“Wow,” said Chilbert. Unable, for once, to find more words. “That’s just incredible.”
“Speaking of incredible, Paul you’ve got to taste the Baba ghannouj we just picked up from around the corner, this great Egyptian place. They grow the eggplant themselves.” Marc was the most animated he’d been since Chilbert’s arrival.
“Oh please, Paul, stay for lunch!” Victoria chimed in. “We’re celebrating the funding. It’d really make our day.”
“We won’t take no for an answer,” Marc continued, striking a tone of high-seriousness. “In fact we have an important job for you. Those bottles of Sancerre aren’t going to uncork themselves.”
“Well in that case, I don’t see how I could turn down the invitation.” Chilbert matching Marc’s solemnity. “I accept the responsibility. And of course my intern’s at your service as well.”
Everyone in the office stopped working, the preparation of lunch evidently an established Humain event. Chilbert and Marc moved two tables over to a window and then went out to the lot, Rohit following with the dog on a leash. A young-looking guy busied himself over the burners of a white retro stove. Jason, testing his latest playlist program, put together something he called “a sonic backdrop.” Victoria and two other women pulled plates and serving dishes out of cabinets concealed in the walls, while the remaining staffers began assembling a large triptych out of transparent material in between the main room and lounge area.
Marc and Chilbert returned a few minutes later each carrying a crate. As they lined up bottles on the table Max ran through the office door, his leash trailing on the floor behind him. Rohit followed a minute later holding onto a white bag. A dark-haired young woman, not pausing in her preparation of a birch and dogwood arrangement, pointed him to a compost bin in the corner.
Finally the group gathered and took seats around the table with Marc and Victoria standing together on one side, stemless wine glasses in hand. Sigur Ros intoning something ambiently Icelandic behind them.
“We’ve had so many milestones so far,” Marc began. “To celebrate our most recent success, and just in case any of us needs reminding of the journey along the way, we put together a little show. I direct your attention, as usual, to the Wonder Wall.” Everyone looked to the scrim-turned-screen, Humain’s logo illuminated across its three parts.
“In the beginning,” he continued, “it was just Vic and me hatching an idea at our kitchen table. She came up with the question that set this whole crazy thing in motion. ‘What if the world’s most important information work went to the world’s most talented workers?’” He paused and smiled at her.
“Okay, so maybe we hadn’t refined it quite that far yet, but we were on our way. No turning back. I sketched out this”— a sheet of paper towel covered in scribbles—“gorgeous U-I you see here. Vic immediately recognized that I’d reached the limits of my design ability.” Everyone laughed.
Victoria picked up the thread. “We knew we couldn’t do this alone so we went to the best. You guys have all met my personal guru and HBS mentor Professor Bilal, who helped us refine the first business plan. He also very wisely advised against our original name–”
“I still think PopuLabR would have been awesome.” Laughter meeting Marc’s interruption.
“Anyway, at that point we turned our living room into the Humain” – a pointed look in Marc’s direction – “command center, and found a few of you crazy enough to work for free drinks and, of course, our enduring gratitude. Oh and we took on our first interns, shortly after which Marc and I realized students weren’t actually substitutes for professional developers. J-SON saved our lives when he came on board the next week.” Both Victoria and Marc genuflected to their right where Jason was seated, looking both embarrassed and gratified at the attention.
“Thank dog,” Marc continued, “Max also joined us that same week, becoming the official office mascot. We moved on up to our current digs, though they looked a little different at the time.” An image of the office interior, stripes on its walls in a shade of neon green. “I think the previous occupants might have left due to rod-and-cone damage.” More laughter.
“We rolled out our first test site right after Huyin and Tim joined us.” Victoria smiled at the two people opposite her. “And we all learned that I’m generally more pleasant to be around when I sleep.”
“Yeah I think we can all agree that’s true. We also learned that during times of stress we can’t stock too much silver-needle tea,” said Marc.
