I consult for a lot of startups, often at the 6-month or less stage. I’m useful at helping to lay the foundation of process, so it’s not unusual at all for me to “pop in,” knowing that when I leave I’ve created millions of potential dollars for the organization, which they can realize, if they become steely-eyed missile men and execute on what I helped them design.

Knowing this, I don’t have any problems at all charging what I charge - it’s normal for me to walk into a group that has nothing but passion and an idea, and within hours, we’ve wrapped that idea in a sensible monetization method, laid down the foundation of their marketing plan, helped them understand who their real customer is, and taken them from a messy heap of good intentions to people with a plan and an arrowhead to get behind and push.

I usually stay in touch while they flounder into their first real sales, help via email while they launch their first campaigns, get them in touch with talent I know they need, etc. Sometimes I wind up writing a mess of code to help the CTO get his head around a big problem. Sometimes I draft the first 20 mails of their newsletter, or join in on some argument about funding allocation.

The very best of these are when I can pull out the design we made at the first meeting, see where we’ve strayed from it and either correct ourselves, or realign the design’s roadmap to better match the reality of the market.

This story is about the time a friend of mine told me he was involved with a startup, and he asked me to pop in and meet the team. Maybe there was some kismet, some work for me in the future, or maybe not. But he wanted me to meet them and them to meet me, because I’m handy to have around, and he wanted to talk over some sales pipeline issues.

I put him off for weeks, but he and I have dragged a lot of bodies out of the mud together, and I owe him and he owes me, and eventually, sure, yes, I agreed to drive an hour to come see the guys and the co-working space they occupy in one of my favourite towns, Portsmouth NH.

I arrived at 12, because I was going to get some work done at a desk - the team had repeatedly rescheduled our meeting and we had last landed on 3:30 - fine with me, I had already burned the day. The entrance was through a kitschy gift shop, down into the basement where I was met by an enthusiastic Rottweiler puppy, and things were looking interesting already.

I met the CEO, a huge bear of a guy who presented a hearty handshake, and I got the nickel tour of the three companies sharing the space, one of which ran a lot longer than I wanted it to, but I was in good spirits and I let them talk.

I settled down to answer some mail, and the CEO came back around, I declined lunch and “started” my day, getting through at least a little bit before the CEO returned and said he’d rather start the meeting right away. I tried to stay where I was, but since he was enthusiastic, and I had driven so far, I agreed and he, I and my friend started our “pre meeting.”

The company would not like me mentioning their name, so I won’t. They make a medical product with a sales process that included a lot of complex technical stuff - things insurance geeks get off on, but the rest of us would go drone over. This was one of the issues my friend wanted to mull over - how to rebrand the offering into bite-size concepts, to streamline the sale.

As we got started, the CEO mentioned his web site, which I had seen just before, and I candidly told him “You need to take that down.” If you went to their web site, instead being greeted with information about the company or it’s product, you instead were assaulted with a direct pipeline into the database - essentially a UX nightmare of direct database lookups for diseases dressed in pink and machine grey. Thick rounded rectangles and a giant search box with no indicator of what the heck I was doing there.

I expected hesitation, and pushback. It’s common, but it’s what always happens, you got to ride into it to get through it. I was prepared with the basic speech, where I build a common framework: To build sales, you need to start with basic physics - the speed of light, how electrical signals work, etc. That provides us with the minimum to overlay Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From there, we get to Cialdini’s principles of Influence. (Which I admittedly referred to as Gialdini, and my friend corrected my pronunciation.) From there, it’s a matter of applying art theory, color theory and blending orwell and krug to produce content. Easy peazy.

This is all basically my opening sentence, and it’s intended to help the client understand that what he did before with good intentions can be rebuilt on a framework of understanding. I just barely got through that opening sentence when suddenly, a wild person appeared. Another guy ran into the room, furiously taking notes and sat down next to the CEO. “Maslow’s what?” “Who is Gialdini?”

As I began to answer him, the CEO started to pontificate about how the laws of physics didn’t apply in this room. That here, they were bounded by his will and what he decided is what happened. I bit on that bait, and we spent the next 10 minutes in a stupidity spiral, where I tried to assure him, that yes, physics were certainly in play, and he made some of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard anyone in his position make.

“No company has ever made more than 5 million in revenues before it’s 3rd year. Therefore, that’s a fundamental law, startups have a terminal velocity.”

“Having a bad website doesn’t affect corporate sales, because real companies don’t look at websites.”

I had suggested Mint as a UI example of what their app could be, and was told “Yeah, but Mint isn’t new.” Before I could even get him to explain what point he was making about that, we wound up arguing about how long Mint was around before acquisition by Intuit (I way underestimated, he overestimated, it’s about 3 years.)

“Of course Facebook has a great website, they have millions of dollars. We’re a startup, we don’t have to try as hard.” In response to this, I just repeated a half dozen times, loudly, “No, you have to try HARDER.”

