Being part of a tech start-up is a more intimate kind of work, since you are more involved in the decisions of the company, while at the same time collaboration is more direct and sincere. Of course there are still politics, but they are significantly less impactful in your career as a tech entrepreneur. Because if you are part of the founding team of a start-up, you are an entrepreneur, period. So, why would someone leave such a company, esp. if it’s still in its growing phase? There are many reasons and they greatly depend on the company and the team dynamics of it. Here is my story, in a company called MAXset.
MAXset started as an NLP company with the mission to automate the structuring of text data, for any given corpus. Originally it was decided to use the state-of-the-art programming paradigm (functional programming) and a custom-built framework for knowledge representation. Basically, the goal was efficiency and innovation, so as to facilitate text analytics, particularly related to data science and business intelligence. Great idea, yet ideas that are good are a dime a dozen. Implementing this idea was a whole different ball game, one that required a lot of sacrifices and dirty compromises.
MAXset's Framework Implementation
Implementing a novel framework like that wasn’t easy. All the conventional text analytics systems were insufficient and embarrassingly suboptimal. Eventually we decided we had to build everything from scratch. This was great for me, since prototyping in a functional language was fairly easy and fast, while at the same time we were building a unique code base that could be featured as IP for the company, an asset of sorts. We even examined the possibility of filing a patent, at one point.
However, even though all the scripts I developed were fine, they were not used in practice since the framework was poorly defined and was changing constantly. It was like trying to optimize a fitness function that was different every time you looked at it. Also, at one point a decision was made to use a certain Python’s package, since the developer we had hired was not comfortable with using a functional language like Julia (even though that was a condition for hiring him). Of course, if you are hiring someone without giving them a salary, you have to make compromises like that, otherwise things will never take off.
Other Issues of MAXset
Technology and ideas aside, MAXset had other serious issues, that were highly incompatible with what investors would call a promising start-up. For example, there was no clear product definition, no clear market / audience, and no clear strategy for how this great idea would eventually make money. Investors may be very keen on spreadsheets and plots, but they are also intelligent enough to see beyond these and tend to have a pretty good BS detector. After all, there are so many other options for putting their hard-earned cash, especially in a tech city like Seattle. So, needless to say the idea never got the anticipated traction in the angel investment and VC community.
Also, the fact that there were no regular meeting locations (usually in the study rooms of libraries, or sometimes in coffee shops), didn't help the situation either. Apart from the obvious issue of lack of privacy, the logistics of the meetings were a constant problem. One of the team members had a good contact in a shared office space and he was certain he could get a really good deal for an office there. Yet, this never materialized for various reasons.
Regarding the team, we were originally 4 people, each one having a sizeable part of the company’s equity. There were also people having advisory roles, like a very talented cloud systems expert who I personally looked up to. Naturally you don’t expect everyone who is in the company in its first stages to linger, since not everyone is that patient, even if they are vested in the company’s success. Even one of Apple’s founders left within the first couple of years, leaving Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniac the only major stakeholders of the start-up they had all created. However, if most of the founders leave, that’s not a good sign. That’s what happened in MAXset. I was the last original founder other that the CEO who was around, when I sent my resignation letter. Perhaps I was less experienced than the other two gentlemen who made the same choice months ago. Or maybe I was too optimistic. Whatever the case, I eventually had to go, since it was no longer cost-effective for me to stay there.
Innovation Wasn't That Great
As for the innovation factor, MAXset prides itself to be an A.I. company, employing fringe data science methods for NLP applications. However, upon closer look, if you manage to see beyond the convoluted framework of its main product, it is merely a knowledge representation system. Also, prior to it busking for investors' money, everyone there was oblivious regarding the fact that there are several other companies out there that do the same thing, though with a different technology. Perhaps the technology in MAXset is unique, but this does not make the product innovative necessarily. Needless to say, most investors who flirted with the idea of investing in the company didn't take long to figure that out and keep their distance from MAXset.
Disrespect Towards People Outside the Company
It's one thing not liking someone because they are a competitor, or a former employee, and it's quite another dissing them. MAXset was notorious for the latter. Also, even people who would be considered potential collaborators, people who had a very positive attitude toward the company and wanted to help, were often treated with disrespect. For example, there was a marketing guy who had an appointment with the CEO one day at a local Starbucks. The CEO had double-booked himself that morning so he didn't show up for the meeting with that guy. He didn't even bother to reschedule or let him know, so that guy called the CEO asking him where he was. The CEO apologized of course, but at that moment I felt really embarrassed for his sake.
It is quite normal in start-ups to have to work without getting paid much. However, you would expect that the compensation would reflect the amount of work you've put and how vested you are in the company. That wasn't the case with MAXset. During one of the main payments, the compensation was hugely disproportionate to the amount of work or time invested in the company. This wasn't just for me, as there was another person too who was paid much less than he had worked. Also, another person got more than either one of us, even though he had been recruited recently. In general, the cash-flows in the company were managed so poorly that I wouldn't be surprised if there is an embezzlement fiasco in the news about this company (if it doesn't file for Chapter 11 in the meantime).
Start-ups are evolving creatures, so it is natural to change and adapt to circumstances, in order to survive and prosper. However, this kind of change tends to be gradual and in relation to some external factor that needs to be reckoned with. MAXset would change in a very whimsical fashion, shifting programming platforms, data analytics frameworks, and even product objectives like most people would change their clothes. This kind of work is not conducive to sustainable professional development, in my view, and highly incongruent to my values as a tech professional. Although it is good to be flexible, if the requirements of a system change bi-weekly, it is really hard to produce anything worthwhile. Also, the lack of any sort of solid plan about the company's strategy is not a good sign either.
Although I still feel like this whole gig was a waste of my time, time I could have spend creating more videos, or engaging in other data science projects, I find that even from this kind of experience it is possible to learn and hone one’s skills, while at the same time broaden one's perspective. There is a very nice Greek saying that goes “he who sits and hasn’t sat uncomfortably, doesn't sit comfortably.” Perhaps some people need to undergo through these harsh experiences in order to appreciate other companies. These companies may be less innovative and perhaps less exciting than a Seattle start-up, yet they are more viable and more useful to the world, since they have a definite objective and a clear plan on how to achieve it. So, I focus on that part of my experience and sincerely hope that if you pursue employment in a tech start-up, you never work in a place like MAXset.
Zacharias Voulgaris, PhD
Passionate data scientist with a foxy flair when it comes to technology, technique, and tests.