The Harry Project or Yet Another Modest Proposal

bouncingtherubbleThere’s a saying from a long-forgotten war, The Cold War, that goes something like

of the 30,000 nukes available to the two sides, in any war the last 29,900 of them would merely be bouncing the rubble of a dead civilization

When I hear about the competition for developers, especially the salary, that’s what comes to mind.  Now I’m speaking from an entirely Boston perspective so if you’re in SF you might as well look away now.  But it’s my sense that provably good mid-career devs are getting salary, bonus and liquid option packages in the 150 range.  That’s a broad statement, but I suspect that if I’m not spot-on it’s plus or minus 10k on either side.

Whether or not the number is right, it seems to me that 150 is bouncing the rubble.  It’s absolutely the case that all the good devs I know or have known don’t view money the way business guys or sales guys do.  A business guy knows that 150 is 10 more than 140 and thus 10 more attractive.  End of story.  For devs, compensation is a step function.  There’s enough, and not-enough.  That’s the way it’s always been for me.  I’ve taken a discount to market most of the time to work where I wanted.   Prospective employers can just pretend they didn’t hear that.

For those who learn through pictures, here’s how it looks:

MoneyHappinessBusiness MoneyHappinessDevs

Note that there is no “enough” on the business guy scale.  It’s my contention that today, in Boston, we’re well into the area between enough and lots.

I Call Bullshit

So you can get most devs for 2/3 of market if you’re doing something fun.   And all startups are fun.  So why aren’t devs flocking to found new ventures and taking a fairly safe but fun ride through startup land at a salary == enough?  Because that 2/3 of market doesn’t kick in until you have money, and the money chase rests on a big fat foundation of bullshit.  Specifically, this hoary old truism:

you don’t deserve funding until you prove that you can get a technical cofounder to work with you for nothing

Now there’s just a little bit of logic in that.  This being that a CEO has to be a good recruiter, has to have a vision and personality that makes people take risks just to join him.   But that’s where the sense in this ends.  Just as a simple for-instance, your CEO who does show up with technical cofounder in hand could have made any kind of jackass promise to this guy and you’ll never know it until the whole thing blows up in “founder issues” six months after you’ve given them money.  Or, as another simple for-instance, your CEO may recruit a guy from the pool of people willing to work for nothing – i.e. the guys who can’t get anything done.  Again, you find out six months after you’ve given him money when your V1 is just a pile of TODO comments.

CEOs with vision and charisma are thrashing around trying without any help to learn a skill that they will never use again – how to recruit and vet a technical cofounder.  Think about it, if the venture goes somewhere, they will get seed, and they’ll use that seed money to get people for 2/3 market.  In fact, they’ll start paying their tech cofounder 2/3 of market.  The skill of “getting a high-paid technical guy to leave his job and come work for you for nothing” will NEVER come into play again.
And I have the networking scars to prove this. Over the last six months I’ve talked to dozens of business founders desperately seeking technical cofounders. Many of them are serious people with good ideas that mostly don’t require new science, just solid execution of known science. But their window is closing while they spend day after day trying to convince the wrong people to leave overpaid jobs at Google to come work for nothing.
Thus, I posit the following:

The startup world is losing viable ventures simply because the founder can’t turn water into wine.

The Harry Project

harryIn The Great Escape (the real one) a tunnel code-named Harry allowed 70 POWs to escape.  Well, think of The Harry Project as a tunnel allowing devs trapped in corporate limbo to escape to startup land.  How would it work?

The Harry Project is a company that builds stuff, specifically MVPs and prototypes.  So far so good, not all that different from what some consultancies do on the side already.  Here’s the difference between Harry and everyone else:

  • Harry’s mission is to graduate projects from concept to fundable prototype or MVP
  • Harry takes a cut of the action, specifically the equity difference between what a pre-money technical cofounder gets and what a post-money technical cofounder gets.  Or it can take a mix of equity and cash, but never straight cash.
  • Harry takes projects it believes in, not the ones it can wring the most cash out of.
  • Each of Harry’s devs is expected to follow a project out the door as technical cofounder.
  • Employment is an up or out proposition.  Within two years you’ve either left as a technical cofounder, or gone back to corporate life.
  • Harry trains technical cofounders.  Its processes are relatively rigid, current best practice meant to make its devs good technical cofounders.
  • Harry’s devs all get the same salary, somewhere around 2/3 market.
  • Harry shows business founders how to work with devs and vets technical cofounders they might want to bring in from the outside.

An organization that’s part recruiter, part angel, part consultancy, part code academy that gets concepts off the ground and ready for angel or VC funding if it chooses to go that route. For devs, it’s an escape route when you’ve been to one-too-many meetings, a way to take a chance without bankrupting your family and risking homelessness. For business guys it’s a way to get to MVP and vet a technical cofounder without marrying him. For the right consortium of seed stage players it’s a no brainer. After all what’s the worst that could happen?

Update 1: Having read this over it’s clear that this was 3 blog posts in 1.  3X the bloggy goodness for  you, 3 wrist slaps for me for spending all my social networking capital in once place.

About JR
Software guy, startup guy, non-fiction glutton, south shore inhabitant

3 Responses to The Harry Project or Yet Another Modest Proposal

  1. andrej.sarkic says:

    does harry actually pay these people for 2 years?

    • JR says:

      Yup. But not market. Thats the gap youd need to close to make it work.

    • JR says:

      To be more precise, at some point toward the 18 month mark you’re down 500k before you start making it back up. And you only make it back up in the short-mid term if you’re really good at the contract development game and reap the diff between what you’re paying and market rate. As a consulting thing it’s a little better than break even at best. The home run is in the equity you take from the guys you help launch.

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