“Of course we weren’t complete without Tino, who finally brought our server system out of the dark ages,” Victoria said, at which Marc broke in, “And shocked and awed with his amazing dance moves. Let’s all acknowledge that Tino single-handedly forced the entire floor to up its game for Beer Fridays.” A recent picture in the lounge area of the guy who was sitting next to Jason, halfway through executing a mid-air jump. He stood from the table and bowed at the waist.
“Which brings us all the way up to the present, and the reason we’re celebrating today. As you all know we closed on our first round of funding this week…” Victoria was interrupted by a loud whistle from the table, followed by hoots and clapping. Max looked up from his white dog bowl. “We never could have imagined that the idea we were talking about only nine months ago could have turned into this thing we’ve all created together.”
“What Vic and I are trying to say is that we wouldn’t be here without you guys. And we wouldn’t want to be. I mean, it’s because of you… You’re the ones who have made this whole experience worth it.” Marc turned to Victoria, overwhelmed. She squeezed his hand and continued for him.
“And listen, we know the team is going to keep growing. In fact it better, if we’re going to meet our first venture targets–”
“But we couldn’t ask for a better group of people than the ones around this table.” Marc again, his voice still wavering. “You guys are our family. And that includes new friends with us today.” Chilbert nodded in their direction, smiling.
“So,” Victoria said, lifting up her glass. “A toast to the past, present, and future of Humain. Let’s always stay startup-hungry.”
“And when hungry,” said Marc, his arm also raised, “take our cues from Max. Everybody eat!”
Calling out cheers, the staff began clinking their glasses together. Marc and Victoria moved from seat to seat giving hugs. Meeting back at their chairs they shared a kiss, to which someone whistled again in approval. Max barked and came running over to the table. Jason twitched his right hand to turn up the music, adjusting its tempo to a more festive pace. Rohit crept over from the compost area and wedged a stool between Chilbert’s chair and the wall.
For the next hour they ate, passing platters back and forth as pictures continued to play on the screen behind them. More laughter, cutlery pinging against plates and glasses. Visitors from another office wandered in to offer congratulations and were convinced to stay for lunch. Marc heated up a white pizza in the oven while more chairs were added to the table.
Everyone took turns reading from a list of customer complaints about the Humain website, to which Tino offered curse-laced responses in the voice of Hal from A Space Odyssey. Rohit and several of the female staffers stared longingly in his direction. Victoria got up regularly to pour more wine while Marc fed crusts to Max under the table.
Finally Tim, announcing a cigarette run, got up from his seat. People started to drift away from the table, taking their glasses into the lounge area. Tino popped a bag of popcorn over the stove while Jason started up the game system, the screen temporarily turned back to blank.
Excusing himself, Chilbert walked out into the hall. Passing the front door he waved to the smokers standing in the lot, ignoring his own atavistic urge for a hit. He located the men’s room at the opposite end of the floor next to a vending machine in the shape of a rocket, its top row displaying neckties. Closing himself into a stall he pulled out his tab.
He exhaled, unzipped his pants. Checked the stream.
Chilbert rinsed his hands at the sink, running his lines. Sensing a low-grade performance anxiety that could easily be cured with a few drags of nicotine. On the way back he stopped outside to bum a cigarette, inhaling deeply. Listening to the staffers’ casual banter for any bits of office gossip that might come in handy.
When he got back to the office Marc and Victoria were the only ones at the table. She was smiling as he whispered something into her ear, his mouth brushing against her hair. Chilbert cleared his throat as he approached.
“So is that the new DanceBand?” He gestured over to the lounge area. Several of the staffers were imitating a three-dimensional figure moving a few feet in front of them, Jason tapping earnestly on a drum kit while two of the women stood nearby with plastic guitars.
“We just got it,” Marc said, running his hand through Victoria’s hair. “I’ve already been banned from playing, though.”
“Markie gets a little too into it,” said Victoria. “Last time he almost tore the screen with a drum stick.”
