Buyouts and Bootstraps
The microphone was old-fashioned, the kind with a ball of steel mesh on top. It made Alex feel silly, holding it; it was like a prop from some sort of seventies period piece. It was, he supposed, some sort of miracle that it didn’t have an actual cord on it. He raised it to his mouth, wishing he’d taken the time to practice with it.
He looked up. The office didn’t have a proper all-hands area, so they were holding this one in the lobby; people were standing around him, and lining the stairs and the railing of the upper floor, looking bored but curious. Apparently the old CEO hadn’t had all hands meetings, so everyone in support and IT was figuring this out.
“Welcome,” he said. There was a nasty echo from the mic; he winced, and there was a scramble from where the IT people were standing. His secretary, who’d come with him, made a gesture that he interpreted as “move the mic further from your face.”
He moved the mic further from his face. Someone was doing something with the soundboard.
Alex gave a winning grin. A CEO should be able to be graceful under fire, he told himself.
Friday night, he’d gone back to his hotel room after dark. He was new to the city, and didn’t have a place of his own yet, so he was living in the hotel across the street from the office; even that commute, down the elevator, across the cross walk, and up the elevator, had exhausted him.
It had been an exhausting week.
Could it, he wondered, really have been just a week that he’d been at this? He’d always said that when opportunity knocked, the winners of history were those who answered and answered quickly, but the sheer speed with which this had happened had swept him up.
The previous week, he’d been sitting in a restaurant in Baltimore, having lunch with a friend, Roger, and talking vaguely about what was next, when the news had come across the TV in the restaurant: A small corporate jet had crashed, three of the five board members of Auden Technologies aboard.
The two men and looked at one another, obviously with the same thought in mind.
It had been surprisingly easy: A classic leveraged buyout, borrowing enough money against Auden’s value to buy enough stock to put him in the CEOs chair and he and Roger and a third friend, Doug, in Board seats.
The hotel room was one of those slide-cards that were starting to feel old-fashioned; everything else in Alex’s life was a touch-pad with a card or fob. Something about the light going green, though, and the CHUNK sound, made his shoulders un-knot. He’d lie down, watch something mindless on TV, go to sleep, and in the morning there’d be breakfast.
A light went on, in the far corner of the room. There was a well, if somberly, dressed woman sitting in a chair beside the window
“Mister Michaels,” said the woman. “My name is Martin.” She pronounced it “Mar-teen,” and Alex knew who she was: Head of a department inside Auden called “External Security,” which had a ridiculous budget and an extremely murky remit which didn’t seem to have much to do with security. “I’m here to provide your weekly briefing.”
It was all very dramatic, he had to admit; fine stage craft.
As far as Alex could tell, External Security was some sort of internal spy agency. The company had spent two decades producing knockoff products at the last possible minute: Some other company would bring an amazing technology to market, having spent years researching and developing it, only to find Auden delivering something remarkably similar, the same week.
Auden had a reputation as an amazing innovator; Alex was learning the truth, that they were simply skilled at corporate espionage.
“Ms Martin,” he said, catching his breath. “I’m glad you’re, here, we need to talk.”
Alex took a deep breath, and looked up at the people staring down at him from the top rows. “So that’s it,” he said. “From now on, it’s just us: we’ll have to do it on our own, without spooks and cheats. We’re going to behave like a real tech company, do real research, create real products. And if we can’t…”
Well, if they couldn’t, then Alex was on the hook for quite a bit of money.
He looked around at his people, at his company, letting it hang there for a long beat.
“We’re entering a new era,” he said. “We will be strong, we will be quick, and we will create something like the world has never seen, but I need all of you to be clear that this is not the same company you’ve been working for: Our future is staked, now, on innovation; our security is dependent on our quickness, our strenghth.
“But I know that together, we’ll make this work.”
He lowered the mic, looked up, around. Everybody stared back.
“The stock is down 30%.”
“At least it’s stabilized. It was in free fall at first.”
The two men were sitting in a cafe, across a small table from one another. The place was an oasis of light and tranquility in the otherwise-bustling downtown; there were a lot of free tables, in the middle of the afternoon, and the people who were here seemed to be serious, mostly, about whatever they were reading or clicking on.
