Archive for the Category Reflection

 
 

Life is a series of curve balls.

One thing I’ve noticed recently – that I often take for granted – is that life is a series of curve balls.

The concept is so simple its sometimes overlooked. Hearing that phrase evokes a learned and canned response, “well duh, shit happens.” Cynicals would say you were preaching to the choir.

But in a cynical view, the prospector is much less likely to adapt. Every athlete knows that frustration and anger will prevent the mental state and concentration needed for the next action.

Any second can bring confrontation, reversing perspectives, emotional distress, or unplanned events.

What would *I* usually do? I would recognize and react to any situation with my first instinct. Due to my own emotional inexperience, I grasp onto that first strong visceral “gut” feeling and build my perspective off all the assumptions that follow. Its the equivalent of swinging blind. Even later when I would realize my initial assumption was wrong, my pride would prevent me from formally recognizing it and I wouldn’t fully adjust.

Lately I’ve been trying to let my initial and most visceral response pass (feeling the response without action), then analyze the situation with as much data as possible using the emotional response as a guide . Only after would I make any assumptions.

Unless I’m not learning anything new (and I hope I am), then I couldn’t possibly know what to do when the “curve ball” occurs. In fact, more times than not I won’t even recognize I’m in a new situation. My first guess is probably completely wrong. My next one – more than likely – isn’t much better. It won’t be until the third attempt that I gain any sense of awareness or a clear goal.

This could be with a skate trick, a programming or math problem, or even the best way to approach a person when responding.

Maybe there’s a good reason life throws us “curve balls.” In baseball, we get three chances then we are out. We are forced to adapt quickly or we lose. The biggest difference in life is “getting off the plate” is permanently our decision. (This is why most things are better than baseball).

Getting off the plate hides in snoozing the alarm, not remembering small but important tasks, or even worse making a handful of assumptions to “save time.”

We’ve all been guilty of these at some point. Hell, it would be impossible to never “give up” – we “give up” as it were for 8 hours a day (no, not at work – sleep!). The important thing, I believe, is always looking for ways to understand a situation or a person better.  Knowing this is understanding that life really is largely unplanned, things change, and some times your bracket gets screwed in the first round.

Accessing our strengths (loved ones, motivation, perspective, and rest) is really the only way to fight mental and emotional stress.

So when I’m confronted with an event out of my control, I let it go and think about my next swing. Life truly is a series of curve balls.

If you ever want to hit anything, you better pay attention.

One (more) Thing I’ve Learned About Relationships (So Far)

For some reason, I remember a very specific exchange with my mother when I was 11. I had just begun middle school, and having my own locker, a binder, and text books made me feel like a grown up. I had seen how the older 8th graders had boyfriends and girlfriends, holding hands, kissing goodbye in the hallway, etc.

Like any youthful sprite, I wanted to grow up too quickly. The previously aforementioned exchange with my mother ended with “why can’t I have a girlfriend? Its not fair!” Her response?

“Because.”

Not the best answer for an 11 year old. But what I didn’t know at the time (amongst many, many other things) was…

Interpersonal relationships are equally rewarding as they are challenging.

But please, do not misunderstand this statement (not that I automatically assume you have). I don’t mean to say that love is amazing but at the same time difficult, although this is true. I have realized, through my own experiences, that the amazing part comes from the challenge.

The converse of this being that relationships that are not challenging can only be temporarily rewarding.

Here is a well known prototype for relationships:

“We met, and everything was wonderful. I felt like I was on cloud nine with him/her. I couldn’t possibly be away from them for more than a day. Yet somewhere along the line, the spark was gone and what was left in its place was everything that had grown to annoy me. So I dumped ‘em.”

Why does this happen? The initial excitement of having a new person in your life wears off within a couple of weeks. Sometime after, you seem to get bored and your eye wanders while simultaneously picking on the negative things about your partner.

I would suffice to say at this point there is no challenge in the relationship. What creates challenge? Well, its no longer in getting another date. It may not be making them laugh, feel comfortable, or having them spend the night anymore. Humans are inherently goal seekers. So whats left?

Respect, trust, and emotional and mental intimacy.

Now thats a loaded list. There are plenty of books written about this stuff. Many counselors make a living on it. One blog post couldn’t possibly cover it all. I’m not going to attempt to, not just because it takes a while but also because I don’t know everything. (Anything?)

What I do know, however, is that figuring yourself out, figuring your partner out, and helping each other grow as people (and as a pair) is challenging as hell and probably takes a lifetime. So if you’re bored with a relationship you’re probably not doing these things.

Helping each other with life’s challenges (as well as each other’s) is huge. If you and your partner can not work as one coordinated unit you’ll probably end up leading two uncoordinated lives. Just in the same house. Sure, you have your time together, and you talk about your days at work, but thats not synergy.

I have a dorky metaphor for coordinated efforts. My girlfriend Rebecca and I have recently started playing Rock Band. Now, we are seemingly a good band because we do well on all the songs. But she plays the drums and I play the guitar. We are really doing our own thing.