“Lies,” said Marc, shaking his head. “Paul don’t believe a word she says. If you want we can go shred right now.”
Chilbert put up both hands. “Between the presentation pics and what I see in there, you guys are playing at like, pro level. My skills are just minor league.” He found his glass and moved around the table to sit across from them.
“I’m sure after a little training from Marc you’ll both be ready for Sochi,” said Victoria, standing up to reach for another bottle of wine. She folded herself back Indian-style into her chair and refilled their glasses. The group from outside came back into the office and made their way to the lounge.
“Paul, we have to get you an office at Z Funktion,” Marc said. “Wouldn’t that be great, babe? He could be right next door. I mean the guys at JustMob really need more room. They’ve pretty much outgrown the space here.”
Victoria nodded, yawning. “Let’s make it happen. Paul you’d love it here. There’s yoga upstairs every morning at seven, and the lunchtime seminars are really great. They bring in different speakers a few times a week from the B-school, MIT, Tuck. Yesterday was gladvertising. Oh and there’s a garden out back, plus Marc and I can give you all the stuff we still have from refinishing the office.”
“You’ll do anything to unload it on someone, won’t you?” Marc said, tickling her neck. “You know, Paul might not want our sloppy seconds.”
“Oh I think I’d be more than happy with any of your leftovers,” Chilbert said, pausing to let his words sink in. He moved his gaze slowly back and forth from Victoria to Marc. Leaning across the table he took her left hand. “You know, you guys are such an inspiration. I really can’t thank you enough for having me over today.” Closing his eyes for a few seconds, as if gratitude had overwhelmed him.
“No, we’re the ones who should be thanking you,” said Victoria. “The celebration wouldn’t have been the same without you here. Seriously I feel like you’ve been with us forever.”
“Totally,” agreed Marc. He reached across the table to clasp Chilbert’s free hand. “Paul man, consider yourself adopted. You’re formally a member of the Humain family. I mean it. I hope you know you can always ask us for anything.”
“I’m honored,” Chilbert said. “Really, I’m humbled.”
A minute passed, the three of them holding hands. A new song came on behind them, Lourdes Leon’s latest hit Help Me (You’re My Only Hope).
“Actually there is something…” Chilbert trailed off.
“What?” Victoria had leaned forward to rest her head sideways on her arm.
“No, forget it.” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Come on, let’s hear it,” said Marc.
“Are you sure?” Chilbert made a face. “I really don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not imposing.” Marc was emphatic now. “Seriously, so many people helped get Humain where we are today. If there’s anything we can do to pay it forward, just say the word.”
“Okay.” Chilbert took a deep breath, exhaled. “I need to buy your Facebook accounts. The suspended user lists we were talking about earlier. I’ll take everything you have cached and we can do the transfer today.”
No one spoke for a minute until Marc laughed to break the silence.
“When you say the suspended user lists…” He paused, uncertain. “Sorry Paul, like I said I’m not the brain trust around here. I guess I’m not exactly sure what you mean.” He looked past Chilbert to the lounge, hoping for a cue.
The female figure was kneeling in place, her profile in relief. One arm outstretched, hair coiled in braids at her ears. The chorus was on.
Help me, you’re my only hope
I used to think you were so dope
But when I say that I love you
You say ‘I know’ and not ‘me too’
“The inactive Facebook accounts you tossed out of your system,” said Chilbert. “Basically all the users you couldn’t register because their profiles were inactive. We don’t have to touch any of your real signups so no worries on the privacy side. And nothing complicated code-wise. My intern’ll be in and out of your backend, just like that.”
The projection’s light behind him spectral. Lourdes whined out the same line.
Help me, you’re my only hope —
Chilbert turned to Victoria. “I mean, we might run into a few hiccups around the Facebook API, but I’m sure we can work them out without too much trouble. The users have probably already been purged on their end by now anyway. It’s not like they can do anything with the suspended accounts.”
