48 hours offline

how I lost $36,000 and found myself

Friday was a bad day. One of the worst days in recent memory.

My Client said he wasn’t going to pay.

I was up all night thinking of who I could call, what I could do, how I could fix things. And when I exhausted the short list of friends who would actually listen, I was left with just myself. By the end of the work day, I had decided to turn it all off. I put my phone in airplane mode for the next 48 hours and tried to find the answer. Here’s what I (re)discovered:

Family First

This has long been a personal motto, but sometimes I forget to live it. I worked at a gaming startup in 2006, which actually began my recruiting career, before I knew that’s what I was meant to do. It started as a contract gig, but I was happy to take their full-time offer because my wife was pregnant. Six months later my son was born and I found myself fighting with one Founder over paternity leave. He argued that there was no company policy since we were just a small startup. I argued that I wanted to spend time with my first child, policy be damned.

I eventually got fired for this, but I never regretted taking the time off. I only regret not spending more time with my children over the following years, as I joined or started one startup after another. There was always plenty of work to be done, and I was only doing it for the kids anyway, right? Yet here we are in 2014, I’m getting ‘fired’ by another startup, again. Some things don’t change. So I took my kids to go see The Lego Movie.

Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet (go see it!), the villain is a fellow named Lord Business. It’s a simple enough storyline for kids to understand, but I wasn’t the only parent in the theatre who got the deeper meaning. In one scene, Lord Business leaves his best employee behind to die, with the famous words, “It’s not personal…”

You know the rest. We all do. Whenever someone’s about to screw you over, they always say, “it’s just business.” What they really should say is, “I’d like to do what’s best for me, so fuck you.” — It’s so much easier to understand when you say it that way!

Business is Personal

I’m sure this guy Marc thinks he’s just doing what’s best for his startup. He thinks he just saved the company $36,000 (yes, recruiting pays very well) by terminating our signed contract. Nothing personal buddy!

But any business is only as good as its people, and the values you hold, and the behaviors you reward. That’s your company culture. If acting in your own self-interest is how the company does business, I have no interest in working with that company. There are always alternatives to any business or service. Sure, you can still make money being assholes (Hi Comcast!), but most startups aren’t a monopoly and word spreads eventually. I’ve learned the (startup) world is a very small place, and everything comes back around.

I also remember the last time I was expecting a very large check, and the company failed to honor a contract. I was a few years out of college, and it was a very good year on Wall Street. Despite our collective troubles just one year earlier (Never forget LTCM!), I was now an Assistant Trader on the NASDAQ desk of one of the most respected firms in the country.

We had made a great deal of money for the firm, and our employment contracts stated we would receive bonuses out of a pool created from 1% of the company’s profits. While Traders made their bonuses directly off their individual account P&L, us Assistants had to make due with our (relatively) tiny slice of the pie, at least until we were promoted and given our own books to trade. Over drinks (always), we calculated that each of us would get between $40-60k in bonus money after year-end close. That New Year’s Eve, we partied like it was 1999, well, because it was.

Months go by before I finally sit down with my boss Andy for my yearly review and bonus check. The company had made 100's of millions of dollars, but my meager base salary meant I was living in a basement in Brooklyn —with only a tiny 13" TV and my Playstation to keep me company. I was beyond disappointed when the bonus amount fell significantly short of what I had expected. I remember feeling so small and powerless in that meeting. What could I do about it? I was just a lowly employee of this big powerful company. So I quit that job, and headed to California a few weeks after that.

About 10 years later, I read that Andy’s brother Mark had committed suicide. Their father, Bernie Madoff, was going to jail for a very long time for screwing over a whole lot of people. All those fancy cars and penthouse apartments didn’t mean anything now.

The Things We Own

In the famous words of Tyler Durden, the things I own now owned me. I bought an iPhone for work, so I could be responsive and on top of things. In startup recruiting, you really only have about two weeks from when a top-tier candidate becomes available to when they’ve already accepted an offer. This means I was available to my Engineers and my Clients around the clock. I’ve said that 1-3 a.m. were Founder Hours, and I was proud to be the only recruiter working them.

But these days I find myself incessantly checking my phone during the day, on the weekends, and telling my kids it was “for work”. I was downloading the latest apps and reading breaking news, all in the name of Lord Business. I was tweeting twittycisms and status-updating for status, generally avoiding having to interact with the real world around me. The saddest part was, I was ignoring the two cutest little kids at my knees. “Daddy’s busy!” became my war cry. My kids hated my phone. I hoped they didn’t hate me.

It all comes together full circle when I recall my own definition of success. It’s not about the bank account as scoreboard, the fancy car keys on the table, or the latest gadget glued to your face (which looks stupid BTW).

Success means choosing the people you work with.

For me this means I can work with a lot of people, and make a lot more money, or I can choose to only work with really amazing people, and make enough. We are a nation driven by consumer-spending, one-upping the Joneses and generally never being happy with what we’ve already got, in pursuit of the things we haven’t gotten yet. If I wanted the big house, and a Tesla in the garage, I would probably be very upset that I didn’t get paid.

But taking my time to live my normal, boring, non-Facebook-status-approval-seeking life this weekend; breakfast over Saturday morning cartoons, going to the YMCA and actually watching my son play (we won!), going to the movies, having dim sum with old friends (IRL!), working on my bikes, going for a short ride, cooking a hearty lasagna and appreciating my family and my lucky life - I almost forgot all about the money. Almost.

Airplane Mode might be the greatest feature of the iPhone. I strongly recommend trying it out at home.