The Time I Was Threatened By a Client
Have you ever had a career moment where you thought “If I looked different, this wouldn’t be happening to me?”
What about a time when you were singled out and treated unfairly for no apparent reason?
The truth is, bullies don’t disappear as you get older.
They just learn to hide better.
Your (not so) friendly neighbourhood bully is now hiding in plain sight: as a colleague, business acquaintance, or even a mentor.
And when I think back on my 10 years in the tech industry — working with over 400 startups and forming business relationships with people of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds — one particular instance stands out above the rest.
The time I was bullied by a client.
That was when I realised that bullying is still relevant and widespread today.
Not only is it relevant, it’s also deadly.
HOW IT STARTED
I provide a service which helps tech startups get funded; I put them in front of investors who are interested and liaise with both parties to help them get to the next level in their funding goals.
Amongst the hundreds of startups I was working with across North America, I came into contact with our client (let’s call him Max).
Max appeared to be in a huge rush for funding, but chose to pay his fee in 6 belated installments, even asking for free consultancy services before payment had closed.
As if that wasn’t enough to warn me that something was off, after his final payments were issued, I started to see more and more red flags:
DISREGARD FOR FEEDBACK
Every two weeks, my team created a report aggregating the final decisions from investor pitches, along with any gainful feedback that could help refine the founder’s pitch and improve their odds of being funded (see below for some examples). Our team spent hundreds of man-hours on this effort, yet Max ignored all feedback. In some instances, he would call the feedback “esoteric” and useless.
- “The focus seemed too close to existing local solutions without a twist. There are tons of focused software [like this]…Also, the dashboard should include actual metrics like how many active users mo/mo churn” — Silicon Valley VC (up to $8 million in last investment)
- “May be more interested to invest in Series A instead when they are ready” — Silicon Valley VC (up to $2 million in last investment)
- “If you are going to take on a market leader, you must be 5X better, not just marginally better…You need a higher barrier to entry.” — Canadian VC ($1-$5 million investment)
THE INVESTOR MEETINGS
On another occasion, an investor travelled 1 hour each way to get to the pitch meeting, only to have it cancelled twice (wasting 4 hours of travel in total).
I scrambled to cover for my client, hoping I might be able to salvage the pitch opportunity but Max seemed to treat this as a non-concern. This investor showed no enthusiasm to give him a third chance to pitch.
The other thing that shocked me was Max’s behaviour towards the investors themselves. The first pitch deck he sent me was not a PDF or a PPT, which scrambled the format of the document.
Having seen how distracting a poorly formatted document can be in an investment pitch, I flagged this up, and received as a response: “…if we are dealing with people [Seed and Series A investors] who can’t figure out PowerPoint, a product that’s been on the market for 20 years, then I suggest we find better people to deal with.” — Startup client
I was astounded…None of my other clients had subjected me to such condescending, demeaning behaviour, especially in these circumstances (remember that he is asking these “people” to give him $1,000,000 of their money).
Calls with him left me feeling drained.
Each interaction was more aggressive than the last, and I had no-one to talk to about this.
THE FINAL STRAW
To my horror, after 9 weeks and 100+ man hours of my team working on his case, Max demanded a refund.
Sensing that his response from investors had led him to channel some of this anger towards me, I decided to take immediate action.
In a follow-up email, I explained the work that had been completed, the actionable next steps for him, and what to expect. I also offered extra time to help him with aspects of the feedback from investors which hadn’t yet been actioned on his side.
After sending my reply and hoping for the best, I received this:
“…you can either get meetings of value scheduled or meet me in court while we sort out the level of communication…It’s a small market here in Canada and I’ve got a fairly big mouth. So, tell me again, how are you going to actually help me?”
There is nothing more gut-wrenching than being threatened by a client.
In an industry saturated with middle-aged caucasian males, building a software business as a minority (both non-caucasian and female) had felt like I was battling every single statistic in the book.
Worse yet was fighting each of those odds only to be subjected to downright threats from a person who embodies that demographic.