But what if one song was really really hard on drums?  Rebecca keeps failing at one particular spot in the song (for the uninitiated, this happens when you miss enough notes over a period of time). If I wasn’t paying attention to her needs, I could have used my star power to rack up more points (seemingly good for both of us) earlier. In Rock Band, I could use this star power to save Rebecca from her terrible drum playing, bringing her back on stage and preventing us both from failing. But I was too busy doing my own thing, so when she failed I couldn’t bring her back and we lose. Recognizing this weakness after failing a couple of times would tell me to save that star power in the case that she fails, so I can bring her back.

Now thats team work!

But thats not really that challenging, not after the first 2 times failing. It takes minimal change on my part. I could figure it out pretty quickly and move onto the next song.

Now lets say the next song is even harder on drums – the bass pedal is so difficult that she misses more than half, and she fails quickly (OK I fail too, alot. I’m not perfect). I’ve learned from our last endeavor that I need to save up star power – and so I do.

Except in Rock Band, you can only save your band member twice. So if they fail three times before the song is done, you can’t bring them back and the entire band will eventually fail the song.

What do we do?

Well we could reduce the difficulty, but in life you can’t change the circumstances like that so for this metaphor we’ll ignore that one. We can switch, but we aren’t as proficient with the other instruments as we are our own. We are stuck.

Wait a second, what if I play the bass drum?

I know I play guitar but I can hit a bass drum on beat for a while, allowing Rebecca to concentrate on the other notes. Sure, I’ll probably miss more of my own notes because I can’t “rub my belly and pat my head,” but it may prevent her from failing out.

So we try it – and this time I get close to failing. But we both make it through alive, and we finally complete the song after failing so many times before! We’ve worked in a coordinated way whose sum was greater then our individual abilities.

How does challenging each other come into play here?

Well, what if I when I suggested that I play the bass drum Rebecca got defensive of her abilities? What if she snapped at me in her own frustration?

“Fine, you come over here and play the drums then. Lets see how far you get!”

I could then get upset with her, starting a fight of our own when we were originally working together on a common goal.

But she didn’t. Here is a challenge of ego. She trusts that I respect her ability to play the game, but realize that I may need to help her out to get through the song. She’s challenging herself by admitting her limitations. I’m also challenging myself because I’m now playing one and a half instruments. Which is not easy might I add.

But guess what happened afterwards? We talked about how crazy that song was, and walked away from the fake stage setup feeling awesome that we could accomplish it in such a way. The game became more fun. The challenge has brought the reward. We have gone back to play many times after that – together.

So while Rock Band isn’t necessarily a serious example of the true hardships encountered in serious relationships, I like the analogy. I could have finished that song the first time through if I was playing by myself. But I wouldn’t have learned anything.

When my mom told me I couldn’t have a girlfriend when I was 11 and answered my prototypical “why?” with the parental staple “because,” she was telling me that if I didn’t understand the non-answer, I couldn’t understand the real one. The typical “you don’t know why because you don’t know why.”

Very wise, those parents. Now theres a concept.

iStoleYourStartup: A story of an iPhone Company Con Man

Disclaimer: This is a personal account of a series of events I was directly involved in. This is merely my perspective. Any third party accounts that would like to argue otherwise are free to say whatever they want and I won’t argue with them because I simply don’t care. This is not an attempt at Internet libel as I am merely relating my own experience as I remember it. I’ve changed most of the relevant names to protect myself from litigation but would really like to expose this guy and his wife for what they really are.

Introduction

A very personal story of mine has been brewing in my head for a long time. I have written, deleted, rewritten, and re-deleted it many times trying to find the best way to piece it together in my mind, and on paper. I have fought for closure and peace of mind for over 7 months. I finally decided just to lay it out there whether or not it makes sense.

I started an iPhone app company with my friend and room mate; and it was manipulated, stolen, and destroyed by one of the best con men I have ever met.

My room mate, Ryan (who worked as an iPhone game developer at the time), had a great idea to make OpenGLES based yoga/fitness applications. Because yoga is something we practiced, it seemed only natural to couple this with our love for animation, graphics, and programming. He put together a working prototype and we went out and got the license and development tools necessary to begin production.

Ryan had been going to a Mind-Body fitness class for a couple of months that was run by a knowledgeable, charismatic guy who had been purportedly practicing meditation, qigong, and martial arts for his entire life. This dude even got his black belt from a man trained by Chuck Norris (I can’t prove this). Ryan pointed out that using his name/reputation in the field as well as his guidance for a cut of the revenue could really help boost sales and increase our legitimacy.

Enter “Tanner” and the Zen Club

Ryan brought me to Tanner’s (his operating alias was “Sensei”) Dojo, a small gym tucked away in the wealthy suburbs of Austin, Texas. It was a rented office of about 600-700 square feet with weights, bands, punching bags, mats, mirrors, etc. As I entered I could tell it was a martial arts school, with shoes all sprawled out by the door and a sign that said “Leave your shoes, and your ego, at the door.” I tried to be on my least-arrogant behavior knowing the environment that I just walked in to.

