This is a story about what happens when bullies grow up. The same kids that used to tease us for our love of gadgets, push us into lockers, glue Kick Me signs on our backs. Those kids grow up. They dont stop bullying. They just keep taking and exploiting.
The problem for them is: we are the powerful ones now.
It started innocently enough. An old friend posted an open call on our local developer slack channel:
Anyone interested going to the Started Weekend [sic] as part of a dream team of developers? Essentially, Id like to join up with 2 or 3 other seasoned developers and we cherry pick whichever random startup that appeals to us that weekend. (Im also working on a odd never-used-before legal document Im calling a Speculative Stock Warrant. It is a ways to get a small kick-back if startup goes big 10 years later.)
Some of us expressed interest, and just like that it was done. The organizer dubbed us Team Paladin, a team of four battle-tested veterans. Our plan was set into motion. The team made arrangements to meet up and discuss the approach, the technology stack to use, etc. I live some distance away from the college town where the closest Startup Weekend is hosted, so I made plans to connect briefly on Day 1 of the event, a Friday. My little brothers birthday. I would be sacrificing family time to go participate.
I rolled into the restaurant and John was staring at the screen of his laptop, focused. He took a phone call with a lawyer friend while I waited, and when he hung up, he mentioned that they had been drafting copy for a contract that he intended to sign with the pitchman of whatever idea we adopted.
Ill be honest: I thought it was a huge longshot and wasnt that concerned. All advice I read in the startup arena advises to be ready to sacrifice the next 5+ years of your life in the pursuit, and most tech startups have abysmal failure rates. Still, if John thought this was worth going after, sure, umbrella me under your ask: 0.4% each for our efforts over the weekend.
We left and reconnected a couple hours later at the event venue. When I got there I was introduced to the third and fourth members of Team Paladin: Brad and Jason. I recognized them from posts from Twitter, and from the Google Group of the local makerspace. I knew we were going to work pretty well together.
While I was sitting waiting for the pitches to commence, a gentleman made his way into the seat next to me and began making small talk. The guy introduced himself as Billy, and asked if I was pitching. I wasnt, he wasbut he didnt want to spoil the concept. Nearly two hundred people had filled out the main room, and the master of ceremonies kicked off the event.
An (extremely) energetic and funny Startup Weekend coordinator had some brief and encouraging words to say. Pay attention to what your team can accomplish this week, and then take that energy and keep going! You can do it!
She took a second to make a specific point about the value of ideas. Ideas? Let me tell you something. Everyone has an idea. They dont mean anything. What matters is execution. Find a team here this weekend that has the skills to help you execute.
These are generally wise words that quickly become obvious to anyone that has launched into a tech startup before. Some ideas do matter. The Manhattan Project was a pretty valuable idea. PageRank was a very valuable idea. Peter Thiel calls these secrets.
This was not one of those ideas.
After hanging a poster board with a poorly illustrated StartupCo logo on it, Billy spoke with authority. He had a chiseled look, blonde hair, slick haircut. Obviously no stranger to the gym. A restaurant owner himself, he explained the trouble with walk-in applicants. You lose the resumes, or you throw them away. How do restaurants and small businesses today handle their recruiting artifacts? Most dont, or do it poorly.
He explained StartupCo.com will allow restaurants to direct applicants to a website to submit their application/resume online to be sorted later.
Ok, sounds good. He wants to solve his own problem. There are no customer interviews to do here outside of the team. I know there are already applicant tracking systems, but maybe not for this vertical. Would restaurants have their own specific needs that other ATS dont fill? If he says he would pay for this, there must be others like him., I thought.
Others thought so too. After listening to a few other ideas get pitched (a bluetooth-enabled doggie fence, an online shop for eSports merchandise, an app connecting tenants and landlords), everyone left to vote for their favorite ideas and assemble into teams. Team Paladin reconvened and most of us had floated the StartupCo idea to the top of our shortlist. So Brad broke off to go bring Billy back and propose the idea of us all working together.
