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What happens when the Board of Directors begins to panic? (smashcompany.com)
96 points by nikanj 659 days ago | hide | past | web | 45 comments | favorite

I would have left not long after the "big pivot". I've seen it quite a few times before, if the tech team is not involved in 'pivot' decisions, it means the execs have no clue what they are doing. Typically they go to a trade show somewhere and immediately want to 'pivot' to the latest craze.

I had my own 'pranad'(sp) too a previous project, one that was even slightly sneakier as he did fake demos of the features he was asked to write -- still manage to stay 18 months, and every single line he ever did had to be replaced afterward.

And in the UK, the sort of toxic situation with the manager would guarantee a 'constructive dismissal' payout too.

I read some of this earlier today via the reddit link. My favorite part was when Milburn decided that he would supervise their coding via video chat

> Gregory suggested it might be more productive if we all got to work, and Milburn agreed, but he insisted that we work while logged into a video chat with him. So we went to our desks and we started working, and all of us (except Hinton) were logged into video chat with Milburn. And Milburn just sort of stared at us through the screen. He wanted to overhear us, and he wanted to watch us as we worked. His attitude was like that of a foreman who was overseeing a crew that had to dig a ditch. It was as if he feared that we would only work while he was looking at us, and the moment he looked away we would goof off.


> I said, “It is definitely in the hashmap.”

> Milburn jumped in. “What is this? Hashmaps? Shouldn’t you be sending JSON documents?”

> He had no idea what he was talking about.


> Then Gregory said, “Hey, I don’t see where we initialize our Natural Language Processing engine. Are you sure you set this up so it is initialized?”

> Milburn said, “Gregory, are you saying Lawrence forgot to turn the software on? That’s incredible.”

Milburn then continues to drive Gregory to debug "our hero's" code. He's looking for a smoking gun some sort of incontrovertible proof that Lawrence made an error. Any error. All the while over video chat.

This guy is somewhere around 50, a sales guy, no idea hide nor hair about code... but he knows that he really wants to stick it to Lawrence.

What a maroon.

That was where my jaw dropped. I'd start looking for new work the second I got home. How could you possibly do good work once it got that hostile? How could you still believe the startup had a chance?

I'm not sure if you meant to say moron, but maroon works here too in the sense of "to abandon or isolate with little hope of ready rescue or escape".

It's a fairly famous line from Bugs Bunny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_Kh7nLplWo

Learned something new today

Per the other follow up comment I definitely meant the bug bunny version of maroon.

I've only read to October, but here's a thought that's already occurred:

When you start keeping a detailed diary of all the fucked up stuff that happens at your company, it's time to put on your running shoes and GTFO.

"We were trying to do a boldly cutting edge Natural Language Processing startup, but without a top-notch Natural Language Processing expert."

Of the many, many, many management problems present in this article, this seems like the most atrocious. Attempting to complete a task neither google nor apple nor any big player has tackled is total madness. Where is the phd level research? You have to at least understand the technical aspects of your project at a high level and bring on someone who has a deep grasp of them as a founder. Who wants to build this for you without having the equity and stake?

Someone should have just taken a pile of $1.5 million and lit it on fire.

"We were trying to do a boldly cutting edge Natural Language Processing startup, but without a top-notch Natural Language Processing expert."

It's worse than that. They're trying to do something very hard - a natural language system which can handle a conversation with state, and reliably understands its input. Very, very few systems do that. Things like Siri and Google Voice Search will punt to giving you a web page when they don't understand enough to give a concise answer. Those systems have huge staffs behind them writing rules for special cases.

There are commercial products which might make this do-able by a small team. Teneo has a natural language platform good enough for online banking.[1] It can do a conversation with state, and can handle business logic for the bank's services. Their dress ordering demo is amusing.[2] Not only does it do the order, it tries to sell accessories relevant to the dress. That could work; presenting the buyer with a few well-chosen options at the moment of sale is good sales technique. Amazon does that with "Others also bought", but it's not as targeted.

But no, they're trying to do it with open source software and nobody with a clue. They also seem to have completely missed that they'll need a back end system which looks at the results from the natural language system, notes when things didn't go well, and can be used to make the system smarter.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwOZaPnJIzQ [2] http://www.artificial-solutions.com/natural-language-interac...

Posting at the direct suggestion of the author of the article (just to clarify I'm not trying to comment hijack), we (www.converse.ai) have solved a good deal of these problems, and are making it available as a platform for companies to build their own conversational services on.

We handle:

1) Front end integrations (Slack, Twitter, Intercom, Telegram etc, more to come)

2, Natural language interaction (either via our own NLP system or pluggable into other NLP systems as required)

3, Conversation state and context management

4, Validation and parsing of conversation input based on NLP, Regex, or external functions (e.g calling another API) as required. (NLP isn't best in all scenarios)

5, Static and Dynamic 'Conversation Maps', allowing you to generate them on the fly as required.

Comments/Questions etc welcome :)

A standout for me was this nugget early on:

Instead of the user clicking a button to edit old Contacts, they would type, “I want to edit the info about my contact Jenny Hei,” and we would then find the info about Jenny Hei and offer it to the user so they could edit it. That was the new plan.