For quite bit of the meeting, it was just the two of them cackling at me, as though I had walked in with my pants on my head and kept insisting the sky was green. It was the rudest, stupidest meeting I’ve ever been in. I am dumber for simply having been present. 30 minutes in, I started saying “I think you guys have a handle on this, you probably don’t need me.” 45 minutes in, I started pleading with my friend to leave with me. Near the hour mark, I just turned to him and said “Why are you still here? Help me understand what’s going on here.”

I tried hard to cancel the 3:30 meeting at this point. I didn’t want to be rude, no matter how rude the other side was being, but I had no idea what value my staying would convey. Eventually, though, I finally started to understand what was going on. The CEO was having some sort of defensive emotional reaction because he was afraid I was smarter than he was. And the other guy, whoever he was, had rushed to the CEO’s defence, because having a dumb boss would have hurt his pride.

I called them on this. I told them exactly what they were doing, and that it was keeping the conversation from progressing, and immediately, he rose up above me and began the “Do you know who I am?” speech. He listed his 4 successful startups he had sold before this one. He demanded I recognize his role as one of 100 very important teachers of some kind of business management course out of Berkeley.

Suddenly, I found my ground. Argumentum ad verecundiam? This, I can handle.

“What do you want? Some medals to put on your chest?” He slumped back into his chair. “Look, I’m not being paid to be here - you are. I now know why you’re being rude, and if we’re going to gain anything from this meeting, let’s get back to the one actual point we’ve discussed: That website has to come down.”

“And what, put nothing there?”

“Just not that. Put up an attractive business card”

(More cackling) “But how will my customers be able to use the functionality?”

“By creating a new portal for the customer. They go somewhere else. Your main site is to inform the general public, your customers are already informed and they need a different experience.”

“Oh, we’re already doing that.”

“Then what have we been arguing over?”

At this point, and through the end of the next meeting, which yes, I stayed for, I was actually listened to, albeit still in a rude fashion. Every idea I brought to the table, the same response happened “Yes, we’re already doing that.” Even wild ideas for revenue generation, ones that obviously had never crossed that table before, were things already in the plans - but they couldn’t execute, because they didn’t have enough technical resource. Or the world wasn’t ready. Or they had higher priorities. Everything was a) something they already thought of, and b) couldn’t be done. I think at some point, he was hinting he wanted to hire me to do some technical work, which I made clear I wasn’t going to do at this point.

The meeting ended, I went back to finish up a few things, and the CEO wanted to be pals! He told me how I would get along with some of his friends, how he wanted me to go to Starbucks with him and get some Clover coffee. The ‘other guy’ wanted to pick my brains about how I would build a sales pipeline and if I knew how to integrate with Salesforce, and I told him,

“If you want to talk to me, you need to start with an apology.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious.”

“You’re trying to SELL ME something, and you think I’m going to…”

“Dude, I’m not trying to sell you anything. I came here for free, and you wasted an amazing resource.”

As I was leaving, I was asked to join another meeting (“but I’m not paying you” was the polite invitation) to review some crappy template they had been presented by a “web guy” … for the website they had argued against so vehemently for an hour. The entire company was sitting around a projection of a doctor looking up at the very same useless search box with no context to explain to the user, feeling pretty good about themselves. It looked like garbage, but I didn’t want to get into aesthetics.

I told them this: “You are looking at this with the eyes of a person who already knows what you do. Design comes from content, not from a vacuum. Content comes from messaging. Messaging comes from aligning your product with your customer. You haven’t done step 1 yet, and I’m not going to advise you on step 10. Also, your logo needs more space in it, because no one but you can read it.”

On the way out, Guy #2 told me it was nice meeting me. I did not respond.

I had grossly overestimated a few things about this meeting:

  1. The knowledge base of the people in the room. I live in a world where people constantly work better to understand their craft. This company knew nothing about brand development, the mechanics of sales, how to craft content and help their customer understand them. They didn’t want to know - they believed this was all stuff that happened “after year three.” The CEO was a domain expert, with passion for the project and access to funding. That’s all the guy was capable of bringing to the table. He called it the “Popeye Principle” - I yam what I yam. I call it intentionally stunted growth.

  2. What minimal effort they were willing to put in to make this company succeed. By choosing to adopt an arbitrary “terminal velocity,” it had become acceptable to half-ass what they were doing. It granted them permission to engage in a level of institutional laziness I’ve never encountered in a startup before.

  3. How little respect they had for themselves because of issues 1 and 2. And as a result how little respect they had for anyone else, and how defensive they would become when faced with someone that likes to expose failings in himself and those he works with, so they can be improved for everyone’s benefit.

This was an entire den of technicians, with not a bit of native professionalism to be found anywhere. And there was my friend, tilting at windmills, trying to bring professionalism to this uncontrolled nest of half-assery and uncontrolled self loathing.

At the time, I did not have this clarity. I walked out of there shell-shocked. I felt like drinking. Only on the drive home (and thanks to the podcasts of Sean McCabe!), I eventually came to realize the problem wasn’t one I brought with me, it was one I found there.