Sometimes a computer programmer needs to fire their entrepreneur

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I do not know Josh Weinstein and for all I know he is a really great guy, and very trustworthy. None of my remarks here should be regarded as aimed at Josh.

However, I am a computer programmer who has worked with a lot of inexperienced entrepreneurs. In the style of the movie Rashamon, I feel like I could write something like Josh’s post, where the same events happen yet they have a completely different meaning when told from a different point of view. Certainly, I’ve had conversations that sort of resemble what Josh describes, and I could pick out the various bits that I, too, would mark as “Red Flags”, but for me the red flags concerned the entrepreneur that I was working with.

Again, these comments are not about Josh. But I feel like I’ve often played a role similar to that played by the developer he describes. And I’ve backed out of projects at the last minute, just like this developer did. I will here try describe what some of these discussions have felt like on my end.

Week #1:

Entrepreneur: I’m really excited to have you as part of this project!

Me: I’m really excited to be a part of this project!

Entrepreneur: Tracking which ads get clicks in videos is going to be huge!

Me: I think it will change things in a disruptive way and it will be exciting for independent content producers.

Entrepreneur: Exactly, we are going to empower them with information so they know exactly what they can charge!

Me: You understand that this project is too large for me to tackle alone?

Entrepreneur: Of course! That’s why I’m putting together a team with diverse talents.

Me: Great! Who else do you have on board?

Entrepreneur: I’ve been talking to a guy in Britain who is really excited about this. Also a guy in Romania. And I’ve got a friend, Tom, from my home town who is really into this.

Me: Well, if they are all good, then, yes, a team of 4 programmers would be perfect to get this started.

Entrepreneur: Of course. I mean, just to ramp up. We’ll hire more later.

Me: And all of these people are willing to work just for equity? None of these people need money?

Entrepreneur: Everyone is excited to be part of this!

Me: Hmm, okay. Well, I’ll be free in 2 weeks and I look forward to ramping up the operation then. How about we do a big Skype call with the whole team at that time?

Entrepreneur: Sounds good!

2 weeks later:

Me: Okay, I’m free now. Are we ready to do the big Skype call?

Entrepreneur: Sure! Tom has worked out the whole marketing plan! He’s going to describe it to us!

Me: Marketing plan? Tom is in charge of marketing?

Entrepreneur: Of course! That’s what he studied in school!

Me: Oh, my bad. For some reason I thought he was a computer programmer.

Entrepreneur: No, no, he’s our CMO. He and I have been working night and day to work out the details.

Me: Okay, I guess it would be good to hear how we might pitch this once its built. Are the other 2 programmers ready to Skype?

Entrepreneur: Oh, yeah, about them, the guy in England got a job at Goldman Sachs, and the guy in Romania won’t be free for another month.

Me: What??? Damn, that is a setback.

Entrepreneur: No, no, it’s good!

Me: What do you mean good?

Entrepreneur: It gives us more time to get the other details right!!!

Me: But what else matters if we don’t have any code?

Entrepreneur: That’s where you come in! You can write the code!

Me: But I already told you this project is way too big for one programmer to handle!!!

Entrepreneur: Don’t worry, I’ve got another guy, Bill, who is still in school but has promised he can give us 20 hours a week.

Me: 20 hours a week on top of full time school? Is that realistic?

Entrepreneur: This guy is amazing! He wrote his first complete software app back when he was just 4 years old! He knew Basic before he knew English!

Me: Uh, okay. Well, look, if he can pull it off, then that is great. Is Tom ready with the marketing pitch?

Entrepreneur: Tom, are you ready?

Tom: Sure! Well, for starters, after a lot of discussion, we came up with a name: VisionClaus! Because we offer people a vision, and we are giving away our vision like we are Santa Claus.

Me: Uh, um, how did you come up with that name?

Tom: Well, at first we were thinking of having the word “video” in our name, but then we decided that was too limiting.

Entrepreneur: Yeah, way too limiting.

Tom: So then we asked ourselves, what are we really about? And we realized we are about vision.

Entrepreneur: Yeah, exactly, all about vision.

Tom: And vision has a double meaning, of course, because you have to have vision, as in sight, to see video, but we also offer vision of a higher kind.

Entrepreneur: Yeah, much higher. We’re very high.

Tom: We offer a vision of the future.

Entrepreneur: Exactly. We don’t give a damn about the present. We’re all about the future.

Tom: But also, we have certain core values that we hold to be important.

Entrepreneur: This is the part that means the most to me.

Tom: Above all, we are generous. We want to help people.

Entrepreneur: I find this so moving, at an emotional level, to think about how many people we are going to help. I almost want to cry.

Tom: And who else is generous? Well, Santa Claus is generous.

Entrepreneur: Based on a Christian saint.

Tom: So we realized VisionClaus was the best name for us.

