Not Destroying Evidence

I’ve been running the office paper shredder all weekend. The last couple of times I did so much document destruction is was important to get it done quickly and to be sure to also get every other document that referenced those identified as shred… But it was just a mistake we made in the normal course of business. Went a few boxes too deep into the archives, don’tcha know. 😉

This time around it’s in my own business and just long overdue archive disposal. Until now I hadn’t ever bothered, just kept old files boxed up with the intention of disposing of them at some point. Boy, what a slog through Memory Gulch! I’ve found a few clients whose names didn’t even get near the bell, let alone ring it. Who are these people? They were quick one time jobs I did in ’99 or in ’00 when things were really jumping and I didn’t have time to think in that sprint toward the dot-bomb.

I almost hate to lose all of those files, as they provide a trench level view of the rapid rise of the internet through to the aftermath of the dot-bomb. I still have such a view, though, in my email archive that’s complete back to ’96 when I started my business. Not that I’m likely to ever go back over any of it, but if for some reason I need to know what I was up to on some random date or why I did something for a client the way I did it, I can find out.

Making my way down the stack… Oh, yeah, my first contact with this client was an email message bearing the subject header, “Help! I’m drowning in obscurity!”. I’ll never forget that. It was a small manufacturing company wobbling around either side of breaking even, and they had a web site that had never been visited by any save the developer of it, people within the company, and some personal acquaintances. Salvaging it was impossible so I created a new one, and the search engines of that BG (Before Google) era had love for it. They got profitable and were on a nice little growth curve when some product development dude at BASF found their web site. Some weeks later they had a contract worth $10M over four years. Two of the three partners got greedy and tried to push the third (my contact) out, not expecting that she’d actually exercise the suicide clause in their Articles of Organization. None of them got rich.

That guy! He was the first client I ever had who made the same mistake Xanga’s dying of, only he did it before there was a Xanga. He had a grand idea, but gave away so much for free that very few felt a need to pay for the cherry on top. I tried to tell him, but no one ever listens to me. He gave it a fine go for a few years, until he got tired of pumping money from his day job into supporting it.

Oh yeah, I did create an e-commerce web site for Steadicam. In those days, Cinema Products Corp. had the rights to the name and product but the only thing they were really good at was pissing people off. One of my existing clients acquired from CP the rights to online sales of the Steadicam products, accessories, and spare parts. I asked my client how many people he knew with a credit card that would make a $60,000 online purchase for an Ultra Cine rig… In the end I was probably the only one to profit on the deal. Cinema Products went toes up later on and somehow Tiffen got the Steadicam rights, and that was the end of that.

I’d forgotten about this architecture firm. They wanted to trade hour for hour, my work for theirs. I’d had some ideas for a passive solar home, and thought it’d be cool to have those ideas done up right, but my billing rate was 40% higher than theirs. I’d be money ahead to work for someone else and just hire them for cash. But, they said, just think of the exposure we can give you with an itty bitty shitty little link at the bottom of each page! I’ve never advertised that way and don’t care to start. Their proposed contract stayed in a publicly accessible location on their server until they went out of business a few years ago and the server was shut down. It could be found in search engines when searching for my name. Not high in the results, but there if you dug deeply enough. A new client told me about it, having done their homework prior to contacting me. Made me glad I use pseudonyms for venting my freaky spleen. Not for the first or last time, but glad just the same.

I once thought I owned 40% of a company that was poised to be first to market with a web site that would sell health and life insurance online. Things got weird before they got weirder, and with my partner fouling things up time after time another outfit beat us to market. We never got to market… We were finally about a month away, a few weeks after ehealthinsurance.com was deployed, and we were kicking their ass in the search engine rankings without even having the site fully functional yet. Then my partner went Daffy Duck on me.

