July 17th, 2018 by Vlad Giverts
Straight out of college, I had decided that I would try my hand at starting a company with my junior year roommate, Denis. Along the way, I made some decisions that I would come to regret and that would make me cringe with embarrassment for years. I tried to blame Denis for the circumstances I found myself in, but he never forced me into anything. I had choices and I wasn’t happy with the ones I made.
What follows is a pretty one-sided story of my interactions with Denis from when we started talking about doing a company together in 2004 to when we finally gave up on each other in the fall of 2006. This is an account of my experiences, which at the time, I found agonizing and sometimes overwhelming. I’m not making an effort to acknowledge Denis’s point of view in this story. I wasn’t aware enough back then to notice what he was going through and it’s possible he was having just as hard of a time as I was all along.
In the summer before my senior year of college I started having intense anxiety. Sometimes it was so hard to bear that it almost incapacitated me. I already had all kinds of issues around self-worth and I think I was starting to have an existential crisis on top of that. A part of me was afraid of what was coming after college was over. I had no idea what to do or what the point of my life would be.
I liked my college lifestyle of taking it easy and hanging out with friends. Part of the way into my senior year I started fantasizing about going to grad school just to keep it up for another 4-5 years. But I hadn’t prepared for that and I thought there’s no way I’d get into a computer science PhD program so late in the game.
My real problem was that I couldn’t stand the idea of getting an “entry-level” software developer job. I imagined that any company I might join would have me do testing or other “menial” tasks for my first year or two. I was too smart for entry-level work! No matter how well paying the job was, taking it would demean me somehow.
So I decided I’d start my own company. I wouldn’t need anyone’s blessing to work on the “hard problems”, which meant I didn’t have to tarnish my self-image as a “brilliant computer scientist.” Besides, I was planning to become a “dot-com millionaire” by age 30 and I was already 22. I didn’t have the time to work my way up the ranks of a big company. And joining another startup never even occurred to me. I must have implicitly thought “why would a startup ever hire a fresh college grad?” They need experienced people so they could move fast.
These grandiose ideas about myself were a naive coverup for my basic lack of self-worth. That’s how it works for fundamental deficiencies. If you don’t have it, you find a way to fake it. The alternative of actually feeling worthless is unthinkable.
A few months into my senior year of college, I called up my old roommate, Denis, and casually asked him, “So, what idea are we going to work on?” He sounded a bit surprised to hear from me. Denis and I had a falling out towards the end of our time living together in our junior year. Back when we were on speaking terms, we had talked about doing a startup together.
Denis was odd. He claimed he only attended college to learn. He was planning to do his own startup someday and college was a tool for him to acquire the knowledge he needed. He didn’t care about assignments or tests and did just enough not to fail out. I admired him for how well he knew what he wanted and being firmly committed to it, or so I thought at time.
Denis and I started talking about potential ideas and we quickly got ourselves excited about one in particular. Fast forward several months and I called up Dennis to work out the logistics: when do we start? where will we do it? Since we were both attending college and living in Berkeley, I imagined that’s where we would work too, at least at first. So I was surprised when Dennis told me that he already moved to San Jose and signed a one-year lease.
Why did he do this without talking to me? I thought we were going to be partners. This part of the bay area was almost an hour south from me. I didn’t know it well or particularly liked it. Well, he told me, he wanted to be closer to his job. Wait, what job? Weren’t we starting a business together? I knew he’d been programming part-time for some hardware company since high school. He never bothered to tell me that he transitioned to full-time work when he was done with college and wanted to be closer for his commute.
What sense did that make given our plans? And what did this mean about his intentions with me? He claimed that he still wanted to do the startup, but since he had a one-year lease, we would have to do it in San Jose. I had already committed myself internally to working with him. I had no backup plan. It was either do this or… there was no or. I couldn’t let this minor transgression get in the way of my startup dreams. The silver lining, I told myself, was that my soon-to-be wife, Stacya, had just gotten a job in Fremont, which was close to San Jose than to Berkeley.
Stacya and I went ahead and moved to San Jose and rented an apartment in the same building as Denis. I figured it would make it easier for us to work together. Maybe we could alternate hanging out in each other’s living rooms? But he insisted that we rent some office space nearby so we could focus on our work without any distractions. Really? An office for just the two of us seemed like an unnecessary expense. A luxury for two kids with hardly any of their own money. My dad had offered to invest in our venture, so we’d pretty soon be using his money to pay for it. But maybe Denis was right, I started telling myself. In reality, I just didn’t want to get into a disagreement right as we were getting started.