Then I saw him. Tanner. I could tell it was him because he walked up to the front desk like he owned the place. He had a perfectly shaven flavor savor and well modeled, bowl cut with West Hollywood frosted tips. My immediate visceral reaction was “what a douche.” But remembering the sign at the door, and that we were soon going to be working with him, I set my natural conceptions aside.

After his class ended, Ryan, Tanner and I went into the adjacent office that was not leased at the moment. I later learned that Tanner had talked the property owner into letting him “squat” there (his words, not mine) so he could have privacy while classes were going on next door.

And let me tell you, this guy blew me away. He was 20 years older than both me and Ryan, but I felt like he was right there. There was no distance, no generation gap. He said all the right things. He was a mentor, friend, and brother all at the same time. I had simply never met anyone like him.

I felt like we were the luckiest guys in the world.

As we talked we discussed what type of applications we wanted to make. We showed him our portfolios, told him about our  backgrounds, what we were capable of, and what we wanted from him. He was all for it. He even wanted to be a partner in our company to help us grow and watch us succeed.

One of the things Tanner stressed the most at the beginning (and this is important), was that our applications should be designed to help people first and foremost. If we made some quick cash in the process, more the better, but it was not our primary motive. (This was also during the time iFart’s success was sprayed all over the headlines of every tech outlet on the Internet, January 2009).

He related a story to us about an old mentor of his that wasn’t practicing what he preached, and it really disappointed him. He finally had to confront his mentor and ended up leaving the school. Since then, Tanner said he has been practicing contributing to society for the good of all those involved. This was right around the time the scope of the credit default swap scandal and bailouts were in full swing, so to meet someone so genuinely good was both surprising and refreshing.

Hook set, the Rabbit hole begins

Ryan and I were actively developing our Satori Yoga application. Tanner had pulled a favor from one of his students who was a professional photographer to get Tanner’s wife, Samantha, in the yoga poses we needed using a high quality CLR camera. He was doing a photo shoot for his Zen Club clothing line, and brought us in after to do our iPhone shoot. He was pulling out all the stops. He let us use his hot tub, invited us to fancy dions” -  truly involving us in his world,  treating us like equals, and had even called Ryan and I geniuses to the lady at the DBA office when we were reserving our business name.

The three of us would go disc golfing, drink beers together, and go to the driving range. We were like three peas in a pod. It felt so strange, yet so right that we could relate to someone significantly older than us. It must be the spirituality, the meditation, the mindset – I thought to myself. I realized that I wanted to be just as tuned in as he was. Just as good. Just as spiritual. Good things would come my way.

Sometime during this period, I joined Zen Club. It was the mind-body fitness class Ryan had met Tanner through. Its a mix of meditation, interval training, weight training, and stretching. (In hindsight, I believe it to be no more than an overpriced ($150 a month) repetitive work out with trite spiritual messages designed to make you feel good about yourself.) You read that right, we were bringing a revenue opportunity to our business partner, and paying him $150 a month for a guided gym membership (and Ryan even ended up paying Tanner a full $40 for his meditation DVD series). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The First Sign of Trouble, and the Smooth Talking Begins

We would constantly have meetings with Tanner. He would call them probably 2 or 3 times a week. Despite the fact it was originally Ryan’s idea, and the two of us were doing most of the work, it seemed as though Tanner was running the show somehow. Ryan and I were working as hard as we could to get all of the graphics and bootstrapping done so we could really hit the ground running. Within 3 weeks, we had created an entire OpenGL framework that would really allow us to harness the power of the iPhone in a way that most non-game application developers didn’t bother with. Tanner’s third, non-developer eye helped us create something a little more polished as he wasn’t married to the code and graphics like Ryan and I were.

During one of the many meetings the three of us had, Tanner began talking about revenue splits (way before we even finished the Yoga application). Because the IP “technically” belonged to Zen Club, the company would get its own share.

Wait. Wasn’t he already getting a cut because he was a partner? Wouldn’t giving Zen Club a cut be effectively paying him twice, despite the fact he doesn’t even know how to write code? Did he think I was stupid? This began to worry me, especially since we didn’t even have a contract in place. I knew this was an amateur mistake (even at the time), but because I felt like I could trust him completely, I thought I was just being paranoid. The entire business was supposed to be a “spiritual revolution of goodness in the world”, why would he screw me over?

I came to him open and honest with my concerns in an important meeting late one night at my and Ryan’s house. If we were going into business together we needed all emotions out on the table. I told Tanner I didn’t think he was really pulling for this company. I told him I felt like he wanted to maximize his profits by taking a partnership cut, and paying out to Zen Club, and that once revenue dried up and the iPhone App boom was over, the company would dissolve and he would take his profits and continue with his seemingly successful gym business.

He told me of course he was pulling for it, he was a partner and had already invested so much time and energy into it (and even some money – he paid $300 for a manual on how to make money on Twitter and gave it to me). He told me I was living in fear, I didn’t know how to recognize success. That I could trust him. Ryan wasn’t much help – he had known Tanner for 4 or so months before I ever met him and was already completely convinced by his charisma. This left it 2 against 1. Because I hadn’t invested any money into it beyond my iMac for development (which was mine), and programming was something I loved – I continued, worries quelled.

