Working for equity

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So you have an idea. You want someone to program it, but you don’t want to pay now. You want to pay in equity, or deferred money based on some contingency of the business. A promise.

Programmers hear this one a lot. In startups especially.

Part of the reason why I can’t muster the words to respond to inquiries that don’t say upfront they’ve financial means is I’m nice. I don’t want to create an awkward exchange. It makes me feel strange. Also, out of principle, I wish you the best in your venture, I don’t want to create a negative mood. For you, or for me.

Because I don’t know you. I don’t have a canned email response to give that wouldn’t sound condescending to some, or hurt someone else’s pride and ego. There is futility in explaining the “Whys” of “Nos”, and since I don’t know the personality of every person that emails me, I can’t be candid.

Here are the general reasons why programmers don’t work for promises:

  • We already have our own ideas

    Programmer’s are unique in this scene, since we don’t have to wait for funding. We could literally live on the street and use WiFi hotspots to code our own applications.

    When you employ us, or we consult for you, or we talk to you, we’re taking time away from our own ideas that could pan out. And when we work on our own ideas, we retain the intellectual property to use and improve down the road. At the very least. If not, we’re creating passive income streams or our own startup.

    You’re worth it. You are esteemed, can run a business, and deserve all the respect that entails.

    However, there are boundaries of what people will and won’t put up with when you’re the boss. So right now, brace, I’m going to say some things that may take you out of the frame you’re used to getting talked to. Respectfully:

    Every programmer, at least once a year, gets someone saying “I have a vision”, “I got this idea, psst”. I can guarantee you, the person with the idea isn’t inferring they’d fund it somehow.

    What a programmer gets is a person bossing them around, without getting paid.

    You’re a super NASCAR racer. You got the best car. But, stuff breaks, you want upgrades. And despite your trying to make do with budget parts and volunteers, not just any mechanic works on these types of vehicles, or does it well/fast/etc. enough to keep you competitive.

    We expect the person with the vision to supply more than just the blueprint, web hosting, and a code repository, but to inject enough capital into the business to pay employees to build an MVP / product release / whatever.

    There’s no shortage of people with ideas. There’s zero programmers waiting around for someone thinking, “I ran out of ideas, If only I had someone approach me with a vision so I could program it”. Because:

  • Getting the undivided attention of competent labor is hard

    See how I have forms and a minimum amount on my consulting page?

    Sure, it helps with tirekickers, your intuition was right.

    It takes a lot of energy to shift to someone else’s way of thinking and understand them. We’re happy to do it and built to please.

    You’re a total stranger to us. You send us an message on Angel or LinkedIn.

    And ultimately, you want something immediate. You want a person with a trade skill to drop what they’re doing in the short-term and program for you.

    What do you bring in the short-term?

    Most other programmers are in no better spot to drop everything and undertake your venture, even if the promises are certain, since:

  • We’ve already tried it before

    If you’re a senior software developer, you’ve already been there and done that.

    A proposition to work for equity / deferred payment is a source of dread for programmers. It rarely ever pans out. Sometimes the lingering effects of oppurtunity cost hurt much more than the initial loss.

    It boils down to sacrificing other oppourtunities to work for free. Even most funded (VC backed) startups go poof and equity means nothing. But if you have a place with no VC, do you think it looks more or less promising?

    In any event, you’re using the programmer’s labor to offset your risk. And:

  • We can’t shoulder the risk

    Startups are very positive. You’re going to win. We’re going to win.

    It’s totally fine to work at a startup and visualize equity turning into a new car, house, or yacht. It’s a huge motivator.

    But even if you exit (your business sells) and I have equity, the terms of my shares are far weaker than investors. In fact, if you’re the founder, my shares are probably weaker than yours.

    In any event, even though we know you’re the best and going to win, sometimes, it doesn’t work out. When it doesn’t, it’s the employees that are off on the street. Most founders, even when they flop, get to parachute somewhere else and live another day.

    It’s not the programmer’s job, ever, to have to worry about money or hear excuses. Sorry if it’s tough to hear now. It’s just the way it is.

    But most of all, even though you’re a genius and have your success written in the stars, still:

  • We can’t prospect business plans

    I’m a programmer. I’m proven to do that. Not based on phony technical screenings, trivia, or code golf, but a track record of demonstrable outcomes and a diverse portfolio. More than any of my peers, by a landslide.

    However, I’m not proven to operate whole businesses and sell them, or invest in them. I can’t determine in the affirmative or negative if your business plan makes sense.

    But when you ask for work based on promises, you are implicitly giving me a burden to assess your situation when I have no qualification to judge you or your idea / product / service / whatever.

    That in itself is enough to get you ghosted when you try to meet a programmer.

    They’re not saying “you suck”.

    Programmers have no way of understanding your value, and no way to explain that to you. Funding is a responsibility you take off the shoulders of your employees so they can function and work, rather than stay in suspended animation and lingering dread of being unpaid.

    You’ll find quickly that people will bend over backwards for you and do things they don’t like if you have funding. You see how often I say “Only Python” on my other pages, right? I’ve done JS, PHP, and Ruby at times. People will swallow their pride and follow orders if you have the means to be a fair and reliable employer.

    But anyway - back to the point: You say you have a great business plan. Why should any programmer simply take your word?

    This may upset you, but understand, it’s not a judgment of your character, your idea, or your business. The burden rests on the founder to demonstrate they’re more than just talk.

    For that matter, that applies to anybody you deal with. Not just programmers, but also users and VC’s.

  • If you were promising, you’d have have funding

    If you want free short-term work and favors, there’s a word for that: begging. It comes from a position of weakness. It doesn’t suit you. People are going to ask themselves why you’re empty-handed.

    If you’ve proven yourself in business, you already have investor connections. Your idea and track record is enough to get funding for your MVP.

    If you’ve been successful in your field, you could also self-fund. That could mean digging into your savings or selling assets you have.

    There are people with no track record, in business or their field, who raise seed rounds just from being really charismatic.

    Elon Musk gets billions in funding. How? Mostly from being a lovable, charming… you know what.

    Only after that he hires the best and brightest. Gets the best management, and so on.

    Have you ever seen Kickstarter before? If some of them can get funding, I think you’re OK enough to convince somebody to invest in you. You’re probably a far more solid horse to back than the median in that pool. That’s a fair statement, don’t you think?

Let me repeat, You’re worth it. You can do it. But the burden rests on you demonstrate that. Money is the only thing that can pull a talented person away from what they’re doing so they give your venture the attention and care it deserves. This is true for any expert you seek to retain, seek advice from, or employ.

I believe in you.

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