Does everyone have their price? Do I?

“Everyone has their price.”

That’s the prevailing economic theory, especially in Startuplandia.

That’s something I hear pretty often, an unsubtle jab — hey, you’re a person, therefore you are part of ‘everyone’, get it??

When I say I’m not at all interested in selling, they assume I’m being coy. Oh, they say. The numbers just aren’t high enough. Maybe your number is a ridiculous number. But you still have a price.

But they’re wrong. Not everyone has a price. Nor should they.

I normally leave it there, but I realized: How often is this discussed? Just this side of never. So instead of letting it pass by this time, as always, I decided to write out my thinking.

Yep, most sentences in this post start with “I” — because it’s about me. But maybe you’ll find it applies to you, too.

(And yes, this essay is long… it takes a lot of different angles to fully explore a topic people pretty much never talk about. But it’s easy to read, I promise.)

Yes, I would sell my product.

My product has a price, yes.

There is a number where I would sell Freckle, yes — but to represent my opportunity cost, what I would lose, it would be so high that it would never be offered to me. I might sell it for $10 million, but at half a mil a year in current revenue, who would offer that to me? No rational actor. (Whether businesses are rational actors is neither here nor there; an irrational actor wouldn’t, either.)

Thoreau wrote, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” Add in what you lose, the future life you would spend on it, or replacing it, and you have opportunity cost.

A purchase price has to do a lot:

  • ensure everybody is taken care of
  • compensate for the loss of nearly guaranteed yearly revenue
  • compensate for the loss of the precious feeling of momentum
  • compensate for risk to reputation after acquisition
  • “hurt” the acquirer enough that they intend to keep the app, vs screw over the customers
  • hire money managers (which btw is a fucking pain)
  • pay taxes

It has to pay enough to be worth giving up something I spent 5 years of my life on. To disrupt my groove.

And it has to be insurance against us never being able to create the same kind of success again. To be fair, I’ve launched product after product with good success — books, workshops, etc. We’ve done it with software, too — and it grew just fine, thank you, and then it turned out we hated running an infrastructure product and we shut it down.

So, to start over? From scratch? To be a newb again? Well. Been there, done that. Don’t feel the need to do it again.

$10 million would be enough to cover all that.

But it’s not my number.

But not even for $10 million, or more, would I ever go along as an acquihire. My product may have a price, but I do not have a price.

Here’s why:

  • Most weeks I work less than 20 hours/week.
  • We can live anywhere.
  • We take tons of vacation.
  • My work life can be as easy or as challenging as I choose to make it.
  • With very few exceptions (administrative stuff, mainly), I get to choose exactly what to work on, too.
  • As the boss, I get to pick every single person I work with. (Firing blows beyond description, but that’s my prerogative.)
  • Finally — and this is no small matter, but this is the order in which it matters — we have all the money we need to do what we want.

Why would I trade in such a sweet setup for… what?

The fantasy that, after I bust my hump for somebody else for a few years, I could… what… not work?

No thanks. I already can be “mini-retired” if I want. And, bee tee dubs…

Money doesn’t make people happy.

I don’t need to be rich… er. (By most accounts, we already are quite wealthy.)

I grew up middle class, with some extreme — and cripplingly stressful — swings of poor fortune… but by several interesting quirks of fate, I’ve known a bizarre amount of honest-to-god rich people over my life.

Of the folks who were executives, or other high-paying professions: Mostly they were more constrained, and less happy, than we are today. Even though they had more, and made more, than we do. Money has a way of trapping you. A treadmill’s a treadmill, even if you Bedazzle it in real jewels.

Of the “startup people”: I got in on the Rails rocket so early that I’ve had an insider’s view into many now-huge startups, founders and early stage employees.

Some of them are happy; usually they’re the ones who maintained control of their own businesses. And they’re the ones who aren’t total workaholics. The rest, well, they’re usually different stripes of miserable.

Even the happy ones work way more than I want to work, ever again. And the unhappy ones, well, so many are always chasing the next high.

They always want more.

Don’t I want more?

Sure, I’d like more money. But that’s just icing. We have — I have — more than enough.

That’s a word we don’t hear enough in the startup world: Enough. Enough money. Enough impact. Enough recognition. Enough self-respect.

