Part I: The pitch. Seven years ago.
Sarah and Mark were seated in front of their computer screen, apprehensively gazing at the group of potential investors on the other end of the video call. The investors were a distinguished consortium, owning a bank that had raised funds for over ten unicorns. Sarah and Mark had been preparing for this moment for months, meticulously scrutinizing their presentation and rehearsing their pitch until they could recite it effortlessly.
“Mark, Sarah, let us commence with a brief synopsis of your product please" remarked one of the investors, breaking the tense silence.
Mark drew in a deep breath and began to speak, meticulously presenting each slide of their presentation with precision and brevity. But as they proceeded, Sarah could sense the investors' skepticism growing. Their prepared humor seemed to fly over their heads without eliciting even a forced smile. Most worrisome of all, they appeared unimpressed by any of the features of their AI solution, displaying no glimmer of recognition for their accomplishments.
Their silence was deafening.
"I fail to see how this is different from what already exists" stated one of the investors.
Mark came to an abrupt halt, completely taken aback.
Sarah shifted in her chair, acutely aware that the fate of their aspirations rested on this single call. She felt her mouth dry.
"Our product, Echoing Dreams, is intended to transform the way people interact with technology," Mark replied. "It is not just another application or website. It is a game-changing innovation. It will enable millions of people to have access to a knowledge base larger than ever before. Ignorance will no longer be a compulsory reality for the underprivileged. It will be a choice.”
One of the investors nodded, appearing intrigued. "And how do you intend to monetize this?"
Sarah and Mark exchanged a glance. They had been asked this question before and had prepared a clear answer.
Yet, Mark hesitated for a moment, then launched into their preplanned response.
"We have a few different revenue streams in mind, including different tiers of voluntary support from users…"
"Hold on a moment," interjected the same investor. "So you are aiming for community support for profits?”
"Yes!" Mark replied confidently. "Our market research indicates that community-based funding has made comparable solutions profitable and…"
"But you claimed that your solution is distinct from what is already available in the market," the investor interrupted.
Sarah scrutinized the investors' expressions. They did not appear satisfied. If they continued to ask more questions, they would uncover the weaknesses in their plan and poke holes in it. She could feel her frustration mounting. They had put so much effort into this product, giving it their all. How could these investors not see its value?
She could not give up. She took a deep breath and spoke with conviction.
"We comprehend your concerns," she said. "However, we truly believe in this product. We have witnessed firsthand the impact it can have, and we are confident that with your support, we can take it to the next level. We are eager to collaborate with you and expect your guidance on how to better monetize it.”
Mark glanced at her. That was not the approach they had agreed upon.
There was a pause as the investors conferred with each other. Then, finally, one of them spoke up.
"We are willing to take a chance on you. But you must prove to us that this is worthwhile."
As they ended the call, Sarah turned to Mark with a smile.
"We did it," she exclaimed happily. Her joy was overwhelming. “We actually did it Mark!”
Mark's eyes were icy cold. "Yes, we did. But at what cost?"
Part II: The debt. One year ago.
"Sarah, could you kindly shut the door?" Mark demanded firmly. "This floor is already full of 40 people listening. We can't bear to have a public fight.”
She slammed the door and marched towards his desk.
"How could you let this happen?" she seethed at Mark. "Social media and the press are tearing us apart. I'm receiving threats on Twitter! How could this be leaked?”
Mark reclined on his chair, appearing exhausted.
"We didn't intend for it to reach this point, Sarah. But we had to keep pace with the competition. We need to expand to support our employees and continue to make a positive impact on people's lives.”
"But at what cost?" Sarah retorted. "Our mission is to assist people, not exploit them. How could you betray our users' trust like this?”
Mark's eyes narrowed.
"Not 'you'," he replied. "We both betrayed them. You offered the suits the idea to monetize our solution. You proposed we over-hire during the quarantine period to remain ahead of our competitors. You stated, and I quote, 'whatever it takes.' This was what it took.”
