Hi, it’s Google Corporate Development

March 2014. Five years have passed since I sold my last startup, and I’m wondering if the new venture will ever work. It’s a ridiculous idea — touch your phone against each wall and get a floor plan. Like the inflatable automobile, if you can make one work then marketing it ought not to be much of a challenge.

Until recently, success had remained elusive. In the last few months though, the angry one star reviews had mellowed into mediocre three star reviews. Previously £1,000 of Facebook ads would deliver 50 one star reviews accusing me of incompetence, fraud, and worse. Now suddenly I’m finding it buys half a dozen four or five star reviews, if I’m lucky.

An executive from a medium-large company had emailed asking about an acquisition a few weeks earlier. I’d politely declined without talking numbers, but there is nothing in today’s iTunes Connect numbers to justify that confidence. The buzz from the last round of ads has died away, and I’m shifting around 30 a day at $5. Real-time Google Analytics often shows fewer than 10 simultaneous users. The gap between the potential and the reality is almost palpable.

What it needs, I decide, is to be put in front of some influential technologists. Targeting Bill Gates isn’t going to work, but I fire up Twitter ads and target based on a dozen accounts I know some of the cognoscenti follow — Johns Gruber & Siracusa, @counternotions, Paul Graham and others. And then it’s time to collect my son from school.


On Friday, reality meets potential. Scanning emails bleary-eyed, a rare sight: Google Alerts has a 6am update. JC Torres has written a review in SlashGear and it’s all good. America is sleeping and there’s not much of a reaction yet but, after three years of hard work, this is recognition.

It doesn’t take long for word to spread. At 1pm, Google Alerts has more news and my eyes only have time to scan the word “Gizmodo” before the real-time analytics has my attention: 300 users on app. 450.

It’s time to collect my son again, and by the time he’s put to bed the simultaneous user numbers are climbing above 850. The blue touch paper has been lit and it’s a little intimidating to think that I couldn’t stop it now even if I wanted to. I realise I might as well switch off the Twitter ads.

It takes until midnight to reply to all the incoming emails, and as I’m about to close the MacBook, one last email notification pops up:

<Date: Fri, 21 Mar 2014 17:04:10 -0700
Subject: Google Corp Dev conversation
From: MarXXXX <marXXX@google.com>
To: service@[MyCompany].com
Hi there — could someone reach out — would love to have a conversation and learn more about [MyCompany].

Corporate Development

Corporate development — that means M&A, right? I Google the sender’s name and up comes a press release about a $100m Google acquisition. Another couple of searches set some alarm bells ringing somewhere in my mind, but I choose to ignore them. Maybe I’ll reply to this one before going to bed:

From: Max XXXXX <XXX@[MyCompany].com>
Date: Sat, 22 Mar 2014 00:38:15 +0000
To: MarXXXX <marXXX@google.com>
Dear MarXXXX,
Thank you for getting in touch.
I’m the founder of [MyCompany] and would be pleased to answer any questions you have, or set up a call. The day is coming to an end over here in the UK so it may be tomorrow or Monday before I can reply further.
Best regards,

Over the weekend, we set up a call for Monday at 5pm.


I arrange childcare and with one hour to go I sit down to start preparing for the call. But at that precise moment another incoming email grabs my attention:

Date: Mon, 24 Mar 2014 08:57:13 -0700
Subject: Hi from YYYY
From: DavXXXX <XXXX@google.com>
To: service@[MyCompany].com
Dear [MyCompany],
I make the user experience at YYYY.
I’ve been using your app in several challenging apartments, houses, and offices. (“Ouch” made me smile.)
Do you have some time to talk?
+1 415 XXX XXXX

(YYYY is the name of a Google division.)

This time I don’t pause to consider whether there’s anything odd about the email. Two Googlers are interested — likely independently — and this one is quite senior. Hooray for me!

