Debbie phoned as I was coming into the office, took the news with equanimity. Actually, she sounded completely laid back and I felt relieved ... maybe she'd got into the rural way of doing things a little quicker than I might have expected. Then again, I'd been there myself only a few days before and I knew that the natives were friendly, the landscape lovely, the ethos relaxed. I also knew that Debbie was a sociable young woman, at heart ... and, given what she'd been through, in need of space. So I was pleased to hear her happy, even if the news I was giving was not good.
In fact, I'd been acting on Debbie's own advice and quite assertively trying to get hold of Carla, on the basis that she was probably the only person likely to have any impact on PCW, now that they appeared to be getting seriously difficult to work with. Unfortunately, at least for my own peace of mind, I'd succeeded. After a fashion.
By which, I mean that I didn't actually get to talk to my business partner directly at all. What I did get was a series of increasingly strained interactions with various of her minions, none of whom were giving anything much away beyond the fact that Ms Bronstein was unavailable ... and would be for some time. Which annoyed me, to be honest, given that I was in the process of spending quite a large amount of her hell, of their money and thought that that ought to entitle me to at least an explanation if not actual access to the boss. It also left me with a feeling of tooth grinding exasperation in the face of further evidence of Carla's apparent inability to delegate ... at least at home. Hell, she seemed to be only too happy to give me space to do stuff. Or was it actually just that she'd given me enough rope?
Well, perhaps. The upshot of all my various efforts, however, was that I finally got a call from Hal ... C's fiancé and the father of her expected child ... a guy I'd never seen or talked to before. Which didn't make the conversation any easier, not least because I was sufficiently miffed by that point to take a slightly sarcastic tone when he explained who was calling ... and regretted it rapidly as he went on to brusquely explain the situation: Something had gone seriously wrong with Carla's pregnancy .. she was in hospital ... pretty much in intensive care ... the prognosis uncertain for both mother and baby. So I wouldn't be hearing from Carla any time soon, he concluded, heavily implying that any problems I might have wished to discuss were very much my own ... and rang off.
Which turn of events did not exactly enhance my self esteem ... I felt like something you'd normally scrape off the bottom of a shoe, given the way I'd responded to his call ... and didn't actually help at all in the current situation, either. And, of course, there was the minor fact that Carla was someone I very much liked exasperating, sure, but also brilliant, lovely and (when last I'd talked to her) oh so happy to be pregnant. So add in some actual emotional turmoil to combine with the guilt and the work difficulties, mix up with feelings of responsibility for the people I worked with ... and our acute vulnerability, in the new circumstances, to whatever PCW might choose to throw at us ... and I was left a less than happy bunny.
Which state of mind, even a few months back, would have sent me straight into a pub for a consoling beer or eight, probably followed by a decision to just chuck the whole thing in. Looking back, I'd walked away from a lot of stuff in my life, in fact had set up my life more or less precisely to allow me to do just that ... avoiding long term relationships with people, employers, banks, whatever always keeping my expectations low and my escape routes clear. Again, in retrospect, possibly not the most adult approach to life that I could possibly have taken ... but, hey, it had worked for me ... after a fashion.
Problem was, now I had responsibilities ... opportunities ... stuff I didn't want to walk away from. Not the money even if I did derive a slight amusement from the fact that even after so short amount of time in this job I already had enough money in the bank to sustain my normal lifestyle for a couple of years without even thinking about working. No, it was the fact that I liked working with Naz and Seff, that I wanted to get the whole Lakes thing underway eco-survey and all that I didn't want to fuck off Gareth (who was still working his notice from a job I'd lured him away from) and ... that I really did want to continue being around Debbie.
So I went and thought. In a pub, as it happens, but not in my normal self destruct mode. And I came up with, if not a plan, at least some positive moves to make. Of which, the first was to phone Debbie, keep her in the loop. She wasn't in when I phoned her hotel, of course, but ... action one completed. I went home, slept well and woke ... determined.
After I had talked to Debbie, I was even slightly reassured, particularly after she'd recounted the conversation she'd had with Colin-the-architect about contracts and pointed out that we'd already signed a lot of deals and if, for instance, PCW did decide to block the property purchase they'd probably be liable to be sued by the vendors ... and Colin and co. Which would, of course, be no more than small change to them ... but was at least a small point in our favour. As was, I thought, the simple fact that we weren't them: We had, IMHO, a degree of integrity and cohesion that I doubted they would either understand or value ... and somehow I thought this could be turned to our advantage. Even if I didn't quite know how.