Billy brought along four other developer/designers he was already chatting with: Josh, Clay, Hayden, and another John.
Our John, Team Paladin John, then went on to introduce ourselves and his idea for us to take 0.4% after helping launch the startup this weekend. That way should anyone go forward with the work product and it become a big success, at least theres some kickback if this thing goes nuclear unicorn.
It was a bit awkward then, because it was unclear if the other guys would want to umbrella under similar terms, and who would be interested in continuing a concept forward if we felt productive after the weekend.
John explained that hed spoken with Startup Weekend organizers and was told that contracts arent allowed from the event, so he asked for a handshake deal. Billy said he was happy with a handshake deal, and quickly moved the conversation forward without any handshaking actually taking place.
Do you think we can actually build the whole site in a weekend?, he asked us.
It didnt cause any hesitation. The devs all looked at each other, quickly and simply responding No.
But.. You know, I mean, enough to show good progress.
And with that, and without much other option, that sealed it. Lets do it! So we all hunted and quickly found a place to start working.
Its a common problem, I call it the Tower of Babel problem. Its what happens when you take a sample of random developers and throw them together. We all have different experiences, different preferred technologies. What platforms/frameworks will we use? Do we speak any common languages? The lowest common denominator.
It was about to be PHP. We settled on Python.
Heres how that feels as a developer. Its not a bad language, its just not MY language. Its like being a guest to a dinner party. I have a ton of experience eating. Im actually good at it now, I havent choked on food in years. Its just, well, where do you keep the plates? Wheres the silverware?
We worked. Hard and fast. We split into working groups. Frontend, backend, and bizdev. Many of us in the group could have operated up and down the stack or on the business. One of our team started a company from his house and grew to almost 200 employees.
My group, we tackled the backend starting with the database modeling. One-to-one or one-to-many? Will resumes be referenced to a candidate or a candidates specific application? Do companies have multiple locations?
Lines and arrows.
During our whiteboarding of this Entity-Relationship Diagram, Billy came in the room. Im so pumped. I just talked to my partner in Texas, hes pumped too.
Whos that?, someone responded. Curious.
My best friend, wed been talking about this idea for months and hes sick hes not here. Hes wondering if he should come up.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Tell him to drive up! Thats only a 10 hour drive or so right?, someone said. Much too early to be getting spooked. We have nothing yet.
Yea, maybe.. Well see., Billy replied, and left towards the frontend breakout room.
Here you go JP, for next time.
Fast forward about five hours. Its 3am and Billy must be snoring right now. John, J Michael, and I remain. But were fading fast and we recognize well be more effective after a recharge.
Home. Sleep. Alarm. Coffee. Drive. Hack. Refresh. Hack some more. All. Day. Long.
Everyone was working hard. Even Billy. I hadnt heard the calls (he always left the room), but ever so often we would get a report from sales/bizdev: Good news, guys! I just got off the phone with Addisons. Theyre onboard. or A regional manager at Aldis wants this, he said if it works hell run it up the chain! What if we landed the whole account!?
5pm. Frontend is converting wireframes into actual HTML/CSS.
What do you think about the navigation items, Billy? Should we leave the about page up there? Maybe put photos of the team?, somebody said.
Oh, I dont care. Take it down, or just write whatever gay shit you want there.
Woah, Billy, man its 2015 and I dont think you can say that now., I said.
Awkward silence. Some tapping on keyboards. We all wish that didnt just happen but it did. Please apologize. Will you please?
Yea you can! yea you can, its not a big, Billy trails off. Were cringing. No backup for Billy, but somebody throws a life raft. Starts another technical thread. Migrations arent running. Need to drop and re-create the database. Make sure you get it on the next Heroku deploy, will you?
Did that just happen? Yes. Ugh.
8pm. I look up and everyones working hard. I mean heads down really pounding on it. It was a pretty good team, even if we were inexperienced working together.
This would have made a nice photo for the About page.
