Methuselah@startupinc.com

Silicon Valley recruiter Morgan Missen (@mm) raised a storm back in January with an innocuous, if annoyed, tweet:

Saying you have twenty years of experience on your résumé only means you’re forty; and, much like being forty, it’s nothing to brag about.

— Morgan Missen (@mm) January 23, 2013

Now having done my own recruiting for most of the last fifteen years, I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands of resumes and I know exactly what she meant.  And in the free-for-all that followed, Missen made the point that “waving 20 years of experience in people’s face” is a job-search anti-pattern.  This is intuitively obvious. We’ve all been there.  The guy with 20 years experience on his resume gets in-house and becomes the guy who is somehow ‘not with the program’ constantly pulling out his trump card – I’ve been doing this for 20 years!

dragonI’ve been doing this for twenty years too, and it counts for not a lot.  There’s not much call for experts in Easel, OS/2, or the DEC PC.  But “not a lot” is not “nothing”.  What I have gotten out of all that is a kind of sixth sense about dragons. If there’s a dragon about, I get a sense of that long before I can actually see it or describe it. I think that’s what distinguishes me from the brilliant minds in this business. At the point where I can only sense the dragon, the brilliant can describe it in detail and tell you how to kill it.  It doesn’t look  like a dragon to them.  But I digress.

Is there a value in being able to sense dragons at a distance, and if there is, then why does this industry value not having that sense?  More instincts are better, right? The answer isn’t going to make anyone happy. Most startups fail.  In the trenches, what that often means is that you’re doing stuff that probably won’t work, doesn’t work when you try it anyway, and in hindsight obviously wouldn’t have worked**. Even in startups that succeed, you’re often doing things very badly, (see Zuckerberg, Mark here).  You have to be willing to do that and guys who’ve had long careers in the biz usually aren’t.  You have to be willing to walk into the dragon’s lair with only harsh language (Objective C?) and an unwavering faith in the job market to protect you.  You have to be willing to be eaten or burnt to a crisp doing something you knew all along would lead to you being eaten or burnt to a crisp. And you have to be willing to do it on the orders of a guy who’s twenty years younger than you.  With a smile on your face. And a song in your heart.  And laugh about it afterwards.  While you watch the company’s seed capital dribble away.

A culture’s irrational prejudices are over the top expressions of its core values. “It doesn’t matter what you look like” turns into “you have to look like you wouldn’t belong in an IBM office”, an entire industry springs up to cater to that anti look and voila, you have a new dress code.  So it is with age-discrimination in startup-land.  “Demonstrated startup attitude” in a job description turns into “you have to look like you don’t not-have the startup attitude” in person and suddenly guys who look like they could slap you around with 20 years experience are unemployable.  A core-value, startup attitude, becomes a prejudice i.e. sorry Grampa, we’re pulling an all-nighter and when it’s over we’re having a pushup contest to determine who’s the bro-est of the bro-grammers and you don’t look up to it.

Is that sad for me, doomed from here on out to be methusaleh@startupinc.com?  Yeah, a bit.  Like most developers I’ve benefited from plenty of prejudices over the years and I’m probably still way ahead in that game.  Knowing that, however, doesn’t help much when you’re competing with 25 year olds for attention at a pitch competition, or for a tech lead gig at a ten-man startup.  Boo fucking hoo.  As any waitress over forty could say “welcome to our world”.

**This means that, as you suspected, your CEO is a dumbass.  Which is one of the core-values of this blog, and thus becomes a prejudice. Which is sad for CEOs because they have to do stuff that “everyone knows won’t work” because you can’t make something new doing stuff that “everyone knows will work”, which means that it usually sucks to be a CEO.  Boo F Hoo.

HR WTF

This is a bit off the beaten path for me, but this blog post about a banal Facebook recruiting fail got me thinking about it again so I figured I’d blast it out there. The last time I did any serious hiring I had the good fortune to work with a recruiter who was not only good, but had been with the company for a few years. Sadly, this is not the norm, and I expect it explains a lot of what went wrong with that Facebook fail.

When I worked with my favorite recruiter, I noted with some alarm that the HR department around him was a swirling mass of more or less temporary HR people. I was often thrust into conversations with HR people I’d never heard of, and when I went looking for them weeks or months later they were disappeared.

So I started paying attention. When people recruited me, I checked their profile on LinkedIn. When I couldn’t find a profile, I just asked them, and guess what? It is a rare in-house recruiter who’s been at his/her job more than 6 months. WTF?

recruitingThese recruiters always told me what a great company it was and how I’d be a great fit blah blah blah and all I could think was: “How would you know? In all likelihood I know more about this company than you do, and on top of that I’ve got a better chance of going to their next Christmas party than you do”.

