Friday, April 24, 2009

Experimental office fiction: Black box I

My first assignment involved a dying start-up in the western suburbs of Chicago. I had long forgotten the name, along with everyone else. It was one of those invented words, designed by a computer, or someone trying to sound like one. Even when I was staring at the logo—big blue bubble letters supposed to evoke energy, playfulness and accessibility—I couldn’t keep the name in my head. It had lasted about 28 months which, for the record, beats the bell curve.

It had been funded with great fanfare by a number of major investors, heralded as the next generation, a new model, led by first-rate talent. It was originally a content play, "democratizing" real estate information. When that went nowhere, blocked by the existing real estate interests, it tried to evolve into an aggregator of existing data, selling the promise of efficiency. But it wasn't more efficient, it was just more data. So it tried a b2b effort, selling a new model of comp’s to brokerages and agents. They weren't interested in the new model.

It had been easy to disguise the gaps in logic a couple years ago, when money was flowing fast. But no one was confused any longer, especially Zellerman, who had poured about 50 million into it.

I arrived in mid-morning. I am used to being met with stares of anger and derision or worse, as if I had someone brought this fate upon them, rather then, as everyone well knew, they had done it themselves. I wanted, but never said, Who’s company is this ? Not mine.

But one could see right away that this as an inexperienced group. Despite the obvious doom hanging over the place, there was a giddy energy in the air, like an ill-planned party that had gotten out of hand. The faces of staff were still wide-eyed, eager, expectant, if a little confused and weary, moving through tasks with a vague sense of purpose.

This was not surprising. Much of the staff's had come on board in the company’s first incarnation, recruited from journalism, publishing and other institutions known for ‘content” and intellectual capital. T hey had worked for institutions with long histories and familiar names. Iconic names: Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Ford Foundation. Talented people with expensive educations. They probably didn’t imagine something with so much promise and funding could disappear so fast. Now they were tidying up papers in empty conference rooms, with furniture and unused phones piled in the corners.

There was no HR department to speak of so the plan was to have me mange the exit interviews with the founder. We met first met in a coffee shop around the corner to avoid too much gossip before the inevitable.

I recognized him from a previous venture in the area. We had crossed paths before but I doubt he’d remember me, and he didn’t.

“So how long does this take?” he said, as we sat down the counter.
“You haven’t done this before?”
“Not personally,” he said. “But I feel,” he paused, “ more responsible this time. The truth is,” he added, pointlessly, “I feel bad.”

His pursed his lips together in a boyish admission of guilt and concern. It was sentimental, coy, serious, both earnest and totally disingenuous. It was the expression of a man who knew he should care, and did, up to a point, but also, could put this whole event in a larger perspective. He wasn’t going to get dragged down. He held this expression until I said what we both knew I was here to say, to absolve him of guilt so he could move on and keep the machine running.

“It’s just business."

He nodded and we both remained silent for twenty or thirty seconds, letting this useful and uncontestable fact settle in. And then I asked him about his next venture.

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