Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Obsolete

Non-Technical Founder

There were seven minutes left in the auction, and the price of the limited edition Apple T-Shirt was at $60. Gopal rapped his fingers on the keyboard on his lap. A Forbes magazine – the one piece of print media in the entire Dolores Heights apartment – was open on the coffee table in front of him. The left page announced: “The 30 under 30 Who Are Changing The World: Technology.” The guy on the list right above Gopal was Adam, a 17 year old Thiel Fellow who had invented a set of algorithms for detecting diseases in X-rays.

datakid97 bid up the price to $65.

Gopal growled. “I will end you,” he whispered. He’d been watching the auction for a full week. He’d set up push notifications and text alerts. When Gopal’s phone would buzz in the middle of meetings, he’d shake his head at the device and leave the conference room. “My fault guys,” he’d say to his team. “I have to take this.” And then he’d go to the bathroom and conduct fifteen to twenty minutes of research on the buying history of whoever had driven up the price of the auction by a dollar.

datakid97 had shown up out of nowhere. He had no history. He was a ghost.

Gopal slid his computer off his lap onto the couch, got up, and paced around the apartment. He walked over to the window and peeled down a blind. Adam lived across the street. Many days, Gopal saw him riding his bike. He always wore the same thing, even at events – loose fitting jeans or cargo shorts that fell below his knees and a technology company T-shirt. The shirts were always rare, limited edition ones, as if he’d just happened to be at the offices of the company during their creation or he’d received the swag in exchange for reporting an obscure early bug. Gopal’s nostrils flared as his synapses lit up. datakid97… he thought.

Gopal looked across the living room at his friend Pete. The 30 under 30 gala was tomorrow. Overnight shipping was available for $19.95. What’s the play, Pete? Gopal thought.

Pete used to have all the answers. When Gopal’s name was being pronounced like a low-end gem or a PayPal competitor, it was Pete who had suggested Gopal explain it this way: “Think of it like you’re encouraging a friend named Paul.” That had worked. When they were second year banking analysts, Pete had helped Gopal map out the series of backhanded compliments that threw another analyst under the bus and pushed Gopal over the edge to the top tier comp bracket. But sitting on Gopal’s sofa in a polo and braided belt with his BlackBerry Q10, Pete now looked like an anachronism. If Gopal didn’t win the shirt, he’d be stuck with his current wardrobe. He’d be corporate. He’d be Pete – people would snap pics of him and write captions like: “dude, sans clue.”

“I took this auction theory class in b-school…” Pete said, standing up and preparing to teach.

Gopal huffed. “What’s ‘b-school’?” he asked. Since Gopal had moved to San Francisco, he’d reinvented himself.

“B-school? Business school?”

Gopal shrugged. He didn’t do “business.” He was an entrepreneur. He looked back down at his screen, hoping Pete would disappear.

“Dude, we were the same year at HBS…” Pete said.

Lower your voice,” Gopal said. “Someone might hear you. You’re not in New York anymore. You think anyone here cares you went to ‘b-school’?” Gopal slammed his finger down on the magazine. Adam had skipped college. He was twelve years younger than both of them.

“Adam could probably teach your auction theory class,” Gopal said. Pete wasn’t listening. He was standing in front of a mirror across the room, as if he was going to begin drawing equations on it with a dry erase marker.

Gopal scratched his head. His index finger worked the crown. Since his hairline had started to recede, it itched when he was stressed. Adam had thick mop. He looked like the pictures Gopal had seen of himself when he was nine and in humid environments. Gopal needed to be him. Gopal let the blind slap shut and took a few deep breathes. He stretched. He cracked his back and considered his next move.

Pete’s BlackBerry vibrated. Pete picked up the brick, the “cunei-phone.” “You taking Priya to this event?” he asked.

“Are you kidding?” Gopal said. He huffed again. “I’m not tied down. I’m not in that life stage yet. I’m focused.”

Pete held up his phone. “Priya wants to know what you want for dinner,” he said.

