A number of years ago I was in a friend’s living room. We were setting up to play boardgames. I was up and looking at his bookshelf when I saw the book “Bloom.” It wasn’t by one of the super-famous authors you see everywhere and I had just read it a while ago myself, so I said “Oh hey, you have Bloom! That was a good book, I liked it.” Behind me a voice said “Yeah, I wrote that.”
I turned around and there sat a man I’d been introduced to just that day for boardgaming, looking at me in dead seriousness. I had this intense feeling of vertigo, because somehow a published author had just randomly snuck into my life and was hanging around in a mutual friend’s living room like this was a perfectly normal thing that just happens. I was initially at a loss for words.
That was Wil McCarthy, and since then we’ve gotten to know each other quite a bit more. He took about a decade off from writing to do the tech-entrepreneur thing, but now he’s back into the word-slinging game. His latest novel drops today, and I’m hosting a guest post from him in support, because he greatly overestimates the reach of my blog. :) I mentioned that hearing about tech entrepreneurship would be something my readers are interested in, so he wrote to that. Without further delay:
Hi, my name is Wil McCarthy, and I’m a writer. Eneasz was kind enough to lend my this platform for a day, because I’ve got a hardcover science fiction novel out from Baen this week. This is actually the twelfth book in my publishing career, and yet still a really significant milestone for me, because the last time I released a book was in 2005, and if you’d told me then that there’d be a gap of fourteen years before my next book, well, I wouldn’t have believed it. Seriously, I used to work a full-time job whilst writing a book a year, and I still had enough leftover time and energy to attend to my family and maintain an active social life. Then I gave up the full-time job to concentrate exclusively on my writing, and that went well. For years. So what happened?
In a way, the writing was a victim of its own success; in my 1999 novella “Once Upon a Matter Crushed” and subsequent novel THE COLLAPSIUM, I posited a type of programmable matter called “wellstone”, whose optical and electrical and even mechanical properties could be adjusted in real time through the application of minute electrical signals. This was based on real science, and I said so in the book’s appendix, but even so I got a flood of annoyed fan mail saying the idea was nonsense and had no place in a hard science fiction book. I responded with a series of increasingly detailed, increasingly specific nonfiction articles on the subject, culminating in a long WIRED magazine feature that spelled out, in engineering terms, how such a thing could actually work.
That turned out to be a patentable invention, which I patented and made the subject of a nonfiction book, HACKING MATTER, that was basically a much longer, more detailed, more self-indulgent version of the article I’d written for WIRED. This resulted, in early 2004, in one of the co-inventors of the Blackberry smartphone (remember the Blackberry?) calling me up out of the blue and saying he wanted to give me (or rather, the company I had founded when I filed the patent) a million dollars, just to see what happened.
Saying yes to that resulted in my being the president and chief technology officer of a tech startup, which attracted still more investment from other high-net-worth individuals. Which was fine and fun; what better way to succeed as a science fiction writer than for people to pay you to make your crazy ideas real? One caution I received at the time was that the thing we actually discovered would be different than the thing we set out to invent, and this turned out to be sage advice indeed; after multiple pivots triggered by unexpected results in both the lab and the marketplace, I ended up co-inventing a type of smart window that tinted when it got hot.
Sounds useful, right? Want some for your own house? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, while we almost succeeded in selling the technology to 3M, and then really almost succeeded in selling it to Dow Chemical, the 2008 meltdown in the economy kiboshed all that, and we eventually concluded we would need to build our own factory and develop and sell the product ourselves. This involved raising many more millions of dollars, which sounds great but was actually the downfall of basically the entire life I’d so carefully built for myself.
