You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.

by Eric Marcoullier

I want you to hit me as hard as you can...

One of the most interesting facets of the whole TechCrunch fiasco is complaints from the editors that they have been ignored by AOL. MG Siegler and Robin Waters both mentioned this in their recent posts and as far back as March, Mike expressed concern that the AOL integration was not going swimmingly.

All this sturm und drang reminds me of my experience after Yahoo acquired MyBlogLog.  And it reminds me of many other tech acquisitions. Flickr? Delicious? Upcoming? Lest you think this is a uniquely Yahoo problem, remember Dodgeball, Jaiku and Slide at Google, Netscape and Bebo at AOL, Dopplr at Nokia, Palm at HP, MySpace at Fox, Skype and StumbleUpon at eBay, Flip at Cisco, Danger at Microsoft… shall I continue? There are plenty of reasons to hold the acquiring companies accountable for these shit shows, but if my own experience is any indication, the acquirees can also shoulder some blame.

Many freshly minted millionaire founders think “If Company X was willing to pay us all this money to join, why the hell won’t they listen to us about <insert gripe here>?!?” For instance, shortly after MyBlogLog was acquired, we had our first engineering hire nixed even though Todd had run a 20-person dev shop for a decade. We were flabbergasted — they could acquire us for millions but not trust us to hire someone?

Here’s the thing — the moment you are acquired you become an employee. Sure, there are a few people in corporate development who still think you are god’s gift to the business, but to everyone else you are simply Employee Number Whatever. Same chain of command, same IT policy, same hiring process. In most large companies, individual mid-level employees do not have the ability to make substantial changes quickly.  Before you dismissively write this all off as bureaucratic bullshit, I’d point you to the three branches of the US government. It’s all about forcing major changes to happen SLOWLY.

As an acquired founder you get to run your product the same exact way that every internally grown product is run. Unless you are brought in at a senior executive level, you are not at the acquiring company to fix their problems or change their processes.  The CEO probably won’t even remember your name in six months. You are not going to get special privileges. You are no longer a beautiful or unique snowflake. That ended when they wired you the check.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Sanzalone September 19, 2011 at 4:55 pm

You hit it right on the head here Eric. Don’t forget the whole Blognation debacle as well (which was CAUSED in many ways by Arrington and Techcrunch). While Arrington smiles all the way to the AOL bank, others who helped him get there are once again left to clean the poop.

Successful entrepreneurs don’t have to be nice guys. In fact, most aren’t. All the rest of us ask is they leave a “good” legacy after their plundering. Case in point would be Steve Jobs. He certainly ISN’T lily white, but at least he did make things better. These “successful” jokers? Not even close. Each one will have to deal with their Jacob Marley visit in the night.

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Eric Marcoullier September 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

While I sympathize with your frustrations, I think it’s an oversimplification to paint either side as the bad guys.

Mike, Heather and all the TechCrunch editors built something fantastic and I doubt that many people would deny that Mike poured his whole life into the blog over the last six years. He got a great payday and god bless him for it.

But I think that the payday creates some cognitive dissonance at times, a difference in expectations about how things are going to work moving forward. The luxury (for the founders) and the frustration (for us) is that once acquired, the founders are no longer in a position where they have to stick around if they don’t like how things are playing out.

Two years ago, Mike would have figured out how to make this work. Now he’s got the ability to take his ball and go home. To denigrate him because of that is to overlook a huge swath of context and (probably) ascribe maliciousness where none exists.

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Grant Czerepak September 19, 2011 at 5:43 pm

I think I might add, “This is a business, not a crusade.” Businesses make money and there is no moral obligation to that which makes money. Actually, you can walk away from most crusades, too.

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Robyn Tippins September 19, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Yep, so true. It’s not like anyone expected a different outcome, did they?

However, if I could advocate for the devil… I’d imagine that when you sell, you’re not really told you’re nothing special up front. I have not been involved in an acquisition, but if it’s like other Biz Dev interactions, I’d assume there’s tons of praise and other dramatic ‘second coming’ talk, so I’m sure it comes as a shock when you learn that the folks in charge now don’t have time to listen to you or have forgotten your name.

My first thoughts when I read all this TC bitching was to roll my eyes and ask what they expected would occur. However, after what was probably months of needy, praise-filled phone calls and meetings, it probably did come as a shock that once papers were signed the team was no longer really all that important.