The Secret, The Master Teacher, And the iZenStudent Daily Meditations

For the uninitiated, there was a cult classic hit movie The Secret,” that came out not to long ago. It was a self-help phenomenon. The basic tenet was that you attract everything that happens into your life, be it positive or negative, by your thoughts. The first time I watched the movie, my naive jaw hit the floor – “it was just so true” I convinced myself.

I could instantly recall where negative thought patterns manifested exactly what I was trying to avoid, and that positive visualization had brought me everything that was right in my life to fruition. It was the basis of all of the spiritual teachings I had been learning during my time at Tanner’s Zen Club. I truly was a spiritual maverick ready to make a difference in the world. I started positive visualization, created a vision board – nothing could freaking stop me from success as long as I was focused.

I was having severe back problems during this time, and because Tanner supposedly had a back injury he had healed with meditation and qi gong, he found this as a perfect opportunity to regain my trust after my previous skepticism about his intentions. Helping me with breathing, visualization, and actually even a little Active Resistance Training and massage (no, really) I felt just as close to him as I did before he tried siphoning money through our application revenue back into Zen Club. (In the end none of this helped and I ended up in back surgery, but that is a different story for a different day).

And then it happened. The law of attraction “worked”.

Through some business connections I am to this day not really clear on, we landed a phone call with Joe Ansaldi - master teacher from The Secret, proven business guru and multi-millionaire. And he was interested in working with us on our iPhone Applications. To cut a long process, long coding nights, long pitch planning sessions, web site creation, and meditation short – he was instantly interested and we were now using his endorsements and ideas to sell our iPhone Apps.

Joe. Freaking. Ansaldi.

Needless to say – we listened to Joe. The days of the Satori Yoga application were long gone. We were now working on a series of iPhone applications based on Joe Ansaldi’s Daily Meditations. We coined our name, iZenStudent, and were “on our way to making millions”.

Yet somewhere along the way, and I can’t exactly discern when, the dynamics of our triad partnership had changed. We started reporting to Tanner like he was a boss, not a guide. Ryan had been completely indoctrinated into Tanner’s world view and became an echo of his ideas and mantras. The Secret’s doctrine had the propensity to blame the victim. Ryan even tried to convince me that my herniated disc pain was actually in my head. This mentality made negotiating and brainstorming an absolute nightmare.

Meetings and business decisions were completely useless. Prudent business outlooks I offered along with the positive vibes of our “synergistic” style were ignored by both Tanner and Ryan as negative vibrations.  In the end it always came down to Tanner’s ideas, parroted by Ryan, in direct opposition to me (even if my suggestions benefitted us as a whole). I had always been the voice of prudence during the operation – the least “spiritual” of the three (or at least that’s how I had been cornered to feel), some negative naysayer.

Knowing there was about to be the potential for some serious cash on the table, coupled with the working vote-count monopoly Tanner had acquired, I demanded that we get a contract set up, get some lawyers in on the deal, and get legit.

I also suggested that we get a helping hand from my girlfriend who had done business taxes and books before so we can keep everything straight. I wanted to start keeping track of expenses and logging hours. Tanner immediately shot that down saying “getting loved ones involved in business always ends up messy” (this becomes important later).

The Invisible Lawyer and the Boilerplate Contract

Upon demanding a contract, Tanner instantly offered a lawyer who owed him a favor in return for free classes, who was “the best partnership lawyer in Austin,” who could draw us up a contract at no cost. “Sweet!” I thought, considering I didn’t have the money for the consulting or the fees involved in drawing it all out.

I never saw the guy. Not even once. I couldn’t even find the “best partnership lawyer in Austin” on Google.

Weeks later, after endless questions and arguments about the stalling (all while Ryan and I spent late nights coding, neglecting life duties like cleaning the house, doing the dishes, and paying attention to my girlfriend), Tanner finally delivered a “contract” for us to sign.

Luckily for me, my girlfriend is a very intelligent tax consultant/accountant, with one of the best intellectual property expert witnesses in the country as a father. Needless to say, I had someone with my best interest in mind who could read legalese.

It was a completely boilerplate contract that anyone with access to the internet could have either downloaded or created using a service like LegalZoom. I sent the changes that were suggested by my girlfriend, who I trusted more than anyone else at this point, to Tanner for review. That was the last I heard of it.

By this point, my skepticism was mounting, but Tanner tried one more maneuver to get me sold. He informed Ryan and I that he was talking with Joe Ansaldi (which he had started doing more often without us) and he could possibly be interested in seed funding us – get us out of our day jobs to develop full time. We discussed it late one night in the abandoned office he was still squatting in, and we came up with a number. $250,000.

I went back to my girlfriends place the next night and did some numbers, comparing it to our current salaries, splitting it up three ways, taking away tax and operating costs, etc. I realized that walking away from my comfortable and rewarding corporate job on nothing less than a complete gamble was a waste of time. And financially dangerous.

Tanner tried to convince me I was living in fear. That I was not taking necessary risks for greatness.

