NDA Expired - let's spill the beans on a weird startup

Many moons ago, when I was very young and you were even younger...

London was in full bloom of tech-startups. I was running my own consultancy. Dashing from business to business, trying to pick up work as an expert in this new-fangled "Mobile Internet" thing. Some of the companies I worked with were great. Some of them went bust. And some were... just... ew!

Digging through a box of files the other day, I discovered an old NDA that I'd signed. The company has long since dissolved, and the NDA expired a few years ago - so I reckon I'm in the clear to talk about this.

A company - let's call them "Fronk" - asked me to come in for a consultation about a Developer Advocacy programme they were starting. You must remember, these were the early days of such initiatives. DevRel (as it now seems to be called) used to consist of product managers speaking to other managers at conferences. There was very little targetting of individual developers, outside of the occasional pizza-powered hackathon.

This was their pitch - I promise I am not exaggerating. I present it to you in Socratic dialogue.

"We want to hire people like you to go and interview at other companies."

You want to pay me actual money to go and take job interviews? Why?

"During the interview, you'll evangelise our clients' products."

Your clients?

"Suppose that AWS wants to sell more InfiniDash licences. They pay us to get the word out to big companies and start-ups."


"Let's say in the interview you're asked for a time when you handled a difficult situation. We want you to talk about how using InfiniDash made life easier for your team."


"Or if they ask for an example of convincing senior leadership of something - say that you pitched InfiniDash, how easy it was to work with, how all the executives loved it. That sort of thing."

Right. But I'm not experienced with InfiniDash. Isn't that going to be a problem?

"We're only going to get you interviews in companies which don't already use our clients' products. So they're not going to test you. We'll also pay for you to get certified on the products."

How are you going to get me these interviews?

"Oh, we work with loads of recruitment consultants. They get paid for every decent candidate who gets interviewed, so they give us a cut of their commission. And we get paid by our tech clients. It's win-win!"

Ummm... What if they offer me the job?

"On no account are you to accept. Just tell them that you've taken another role elsewhere."

Is this... what's the word... ethical?

"Our investors think so! You're not going to lie on your CV. You're not going to take a job you're not qualified for. You're not going to get paid a commission. We'll pay you a flat fee per interview. You can even fit it around your other contracts if you like?"

I did not take the job. I had serious concerns about the ethics and legality of their business model. I also didn't think that it would work. Evidently, neither did their investors. Fronk bumbled along for a few months - and I'd occasionally meet them at conferences - but then they seemed to disappear.

And yet...

Every once in a while, I'll be interviewing a candidate who starts waxing lyrical about how rewriting everything in today's flavour of JavaScript really helped their last company. Or how their bosses were impressed with what this cool new bit of tech can do. Or why they could never work anywhere which didn't use this specific code editor.

And it makes me wonder if Fronk is still out there...?

35 thoughts on “NDA Expired - let's spill the beans on a weird startup

    1. dkarras says:

      Guerilla marketing is usually done on a very tight budget. It looks like these people were bleeding investor cash. Though I agree that the method looks like someone in such circumstances would invent.

  1. says:

    Imagine having to explain having that job on your CV? “It was my job to lie in job interviews about my experience. No, I’m not lying now. No, I wouldn’t be allowed to say if I was”

  2. Warren says:

    I have to laugh as i got pinged by a company pushing a similar idea via linkdin a few years ago. They wanted me to push a specific piece of network storage equipment as the "be all end all" in interviews. No NDA etc. but i told them to pound sand cause if someone offered me a job i would have taken it.

  3. For a mercifully short time, I did "push surveys" for a company in Boston. We were paid to pretend to be doing a random survey when we were actually calling target leads and asking questions loaded with FUD against our customers' competitors. I'll be paying off that karma forever

  4. Diego says:

    Reminds me to a telenovela, "El hombre de tu vida" with Franccella and Mercedes Morán.
    She has an agency of love matching, and she always send her cousin for the women to feel better, liked, etc, but at some point he has to do something for them to reject him, before the second date. So the agency cashes in the fee and the women feel better.

  5. Isaac says:

    Having spent most of the first 6 years of my career living in London (either programming for startups, programming as a contractor, or attempting to start my own startup), I noticed that it has a far amount of sketchy boiler-room type sales outfits. Some of that culture seems to have seeped through into the London tech scene. (One of my cofounders on startup attempt #1 was a former sales guy at a big-name tech company who made lots of money from various dubious online money-making schemes and was in general sleazy as hell.) This creates a weird culture in London as you have hipsters, bankers, poshos, and other characters all rubbing shoulders in a confined space, alongside a wide variety of scammers ranging from "Del Boy"-type entrepreneurs to international money launderers.

    "Or why they could never work anywhere which didn't use this specific code editor."

    I'd simply pull their leg and jokingly ask if they were on commission.

  6. billwear says:

    Yeah, your last three examples: the first two definitely sound like guerilla marketing. The last one? The editor one? That's apparently real. I see that all the time in interviews.

  7. says:

    Quite apart from the ethics or total lack thereof.... There's no way to check the interviewees were actually doing a good job of endorsing the products. They could be acting lack parody shopping channel hosts for all they know.

  8. I mean, I have had enough interviews where it turns out they were just fishing for free consultancy, so why not an inverse model?

  9. says:

    I liked most of all the conclusion, where I should take with a grain of salt what someone is talking about at a job interview. However, the most interesting for me is the dingbat you are using. Since it's exactly what I'm using with a different size and color!

  10. Mr. F says:

    Senior social engineer required for this position. Previous experience on politics is a plus.

  11. anthony lambert says:

    Well I've had a few interviews over the years.. Some of them are people brain picking the industry for how to do stuff or what the competition is working on. You can be put in compromising positions when being asked to explain your architecture etc.... Often people use it as a way to educate themselves. I had one guy at Credit Suisse bank ask me how to solve a software problem... which would result in hiring. After the interview they said that the project had gone away and I wasn't to tell anyone about the interview. Hmmmm......

  12. says:

    My friends and I were discussing this story the other day. It is brilliant, though ethically questionable. Planting the idea of a product being better than another is a subliminal stroke of genius. Not that I or my colleagues condone this. It takes away from candidates who are actually qualified for these interviews.

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