Entrepreneur: And, surprisingly, the domain was still available.

Me: Um, uh, um, okaaaaaaaay. Well, look, that’s a cool name and all, but in the short term, the most important thing we can do is write some code. So I think we need to focus on that for awhile.

Entrepreneur: Don’t worry! You’ll have a lot of help soon! Just start writing code now!

Me: Okay, give me a few weeks and I’ll try to come up with prototype.

4 weeks later:

Me: Well, it’s taken a lot of hacking but I think I got us a video player that handles diverse media types and tracks clicks.

Entrepreneur: Is that all it can do?

Me: Well, I’ve been working part-time. Where is that other programmer?

Entrepreneur: He is busy with school. But don’t worry! I’ve got another guy in India who really wants to help us! But I think we need to make this software more exciting!

Me: What do you have in mind?

Entrepreneur: Can you track eyeballs?

Tom: Yes, we need eyeball information.

Me: What do you mean?

Entrepreneur: Like, where are people looking on screen? What interests them?

Me: Uh, well, with specialized equipment, in a lab, we could track eyeballs and generate a heat map.

Entrepreneur: No, I mean, when folks are at home and they watch our videos.

Me: What are you talking about? Obviously we can’t track what people look at when they are at home, their home computers don’t track eyeball movements.

Entrepreneur: Oh, well, that is disappointing. There is no equipment that can do this?

Me: Yes, there is equipment that can track eyeballs, but no, most folks don’t have it at home. Or do you mean you want to mail them the equipment? Where would we get the money for that?

Entrepreneur: Then it’s possible? Really? Don’t worry about the money! We can raise the money!

Me: Wait a minute, if you can raise that kind of money then maybe you can start paying me something!

Entrepreneur: Oh, well, we can’t raise that much. Anyway, we gave you significant, very significant equity in this company!

Me: You gave me 2%, which I appreciate, but it was with the understanding that you’d start paying me once you had some money.

Entrepreneur: And we will! Just hang in their a little longer! Keep writing code! Tom and I are almost done with our investor pitch!

Me: Tom is helping with the investor pitch?

Entrepreneur: Of course! He’s our CIOO!

Me: What the hell is a CIOO?

Entrepreneur: Chief Investor Outreach Officer!

Me: Uh, okay.

Entrepreneur: Let’s meet in 2 weeks and we’ll show you our pitch!

Me: Okay.

2 weeks later:

Entrepreneur: Are you ready to hear our new investor pitch?

Me: Yes, I’m ready.

Entrepreneur: We are going to blow you away! We’ve working till midnight every night to perfect this, and, wow! It’s just going to blow you away!!!

Me: Okay, great, I look forward to hearing it.

Entrepreneur: Tom, read him the Executive Summary that we wrote for the business plan.

Tom: “The VisionClaus movement will put you in the driver’s seat of conscious, real-time human evolution.” *

Me: What?

Entrepreneur: It gets better!!!

Tom: “Humanity now faces an inflection point in its history. Creatures of communication, our societies will be transformed by the growing world awakedness facilitated by the revolution in communication technologies.”

Me: What?

Entrepreneur: It gets better!!!

Tom: “What sort of changes can we expect? Will these new technologies empower humanity or enslave the masses? Will we be uplifted to the mountain top, or dropped into the pit? Are we green? Are we social?”

Entrepreneur: What do you think?

Me: That is your Executive Summary????

Entrepreneur: Punchy, isn’t it?

Me: You have got to be kidding!!!

Entrepreneur: Uh, what? Why?

Me: What the hell are you selling? You didn’t even mention how you are going to make money!!!

Entrepreneur: We didn’t? Tom, did we say how we are going to make money?

Tom: Uh, hmmm, that must have gotten cut from the final draft.

Entrepreneur: We better put that back in.

Tom: Uh, okay. So, “monetizing the eyeballs of humanity’s new wakefulness?”

Entrepreneur: Was that our final version?

Tom: Uh, or maybe it was “Facilitating real time interaction among needers and givers of services in the new era?”

Entrepreneur: Let’s go with that.

Me: Don’t you think it would be better to state something a bit more concrete?

Entrepreneur: No, no, we’ve got to be about vision. It’s what makes us unique. Otherwise we’ll just be another fly by night startup with a cheap gimmick.

Me: Well, we could also write software that works.

Entrepreneur: Of course, of course, that is very important. Don’t you think that’s important, Tom?

Tom: Very important.

Entrepreneur: But at this early stage, it’s crucial that we impress people with our understanding of the larger picture.

Me: Look, I don’t know much about fundraising, but I don’t think your approach is going to work.

Entrepreneur: I’ll have you know we just had a meeting with the CEO of a $6 billion dollar company.

Me: What! Wow! That is incredible! How the hell did you pull that off?