"To allow access to user data for corporate use, yes!" she yelled. She could feel the veins in her forehead bulging. "But to train aggressive, customized advertisement models using this data is taking it too far! Since the leak, we've been losing traffic and users. We've lost our reputation!"
"We'll pull through," Mark said with assurance. "We'll pull through like many other companies. And when we launch our next update sooner than anticipated, the excitement will bring them back.”
Sarah glared at him, feeling a fiery rage burning within her.
Mark shook his head. "It's no longer solely about our users. It's about the investors, the shareholders. They demand results, and we have to provide them. Our company is too large now to backtrack. Too many people depend on us. We need to pay our employees."
Sarah glared at him, feeling anger and shame welling up within her. "We've lost our path, Mark. We've become everything we said we wouldn't. How can we consider ourselves a company that helps people when we're manipulating them with their personal information?"
Mark's tone softened. "I know it's not perfect. But we can still make a difference. We can still help people. We just need to find a way to balance it all."
Sarah gazed at him for a moment, contemplating his words. "I don't know, Mark. I don't know if I can be a part of this any longer. We established this company to make a difference, not to become another cog of the corporate."
Mark sighed. "I understand if you feel you want to jump ship. But you know what? We have to compromise to keep moving forward. We can't afford to be idealistic. Not now, not anymore. Whatever it takes, we have mouths to feed."
Part III: Change
As Mark and Sarah sat facing each other at the café, a feeling of nostalgia overwhelmed him.
“So ,Mark, how has life been treating you?" Sarah inquired, taking a sip of her coffee.
Mark nodded. "Great. I've been trying to get my new startup off the ground.”
Sarah raised her eyebrow. “New startup? Has corporate let you start a new business after kicking you out?”
Kicking you out. Her words stung him like a kick to his stomach.
“Well, they made me sign before I stepped down that I can be an executive to another company as long as it’s not in the AI field.”
Sarah smiled, "So, they have you on a leash."
“You could say so.” Mark laughed. "At least I'm employed, my old friend. And what about you and your philanthropy work?"
She smacked her lips. “Not that great you know. Despite donating most of my income from my shares, I feel like I'm not making enough of an impact. I want it to expand, reach more people."
She sipped her coffee. “You should also donate, you know. Keep it coming”.
He smiled nostalgically, "You know Sarah, perhaps I will, for old times' sake. Or maybe I can invest. Need a partner?"
They both chuckled, and their laugh was genuine.
"You know, Sarah, I can't help but think back to the old days on Echoing Dreams” he said. “When we were just starting out, with nothing but a dream and a few lines of code.”
Sarah nodded, a small smile adorning her lips. "Yeah, those were good times. We were so idealistic back then.”
Mark looked up at Sarah, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. "You know, Sarah, we could do it again. Start a new company.”
Sarah regarded him carefully. Mark wished he could discern her thoughts as he once could.
"I don't know, Mark. After everything that happened, can we really work together again?”
Mark leaned forward, a determined expression on his face. "We can, Sarah. We can do it right this time. No more compromises. Just a company that we can be proud of.”
Sarah contemplated his words. "Perhaps you're right, Mark. Maybe. Maybe not.”
As they finished their coffee, they walked out of the café.
As they hugged goodbye, Mark couldn't help but feel a sense of melancholy.
"What happened to us, Sarah?" Mark inquired, gazing at her wistfully. "What happened to our aspirations of changing the world?”
Sarah looked back at Mark, her eyes tinged with a hint of sadness. "Our dreams remained the same, Mark. We changed. All that remains from that time is an echo."
By Stavros Vergos, BI & Software Engineer of our team! 🎉
Subscribe to out Neswletter and recieve Up Hellas latest news and product updates
I consent to Up Hellas using the above information in order to inform me about its products, based on the General Regulation for the Protection of Personal Data that is valid from 25/5/2018.