We Are Pirates
Posted on March 30, 2013
The story of a startup (F-Startup) is similar to a story of some people who turns pirates, in an attempt to get rich, not knowing what dangers await them on the sea.
There is a big resemblance between a company and a fleet of vessels. A department, inside a company, is like one ship from the fleet having the following crew: a captain (an executive director), a first officer (director/senior manager), second officer (a Project Manager), many commanding officers (team leads or others middle level managers, etc) and teams of leutanants (consultants, senior developers), second leutenants (middle level developers, etc.) and matelots (experts in different domains).
On a ship, the orders are executed using the chain of commands, from the executives to senior officers, officers, until the lowest rank (very similar to a functional organization). But, as in many companies, ship might have a flat hierachy, meaning that the entire crew reports directly to captain. This kind of descentralized organization, where there are no chain of commands, is similar to a pirate ship rather than a ship from army. A fleet (like a company) is ruled by an admiral (a CEO). In our story, the roles of shareholders and the company owners is played by those rich kings or nobles from the king’s court, living far away from dangers on a distant land, somewhere on shore, playing cricket or golf…
If all fleets are downed by enemies, kings remain defenseless and are either put in prison or die beheaded (as happens today when a company goes bankrupt). Any sailor or officer has duty to defend his king at any cost (even with their lifes). But if the king dies, it is shouting:
-The king has died! Everyone is on his own! Save your lives! (Or a mutiny take place and all sailors kill each other)
The king (company owner) sometimes pay visits to his top fleets (most profitable companies). He likes to walk among sailors, on the bridge and to talk with people:
-I want to conquest the sea! or We will conquer all world! or Why the sea is so vast?! How much do we have until we conquer the world?
(Such questions without answer appear frequently from the shareholders: -What we lack to make more money?? (can be translated as: How much do we have until we conquer the world?) or -What can we do to become known on market? can be reformulated as: -Why the sea is so vast?! (See the story of Our business model).
The fleet’s admiral (F-Startup CEO), a former spokesperson of the King (former VP of Communications at another company owned by shareholders), before he joined the army of the king, had sold Cuban cigars (CEO worked in the tobacco industry and had little or no experience in IT industry, our core activity). The fleet was composed by a big ship, flag ship (research and development department) and few small crafts looking more as cruise ships (departments of sales, marketing, etc.) anchored by the flag ship.
At the beginning, the flag ship sailed without the full crew (only a few specialists have been hired initially) but during our mission, we’ve hired a team of mercenaries (subcontractors from a consulting companies: programmers, testers, designers, architects, and later specialists in PR, online marketing and sales).
We start our journey across the big blue with the white flag waving in the wind. (In this context, the flag is the symbol of the company Brand, “blue sea” is an allusion to the concept of Blue Ocean in marketing, see the story of a A Brand workshop). We had made provisions for one year, hopefully we will not be forced to stop in ports (the F-Startup budget although designed for three years, but proved to be realistic only for a single year; the plan was after the first year we will be able to sell enough that we can keep the operations cost).
Shortly after the ship had been launched at water, it started a terrible storm (with reference to the story: Collective redundancies). The admiral, who had never seen a storm at sea, was frightened (inexperience and misunderstanding of the life cycle of IT products has proved a great challenge for CEO). When the storm subsided, Admiral, living a terrible fright, had hired a team of experts in order to keep him informed about the weather conditions (see Who are The Experts?). The admiral aids proved unnecessary (they also lack experience in IT), and, as the storm continued, the Admiral still remains scared and his decisions have become more chaotic and desperate than ever. Once the Experts were hired, our trip has turned into a real adventure.
Despite the dangers laid us ahead (pirates and enemy ships), Admiral has looked our mission as a pleasure trip on sea: his consultants were always relaxed, cheerful, with fine drinks and food, tan all day long in the sun (as a fact, our experts did not like to work; the most of their time was spent in coffee meetings or browsing all day long on social networks). So, the admiral aids have fully enjoyed their parties on boat cruises, bravely singing songs about what we will do “when we will conquer the world.” Admiral, seeing how joyful the life is on the cruise ships, he decided to leave the flag ship and moved on the cruise ships.
Probably you ask, where is the captain of the flag ship? Captain, being always busy with other businesses, always missing from the line of duty, practically gave me the interim command of the vessel (my direct superior, company’s COO, who had another job in another city, left me the management of the department, at a time, when tension between the R&D department and marketing increased; but, despite conflictual situation, he has decided to transfer me almost all his responsibilities).
