Nerd seeks Leigh Steinberg
November 30, 2009 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm a veteran software engineer / technical lead working for an internet company. I think I've got an opportunity to really cash in at my job, and need guidance on how best to do this.

For the past two years I have been working on a product that is about to make my company some serious revenue.

Right now, I feel pretty irreplaceable. Because of some organizational turmoil and chronic understaffing, I have enormous development, management, and operational responsibilities. I have no backup for any of these roles. I have a good reputation in the company, as far as I know, and have done well-received presentations for our executives. I also have offers from other companies as a security blanket.

There will be a short window of opportunity for me to cash in, between the time when the deal to sell the product is signed and the time when I can train up whatever new staff comes along. Our product is a B2B thing with significant professional service opportunities. It's not turnkey. During this window, the sale will live and die on my efforts.

I would like to capitalize on that in a career-defining way. Exactly how I'll do that, I'm not sure. I have some ideas, but I need help with them.

So: I would like to hire someone who can give me a reality check, who can help me hone my pitch and define my requirements, and who has a background in business, negotiation, and contract law. I want this person to help me look like I know exactly what I'm doing. I don't think I want to hire someone to do the actual negotiating; I want more of an advisor. Can anyone suggest where to find such a person? I am in Seattle so if you have a recommendation in this area, that'd be especially cool.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I think you're on the right track in thinking you need something like an agent, although a sports/talent agent is not a good fit (at least, not obviously so). I don't have any specific knowledge about Seattle, so I just have a couple of potential techniques to suggest.

First, the "easy" way would be to look up a career coach/counselor. They are good at the whole process of taking you from a list of stuff you're good at, or enjoy, to making it into a job. My impression is that they tend to be more rudimentary, taking people who generally lack career direction and helping them find an entry-level position in a field they may like. You need someone more focused who can address your particular questions. Maybe gather resumes from a dozen career coaches and pick someone who went to a good business school and/or did time at a major consulting firm. Someone like this may be doing career coaching as a second career, e.g. for the schedule convenience. But they certainly still have the chops from their previous high-stakes work - take advantage of it.

A somewhat more roundabout way that might get you exactly what you're looking for is to call up some talent agents and ask for "information interviews" over coffee or something similar. Make it clear you are not necessarily "talent" who is interested in their services per se, but you have a requirement for something like an agent in the business realm. The purpose of the interview would essentially be to network, tell them roughly what you're interested in and see if they know anyone who could help. What they would (potentially) get out of it is props from the colleague who ultimately helped you out.

Good luck!
posted by rkent at 10:45 AM on November 30, 2009

You're not irreplaceable, no matter what you think, so whatever you do, don't blackmail your employers.

Because that might not lead to the kind of 'career-defining' moment you're thinking of.
posted by rokusan at 10:46 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was having trouble articulating my nervous thoughts on reading your question but rokusan's answer does it nicely. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can't be replaced.

I'd suggest focusing your negotiating on the ways your presence will help the product/company grow. Pointing out ways they'd be screwed without you is likely to make management trust you less and start looking to bring someone in/up to speed to be able to replace you.

I don't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with trying to cash in on your value to them. Good luck.
posted by Babblesort at 11:03 AM on November 30, 2009

If you can work your way into client facing consulting roles within the company, it might not be too hard to transition to doing that on your own and get 100% of the billings.
posted by ejoey at 11:10 AM on November 30, 2009

Um, if you are a full-time employee then it is most likely that any work you do, including ideas and inventions, are property of your employer -- not you. Unless you have a contract that says otherwise, I think you're making a mistake.

In fact, if you try to blackmail your employer, you are in for a world of trouble. Not only will you get fired, but you'll probably get sued by your employer for damages and face an enforcement of a standard non-compete clause.

Your best bet is to have a long, hard talk with your employer's executive management. If you can argue your case that you are truly irreplaceable, then they might amend your contract so that you can participate in the profit-sharing. If the work you're doing is that important to the company's bottom line, then you may even want to go so far as to swapping income for sweat equity and/or asking for payment in shares of the company.