Entrepreneur: With vision! We impressed him with our vision!

Tom: It’s true. He was impressed by our vision.

Me: But how did he hear about your vision? How did you get in front of him in the first place?

Entrepreneur: Oh, he was having dinner with my dad and I dropped in. They are old college buddies. But, listen, he was dazzled with our vision. And I believe he is going to invest $1 million dollars!

Me: Well, if that works out, then we are on our way!

Entrepreneur: We are on our way!

Tom: We’ve finally made it! After all our hard work! We’ve finally made it!

Me: So, I guess we have to give a demo?

Entrepreneur: What do you mean?

Me: I mean, of our software?

Entrepreneur: Why?

Me: Well, uh, he’s not going to invest $1 million dollars without seeing the software, is he?

Entrepreneur: hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.

Tom: Could be a serious roadblock.

Me: But I’ve got the prototype mostly working. We could explain that there’s still some bugs to fix and features to add. Surely he could see through the flaws and understand the basic idea of what we are trying to do?

Entrepreneur: The problem is, we’re no longer in the video space.

Me: What?

Tom: Yeah, the video idea was never that great to begin with.

Me: What?

Entrepreneur: I mean, YouTube is way ahead of us already when it comes to tracking clicks and stuff.

Me What?

Tom: If we could track eyeballs, then that would be different.

Entrepreneur: Yeah, see, if we were tracking people’s eyeballs, that would be innovative. I could sell that.

Me: What?

Tom: The billionaire dude seemed to like the idea of magnets.

Me: What?

Entrepreneur: Yeah, programable magnets. You put them next to each other and they use self-organizing principles, just like ants, to assemble themselves into the marketing slogans of various companies.

Tom: So like, magnets for Apple would self assemble into the words “Think Different”.

Entrepreneur: Like ants.

Tom: Self organizing.

Entrepreneur: We told him you could write the software in a week.

Tom: Can you do it?

Me: What?

Entrepreneur: You realize in a startup situation sometimes its important to pivot?

Tom: Especially in the face of setbacks in the marketplace.

Me: But we haven’t suffered a setback in the marketplace. We haven’t gotten to market yet!

Entrepreneur: That’s because you have failed to give us anything that we can use to raise funds from an investor to hire a team so we can build something that gets to market! We’re just trying to cover for your various failures!

Tom: Yeah, dude, and, to be completely frank about this, we’re kind of tired of always having to carry you.

Me: What?

Entrepreneur: But we are willing to give you a second chance. You just need to write the code for the self organizing magnets.

Tom: In a week.

Entrepreneur: Can you do it?

And then, surprisingly, I suddenly ended my relationship with this entrepreneur.

Follow up notes: I’m only exaggerating slightly in my description of the above events. There were really several discussions which, when described with perfect accuracy, draw a reaction of “That can not possibly be true.” But, yes, it really did all happen like that.

I have, above all, condensed events — things that played out over many months I’m here describing as if they occurred during a few weeks. I’d have to write a book to describe all the details. Other friends of mine were there with me, working at the same place, and I’m emailing them this thread on Hacker News, so they can comment if they wish.

The funny thing is, I worked with this entrepreneur, on and off, almost full time for 18 months, and part-time for longer, (sometimes paid, sometimes not) and after awhile I realized all the projects we worked on were doomed, because he lacked the seriousness to pull it off. And, funny thing, when I finally quit he threatened to sue me, and he said that I’d betrayed him, and he was very angry. It was a really odd situation.

All of this is to say, there are moments when a developer realizes they need to drop an entrepreneur. That is, sometimes the programmer needs to fire their entrepreneur. As you get to know an entrepreneur, you develop a sense about whether they are capable of pulling something off. Especially if you are working for equity, it really is crucial to believe the entrepreneur can succeed, because if they can’t, then you get nothing for all of your hard work. And if you have multiple offers in front of you, you’ve got to go with whichever entrepreneur seems the most likely to succeed.

Without money, written agreements have almost no value, even in the courts. If an entrepreneur can not pay a programmer, then a written agreement is worthless. Giving equity in a company that has no assets is sort of a joke, and it is a bit of a cruel joke if all the assets in the company need to be created by the programer themselves — in that case you (the entrepreneur) are basically offering to pay them with equity in themselves: “I’ll give you 5% of all of your hard work if you give me the other 95%.”

Anyway, I love startups and have spent most of the last 10 years working mostly with startups, and I have to say, if the entrepreneur doesn’t seem 100% solid, the programmer should just walk away.

* This is an actual sentence from an actual Executive Summary that I heard as it was read to Michael Donovan ( http://www.donovandata.com/about/executive-biographies.html#MichaelDonovan ) by someone who wanted money from him. I’ve only changed the name of the company that I “worked” for. I later got a copy of that business plan and I keep it with me as a sort of memento of a very strange time.

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