This was a brilliant idea.

Oh dear...

To be fair, if you're in a situation where you want someone 'thinking outside the box', hiring top experts from that field isn't necessarily the right thing.

If a person sees all of these horse drawn carriages around and wants to figure out a way to get rid of the horse, he/she doesn't turn to people that are experts at attaching horses to carriages.

That's true, and having people with very strong academic bias (e.g. those who spent their short careers obtaining PhD but don't have any industry experience) can be just as bad.

You generally want those PhDs as researchers or advisers to your company, not as founders/management. Obviously, exceptions always exist.

That was without a doubt one of the worst start-up horror stories I have ever read. It was so bad that I went back and edited this comment four times.

Complete ineptitude by ever facet of the company, and I'm sure to this day each member of the (please let it be) dead company is pointing the finger across the table at someone else.

I doubt they're dead since the last entry in the chronicle is less than a month old, though this article may kill them.

For those so interested:


uh ... their "Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn" links at the bottom of the page literally just go to facebook.com and the like, rather than a page for their company.

Also, their signup form gives a straight MySQL "Access denied for user 'rollio'@'localhost' (using password: YES)". I've seen completely fake startups with more functional websites than this (like http://www.shutdownify.com/ )

My guess (since they mention using agencies, but never an in-house designer):

They bought this either as a template or as a contract gig, it was delivered with the expectation that they swap the demo social links out for the real ones, and the people on the receiving end just never looked that hard at it.

Too funny! I had to check it out for myself... Thanks for the laugh.

"Sorry. Error occurred. We are already working on it - SQLSTATE[28000] [1045] Access denied for user 'rollio'@'localhost' (using password: YES)"

6 Nov - Rollio @RollioForce #Hiring #Clojure Developer, preferably w/ #Salesforce API experience. Anyone working in Clojure & good web api experience, reach out!


Seriously? I guess given the utter dysfunction described I can understand fundamental website errors (like "Speak to you[sic] CRM" and "Listen to you[sic] CRM" but still....

I love how the gears in the video don't actually interlock... seems appropriate.

I haven't felt this much anxiety and empathy from a story in a long time.

He's a hero for putting up with that environment for as long as he did. I almost wonder if the story's embellished a bit, because I can't believe he could stay so calm during those encounters.

Denial really helps you stay calm in situations like these. If you freak out, it's for real. If you keep your head on, it's easier to fall asleep saying "maybe tomorrow won't be so bad"

Sad, but very true...

I had a situation somewhat similar to this and I quit pretty quickly. Details if anyone cares (and if other people who were there show up and want to correct any details I get wrong, go for it, this was ~20 years ago):

It was a hardware/software startup, linux on a mips chip, building a low power personal webserver with an admin interface for naive users. I joined in 1998, I was hired to run the software side of it. I was not a co-founder, they were up to about 11 people if I remember correctly, but I was told that I'd be treated as one. They gave me 3% of the company which seemed high enough that they were serious so I believed them.

Things were a mess when I got there, no version control, no nightly builds, no backups, everything was ad hoc. Fixing this stuff was easy, it's software dev 101.

So I got the basics sorted and started working on a schedule. The founders were headed towards a board meeting and wanted to tell the board that the software would be ready in 3 months. I protested and said that was nuts, we are doing a kernel bring up (Linux on MIPs was barely a thing at that point). They pushed hard for their 3 months deadline.

I went and talked to Bill Earl who has done more OS bringups on MIPS than anyone else I knew (and probably anyone else period). He asked how far we were, how stable was the compiler, did the kernel boot, did we have anything working in userland, etc. Standard stuff that anyone would ask trying to get a handle on it.

He was actually pretty positive, we were fairly far along, userland was mostly working. He said "well, it's possible that you could get there in 3 months". I asked "would you bet your kids college fund on it?" He said "hell no, 3 months is if everything goes perfectly. One compiler bug will double that time, so would one kernel bug" (obviously he meant a nasty bug, not something trivial, and he's right, I've seen 3 month slips because of something that was hard to find, I've seen much longer as well).

So I go back to the founders and say 3 months is a pipe dream, it's possible but extremely unlikely. And I asked to be at the board meeting, I was the director of software, there was no software VP, so the buck stopped with me.

They said no. I resigned as soon as I could put together a resignation letter.

Plot twist: I should have stayed (if money was the point). Sun later bought them for $2B in stock in the doc com hey day. On paper, assuming there had been no dilution (which I'm sure there was) I would have been worth $60M. Oh, well, shoulda coulda woulda.

It's only virtual money anyway, I've been multi-millionaire in monopoly startup money a few times myself! I bet that if you have stayed an had been worth anything, they'd have made life impossible for you to try to grab that 3% back over your dead body (if possible).

I was explaining a little while back to a Junior that the only way to leave a project is when you think your integrity is intact. Don't leave earlier, or later. If you do that, in 10 years when you think about it, you won't have any regrets because it'll still be the Right Thing to do.

Yeah and I did fine elsewhere, I'm OK. Not filthy rich but definitely FU money and then some.