We had done our demo for the insurance carriers who loved it, loved it, loved it. We’re talking loved it so much they sent DNA evidence to the dry cleaners that evening. But two of them just had to plant their flags in it by way of demanding a few changes that I figured would take me about a month to make. Without that flag planting we’d have deployed that very afternoon. That’s when my partner set about driving me out. I told him that it was certain that the only way he’d see a dime out of the thing was by way of his 60% of the partnership he’d just made hostile, but no one ever listens to me.

Today he’s raking in 100% of the nothing the unfinished system makes. And I’ve shredded all of the documentation I had from that period.

Oh, hey, down the shredder you go, Mister Pee Aich Dee. Thought you could fool me by transcribing code from a textbook, didja? It might have stood a better chance of fooling me if you’d had the newer revision of the book with the corrective addendum in the back that would make the code actually work, or if another of my subcontractors didn’t recognize the code and in 30 seconds give me the page number of the book you took it from. The same book was on my shelf, too. The newer one with the corrective addendum in the back. 😀

Down the shredder you go, Little Miss Web And Graphics Designer To The Star. Just one star. Al Roker. Only I’ve since learned you weren’t involved at all in that gig when your employer landed it. My client you went behind my back to solicit away? They ratted you out immediately afterward. You would still have got paid if you’d finished the job, but it would have been your last gig with me anyway. Toldja my clients are a loyal bunch, bitch.

Down the shredder you go, web hosting company who also tried to solicit my loyal clients away, thinking none would tell me about it. They all did. I got copies of every email you sent within minutes of their arrival. Your attempts to crack the new servers I moved all of my clients to were laughably amateurish. You did get that one guy’s laptop, though, I’ll grant you that. And from your CEO’s own desktop computer, too! Took me five seconds to identify the connection. That’s the thanks I get for putting hundreds of clients (most not mine) on your books?

Into the shredder went a guy who was always chasing the Next Big Thing and who was a master at value extraction. His first business when he got here from my buddy JSolberg’s neighborhood was selling pornography DVD’s, and he was so successful that he was able to believe himself some kind of business genius. Never mind that everyone who sells porn video makes piles of money no matter how hard they work at failing. He went into every Next Big Thing that came along. (Today it’s “health” products.)

He tried to use that age-old ploy of negotiating a good price on a contract for just a fraction of what he wanted, then coercing me into changes and add-ons to get what he knew all along he’d need. I did what I always do when someone demands a firm fixed price: I wrote a contract to a firm fixed specification, explicitly stipulating that I had the right to reject change requests, including a perfectly meaningless clause stating that any changes thus rejected would be the subject of future agreements completely separate from the current agreement. Also a clause stating that the agreement could be altered or amended only by written agreement of the parties. Standard stuff, that bit, but vitally important in every contract.

Sure enough, as soon as the contract was signed he started in, and he was relentless. Except during Shabbat. He was on my phone every day and at all hours, giving me the full treatment. He even threw in some gaslighting techniques, which really pissed me off. But I was obligated by the contract so I did what I always do… and he never saw it coming. He was so convinced of his ability to run that scam that he never considered that some stupid American could outfox him.

He never saw it coming. I delivered the project right to the letter of the specification, with a small gimme thrown in here and there to demonstrate good faith, and sent the final invoice. Had to hassle him when it was past due, but got paid. He let things cool for several days and called after the check was cleared to discuss his future plans and the additions and changes to the software that were required. I explained that I’d reconsidered, and having found doing business with him to be more bother than it was worth I wasn’t interested in doing any more. BLAM! Oh was that guy hot. Four octaves above livid.

I win. He got what he paid for but it wasn’t what he needed so it was worthless to him. He should have learned from that not to play games he couldn’t afford to win and couldn’t afford to lose, either. Also, not to play games with me.

