The Lead Up
I knew about this company, and I knew they could use our product, but I also had a hunch that if I pushed too much I'd get nowhere and I didn't know too many people there. So I let them be, and continued doing marketing and spreading the word and selling to others, and hoped it'd reach them.
It did, but in the strangest way. I'd start getting angry private messages about my social media posts by a person very high up in the company, then more private messages by other people scattered throughout. Maybe they had heard of us, maybe they'd been watching all along and just decided to reply now. I tried responding in a thoughtful way and had some long private conversations about ethics and my views on the world.
Things had gotten off to a weird, unusual start. But personal conversations are commonplace in my line of work, so I tried to brush it off.
The First Business Interaction
Finally, one of these private conversations led to an enquiry about licensing. I offered a free evaluation. That was resisted, and instead the person insisted on doing it a different way-- they send us an image, I run the compressor on it, send back results. I'm not always against that, but in this case got a bad feeling. See, the thing is, there are so many settings and ways to use the compressor. Someone could want this data out-of-contract just to nitpick it and say they knew it wasn't good all along, and it's also uncomfortable to have no contract protection. I wanted to give it a fair shot and do it right.
But this was all complicated to explain and I kept questioning myself, and things got busy, so it just slipped under the radar instead of being a big conversation. I think we both got busy, because they didn't seem to mind too much.
The Second Business Interaction
As this evaluation issue was swept under the radar, more people from different departments in the company started reaching out. I started having several meetings and discussions of evaluations with them-- maybe they had the ability to approve them unlike the first department.
Video calls, in person meetings, text conversations, I was starting to feel like selling to this company was a part time job and was hoping it'd pay off. It's fairly normal though-- it'd simply hard to coordinate between a lot of people. Met a lot of truly nice engineers.
Finally, a critical in person meeting that was very pleasant pushed it over the edge. They felt confident enough to get the eval rolling. By that point, I was ready to put a price on simply evaluating the software and they agreed-- it was starting to become common to charge a price for an eval to large companies because of the sales process, and also because I realized this is common practice for other startups and not unexpected.
Pushing the Evaluation Through
I had a call with their business contact, first non-technical person I had talked to.
It was such a subtly demeaning call. I left the call quite upset, yet I couldn't pinpoint anything they said that was terribly wrong other than operating under the premise that I didn't know what I was talking about. They questioned me charging for the eval, they questioned my template, they even directly questioned my business experience. They would laugh at all the wrong moments.
Their other business and product management contacts weren't much better. Calls were tense. I actually cried after some of them-- I simply did not expect to be treated like I didn't have years of solid business experience and a respectable customer base. It reminded me of toxic places I had worked at, which brought back bad memories.
The negotiation was going nowhere and I was starting to wonder why I was bothering.
In the background, on social media and in our private messages, their engineers kept mentioning they could easily do this product themselves. That along with the hostile business meanings and insistence on hazy IP clauses was not a great combination for my peace of mind and trust in this company.
Whenever it was clear I was ready to walk, money would come up, they’d insist they’d pay us lots in the end, and it'd keep me hanging on.
The Real Story?
We started getting whispers of what was really happening, though it wasn't totally clear what the whole story is. Is it ever when dealing with groups of people? Some said the high up guy I originally talked to privately didn't like our personal politics, some said he was jealous-- some said several engineers were jealous. I got a hunch some of the business people had rough experiences working at startups and were on a power trip being on the other end.
A simple evaluation hadn't even happened yet. Everyone kept insisting over and over they knew our product was top notch.
It wasn’t about the merit of the product.
I thought-- what would it take to get me to push through this? Payment and certain terms that made me feel protected (and were pretty standard for us). They agreed to payment, but not the terms, and I let it go.
Releasing from all these meetings and communication streams felt like breathing in fresh air. With all that free time released, I realized that a perfectly nice big name customer could use a lot more attention, and started focusing on that deal. None of these red flags, no crying after meetings for goodness sake! I actually felt respected, and they would go out of their way to respect our needs beyond what we asked for. And we already had other lovely customers too!
Over and over, I'm reminded that toxic people make you feel like there's nothing better out there. But, oh, there is.
I guess I thought it’d all pay off financially. But as I talked to experienced business people, I was reminded that people you can’t count on to treat you well personally probably shouldn’t be counted on to treat you well financially.