Hardup

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chapter 1. all hail zoinkl!

Jason scanned the crowd exiting the Mission Street BART station for Raj while making a concerted effort to avoid looking at the large man enthusiastically jacking off several feet away. After all, he didn’t want to be rude.

The hot sun baked the concrete plaza around him, as the smell of fresh urine mingled with the smell of old urine to give the area that unique aroma so characteristic of the city. Because while San Francisco hadn’t invented the smell of piss, the city had certainly perfected it.

True to character, Raj was running late, which gave Jason the perfect opportunity to practice his staring-pointedly-straight-ahead-like-you-can’t-see-the-dude-jacking-it-right-beside-you look. A look that he had had plenty of opportunities to refine since moving to the city several years ago. He briefly considered relocating to a different part of the plaza, but a quick glance at his other options proved this was actually one of the better spots to wait. The other passengers exiting from the BART station entrance were quick to take note of the virtuoso skin flute concerto before quickly darting away.

Jason figured it must have been at least another 50 or 60 tugs before Raj came bounding up the stairs out of the subway, his sharp eyes quickly darting around in all directions at once. He was wearing a gray cardigan and his usual wry smile, the one that he managed to keep just barely on the cheeky side of smug.

“Hey! Great to see you! How have you been!”

“Good, Raj, how about yourself?”

“Just great!” Raj said, before noticing the bravura performance going on nearby for the first time. “Lovely, I see you’re making friends with the locals.”

“Let’s get out of here, I think he’s about to finish,” Jason said, as he began walking down Mission Street. As if he could hear them, the vagrant stopped his vigorous self-loving to blow the two of them a kiss and shout “Welcome to San Francisco!”

“Indeed!” Raj said, putting a hand on Jason’ shoulder to guide him towards a bar. “First round’s on me!”

The first round was a shot of whiskey and a beer, followed by several more rounds of the same at a number of different bars. Before long, the two arrived at an upscale, contemporary bar, where a minimalist interior design lit by the purple back-lighting behind the bottles of booze arrayed behind the bar provided the perfect backdrop for some power networking. Raj headed to the bathroom as Jason tried to order drinks. While the bar wasn’t particularly crowded, it still took him several minutes before the bartender condescended to take his order.

“Hey,” Raj said, slapping Jason on the back after he came back from the restroom, causing Jason to slosh some of his hard-won drink out of its glass. “I overheard some kids doing blow in the bathroom talking about a private party in the back room.”

“How do you know they were doing blow?” Jason asked.

“Either that or some dude was helping his buddy sort out a bad sinus problem in one of the stalls. Anyway, it sounds like it’s for something called ‘zoinkle.’ I figure with a name like that it must be a startup launch party or something. Let’s check it out!”

“I dunno. That’s not really my scene,” Jason said. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to meeting new people in general, but only under certain conditions and when he was in the right mood. And tonight he wasn’t really feeling up to it. He just wanted to sit, catch up with Raj, and bitch about his job without having to worry about being social.

“Come on! They’ve probably got an open bar! There might even be a woman or two there! But realistically, probably no more than that. We’ll just go back there, schmooze a little, have a few drinks, and be on our way.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What if we get caught?”

“Oh, sack up! Live a little! Like that guy we saw back at the BART station. What’s the saying? Sing as if nobody’s listening, jerk off in public as if nobody’s watching?”Jason looked down at the drink in his hands and shook his head. “I don’t—”

“Come on, I don’t want to hang out with these assholes,” Raj said, motioning vaguely towards the bar behind him. “I want to party with those assholes!” he said, motioning towards the back room. And without waiting for a response Raj gave Jason a playful slap across the face, drained the drink Jason had handed him, and darted towards the line forming in front of the private room in back. Jason got up and obediently followed along, not liking where this was going.

“You wouldn’t just be trying to make some connections for your next startup, would you?” Jason asked when he had caught up to him in line.

“Of course not! I’m not here to network. I’m just here to hang out!” Raj insisted, unaware that at this exact moment a dozen other people were uttering some variation of this same phrase throughout the city.

Raj was a self-described serial-founder. Since moving to San Francisco several years ago he had tried his hand at launching several startup companies with friends, including one with Jason. None of them had panned out, and so he was still working his day job at a design firm to make ends meet. But the eternal optimist in him kept pushing him to try his luck with new ideas.