His Next Big Thing, which was pretty darn trendy at that time, was legal extortion. One of the better known forms of it is patent trolling, but there are many variants of it. At the heart of it, you inform the victim that you have some legal beef with him and if he doesn’t pay you a considerable sum willingly, you’ll sue him for a big multiple of that sum. Lots of people will pay. Not me. Mr. Next Big Thing came at me from several angles and all I did was have fun with each of his agents in turn. They didn’t seem to appreciate my rare moments of remarkable facility with spoken language, but I crack me up. The last was finally the attorney I’d been waiting for. He wrote me a nice letter stating that if I did not remit in full within 30 days, his recommendation to his client would be to pursue litigation. I called the attorney up and told him not to wait, to go ahead and make his recommendation as soon as we hung up, and to please tell his client that I looked forward to finally meeting him. I never heard another peep after that. I wonder how much it cost him to lose the second time. It cost me only a few bucks in long distance charges to win. It was worth it.

Oh wow, that guy. My first Canuckistani client. Stiffed me on a quickie project for about $500. When the bill was about 40 days past due he needed the code altered because a move to a new server made one of the original specifications invalid. I reminded him that he owed me money, and said that if he’d hit me with a tracking number for an overnight parcel I’d take his word that there was a valid check inside for the full amount. He gave me a FedEx tracking number, apparently gambling that I wouldn’t look it up. I did: the shipper wasn’t in Canada and the consignee wasn’t in Colorado.

Another furriner. A German, living in Italy, never actually managed to become a client but tried very hard. His problem was that I was worth every penny of my going rate but he couldn’t afford it. I heard from that guy every six months, like clockwork, for five years. He got a software specification out of me for free just because I was feeling generous, and he gave it to some cut rate Ukrainian dude who screwed things up then went incommunicado. Then the expatriated Kraut asked me to finish the project, and to keep in mind that he’d only paid some ridiculously low price for the 90% of a product he had so my price should be commensurate. I told him that I was gravely offended by that, and it could be I’d still hear from him every six months if my mail server would accept his messages.

Oh wow, I forgot about this guy. Another one wanting an auction site. I’d done one small job for him before. His twist on the auction thing was that it would be all local auctions, so folks in one place didn’t see stuff from far away places. His glitch was that his dead parents whose house he’d inherited and was living in had left him only just so much money and he didn’t have and couldn’t get any more, ever, so he didn’t want to plunk a big chunk of it down. Could I do it cheaper, cheaper, cheaper? Nope. Not any of the four times he asked over the span of several months. I blacklisted his email address when after many months of not hearing from him I was included in his recipients list for extreme-right political and Christian reconstructionist bullshit. Seeking donations, too, he was, for some kind of online church. No thanks. No, the comma isn’t missing between the two words of the previous sentence.

How can I forget this couple? I’d rather. Church buddies of another client who’d set them up with vendors and done almost everything except build their web site for them. The wife thought I was her psychotherapist and wanted to hear about all that was wrong with her husband, and her husband refused to pay me for the many hours she burned up my phone line. Apparently they’d figured they could pay me what was due on placement of order, then stall me for the rest until their new business made lots of money. The excuse was that after the contract was signed hubby lost his job and their only computer had been his employer’s laptop that he’d had to give back, so they had to spend what they owed me on a new computer of their own. When I expressed my reluctance to be their banker or their partner, they countered that they’d consulted with someone who knew a lot about these things who’d assured them that the web site I’d built was worth half of what I wanted, so I ought to just accept that and give the site to them for what I was already paid. About three seconds after I declined that generous offer (on the telephone) I saw my web server logs indicating that he was downloading the entire site, one page at a time, using some kind of spider software. So I tickled the keyboard enough to prevent it and chastised him for it. It would have done them no good without the software behind it, but I was still offended enough to stop the transfer. They tried to coerce me to give it up without further payment, or for future payment, or for the love of their god, or out of the goodness of my heart… I ended up telling them that if they didn’t either get right or at least shut up I’d tell the defense contractor whose corporation name they’d been using that they’d been using it illegally.

Then I sent evidence of it to the defense contractor anyway. I don’t know if anything came of it.

