Why Can't Google Afford To Pay Its Startup Mentors?


So Google Ventures is swinging in to London Town, dragging one hundred meeeeeellion dollars with it.

Wow! What a way to reinvigorate the European tech scene. All that cash is sure to filter its way down into the economy. Viva la trickle-down economics!

Dr Evil

Or, not so much.

Earlier last week, I was asked if I would mentor teams in a start-up hackathon - partly backed by Google. That, in itself, is nothing too unusual. I'm often asked by start-ups, early stage companies, and big business to advise on a range of things. They find my knowledge and expertise valuable and are happy to pay for my time.

It's a rewarding relationship. Companies take exciting steps into the unknown (for them) and I get a wodge of cash. Happy days!

The hackathon in question was for three days in London. The organisers contacted me directly, saying they wanted someone to mentor the teams involved, give them advice on their products, and generally encourage them. I replied with what I thought was a fairly reasonable quote - considering it was a long weekend's work out of town.

"Oh no!" Came the reply, "We can't afford to pay you!"

This was, to say the least, unexpected. The event is backed by Google for Entrepreneurs. The judges are another VC firm. These are wealthy companies. Which, of course, makes it all the more curious that they charge participants to attend... Ah well, that's their business.

Here's the thing. I attempt to give back as much as I can to the community. I open source much of my work, I donate time and money to charities, I teach kids to code, I participate in hackdays, and speak at BarCamps. Sadly, I can't always work for free and I have to charge for my time - especially when it's at the behest of multi-national corporations.

I explained this to the organisers, "We only need you for a few hours each day!" they pleaded.

That's all well and good, but it costs me at least £30 a day to get into London and takes two hours each way - even just for a couple of hours' work. So three days of mentoring is going to cost me at least £100 once I factor in travel and food - not to mention that my weekend is basically screwed.

So, let me get this straight... A billion dollar corporation, with a hundred million dollars in VC money - plus sundry other VCs - want three days of my time to mentor teams who they hope will turn in to billion dollar investments and they don't even want to pay my fricking travel expenses?

Now, I'm sure that they've routed everything via non-profits, utilised good-natured volunteers, and arranged everything to appeal to starry-eyed kids looking for a big break. But so what?

Forget that noise.

Kids Today

When you're starting out in an industry, it's probably a wise investment to give your time for free. It's great to get a name for yourself, build up contacts, and learn from the best.

It's also fun to be merely associated with big name companies. To tell your friends / family that you spent the day hacking at $MegaCorp and they loved your work is pretty damn intoxicating.

Having hackers learn your API in return for beer and pizza is a fairly equitable exchange, as far as these things go.

If you want to get involved in the technology scene, volunteering to run or help out at an event is a brilliant way to get your face known. You'll learn a huge amount about event management, meet thousands of people, and help your community.

Again, selling your time and effort in return for a free ticket to a high quality event is a good deal if you're new to the scene.

But when you start inviting professionals to attend in a professional capacity, the dynamic changes. You wouldn't ask the caterers to provide free food, or a networking team provide WiFi for free, or a venue to simply rent their premises for nothing.

Professionals don't need "exposure".
Professionals don't get a vicarious thrill from being associated with Google.
Professionals don't actually enjoy commuting on their personal time.
Professionals do need to pay their mortgages and feed their families.

As a community, I completely believe it is right and proper to help each other. I also believe that we should refuse to devalue our labour to the point of penury for companies which can easily afford us.

If Google, or any other company, wants to hire skilled individuals to provide a service - it's simply unacceptable for them to plead poverty. If they ask you , may I politely suggest that you remind them that:

"A fair day's wages for a fair day's work": it is as just a demand as governed men ever made of governing. It is the everlasting right of man.

Thomas Carlyle - Past and Present (1843)

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