So now we moved to San Jose and got office space that Denis wanted. This was the start of a painful pattern: if the two of us ever disagreed, Denis got his way. But I didn’t realize that at the time.
Denis had hardly any savings. For him to work with me on more than a part-time basis, we were going to need that investment from my dad. But first, we had to agree on an equity split and incorporate the company. Of course, he insisted on having a larger share of the company. He justified it by claiming he had more work experience and insight into our business idea. Both were true, but his main motivation was to have control, which was clear to me even then. He stood firm at 60⁄40, which felt unfair to me. I could have used the opportunity to explore what exactly it was that felt so unfair. Maybe I could have had a useful insight from that self-inquiry. But I was well practiced from a young age at ignoring my feelings and trusting my rationalizations instead. And my head told me “What difference would it make? If we were successful,” my so-called rational mind went on, “we’d both be well off, otherwise it was immaterial.”
This was one of the big dangers of being so smart. I could come up with excuses for anything. In this case, I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that Denis didn’t trust me. Maybe our relationship wasn’t in a great of a place. If that was true, then what business did we have starting a business together? But I was too attached to moving forward and too detached from my body to pause and reflect on my inner experience. Otherwise I might have noticed the sense of dread that was slowly coming over me.
In the first week after we got our office, Stacya decided to come by to check it out and hang out with us briefly. She never made it up. When I told Denis she was coming, he very firmly stated that he didn’t want her visiting us, ever. We had a lot of work to do and he felt her coming and going would be a major distraction for us. It wasn’t about this one visit, but rather the precedent that it would set. He wanted the office to be a sacred place for our work together.
I didn’t want to start a fight over this, so with disappointment, I passed this message along to Stacya. As I write this now, I can see that, of course, she wouldn’t take it well. But somehow I was so lost in Denis’s view of the world that it didn’t fully occur to me how my own wife would feel.
Understandably, she was pissed. It made no sense to her and the sense injustice hurt. This was the first time since starting with Denis that I had to choose between what two different people in my life wanted from me. That might have been the hardest part for me. I wanted everyone to be happy and in harmony and this was an unsolvable dilemma.
I ended up sticking with my first reaction because I figured Stacya would be more forgiving and flexible. She was, thankfully.
Looking back at the last conflict puts all my other disagreements with Denis into focus. I can sense now that I found conflict unbearable. And I was happy to quickly give up on my interests just to avoid or resolve it. But what do I get for it other than “harmony”? My resentments were building up and I was unable to process them.
It hit a ridiculous extreme about a week or two after my Dad had finally invested some money in our company. He had put fifty thousand dollars in our corporate bank account (which of course, only Denis had access to because he was the CEO and I wasn’t willing to challenge him on that either). This was the day that I came in late to work.
Denis and I had agreed to work certain hours six days a week with a later start on Saturdays. One Saturday morning, I got into the office more than an hour later than my agreed upon schedule. I think Stacya and I had been out late the night before and crashed at her parent’s SF apartment. Denis worked later hours than me so I hoped he wouldn’t be in the office yet. I quietly went to my desk and went to work. Our desks were in separate rooms so I didn’t know (or want to check) if Denis was there already. I just worked as if nothing was out of the ordinary. As lunch approached Denis finally came out of the room and confronted me about being late. He was cold and calm when he spoke to me and I knew that meant he was fuming inside. The next day he presented me with a web page. It had a single button on it and he wanted me to press that button every morning when I started my work. He had built a time-tracking app specifically for him to keep tabs on me!
Looking back at it almost makes me laugh and simultaneously shudder in disbelief. I can’t overstate how insulted I felt. Denis’s argument was that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide”. And I was adamant that I was consistently punctual and this one day was an exception, which to my stupid rational mind meant I didn’t have a good reason to decline Denis’s request.
Really, I was scared. The humiliation was too much for me. I wanted to quit. But my dad had just handed Denis fifty thousand dollars! And Denis had all the control, so if I simply left the company, the money would be his to do as he pleased. My dad believed in me. He was proud I was starting a business and was willing to support me in whatever way I needed. And I convinced him that he could trust Denis. How could I throw all that away now? I wanted–I needed–to preserve my dad’s image of me. I couldn’t bear the idea of him going from proud to disillusioned. I couldn’t even think it. I could only reflexively react to protect myself from the pain of the thought.
So as unbelievable as it was, I went along with Denis’s demands. We didn’t speak much after this. We quietly programmed at our computers in our separate rooms and only spoke during our lunch breaks or when technical issues required it.
