Business literature is filled with myths and legends about famous entrepreneurs building empires from scratch. What those same books don’t say is that those empires are often built on top of free labor.
I know of lots of very well-known entrepreneurs in the local Swiss market (don’t sweat it out, won’t name names) whose “empires” were built that way. I know it because I was often asked to provide free work to those same mavericks.
Let’s enumerate some anecdotes:
- Before the dotcom boom of the 2000s, knowing HTML was a huge competitive advantage. No wonder lots of wannabe founders contacted me to help them build a new “portal” or whatever the fancy name du jour was. Of course, as soon as I asked for compensation, they literally got offended and walked away.
- The same happened during the 2008-2013 iPhone craze, where knowing how to put an app together triggered the same kind of emotions on people. I remember one of them in particular, the maker of a relatively well-known web app who wanted a mobile version, and wanted me to work for free, and he’d pay 5% of each sale of the final app. Great deal indeed. Thanks, but no thanks.
- Another notable case was a person who apparently had invented a replacement for XML and wanted me to help him market the concept, without compensation, by the way. Not even equity, nothing. As soon as I mentioned that XML did the same as his thing, and surprise surprise, it already existed, he got angry with me because “I couldn’t see the potential.” Oh well, I guess I couldn’t.
- I had once an interview with the creator of a very important system (yes, you’ve heard of it and probably also about the person) who was starting something in the mobile space and got my reference. He explained his idea to me for a while, and at the end I said, “yes, it’s interesting, my hourly rate is…” and then he interrupted me, saying, “oh no, I hoped you’d worked for free for me.” Befuddled, I asked, “why would I do that?” “Well,” he replied, “don’t you know who I am?”
- And let’s not forget about the myriad of “friends” who got angry with me because I didn’t want to work for free to make their ideas happen. Yes, during the times of the web and mobile hype trains, I had plenty of friends, you know.
Thankfully I wasn’t active on the blockchain or AI galaxies. I’m pretty sure I would have had quite a few more anecdotes of their kind to share here.
In retrospect, few of the systems I enumerated above ever saw the light of day, and none exist today. What remains is the bitter taste in your mouth of having to deal with a very toxic group of people, half-assed “entrepreneurs” who try to squeeze as much juice from workers to try to build some meaningless useless thing during a gold rush.
I’m not saying that all entrepreneurs are like this, and thankfully I’ve also met a lot that have had seriously good ideas, were brilliant at execution, and they are still thriving after all of these years. But I met too many of those in the larger section of the Gauss curve, useless opportunists, unbearable to deal with.