What he failed to realize was that I knew if the runway ran out, I’d be left with no income and no job in a down market. He, on the other hand, would still have his Zen Club and an army of participants willing to pay $150 a month. The spiritual renegade was over – this was certainly not for the good of all those involved, as Tanner had preached and “practiced” every day of his life. He was trying to walk me off a cliff on a gamble that would screw me and Ryan if we failed, while leaving him down only a couple hundred bucks. “Oh well, thats business.”

It had become obvious to me that this was a low-overhead operation and if Tanner could get us to quit our jobs, our best bet would be to work as hard as we can on iZenStudent to make it successful. The iPhone millionaires kept showing up in the headlines, a lage incentive for Tanner to drive us – and really the only thing keeping us motivated despite the fact it had been 4 months and we weren’t any closer to a contract or a product.

This wasn’t even taking into account the countless articles of App Store submission nightmares and developers going unpaid for sold applications.

I Quit! And That’s When the Fun Begins

Tanner had kept me running for the carrot on the string long enough. We had a meeting a couple days later where I told Ryan and Tanner I was no longer interested in working on iZenStudent. Tanner was obviously working us like dogs, for free, at the expense of our own life balance, for his direct benefit. He didn’t seem upset. Rather, he was probably elated considering I was a complete thorn in his side ever since I became wise to him, despite the fact that Ryan was still working enthusiastically as if the cash had already arrived (which is what Tanner tried to teach us both to become successful – Step 2 of the  law of attraction is to feel as though what you wish for has already arrived).

Within 2 weeks of quitting,  the website I built from the ground up on the domain that Ryan purchased was moved to a similar (however less intuitive) domain that was under Tanner’s control. My iZenStudent e-mail and ftp accounts were deleted (along with all of the records within). Tanner named himself CEO of iZenStudent on the website without discussing it with Ryan at all, and got his wife, Samantha (remember her?), in as COO and creative director (whatever happened to leaving loved ones out of business?)

Ryan was one of my closest friends for 2 years, I felt as though I needed to warn him. Tanner always had a way with spinning his words, and Ryan was really good at believing him. I wrote Ryan a long, descriptive e-mail trying to outline everything Tanner had done up to this point – including, but not limited to, trying to double pay himself through Zen Club, going from a partner interested in helping people first and foremost to convincing us we were just steps away from millions of dollars, moving the website off a domain Ryan controlled, and naming himself CEO of the operation. His response was little more than a proverbial middle finger to our relationship. He trusted Tanner and his ability to lead “iZenStudent to the App Store stratosphere” over his best friend.

Defeated on that front, I wrote another long, descriptive e-mail to Tanner, telling him I was aware of everything he was doing. I told him I thought he was not practicing any of the spiritual tenets he preached, and was – very simply – a manipulative con man. What happened next?

First, I was banned from his online Zen Club community (I’ll let you speculate why).

After calling Tanner out for what he did, I was block from communicating with those that thought he was something he clearly wasn't.

After calling Tanner out for what he did, I was blocked from communicating with those that thought he was something he clearly wasn't.

Tanner then e-mailed Ryan, saying, that due to my behavior and “drama,” that iZenStudent was done. It was over. No more. He was just going to end the “millions of dollars everyone was going to make” because my e-mail hurt his feelings.

A day later Tanner contacted Ryan again – saying he would give Ryan one more chance at iZenStudent, if Ryan promised that I would no longer be a problem.

Here, Tanner created a lose-lose-win situation. First, it almost immediately destroyed any remants of the relationship I had with Ryan because Tanner painted a picture that I was the cause of iZenStudent’s near death experience. Two, it made Ryan’s compliance as a sign of complete loss of control of the company he originally founded. To add a cherry on top, it got me completely out of the way so he could continue to manipulate the situation without further interference.

Ryan could no longer afford to pay rent (due to the layoff) and had to move back in with his parents. I moved out and got my own apartment. The iZenStudent website that I created slowly morphed into a tacky quick-fix-for-all-your-problems  promotional page, and I can only now vaguely recognize the products we were producing (minus some of my code and original artwork which is obviously there either pixel for pixel or in direct spirit thereof).

In The End

I recently met up with Ryan (now 6-7 months after that last altercation) to catch up now that the steam had settled. He related to me that the eventual contract that did end up getting inked gave Ryan a whopping 5% of the company for the 11 applications he made after I had left.  Apparently, Joe Ansaldi said Ryan should be lucky to get even that (I believe this was probably due to how Tanner framed Ryan’s involvement – as just a developer). Tanner and Samantha cited  in the contract over 10 thousand dollars of business expenses to fly to the west coast to meet with Joe Ansaldi, all the while staying at 5 star hotels and renting BMWs.

If Ryan really wanted to, he could take them to court over it. Hell. If I wanted to, I could take them all to court for my back wages. I have all of the digital proof sitting on this very laptop. In the end its not worth the effort and it would be too soon if I ever saw Tanner or his wife again.

To this day I simply can’t believe that someone out there exists who would con and manipulate people like this. I’ve definitely lost my innocence during the process. “Shit like this only happens in Hollywood”. Oh wait, that’s where Tanner is from.