“Take the 9V battery out of that thing,” Gopal said. Like a “nice to have” feature, Priya was deep down on the backlog. Gopal needed his company to get bought before he determined next steps. He needed a proper roll-out. “Just one more quarter,” he told Priya and his investors, every quarter.

Gopal went back to his laptop, sat down, and bid up the price by a full $65, doubling it to $130.

Pete landed on the sofa next to Gopal and looked over his shoulder. “datakid97…what do you think the 97 stands for? High school graduation?”

Gopal closed his eyes. “That’s the year he was born,” he said. “Adam may not have even gone to high school. Adam’s 17.”

“Who’s Adam?” Pete asked.

Gopal had signed up for a “sniper” service that would wait until the last minute of the auction and bid one penny over the highest bid. But he didn’t trust it, so every five seconds, he manually refreshed the page. A few years ago, when he worked in finance, a few hundred dollars would have been nothing for Gopal. He would have set his maximum bid at $2k and forgotten about it. But he had spent his entire savings on global study / Yacht Week trips during school and a few gut-driven angel investments. He was “cash poor” but as far anyone knew, he was rich, at the top of his peer group.

There were only two minutes left, and since Gopal’s bold last move, datakid97 had disappeared – not one bid. Gopal leaned back and breathed a sigh of relief. As the clock ticked down, he could envision himself wearing the Apple shirt at the event, bathing in the camera lights of the bloggerati. Maybe, he’d wear the shirt inside out. That would look cool, he thought. He’d close his next round of financing right there.

Gopal refreshed the screen another time. A bid came up for $130.01. Gopal refreshed again, and the price of the auction continued to rise. $155. datakid97 was increasing his own bid, like he was flooding the system. Gopal leaned in. Soon, the price had gone over $198. He tried to calculate what to offer, but the price was jumping randomly. Gopal’s head started to sweat, and burn.

Pete sucked his teeth. “Maybe you should just wear a blazer, man,” he said. “And a soft collar shirt? That’s pretty casual?” Gopal wanted to pin Pete up against the wall by his throat. Pete’s phone began to ring. It was an old school ringer.

“What the hell is that sound?” Gopal asked, as if he hadn’t been in the presence of a voice call in years. He clawed at his head.

Gopal could imagine Adam across the street, cackling into a black and green terminal window. Adam didn’t take voice calls – he only communicated via ephemeral media. He was bleeding edge. He had probably written his own script to win the auction. He was using technology Gopal hadn’t even heard of. The whole thing was one line of code and running across twelve cloud servers. In his mind, Gopal was back at the party, but now everyone was pointing and laughing at him. He had on the most embarrassing T-shirt possible, one that read: “N.T.F.” – Non-Technical Founder. The letters seared his skin. Gopal shot up and went back to the window. He peered through the blinds and looked out at Adam’s place. Through the apartment’s curtains, Gopal saw a shadow hunched over what looked like a laptop. The head of the shadow turned towards him. Then, it waved.

Gopal jumped back from the window. With both hands, he twisted the blinds shut. He ran to the sofa.

Pete finally picked up his phone. “Hey Priya…” he said. “Yeah, he’s here.”

“YOU’RE ADDING NO VALUE, PETE,” Gopal screamed. The statement echoed in the room. Gopal held the Forbes magazine up against the side of his face, using one piece of archaic technology to block out the other. Then he raised his max bid to $500.

At $355, Gopal won the auction. “BOOM,” he said. He almost went outside and kicked Adam’s bike.

“Exactly as I predicted,” Pete said, scratching his chin. He held up his hand for a high-five he intended to swing through and hit again on the turn.

Gopal went to his room and shut the door.

At the event the next evening, Gopal wore the t-shirt, where he created a small, undesirable buzz – people wondering if he worked at Apple’s Genius Bar. And all night long, Adam himself was ephemeral. Gopal would see him for a second, surrounded by people, and then poof – the teenager would vanish. Gopal finally cornered Adam at the bar. Adam wore a plain white T-shirt. Gopal squinted at it. He grabbed Adam by the arm and whispered in his ear: “Nice try on eBay, bro.”

Adam turned and, as if Gopal’s phone was ringing, asked: “what’s eBay?”

 





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