“Look, if anyone asks you, just tell them we’re here with Duncan, or Brody, or something like that,” Raj whispered to him as they inched ahead in line.

“Who the hell are they?” Jason asked under his breath.

“I don’t know, but look at this crowd. Whole ‘lotta white bread here. There’s definitely a Brody or a Trevor or whatever in here somewhere.”

When they got to the front of the line they saw a large sign that read “Zoinkl! Launch Party,” next to which was seated a chipper young woman taking names. She seemed downright apologetic when she couldn’t find the fake names Raj gave her anywhere on the list on her iPad.

“Last minute additions,” Raj said, looking sheepish. “Duncan told us to just drop by.”

“Oh, well go right in then!” she said, suddenly perking up. “And be sure to help yourselves to the open bar!”

“Told you,” Raj said to Jason as they walked into the room. “Oh, it’s Zoinkl! I forgot to pronounce the exclamation point.”

“What is Zoinkl!?” Jason asked. He was already sweating the possibility of them being made for interlopers and ejected. He felt himself seizing up inside at the prospect of having to lie, as even a mild deception like this was enough to make his heart pound painfully.

“No idea. But since they’re splashing out cash for this swank party I’m guessing they’re a startup that either just got funded, just launched a product, or have already tanked and are burning through the last of their investor’s money in one last blaze of glory.”

They made their way to the bar in the room to get a round of drinks on the house.

“Hey there, you! I’ll have a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic for this Bombay Sapphire,” Raj said to the cute bartender as he flashed her a smile and jabbed two thumbs in his direction. “Just kidding! My family’s originally from Delhi.” The bartender returned his playful banter with a disinterested look.

“And my associate will have… an Old Fashioned. Right?” Jason nodded.

“Here, watch this,” Raj said to Jason once they got their drinks, and walked up to a group of guys engaged in conversation. “Hello gentlemen! Sorry to disrupt your conversation, but my friend and I were just debating whether this tech bubble will last forever, or just long enough for us to cash out. Care to weigh in?”

And to Jason’s surprise, they were in. Just like that. They were soon wrapped up in a deep conversation about Zoinkl! that was being led by Raj, despite the slight handicap of not knowing anything about the company or what it did.

“So the way I see it, we need to offer a totally immersive experience unlike anything our competitors are offering,” Raj said, enthralling the small group of people around him. Jason had seen Raj pull similar tricks with other people in different contexts, and it never ceased to amaze him how just looking and talking with authority was enough to slip past most people’s bullshit detectors.

“Because I don’t see Zoinkl! as just an app, I see it as a platform,” Raj said.

“In what way?” asked one young guy in the group.

“What I mean is…” Raj said, caught with his metaphorical dick out for a moment. “Well, let me put it like this…” Jason could tell he was stalling for time.”So… you’ve got the real-time analytics on the one hand… which we’ve got to pair with big data… which obviously all has to be cloud-based. So… you’ve heard of the internet of things, I take it?” The questioner nodded.”Well, when you combine all that together… and wrap it in a dispersed yet hierarchically multi-tiered end-user experience…” Raj said, trailing off as he made an explosive sound and spread his hands apart to mimic a mushroom cloud. Judging from the approving looks around him, Jason could tell that he had stuck the landing.

“That was… absolutely amazing!” said another one of the guys in their small circle. “I’ve never heard such a clear articulation of our role in this space! I’m sorry, I haven’t met you yet, Jerry,” he said, thrusting his hand out.

“Jason,” Raj said, giving Jason a sideways glance.

“See, I’ve been saying pretty much the same thing to my boss,” said another enthusiastic young convert. “I would love it if you could come down and talk to us in biz-dev.”

Raj placed a hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye, and said with the utmost sincerity, “I’ll be there first thing Monday morning.”

“Yeah, it’s strange I haven’t seen you guys around. I mean, there’s only what, like 30 people there?” said another one as he shook hands with Raj and Jason.

“We were just brought in recently,” Raj said. “You know how much bureaucracy there is when there’s more than five people. Well if you’ll excuse me gentlemen, I need to get another drink. Ringo, would you come with me?” he said, grabbing Jason’s shoulder and leading him towards the bar.

“See? It’s not so hard,” Raj said, as they walked away from their new crowd of admirers.”Maybe for you. But I don’t have your…” ability to lie to anyone about anything he thought, “way with words.”