Heres a small bulleted list of some of the things that happened throughout the 5 months I was working with Tanner and involved in the Zen Club that rubbed me the wrong way:

  • Tanner started a Sunday Meditation class, where you could sit on pillows and discuss meditation and go through guided lessons. The next week – you couldn’t use the pillows unless you bought them for $30.
  • He created a series of seminars – from foam rollers, to qi gong, martial arts, etc. that cost $40 to attend. These were things that were supposed to be offered as part of the overpriced Zen Club bootcamp ($150 a month). He heavily recruited Zen Club members during lessons and made me feel uncomfortable a number of times when I declined.
  • In fact – the entire Zen Club is kind of run like a cult. There is a definite in-out club mentality and if you were negative or somehow challenged Tanner’s lessons or views it would piss him off. Everyone wears the same black workout clothes, and while not required, I was questioned numerous times from his assistant as to where my black Zen Club shirt had gone when I failed to wear it.
  • For a guy who approaches life with a “contemporary zen” view, he and his wife drove a BMW 5 series and a Mercedes Benz. Samantha once related to me that she spent over $900 in a weekend putting potted plants in their back yard. The inside of their house looks like a Orienental Decor catalogue – pulling out all stops with large decorative pieces with absolutely no function.
  • I have witnessed, with full admittance by Samatha, that she was driving with a glass of wine. When Tanner showed up at a FedEx where we were meeting to terminate our DBA (after I quit), he got out of his car at 5pm in the middle of the week, and killed the end of his Corona Light.
  • Checking the property tax records reveals that Samantha (although an alias for the purpose of this article) isn’t even her real name. Tanner (also an alias for this article), isn’t his real legal name either.
  • Any internet search on either of the two will not turn up anything between 1994 to 2007. Using Samatha’s real name reveals her previous acting career (despite claiming being in a zen-like meditation community for 17 years -making it 1992-, where they gave up all possessions and were training not even to enjoy their food. That said, she did tell everyone she used to act but found it weird how I could never find any information about it).

Typing all of that stuff out, I feel almost stupid that I trusted this guy with my business for as long as I did. In reality, none of these little things clicked, none of the dots were connected until months later and only after I regained some emotional clarity on the subject.

Are they a con couple? I can’t really tell. Maybe they just got greedy amist the iPhone gold rush after they realized they had two talented developers under their control who were already working for free and without a contract. I could speculate for months (and I have).

I’m ready to put this thing to rest. Typing this out and organizing my thoughts has been largely theraputic for me. I hope it serves as a warning to anyone who is going into a business partnership to remember what they say is true – its worse than marriage. Hell, its like all of the work with none of the sex. And if you meet a complete stranger who is more than willing to help you make a bunch of money – they are probably trying to screw you. I guess even the “good” people in this world can turn out to be bold face liars.

Now there’s a concept.

Keep your businesses real, and stay safe.

Epilogue

There has been quite and interet response to this article so I’m going to clarify a couple of things, as well as draw up some clearer conclusions and lessons learned.

1. I never really thought that what we were doing was revolutionary. We were creating cool looking applications on a new device and that excited me. Once we had a reputable name that had the marketing acumen, I thought that we could push a lot of $0.99 units.

2. I continued on despite what looked like a bad deal out of loyalty to my friend. His arrogance wasn’t helping, I probably stayed too long, and in the future I will definitely pick my friends a little more carefully.

3. My fascination with “The Secret” was true and simple naivety. Had I had walked around the block a couple more times I would have realized that this was complete snake oil wrapped in a snappy, marketable message.

4. “Tanner’s” relationship with Ryan rotted after the poor handling of their eventual contract and his Dojo’s attendance has been suffering as it has apparently clearly affected his charismatic performance. I’ve been told he is in a mountain of personal and business debt. This is merely what I was told by a source I trust but take from it what you will.

5. I made a lot of dumb mistakes and wanted to “play business” like it was some game and that if I sat in my room and wrote code all day the mail man would deliver a pile of money to my doorstep. I was an ass hat and I’ve learned a great deal of humility since then.

6. It was emotional, and maybe I played that up a bit here. Its a personal story and its taken a long time to get over it. Simply knowing I’ve had people read my story is enough. It was my first true business endeavor outside the safety of a large corporate structure and I got burned.

7. The company is still operating, but still haven’t managed to get even one of their 12 applications onto the app store. They have since produced zero revenue, the seed money was probably a lie from Tanner, and there’s so many cuts in the pie these days that I’d be surprised if anyone made their investment back. (As of November 9, 2009).

8. A lot of people speculate that “con man” is probably inaccurate. And after reading a lot of perspectives via personal e-mail and comments on Hacker News. I’d say that’s a fair assessment. I didn’t protect myself and Ryan and I were simply taken advantage of. The story conveys my emotions about the issue, and how terrible it made me feel.

Half of me had wished I had posted for advice earlier on (I did eventually get the advice I needed from my girlfriends Dad), I get the feeling I would have been served up a large slice of reality pie. I’m doing my best not to walk around with my head so far up my own ass this time around, seeking professional advice where needed.

