Guest Column

What happens when the weasels win?

Jack is packing up his unread technical textbooks in the spartan office of his latest start-up. He looks pale, but that’s nothing new: he’s a ‘net veteran who’s been working on his studio tan ever since I met him. He’s got the best Web brain I know. And he just quit.

“Why, Jack? You’ve got more funding, the company’s on a roll, the site looks great, you’ve got a grey-haired CFO with a killer jaw-line. What gives?” Jack tests several Starbucks cups on his desk until he detects the faint warmth from that morning’s latte, and takes a big swig.

“What’s to enjoy? The weasels have won.” He pulls his Palm V out of his shirt pocket and displays his diary like an FBI agent showing his badge. “Check out my day.” He throws down the Palm V and starts loading his papers into a cardboard box.

“So you’re blowing off the sales meeting?”

He snorts. “Michael, I’m blowing off all the goddamn meetings. It was over when some weasel asked me for my job description. Companies are divided into weasels who have job descriptions, and people who have work to do. The first time weasels ask you for a job description, everyone laughs, and you all go back to work. The second time, you send them rude e-mail, and you never hear from them again. Then you end up at a meeting and a weasel says, ‘Of course, HR will need job descriptions for all these new hires.’ And you laugh but no one joins in. And you look around and suddenly realize you’re surrounded by weasels. And that’s when I get out. Believe me, I’ve seen what they can do.”

I’m sort of surprised. “But surely that kind of thing is inevitable as organizations get bigger? You need process. Structure. Accountability for shareholders.”

He blows a big, fat raspberry. “Sure you do. The people who need process, structure and accountability for external stakeholders are the people who get out of the shower when they need to take a piss. They’re weasels, Michael. Once you let them in, your company’s screwed. Finished. Dead meat.” I sit down heavily in his brand-new executive chair. “Weasels?”

“Corporate hair dressers. Internet cushion plumpers. Anyone who’s not in a line function, anyone who went to business school, anyone who climbs over the dead on the beaches to set up a ‘task force’ once the real fighting’s over.”

“That seems a little, well, harsh, Jack. I’m sure everyone here works hard.”

Jack slams a box of books down on the floor. It makes me jump. “Of course it’s goddamn harsh! It’s the only language they understand. If there’s one thing that terrifies weasels, it’s talk of war. They hate that. When I’m in a meeting and the weasels are getting yappy, I start talking about body counts and defensible positions and cutting the enemy’s throat. They hate that.”

I remind myself that Jack’s combat experience has been strictly confined to raving about Saving Private Ryan, but this doesn’t seem like the time to talk about cinema. “So why do they hate the language of war?”

“Because war, Michael, is about conflict. It’s about suffering. It’s about pointless self-sacrifice against overwhelming odds. It’s about brutality and pain and torture, which is what starting a company is all about. Hiring. Trying. Lying. Firing. Making the hard calls. Weasels don’t know what it’s like to cold call a client on the first day of a new business. They don’t know what it’s like to work a 90-hour week to launch a Web site with your fingers crossed hoping the damn thing will stay up until the weekend when you can work 92 hours on methamphetamines to fix it. They don’t know what it’s like to take on the competition against appalling odds, to dominate a new market, to crush their rivals.”

I hand him a Starbucks napkin. “Jack, I think you’re drooling.”

He wipes his face with the back of his hand. “Whatever. The point is, they’re scared of action. They think business is something you can plan. I’ve been in three launches and the plan was always the same. Survive! And kill the enemy!”

A neatly dressed corporate type approaches us. “Jack, are you ready for your exit interview?”

“I don’t talk to weasels. Please go away.” The corporate type leaves, flustered.

“So Jack, what’s your next move?”

“My own idea. A Web site consultancy called Risky business model. Long hours. Insane work weeks. Brutal coding in the trenches. Could blow at any seam – should be great.”

“Semper fi, Jack.”