“It was so… weird,” said Alex. “I can’t… it was like someone sold a big chunk of our stock, but I can’t see… none of the big shareholders seem to have shifted. I mean. It’s like thousands of the smaller shareholders all suddenly sold shares to one another, at reduced price, right *before* I made the announcement…”
“So, something spooky happened, is what you’re saying.”
Alex nodded miserably.
“So, didn’t you just stomp on a spook in your organization? It doesn’t seem like it’s that hard to put this two and that two together to come up with four.”
“If Ms. Martin had the kind of money we’re talking about, I can’t understand what she’s doing working for an obscure branch of a small tech company…”
Roger shrugged, expansively. His traditional role in these arguments was to argue for the simple path, the easy answer; Alex’s role was to poke holes in it. Whoever turned out to be right, it was a useful exercise when running across a strange problem; lots of times the answer was not to waste resources doing anything, and that was Roger’s default position.
There was something happening by the door that was getting more and more distracting: A group of people had come in, all wearing expensive-looking matching white bathrobes; they seemed to be walking around examining things, as though they were in a museum.
Looking out the big windows, Roger could see that the street seemed to be full of white bathrobes.
He grinned. He had heard about the big random art things that happened here, and had been looking forward to seeing one for himself; certainly nothing like this happened in Baltimore.
“Alex,” he said, and pointed at the bathrobe-people with his chin. Alex turned and looked, but didn’t seem to take any joy in the spectacle.
“I’m glad some people have the leisure time to engage in… antics,” he said, somewhat waspishly.
Roger realized that he was grinning like a rube at the bathrobe people, and that they’d noticed and were reacting appropriately: by pretending to ignore him. He approved.
“Roger, what am I supposed to do? I took a big gamble with this deal, making this company into a real, you know, thing, an innovator, and it turns out that they don’t have untapped reserves of insight or whatever, they just have spies that tell them what to make next so…”
“My,” said someone standing suddenly very close by, “Aren’t they lifelike. So… businesssy. I love the lack of ties, it’s very daring. They must be tech.”
Roger looked up at a tall, thin, blonde man with a beard who looked exactly like the popular conception of someone who lived on a trust fund and played tennis all day.
If it was a characterization, it was amazing. Roger wondered whether doing weird art stuff was the new tennis, for trust fund people.
The blonde man’s companion, a matching slender blonde woman with long, wavy hair and pink bunny slippers under her bathrobe, leaned over and picked up a placard off of Roger and Alex’s table. Roger would have sworn it hadn’t been here before.
“Businessmen,” she read off the placard. “Resin, stress and bull feces, executed this year by O. VerVorked and N. Visibule, Amsterdam.” She looked up at the two men, critically. “They’re so lifelike, Erik. Can we get them? They’d look so good in the beach condo in St. Moritz.” She handed the placard to the man, Erik.
The man stared at them critically for a second and then called, “Excuse me, proprietor, are these easily shipped? And can I have them charged to our rooms?”
The exasperated barista, who appeared not to be in on the joke, shouted back, “You can’t charge anything to your room, you don’t have a room here.”
Erik’s mouth made a slight downward curve, his eyebrows doing something disapproving, and then he shrugged. “Well,” he said, “That’s that, you can’t always get what you want, in a place like this.” He set the placard down on the table.
The woman looked like she was close to throwing some sort of temper tantrum, but let herself be led away, out of the coffee shop.
“Wow,” said Roger. “That was super.” He picked up the placard; it looked just like something you’d see attached to a piece of sculpture in a museum.
“Well, I’m glad you’re amused,” said Alex, gathering his things. “I have to get back to work, there are actual people who notice if I’m not in…” he stopped, suddenly, staring at a card.
“What?” Roger set the museum placard back down on the table, then reached over and took the card from Alex’s hand.
It was glossy black on one side, and had a fancy-looking governmental seal — he’d seen it before: the Eagle’s head and sunburst on a shield, with “Central Intelligence Agency” around the outside. The card was for someone identified as “Ragnar Danneskjold,” who was apparently assistant to the Director of Operations.
The back of the card was plain white; someone with extremely good penmanship had written “Are you sure? Call me,” in thick blue ink.
“Look, I just can’t turn the ship this fast.” Alan Wong, head of App development was in full rant mode. “We’ve been doing things a certain way for, oh, I don’t know, a decade! I can’t just say, ‘yeah, we don’t do it like that anymore’ and have everybody just jump right on that. The way we were doing things before was stupid, and the new way we’re supposed to do things looks stupid to a lot of people; getting everybody to change over from one stupid way of doing things to another stupid way of doing things isn’t the easiest thing in the world.”