So, when Seff and Naz got in together a little later on, I tried to play to our strengths by giving them an in-depth update on the new state of play, not hiding the fact that the safety net had gone and that a lot of things which we'd been treating as annoyances could now more accurately be described as threats. Nor did I pull any punches with regard to the consequences if things did go belly up. Without the corporate legitimacy that our association with (and our financial backing from) PCW gave us none of the big organisations we were currently negotiating with would look at us twice ... and it was those potential contracts that allowed us to do things like buy large buildings ... and pay five people's salaries.
What I got in response was a dose of positive thinking and a welcome if hardly unexpected display of solidarity. I guess it helped that both of them had left jobs they really hated to get involved with all this and that both had also accumulated funds of their own in the process but I also think that they'd quite enjoyed being treated with respect for a while and consequently had "buy-in" on a level rarely attained by the most proactively engaging of corporate HR departments. They cared, basically, about the stuff we had planned, about the roles they'd been given ...and about me, when you came down to it.
Which realisation I found quite surprising, at first, but not as surprising as the realisation that I actually didn't feel the need to disparage the idea. OK, they cared about me, I cared about them. Simple enough to say, perhaps, but a rare state of mind for me. File that one away for future reference, I thought.
Actually, the discussion didn't really come up with all that much. Seff gave a typically brisk review of all the things we'd done 'wrong' viz a viz our paymasters quite a long list, seen from her experience of working within that very organisation and we talked for a while about how we could avoid exacerbating the situation in the future. Unfortunately, perhaps, we agreed that so much of this was to do with personalities with cultures, to be honest and that to a large extent the damage had been done. They didn't trust us or like us, actually and we weren't feeling terribly well disposed towards them. More to the point, as Seff concluded, none of us actually wanted to work any differently ... maybe weren't capable of working differently ... not least because the whole idea was to enable people to develop, indeed to develop structures that enabled people to develop the structures they needed to develop.
We had to explain that one to Naz.
He, however, did raise the interesting point that although the CastList code was in the public domain on a GPL none of the improvements we he - had made (and in particular the use of psychometric data in the matrices) had been released at all, giving us the option of spinning it / them off as a commercial product. Which was, indeed, interesting ... except that he promptly went on to say that, having written most of the code in question, we'd need to make any such change in license over his dead body. So we put that to one side as a practical proposition but, as Seff pointed out, again, just because we weren't prepared to do anything of the sort didn't mean we couldn't imply that we might. It was another bargaining chip, in other words.
And with that, we ... went for a coffee. It just seemed a good idea: Our discussion had, on a practical basis, achieved very little but it had established ground rules for any future conflict: We were in this together and we'd do this our way. And that included spending a lot of time in cafés.
By the time we got back to the office, nothing disastrous had happened. Actually, nothing had happened at all, by the looks of it ... not even a solitary e-mail. Put it down to a quiet Wednesday morning, perhaps: In any event it allowed us all to get on with the tasks in hand undistracted ... for about half an hour.
At which point, the building reception people buzzed up to announce a visitor. Which was strange ... aside from May and a couple of other regulars who were just ushered up the stairs we basically never got visitors without appointments. So Seff duly ventured down to meet the intruder, returning a few minutes later with an impressively tall bloke, wearing a ragged donkey jacket and black jeans, long fair hair and beard obscuring most of his face. Not a bailiff, then, I thought, and unlikely to be a representative of any of our potential customers. In fact, Seff announced, he was here to see me, if that was OK. Intrigued, I agreed that it was and he introduced himself as Karol Jaworski, giving the strong impression that I should recognise the name. I confessed that I didn't.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said, a pronounced Cumbrian accent giving some clue as to where this was going, "I'd hoped that Rosie Rosie Braithwaite, I think you met her a week or so back would have mentioned me to you ... she said it would probably be all right just to drop in on spec ... while I was in London and that ..."
"Not a problem," I said, "From brief acquaintance Rosie is a fine human being but not, it would seem, terribly organised ... or, at least, she hasn't yet got round to telling me you might call round. Which part of the building renovation work does she think you'd be ideal for, though, if you don't mind me asking?"
He looked a bit taken aback at this even Seffi pouted slightly but then recovered himself and laughed briefly. "Well, none, exactly, though I can do most things on a building site. What I actually wanted to talk about, though, was wind turbines. Specifically, the wind turbines I and some friends have been developing over the past three years ... and now need to find some sites to test commercially."
A light began to dawn. "Aha," I said, "I think you may be the people the Regional Development Agency mentioned when I saw them ... low impact gear, right, low profile, fits anywhere ... what did they say ... superb performance at both high and low wind speeds ... all sounded very interesting ... if its the same operation?"
