On Being Conned: It Feels So Good for Awhile

It’s not easy to admit I was just conned. Much of my self-esteem is wrapped up in being an effective developer, on being valuable to my team, solving tricky problems, designing clean architecture, looking at the big picture and testing rigorously. And the big picture should include the people and the red flags.

Here’s what happened: the place I worked before, which I love and will name, Crowdpac, did a pivot and cut data analysis out of their plan, meaning I had to find something new to do. Not a problem — they were more than fair with me, gave me plenty of time, and the developer market is good; plenty of possibilities emerged. I wasn’t concerned about finding ‘something’, but I was anxious about finding the right thing. I loved my current job, wanted to work in something equally meaningful, and if possible move to a C-level position where I’d be able to be in on the higher level business decisions. And I was nervous about being worth enough, because I’ve been commanding a significantly higher-than-industry-average salary for the last 5 or 6 years, and I always question myself, am I really worth it?

Still, I was moving forward with a couple promising positions, and I was feeling pretty good. I had an interview for a CTO position that I didn’t think would pan out, I had a feeling that they probably didn’t have much funding and it just wouldn’t be practical. The guy interviewing me was actually the founder, and he was very casual and charismatic, and the subject was interesting to me — systematically attacking the problem of addiction recovery; the guy seemed smart, direct and open, so right in the interview I mentioned the salary I wanted, and that I didn’t think it would probably be practical for them. And he agreed to it in principle right there, and seemed like he wanted to hire me almost on the spot — without a coding interview or talking to the developers. Red flag, right? Too good to be true, usually is.

The thing is, I had been thinking recently that I hadn’t jumped on things when I should have. Early on in Internet time, I had an idea for a directory that let people add stuff to it, and coded a prototype. But I figured someone else would do it, and dropped it. When I did web hosting, I wrote a script that automatically put together simple websites for people, but decided they didn’t look good enough, and dropped it. So I’d been thinking to myself that maybe I should have had more confidence in my own ideas, maybe I should take more leaps. And I thought this was the leap.

It was fun, exciting to talk about the ways we could use analytics to attack addiction. I woke up and thought of ideas in the shower, like whether we could take tone of voice data, to tell when someone might be at risk of relapse. And lo and behold, there is an existing service (Affectiva) with an API we could just plug into. Realizing that nearly everything you can think of is possible today, was just so exciting, I felt like maybe this was The Thing, the big project I would do for the next stage of my career, that would tie into everything else I’d been wanting to work on for so long.

We clicked in person too, this charismatic founder and I — cursed freely, talked openly about people and experiences, and what we wanted to accomplish and allow patients to own their own data — it was really a dream, I felt. Super exciting.

At the beginning, though, when I was at the stage of turning down my other offers and follow-up interviews, I was nervous. I got the vibe of a broke startup. Asked my new boss, so do you have money already, or is it contingent on this release (whose date I felt was impractical). Told him I’d been around, and that people do funny things when they run out of money, and that being paid on time would be important to me. Assured up and down that he wasn’t like that, sorry for my past experiences, he was raised to stick to your word, and so on. If he hadn’t said that, maybe I’d have been more patient later.

The first week was great. Working with a remote team in Romania, I was doing a lot of late nights and early mornings. Honestly the feeling of lacking sleep, coding down to the wire, learning new technologies (AWS Cognito, React Native for Android, setting up debugging on simulator, really getting into node.js, AWS Lambda) was exhilarating. I knew I was solving tricky issues and the team was depending on me to do the hard parts, which made me feel really good about my skills not being rusty! I loved feeling like that person who walks into a new tech stack and solves the hard problems right away.

My boss was even willing to hire a friend of mine without question, because she had solid degrees, so I was set to be working with a really good friend of mine from college.

Ah, writing this is making me sad again — it was great while it lasted.

About a week into my official start, though, I found out that one of the developers hadn’t gotten paid. By itself this wasn’t a dealbreaker, I just wanted it to get fixed right away and taken seriously. Supposedly we had 250K startup funds, so logically there shouldn’t have been any reason it couldn’t get fixed. I’d already been working with the team on the weekends before my official start, so I was pretty familiar with everyone. Sent an email to both my boss and our CFO saying how important it was to pay devs on time, and how would it get handled. Got assurances back that it would be handled right away, but another red flag — my boss, the founder guy, said not to discuss it. Uh-uh.

That was a big flag, and after that I probably started stopping believing that this was real. It took another week though, for it to come to a head. Little by little I found out the rest, that this boss of mine had been straight out lying to the devs, telling them ‘I’m sending it now’, ‘wire going out today’, ‘will get that taken care of this week’ — in one case for over a month, and in the other case for a week or so.

The funny thing is this isn’t the first time I’ve been here. Back in 2005 I was with a tiny startup, a three musketeers kind of operation, and my partner who I was pretty close to did stuff like that. I made him put me in charge of the bank account so I could pay the other members of the team, and he’d still tell me stuff like ‘pay yourself’ when we could both see there was nothing but red in the bank! This is a startup disease, unfortunately, maybe because of that chicken-and-egg situation all startups face, of having to have something to show investors to get the money to pay the devs to make the something. The right way to deal with it is honesty and openness.