His threats made me feel worried about my business reputation and my other clients.
But beyond that, what really worried me, is that he felt COMFORTABLE subjecting me to this kind of behaviour: telling me directly that he’d have no problem actively damaging my business reputation unless I conceded to his demands.
He had felt COMFORTABLE enough within the ‘small market’ of Canada that he thought that a little threat here and there wouldn’t make a difference.
After getting some legal advice, I chose to stand up for myself and wrote him a lengthy email detailing every single action we took to support his business, how this had manifested in investor responses, and setting very clear limits around how we were to move forward, including proof which addressed each one of his points.
After this email, the bullying stopped!
MY KEY TAKEAWAYS
I realised that these kinds of bullies crave attention, and use up their targets’ time and resources to feel more worthy and comfortable within themselves.
But allowing bullies to sabotage your business and life is inadmissible, regardless of their reasons.
Throughout these weeks and months of abuse, it had been hard to focus.
I had somehow felt that this was my fault.
And because on some level I had thought it was my fault, I couldn’t open up to anyone about it.
And then someone said to me “do you think he would have treated you like this if you were a man?” and something clicked.
No, I don’t believe he would have.
I would have received none of the condescension, and certainly no open threats.
I wouldn’t have spent days feeling sickened and worried.
Or have had to actively hide my feelings from my team.
As a woman in this industry, I had the same concerns about whistle-blowing and reputational damage that anyone in my position might have (somehow, still, we are made to feel like clichés for calling out continued discrimination).
And some of my prior experiences have even compounded this view:
Whenever I participate in a startup pitch competition, male founders of pre-revenue startups always come up to me — not to congratulate me but to offer me unpaid assistant positions at their companies.
And when it happens, what feels like a betrayal in this tech industry full of ‘female quotas’ (and gender/diversity/inclusion initiatives) is that when you are on the receiving end of this, nobody is shocked. There is no outcry for change, or even for an apology. The reality is that you are expected to continue your back-to-back meetings and get on with your day.
As a female founder, you don’t have space in your day to do more than take a deep breath and try to move forward; you’re battling against so many odds and so many burning tasks.
But is taking that single deep breath really all we can do to stand up for ourselves as women?
Or is it just another way to show that abuse is acceptable?
After I’d stood up for myself in the email, I realised that although I was lucky that he took the hint and realised I wouldn’t buckle, that isn’t always the case.
There are people out there who are continually treated like this, in an industry which slants heavily in the direction of perpetuating the white male bias, and those people may have nowhere to turn to.
I would hate to think that there are others out there who could be experiencing the same atrocious behaviours with customers or business partners who think that they work FOR them and submit them to ridiculous demands.
If you’re a client and you find yourself treating a female hire unfairly, think about it.
Retrace a few steps.
We don’t work FOR you.
We aren’t your PA.
Don’t mistreat us, and certainly don’t threaten us.
Because we won’t remain silent.
Silence gives an aggressor permission to keep abusing you.
And in this industry, there is no more space for abuse, ignorance, or aggression.
Mistreating anyone, regardless of their background, age, or gender, is wrong.
But it is a choice.
So, what can we do to truly empower women leaders in a world filled with aggressors?
I am lucky enough to have surrounded myself with both male and female mentors, entrepreneurs, and partners who are supportive of female empowerment.
Yet I suffered in silence anyway.
Despite having access to endless opportunities, we are nevertheless conditioned to feel shame during these difficult times, and to be held back by arbitrary limits which are imposed upon us by narrower minds, making us question who we are and what we are instead of asking “what is wrong with this other person?”
There seems to be a fragile distinction between stepping out of line and standing up for your rights.
So, we remain silent.
As an adult, there is no classroom teacher to protect you, no school principal ready to expel a bully.
What we can do, though, is share our stories.
VenturX is a web platform that helps entrepreneurs through their journey from idea to launch and beyond. VenturX uses data-driven analytics to score and connect startups and investors at Seed and Series A financing.