"Seems like it obviously that fiver to the RDA was a good investment although that's kind of what we hope to achieve. At the moment we're doing well with everything except the high wind stuff ... but Rosie did say that she'd talked to your architect on site and he felt it was worth a further look. So given that I was in London, anyway I thought I'd ... well, drop in and say hello at least."
I smiled to myself at a further display of Rosie's ah - networking skills, suggested to Karol that he take a seat, went to make him a coffee.
When I got back, I found Karol sitting by my desk, while Naz sat on it, fiddling with a keydrive and it turned out finding an AVI codec so we could watch the video our visitor had brought along. While this was being done I asked Karol how he came to have such a Polish sounding name. "Oh," he said, "My grandfather came here to fight Nazis, never went back. Never stopped fighting Nazis, either ... its sort of a family tradition."
I grinned at this I'd noticed the Anti Fascist Action badge on his jacket when he came in as Naz muttered something about proprietary software formats being a real pain in the nuts and then said rather more clearly that things were set up, hitting the play button as Seff, too, came over to join us. It was good stuff not exactly slick, but some impressive wind tunnel footage, some interesting looking output and efficiency graphs and enough information about the product itself to show that this might be a way of installing decent wind power capacity on our chosen site without the National Park crawling all over us about visual intrusion and such like. I said as much, Seff nodding her approval too while Naz rewound and paused the vid in a couple of places. He turned to Karol.
"I notice you've included test bed results which is good but I don't see any theoretical stuff here. What's the problem you're having with the high wind speed end of things? Or is that a commercial secret?"
"No ... well, not really. Actually, I don't think that our sales guy wants me to mention that its a problem in the first place, but for what its worth we know that we're getting a lot of vortices, starting at wind speeds of about 8m/s call it Force 5 or thereabouts and presumably as a result the efficiency starts to drop off really quickly. Clearly we need to redesign the aerofoil section but we can't afford wind tunnel time to test alternatives ... and this whole thing has been based rather more on experiment than theory."
Naz looked at him, I felt, rather like a cat would a cornered mouse. "So you've not tried modelling virtual blades, optimising the design that way?"
"Hardly. I did look at laminar flow equations a while back but couldn't imagine using them in practice ... and of course we're dealing with non laminar flow ... that's pretty much the point ... And that is way beyond my maths ... or the sort of computing power that we could possibly afford, even as a one off."
Naz looked at me, I looked at Naz. Seff snorted in the background.
"Karol," I said, "I think we may be able to help ..."
Turns out that Naz's degree had been in both computing and engineering quite how he'd ended up in PCW thus even more or a mystery and his final year dissertation on how could you guess cavitation in ships propellers. He did have the grace to admit that he'd subsequently forgotten most of the maths involved but clearly it was not going to take him much time to get back up to speed. Karol started to talk about contracts and paying us as consultants but I cut him off: Aside from the fact that I'd already agreed with the Regional Development people to look into doing just this, I also explained that the future of Naz's current work was in some doubt ... the CastList code was good enough to use, it seemed to me, further development could probably wait until we had a bit more certainty about future umm employment. In any case, I said, I could recognise a programmer with the bit between his teeth when I saw one, and, from previous experience of the type, knew that it was probably best just to let him get on with it. And hope he'd come back to productive work ... eventually.
All of which left young Karol looking a bit stunned and that was before Naz launched into a series of increasingly technical questions, mapping out a code model even as he did so. I murmured something to Seff that this was the sort of effect we had on quite a lot of people and she grinned ... possibly remembering how she'd come to be recruited in the first place.
I, however, had work to do, so I left them all to get on with it. Specifically, I was taking our latest recruit out to lunch originally to get to know him, now to keep him, too, in the loop. Better go somewhere nice, I thought ... he might not be all that happy about the news ...
In fact, Gareth was fine. Even when the nice City eatery I suggested turned out to have a dress code which rather precluded my custom ... despite, as Gareth pointed out to the riff-raff excluder, the fact that a number of other couples were clearly being served when only one of the pair was wearing such a thing, and as he was wearing a rather natty green silk job, should this not also apply to us ...? Unfortunately, I found this sally considerably more amusing than did the doorbloke and so we found ourselves a little further down the road ... in a café. Which was also fine ... or at least did decent coffee and, as it turned out that Gareth also didn't often eat lunch, this proved to be sufficient.
Nonetheless, for a moment or two I felt discomfited, feeling that I'd failed to make quite the impression that I'd intended. Except that even before our coffees arrived americano for me, triple espresso for him (I winced) Gareth was busily confirming that this sort of thing was refreshingly informal ... and also meant that he was unlikely to run into anyone from his current work, to whom, it transpired, he had been less than forthright about his appointments for the day. In fact, he'd lied, told them he was meeting a client, didn't know if he'd be back in the afternoon ... After all, he said, sacking him would be quite hard to do, given that he was going to be pressed to tie up all his loose ends before his notice period ended and even if anyone got bloody minded about it, he laughed, at least he had another job to come to, didn't he?