And for a couple days we sort of had that. After the first episode, my boss posted publicly to the team apologizing for the late payments and promising things would get straightened out. The thing is though, we’re talking about small amounts — the remote team at that point was owed less than $5k. And I’d been assured we had $250K and that my paycheck would be on time for about the same amount the whole remote team was owed.

Maybe I should have asked for honesty instead of assurances.

My boss became hard to reach, sort of sending text messages and promising meetings but never actually being at them or setting them up; I found out that the other remote member of the team (I’ll call her Geri) had never been paid at all, and she was a mother of young children, and it was really affecting her. That brought out the mama bear in me. Mess with single devs, mess with me, but don’t mess with an honest decent person who is just trying to support her kids. I don’t want to be any part of that. My husband pointed out later that I was sort of brought in as a buffer to lead people on, and that my participation was contributing to the con of others.

After I realized how much this was hurting Geri — she’d been putting in long hours and getting her husband to take off work and babysit, then wasn’t paid when it was promised and needed it for her rent, for her family — then this wasn’t just another sketchy startup trying to bootstrap. It was one person lying to another and taking advantage of them. Specifically targetting devs who could already be paid less than local coders, and then on top of that not paying on time, and on top of that lying outright “sending that today” — getting that fixed was my top priority, and definitely a dealbreaker if it didn’t happen.

My boss sent assurances once again that payments would go out on time, and the morning it was promised texted ‘wires going out today, on it’. I asked for the transfer confirmations, not really expecting to get them; by then I didn’t really think payments would happen. Near 5pm I was able to check with our CFO, and verify that my paycheck hadn’t been issued either, and that he’d never seen more than 1500 in the bank account. I probably should have asked to see the balance ahead of time, but somehow felt that if I had to do that, I shouldn’t be working there anyway. And I’d wanted to work here.

Like I said, this isn’t the first shifty startup I’ve been around. So before anything else, when I realized that there probably just wasn’t any money, I gathered documentation and contact information from my team and stored it off the company system. I asked my boss one more time to contact me directly about all this, but gave a short deadline. And the next day when I hadn’t heard from him, I started sending emails, with the goal of getting at least some payments out to the team.

The first one was to his therapist — because I wasn’t trying to do damage, I was trying to send a wake up call that I could. As an addiction recovery guy, he’d been in therapy himself, and his therapist was to help us with the launch into treatment centers. I said straight out in the email, that I was sending it to the least harmful place. His therapist is confidential, and I actually tried to be encouraging, that the product was real and really could take off, but also that misleading the devs was just wrong and was harming people, and he needed to make it right.

I didn’t mention, he’d been away trying to fundraise for the last week up in New York, and had a new partner who wanted to sell cryptocurrency based life insurance. Yes, selling life insurance. In some ways it almost makes sense — smart contracts — but in other ways it could be a total scam, if the payout were only in the new cryptocurrency token and not backed by cash or a standard Eth/bitcoin currency. With the history and the number of texts I’d seen of him claiming he had paid, had sent the wire, and so on, I felt like it was likely the former. Definitely not something I want to lend my credibility to. Still, if the payment had gone out when he said, I would have stuck, and fought that battle when we came to it.

No response to texts, calls, or my first email, so about 3 hours later I sent the second one, to his new life insurance partner, and again to the CFO, both including all the documentation of lies and fake assurances of payment. This reminds me of Trump, now. Is this more widespread in business now than it was a few years ago, I wonder? And then I sent some emails to other folks in his circle, folks I’d found online and ones I knew, saying only that I was trying to reach him, but not including the details. And I copied my erstwhile boss, making it clear to him that I could send much more.

Would he retaliate against me in some way? But truth is on my side, so I am only a little worried about it. Shortly after that barrage, the team once again received a promise that the wire would go out “tomorrow”.

I’ll wait, and then take more steps, because Geri has kids and needs the money, because I have kids too, and because its not right to let the bad guys win.

The thing is, part of me still after all this wants to think he’s not a bad guy, that he’s just a typical startup entrepreneur scrambling for funds. I always want to take the responsibility, that maybe my pressing for assurances caused him to lie. Yet he’d already lied before that multiple times to the remote team.

Letting go of the dream hurts just a bit, but waking up won’t be so bad. The real world has plenty of opportunity in it.

And part of my confidence to take those steps quickly, was that some of the real world had been reaching out to me. I might not be CTO, but I’m happy to just write code, and to do real things.

Maybe my former boss and partner will do real things too. The world is a funny place, and a lot of types of folks do succeed in it. I just know that for myself, I can’t be part of a thing that lies to people. So despite my regrets for the dream, the con, the confidence job that made me feel so good for a while, I know that I have to be part of something that doesn’t need to lie to succeed.

Update: “Geri” was eventually paid something, and one of the other devs continued to work for him for partial payments, so for a while I did not post his name. However, in January of 2020 I heard from another developer who did not receive payments as promised, so although I didn’t originally publish his name, at that point I did: this is about David Sarabia and InRecovery, Inc. If you work for them, beware and take payment up front, and make sure it really clears into your bank.

A year later, I asked and found that after a frustrating period of ‘check is in the mail’ followed by ghosting, the second developer was eventually paid, as was the original developer in this story after some months. I’d still get payment up front, though.

Mom, Software Engineer, Tucsonan. Like connection, community, fun and algorithms for increasing opportunity. Also for identifying bullshit. @gvelez17

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