I was seething. I have no idea how Denis felt because I was too caught up in hatefulness to notice him as a human being. I started coming into the office to “check in” and then would leave for an hour or two to go to the gym. My pride demanded that I “win” somehow. Denis had started working even later than before and I figured there was little risk of him catching my deception.
About half a year later, I finally got the face-saving moment I needed to finally quit Denis. He came to me and said we only have a few months of runway left and we either need to raise more money or get part-time jobs if we want to keep going. That came as a shock to me. I didn’t have access to the bank account, but we didn’t have a lot of expenses beyond our office rent and Denis’s salary, and I thought I knew what both of those were. By my rough calculations, we should have had close to 9 months of cash left.
The next day, I accidentally noticed Denis driving a shiny BMW. I asked him what that was about and he told me he bought it! It was used, but it couldn’t have been cheap. I didn’t know what he had spent on it or what his financing terms were, but no matter how I did the math in my mind, there was no way he could have afforded it without paying himself more out of the company funds than we had agreed he would. Which would explain why we’re all of a sudden “running out of money.” As far as my pride was concerned, he was embezzling my dad’s money to enrich himself.
Technically as CEO and only board member, he could legally pay himself whatever he wanted. But this violated the spirit of our mutual understanding. He claimed he had done nothing wrong, but he also refused to show me the company bank statements or simply tell me how much he was paying himself. This was enough for me to indict and convict him on the spot. He was guilty and he knew it.
I told him we were through. And my dad wanted his money back. I was actually surprised how upset Denis was about us breaking up. Apparently, he never had the motivation on his own to do this startup and he only did it and kept going at it because of my enthusiasm. It’s as if he was sharing some kind of nostalgia and gratitude. But I had grown callous toward him after all the insults I perceived from him. I didn’t care how he felt.
As I had expected, he didn’t want to give up the money as he felt the company was his. We had an advisor to the company, Alex, who was once Denis’s boss. I suggested that we let Alex informally arbitrate for us and Denis agreed. Alex saw the situation between us for the dysfunctional mess that it was and urged Denis to wind up the company and return whatever money was remaining to my dad. Denis was willing to do that, but only if he got exclusive rights to the technology we created together. I was still attached to it and thought I might be able to turn it into a product without him, so I refused. What followed was several months of frustration and anxiety as we both got attorneys to help us sort this out. In the end, besides shortening our lives through needless frustration and anxiety, we also got to part with several thousand dollars in attorney’s fees. We finally settled for equal and independent rights to the software and my dad got back something like $15k of his money. It could have been $5k more, but Denis paid his attorney’s fee from the company account. I was grateful to get anything at this point so I didn’t make an issue of it.
Denis and I never spoke again. One time years later I saw him in San Francisco walking in my direction. I think he actually crossed the street and walked the other way when he noticed me. And I can understand why. I had reserved a special place in hell for him. I had even fantasized about how much easier my life would be if he were to suddenly “disappear”. I imagine some part of him could sense my loathing and wanted to quickly get to safety.
In the 13 years since, I have been too embarrassed to revisit this story. I was humiliated. I felt like a little puppy who kept getting kicked by his owner and couldn’t help but come back home every time. I was “too smart” to have made so many grave errors in judgment. How I acted was in conflict with how I took myself to be. It’s as if someone kept taking over my mind and was acting on my behalf. If I didn’t have the memory of it, I wouldn’t have believed that I really did any of it. It was easier to pretend that it didn’t happened and to never, ever, think about it.
But it did happen. I made every one of those choices. And I can’t get off easy by blaming it all on Denis. He was simply a 22-year old doing the best he could. For the most part, he wanted us to be successful and he stood up for what he believed in. Yes, he was stubborn and insistent. And a lot of people who have worked with me would have said the same about me. He had some naive ideas about how we’d get to success, and so did I in my own way. I vilified him to absolve myself of any responsibility for my situation. And that has kept me from looking at my contribution in an honest way all these years.
Well, now I’m looking at it. And the question that I’m wrestling with is why was I so weak at standing up for my needs and desires? I often knew what I wanted. Why did I fold every time Denis wanted something else?
Over the next week or two, I’m going to explore this for myself and share my reflections with you.
P.S. Denis, if you happen to read this, I want you to know that I let go of my resentments a long time ago. All that’s left in me now is gratitude for your support and mentorship during the time we spent together. I know I had a huge ego. Somehow you were patient and present enough to find the moments when you could get through to me and help me learn and grow. I hope this essay finds you well. And please take it for the emotional archeology that it is.