On Selling your Soul: Notes on Gregg Pollack's Founder's Talk

If you’re going to be successful, Richard, you need to learn to be an asshole.

Erlich Bachman, Silicon Valley

For those of you who don’t know, I was recently accepted into Starter Studio, an Orlando-based incubator to work on University Android, a codeacademy-like program for learning Android development. Every Monday night, Starter Studio brings in successful founders to talk about things they’ve learned along the way to success. I’ve decided that throughout my time at Starter Studio, I’d like to note two big “take aways” from each founder’s talk: one business-related and one personal. Here are my notes on Gregg Pollack’s talk.

Yesterday, Gregg Pollack, the founder of CodeSchool spoke. At the end of his talk, he invited us to connect with him on linkedin, and before moving on, he paused, smirked, and let us in on the “dark side” on his seemingly arbitrary linkedin invitation: he told us all that he wanted us to connect with him on linkedin so that he could add our emails to his mailing list for his new startup he’s working on. I think this little exchange pretty well characterizes the two things I took away from his talk: 1) a startup is a hustle; you have to be focused on sales and marketing, but 2) you don’t have to be a complete asshole about it.

The Hustle

If you take away one thing from this talk, know that 50% of building a startup is sales and marketing.1

That statement was pretty surprising to me. I’m not sure why, but I know that if its true, then I’m not spending nearly enough time on marketing and sales for my company. (To be frank, these founder’s talk notes are a partial remedy to that.)

I’ve found that while working on University Android, I’ve had a bit of a tough time transitioning from an engineering mindset to the mindset of an entrepreneur. I often find myself getting caught up in engineering issues that simply are not relevant yet for my company.

As an engineer at an established company, you’re paid to write scalable code. As a founder, on the other hand, you won’t get paid until you find a scalable business model. To be sure, the engineering solutions I come up with as a founder have to be scalable to some extent, but scalable solutions for founders are only good insofar as they allow them to find a scalable business model.

Going forward, I’m going to try to spend more time hustling.

The Asshole

At one point during the talk, Gregg said something shocking:

A lot of people think that all the money in the acquisition went to me. That’s not true…I was able to re-structure my ownership of the company before the acquisition to give more equity to the people who really worked hard on code school.2

A lot of people say that they really value their employees, but I doubt that many of these people would do what Gregg did before the acquisition. I think that what he did was pretty remarkable. I may only think that because I’m just cynical about business. I am, after all, one of the people that often rolls their eyes at silicon’s valley’s fictitious companies (at the real ones they satirize) that always claim they want to “make the world a better place.” But I don’t think my cynicism is the only thing behind my judgment of Gregg’s generosity. Optimists, correct me if I’m wrong.

The phrase “to sell your soul” typically has negative connotations, but if we play with our words a little, there’s another sense in which that phrase isn’t so negative. Founders pour “everything” into their startups. They often love their startups. We often say that “your startup is your baby.” In Arabic, a language that I, as a half-arab, have a little exposure to, one way of lovingly referring to your beloved is to say “you are my soul.” If we adopt this foreign idiom and Gregg’s advice about the importance of marketing for startups, then we can say building a startup is largely the process of selling your soul.

Going forward, I’m going to be more optimistic and intentional about finding ways of selling my soul without selling my soul and becoming an asshole (See what I did there? Sure. The word play is cheesy and a bit forced, but how else was I supposed to make the point of this post work with my “click-bait” title ;) ).

Notes

  1. I’m paraphrasing.
  2. Still paraphrasing.