Startup-life can be really, really crazy at times. The story below happened to me recently. What's your thoughts on this, what would you do?
It's a long read, but here is a TLDR;
TLDR; Joined startup as co-founder, worked 6 months for equity only, fired for no cause, threatened with promises of violence if I didn't sign termination contract. Also had my reputation damaged when the CEO sent emails to my network stating I was a scammer and thief, in order to pressure me to sign the contract.
I was contacted by the CEO of a software startup, and asked to join the company as a Project/Product Manager and co-founder. The company was at this time without technical employees, and the development process had been at a standstill for several months since a contract with an agency had expired. My task was to restart the development process by hiring new developers and managing the development team. I joined because the product was really nice. A beautiful app I definitely would use myself. I also liked the drive of the founder. He had a strong CV as well.
I joined the startup on an "Independent Contractors Agreement", where I was told this was to test how our collaboration would work out. If I would be fired or quit in this period, I would have a right to compensation according to the hourly fee stated in the contract and the hours worked.
I join the startup officially as a co-founder with 12.5% equity and sign the Founders Agreement. Another co-founder also joined at this time. 1 year cliff, 48 months vesting.
The 3rd co-founder is fired since he didn't have time to work without pay, and I am sent a contract where I agree to that the 3rd co-founder leaves the company. There is also a point in this contract where I agree to let go of any financial claims related to the "Independent Contractors Agreement". In retrospect, it seems very strange that this point was added in connection with the firing of the 3rd co-founder. But I was cool with it at that point because we had an oral agreement from when I joined in February, where we agreed to forget about the independent contractors agreement and rather shorten my vesting schedule with a few months. So, the vesting was also changed at this point, reduced by 3 months.
A week later
After 60+ rigourous interviews, I hire 2 developers I am thrilled to work with. I know the CEO would never be able to find these people himself, he doesn't have both the technical nor the social skills to do that. Recruiting is hard in the first place, and it is even harder to recruit senior developers for equity only during Covid-19. So this was a major achievement, in my opinion. Turns out this achievement was the beginning of the end for me.
We have planned to start a 2-week sprint starting in the afternoon. Beforehand, I have been asked by the CEO to list the planned tickets in a form with time estimates from the developers. I told him several times this didn't make much sense, but that I would do it. I asked the developers to give me an estimate and have it ready by the start of the workday (they live in 2 different continents, so they start working in the afternoon local time). The reason I think it didn't make much sense is that the developers couldn't possibly give time estimates this early. They just joined and are not familiar with the codebase. We need to have a thorough discussion about the tickets before we start the sprint. In any case, this shouldn't be the CEOs business, I am the one managing the developers. But he is extremely micromanaging and distrusting in general, so this was common behaviour.
Around 14:00 the CEO asks me why the form with the time estimates is not yet updated, and I reply that the developers have not responded to me yet, but that he is not to worry, as the workday hasn't started yet, and we in any case will have to discuss the tickets with the developers when the meeting starts at 16:00. The CEO does not agree with me, and fires me on the spot, by saying "This is not working out, I will find another project manager"
I immediately understand I will be leaving this company no matter what, as we can't continue from here. He is obviously a complete douchebag, and is basically firing me without good cause. I am supposed to get a 30-day warning in these cases according to our contract. So I respond quickly, and tell him I am leaving, while also mentioning how I think his leadership style is severely lacking, and other things I feel is dysfunctional in the company. I am polite though, and end it with saying I am sorry it had to end this way. The only response I get back is "thanks".
Following this, all the other employees in the company (3 of them who I recently recruited, in addition to the CTO), contacts me and say they are very surprised about the news, and share their sympathies with me.
My access to all accounts (Slack, email, Jira, etc) is revoked within 30-60 minutes after my chat with the CEO. Slack was also where we had our last chat, so I didn't even have time to save our chatlog. If I hadn't been working remotely, I am sure I would have been escorted out by security guards. I felt very disrespected. It also felt like this was planned ahead. I did my job, solved a problem, worked for free for 6 months, and got kicked out right after I recruited a backend dev who got the same amount of equity as me. So in essence the guy I recruited will get my equity.
I am sent an termination contract, where it is claimed that I am terminated due to bad performance, and that I am therefore a "Bad leaver", meaning I have no rights to equity or compensation. I did not sign the contract, as I knew this was a lie.
I respond to the sent contract, that I am going to have a lawyer look at at it and that it may take some time. I was strongly considering taking legal action, but was on the fence due to not knowing how good a case I had. Also was exhausted after spending 6 months of my time on this for nothing, and wanted to enjoy my summer holiday. So I let him wait, as I think it's my right to get some time to think about this.
The CEO contacts me a few times and asks about the status on the contract, I give the same reply, that he will have to wait.
We agree on him coming by my apartment to pick up a phone the company bought me. He never shows up, despite having made 2 appointments with him. I think he doesn't have the guts to face me.
I am contacted again and asked about the contract. This time I told him I can't sign the contract as it stands. I gave him the option to send me another contract where it says I quit. I decided it was not worth more trouble, I am just going to close this chapter and move on with my life. A lawsuit would be time consuming and expensive. By this time I am also well involved with another startup, both receiving equity and salary, so I don't want more distractions.
The CEO explodes in a raging fit and sends me threatening audio messages. I am told he and several others with "Russian connections" will come to my apartment to pick me up if I don't sign the contract, and "anything can happen, who knows". He even claims the angel investor is the one with Russian ties, and is the one I should fear. I can hardly believe my ears, this guy is batshit crazy. My wife got very upset by this, the rest of my family as well. (Note: I am in a Western European country)
He also threatened to send emails to people in my professional network. Which he ended up doing shortly after:
Later that day, I am contacted by people in my network, saying they have received messages from the CEO stating that I am not responding to emails and that they are looking for me - and that I have an iPhone that belongs to the company. I am, effectively, labeled as a thief and scammer.
I seize communication with the CEO at this point, as it is getting way too weird for me. He's clearly out of control. He later sends me screenshots of some conversations with people in my professional network, where he is telling them I have this phone and is not responding.
I am then contacted by the (interim) CTO/tech advisor in the company who apologizes profusely for this behaviour, and asks how we can proceed from here to solve the problem. He offers to mediate. I accept and tell him I want an apology and retractment sent to everyone who has received messages about me, as well as documentation of this. I also again request a contract that states I quit of my own free will. Even though I am clearly quitting due to force and threats, I don't want to have anything to do with the company, it is mentally exhausting. I have to say though, the CTO is a nice guy, I have nothing against anyone in the company except the CEO.
I still haven't received any documentation of the requested apologies and retractions sent to my professional network. I don't think it's going to happen due to his massive ego, therefore I have decided to file an injunction order against him, which will force him to send apologies/retractions to my network, as well as hindering him in sending further emails about me to people.
I am also considering reporting him to the police for the threats, but not sure.