They mingled for a while, as Raj dispensed word-salad wisdom to anyone who would listen. Jason had to admit that Raj was a natural at it, given how seamlessly he pulled it off.

Jason was even starting to enjoy their little act. After a while he found himself immersed in conversation with two guys named Trevor and Brody when he suddenly realized that Raj wasn’t anywhere nearby anymore. Frantically he looked around, only to see him scrambling up the steps to the small stage flanking one wall of the room and bounding towards the microphone, drink in hand. At the sight of Raj up on stage Jason’s balls shot upwards until they rebounded off the underside of his Adam’s apple like the puck of a high striker ringing the bell. He quickly scanned the room, mentally cataloging the possible exits in case he needed to make a hasty escape, and was dismayed to see just the one door they had come in from.

“What’s up Zoinkl!-ers!” Raj shouted drunkenly as he took the microphone off its stand. “Can I get an ‘All hail Zoinkl!’?”

The response from the crowd was somewhat lackluster, so Raj tried again, louder this time.

“I said, can I get an ‘All Hail Zoinkl!’?”This time there was more of a response, as several of the people in the audience dutifully intoned the words after him and conversations in the crowd began tapering off.

“That’s better! Now, we’re here because we are launching the most innovative, most forward-thinking, most disruptive new product that this space has ever seen!”

“I’m sorry, but who are you?” someone yelled from the back of the room. The shouter was breaking from the small circle he had been standing in to walk towards the stage.

“Who am I?” Raj asked with a look of mock disbelief. “I’m your new COO!”

“I’m the COO!” shouted the same guy.

“Oops, sorry you had to find out this way, bro,” Raj said.”Duncan!” the guy shouted. “Where’s Duncan?” he asked the crowd, his head swiveling furiously around the room before he ran out to the main bar area. Jason was now trying to catch Raj’s gaze and twitching his head towards the door to communicate that they should leave and, like, right fucking now.

“Anyway,” Raj continued, instantly brightening. “Now I know it might seem to some people who don’t get our unique vision as if all we’ve done is take a bunch of existing ideas and slap them together.”

As Raj talked Jason saw the guy from before enter the room with another guy who could definitely pass for a Duncan. They were accompanied by a large bouncer from the bar, who was looking menacingly towards the stage at Raj. They closed the door behind them, which caused Jason’s heart to thud painfully in his chest and his palms to start sweating. As near as he could tell, the jig was up and they were going to get royally Zoinkl’d in the ass. Raj noticed them too, but his showman’s smile never faltered as he continued rallying the crowd.

“And sure, some people will say that we have no business model and no conceivable means for producing revenue. Or even an exit, really. And that we’re going to lose tons of money chasing vague metrics like ‘building a user base,’ ‘brand awareness,’ or ‘engagement’ before we even figure out a viable revenue scheme. But those people don’t understand the drive and vision behind Zoinkl! like we do! All hail Zoinkl!”

“All hail Zoinkl!” the crowd replied, more enthusiastically now as they warmed to his charisma and tone. Duncan and the bouncer were closing in on the steps leading up to the stage, while the jilted COO stood off to the side, his arms folded over his chest and a smirk on his face.

“Because what is Zoinkl! really all about at the end of the day? It’s about bringing people together. It’s about harnessing the possibilities afforded by new technologies in a way that’s never been done before. It’s about doing amazing things and changing lives! Because I think I speak for all of here when I say it’s not about the money, it’s about disrupting the status quo and doing things smarter, better, faster, harder. It’s about finding ways to change the world!” he said, in full televangelist mode now.

While Raj was busy testifying, Duncan had climbed the stairs and strode over to him looking angry, while the bouncer waited off to the side of the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here now is our fearless leader Duncan!” Raj shouted into the microphone, before instantly grabbing Duncan around the head and embracing him in a tight headlock away from the mic. He held him like this for a few moments in a forced huddle before releasing him and quickly spinning back to the crowd.

“Oh my god you guys!” he shouted excitedly, grabbing the microphone away from Duncan, who also made a lunge for it. “Duncan has just told me that we’ve been acquired by Google for $200 million! We’re rich! We don’t have to do this shit anymore!”