If they cannot afford to lose you, then they should be prepared to offer you a lot more money or a combination of a higher salary and a portion of the company's ownership.
posted by camworld at 11:16 AM on November 30, 2009

If this product is going to return a huge amount of profit for the company then now is a good time to put some of the figures together and calculate, realistically, what your part in it is worth. Armed with that information approach your boss to talk about it. If it were me I would suggest that my new, serious revenue generating product designer and launcher job was worth a higher salary, a bigger bonus, and more vacation time than my old technical lead job. I'd also, because I'm so sure that the serious revenue is about to flow, be very happy to take a large chunk of my increased salary and all of my bonus, in a restricted stock award at today's price that vested when sales hit a certain mark.

You might want something different out of this, you need to elaborate on what you mean by 'cashing in'. As others have pointed out, holding your employer over a barrel because they, currently, really need you, is a bad idea, but if you're looking to be rewarded for a job well done there's no harm in asking. You don't need an agent for that
posted by IanMorr at 12:15 PM on November 30, 2009

Unless management are morons, they will begin plotting to replace you as soon as you make it evident that (a) you are not a potato who is happy to toil away forever, (b) you have become critical to cashflow, and (c) you want to be rewarded like a stakeholder rather than a peon. So make sure that your plan is worth it, and that you are willing to burn this bridge for the proper price.

I think a lawyer with lots of HR issues experience should be consulted in this case to make sure you don't do anything illegal along the way. The stock request IanMorr mentioned seems like the "friendliest" way to make it appear that you still believe in the company but aren't trying to blackmail them.
posted by benzenedream at 1:01 PM on November 30, 2009

"The graveyard is full of irreplaceable men."

You claim you have standing offers from other companies. You may be able to use those as collateral in a negotiation, but be ready to act on them when you have the trigger pulled on you.

As Felix Dennis states in How To Get Rich, "Ownership isn't the important thing, it's the only thing." Those above you probably know that too. They'd rather not share.

To me, this seems like the kind of thing where I'd want to do the negotiation before getting started, rather than two years in. You've given up two years' worth of productivity to them without any additional upside; unless what you've made is super-complicated for outsiders to understand, that's a big negative in your position.
posted by lowlife at 1:14 PM on November 30, 2009

follow-up from the OP
rokusan, babblesnort: your reservations are well-founded, and feelings similar to yours are why I'm seeking a pro who can ask me the right questions and challenge my assumptions.

The use of the word 'blackmail' makes me want to clarify, though: you guys might be imagining something much more adventurous than I am. I'm not stealing any software from my employer or sabotaging my systems or anything else illegal or lawsuit-worthy.

What will be at stake is my ongoing employment in the company during a project that is likely to be very stressful, and which will will be severely damaged without my participation.

Think of this more as a demand for a contract renegotiation -- except, of course, I'm an at-will employee, not a contract one. I'm legally free to walk at any time, just as they're free to dismiss me at any time.

Whether I'm ethically free to walk when the company is at its most vulnerable, well, I've wrestled with that. But the bottom line is that there are people in my life that deserve my loyalty -- my family, my friends, my artistic collaborators. When I offer these people my loyalty, then I'm repaid a hundredfold. But if I offer the company my loyalty and settle for less than I could be getting, then I'm paid...less than I could be getting. The executives at this company don't deserve to make extra bank on my goodwill.

IanMorr: re: cashing in, my early thoughts are to offer them a contract for my services that guarantees I will remain with the company for some stretch of time. In return, I will ask for substantial equity compensation and a severance package in case they decide they'd rather not have me at some point. I figure this gives them something concrete and makes it clear that I'm oriented towards increasing the value of the company while protecting myself from retaliation. Everyone gets security. Everyone wins.

The challenge is to determine whether this idea is at all feasible, to find the pitfalls and fill them in, to choose the best possible numbers for duration, equity, and severance, to figure out how to present the offer so it's more of velvet glove than an iron fist, to write a contract that definitively sets down these things, and to get it done quickly so that I can take advantage of my window. That's where Mr. Steinberg comes in. I've always negotiated with tech managers and recruiters before and done well for myself, but this will be the next level and I want to be prepared for it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:17 PM on November 30, 2009

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