Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dying a Dot-Com Death in 2001

From the comfort of 2014, I sat on my bed watching the live stream of Coachella 2014. Nostalgic, I searched my Mac for the entry I wrote for my blog (we called them "webzines" then) on Coachella 2001. The big draw that year had been Jane's Addiction. A lot has changed.

Instead of finding that chronicle of the early days of Coachella, I found the essay I wrote when I was laid off from my dot-com job the following week. I'm posting it here, because I thought it was lost forever. I had decided at the time not to post it on my webzine. But there's a heckuva lot of water under the bridge since then--like, all of my 30s.

I give you, from the early months of the George W. Bush administration...

The Day I Lost My Dot-Com Job

They say the first sign you’re going to lose your job is your ass is sitting in an Aeron chair. Mine’s been lounging in one since last June, and indeed, it’s been a long, slow, sometimes painful death. It all came to an end in the early workday hours of Friday, May 4.

Somehow, despite all the signs and the knowledge that anyone at any dot-com could go at any moment, it still seemed a shock. Maybe because we stopped referring to ourselves as a dot-com a while back. (Too many negative connotations for VC--venture capitalists, not Viet Cong.) We had weathered the storm for a while, and it seemed our benefactors were committed to the company.

Still, a day or two before the ax fell, a coworker (also axed) was discussing the general climate, and the fact that you’d have to be seriously out of it not to see things couldn’t last much longer. Our head of production had set a goal of around 6000 registered users. Instead, we had maybe seven. That’s a single digit, my friend, not thousands.

The chain of events went something like this:

Around 9:15 I saw the head of production in my boss’s office with the door shut. I do not think that I have ever seen the head of production talking in my boss’s office. I do not think I have ever seen the head of production talking to my boss, period. This was clearly not a good sign.

I returned to my desk and logged in to my Outlook email box. A message from the CEO sent to everyone read: there is a staff meeting at 1 pm. Please plan to be there. We have not had a staff meeting in a month or so, and those are usually on Tuesdays. I remarked to a coworker nearby about this. Could be “the” meeting I said. Shit, I don’t want to be fired today, she said.

And she wasn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. After this remark to my coworker, I returned to my office and sat down. I don’t believe more than two minutes passed before my boss stuck her head in the office and asked my officemate and I to come speak to her.

Okay. We’re getting some sort of warning, I thought. The situation doesn’t look too good. We ought to start looking for other options in case our portion of the site was closed. I brought my coffee. I would be relaxed, despite what was definitely going to be some serious discussion. And besides, I had just poured the dang thing.

So we sat down, and I sipped some coffee. My boss was looking mighty somber. But before she could say anything, or there was any uncomfortable silence while we waited for her to say something, the CEO flew  into the office, sweeping the door shut behind and pulling up a chair.

I know that there’s been some rumors going around recently about lay-offs, she said. Have you heard these rumors?

No, I said. More of a general feeling that things were not going well.

Okay, well, unfortunately, there are going to be lay-offs, and you two will be some of the ones let go.

And that was that. This discussion went on a while about not being any reflection on our personal performances, etc. She explained our severance package, and then I signed something saying I would not disclose any trade secrets or proprietary information, and that:

“In accordance with normal ethical and professional standards, you agree to refrain from taking actions or making statements, written or oral, which disparage, defame or negatively reflect on the goodwill or reputation of the Company, its directors, officers, executives and employees, or which could adversely affect the morale of employees.”

My favorite part of that is the capital “C” for “the Company.” Hey all you Christians out there, when Jesus kicked out that one disciple, did he force him to sign something that said he would not say anything that would “negatively reflect on the goodwill or reputation of God”? Maybe that’s where this gem of legalese came from…

I have no intentions of defaming the company. I am fairly certain that our funder’s stormtroopers of death would swoop down on me if I dared disparage the big “C.” And I think they’re all decent people. They mean well.

The company is actually doing a pretty good job of handling this, giving us another week of “work” which we aren’t really expected to show up for, and an additional two weeks of severance pay. Thing is, that three weeks puts me one week away from my one year anniversary, at which I would be entitled to my 10% bonus, that everyone within the company has pretty much received just for lasting that long. And I would receive a third of my vested stock options (HA!) in case this company ever amounted to anything. Which it won’t.

And then, immediately after being fired, before the CEO got up, we were told that there might be some contract work coming in that we would be needed for. So we could be fired, then re-hired to come right back here and work, sans benefits or bonuses. Doesn’t that sound great! That would be a little weird, don’t you think, I asked. You don’t have to accept the contract work, I was told.

Funny thing is, this mirrors the situation when I was hired. I was offered my job a mere minute or two before I was assigned to jury duty. When the company found out I might have to serve on a jury, they began to have second thoughts: maybe we don’t want you, maybe we do want you, maybe we don’t want you. It was all very unprofessional, and typical of a start-up without any human resources liason. Again this was happening, and it wasn’t the fault of conniving, mean-spirited administration, just benign incompetence.

The sort of benign incompetence that works very hard to keep employees on in any way possible, but doesn’t do the fundamental things to make the company a success. Things like having a workable business model; okay, there are not many of those floating around for web sites like ours. But how about our “Field of Dreams” marketing approach? It goes like this, spend all your money on expanding the company and developing your site, but NONE on advertising. You don’t need any. If you build it, they will come. Oh, why don’t they come?

To be fair, we did spend a bit on advertising, but that was only because we committed to it long, long ago. Our advertising ran at the end of last summer, and it was brilliant: we took out a full page ad that utilized a royalty-free photo, the sort anyone can buy generically rather than shooting themselves. Guess what? Someone else bought it (one of our “competitors”) and ran it in an ad (in the very same magazine). Nevermind that no parent (no one period) I know reads family computer magazines like the one our ad ran in.

But back to my day. I decided it might be fun to hang around, despite the fact that I was told I could leave. I was interested to attend that staff meeting. Unfortunately, I stepped out for some air with a fellow laid-off person, and came back to find everyone in a bumped-ahead meeting. Maybe they were waiting for us to leave the building, I don’t know. I stuck around, whittled down my MP3s, and ate another free lunch. Portabello mushroom sandwich. Those free lunches probably kept me from quitting of my own accord long ago. The day before we were canned, the company spent almost $500 on sodas. (Your friends are gone, but think about all the free Mountain Dew!) Smart folks, in some ways.

I finally headed home, but not before the CEO popped in my office letting me know she was close to landing a contract deal for more editorial work. She is really trying hard! I do not think she wants to fire me! But this is not working! Not any of it! I really have to leave; I cannot hang out any longer waiting for the “good” news. I go home, and my boss calls me frantically. She wants me to get excited about this potential contract work. She doesn’t want to fire me either. She is genuinely upset about all this. But it is no use. I am not interested in treading water with this company any more. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s been real, and it’s been fun, but—

The last month or so I had thought about the final statement I would make when my time was up with the company. An email message sent out to the entire staff with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” perhaps. But, no, I think I won’t do that. Instead, I will leave with the words of another great redneck, Davy Crockett. It was Davy who once said:


And maybe I’ll die there like Davy. But that beats a slow drowning in a Century City office building. See ya.

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