Ah ... I thought ... realising that there wasn't much point in beating about the bush ... the guy was a lawyer, after all, albeit an impressively sane one. So I told him straight: Despite our best intentions, that job was not necessarily as secure as he and we had thought, that our principle partners were not giving out particularly positive messages ... and that our current (necessary) cash burn could lead to a crisis very soon. All of which, I said, watching him watching me impassively, was possibly a bit of a bummer ... but by no means a certainty as yet.
His response surprised me ... but then, I hardly knew the guy at that point.
"No, I don't think it is a certainty," he said, "I did do some research into you people before I even applied for the job and I'm not sure just how vulnerable you are. OK, I couldn't find out much about the American Bronstein operation its a private company and doesn't report in any great detail and obviously I haven't seen the detailed contracts between you and PCW, but whoever set the operation up was quite clever ... or really devious. For a start, you only have three directors Ms Bronstein herself, you and a Deborah Jensen, who I assume is the Debbie people have been telling me nice things about."
I nodded, remembering that he'd yet to meet Debbie, and waited for him to continue. All this seemed quite a lot more relevant to him that it did to me, at least so far.
"The point is, I'd normally expect that people like PCW, with an investment of this size not vast by their standards but hardly chicken feed, either would have nominated at least one director of their own ... and perhaps more than one. Also, the capital structure appears to be very odd ... about 50% of the nominal shares appear to be owned by the four direct employees. God knows who came up with that one, but it does make it very difficult for anyone to take over the company ... even if your shares were traded, which they aren't, of course. So people could pull the plug, new cash wise, for sure, but you don't seem to be vulnerable to being closed down or usurped ... and you can always find a new source of cash, in my experience, given that you have a business plan that got PCW to give you this much in the first place ..."
I realised that I should have known much of this, remembering the difficulties we'd had in getting that 'very odd' structure through the initial funding negotiations, but hey I never claimed to be interested in this stuff. I also thought that this was a bit too positive, even in my current state of mind, so I said so.
"Yeah, well," he admitted, "the potential fly in the ointment is the status of your existing capital funding ... as PCW do not seem to have a lot of equity at this point I assume that they were expecting to cash in a bit further down the line ... you know, when you're actually making profits it could well be that all your existing funding is effectively a loan. At a guess and judging by your current expression I suspect that you haven't got a clue about all this but what that would mean would be that if they did pull the plug, they could also ask for their money back. Which, in extremis would mean the four of you ... and possibly Ms Bronstein ... could be personally liable for the debt."
Great, I thought, realising that aside from Carla, who was somewhat out of the picture for the moment, the only one of us with actual realisable assets was Debbie, who owned the flat she'd lived in with Phil. Not a lot to put against a possible seven figure bill, really ... and definitely not a consequence we'd envisaged when we started all of this.
Seeing my crestfallen look, Gareth smiled reassuringly which wasn't as disturbing as most lawyers would have managed to make it and went swiftly on.
"However, given the way the rest of the operation appears to have been set up, I suspect that there are safeguards in place against the doomsday option and probably the worst consequence would be that company owned assets primarily your new building but also IT stuff ... possibly not software given the nature of the licence but definitely the hardware revert to PCW. Which I suspect you could all live with, but it would make it more difficult to attract new money, even if there was no residual debt, which I'd imagine there probably would be. PCW, by reputation, can be distinctly malicious in these circumstances and they might just try to take the ball home with them." He paused, thought for a second. "What I need, of course, is to see the actual contracts and such like ... which I assume that you do actually have copies of? Even if you signed them without reading or understanding the damn' things?"
I nodded agreement, explained that they were all available and that I could e-mail them to him (at home) as soon as I got back to the office. He shook his head, firmly.
"No ... I've got a better idea," he said, pausing slightly for emphasis. "Thing is, Dave, I have a really good feeling about you lot ... and this was going to be my dream job, almost a reason for becoming a bloody lawyer in the first place. So I don't want it slipping away, if that's OK with you ... and if I get a chance to get into a bit of a barney with the suits on the way, all the better ... but I'd like to get into this as soon as I can. So, given that I appear to have a free afternoon, why don't I just come back to your office and make a start from there?"
This seemed like a good plan, so we finished the dregs of the coffees, set off for the tube back to Hertford Square, Gareth giving me a running commentary on the urban climbing possibilities afforded by the buildings we passed on the way.
I decided I really liked the guy.