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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

There are Some Good Ones

Much of my writing is about pointing out the darker nature of the VC/startup/tech media ecosystem, and that is most easily highlighted by covering the mismanagement, fraud, corruption, and stupidity that's prevalent in it. There are, however, some intelligent, considerate, capable, and honest startup CEOs and investors out there, and I very, very occasionally have had the good fortune to work with them.

In 2013 I was running my own consulting company, mostly doing ultrasound and medical imaging work, but having led a software development business for some years I was occasionally contracted to work on software projects. A mutual friend introduced me to Anil Sethi, a veteran of three successful startup exits, looking to change the healthcare system with the company he had co-founded, Gliimpse. To quote some recent articles, the goal for Gliimpse was to "create a platform for securely collecting, managing, and sharing private health records", "turning information from labs, hospitals, and pharmacies into a single shareable report."

I was with Gliimpse in its earliest stages for several months in a variety of roles, helping his team get the company started, fundraising, and advising on business strategies and approaches. It was a great experience working with Anil, watching how he ran his company, placing the security and privacy of data first and foremost (even ahead of MVP delivery), and for the first time seeing a CEO treat their employees as valuable team members with thoughts and desires of their own. Until then it was my experience that a CEO would pay lip service to 'valuable employees' but still do everything to underpay and demoralise their staff, and react angrily when they would have the temerity to request fair pay or reasonable better conditions. There were several times with impending deadlines and deliverable dates that things grew stressful, but being part of that team and knowing that the CEO actually appreciated the work kept me pushing through.

I was beginning to approach full time even as a consultant, and during this time I also started doing consulting work for another company - for a period I was working a combined 80 hours a week. Something had to give, and I had to make a choice which to go with - and to my occasional regret I went with the other company, it had an extremely challenging problem I was interested in working on that would test the skills I had learned over the previous two decades.

As I ended my work with Gliimpse, Anil asked if I would consider joining the Advisory Board and continue helping them with business strategy and acting as a sounding board for him, and I agreed. (Yes, I know I've commented on some uses for Advisory Boards, but as I noted there they can be done well too) It was another interesting few years as Gliimpse struggled and grew, and watching this CEO be a decent ethical human being while running his company, and for once the good guys won - Gliimpse was purchased by Apple earlier this year. I couldn't be happier for Anil, his cofounder Karthik Harriharan, and all of the Gliimpse team, they absolutely deserve this success and I'm looking forward to seeing how the resources of Apple can propel their vision forward.

Now I have a hard rule learned through years of mistakes, and that's whenever you work you don't work for promises of future rewards, that everything is on paper, legally binding, and cash. It's unfortunate as study after study shows that high trust societies are more efficient, and result in greater economic gains for all. It can be a short term gain for someone to abuse that in a high-trust society, to get employees to commit effort on the reasonable expectation of fair future compensation that somehow never materialises. Beware the CEO who proclaims their fairness and promises huge rewards "when you prove yourself", but acts insulted when you ask for that committed to paper. The recent publicity around WrkRiot is a good example of this, and it's not an isolated case in my experience. Those CEOs who view the world through a 'zero sum' lens may gain for themselves in the short term but often impoverish society as a whole.

Anil is one of the very, very few whose word I would trust to actually deliver on his promises. How did he earn that trust? You don't see him publishing articles on his amazing backstory that ignore the company and team, he doesn't proclaim his genius and take credit for the hard work of others, doesn't give lists of "13 things I've learned as CEO and you should too", sacrifice employees well-being on the altar of an impractical "mission", or sit on conference panels taking pointless softball questions simply for the publicity. Instead, he gained that trust by acting consistently, honestly, ethically, rationally, compensating employees fairly, and being true to his word even under difficult circumstances. 

That's all. It seems simple yet so rare to find, and the story here is one that is easily missed - that this being Anil's 4th exit as a founder is not despite his character, but in large part because of it. There are others like me who have worked with Anil before, who will take his word and commit their resources to a project because they know him. He asks for help, he'll get any help I can provide, without looking to contracts and negotiations first. That trust is hard to earn, and easy to lose, but if you want to look at it in purely economic terms, is near priceless - yet the short term gains of burning your employees seems to be the preferred route today. To all the current and aspiring CEOs out there, I'd urge you to take a page from Anil's book, and when you're under pressure look not just to your current startup but the next one and the one after that. Even once you have VC money, there are some things that it just can't buy.

As for the other company I chose to work for instead? Well that was called uBeam. You may have heard of it...  

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