Simply… enough.

And that’s such a critical concept, because…

Money never comes without consequences.

There’s another word we don’t hear enough of: Consequences.

@StartupLJackson thinks I have a price:

Obviously it’s a thought experiment, with a ludicrous number. And I sincerely thought about it. And the answer would be “No.”

First of all, above a certain amount, extra money becomes meaningless. That amount is not super high, either. So really, a $1b offer — to me — is equivalent to like, a $20m offer. Maybe even less.

Secondly, I wouldn’t be an employee again for $250k. Or for $500k. Or $750k. Yeah, that’s rich — in money, and in gall. So be it. I’ve tried to stuff an emotional hole with money before, and you know what? It didn’t work.

Is employment so bad? For me, it is. I suck at “buying in.” I suck at playing nice-nice. I have to fake it. And I suck at faking it.

The idea of putting on a face — for someone else’s agenda — makes me deeply want to hurl.

I can’t even bear to talk shop with people I disrespect… for a potentially large upside.

Is that super precious and delicate? Maybe. I don’t care. Riding roughshod over my own needs would violate the most ethical sense that I have: I would not ask anyone I love to do something so against their will for money, so I would never ask myself to do it, either.

Giving is not “set it and forget it”

Next, I thought seriously about the actual face value of the money: $1 billion. It’s incomprehensible.

The only thing to do would be to give it all away, to keep a tiny rounding error.

What I’ve learned from experience, and observation, is this:

  • Simply throwing money at problems rarely helps and often hurts, and
  • the best way to make a difference is to pick a few small things and do them.

And frankly, I don’t have the energy or the inclination to be a full-time philanthropist.

So, to steward that kind of money, I’d have to hire somebody. Somebodies, really — a bevy of managers and minders. But oh, that kind of money badly applied could cause a lot of damage. Which means that those somebodies would have to be overseen… by who? More managers? But then how could I trust them?

No. If you have a heart and a conscience, that kind of money makes you its bitch.

I’d rather not have it to start with.

Maybe it’s selfish of me (to… not want a lot of money?) but there you go.

Also:

Fame is awful.

One of the many things I love about the Indy Hall community, and Philadelphia in general, is that they don’t think I’m special for doing what I do, and I agree.

Because… you know what sucks? Walking through an industry event, and instead of being able to simply meet people, hearing them whisper in your wake, “That’s Insert Your Name Here!”

This happened to me repeatedly at the last RailsConf I attended. And, because I suck at faking it (see above), I turned around and said, variously, “Excuse me? I can hear you,” and “I’m a person.”

Then there were the people who didn’t whisper behind my back, the people who wanted to interact with their preconception of who I was. These people struggled to work up the nerve to talk to me. They were nervous. Because of me! Me who dresses like a slob, overuses the word “fellating” in random conversation, who trips on the sidewalk, who takes too many cat photos, who is addicted to chairs.

They felt they needed to be special, different, because I was special and different. They wanted to get something from me — my blessing, or even just my attention.

It was exhausting.

This is why celebrities hide in the green rooms of the world.

And big acquisition dollars are awfully hard to keep under your hat. So… fuck that.

Ummm… passion and a great team?

I’ve got all the passion I need and a pretty great team already, thanks.

No, really, you could work with world’s best at … !

What would that get me, really? Bragging rights? An education? A partner who is my equal, or better?

Me, I learn from books, and my friends (internet and real world), and observation; and I have partners who are my equal, or better, already. Not all of them even know they’re my partners, but they’re challenging and guiding me nonetheless.

Or maybe it’s about…

Um… Impact! HUGE IMPACT!

A friend once told me how much contempt she had for those people who stroll so purposefully down the jetway, with their roll-along luggage, conveying with their very hip swings that Things Can Get On Now, I Am Here, Look At Me.

While I thought her point was a little silly, I know exactly what she means:

I’ve done some important-sounding things in my life, and the entire time, I and everyone involved were all dressed up in our mental Serious Business Suits. Everything was so momentous. The power-walking. The debating. The bikeshedding.

In the end, did any of it matter? Did it make the world appreciably better? Did it endure? No; that’s why I wrote “important-sounding.” With startups. And senators. And famous charities. And stuff!

