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Tech Confidential (Part Four)

Edited by Nan Wiener and Jenna Scatena | September 20, 2012 | Story Tech World

I met Kate* while she was still pregnant. By the time the baby was two and a half months old, I was living with the family and taking care of the boy full time. Then I began spending vacations and holidays with them, and felt like I was part of the family.

When her son was about to start preschool, Kate told me she had just quit her job to pursue her tech startup dream, so she wasn’t going to need me full time anymore. But she asked me to throw out some business ideas, so we could go in on one together. My friend and I had also been mulling a startup idea, but we didn’t have the experience or money to launch it, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

A week later, we pitched our idea for a family-service web site to Kate over wine at her dining room table. She loved it and told us not to tell anyone about it. “We wouldn’t want someone stealing it,” she said. Six months later, we had an office downtown and a small team that was building the site. Kate and her husband were able to invest in the company, and my friend and I earned our keep by promoting the site and doing admin work.

Then one night, when I was at Kate’s house watching her son, she casually slipped me some papers and said, “I need you to sign these. They’re just some things to help the company get started.” I asked if her lawyer had reviewed them, and she said yes. We were sort of family, so I figured her lawyer was my lawyer too. But the minute I handed back the papers, Kate turned into a total stranger.

Soon after that, I got a promotional email from someone identifying himself as the co-founder of the company. I’d never heard the name before. That was the first sign we were being edged out. Then Kate slowly stopped looping me in on company news. After that, a slew of articles started cropping up praising Kate for her innovative startup idea.

A family friend who’d founded a few successful startups herself told us, “You’re being screwed. I can have my lawyer take a look at the papers for you.” But it was too late—we’d already signed away all but .075 percent of our stake in the company.

We decided to confront Kate, and outline what we wanted and thought was fair. Instead of owning .075 percent of the company, we wanted 1 percent (her stake was 60 percent). And we wanted to be acknowledged as the originators of the idea in any future articles about the company. She refused the 1 percent, but said we could work for the company to earn more shares. For us, it wasn’t really even about the money. We just wanted to be a part of what we created.

But she never returned our calls after that, so it was time to cut our losses and move on. I know people say, “Well, that’s business.” But ethics is still part of business. This tech economy just makes people money-crazy, and everything else goes out the window.

Almost everyone at these tech companies has some kind of postural issue from siting in the office, glued to a computer for more than eight hours a day (plus another two hours on the bus or shuttle). Hunched shoulders, neck problems, wrist issues. They also don’t sleep. They’re overachievers—always thinking and pushing themselves—so if I ask them to do 8 chatturangas, they’ll do 20. I saw the story about the Facebook yoga instructor who was fired for asking an employee to put away her cell phone during class. I’ve taught classes where people have pulled a phone from under their mat to write an email. There’s always someone in the class using their phone. I’ve had other people stand up and announce something like “I don’t like this Erykah Badu song!” But part of yoga practice is realizing you don’t get to control everything—just like in real life.

As you might imagine, investors and companies only want to share how awesome they are and how much money they raised.
So, if you’re not pre-briefed on the news or super-familiar with them, coverage will be close to what they want it to be, i.e., hype. Every app developer will tell you how many downloads their app has (if they’re doing well), but that doesn’t mean anything. Those numbers are almost guaranteed to be inflated. Most developers simply will not tell you how many people are actually using their app on a daily basis, and most journalists can’t get that info because it’s generally proprietary.

This leads to a lot of bullshit: Company A raised $20 million for an app that automatically makes cat videos, or company B just passed the 2-million-user benchmark, or streamed 2 million videos. And there’s too little focus on big issues. An entire country once rallied around using tech to put people on the moon. Now NASA has barely enough funding to pick its nose. So we end up having to cover the people who just want to make a better photo-sharing app or get us addicted to some BS game.

Read More: The Cowering Caterer, The Ambivalent Acquiree, The Ex-Environmentalist


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