Wednesday, June 27, 2007

scenes from a Silicon Valley soap opera

The Set

It may not surprise you to learn that we have a lot of trouble living within our means. A giant mortgage, yuppie swimming lessons for the children, flocks of picky eater cats, a Drunken Housewife constantly buying books and bottles of blanc de noirs, sky-high property taxes... After a hideously expensive and soul-scarringly disgusting plumbing disaster, I tried working at home to bring in some extra money, but that proved to be logistically difficult. The consensus was reached that someone really needs to be without a paying job in order to keep the menage ticking along, but that also means someone else, someone very sober, needs to be bringing in massive amounts of cash to fund it all.

We managed to limp along financially until Lola was diagnosed with severe apraxia and we decided to start her in private, intensive speech therapy, which was not covered by our insurance. To pay for it, the Sober Husband took on a second job, doing some coding as a consultant on nights and weekends. Various people have suggested over the years (with the unspoken preamble invariably being if you just weren't so frigging lazy) that I should take a night job myself, as that would supposedly seem more fair, but in fact I was taking a night and weekend job myself: looking after the children without assistance or a break and doing much more housework than a Drunken Housewife is accustomed to performing. It was indeed more difficult to watch the children when their so intriguing and potentially entertaining father was locked up in his basement lair concentrating on his side job, and three year-old Lola was given to pounding on the door and screaming, "Dada! Dada!"

Scene 1: Hanging On the Telephone

The Sober Husband's first consulting gig was coding for a couple of Indian sysops who had an idea about software management tools for system administrators. This was fine at first, and my running joke was that these fellows were working for Anton, as they used their day job checks to pay him to create their software for their largely hypothetical start-up. But soon it soured, since these guys were not technically savvy and they were far too gabby. They required unbelievable amounts of handholding and telephone explanations for everything, which they felt should be free, and these constant phone calls were driving the Sober Husband insane. Additionally, they got tired of writing checks and kept riding their pet hobbyhorse, that the Sober Husband should work for equity. Not all equity is created equally, and this equity was not so appealing to us, besides the fact that Lola's speech therapist did not accept equity.

Eventually things reached an impasse, where the Sober Husband and the Indian sysops could not define the parameters of what should be done next (this was in large part due to the non-technical sysops inability to understand the complexities of coding), and he couldn't bear to continue the constant, unpaid lengthy phone calls yammering on and on about this. It seemed to him that he could spend that time spent on the phone talking about potential coding actually coding instead. So he decided to take a bold step and work on the software on spec, asking for payment after he'd created it all.

Over quite some time he worked like a fiend, and then he demoed the completed software, which was conceded to be a thing of beauty. What he got in return was a spate of pesky phone calls and annoying haggling with the constant "you should take equity" line, ending with the demand that he hand over his source code before payment was made. The Sober Husband first refused to provide the source code until he'd been paid. Eventually he stopped participating in these lengthy, exasperating phone calls. He never was paid, and he never turned over his code. It's all just a bad memory now (except that several months of speech therapy at $200 per week were funded, and Lola's speech was steadily improving).

Scene Two: Man or Ineffectual Machine?

It took practically no time for the Sober Husband to find another part-time consulting job, this time for a start-up developing computerized glass-front retail refrigerators which would conserve energy. He explained to the children that he was "building an army of robot refrigerators", which the children loved. This start-up seemed well-timed, as venture capitalists were besotted with green tech, and indeed this start-up already had a flow of venture capital.

Our household entered a golden age, with plenty of money and with the happy Sober Husband engaged in his work. The networking was also great, as the Sober Husband was meeting and mingling with venture capitalists. At the peak of this era, the husband was paid to fly to an industry conference to represent the company, along with the CEO and various board members (basically he was a metaphor, representing the mighty software development capacities of the fledgling start-up). As a paid-by-the-hour contractor, being flown somewhere for days is the Holy Grail, and we were very happy (although of course the children were crabby over their father's absence).

Thoreau once advised, "I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," and we should have thought of that when we were buying the Sober Husband new clothes for the conference. The charismatic, irascible founder was clashing with his venture capital funders. The founder was eccentric and, in the vein of entrepreneurs, spawned many anecdotes. My favorite story was the time he dropped a plastic bag containing a bottle of tequila. The bottle shattered, but the founder carefully preserved the plastic bag full of loose tequila and jagged shards and carried it all the way across the city. I wondered if perhaps it were Patron or another top dollar, carefully aged yuppie tequila, but no, it was just a cheap supermarket tequila.

The venture capitalists, who sensibly enough dominated the board of directors, insisted upon installing a new CEO. The founder was to have a lower title but an ongoing role in the company, but of course he still had a substantial equity stake in the company. The founder did not take kindly to this. At the next board meeting, the founder walked in with his personal lawyer by his side and, citing his shareholder rights, the founder dramatically fired the new CEO and reestablished himself as CEO.

The venture capitalists were disgusted, the funding dried up, and most of the board members resigned. The founder was king again, but his kingdom lay under a mighty drought, and he asked his brave knights to work for equity until again the rains of venture capital might fall. The Sober Husband refused to work for equity (and indeed, his last bill for about $25,000 languished unpaid).

However, he didn't leave without hearing the story of how the coup was accomplished. It turns out that the founder had gone for a consultation with a lawyer, who listened to his tale of woe of the Big, Bad Venture Capital Firm that gave so much money but insisted upon putting in a chosen CEO. When the founder was done talking, the lawyer leaned forward and said, "The only question is: do you have balls or ball bearings?" Of course, there's only one answer a testosterone-ridden, tequila drinking entrepreneur can give to that. Make a potentially disparaging remark about a man's genitals, and the next thing you know, he's committed to a corporate war.

Every now and then the Sober Husband gets a phone call suggesting that he help the refrigerator founder work up a demo, which he declines politely enough. In a few weeks, he'll be starting at a new company where the terms of his employment explicitly forbid outside contracting, and so for now we must draw a curtain over this particular stage.

7 comments:

Green said...

I vote that the sober husband be paid the way attorneys are paid - by getting a retainer up front.

2amsomewhere said...

I was going to suggest that the Drunken-Sober residence be taken over by some private equity organization, since that seems to be all the rage these days. But then I thought about the animals and how they might get liquidated in a cost cutting move. It got too sad to ponder thereafter.

Never mind.

--
2amsomewhere

Freewheel said...

Scene 3: A start-up of your very own.

Scene 4: Microsoft buys you out.

Scene 5: You revel in your millions.

A. said...

Our start up makes money. Maybe your sober husband should talk to us.

the Drunken Housewife said...

He's starting the geek glamour job of his dreams in a few weeks, and the terms of his employment explicitly forbid outside contracting (he worked it out with his prior start-up that he could do side gigs). This is at a nice pay level... a little below the level when the side contracting was paying well and the cash was flowing so freely, but enough that we SHOULD be able to live nicely without incurring debt.

Green, it would be nice to get a retainer, but he was working under the conventions of the software consulting business (send a bill in every month). In both instances, things went along fabulously for quite a while, with the bills being paid in a timely manner, and then it went south. We've kissed the $25k we're owed good-bye; we'll never see that money, but on the bright side, we got some good cash before that from the refrigerators.

Jack's Raging Mommy said...

See? This is more proof that coding is the root of all evil.

Hope something works out for you guys.

hughman said...

All My Coding? General Hospitable? The Young and the Checkless?