Thanks for taking the interest and time to read and respond to my story. Hopefully someone avoids making the same mistakes I did.

Changes, and the Fear/Danger Quadrant

Its been almost a year and a half since I’ve left undergrad, and I’m truly starting to conceptualize what it means to commit yourself to learning as a lifelong endeavour. Learning allows me to operate on new information – and either do things differently, or do different things.

This means change. And a lot of it.

I would naturally resist change because I don’t know whats on the other side. And while my current situation may not be optimal, its certainly better than the unknown. I’ve recently changed this assumption.

I’ve made some pretty big steps recently, from moving in with my girlfriend Rebecca whom I love dearly, to expanding my side business into a realm of “Well I certainly can’t just stop now.” Others with more life experience and a broader perspective have given me great insight on big decisions like these – but I simply didn’t have the internal reference points to emotionally understand that you will never truly be ready.

This got me thinking – how do we discern what decisions to make and which ones not to make? Being the software guy that I am, I’ve attempted to make a mental model to help separate good decisions from the bad. But more importantly, good reasons from the bad.

Getting to the point: what stops us from making good decisions are negative outcomes (or the expectation thereof), and what helps us make bad decisions is the lack of those expectations. Mainly, what is the difference between fear and danger?

Fear to me, is someting we’ve created or projected in our minds. Fear of spiders, fear of dying. These things aren’t necessarily right in front of us (although one day they could be). Danger, on the other hand, is something that is imminent, probable, or likely. Distinguishing, or properly identifying which is which, leads to faster learning and better decision making.

I like pictures. So heres a little table of what I’ve come up with. On the Y axis is what you’ve interpreted the situation as (fear, danger). On the X axis, is what the situation is in reality. The contents of the cell, is what the likely outcome is.

its actually Fear its actually Danger
you think its Fear Imaginary risk identified, Growth opportunity Headstrong act / uninformed decision, bad decision with negative outcome (lesson learned?)
you think its Danger Failure to act, missed opportunity (lesson learned?)
Dangerous situation avoided, following intuition, active defense.

Identifying Fear as Fear: When I moved to Austin from DC, it was a new place. I had a smaller social network and shit was scary. I went from the comfortable situation I created after 4 years of school and put myself in a new situation. It was scary, but correctly identified as fear allowed me to grow. These are the type of opportunities that make life so sweet.

Misinterpreting Danger as Fear: After my skating accident in Janurary 2009, I was afraid I had a serious back condition. I was afraid that I might need surgery. What did I do? I avoided the truth – it took me 6 months of debilitating back pain before I went and got my MRI. I tried numerous natural healing methods, chiropractors, meditation, you-freaking-name-it. What I thought was fear was actually danger. My spinal canal was 80% pinched due to a L4/L5 herniation. My spinal surgeon said that even one more slight bump or shift could have left me paralyzed. While I learned my lesson, this could have easily turned out better had I correctly identified the issue at hand.

Misinterpreting Fear as Danger: While not the more dangerous of misinterpretations, I recognize these when I want to kick myself for missing an opportunity (regret). These happen all the time, but I try to use that data (how it felt) to help me refine my litmus test to teach me when to jump.

Identifying Danger as Danger: In a previous business, a partner with nothing on the line wanted me and my third partner to quit our day jobs to develop iPhone applications full time. We had the possiblity of getting a little seed money to feed us during first-round development. I knew if it didn’t take off, I would have walked away from my stable, healthy job for nothing and I would have been out in the cold during uncertain times. He tried to tell me I was holding myself back by living in fear (misinterpreting fear as danger – a missed opportunity). What did I do? I quit — the start up. I still work at my full time job (along with another growing side business) and as of this writing that iPhone company has made zero dollars.

What’s interesting is in each scenario, there are hidden opportunities. Be them concrete and real, a lesson learned, or a defensive move that keeps your butt out of the fire.

Fine tuning my senses to correctly identify these 100% of the time is an exercise in futility, but I’ve made a lifelong commitment to do my best to figure it out.

Selecting My Inner Cabinet

Picture courtesy of vandyright.com

Picture courtesy of vandyright.com

Good morning and welcome. We are here today because some things are going to change. You (my Cabinet) are my confidants, my go-to guys. I go to you for everything, lean on you for knowledge and advice, and most importantly trust your ability to help lead us to victory, whatever that may be at the time.

Consider this a ‘Resource Action.’ Everyone ready? Lets get started.

Mr. Statement Maker: You’re fired. To be blunt, you are an arrogant prick. The more you “know” the less we as a team learn. You are quick to jump to conclusions, and most of time you – despite your complete confidence – are wrong. You rarely listen. As a team we simply aren’t experienced enough to have you around. People will learn what we know through observation. When your position is needed again, I’ll hire Mr. Wisdom. Get out… now.

I’ll wait.

Ok? Moving on.

Mr. Researcher: Welcome aboard. You’ll be replacing Mr. Statement Maker. I’ll need to you ask questions, and try your best to identify the difference between what we truly know and what we’re assuming. Don’t worry, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Being the brother of Mr. Humility, I’m sure you will tread carefully to service truth to our team.

