In Jest

Earlier today and for the third time this year a colleague looked at some work I had done at the day job and asked "would you like to start a software company with me?", as though a partnership in a new venture would be more lucrative than remaining a cog in the corporate machine. This question generally comes up after I demo some new tool or a new bit of functionality in an existing system — a time when I am incredibly serious and focused on the task at hand. As a result it can be a little hard for me to effectively judge the seriousness of the question. Was the question just a joke? Was it a compliment? Was it an actual offer to invest at least a year of hard work and sleepless nights into getting a project off the ground and into the market? Sometimes it's not so easy for me to tell.

Please Come In

In 1986 the irrepressible Pet Shop Boys released Opportunities, a song where the singer is essentially trying to recruit a talented person to do the heavy lifting. Together, they'd "make lots of money":

I've had enough of scheming and messing around with jerks.
My car is parked outside, I'm afraid it doesn't work
I'm looking for a partner. Someone who gets things fixed.
Ask yourself this question: do you want to be rich?

When people have approached me to start a venture, be it with software or baking1, it's often because they think they can better market and sell whatever it is that I've shown them. Given my reluctance to advertise or promote things outside a very small group of people, they're probably right. However, a number of questions immediately jump into my head and I tend to get quiet for a few seconds while parsing just how realistic the offer might be.

1. What's In It For Them?

The first question is always about them. Why do they want to partner with me to sell something I made? It seems very one-sided, like I'd be the factory and they'd be the salesperson enjoying all the benefits of whatever it is that I produce. Given how often I've been burned in the past with deals like this, I'm often very skeptical.

2. Do Our Morals Align?

When it comes to software, I have very strict requirements for what the tool may and may not do, especially around the concepts of personal privacy and data protection. There can be no wiggle room. If something I make will be used to collect personal information without consent, or peddle ideas that I am opposed to, or can be used as a weapon, then I'm out. Respect for the people who use the system (or buy the product) must come before features and functionality.

3. Is This Something I Care About?

Just like any other employed person, I do a lot of stuff that managers and colleagues ask for. Am I passionate about creating reports that show which textbooks are used and unused over a period of time? Could I spend all day going through thousands of student records looking for errors and correcting the data using information from other systems? Do I dream about chasing down an obscure CSS bug that only appears when someone is using IE11 on a Windows 7 device when the screen is in portrait mode?

Just because I can do a thing does not necessarily mean I want to do that thing day in and day out for the next couple of years. The things I am passionate about generally boil down to one word: communication. If the thing I'm doing will enable people to better communicate in some manner, then chances are I will be interested in hearing about any offer.

4. Is This Just a Compliment?

When I'm in "business-serious mode", I'm not a particularly funny person. I pay very close attention to what I'm doing, what specific words people are saying, and the questions that are asked. This is the time when my autistic attributes are most easily seen, as comprehension of subtext and nonverbal communication goes out the window. The offer to start a partnership may just be a compliment, or a joke, or maybe a light test to see if I've given any thought to leaving the company2.

These questions, plus a random assortment of others, flash through my head whenever the offer is made which causes me to stop talking for a couple of seconds as attention is paid more to the cerebral exercise than the rest of the world. Just one odd quirk in a slew of social ticks that people sometimes poke fun at — all in jest, of course.

It is no secret that I would very much like to once again run my own business and build tools that solve problems for people around the world. As my three previous failed attempts prove, I would very much be in need of a person who can sell and market whatever it is the business offers. My skills in those areas are nonexistent at best. Would I like to go into business with a colleague who is impressed with something I've done, though? The answer really depends on what they can bring to the table. Sales ability just isn't enough.

Perhaps another "programmed response" needs to be added to the repertoire for when people suggest going into business while sampling my wares. This would get around the seconds of silence that generally follows the question and might lighten up my mood after a demo. Something along the lines of "Only if you're angel investing" ought to work, as it can be taken as a friendly riposte while also putting the ball back in their court. A serious person would follow up later.

One of these days I hope to stop overanalysing these situations ….

  1. I kid you not. A friend asked if I wanted to open a bakery with him a few months back after having some of my cinnamon rolls. He said he was "dead serious". Despite not being drunk at the time, the proposal went nowhere … mainly because I'm not interested in opening a bakery or cafe at this time. I just started a mortgage, after all.

  2. Hint: Yes. I think about leaving jobs all the time because I'm forever unsatisfied with all the good things that happen in life. I always feel I should be doing more, not necessarily earning more.