Hey, Billy, I lead in, jokingly. When they hand you the first place prize, make sure you find a way to throw us all under the bus and take full credit.
Haha, yea. Ill say, all I had to do was find a bunch of fucking nerds to build it.
Some laughs. But nervous laughter.
You know those jokes where youre sort of joking but sort of not? You know that bully that dresses you down and then when you start to complain, its justHey! Cant take a joke?!
You know that guy that squeezes your hand just a little too hard in a handshake? Why do they do that?
Why did he say that? Pass that off as a joke, but deep down I know he kind of means that.
We are the nerds. We are important. We are not fungible.
We built this internet.
We are not second class to you because you dress in a button-down and joined the right frat. Work out at the right gym. Send your kids to the right private school. Interned for the right consulting firm. Got born into the right money.
Actually, we are in charge now. You just havent realized it yet. Automate or be automated. If you dont know how to map out complex systems. If you never got grounded as a kid for taking things apart. If you are too lazy or unwilling to learn our ways. If you dont work for us yet, you soon will. Because software is eating the world.
2am. Dj Vu. Just me and J Michael again now. Rubbing my eyes. Lets just put a pin in this and crush it in the morning.
Home. Sleep. Alarm. Snooze. Alarm. Sleep. Screw it.
Im not going in. Im not going to help this guy win when he treats people that way.
I was just going to spend the rest of the day with family and then make the long drive home. But then John texted me.
I am Bobbys nagging sense of team loyalty
Maybe I owe it to the rest of the guys. Judging is half a day away anyway. Just show up at least.
I couldnt help myself though, and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to convince Flask to store uploaded profile images into SQLAlchemy LargeBinary columns.
Time for the presentations!
Very impressive. A lot of teams much smaller than ours pulled off some amazing stuff. One startup even gathered $250K worth of LOIs.
Billy made it a point early in the day to charm somebody into letting him present last. You want to be fresh in the judges minds, was the advice.
We all lined up as Billy took the microphone in one hand, and read from his script in the other.
Or maybe it was just an outline. Because not 20 seconds into the delivery hes already stumbling on the word process and needed prompting from the audience.
If you forgot what Billy looked like, youll always remember after sitting through our presentation. Thats because Billys face is on most of the slides. I wish I was kidding.
Ill cut to the chase. We won! Or maybe just Billy won? Im not sure.
And thats fine. It wasnt shocking that somebody needed to be receptive to press, to hold the prize packet, and to be the name and face for an easy story. Well maybe thats not fine, but thats not the major issue.
What happens next is the issue.
The afterparty after a Startup Weekend is pushed out about a week after the night of the judging. Thats because theres only one winning team and everybody else is exhausted and disappointed.
If Im Billy, Im probably ripping open the packet in front of the team. Probably Im even inviting everybody back to the bar at my restaurant to celebrate. What Im not doing is letting my team just hover around me while I field the press interviews. But, Im not Billy.
Billy didnt thank or congratulate the team that night. He didnt call, say anything on our slack channel, or even send an email the next day. He wasnt in his restaurant when I walked in to chat with him. He wasnt there. I left my phone number but Billy didnt feel like talking.
I started to worry a little.
Then I just started complaining loudly. Finally he popped into chat.
Billy had a busy day, and it turns out his buddy JP did too, because that day he became owner/operator of StartupCo!
Congratulations on the new gig! Whoever you are.
In fact, Billy decided not to address the entire team through email until Tuesday night at 9:50PM. Between judging and this email, thats almost as long as we all spent building StartupCo over the weekend!
So this is where my narrative ends. This is where the copypasta starts. The words speak for themselves.
I feel disgusted.
I know its uncomfortable, I do. I know its much easier to shrug it off and keep the peace. But we cant do that.
When guys like Billy win, we all lose. Please, stop letting guys like Billy win.
[Its at this point some of the other guys privately agreed with me on slack..]
[now back to Billy.]
These days Billy can still be found pitching our work at empty meeting rooms around the community.