“Just because it’s an unintuitive methodology doesn’t mean it’s stupid.” Andy Edwards, head of product, one of Alex’s New Faces, whom he’d brought in specifically to fix the problems in App development. “I’m not trying to get in anybody’s…”
Alan slapped the table.
“I’m not saying… look, I see what’s what, right? I know we need to change, and I see the sense of the new way of doing things, but a lot of my people do not, and the ones who thought that the old way of doing things was full of shit are the ones who have the biggest problems with the new way, because they just see it as more bullshit. I don’t need a different system, I just need a way to convince my people…”
“Get different people.” Keith Johnson, Infrastructure. Blunt. Plain spoken. Kind of a dick.
“Yeah? Where do you propose I get them from? If we have a big round of people quitting right now, what do you think that’ll do for our image?” Alan was out of his seat now, leaning over the table.
“Actually,” a calm voice said from the other side of he room, “I’d like to talk about the decision to disband External security.”
Dietrich Amble, head of finance. Calm and cool and level, and not at all interested in software development methodologies.
Based on his limited interactions with the man, Alex expected him to be extremely bottom line focused. He’d been prepared for someone to bring up External Security, and their subsequent stock problems, but… well, given what the stock issues did to their credit liquidity, perhaps he should have expected Dietrich to bring it up.
“I’m not prepared to discuss that in this meeting,” said Alex. The mysterious business card from yesterday seemed to heat up in his pocket. “I’ll have a meeting later in the week where we can have it out; right now I think the pressing problem is…”
The door to the conference room burst open and one of the receptionists burst in. To Alex’s everlasting shame he hadn’t managed to learn any of their names yet; they genuinely all did seem to look alike, to the extent that he suspected that his predecessor had hired exclusively on that basis.
She handed a folded note to Alan Wong, and then retreated, making quiet apologies.
Alan cursed, and stood up. “Sorry,” he said, “I’ve got something that won’t wait.” And he scooped up his laptop and was off.
“Well, I was saying that I wanted to focus on the problems we’re having with the App teams and getting them focused and working on a reasonable process, but…” Alex looked at the empty chair where Alan had been sitting.
“I think we can talk process to some degree without Alex,” said Keith Johnson. “At least, we can talk about what we need from Alan’s team, so we have some sort of united front when he gets back…”
He’s going to say “hysteria” or something, thought Alex. He didn’t know whether Alan Wong was gay, but the man was certainly high-strung, and he tended to… well, to flounce, if he didn’t get his way. Alex narrowed his eyes at Keith, who stuck his chin up defiantly but shut up.
“It’s not fair to talk about Alan’s team while he’s not in the room,” said Andy Edwards. “We can wait a few…”
Keith’s phone made some sort of mechanical sound. Keith looked at it and said, “Damn, I’ll just be a minute…”
On the way out of the room, he nearly collided with one of Andy’s minions, who was looking urgent and pleading. Andy shot Alex a look, and Alex gave him an exasperated nod, and Andy, too, was gone to fight whatever fire seemed to be consuming everyone.
“Well,” said Dietrich, “Now do you think it would be a good time to talk about External Security?”
Karen Teague, of Technical Operations — which, for reasons completely non-obvious to Alex, was distinct from Infrastructure — Teague closed her laptop with an audible ‘snap’ and suddenly Alex had her full attention for the first time… well, ever. He looked back forth between the two department heads and sighed.
“Fine,” he said. “What would you like to know?”
There were a couple of dozen restaurants either on the way from the office to Alex’s hotel or within a block of being on the way. Somehow he’d ended up going to an amazing steakhouse the first night he was in town, and he’d ended up going back every night since. It was comforting, a little pool of calm sanity with leather on the booth seats and polite wait staff; he’d even started to have a “regular” booth, in the center, about halfway back.
He’d found that in times in his life when he was going through big changes, stressful or just meaningful, it helped to have a steady, stable place in his life. At some point, he’d probably settle in — find an apartment and himself a more permanent routine — and then he’d never come back to this place again; or when he did, it would seem somehow alien and new.
But for now, it was home, every night for forty minutes to an hour, a glass of house red and a thick medium-rare porterhouse to keep him company.
