Tech Stories: Just Because You Ran A Market Doesn’t Mean You Can Run A Tech Shop

The title seems quite obvious. Experience tends to trump being too idealistic. But for some reason that doesn’t stop the mad people entering into the tech field who have little to no technical background from starting a business. Sometimes a few get lucky and manage to scrap together a team that creates an unbelievable product. However, most probably stagger and just fall straight out because there’s no business plan, no marketing strategy and little vision beyond build something and praying that people will show up to click on ads or whatnot. Well, imagine back in 1999 before all the decent tools, systems and whatnot came out and think how much harder it was!

So back in 1999, I was desperate and looking to just my foot in the door. My extremely limited experience was causing me to not even get a glance back in the day. I probably applied to around 60 places over a few months, praying to get a phone call.  I did cut my resume down a bit in trying to focus on the core points of what I wanted to do, but I still was lacking the skills and years to make myself worth anything.

Fortunately, I did get a call back from a small spot out in Irvine. There were a bunch of these warehouses in Irvine setup not far from UC Irvine that was the blossoming a bunch of hopefuls, many who wanted to jump on the ecommerce bandwagon that was erupting like mad around that period.

No, I was lucky enough not to have participated in one of the most infamous dot com explosions with WebVan, despite the fact that I started out talking about running a grocery store. Instead, I started in an obscure spot (who will remain anonymous) that was selling marked down fashion, vitamins and perfumes. Yeah, pretty odd combo.

Anyway, I did a small interview and the owners gave a glance at me. Back then the interviews weren’t as severe. Most spots didn’t have google-like tests and places simply went over your background, possibly just having a casual chat to figure out if you were a good fit. As a result of such leniency, it wasn’t hard to score the job, something that I desperately needed as I had been losing hope.

My purpose was to do some simple HTML along with helping to touch up the photos of the clothes. Everything was done in house and we had a small training session with one of the boss’ friends who knew a few tricks with Photoshop. The boss wanted to create an assembly line process to streamline the image catalog creation. So I was able to at least get a few useful skills.

However, they were having a really tough time launching the site. Part of the issue was that the design of the site sucked. So my job was to modify parts to improve the look a bit. Unfortunately, the site was integrated with an off-the-shelf Perl/CGI solution written by some consultant as a sort of side money project. The consultant would charge a ridiculous sum to get anything working and that wasn’t very pleasing naturally to the owners. Even more tragic than that was how badly the script was coded. And as someone slowly learning Perl, I could offer only small amounts of help.

These were just some of the immediate problems. Many of the “employees” were recent UCI graduates or people still in school, making less than minimum wage. Later, I would learn that other businesses tried similar tactics in getting cheap talent from colleges not even classifying what we were doing as internships. Probably, the most prominent issue was that none of us had proper employment forms. Not W-2’s nor I-90’s. Essentially, we were getting paid under the table! For whatever reason, no one really mentioned this.

While the work itself wasn’t difficult, the place was more or less a sweatshop. A literal and figurative sweatshop. There wasn’t any air conditioning and the two bosses were micro managers. To me though it was slowly becoming painfully apparent that this place was a joke.

Originally, the guy who brought me in, a consultant, tried to sell me the idea that the two founders knew business. The president was some guy who ran a mom-n-pop grocery store while the CEO had been a business consultant with Intel. Apparently, that CEO used to play golf with the CEO from Intel. My little joke internally was that he probably carried the Intel CEO’s golf clubs.

However, things came to a head one day when I told the president that his thought process was stupid. He pretty much benched me and gave my work to my coworker, who was still a UCI student doing this as a part time gig. But for myself, I already had enough and called my friend down the street.

It didn’t take long to get another gig just around the corner that was better run (but had issues….we’ll get to that in another story). However, the other company was pissed off because I pretty much got up and left. The following day, I received a bunch of threatening calls on my answering machine at home. By the time I got back from my first day in working at the new company, the previous clothing company’s owners were making a bunch of legal threats.

I was pretty scared back then because I was quite naive. Luckily, the new job worked with a solid lawyer who told me that without a W-2 nor an I-90, none of the threats would hold up in a California court. In fact, because we were working without proper documentation, the clothing company was the one liable. The only thing I was responsible for was some documents that I really didn’t have since it was in my head. I didn’t have anything physically that the clothing company owned but I still wrote up the stupid site map that anyone with a small amount of experience could figure out.

But that’s kinda the point. These jokers really knew nothing. The president, who ran the grocery store, often would rant and rave about Bluefly.com since they had a fairly large IPO. On the surface, Bluefly.com’s model looked pretty easy to replicate at the time. Just buy a bunch of clothes, code up some HTML and add a payment processor. Then just with a little marketing, whammo! You’re all billionaires.

See the reality is that the grocery store guy ran a grocery store for a reason. He was meant to do that. He wasn’t meant to run a tech company. Reading a stupid article and filling your head up with nonsense of getting rich quick schemes are sure ways to burn hard into the ground. Also, most likely the guy hooked up a couple of computers (back when it was apparently difficult for the average person to do) and surfed the web, making him more than capable of running a web tech business (right?)

While things are still ridiculous these days, the thing is that you had jokers like that just fucking things up. Part of their issue was simply not knowing how tech operates. There’s just so many people in this industry like that. And it doesn’t have to be some jabronie who decides to start selling random crap online. Even large companies like a Vons who try to play their hand against an Amazon Fresh fail because their core business never has been tech.

But why is understanding the nature of tech so critical to running a tech business? I mean, why not just outsource it or buy some off the shelf solution? That’s the core issue. The average person not involved at that level views tech as this black box type of deal. It’s a mystery almost magic in the way things operate. Sure, tech is more prevalent than ever but getting even a simple application to work on a phone can be a daunting task.

Tech is difficult because it’s both problem solving, art and highly skilled labor. Not to mention it’s constantly evolving, a moving target that has become impossible to master even for veterans. There’s so many aspects to tech that go beyond writing some HTML or even basic code. And many problems differ which makes it difficult for coders to bang out exactly what people want.

But these non-tech jokers like to think they know what we do. Hollywood certainly doesn’t make the perception of our reality any easier. In the end, many of the environments that are built by people like this end up becoming toxic since the engineering culture never matures and is run on whim. And since tech is a very essential driving force behind those companies, the failure of it to manifest causes the business to fail.

I think the basic product idea was vaguely there. I’m certain if they tried again now, the idea possibly could work. They had a few good hook ups in knowing where to source their goods. Also, they were thinking of social before social became a huge thing. Not to mention that the solutions and audience are ready for this type of system. So in short, part of their problem was that they were a bit ahead of their time.

Yet would they succeed today? I still don’t believe they could’ve not because the core idea was bad but because they just weren’t fit to run this type of business. Neither were developers so managing even an offshore team would be problematic as they lacked the basic knowledge of how software development works. Also, neither were particularly rich so they would end up running out of capital. And these days trying to get venture capital is even tougher for ecommerce companies. Both owners were super cheap so as the saying goes, “You get what you pay for.”

 

 

 

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