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On the (job) road again: Of acquisitions and departures

Working at a startup can be pretty crazy. But, for some reason, I seem to be inexorably drawn to them.

Maybe it's because of the ability to learn and grow so much, so fast. Maybe it's being able to work on multiple projects. Maybe it's being able to have a huge impact on something, and to decide how it changes and evolves. Maybe it's the independence, or the chance to win big, or the opportunity change the world.

And there are downsides, certainly: Long hours, being on-call all the time, micromanagement (in the worse cases), toxic work environments (ocassionally), not getting paid on time (or sometimes, at all), dashed expectations; the list goes on.

That had been my past experience with most startups. Then I joined Triggit.

Where

Previously, I had been at Willet (now, SecondFunnel) for almost two-and-a-half years. The company had shed its original founding team from four down to just one after a number of pivots. There wasn't much of a team, and I would have the opportunity to lead, architect, and do everything you might expect of someone who had basically joined a brand new company (pre-seed round). As previously mentioned, that didn't turn out: We managed to have some success (landing clients like NewEgg, and The Gap), but we kept a bad hire for too long, the development team wasn't really trusted or valued, empty promises were made, and then even basic requirements failed to be met (as per written, legal agreements).

Triggit was quite a bit different that.

It wasn't the fact that I was working remotely: The CEO and VP of Sales at Willet were remote, but the development team was co-located, for the most part, so there were similarities there.

It wasn't that the arrangement was different: I was actually employed by a third-party here in Canada that handled payroll, benefits, and et cetera rather than being a contractor or deal with visas.

I think it was that Triggit just got it. I'm not even talking about remote development; they just understood that happy employees are productive employees. They absolutely nailed that. Every step of the way, Triggit was very communicative, very open, very honest about everything, even though I had a ton of questions due to the uniqueness of the circumstances. Admitedly, I had a lot of help from my recruiter, Veronique, but we were all working together in concert.

Doin' it right

So how did they nail it, in comparison? Let's get into specifics. This is what I was offered:

  • Starting salary of $120k (CAD)
  • Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE); As long as the work is getting done, and it's approved, you can take as much time off as you need (Two weeks, on paper)
  • Personal Spending Account (PSA) of $1000 per year for classes, gym memberships, equipment, etc.
  • RRSP matching after three months (up to $100 per month)
  • Stock options
  • Provided with brand new Macbook Pro (my choice) with high resolution monitor
  • Paid office space at a co-working space
  • Benefits (Health, Vision, Dental)
  • Ocassional flights to headquarters to sync up with the team (quarterly)

(For comparison, the market compensation for Kitchener-Waterloo seems to be about $90k, vacation tends to be about three weeks, and usually includes only one of RRSP matching or stock options (not both); benefits, office space, and a computer are part of most co-located jobs.)

On top of that, I asked for a signing bonus (I'd never had one) and they gave me one.

Compensation isn't everything, of course. The opportunity itself was an exciting one: Rather than be a full-stack developer, I would be focussing strictly on front-end development, I would be working remotely, and my work would be a blend of green-field and legacy projects.

I had never worked remotely before, and, for those that haven't, it's quite a bit different; it's not for everyone. Working remotely is, more than anything else, about communicating clearly, and effectively. It requires you to be proactive, and sometimes to overcommunicate because you don't see the other people as often. Triggit understood that, especially my manager, Paul, and there was lots of communication: Slack, daily standups, Github, weekly one-on-ones. Communication was key, and there were (generally) no secrets, and a lot of honesty and openness. Another thing about working remotely is dealing with isolation. It's very easy to feel isolated, and to have this sense of 'the other' create a divide. Again, communication, really helps with this, as does meeting up with the team quarterly.

When I say honest and open communication, I really do mean it. Every two weeks we had an all-hands, and in that meeting we were told all about cash in the bank, revenue, debts, along with how things were going on every front. You could ask whatever questions you wanted. This was in stark contrast to what I had observed at other companies.

Given that I was the only person working from my location, I hadn't really been used to that level of independence. I was effecitvely working nine-to-five (though, timeshifted somewhat), working through issues from Github and as mentioned in standups, and I was worried that I wasn't putting in enough time, especially as I needed to take time off to move into my new home. That was not a problem: Triggit understood that people have lives outside of their work, and it was all about making sure that things get done. Unlike many places, it really was the work that mattered, not the hours. That was a good thing to know, because there were several points while at Triggit where I was having a really tough time outside of work, and I needed to take time off to sort through things.

Triggit also understood process, or rather, it had one that worked, I should say. Development process was pretty light on the different teams that I worked with. New development happened in a branch, pull requests were submitted for review when a feature was completed, after two people are satisfied, the branch is merged and pushed to production. Along with that, continuous integration ensured that the builds built and the tests continue to pass. What did people work on? Any issues from the accounts team were top priority (though there weren't too many things that were truly urgent), any failures or errors were also high priority, any special projects were prioritized by the CTO and the Director of Engineering, but otherwise it was a matter of setting your own priorities and to deliver small features frequently.