I decide not to reply to the email until I’ve spoken to Googler #1. The call comes in, and Googler #1 introduces herself. She does M&A on behalf of [Famous Named Googler], who was astounded by the app and wants a conversation. This is a famous Googler you will undoubtedly have heard of. The person on the end of the line sounds a bit spiky, almost like a call centre worker who doesn’t like the job. I’m asked for my background and about the history of the startup and I waffle on for a bit without managing to strike up any rapport. I do a spiel I’ve prepared about the benefits of the technology to the blind, which is genuine and heartfelt but meets with silence. Then I’m asked what university I went to and I’m off balance now — this call clearly isn’t what I thought it was, but what is it? Next I’m asked if I intend to build a business around the success of the app, and I’m temporarily speechless. The question reveals something that doesn’t tally with the story about [Famous Named Googler]. I splutter that I am indeed planning on doing that and recover enough to point out that I sold my previous startup for £X million. Given the assumptions she seems to be making about me I expect this to provoke a reaction, but still nothing.

Now, there may be people reading this who are familiar with how Silicon Valley works and wonder at my naivety. But I’ve just been told that a famous person thinks my app is fantastic, and right now I believe that because I want to believe it. This, of course, is the basis of any good scam.

Closing the call, I check whether Googler #1 knows of the approach from Googler #2, and #1 says she has never heard of #2. So I reply to #2:

Subject: Re: Hi from YYYY
From: Max XXXXXX <max@[MyCompany].com>
To: DaXXXX <XXXX@google.com>
Dear DaXXXX,
Thank you for emailing, that was a delightful email to receive. [one sentence deleted]
I have just finished a telephone call with another Googler, who called me to get some information about [MyCompany] at the request of [Famous Named Googler]. Is that a separate conversation?
I’d certainly be pleased to talk; just let me know when’s good. I’m based in the UK.
Best regards,
Founder, [MyCompany] Ltd

Back comes the reply:

Date: Mon, 24 Mar 2014 11:49:08 -0700
Subject: Re: Hi from YYYY
From: DavXXXX <XXXX@google.com>
To: Max XXXXXXX <max@[MyCompany].com>
Same conversation. [Famous Named Googler] is [Famous Named Googler’s role].
I know you’re in the UK. We want to talk to you now, and if you’ll be in California soon you should visit. If you won’t, let’s meet on April 9 where you are. I’m in London most of that week.
Who was the other Googler? :-)

Well, now I know what [Famous Named Googler] does. Like everyone else who hasn’t been living in a cave for several years. The emails continue — and there’s a reason I’m including this incidental exchange:

Date: Mon, 24 Mar 2014 19:49:03 +0000
Subject: Re: Hi from YYYY
From: Max XXXXXXX <max@[MyCompany].com>
To: DavXXXXX <XXXX@google.com>
Hi DavXX,
It was MarXXXXX from the corp dev team who called. April 9th is good; I’d be interested to see Google’s offices in London.
Shall I give you a call this evening?
Date: Mon, 24 Mar 2014 13:02:14 -0700
Subject: Re: Hi from YYYY
From: DavXXXXXX <XXXX@google.com>
To: Max XXXXXXXX <max@[MyCompany].com>
I was going to say, “Ah, that was surely MarXXXXX” but I thought it would amuse you if there was a third person :-)
Sure, let’s talk tonight. But do you mean tonight UK time? We are getting well into that.
My number is +1 415 XXX XXXX. I have just cleared my calendar from 14:00-16:00 PDT GMT-7 and can answer your call during that time with impunity.
And I look forward to it.

Getting a little saccharine for my liking but I’m from the North of England and we like our sugar in a mug of tea, where it belongs. Hang on a minute though… Googler #2 knows Googler #1. Googler #1 had never heard of Googler #2 an hour ago. Well, that can happen. It’s a big company.

By this time, the app is topping both the free and paid charts in its category in many countries, and into the overall top 10 in some. I pay my wife and son a quick visit and then it’s time for the call with Googler #2.

It’s clear from the start that he has detailed knowledge of my app and has obviously given it a lot of consideration. His main thrust is that there are user interface ideas in the app that he “hasn’t seen done like this before” and it’s clear I’m talking to a user experience guy who wants my user experience abilities. I begin to worry where this is leading, but this guy isn’t where this conversation started, right? [Famous Named Googler] kicked this off; that’s why we’re really here.

Googler #2 tells me that Maxine is visiting the UK next week and she will meet me at Google’s London office. Googler #2 will then come and visit me in Manchester on April 9th. He seems to like my contributions to the conversation, but I’m getting bored and I need to be doing something more productive. He ends the conversation with a spiel about the app being “very close to our hearts” and I’m free to go.