So what’s the deal people? Why is there such high turnover in HR? Are they just slightly more disposable than the rest of us? I’m guessing that there’s not a recruiting war going on out there for HR people, but maybe there is. And from the company’s side, why would you tolerate such turnover amongst the guardians of corporate culture? Tell me about it. I’m all ears.

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.

… just don’t call me late for dinner

Naming a company always sounds like a fun idea until you’ve tried it once. Today’s post by Dustin Dolginow reminded me how much I hate the exercise of naming a venture.

Hello, my name is dumbassI’ve lived with some spectacularly ill-monikered ventures, and with the pain of trying to get their names right. At one of my earliest ventures, we held an in-house contest to rename the company. The guy who suggested that and picked his own entry as the winner still has a contract out on his life. At another place, a co-founder was smitten with a name that was almost literally a synonym for invective. At a third, the name sounded like Elmer Fudd trying to describe how mad he gets when Bugs Bunny outsmarts him for the umpteenth time – “I was Wivid!”.

Those were other people’s mistakes. Surely I could do better left to my own devices. No. At my only solo company-naming try, I came up with a bad synonym – Diabola – that was also a lame attempt at cute/clever/inside-joke. Don’t do it.

The name of my last venture, ROAM Data, was our CEO’s idea long before we even started the company. While it’s boring and remotely suggests horrid telco billing it remains at or near the top of the list for best company names I’ve been associated with. Boring works, mostly because it takes the issue off the table.

Remember, you’re going to have to say this 100 times a day for the next five years. Imagine saying “ROAM Data” to 100 people. Do you feel like an idiot? Nope. Did people have trouble with it? Nope, except for the 15% or so who need to know whether it’s ROAM or Rome. 15% spelling errors you can live with. Now imagine saying Wivid, or Diabola to the same 100 people. Do you feel like an idiot? Kinda – you probably apologized and made a joke out of it maybe half the time. The other half of the time you rolled your eyes. Did people have trouble with it? Umm, yes, at least all those who weren’t so distracted by the eye-rolling that they didn’t even try to remember it.

The other thing to remember about the name game (and this is where I disagree a bit with Dustin) is that you’re usually naming two things – the company and the product. The company name you’ll probably keep for a long time, but the product will get renamed, rev’d and replaced by follow-on products each of which gives you the opportunity to do something that isn’t boring. So if you have a boring company name you can live with it forever while your product can get the professional branding treatment it deserves as you can afford it.

Maybe you’ll think on it a bit, have lightning strike and come up with a name that’s short, easy to remember and evocative of the product function like Sonos. And maybe the Pope will stop shitting in the woods. If you’re name-challenged like I am, the choice is between boring and awful, so go with boring and take it off the table. But if you’re determined to get it right the first time, follow Dustin’s roadmap.

What’s the God-awfulest name you’ve had to work for?

Talking to myself

Startups are cool. You already knew that, of course. Oddly enough, the word has gotten around. Don’t believe me?

This is problematic for those of us who were never cool and actively avoided things that were. We’re startup people and suddenly startups are cool. This brings up a host of uncomfortable questions, the biggest one being:

Do I have to talk to these people?

The short answer is yes.

Most of us haven’t invented the next sliced bread. We think of ourselves as problem solvers who have picked a problem and decided to solve it. But if all you do is solve that problem you’ll be looking for a job in three years because someone else came along and built a company while they solved the same problem.  And how do you build a company?  With people – advisors, investors, co-founders and employees.  And you don’t find people sitting in your cube reading Fred Wilson’s blog or sifting resumes from craigslist.  Ask me how I know that.  You do it by getting out and getting people like that to believe in you and your idea.  You have to lead.

To all the engineers out there who have stepped outside their comfort zone and started their own thing I say this. You’ve stuck your neck out and convinced someone – angels, VCs, customers, co-founders – that you have what it takes to make This happen. You’re leading, and leadership is cool. Deal with it.

Rubber Stamp Rambo

So this guy comes into my office and says:

I need to take Monday and Tuesday of next week off.  Is that okay?

Of course it’s not okay.  Monday is a crucial day in the life of Startup Incorporated.  Never mind that it will be the 375th consecutive such crucial day.  Absolutely critical I tells ya.  Critical!

In my ventures over the last ten plus years, my CEOs gave me a hard time about every single vacation day I ever took.  Every. Single. One.  Three days, seven days, one day, half day – didn’t matter.  So in the spirit of being a real manager I tried, I really tried to think intelligently about whether in fact Monday was a good day for this guy to take off.  Once.  And my brain hurt so I stopped.  There is no answer to that question.

When someone comes to you with a vacation request, break out the rubber stamp, Rambo, and get stamping.  There is never a good moment for this guy to go on vacation so smile, rubber stamp it and wish him good luck at the D&D convention.