on leadership, confrontation, and moving forward

Two years ago I became an entrepreneur, but it would take a lot longer to become a leader.

I was running Biomonstaaar, an open source algae bioreactor project that spun out of Biocurious, a biohackerspace in San Francisco’s south bay. We won funding from Space Gambit, a DARPA-funded hackerspace consortium dedicated to furthering humanity’s long term survivability both on and off earth, and in order to accept the funding we needed a tax ID and a bank account.

That’s how I discovered that it takes less than fifty bucks and a few hours standing in line at the Civic Center in downtown San Francisco to become a small business owner. Suddenly, there it was. I was an entrepreneur.

I had a dream, I had a business plan, I had funding, and I had a team, but I was still missing something crucial: the ability to lead.

Leadership was terrifying to me. And as I was in-and-out of a domestic violence situation at home throughout the entire time I ran Biomonstaaar (even running the bioreactor project from a women’s shelter for a few weeks), I was clearly even less adept than most at successfully navigating power dynamics.

Let me tell you a story about Biomonstaaar, a story about a time I failed.

There was a woman who joined the project who was older than me, very critical, and willing to make quick judgements. It was a relief to me to have her there, and I asked her advice constantly until we ended up de-facto sharing power equally in the project. I was the sole proprietor and the only Principal Investigator on paper to SpaceGAMBIT and DARPA, but we functioned day-to-day as partners heading the project and team together. This division between label and reality would become problematic.

There were some problems in the project — too many cooks constantly coming up with new theoretical constructs and too few people actually settling down to build, a specific drama with two people who suddenly decided to spin off their own company and lease their code to Biomonstaaar (which didn’t fit the terms of our funding), and all in all, not enough focus. This woman and I decided that in order to achieve our stated goals within the time frame we’d promised to SpaceGAMBIT, we needed to cull the project down to the essential team members who were actually creating value week by week. Everybody else was out.

But how do you do that? Today I know that there is only one way to have a hard conversation, and that is with respect and courage. In person or over the phone. Individually. Answering all questions and taking all complaints.

We didn’t do it that way. On my partner’s insistence, we wrote out a form letter to bcc email to every person we were kicking out. I felt uneasy, but I preferred to defer to her. After we drafted a series of edits, I got her approval for the final copy of the email to be sent, and I sent it.

I sent it, and I signed it from us both.

Immediately, there was drama. We’d disrespectfully sent out a form letter to people who, in some cases, had invested huge swaths of their time and energy to the bioreactor dream, we hadn’t told anybody who else was kicked out, we hadn’t told our final plans to anybody still in the project, there was no way for people to voice their concerns or questions or anger. We’d even kicked out the guy who originally conceived of the open-source bioreactor project, in the same form letter sent to everyone else. He headed straight to Hacker Dojo and had it out with me in raised voices over the ping pong table, as he ought to and as I deserved. It was all a clusterfuck born of cowardice, and I still regret it.

But all of that fallout I vaguely expected. What I didn’t expect was that my partner would also become part of the debacle. Even though the form letter was her idea and she made the final approval, it turned out that she was furious at me for signing her name to it. And she was so appalled that she left the project completely, cc’ing her lawyer on an email asking me to write her a check for the 100 dollars she had originally invested in the bioreactor.

That’s how I learned that many people are willing to criticize and make decisions, but very few are willing to bear the responsibility for outcomes. I suddenly understood why she’d insisted on the form letter: it was the ultimate way to make a decision while hiding from the repercussions of affecting real people. When the dragon of drama got hot and swiveled an eye on her, she split.

But my name was still on all the contracts. I had made promises. I was terrified, and I no longer had my partner as a crutch to disperse power and responsibility, but I still had a team at Hacker Dojo every week expecting me to execute. So I floundered through. It was tough, and I didn’t do a great job.

But I learned, and now I remember.

I got a similar letter two days ago in my inbox, out of the blue, asking me to resign from something important. I was floored, and shocked, and angered. Then I tried to forget about it for a day, and this morning I awoke remembering the disastrous Biomonstaaar form letter.

Wielding power is difficult. Being a responsible and respectful leader is difficult. Accomplishing things at all in any way is often difficult. We all do the best we can, and we try to become better people while we build better companies.

My life has changed so much and so rapidly over the last few years, and it’s about to do so again. I’ll have some big announcements over the next six weeks. Thank you for being a part of it all. I’m moving forward.

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