Completely agree on the integrity thing. I left SGI when I couldn't look people in the eye and say "yeah, you should come work here". And they tried to keep me, offered to double my salary and pay off my house if I agreed to stay for 10 years. I loved that company back in the day but I'm so glad I didn't stay, it would have been miserable.

Was this Cobalt?

I'd prefer not to say because I'd like to get along with the people who were there. But I'm pretty sure you can google the facts and figure it out. Sorry to be squishy but I seem to have made a career out of pissing people off and I'm trying to do less of that. Yeah, publicly posting the story might not have been the greatest idea but naming names is even worse.

"Celolot currently has bad leadership, but with the right leadership, I believe it could eventually take over the CRM industry." - that is complete fucking bullshit. This guy is clearly delusional because he's in denial. He tells a (incredibly long, to the point that I suspect it's partly fictional) story of a terribly run company trying to do something difficult with no skill whatsoever, and thinks it's going to "take over the CRM industry"? Bull. Fucking. Shit.

EDIT: looking at the website as a whole, I'm fairly confident the entire thing was written as fiction in the first place, but it's still bullshit that anyone would think it's a believable story of reasonable behavior on the author's part, true or false.

> I'm fairly confident the entire thing was written as fiction in the first place

Nope. http://rollioforce.com/


"Lawrence Krubner -- Lead Programmer at Rollio Force"

Still don't believe it's at all an accurate account of the company. If it was accurate, I don't believe the author would be competent to write an accurate assessment of anything. I realize I'm sounding incredibly harsh, but "cargo cult startup" is a generous assessment of what is described in the article, and the supposedly 15-year veteran is completely oblivious to this.

I'm probably nobody to talk having never actually held a software development management position (though I've been a team lead at times), but this strikes me as what I'd call "programmer mentality." I'd also say he was constrained by feeling that he didn't have the authority (or the ability to force/take that authority) to actually make decisions. Within the scope he could control it sounds like he did what he could.

I also suspect that if he'd had any idea this was going to go even slightly viral he'd have anonymized it further and posted it through medium or the like.

I'll note that on his website (smashcompany.com) in the About section, the link to "my profile on LinkedIn" is either a tragic mistake or some combination of blunt and subtle humor/commentary (it goes to the page to edit your own public profile, nothing related to Lawrence K's profile at all. Very reminiscent of the footer links on the RollioForce site.

And finally, if I ever received an email or chat/Slack message from a CEO (or Chairman) of a company I worked for like the one he received on October 8, my two responses would be A) Is this person drunk, drugged, otherwise impaired (and do I need to get medical attention for them) and B) Holy Crap if this person is in a position of authority over me I need to get the hell out now. It's like some kind of semi-literate verbal diarrhea and certainly nothing that should come from a decision-maker in a company.

I have the years now to recognize that a fair bit of the chances you run into this are simply statistical odds.

But if I had more time I would share a bit of my stories. Trust though that these types of personalities are unfortunately very real.

I try to remember that for every bit of effort and skill I put into my job doing technical tasks, someone else is probably putting just as much into using their personality to get what they want. It's just inevitable...

When I read 22yo CEO and $1.5M in funding, I knew it was gonna be good...

The author can't be much older to be so utterly naive though...

I'm not going to repeat the other good points made here but point out this one:

"There was also the issue of Pranab’s excessive hours spent playing video games. I complained of this to Hinton, but Hinton hated any form of confrontation, so he excused Pranab’s behavior by saying that everyone occasionally goofs off at work."

This is my major takeaway from this story. Any executive, especially a CEO, must be comfortable with confrontation. You should not be a Milburn but you should still be able to tell people whether their behavior or performance is unacceptable.

> There was also the issue of Pranab’s excessive hours spent playing video games.

This looks to me like a "cheap outsourcing" flag, but I can be wrong.

This should have been the sign to get the hell out: "in what startup of five people does the tech team work for five months without ever talking to the CEO?" There's a movie to be gotten out of this 'Milburn' feller.

Some juicy quotes:

> Milburn: Why do you have to use words like “library”? There are no libraries! Why do you always try to obfuscate every conversation? Model, View, Controller! That is how software is built! Model, View, Controller! It’s not a library! It’s a model!

> Milburn jumped in. “What is this? Hashmaps? Shouldn’t you be sending JSON documents?”

> I complained of this to Hinton, but Hinton hated any form of confrontation, so he excused Pranab’s behavior by saying that everyone occasionally goofs off at work.

> Hinton was not comfortable with confrontation.

> Hinton did not like confrontation, and he was eager to please, so I can imagine that when the Board pressed him to move forward quickly, he assured them that he would.

> Hinton did not like direct confrontation, so he never expressed anger in person.

so... was Pranab Milburn's nephew or not?

I can't believe I read the whole thing.

Yeah, neither can I. I got about halfway through and decided I had the idea. If I couldn't even stand reading that post, I don't know how one could live through it. We are, of course, only reading his side of the story.

The main thing that stood out for me was total sociopathic behavior. Sadly quite common in the industry.

Leave early and leave often.

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