At that the room exploded in bedlam. With the bouncer now closing fast on him and Duncan grabbing for the microphone, Raj shouted one last “All hail Zoinkl!” into the microphone and jumped off the front of the stage in what looked like an overjoyed stage-dive at first, but which turned into a full-on sprint for the exit as soon as he hit the ground. Raj ran straight into the door, flinging it open until it hit the wall with a crash as he ran into the main bar area. Jason followed suit, stealthily making his way towards the door in between the raucous celebration all around him. As he left the room, all he could hear were Duncan’s vain attempts to bring the crowd under control being drowned out by the mob’s chants of “All hail Zoinkl!”

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“That was fucking awesome!” Raj said, ecstatically. They were on the rooftop of a building that Raj somehow knew how to access, drinking a bottle of whiskey they got at a convenience store. Raj looked jittery from the endorphin rush of the stunt he had just pulled, while Jason was just jittery from the fear.

“I don’t know about that, I was practically shitting myself the whole time,” Jason said, as he took the bottle back from Raj. “Hey, by the way, how is your new place?”

“It’s good. My roommates seem like good guys, though it’s only been a month, so we’ll see. Speaking of that, I have something of a business opportunity for you, if you’re interested.”

“Another startup?”

“Yeah. See, I have an idea. Well, it was originally my roommate’s, but we’ve been thinking about actually taking it to market. We need a developer to help us get it off the ground, in case you’d be interested in working on a little side project.”

“I don’t know. I’m not the entrepreneur you are,” he said. “Besides, I’ve already got a job.”

“Yeah,” Raj said, “but you hate your job.”

“Right, but it’s a steady paycheck. So why rock the boat?””Because you’re drowning underneath it and rocking it is the only way to get back to the surface.”

Jason sighed and took another pull off the bottle. “I don’t know, I just don’t think I’m cut out for the startup life.”

“You work for a startup now!”

“Yeah, but a big one. One that’s funded and pays me on time, and has a ping-pong table and shit.”

“Didn’t you say that the last people to actually use the ping-pong table got fired for slacking off?”

“Yeah, it’s really there more as a test.”

“And they’re not paying you nearly what you’re worth over there. Especially considering the treatment and everything.”

Jason couldn’t argue with that. He worked for Noovonix, a major mobile games maker where lots of developers would kill to work. The constant influx of people looking to put the name Noovonix on their résumé let management pay people a good deal less than industry standard salaries. This led to enormous turnover, but management didn’t care as long as whatever devs happened to be there at the moment kept pumping out addictive games.

“What’s the name of the kid in charge there again?” Raj asked. “The one that recently got written up for peeing on a cop car while a cop was sitting in it?”

“Bryce.”

“Yeah, that’s it. He seems like a real class act.”

“Last week he almost fired me for making eye contact with him. My boss had to intervene on my behalf long enough for him to forget about me and go back to playing video games in his office.”

“Come on Jason, you’ve got to get out of there,” Raj said. “And this could be your ticket out.”

“I don’t know…”

“Look, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you come by and just check it out? I think you owe me that much at least for all the work I put into Rising Tide for you.”

Rising Tide was Jason’s idea for an app that would allow people to easily fund microfinance loans in other countries directly from their smartphones, and collect a modest return on their investment. He had been working on it on and off since college, and had enlisted Raj’s help in pitching to investors. Raj had spent the better part of a year working his network to arrange meetings, crafting their message, and pitching to disinterested investors. The few investors who bothered to give them a reason for passing cited the razor-thin margins, reminding Raj that they weren’t running a charity. Jason was still working on the idea in his spare time to find a way to make it viable.

“Alright, fine,” Jason said. “So what is this million dollar idea?”

“Billion. More like billion dollar idea,” Raj said earnestly.

“Alright. What is this billion dollar idea?” he asked, verbally italicizing the word the way Raj had.

“My one roommate, Dirk, is away at the moment on a vision quest or something. But why don’t you come by my place next Wednesday after work and we can all talk about it when he gets back?”

“Sure. I’ll hear it out at least.”

“Great!” Raj said, smiling and drunkenly putting a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Well it’s getting late, I’m going to call it a night.”

As Jason began collecting his things Raj started walking towards the stairway they had come up to get to the rooftop, pausing once he was in the stairwell to turn around.

“Oh, and Jason?” he said, looking back with serious look on his face.

“Yeah?”

“All hail Zoinkl!” Raj said, holding up his fist in a fake salute, before hunching over in a drunken cackle that ended with him falling down the stairs.

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