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AMC’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Exposes the Challenges of Building a Startup

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan, Manish Dayal as Ryan Ray - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 3, Episode 3  - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMCLee Pace as Joe MacMillan, Manish Dayal as Ryan Ray - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 3, Episode 3  - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC
Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan, Manish Dayal as Ryan Ray. Photograph by Tina Rowden/AMC

As the Mutiny gang heads into the third episode of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire’s new season, they’re already facing some challenges.

Ryan Ray, a talented and passionate engineer, has just told his bosses that he’s leaving to join MacMillan Utility, the new venture of Joe MacMillan, with whom they all previously worked. Despite Cameron’s efforts to convince him to come back—she even shows up at his house—Ryan is sticking with his decision.

But there’s also good news. Though a potential investor—Diane Gould and her venture capital firm—initially declined to invest in Mutiny because another startup had already built a similar product, founders Donna Clark and Cameron Howe have a new plan: acquiring their competitor. Here are some notable moments:

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Swap Meet is not all that it seems. After Mutiny’s management team finalizes an offer, John “Bos” Bosworth, Mutiny’s veteran tech executive, heads to Swap Meet’s office, where he runs into Diane. But they quickly notice that something’s off—Swap Meet’s parking lot is empty and the office is quiet. Diane requests an office tour when the founders greet them, but it only gets worse from there. While the four of them chat in a conference room, a phone starts ringing, but no one answers it. Swap Meet’s founders scramble to make up excuses about their receptionist being out to lunch—a “late lunch”—but Bos and Diane already know they’ve got the upper hand.

“I’m not comfortable with it,” Bos says, after ripping up the acquisition offer letter (they were still hard copies back then!).

“No, it was a figure we arrived at when we were operating with less than current information,” he adds.

By the end of the negotiation, Bos and Diane have managed to reduce the price to about $550,000 instead of the original $800,000. “You see an opportunity, you take it,” Bos says as they walk to their cars. “That’s the sport of it.”

The episode didn’t make clear exactly what was going on at Swap Meet—whether they were trying to defraud Mutiny and its investor, or if the startup just didn’t have its act together. Regardless, it’s a reminder of the shiny veneer that many startups try to present in real life. Just this past weekend, a marketing executive wrote a blog post claiming she moved to Silicon Valley to work for a startup, only to quickly find out it had lied about having cash in the bank, among other things.

For Fortune’s recap of the previous episode, read: AMC’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Highlights Sexism in Tech

“I’ve got a board and investors.” Ryan, Mutiny’s bright employee, left to join Joe MacMillan’s company because he shared Joe’s belief that cybersecurity software should be freely available. But what if it’s not? During a senior management meeting Joe tells Ryan to attend, he finds out that the company is planning to start charging about $15 for its security software, going against the original claim.

Ryan remains quiet during the meeting—mostly because he’s so surprised—but he confronts Joe in his office at the end of the day. Joe’s initial response isn’t what he hoped for.

“I didn’t promise I wouldn’t ever charge them,” Joe tells Ryan. “I’ve got a board and investors, and I’ve got people to answer to.”

All too often, idealistic tech entrepreneurs get hit with a reality stick and are reminded they need to run an actual business. This seems to be exactly what’s happened to Joe. Luckily for Ryan, though, he goes back to his original vision and tasks the young employee with helping him figure out a new business model.

Work-life balance. Mutiny may be Donna’s startup, but that doesn’t mean her husband Gordon won’t be involved. As a talented engineer, Donna invites him to help out with Mutiny and even partake in her meetings with Boz and Cameron. Of course, it doesn’t take too long before their marital issues creep into a work argument, and make for an awkward scene at the office.

Though they work it out, and Gordon apologizes to Cameron and Boz the next day, it’s clear that this won’t be the last test of their ability to balance a marriage and working relationship.

History is littered with both successes and failures when it comes to couples working together, so there’s no telling yet how it will end for Donna and Gordon.