Mr. Motivation: Welcome back. Everyone knows you’ve been through a lot of shit lately; loss of a friend and a failed business, back surgery, etc. We know you’ll be one of our strongest assets.

Mr. Self Posturing: You too, are fired. Your very essence is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We are no longer trying to be something we are not, and your manipulative nature fools us more than others. Mr. Researcher will help us determine who we want to become – but those changes will be organic. There are no quick fixes on this journey, and karma has caught up with you. Goodbye!

Mr. Rationalizer: You have done a fantastic job at making us comfortable with the status quo. You keep us safe, secure, and let us know that we are – at all times – in complete control. You’re fired.

Mr. Devil’s Advocate: You have saved us from a lot of terrible shit, including (but not limited to) career decisions, relationships, responsibility, and identifying cons when you see one. The thing is though,  you always play that position. Hell, your name is Mr. Devil’s Advocate. Knowing this, don’t let your feelings get hurt when we don’t listen to you.

Dr. Love: Your PhD in giving-a-shit-about-other-people has never failed us. Great marks all around. I’ll try to let you know you’re doing a great job more often. And for that, I’m sorry. That said, can I have you keep Mr. Devil’s Advocate in check and tell him when to shut up?

Professor Communication: You are doubtingly the most important person in my Cabinet. Without you, all of us cease to function. Be it at work, in relationships, or simply fluff talk to complete strangers – you are the transporter of information. I wanted the entire team to hear this because you are absolutely paramount to our success. If you break down for any reason, know that we are here as an immediate resource.

Gentlemen, thank you for listening. There are some new faces and new responsibilities. We’ve taken out the trash so now we have more energy for growth. There will be great triumphs. There will be terrible failures. There will be days we are in the zone, and days we simply don’t want to get with the program. All of this is natural. My dad once told me this is called ‘Life.’ But when we get to the end of the game, together we will know we’ve played our best.

So let’s get out there and learn, make mistakes, grow, work hard, love hard, and have fun along the way.

Meeting adjourned.

Vanilla Sky, Gnosticism, and Refactoring your Mind for Growth


Play-n-Read: Sometimes I find that the right choice of music puts you in a more receptive frame of mind.

“What is happiness to you?”

Last night, after spending my Friday night grocery shopping on my own volition, I sat down to watch Vanilla Sky without knowing what I was walking into.

“Open your eyes”

It all starts with a 33 year old guy played by Tom Cruise who has inherited the position as CEO of the largest publishing firm in New York City. He has never had to work a hard day in his life, he doesn’t take the Board of Directors seriously, and he plays women without any concern for external consequences.

After a car accident involving one of the countless women he has strung along left his face and arm disfigured with constant pain and nerve damage, his world starts to break down.

“Am I crazy? Is this a conspiracy? What is real?”

His reality changes, he wakes up to the entire world empty, countless characters say the exact same thing, people he supposedly knows switch places in his life; all while he becomes convinced he has killed a girlfriend in a psychotic episode.

The viewer is thrown through loops as the perspective continues to slowly reveal itself – leaving you surprised at every turn.

In the end, Aamer (the protagonist) is able to break through his own constructed reality and take control of his life. A true story of transcendence, one of the lasting themes and quotes throughout the movie was “This is a revolution of the mind.”

Vanilla Sky is a beautifully executed tale of gnosticism; a theme that has been gaining moment since the late nineties. Wikipedia defines it as:

Gnosticism (Greek: γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) refers to diverse, syncretistic religious movements in antiquity consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god.

We’ve seen this before; In The Matrix, Donnie Darko, Fight Club, The Truman Show, and to less happy endings, Requiem for a Dream.

The gist of it is that it is innately human to make assumptions about what your reality is to make it easier to cope – and the false/constructed perspectives that we reside in day after day is created by a limited mind, mainly, our own.

Being the complete nerd that I am – I immediately drew a parallel to large programming projects. Any good developer has once said to themselves as they’ve neared the end of a project, “Now we know what we should have done.” This is the concept of technical debt.

I have reconstructed how I approach software many times. The first time I made a game in Visual Basic , all the object data was stored in primitive arrays, and the code was a procedural mess. Then came C++ and object classes, while leaving most of the logic in a switch-statement mess. Then came game state stacks, multiple inheritance (not always a good thing by the way), god classes – and the like. Each project got better – and each time new mistakes were made.

Our brains are no different. We write code with our experiences – assumptions and rules that we deem as true per the direct consequences of our life. Sometimes these are wrong. Sometimes we can get rid of stuff.

Refactoring code, deleting most of it – and still having it work (usually better), is at the center of consciousness as a metaphor. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the most important part of your life – your mind – allows you to learn what is real or constructed, intuition or fear, and determine the difference between a proven, long standing solution and a quick fix.

The only thing I’ve come up with so far is learning is a lifelong commitment. Sometimes, you just don’t know whats on the other side, and you simply have to jump.

Which is exactly what Aamer did in Vanilly Sky, straight off a building.