We acted as if it mattered a lot. It didn’t, though.

I’m over it.

Call me cynical — you wouldn’t be the first — but I see a lot of greed in the word, and the idea, of “impact.”

Absolutely, some people do create a huge impact. It takes great endurance, and you have to constantly navigate in an ocean of shit. I know people who fall into this category, and I admire them, but like hell could (would I) ever be them.

Even if I had the temperament and the inclination, very few people in this world can make an outsized, larger-than-life impact. That’s simple physics at work; not everyone can be “The Great Man.” It’s not just what you do, or what you say, but the magical alchemy that comes when the world pays attention. You can’t force that.

But everyone can help the people around them in small ways.

What I’ve seen, over & over, is that the more a person strives to create some kind of huge, special legacy, the less they will actually achieve.

So I focus on the small stuff I can actually complete. I donate, I write, I teach, I encourage a few people at a time. And that works:

  • 4 other people depend on our business for their main source of income.
  • I ensure their career is as rewarding, fun & flexible as possible.
  • I help my customers run better, more profitable, more sane businesses.
  • I teach my students how to achieve the same for themselves.
  • For all of the above… Their health benefits. Their families benefit. Their local economies benefit.

That’s what I do. (Plus donating to proven charities staffed with people who have the passion, the energy, and the know-how, who simply need the money.)

So, what really gets me?

What persuades me to do what I do?

Spending time with my loved ones. Helping people. Work I enjoy. Enough money to make life pleasant.

In that order.

These were not always my priorities; for a long time, in fact, my priorities were very “startup traditional.”

But time, experience, reflection, and a life-disrupting illness has taught me what is really important. (There’s nothing quite like believing your life is over to show you how much of it had been bullshit.)

So, yes. I’d sell Freckle alone for above a certain dollar amount. No, I would not go with it.

Given a ludicrous offer, I would back away because I’d be more concerned than excited.

Is it easy to say this about an imaginary offer? Yeah, totally. But I feel confident writing this down, because this is the way I have acted for years. There are so many “amazing opportunities” that I’ve already said no to, or that I gave up, or that I let go, because of these principles.

And every time, life got better.

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Discussion

  1. Nathan

    What a phenomenal post. Some of the most insightful words I’ve read on the internet in a very long time. It can be a struggle for many of us to learn to laugh at our Serious Business Suits and recognize how profoundly silly we are acting and what it is costing us; to find a way to get what we need from this crazy culture without becoming a slave to it. But you seem to have done this superbly well and it is inspiring to read about. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Nathan

    Also I’m very curious – how important do you perceive your “life disrupting illness” was to your cracking the code? Just an accelerant, or a fundamental ingredient? Do you believe you would have slowed down enough to see what you see without that being in your life?

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      Just an accelerant, Nathan, although a very BIG accelerant.

      Well before I got sick, I chose to quit an incredibly cushy job that paid ridiculously well. I could have sat there forever, earning, but it was more important for me to actually be able to achieve something with my work day. And my plan from the outset was to never take VC or other investment money; always to bootstrap. For the control over the biz, and the control over my life.

      I still had illusions about making a large impact with the design of my software, etc., but when it started to happen (major growth in a much more important app, Charm), I realized I didn’t want it.

      Reply
  3. Lucas Arruda

    I think it also comes down to doing something you like, getting payed for that and enjoying.

    I also prefer enough money + comfort + doing what I like to do (being excited / proud / happy with my work) + helping others, than having a 1bi/100mi business.

    Like you said, sometimes too much money or fame, can spoil all.

    Reply
  4. Britany

    Great piece, here, Amy! Everyone seems to be looking for more more more in the startup world but there is nothing wrong with having “enough” and being totally satisfied with it.

    Reply
  5. Josh Brown

    You’re absolutely right – everyone wants more more more and nobody ever seems to have enough. And as much as I try to be content, I often have the same issue – I feel like I don’t have enough. But I’m working on it. :)

    Reply
  6. Alex Coleman

    “Spending time with my loved ones. Helping people. Work I enjoy. Enough money to make life pleasant.” This is exactly how I feel and plan to move forward with that sentiment in mind, always.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts to help people like me preemptively wade through some of the bullshit and save some serious time.