One caution I didn’t receive, but quickly figured out for myself, was that venture capitalists don’t want you fucking around writing science fiction novels on the side. They expect (and arguably deserve) your undivided attention. Up until this point, I’d still been dabbling in the world of science fiction, writing novellas for Analog and Asimov’s, and I was also the toastmaster at the World Science Fiction Convention one year, and guest of Honor for Apollocon during the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. Oh, and I was still writing for WIRED, and had a monthly column over at the SciFi channel (later SyFy). But yeah, between 2008 and 2013 all that went away. I didn’t consciously kill any of it, but it certainly died through inattention and starvation. After that, I was no longer a writer — just another tech company entrepreneur.
Another caution I didn’t receive was that tech company founders are basically cannon fodder for the venture capital industry. Once they’ve got 51% control of your company and its IP, you basically become the most expensive and most expendable employee on the roster, and if they can scheme a way to get rid of you and still keep the enterprise afloat, they will frequently do so. I’m not going to say that’s exactly what happened to me. There were negotiations, and a settlement of sorts, and a mutual non-disparagement agreement. What I will say is that in 2014 I found myself out of a job, and with a much-diluted ownership stake in the company I had founded in my own basement. Much diluted. That’s not a disparagement, just a numerical fact. I won’t name the company, but I will say it still exists, and has lost a lot of money over the years. Whether it would have succeeded with me at the helm is hard to say, but it certainly has not so far succeeded without me, in five and a half years of trying.
Over the next year I would suffer both a nasty divorce and a nasty car accident, both of whose aftereffects continue to reverberate in my life. All of this set me back, and made it hard to get back on my feet as my actual self, Wil McCarthy the science fiction writer. However, in 2016 I dusted off a book proposal I’d written all the way back in 2004, right before all the craziness began, and called up Baen’s Toni Weisskopf to ask if she’d like a peek at it. She had, years earlier, given me a standing invitation to write for Baen, so this wasn’t a huge stretch, but still I was grateful when she liked the proposal enough to offer me a two-book contract. I was a writer again! Now all I had to do was actually, you know, write a book. For the first time in more than 10 years. Piece of cake, right? Well, it took a year, even though I was doing it full nearly full time, with just some part-time consulting on the side. And then there were the revisions, and the copyedits, and the page proofs, and the marketing copy, all of which stretched out over another agonizing year.
Okay, but now it’s late 2019, and I’m actually a professional novelist again, in the most fundamental sense of having written and published a novel. Whew. Now, as I obsessively scan the web for reviews and scrape my Amazon page for real-time sales rankings, I feel whole again, in a way that I haven’t for a long time.
How do I feel about my ten years in startup land? That’s a hard question to answer. As badly as it all turned out, the experience still furnished some of the most memorable times of my life. I traveled the world in Business Class, and solved hard problems side-by-side with people who loved what they were doing as much as I did. And honestly, I do not see how I could have forgiven myself for refusing that first million dollars, and all that came after. Just because the tiger eats you doesn’t mean it isn’t worth riding. I have a lot of regrets, but “doing it at all” isn’t one of them. Still, would I do it again if I had the chance? Again, it’s hard to say. The easy answer is no, of course not, but I also know that if the right idea and the right situation came along, I’d still be sorely tempted to see where it might lead. Which may simply mean that I’ve learned nothing from the experience, except that being a writer isn’t something I’m eager to give up again, anytime soon.
Do I have any advice for people thinking about following in my footsteps? Yeah, kind of. Be careful with your founding documents; make sure they don’t lock you into a situation you can’t escape from, and make sure they do protect you as much as possible from involuntary ejection. Build that golden parachute right into the foundations of your company. Also, don’t trust anyone. That may sound harsh, but with enough money in play to make a company appear, nobody is your friend, and literally anyone (no matter your history) could be tempted at times to stab you in the back and run away with the treasure. You can work with people you don’t trust (in fact, you’ll need to), but don’t hand them the knife to stab you with, and don’t turn your back. Most importantly, don’t give up your other dreams, because at the end of the day, they may be all you have to fall back on.
Wil McCarthy’s latest novel is Antediluvian, get it here.