He looked at them both hopefully.
Victoria sat up straight, knocking her glass and spilling wine on the table. She wiped at it with a napkin, cleared her throat. “I guess we could… I mean, you’re saying Jason won’t have to do any new programming?”
“Nope, not a thing,” said Chilbert. His pitch assured. “I’m sure the data’s just sitting on your servers. In fact, it might even be good to clear the suspended user lists out. Give you guys more space. It sounds like you’re going to need it soon.”
“That’s true,” said Marc, glad for something to add. “That’s actually a really good point. Vic remember how Tino was saying we’d have to upgrade again soon if we really start scaling in the next few months?”
She nodded, looking past Chilbert.
Standing up from her pose on the floor the figure gyrated her hips, the group dancing along.
All I know is you and me
Are rebels fighting to be free!
Chilbert leaned back in his chair, arms above his head. “You guys are amazing. I can’t tell you how much this’ll help IdentifID. I mean when you’re first getting going it’s such a struggle. You guys remember, right? And bootstrapping only gets you so far.”
“Of course,” said Marc. “It can be brutal out there. I mean we have to stick together, right?” He looked at Victoria.
“Right.” she responded. “I mean, yes, absolutely. A culture of support is key to success.” She turned to Marc, reassured by his smile. “You know that’s from Bilal’s latest startup manifesto.”
“I’d like to propose another toast!” Chilbert standing suddenly.
Marc and Victoria rose to their feet, both a little unsteady.
“To two visionary leaders. You’ve set the standard for social innovation. A blazing white trail for all of us to follow, out of the darkness and into the light.” Lifting his glass Chilbert added, “to the Humain family. Long may we prosper.”
He finished his wine in one gulp, looking at his wrist as though a watch were there.
“Shit, I have to get going. Sorry, guys.” Chilbert set down his glass, pushed in his chair.
“Wait, what? Already?” Victoria swayed in a small arc against the table. “We still have to have dessert. Marc made the most amazing tres leches last night.”
“That sounds amazing, really, but I have to catch a flight at Logan. And you know how bad security is. I’m probably pushing it already.”
“Oh don’t go!” Marc’s face forlorn. “I’m sure there’s another shuttle in just a few hours. Stay for a while. I bet Vic’ll even revoke my ban so we can play a few rounds.” Gesturing to the lounge where Tino was now breakdancing on the floor with a group gathered around him, clapping. As if sensing his disappointment, Max got up from his dog bed and came over to Marc’s side.
“You know, I’d love to. Next time for sure… Oh great, there you are.” Chilbert backed his arms into the coat Rohit was holding up, suddenly standing behind him.
“I’m sorry to run, guys, really. If it’s okay I’ll leave my intern here to work out the details. We’ll have to do this again, soon.” He hugged Marc and Victoria, giving her a kiss on the cheek. Chilbert leaned over and thumped Max on his side. “You take care of these guys, okay Max? I’m counting on you.”
Straightening up he turned to Victoria, as if he’d just remembered something.
“Oh and thanks so much for connecting me with Eric. Tell him I’ll follow up right away.” The door closing behind him.
He was gone.
Image Credits (all via Creative Commons)
Lawrence Grove: John O’Nolan
Paley Center: D. Begley
Cameron Ballas: Mike Hipp
Brian Javadizeh: The Next Web
Johanna Marian: Klearchos Kapoutsis
Shane Smith: DeusXFlorida
Tanene Soto: bark
Taylor Carpenter: pasukaru76
Seth Ferguson: Mika Stetsovski
Justin Fillion: Micah Baldwin
New Friend 1: Tudor Costache
New Friend 2: dalbera
New Friend 3: Monika Kostera
New Friend 4: See-ming Lee
New Friend 5: See-ming Lee
New Friend 6: Wrote
New Friend 7: utpal
New Friend 8: *MC*
New Friend 9: Giorgio Montersino
New Friend 10: Rolands Lakis