    Reply
  7. Mark Roseman

    Great post. I’d like to poke a bit more at your $1bn thought experiment though.

    While I think your “give it a way” is the right answer, nobody says you have to keep a close eye on it, make sure you make the very best choice. Spend a couple of days, pick an organization you’re relatively happy with (for me, it might be Doctors without Borders, for some, one of the third world micro-loan orgs, etc.), and just give it to them and forget it. Many people who are big time philanthropists have a need to either obsess that the money gets used well or bask in the credit for doing so. Forget that. Does there come a point where the value you bring to the world and your own happiness can be eclipsed by the leverage you might provide to others via that kind of $$?

    Second, I don’t know if you’re at a peak now, but you’re certainly extremely intellectually and emotionally engaged in what you’re doing, even with everything else going on. There may come a time (via burnout, whatever) where you feel you’re on the decline, either temporarily or permanently. Would that change things for you?

    Finally, if you did in some alternate universe end up an acquihire, I have to say that I’d feel really really sorry for whoever had to try to manage you.

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      Mark…

      I’ve got no desire to bask in the credit for doing good. But, I’ve seen first-hand how huge influxes of cash not only don’t help, but actively hurt. Let’s say DWB. Their yearly intake is $200 mil. You don’t think giving them 5 years’+ of money wouldn’t mess something up? Of course it would.

      Furthermore, there are major problems such as the way that these organizations prop up the existing problems… like the Gates Foundation paying market price for AIDS drugs instead of fighting to lower the prices so people can afford it. Or Charity Water, and similar, who dig wells, and install toilets, and have TERRIBLE rates of success because nobody is there to maintain them, and most importantly the communities don’t get the cultural changes needed to use them. Read The Big Necessity for a sad fucking tale of how this shit works.

      Signed, somebody who actually gives a fuck. :)

      Now…

      There may come a time (via burnout, whatever)…

      You mean like the crippling and ongoing health problems I have?

      That makes it an even better reason to never sell, because the business is like an annuity.

      Finally, if you did in some alternate universe end up an acquihire, I have to say that I’d feel really really sorry for whoever had to try to manage you.

      I’m actually a great employee, and very professional. I will go the extra mile to point out when things are wrong or inefficient. Which is why it fucking kills me.

      Reply
  8. Brent

    Yep, cool, well thought out.

    There’s another way though. A way to sell and still be empowered to keep creating new stuff and be free.

    Pull a Derek Sivers! http://sivers.org/trust Sell completely without being an employee into the future 4 years. Give it to a charity trust before the sale. Guarantee a salary which would let you play, travel and sleep in!

    :D

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      Derek is a super cool guy… I sure wouldn’t mind being more like him.

      But flat-out sales, without acquihire, are super, duper, unicorn glitter rare. In that way, he got lucky.

      Not saying there aren’t things he did to make that possible. There are. For starters, his business was not a software business.

      Basically it is never an option for companies like us.

      Reply
  9. Derek Sivers

    Just came to say that Amy is right, as always.

    I am a super cool guy.

    But more importantly, selling CD Baby like that, without acquihire, did require me to stalk, kill, and drink the blood (and more) of a glittery unicorn.

    It was a combination of a bunch of stupid rare events: timing, the late-2007 market boom (right before the crash), a CD manufacturing company whose CD manufacturing sales were dwindling and needed to pivot somehow, and many other things. Also that stupid unicorn fell for my peanut butter snacks.

    Point being: Amy’s right. Smarter to assume that will never happen.

    Reply
    • Amy Hoy

      THREE THUMBS UP!

      Thanks, Derek :D

      We just found our roof was leaking today so it was super nice to find this comment in my inbox afterwards… really brightened my spirits!

      PS — you drank the blood of a unicorn? Doesn’t that make you Voldemort? ;)

      Reply
  10. Kevin Strasser

    From one small SaaS peddler to another, I want to tell you how much I appreciate and enjoy your writing.

    I have nothing to add to this amazing post. Just wanted to say thanks for writing it. I loved it on so many different levels — I am about to read it one more time.

    Your blog is an inspiration…

    Reply

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