On Tuesday, 9pm, an email comes in from Googler #1 asking for a call “in the next couple of days”. I imagine she has probably tried calling me on the same number she called the first time, but I’m elsewhere. Then she wants to speak right away, and I’m too tired but something tells me it’s best to get this over and done with.

She’s on a roll from the moment she picks up the phone. Googler #2 was impressed! I am to come to San Francisco! It’s all at Google’s expense! Generous relocation package! Everything is awesome! Come right away!

My heart sinks; it’s clear this was never an M&A discussion. I gain some time asking about their European engineering office, which I already know this division of Google doesn’t have. I explain again that I’ve already built an £X million company in this area that was limited to the UK & Ireland; this time it’s global and I can easily get to twice £X million. I don’t know what Silicon Valley numbers are like, I say, but surely even there acqui-hire numbers don’t go as high as twice £X million? She replies that it’s usually a maximum of 2 million. I guess that’s dollars.

The gloves are off now and she lets slip what she was thinking the first time I told her about the £X million exit: you’re just an engineer and you only got a pathetic slice of that. I tell her I got 50%, and get the distinct impression I’m not being believed. I tell her that I have an app at the top of the charts and a track record of building companies in this market segment. I can easily reach twice £X million this time around. She counters that the company has no traction yet.

It’s an argument, not a negotiation. You’re an engineer. I’m an entrepreneur! No, you’re not. Am so! It only ends when I say I’m not sure I could relocate.

I close by saying I’d love to work with them but I can’t let the gap between potential and reality be as huge as twice £X million minus £2 million. If there’s another way to get [MyCompany] technology into YYYY products then let’s talk about that. She says she “hears me” and will discuss internally.

I start heading to bed but, realising there’s really nothing to lose, I fire off one final email:

From: Max XXXXXXXX <max@[MyCompany].com>
Subject: Valuation
Date: Tue, 25 Mar 2014 22:00:56 +0000
To: MarXXXX <marXXX@google.com>
Dear MarXXX,
Thanks for speaking with me just now and being frank about valuation issues.
In case it’s useful to your internal discussions, I’ve attached the main contract relating to the sale of my previous floor plan startup.
[Paragraph with financial details deleted.]
[Previous startup] was limited to the UK & Ireland only, whereas [MyCompany] seems to be gaining traction almost everywhere else.
Probably not of great relevance but thought I’d send it over.

Now it really is time for bed, but Googler #1’s reply flashes on my iPhone before I get to the top of the stairs:

Date: Tue, 25 Mar 2014 15:03:35 -0700
Subject: Re: Valuation
From: MarXXXXX <marXXX@google.com>
To: Max XXXXXXX <max@[MyCompany].com>
Hi Max — thanks for sending it over. We have to justify internally as we are pretty methodical about how we do these acquisitions, so we will discuss and get back to you.

Corporate Development

Now, I may be a bit naive with regard to the workings of Silicon Valley but I’ve been at the sharp end of a flotation and a trade sale, and that’s bullshit. It has taken Googler #1 less than three minutes to consider this reply and send it, yet it sends a distinctly positive signal totally at odds with the conversation that just occurred.

Imagine a bright 25 year old engineer receiving that last email and having sleepless nights wondering when the reply will come. It’s nasty and the only purpose it serves is to give the recipient some hope, so that they don’t channel their anger at being lied to. Ironically, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this up if she hadn’t sent that.

Max will never meet Maxine; she probably doesn’t even exist. They probably tell targets named Robert that Roberta is coming to see them.

[Famous Named Googler] has never even heard of me or the app.

Googler #2 never had any intention of coming to visit and won’t appear on April 9th as promised.

Googler #1 doesn’t do M&A for [Famous Named Googler]. She’s just a recruiter for Googler #2, whom she knew from the outset.

Some people would reply to Googler #1 after a few days, asking for an update. I imagine there’s one last stage in the scam that plays out then — the rejection, helping to make the story look like sour grapes should it make it into the public domain.

That’s the end of this sorry tale of deceit and disrespect for entrepreneurs by a company that ought to know better. I am writing this sentence on March 28th, well before the supposed arrival of Googler #2 on April 9th. I will never hear from Googlers #1 or #2 ever again, and that’s just fine with me.