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Eric Marcoullier September 19, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Hey Robyn! One of my blogging idols, here commenting on an article. Validation in full effect :)

I think this post may have come off a little harsher than intended, mainly because it’s one of the first times I’ve realized 1) why I was copping such an attitude at Yahoo and 2) why others might have perceived that as dick-ish.

So, yeah, any acquired team has spent weeks, if not months, getting told how brilliant they are by the acquiring company. They have millions of reasons to think they are going to be rock star saviors of whatever slow-moving behemoth bought them.

Then they’re dropped into the organization and the team responsible for bringing them in (corp dev) no longer has any connection to their future well-being. Now they’re just another team.

And the worst part is, no one ever says “Hey, remember all those great things we said to get you in here? That was all just pillow talk. You’re just a regular old team.” If you had that, you’d at least know where you stand. Most times it’s “here’s a pile of money because you’re so amazing” and then… crickets chirping.

So I don’t think that the founders and team members act egoistically because they’re jerks. They have every reason to think they will be in an influential position at the new company. But they’re wrong. And it might help folks to hear what’s what.

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Robert Link September 20, 2011 at 8:49 am

Since I jerked Eric’s chain a bit on Twitter, I’ll say something serious (and hopefully not stupid) here. The bureaucracy that grows up in large organizations (whether private or government) is a natural and inevitable response to the misalignment between individuals’ interests and the organization’s interests. In a small organization you don’t see this misalignment too much because the people in the organization are also significant stakeholders. They have a personal interest in the organization’s success, and that creates an incentive to do the right thing. You can trust them with a lot of judgement because you and they both know that if they screw up, they will feel a lot of the pain too.

The larger the organization, the more those personal and organizational interests diverge. People start to put their personal goals ahead of the organization’s goals. This happens even when people have the best of intentions; it need not come from greed or malice. Consider the engineer that, left to his own devices, will work on a feature because it poses an interesting technical challenge, rather than because it is what the product really needs. He doesn’t mean to undermine the company’s goals, but he does just the same. To be successful any large organization must find a way to focus its people on the organization’s interests, even when their personal interests lie elsewhere. You can create incentives, but those sometimes backfire (q.v., investment banks, bonuses paid by), and in a large organization they quickly become too expensive for widespread use in any meaningful way. If an organization gets large enough, it becomes a lot easier (i.e., cheaper) to make up a bunch of rules about how people do their work and to hire some auditors to enforce them. There are costs to that too, both direct (the auditors’ salaries) and indirect (the stuff you can’t do because the red tape stifles it), but the alternatives cost even more.

Now, when a small company gets acquired by a large company, there is probably a period of time where the people in the former company, now a group within the big company, have a lot of residual personal interest in the group’s success because they still view it as their creation. You would think that you could harness that by suspending the rules for the new group and letting them work their magic. However, that too has a cost. The auditors don’t have the authority to suspend the rules; they can’t, or they would quickly undermine the rules’ effectiveness. So, suspending the rules requires the attention of someone higher up, whose attention is probably in high demand. That’s a cost. The decision has to be communicated to the auditors, and their processes have to be adjusted accordingly. That’s another cost. It all has to be reviewed from time to time to make sure the arrangement is still working, so they’re ongoing costs, and by giving them free rein you incur some risk, which is another form of cost. Against all those costs you have to balance the expected (but uncertain) benefits of letting the new group operate under the relaxed rules. It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where the things they could be doing really are valuable, but not enough to overcome the costs of making it happen. Or worse, the value is enough to overcome the costs, but the expected value across all the groups that are seeking similar exemptions is not, so they all get denied. From the outside it looks Kafkaesque, but it’s just the reality of trying to keep some measure of control over a large organization.

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Eric Marcoullier September 20, 2011 at 11:12 am

Absolutely agree. I hope you’ll take the time to comment on more of my posts, amigo. Always the thing I look forward to when I post something on FB :)

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Keith Smith September 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm

You are spot on with this…generally. Just remember that you (and Todd) are still a beautiful snowflake in my book. And I mean that in the weirdest way possible. :-)

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Eric Marcoullier September 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

You’ll always be my bodyguard.

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