Shannon Long

How Not To Be An Entrepreneur

Professionalism and Maturity: Not Optional

A few weeks ago, Valleywag published correspondence between JESS3 co-founder Jesse Thomas and his business partner, Leslie Bradshaw. (You can read it here.) “Correspondence” is a polite word for the semi-literate, profanity-laced tirade Thomas sent following a string of bad developments at his interactive agency.

Thomas blamed his partner (and erstwhile girlfriend) for the downfall of his company, which was hastened by a string of high-level employee departures and client defections that the once high-profile data visualization shop has experienced in the last few months.

A short excerpt from Thomas’s emails, which can be read in their entirety on the Valleywag post:

I on the other hand am single handily building a billion dollar brand. And I have 100% of the company to show for it.You haven’t come up with a single big idea.. Or product idea in the entire time I’ve known you. And to top it off, youthink you are a process hacker?!??! Whoa. You took a perfect system and made it worse, wasted money to the pointof running out and have the nerve to disrespect me.Your actions at SXSW was the straw that broke this camels back. I will never ever let that go. YOU FUCKING SUCK AT INTERACTIVE STRATEGY! News flash; that’s my company specializes in. You are the furthest thing from ahacker.Kiss the ring and listen to my billion dollar guidance, or walk away with nothing. Fuck you for defying my authority.

When I read this, my first thought was, This is what happens when you give venture money to a 19-year-old. They all think they’re Steve Jobs, and they don’t know how to behave in a professional environment because this is the first time they’ve been in one.

Then I Googled Thomas. He’s 31. He worked at Ogilvy. So my deepest apologies to 19-year-olds. I was wrong. You’re all more mature than this guy.

But as with every incident of very public bad behavior, there’s something to be learned. And this is not Thomas’s first offense: He also published video of friend and fellow entrepreneur Matt Monahan drunk and naked on both his personal social media accounts and the official house accounts for his firm. In this case, the emails are chock-full of examples of what not to do as an entrepreneur—and the offenses go well beyond the use of ALL CAPS and a failure to understand the difference between “your” and “you’re.” Some notes for Jesse Thomas:

1. Don’t be a bully. You can be very good at what you do without being liked personally as a manager. There are plenty of people in business who are respected but are not everyone’s best friend. Behave like a petty tyrant, however, and even competence will not rescue you from colleagues and clients who loathe you and will not stick around for repeated insults. Your good employees won’t tolerate it at all, and if you happen to have people who are underperforming, you’re not going to verbally abuse them into success.

2. Nothing you’ve accomplished in your company has happened solely because of you. Dear Jesse, you have not single-handedly built a billion-dollar brand. I am willing to concede that you are probably where you are—or where you were before your company imploded—because you have some talent. But there are people who backed you along the way, both in your current company and at past employers. Not acknowledging that betrays your own incapacity for generosity and gratitude. Someone, somewhere pulled you up to where you are, and the worst thing you can do is pull the ladder up behind you when you finally make it yourself.

3. Explosive blowups are not acceptable in a professional environment. I don’t care how angry you are, you have to learn to control your emotions. On a tangential note: If those emails had been written by a woman, she’d be deemed “crazy” because those kind of blowups are never acceptable for women. As a man, you might get away with slamming a wall every now and then. But you shouldn’t. No one should. If you feel like you’re on the verge of a blowup, take a walk around the block, breathe deeply, and think about how to present the issue in a professional manner. There is nothing to be gained from throwing a temper tantrum in the office. (Unless you count creating leakable material for your colleagues to send to Valleywag.)

4. Don’t talk to people like a petulant adolescent or no one will take you seriously. Diction is important. Those emails do not read like they were written by an adult. If you want to be respected as an adult, act and talk like one. If you use the word “fucking” as an adjective, it doesn’t make you sound tough. It makes you sound like an angry teenager. If you want people to believe that you’re smart, write like an intelligent person who has a more-than-perfunctory grasp of the English language that goes beyond Anglo-Saxon profanity and business book cliches.

By the way, do not ever write an email the contents of which you would be uncomfortable seeing on a Times Square billboard. Because that’s essentially what the Internet is, and as you’ve already learned, those emails can easily make their way to the website where you’d least like them to appear.

5. Calling people “losers” is something that children do. Mature adults understand that the world is not made up of winners and losers, no matter how much business literature (and I use the word “literature” loosely) tends to divide the working population along those lines. There are only flawed human beings who accomplish varying levels of things along a continuum. And the fact that there are people who have accomplished less than you have, at least in the sense that you have started a company that has had some success, does not mean that those people possess some sort of character flaw that you do not have. As an ex-entrepreneur myself, I know that starting a company is difficult, but let’s not pretend it’s a herculean feat on par with winning a Nobel prize or writing War and Peace. I’d also wager that it’s axiomatic that people who self-identify as “winners” are usually jerks.

6. If you are the CEO, the buck stops with you. Don’t like your employees? Don’t like where the company is headed? Don’t like how your account managers are dealing with clients? Guess whose responsibility that is? Yours. Take a cue from former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason (who built a far bigger company than you did). When Mason got fired, he wrote a farewell note to staff, acknowledging that, “as CEO, I am accountable.” I interviewed him a few weeks before and thought he was in denial about some of what was happening; maybe it took firing for him to acknowledge that the buck stopped with him. But I predict it’s a lesson he only needed to learn once, and I expect that he’ll go on to do interesting things.

And maybe you will, too, if you internalize all of the above.