Of course this company is for sale

I had recently left Microsoft after five years of slaving away as a program manager on various facets of Windows.  I’d departed to take a job at Wildseed, a company producing an over-the-top funky handset running Linux, targeted at the teenage market.  Yeah, that’s it on the right.

If the bizarre appearance and strange feature set doesn’t sound odd enough to you, I should mention that it was 2002.  The state of the art was the RAZR handset from Motorola, and Andy Rubin wouldn’t found Android for another year.  We were actually forking Red Hat, writing our own drivers, and all sorts of other flavors of insanity.  That was part of the fun.

But I digress. There was a rumor floating around the company, and in my very self-important 26 year old mind, I believed it was up to me to get to the bottom of it.  I took a deep breath and stepped up to the porthole of Eric’s office.

Eric Engstrom was our CEO.  He had a peculiar office.  It was big, but it was in an inner corner of the building, without much of a view.  It was kitted out with tall, spring loaded, bouncy stools for guests.  He told me once that he bought them so guests would get annoyed and not stay long.  He was dismayed when a few of his VPs found them comfortable and ordered them to sit on as their primary chairs.

Eric was (and is) a mad genius. I could fill an article with Eric anecdotes: The fascinating book about his time at Microsoft. The $40,000 bet that I could find an entire sealed barrel of St. Magdalene scotch two decades after the distillery closed (I won; he bought the barrel; I got a bottle).  His desire to create a film in which I would have a cameo as Evil Spock. But I digress, again.

On that day, I marched in to his office to get to the bottom of a strange rumbling I heard, and have him set things straight once and for all.  There was a rumor afoot that we might be looking to sell the company, and I was going to confront him about it.

I sat down, bounced a few times, and met his gaze.  He gave me a trademark Eric smile.  You’ll be familiar with it if you’ve ever seen a Nature channel documentary on alligators.  I steeled my nerve and asked him point blank: “Eric, I heard a rumor.  Is this company for sale?” Eric’s smile disappeared for a second.  He pursed his lips and laced his fingers, staring at the floor.  Then he looked directly at me and said, very slowly: “Dan, we’re a startup.  Of course we’re for sale.  This fucking plant on my desk here is for sale, if the price is right.  What do you think we’re doing here?”

Not everyone thinks about their company this way.  I have a good friend who is running a very successful startup with a fantastic future ahead.  He told me – and I quite believe him – that he would sell the company for a billion dollars over his dead body.  He was extremely clear that anything less than a multibillion dollar IPO was a pathetic failure, and he’d resign before he’d let such an abomination happen.  So his startup is not actually for sale.

But the rest of us startup types, the story is simple: just about every startup is for sale.

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