Again, It started a terrible storm on the sea. Cruise ships were completely destroyed and our ship suffered serious damage (budget for sales and marketing departments were wasted and in the absence of any signed contract with a strategic partner, the F-Startup become a bankrupt company; the bankruptcy was due also to the parent company, who was closed).
It has been convened a large meeting to determine the storm damage…
-Who was responsible for the storm? Admiral asks accusingly.
-He’s guilty by storm! consultants respond pointing at me.
(Board discussions were often on the borderline of stupidity: Most disagreements between board members were due to lack of understanding the IT industry. Many questions were like: Why the product has the same design with the brand? What means the life cycle of a product? etc.)
-Admiral, I think we should change the color of the vessel. Black is depressing … comes with a “wise” proposal one of the assistants.
-Let’s change the color in white! Admiral decided.
But Admiral, black was chosen by the King! I can not paint the ship in white, I answered.
Admiral nervous, beat his fist on the mast:
Who are you to tell me how to drive a boat? Young man, I have 25 years experience in the service of the King! I do not care what the King says! I want the ship painted in white! Admiral screamed.
(Not once, but several times, the CEO reversed its decision: product design today was white, blue tomorrow, day after tomorrow white, then spotted blue. Changes were common, but the most important aspect was that the requirements were contradictory. Moreover, CEO decisions came to be made solely on the basis of expert opinions of Marketing and Sales. View of the Master of Puppets).
Meanwhile, far from the sea, in the land of the king, the drought decimated all crops (parent company lost major contracts, had gone bankrupt and nearly all the people were fired). Desperate king wanted, at all cost, to conquer new territories to recover his lost. No rain for a few months and scorching sun had made havoc and among sailors. (we “burned” almost all the company’s money and we still had not managed to sell anything. Some people were forced to resign and contracts with providers have been terminated. The Firm has collapsed).
Last letter from the king sounds like this:
-In two months I want to conquer the world. We’ll start with Europe!
The commandment made Admiral thinking. He no longer was able to sleep nights, staring at the stars continuously, trying desperate to find a way to conquer the world (referring to the Modern Times story describing the dilemmas facing the CEO). Slowly famine has decimated the crew; we barely kept our ship on the surface (shareholders put pressure on us when the parent company went bankrupt and lack of resources made internal organization chaotic. We had moved the headquarters to a much smaller space, where we had only just minimal comfort: computers, desks, a few chairs used water, coffee, fridge and electricity, a meeting room).
-Say to your people to work more! We’re moving too slow! .
-We do not have wind Admiral! That’s the maximum speed you can have!
-Faster! Rowing if necessary!
-And tell your men to wash themselves. It’s a terrible smell of sweat!
(Open space in which we moved had no airflow, people were sweating, windows could not be opened and the air conditioning could not cope. Even the people worked in poor conditions, in two months we managed to put on feet the first product, practically we achieved the impossible, but instead praises, employees had received unfair nickname “unwashed”).
People discontent grew and officers were beginning to question the competence of superiors (see how did Our great launch). One night, the sailors protested by cutting the flag and made it an uniform …
-This is outrageous! You’ll pay for this! said the angry admiral.
(Latest changes imposed by CEO created dissatisfaction among employees. There were few who still believe in our products and the quality of work decreased day by day. Meanwhile CEO become tyrannical, imposed his decission with his fist in the table and all reasons were like “Because I said so”).
-If tomorrow we do not have our white flag up the mast, I’ll throw you all into the sea! Admiral threatened us.
The admiral freezed when he woke up the next morning… Overnight, the outraged sailors have painted the ship all in black, sails were also painted in black and the flag was replaced with a pirate flag. The flag ship, as a black pitch, melted by the sun, became a pirate ship. (Research and development teams had been named “pirates”, because they were considered insubordinate and defiant; see The story of the IT Engineer).
Suddenly, the water around our ship had become red. Sharks began circling around us. We are sailing in troubled waters. (Hint to the concept of marketing Red Ocean vs Blue Ocean. Several new startups emerged on the market and our products were at risk to be “swallowed” by competition before they were launched on the market).
Admiral received an ultimatum from the king: “Conquer the world in two months or you will be beheaded!” With a crew rebelled, a leader lacking inspiration, decisions that followed were surprising: Admiral gave up his coat sewn with gold thread and had dressed as a pirate. Soon he and his aides followed the example. Then, finally we all worked side by side, from sailors to senior officers, to survive. We all became pirates!
“We are pirates” is based on my personal diary and The Story of a startup.
Read further: Live Long and Prosper!
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