Heck, a few times, I got to contribute to open-source software; nothing major, but a lot of companies require that you jump through a bunch of hoops to let code out of the company.

I'm not really sure what else I can say about Triggit. It had a great team, treated its employees well, and did good quality work. They understood work / life balance.

There was one time when a friend of mine joined the organization and, despite reporting to me at a previous job (and similar skill level and skill set), was offered a higher salary by mistake. Triggit stood by its decision (which I think is fair) and also, in light of the mistake and a change in my role from front-end to full-stack development, raised my salary to $130k.

We're being acquired?

Startups love stock options. They can't compete on a lot (usually) so they make up the difference in compensation with options. Stock options are like lottery tickets, and many startups emphasize the potential value of the options should the company be acquired or otherwise exit. There's a lot of talk about exiting, and not as much of it happening.

When I was told that Triggit might be acquired, I was both skeptical and excited.

To start with, I wasn't told that Triggit was being acquired. In one of the few cases of secrecy that I observed, I was told that someone was interested in acquiring Triggit. This is a stronger statement than many regarding acqusitions, but still far from a guarantee. It was also a bit uneasy as Triggit was generally really open about communication.

I started to undergo multiple interviews with the organization. I would have thought that going through an acquisition would be less challenging than a normal interview, but I would also be wrong. Acquisition interviews can be gruelling, especially because you don't know how your answers affect the outcome of the acqusition. Sure, you'll still have a job at the end of the day, but it takes away a lot of focus, and failure to be acquired can be a bit of a blow motivation-wise.

Not too long after, the company declined to offer, and not too long after, they responded with an offer the board was unsatisfied with. This pushed things out into the open and the whole company was filled in on the situation.

The details at this point were not clear to me; what I know is that it was a bit of a rollercoaster of potential bids and disappointments as offers were removed from the table. I've got to say, it's really exciting to have stock options that might actually be worth something.

Eventually, we got the news: We were being acquired. Unfortunately, it wasn't good news. It was an offer where no one really got ahead: All of the employees and C-level executives had common stock / options, which would all be underwater, but it would pay off any debts the company had accrued.

After that, things got weird. At first, I was paid to do nothing, at least until the details of the acqusition were clearer. Then things took a turn for the worse: I was told that the acquirer was not interested in having remote employees. Fortunately, because no work was getting done, this meant that I had time to look for a new job, but the prospect of being unemployed not of my own choice was not something that sat well with me.

New Management

About a week into my job search, I was told that there it might be possible to stick around, if I was interested. Given that I would rather be employed, I said I would stick around, but shortly after making that decision I realized how conflicted I was: Joining a new company is joining a new company, regardless of how that happened. Usually, you make a decision after weighing all the details: team, compensation, opportunity, etc. I didn't really feel comfortable with the new arrangement, and I knew that of the twelve or so engineers at Triggit, only five would be joining the new organization (and even then, only two of those would be sticking around to the end of April). I quickly got back to them and let them know that they should only expect me on at the new organization until the end of April, unless I let them know otherwise. I did want to give them a chance.

In theory, the new organization should have been pretty similar to the old one: same compensation, working on the same projects, still being part of the Triggit team. Nothing would change until two or three months later when the team would start transitioning to the rest of the organization.

Things were uneasy for me. My first day was off to a rough start: I was told by my team to not work, at all. Don't send any files to the new organization. Don't. Do. Anything.

It turned out to be an issue regarding legal paperwork, but it made for an odd first day.

Then, all sorts of people from the new company wanted to reach out to me, and try to convince me to stick around. Lots of arguments were made to the effect that "you want to see the work you've done pay off, right? You've put in all this effort and it would be a shame to see it fall by the wayside". This is true, of course, but all sorts of projects end up getting trashed. Further, I wouldn't see any upside if things succeeded: I wasn't offered any options, or even given any sort of "welcome to (New Company)" offer letter. They just didn't get things in the same way that Triggit had.

The transition got rockier from there; for whatever reason, the entire infrastructure needed to be moved from hardware to AWS. I think the motivation was cost savings, but I'm not entirely sure. In anycase, because they needed to coordinate closely on that, I wasn't really able to help with the transition as much; I still worked, I just focussed on resolving issues for accounts, and other bugs and feature requests that came up. I tried to be proactice, but the rest of the team was so busy they weren't even able to delegate. I heard they ended up working pretty hard, even the ones who were leaving. It was pretty rough.

Moving on

As the end of the month got closer, I continued interviews, and based on the offers I was getting, decided that it would be best to move on and try something else.

I can't say I've kept in touch with everyone, but I am going to try. It seems like most folks landed on their feet.

Long story short, acquisitions are not always rosy, even when they actually happen.

Next time, I will talk about how I conducted my own job search (and possibly how that can help you), and maybe even provide some data (like I was supposed to last time).

Nicholas Terwoord

A self-titled software developer, "code archaeologist" (whatever that means), and professional geek. Spends too much of his time coming up with new projects, and not enough time working on them. Likes video games, board games, anime, manga, and Pathfinder / Dungeons and Dragons (GOTO: Line #1 - Geek).

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