My second-to-last job for Spartan involved a start-up which had made its final stand on the cheap real-estate fringes of the Chicago. It been launched with great fanfare a few years back, but I didn’t remember the name until I got the call from our CFO. It was one of those made up words created by a computer or someone trying to sound like one. Even when I was staring at the name, it was hard to remember. The syllables kept sliding around in my head. From a business perspective these invented words made sense (no history/no ownership) but I couldn’t escape a pang of sadness over the fact that we’d so exhausted our language that we had to make up words to name our ventures. We’ll call it Company X which at least has advantage of describing its fate.
At its launch, X was heralded as a next-generation real-estate portal, a paradigm-shift in how we buy and sell. It was originally developed as a content play, providing access to information previously restricted to professionals. Disintermediation. Consumer empowerment. Transparency. There were the words of the day. But when their content failed to draw a crowd X tried to evolve into a data aggregator, drawing multiple listings into a single place. But they never got rights to use all the listings. After another round of funding, it tried a b2b model, selling what they described as a superior version of the standard competitive evaluation. The comp may well have been better but there’s no point in using a comparison unless other people do too, which they didn’t. It had been easy to disguise the gaps in logic a couple years ago, when anything seemed possible. But no one was confused any longer, especially Spartan, who had poured over 20 million into it. They were ready to cut bait.
There was no HR department to speak of so I was sent out to manage the exit interviews with the founder. We met first in a coffee shop around the corner to avoid too much of a stir. We had crossed paths before but I doubt he’d remember me, and he didn’t.
“This just sucks,” he said, as we sat down the counter.
“Never shut down a shop?”
“Yes, no, yes. You know. Not personally. But I feel,” he paused, “like I need to be here.”
He pursed his lips together in a boyish pucker of regret. It was the expression of a man who knew he should care, and did, up to a point, but had also put the whole thing in perspective. His stare settled onto the middle distance somewhere beyond the diner window out in the soybean fields that still carpeted the land around the office parks.
This loaded silence went on for a good twenty seconds and I let him have his moment. These lapses into sentimentality were more common than you might think. It’s hard to know what do with failure in America. It always seems to call out for some ceremony or ritual that acknowledged that a dream had come to an end. But there was no ceremony. Plus no one wanted to get bogged down in nostalgia.
The waitress brought our coffee and broke the spell. Then, to help move the conversation along, I asked him about his plans.
He turned away from the window, his eyes brightening and began drawing on the paper napkin as he spoke, a rapid sketch of vectors shooting out from a central circle. He described a platform for sharing energy resources. It was completely on trend with the new global They could do for X what Y had done for Z. It was a potential game-changer. Companies were clamoring for new options. He was having trouble keeping up with the calls.
As he described the potential, I felt my heart racing despite myself. Bruce was a great salesman, a born entrepreneur. By the end, I think he forgot why we were there. I had to interrupt him, glancing at the clock.
“Any advice?” he said, looking a little sheepish.
“Don’t take offense. It’s not about you.”
“Not anymore,” I said, adding “No offense” with a gentle pat on his shoulder.
“I suppose that’s right. That’s fair.”
When it comes to lay-offs, people like to imagine that these things can end “well” or ‘badly.” If you’ve been part of one (and if you haven’t you will) you will hear a lot of talk about the style of the event. Someone will undoubtedly say, “I just wish they would have handled it better.” But the grim facts being what they are, this is a fantasy. When you’re getting dump by a boss or lover or anyone else, you're never going to feel particularly well-handled. In my experience , the range extends more from “badly” to “very badly” to “actionable.” My job was to keep it on the bad end of the spectrum
We walked into the office in mid-morning. I am used to being met with stares of fear, anger, contempt. Sometimes worse. So I was surprised to find the room so animated. Despite the doom hanging over the place, there was a giddy energy in the air. The faces were wide-eyed, eager, expectant, maybe a little confused. The small staff clearly sensed that not all was not right with the world, but they moved through tasks with a jittery alertness as if they could all make it right again with a little gumption and positive attitude.
I soon realized that I was dealing with a gathering of innocents. Many had come in the company’s first incarnation, recruited from other careers: journalism, publishing and other institutions known for intellectual capital. These were talented people with high ideals and expensive educations. They had worked for institutions with long histories and iconic names: Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Ford Foundation. Companies that had been around for decades. They probably didn’t imagine that something could disappear so fast. The majority reacted to the news with stunned perplexity.
“Like for good?” said a young woman named Linda, eyes welling up in astonishment. She turned to Bruce, face slowly settling into a grimmer mask. “I thought you said ....”
I gave Bruce a moment, but when he began with “I want you to know that your special contribution…” I had to cut him off.
The package was generous. Entrepreneurial ventures were risky. This experience would undoubtedly be perceived as valuable by future employees. We wished everyone well.
Expeditiousness was crucial. When it came to avoiding trouble, time was not on our side....