Usually it was a crowded place, but tonight the general buzz was softer than usual. He looked around, realized that a lot of the tables were empty and there was nobody seated at the bar; as he watched, another couple finished their meal and stepped out.
Alex kept mechanically cutting his steak and taking bites, washing it back with a little sip of the wine, but his attention was now on the restaurant, which seemed to be closing; he watched as the maitre d’ turned some people away; they were too far away for Alex to be able to overhear them, but he maitre d’ seemed apologetic yet firm: He wasn’t seating anyone.
Looking around for his waiter, Alex realized that he didn’t see any staff except the maitre d’ — who was himself now gone, vanished in just the way that very good waiters can vanish. There didn’t seem to be any more diners, either.
Alex sat, alone, in the restaurant, wondering if he should just finish his steak, or if the fact that everyone else had left was one of those good indicators that he should get up and leave as well.
Someone stepped out from behind him — the bathrooms, thought Alex, were that direction — and slid into the boot across from him.
“So nice to meet you, Alex,” he said. “It’s not at all the same, hearing about someone second- or third- hand.”
He held out his hand to shake; Alex stared at it. The juxtaposition of the offer of the handshake with the phrase ‘third-hand’ made his already over-tired and slightly paranoid brain do flip-flops.
Eventually the man took his hand back with a sigh.
“When I was a kid,” the man said, “My dad worked as a consulting engineer, sort of freelance, see? Clients all over the place. He used to have a desk at the offices of this construction company; didn’t work for them, you see, just had a desk there. In exchange for the desk, he was on-hand if they ever needed his services.” He looked intently into Alex’s eyes. “My dad didn’t have to pay rent, or have his name on a lease, and the construction company always had an engineer close to hand: Mutually beneficial, you understand?”
Alex was nodding, indicating that he was following the little story.
“What do you know about spies, Mr. Michaels?” The pleasant little man was now paying attention to him, rather than telling a story. Alex felt a little whiplashed.
“Well,” he said, “Nothing, really.” He sat still a moment. “I’ve seem some James Bond movies…”
The little man laughed politely. “Nothing like that in real life,” he said. “I mean, we’re not really in the business of shootouts and skydiving. It’s more like.. .working for the world’s most secretive and limited-subscription newspaper.”
We, thought Alex.
“The world of Operations is divided into what are called Officers and what are called Agents,” said the little man. “Officers work for the CIA, and are in charge of taking care of a certain number of Agents: The number is usually three or four. Agents are contractors, paid for the information they can provide; think of an informant within an organization we’d like tabs kept on — they write us up reports about what’s going on within that organization, they deliver those reports to their Officer, they answer questions.
“In exchange they’re paid a salary, in addition to the one they draw from their regular organization.”
Alex was nodding. “So this is the huge chunk of my budget that goes to Auden’s External Security division,” he said. “A couple of officers — Ms. Martin and her fellows — and then a lot of agents, in other companies, right? All reporting back to you. And in exchange for hosting Ms. Martin’s desk, we get access to the world’s most private newspaper?”
“Some of it,” said the little man. “The parts that are of use to you. I assure you, the value we provide is more than…”
“Sir,” said Alex, realizing he hadn’t gotten a name from the man. He reached into the pocket of his jacket, pulled out the card from the other afternoon, checked it.
“Mister Danneskjold,” he said. He suddenly remembered where he recognized the name from, and grimaced. “Oh,” he said, “Cute.”
The little man shrugged, smiled acknowledgement.
“Mister Danneskjold,” said Alex, “I bought this company — a majority share — in order to have a leg up at producing something really interesting, a genuine market disruptor. Instead, I’ve found that we’re entirely a, a parasite, feeding at the teat of the information your people produce, content with that and nothing more. It’s crippling. I don’t want it.”
Danneskjold was nodding. “The value we return,” he said, “is twofold: First, we give you the opportunity to peek inside the opposition’s and, so to speak; but consider this.” The little man spread his hands. “If Ms. Martin wasn’t sitting comfortably at a desk at Auden, she’d certainly be somewhere else; and then they’d have access to all the information we provide.
“How many agents do you think work inside Auden, Mr. Michaels?”
