Startup trek, episode 22: Skin of Evil
Season 1, episode 22, “Skin of Evil”
Lesson: figure out the positive things you value, and never let go
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each. Kevin Morrill from Buried Reads guest authored this one. Big thanks to Kevin 🖖
The episode starts just as the Enterprise is set to rendezvous with Counselor Troi. On their way they receive a distress call from the counselor’s shuttle, and rush to help. They beam down onto the planet where she’s crashed landed, only to find an oil slick blocking their way. Evidently they had to save on special FX budget for this episode, as the slick moves around in a cheesily hand-drawn animation.
A humanoid form rises out of the slick and begins heckling Riker, Data, Crusher, and Tasha. We learn the slick has a name: Armus. The creature tips its psychic ability by identifying Data as an android and calling him Tin Man in a nod to his desire to have emotions. After spending several minutes toying with the crew, Armus flings Tasha away, ultimately killing her. Crusher’s attempts to save her ultimately fail.
As the crew continue to negotiate with Armus, they learn his backstory. He’s the left-over dregs from a race of Titans that have left the planet. They shed themselves of anything in conflict with their virtue, and Armus coalesces as the vile leftovers. Having been trapped on the planet for what seems like an eternity, he’s resorted to a nihilistic outlook. Armus asks Troi, “Want to know why I killed her?” Troi, sensing his philosophy, counters that “Your answer would be meaningless. Your act had no reason.” Sensing he’s been spotted, Armus agrees: “Exactly, it had no meaning. I did it because I wanted to. It amused me.”
By the climax of the episode Picard believes that the way to defeat Armus and save Troi is to turn his malevolence back against him. “You say you are true evil. Let me tell you what true evil is. It is to submit to you. It is when we surrender our freedom, our dignity, instead of defying you.” He’s not talking to Armus so much as the philosophy he represents.
In light of Tasha’s death, the episode ends with a memorial. She leaves behind a recorded message to comfort her comrades: “Death is that state in which one exists only in the memory of others. Which is why it is not an end. No goodbyes. Just good memories.”
Data, who starts the show being called Tin Man, asks Picard at the end of the memorial: “Sir, the purpose of this gathering confuses me. My thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking how empty it will be without her presence. Did I miss the point?” He leaves, rejecting the cold nihilism and grabbing on to the sense of meaning Armus that tried so hard to reject.
It’s not a stretch to say that startup founders end up facing the challenges that the crew does in The Skin of Evil: they’ll be faced with crises that threaten to derail their philosophies and thrust them into nihilistic thinking. Most founders will come within months--if not weeks--of bankruptcy, sometimes multiple times on the quest to realize their vision. They’ll encounter VCs who at first might seem bought into their vision, but most will end up rejecting it before one finally offers a term sheet. They’ll fight tooth and nail to hire that backend engineer they need and finally extend an offer, only to hear the candidate decided to accept another company’s offer. Someday, that one favorite employee who was there for so many critical moments will pull you aside to tell you they’re putting in their two weeks notice and moving on. And the company itself could die, despite all their efforts to save it.
Brian Chesky famously tells the story of grinding it out on Airbnb for the first several years, and it still hadn’t taken off into meteoric growth. He remembers coming down to the kitchen one day to try to find breakfast only to see a credit card statement that was overdue. He had gone into major credit card debt for the company, owing about $25k. The last food left was bland cereal that the founders had made as a publicity stunt around the 2008 election (“Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCain’s”). He shoveled some in his mouth and kept on going, eventually selling the cereal boxes for $40 each and making enough money to tide the company through its low cash position. Now they might be weeks away from announcing an IPO.
Founders have to gut it out when the chips are stacked against them and no one is in their corner. Having your own sense of where meaning will come from, and still seeing hope and purpose, is the only way through.
Additional note from Sarah on this topic: one exercise you can do to better understand yourself and your priorities, especially as a startup founder or employee, is to narrow down your core values to the top two that matter most. Then when you're facing conflicts and uncertainty, choose the outcome that's closest in line with those values. The author and speaker Brene Brown has a list of core values to use for this exercise here, or you can list out your own. Mine are authenticity and autonomy.