A dialogue that reveals the dangers of incompatible values & poor communication.
Lee and Jan formed a start-up to create an anti-anxiety suite of apps called The Serenity Suite.1
Alas, partnerships may not be so serene. For example, consider this conversation:
LEE: Three more apps need to go into the suite.
JAN: We’re burning through money. We gotta get the product out there now!
LEE: You only get one chance to make a first impression. With zillions of apps coming out every year, we have huge competition. Pardon the rhyme, but the suite must be complete.
JAN: Cute but you’re just guessing that including more apps will add enough to its appeal to be worth the time and money. People want simplicity. We’re already complicating matters by including four apps. If we add three more, Serenity Suite will make peoplemore stressed.
LEE: Shouldn’t we do a market test to see how many apps our target customers want in our suite?
JAN: Didn’t you hear me? We’re burning through money. We don’t have money or time for surveys and focus groups. Those can often be misleading anyway—What people say inmarketing research doesn’t necessarily translate into what they actually buy.
LEE: Corporations spend millions on marketing research and you just blow it off?
JAN: I’m a marketing person.You’re a programmer. You do what you do. I do what I do.
LEE: Yeah, big marketer: two short stints at start-ups that failed.
JAN: You’re no Google engineer. You’ve just been doing temp gigs.
LEE: You ignored my point that corporations spend millions on marketing research and you, newbie marketer, blows it off with a one-liner?
JAN: We don’t have millions. We don’t have thousands! At our burn rate, we’re broke in three weeks!
LEE: So shouldn’t we cut our spending?
JAN: Our major cost is the lease and it’s too late to do anything about that.
JAN: Screw you!
LEE: Now that’s an intelligent response. And the reason we’re running out of money isn’t just our expenses, it’s that you’re lazy. When we agreed to be partners, you said you planned to work full-time on this, but you don’t. I see how much time you spend playing around and vegging out.
JAN: I’m thinking, not vegging out.
LEE: (sarcastically) Sure. And what about all that time you spend playing on Facebook? And all those days off because your sweetie made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
LEE: That’s pretty racist.
JAN: I’m sorry.
LEE: Let’s close this rodeo—Western enough of an analogy for you? I’ll polish what we have this week—yes, in my Asian hard-worker way—and then you can do your marketing BS in your laid-back American way to try to get the media to love our buggy app.
JAN: Don’t exaggerate. We have more than a week, probably three. Add what you can, polish what you can, and then I’ll beg USA Today’s Tech section, NY Times, The Verge, Gizmodo, TechCrunch CNET, and LifeHacker to love us, and we’ll cross our fingers…Oh, I forgot, you’re a Buddhist—You don’t believe in crosses.
LEE: Interesting to see you revealing your real self. I’m looking forward to Serenity Busterbeing out there so I can say goodbye—no, sayonara—to you and this partnership.
JAN: Sounds good to me.
Business and Communication Lessons
That dialogue embeds a number of lessons for all of us on how to succeed in business and in communicating. Most of those lessons were self-explanatory but a few warrant a bit of explanation.
1. Lee trusted Jan’s promise to work full-time. If, before entering the partnership, Lee had called Jan’s previous employers and asked for honest feedback about whether Jan would make a good partner, Lee might not have entered into the partnership.
2. Upfront, Jan needed to have talked with some target customers to get a sense of how many and which apps needed to go into the suite. That would have enabled them to budget better.
3. They did need to keep expenses to a minimum, and that certainly included working from home for as long as possible. Rent is a taxi meter that spins wildly 24/7/365. Jan’s desire to appear professional (and perhaps feel grown up) came at too high a price. Especially in a start-up, the emphasis must be on the steak, not the sizzle.
4. Questioning a person’s overall value is very dangerous. In this dialogue, Lee said, “Yeah, big marketer: Two short stints at start-ups that failed.” That took the gloves off and triggered the bare-fisted fight that ensued. Lee could have made the same point with less risk by phrasing it as a face-saving question such as, “So, as you take everything into consideration, do you think it’s wise to forgo standard practice, that is, to talk with the target customers early and often?”
From there, the conversation rapidly deteriorated, for example: “Yeah, I begged you to run the business from your apartment but you insisted you wanted the business to feel serious. What you really meant is that you wanted to feel like a grown-up!” Not only did that blame Jan for something that couldn’t be changed, it accused her of being immature and having shallow motives.
5. Even with a friend, it is dangerous to, even in jest, make a racial, gender, or sexual orientation comment. Especially today, people have very little tolerance for such. Jan’s comment about Asians getting heart attacks from overwork was doubly hurtful: both its racial generalization and possibly scaring Lee for behaving as he deemed appropriate.
6. Lee called Jan “lazy.” It’s appropriate to point out specific behaviors that Lee found troubling, for example, all the work time spent playing on Facebook, but to label Jan en toto as lazy, even if true, will likely engender defensiveness rather than change.
7.The passage of time can sometimes salvage the relationship—It may reduce the angerand allow each person to internally acknowledge their role in the argument so they can behave better in a subsequent conversation. So, when a conversation seems irretrievable, cut your losses with a question like, “We’re both doing poorly here. How about we cool off for a day or two and then take another bite at the apple, with both of us trying to be our best selves? What do you think?”
1This dialogue violates no confidentiality. It is a composite of my experience with multiple clients. Of course, the names are fictitious.