Y is a VP of BizDev at <major player in our industry>.  I told him what we’re doing (without including the fact that we’re out of money and missing payroll), he told Mr. Y about us and he’s really interested.  Here’s his number, he’s expecting your call.

Mr. CEO: Great. Thanks.

Two weeks later.

Me: Hey – did you talk to Mr. Y?

Mr. CEO: Who?

Congratulations!  You just burned a whole branch of your network.  And I say you did it, not your CEO because, guess what, your network is your responsibility not his.

Sometimes it’s even worse when they do make the call.  I’ve actually had a connection ping me back after meeting my CEO and say, literally “Hey, good luck to you guys, but oh my god you’re going to need it.”  My guy might’ve worn the wrong color tie, or he might have peed on the rug like an overexcited shih tzu.  I never found out because I wasn’t there.

This is the downside to what is usually A Good Thing for a CEO – the lack of a conscience. I use that term conscience in both the usual Webster’s sense of not taking other’s feelings into account, and in the sports-metaphor sense of a basketball point guard who can throw up a string of airballs and still keep shooting as if he were God’s gift to the sport.  Think about Jack Dorsey and Square.  When Square launched he gave three consecutive interviews where he told different stories about what the Square business model was.  Each time, he stepped up and told a new story as if the previous interview had never happened.  That’s “no conscience”.  For you old-timers out there, think Andrew Toney.

How does this lack of conscience affect your relationship to Mr. CEO? Well, it means that your feelings, your life outside the shared venture and more pointedly your life after the shared venture mean nothing to him.  On balance, that is A Good Thing.  At worst, it’s Not A Big Deal.  You’re in this for the money.  But on a strictly personal level your connections are not as valuable to him as they are to you. To him, it’s found-money. If he burns that connection it’s no loss to him.

Knowing what I do today, here’s what I’d do differently in those situations:

  • Make the contact myself, alone, in person (i.e. face-to-face or by phone).  Your network is valuable to you, and this person is a valuable part of that network.  Treat him that way.
  • Own the relationship.  Don’t make the intro and then forget about it.  Follow up with both sides and if somebody’s feeling burned, fix it.

The chance to “do business together” even if it’s just a chance for him to help you is an opportunity for you to strengthen your connection to this guy and thus, strengthen your network.  And, in the not-inconceivable event of your CEO treating this connection like dirt, the blowback will be against him, not you.  The worst case you want coming out of this is your connection thinking “Jeez, Jack’s a nice guy, I hope he wakes up and joins a company that doesn’t have a fool for a CEO”.

Personally, I wouldn’t do it at all – hand over bizdev contacts to a non-technical co-founder.   Think about it.  If my connections are the difference between life and death for our venture, we’re fucked.  At the very least, we have the wrong CEO.  And that’s A Bad Thing.