Alex closed his eyes; the whole conversation was giving him a headache. He wondered how fast he could put the company onto a track that would let him sell for more than he’d bought it for and maybe go start something from scratch. He pressed his forehead, just over his right eye, with his thumb; that always helped, a little.
When he opened his eyes, Danneskjold was gone. Of course.
Alex sat at the table, slowly finishing his tepid steak, while the staff of the restaurant began seating people around him.
The microphone did exactly the same thing again when he turned it on, that prolonged squeal; he just smiled and rode it out.
He took the time to look up and down the rows of faces lining the rails. He grinned, not the boyish, overconfident grin of a couple of weeks ago, but a rueful grin, a grin that sympathized with the fact that they had to be here in the middle of an afternoon.
The IT person finally gave him the thumbs up to try again. He raised the microphone to his mouth and exhaled slightly, listening for the sound of it over the speakers.
“They say it takes a big man to admit that they’re wrong,” he said, trying to look rueful but serious. “I think they say that because it feels awful, and you want there to be some sort of compensation.”
There was a round of weak laughter from around the room.
“His name can’t possibly actually be Ragnar Danneskjold.”
Martin just stared at him, her froggy features not moving.
She didn’t actually look like a frog. Her face was square and her lips were wide, but the fact that she never, ever seemed give anything away about her emotional state, good or bad, made him want to read a lot into what little he had to go on.
If he let himself, he could think of her as a froggy Velma in late middle age, Scoob and the Gang a distant memory, or maybe a Facebook friend group. It wasn’t kind, however, and he recognized that he was painting a mental picture of her that made him feel better about having been forced into a position he didn’t like.
He leaned forward across his desk and folded his hands. “Okay,” he said, “Let’s hear it.”
She stared at him for a second, like she was trying to mentally translate what he’d said into a foreign language and back, and then opened the folder in her lap.
“What the hell are we doing this for, anyway?”
Roger and Alex, sitting in a cafe in Baltimore, having coffee before they tried to drive their separate ways home. There’d been long days of wrangling: Calling this and that contact, pulling this or that string. It was all lined up; they’d sign documents tomorrow morning, and then it was just a matter of running a company.
Alex took a deep breath, prepared to launch into the elevator pitch he’d spent the past days perfecting: Auden was a great investment, showed great potential, could easily turn into the centerpiece of a portfolio of tech companies, vertically integrated and competitive with the likes of…
That was not, he sensed, what Roger wanted to know.
“You’ve seen the profits graph, for Auden?”
Roger shrugged. “Sure,” he said. It was almost as though it had been designed to keep the company going but not provoke the interests of outside money: Not quite flat, but not steep enough up and to the right to be really juicy.
“Someday, a year or so from now, that graph is going to have a sharp bend in it, where it suddenly starts going up. And that bend is going have a little annotation on it: “Alex Michaels hired as CEO.”
Roger, still too drunk to drive, stared at his coffee.
“So,” he said, “Ego.”
Alex stared at Roger, blinked a couple of times.
“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose so. Ego.”
“Firestone is going to make a social play,” said Martin. Her voice was pinched and disapproving. It was hard to find things to like about her.
“Firestone, the tire company.”
“They’re a general mechanic’s service these days,” said Martin. “They’re going to do a sort of… something like a professional services social thing. Where you friend your mechanic, and your friends friend your mechanic, sort of thing. Built in billing relationship.”
Martin found himself nodding along. He could, in fact, see where it was a good idea: Especially if you eschewed the big, national companies — like Firestone, he thought wryly — doing business was a lot more like having a social network than…
He found himself thinking about what he could do to make a social shopping network dovetail with Auden’s existing product line.
“In fact,” said Alex, the microphone amplifying the intensity he was putting into his voice, “It’s easy for us to forget how valuable a safety net like External Security can provide. Going forward, we’re going to be making some decisions that put us in precarious positions; we’re going to take risks, because without taking great risks we cannot hope to reap great rewards.
“Having something like External Security along gives us the extra bit of insurance that might be the difference between success and failure.”
He looked around, up and down, at the faces of the people who were going to make his dream a reality. Or not.
“I’d like to thank those who helped me to see that I was making a bad decision,” he said. “I’ll need you all, in the days and weeks to come, as we make thousands and thousands of decisions, each more difficult than the last.
“But I know that together, we’ll make this work.”
He lowered the mic, looked up, around. Everybody stared back.
Then there was applause.