- Christian Armbruester
Why getting mad is one thing, but getting even is quite another.
All of a sudden, our screens went blank. At first, we thought it was a power outage, but since our PCs were still buzzing it was clear that only our systems had been shut down in an instance. We tried to reach our New York office, but no one was picking up the phone. It was a very inopportune time as we had just agreed heads of terms with a large investor and our start-up was about to earn large revenues. We had been working on the deal for more than a year. We were friends. Some of us went to school together and others had worked together successfully over many years in previous capacities. We were a very proficient team and the sky was the limit.
There had been tension of course on how we split the pie. When there is this much potential money involved, interests can sometimes misalign and everyone also has a family to support. The other random variable in the equation is that you never really know how things will turn out. Essentially, you negotiate on a future that in all probability will never exist. So all that matters is what we think at the time as to who holds the biggest (perceived) key to our success. It’s like trying to split a lottery ticket before it has won, and trying to come to an agreement was an excruciating process.
However, given the enormous potential of the deal we had just struck, made coming to terms a lot easier. Or so we thought. Apparently, having found one investor who was willing to put pen to paper, they were able to secure a better offer for themselves from another. Now that they had the know-how and systems we had worked on for many months, it was more appealing to just take the entire pie for themselves. The problem was, somebody had to pay for it. All the expenses we had incurred whilst working together, including paying their salaries and the very computer they used to shut us down. It was one thing to give away all the upside and we were certainly not Facebook, but at the very least we wanted some of our money back.
I still remember what he wrote to us in an email two weeks after they went their own way. He had been one of my best friends for more than twenty years, yet now he suggested we hire lawyers to communicate with each other going forward. The law was actually very clear in this case. However, one can always litigate the finer points of some possible narrative to avoid having to pay back what is owed. It took well over a year and we finally reached settlement in our favour a day before we were meant to go to court. In the end, we had all spent far more in legal fees than what was actually at stake, and we did not recover as much as we would have liked. It was emotionally draining, utterly exhausting, and it caused enormous stress on those that are close to us. Was it worth it? Of course not, but like Rollo Tomassi (La Confidential, 1997), we could also not let them get away with it.