Oh! I was once an independent reseller for a (credit card) payment gateway provider. My reseller ID number was 4, and the first two were in-house test accounts. Then one day they informed me that our agreement was void in spite of the clause that stated that the agreement could only be altered or amended by further written agreement of the parties. Now, if I wanted to send them business, I’d have to go through Commission Junction, take a fraction of the signing commission, and receive no residuals at all. I beefed it, and their response was, essentially, “So, sue us”. I didn’t. I’m with their biggest competitor now.

I’d almost forgotten that I was the only authorized developer for modifications of a certain commercial shopping cart application many years ago. But there’s the stuff. I made a lot of sales for them and not just to my own clients. Whenever a prospective customer came along and said, “If it can do this, I’ll buy it” but this wasn’t a thing it could do, they’d convince the customer to buy the thing and then contract with me to make the modification for them. I felt obligated in a way, since this hapless customer has already paid for the cart that doesn’t do what they need. Quite a few were shocked by my hourly rate, but I wasn’t about to give discounts to people I’d never hear from again. (I’m not Wal-Mart, so there’s no discount for just crossing the threshold.) Still, it was a good little gig while it lasted.

For another reason entirely I’d set up my web proxy to send as the referrer an HTML IMG tag that would, if your web server log analysis software was stupidly coded and would allow cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, present you with a grimacing cartoon face in your browser. The guy who wrote the cart software and owned the company saw that grimacing cartoon face in the log analysis software he’d written for himself. He freaked out. Not because he couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid, but because he thought I’d somehow cracked his server. I explained what it was and that it was harmless but indicated a problem he should fix in his code, and he demanded that I remove my malicious software from his server. Dude, there ain’t any! He wouldn’t hear it. And he was a programmer! I don’t remember which of us it was who said our business relationship was over, but suspect it was probably me. They’re out of business now.

I’ll stop now. It’s about five feet high, this stack of paper heading for the shredder. A lot more just went straight to the can — I’m only shredding the stuff that’s no one’s business now that it’s of no use to me.

Also into the shredder has gone a lot more from a lot more clients who weren’t jerks in any way.  But there are no stories in them. This company wanted this stuff, was easy to get along with, paid promptly, never heard from ’em again. That company was with me for several years, always friendly, always paid on time, but went under in the Great Recession. The CEO has cute kids. Yay.

The newer the files, the less ugliness they contain. I guess I’ve learned some stuff along the way. Today I don’t have even one client that I’m less than perfectly happy to hear from. I know people who’d kill to get that.

It’s kinda funny. Something glancing through all of these files has shown me is evidence of something I’ve known for a long time: I was once trained to disregard my perceptions and instincts, but through experience have learned to trust them. They were always dead on, but they’re even sharper now, quicker to become certain. I think it’s probably important that I’ve had this little slog through Memory Gulch. If I ever start to thinking with my head that I ought to ignore the feeling in my gut, I might reflect on this experience and not make that mistake. Again.

If nothing else, I should reflect a bit on how much actual legal tender money ignoring those instincts has cost me. It’s likely more than I’ve managed to collect, now that I think on it and add some approximate sums from various sources.

Maybe I shouldn’t have shredded all of that stuff just yet. There might have been more in there to learn.

 

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6 thoughts on “Not Destroying Evidence

  1. ordinarybutloud

    It’s great that you posted this. You should save this post. A few years ago my grandmother moved into an assisted-living place and my dad sold her house. He spent several days cleaning out her garage. He found boxes and boxes and boxes of receipts and correspondence, meaningless garbage, really, stuff that should be shredded…dating back to the 50s. It was a chronicle of her life in receipts, really. Fascinating stuff. He got rid of it. My sister is still angry about it.

    Reply
  2. distractedbyzombies

    Guts are funny like that. Yet so many of us try so hard to hear just what it’s saying.

    You should try to collect on those guys. My son’s old school sent me a bill for 6K the other day. He hasn’t attended there in three years.

    Reply
  3. sistermae

    When my daddy passed away before we could sell the house we spent week going through boxes and boxes of files from his business about 50 years worth it was just crazy…I on the other hand save nothing that is not needed

    Reply

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