Friday, February 04, 2011

The Enterprise - 28

I'd managed to leave my last job for this one rather than get laid off, which would soon have been my fate. It was another Web startup,, founded by a few American ex-pats in Budapest in the mid- to late-nineties and transplanted to New York City when it caught wind in the first boom.

Its arc was emblematic of the era: a few friends – smart, young, ambitious – intertwine their fates, breaking down the barriers between work and play, between the professional and the personal. They observe sweatshop hours, they drink and fuck, they snowball-fight in the cobbled streets of a medieval city recently liberated from Soviet rule. Soon strangers are hired, strangers much like themselves but strangers nonetheless. Some are American, some Hungarian. Most are agreeable. Some less so. One has body odor and carries his belongings in a backpack everywhere. All are integrated into the fold. They are called upon to believe that the world is changing; that they are agents of its change; that they shall inherit it, too.

Like magic one day, an intrepid and visionary investor rained millions of dollars upon the venture. Its holding company came to be traded on the Vienna Stock Exchange. The headquarters were relocated to a vast space on Broadway just below Prince, with shiny wood floors. Satellite offices opened in London, Chicago, San Francisco.

What did this company produce? Games. Not graphically sophisticated first-person shooters, adventures or races, but rather trivia games of various configurations. Short ones, long ones. Individual player. Multi-player. Music trivia. TV, sports. History. True or false, multiple choice. All of the above. I was hired to write the questions.

When I arrived in 1999 the office had just moved from SoHo to the garment district, from retail to wholesale, to 35th Street, in the workaday shadow-realm between Penn Station and Times Square. The reason for this was its acquisition of, merger with, or acquisition by another concern that specialized in one thing: prizes. They awarded shiny merchandise to anyone who lingered long enough on their site, clicking around, absorbing brand impressions. You could collect points and bid them on a mousepad, a travel alarm, six Omahan filet mignons in dry ice. The executives and boards of both companies agreed there were tremendous synergetic opportunities here. Huge upside. Big gestalt. Their union seemed to be written in the stars.

The first order of business was to merge the two databases of tens of millions of registered users. Engineers with thick accents were flown over from Hungary to evaluate exigencies, examine risks, model schemas and perform test runs. Shouts were often audible from behind the conference room door. An atmosphere of solemn purpose permeated the office, as one might find at NASA ground control or Allied Headquarters in the weeks before D-Day. I kept my head down. Wrote the trivia.

By November, a site redesign had been launched to decidedly mixed reviews from both inside and out. Millions were spent on an ad campaign: national television, radio, billboards, digital. The TV spot featured a group of businessmen in suits busting out of prison and running jubilantly through a field, doing cartwheels, tearing off their ties and hurling their briefcases into a pond. No allusion was made anywhere to the purpose or even the characteristics of the site. The company also underwrote a backmarking team in the CART open-wheel racing series. One morning on my way to work I was jolted from my sleepy stupor to find our name and slogan – "There's a riot going on!" – adorning the side of the bus I was to ride.

The combined company grew bigger still. One day in December, a global e-mail announced that, moving forward, we would all be required to share our cubicles. My mate was a female database manager from India who smiled shyly and spoke halting, fractured English. She reported to the CTO, a Chinese wiz known as Dr. Bill. He came around periodically to bark out instructions in his own stilted syntax. "Prepare user geography distribution statistics for analysis! Column here! Column B! B!" Then he'd wander off and she'd poke around her screen for a couple of hours. It appeared to me that she never understood a word of Bill's commands. Then she'd speak to her husband on the phone for fifteen minutes, put on her coat, and leave with a smile and a wave goodbye.

A public offering on the NASDAQ exchange was scheduled for early 2000. It happened that a week beforehand, the market, which heretofore had emerged as the newest wonder of the world, magnificent and ever glorious, had plunged by about ten percent. The new president of the company, Jeff Travis, gathered everyone in the unoccupied tenth floor of the building for a pep talk. All was well, he said. Evidently he and the CEO and COO had been on a dog and pony show, lining up investors around the globe. Pension funds, mutual funds. Hedge funds. A spendthrift Arab prince. "We're gonna get there," he said. "Keep doing the great work that you're doing."

I chanced upon the three executives on my way out of the elevator one evening as they returned from a few days on the road. Their spooked, ashen faces gave the impression that they'd each, in turn, tiptoed to the edge of the abyss and taken long, pensive looks into its darkest reaches.

Many of us participated in the pre-IPO reserved for employees and other privileged parties. The strike price was thirty-four dollars per share. I threw in, I don't know, five thousand dollars. I even roped in a friend of mine to do the same. I parried his doubts about the investment with something like this: People will always love trivia. But something didn't feel right on the big day. We all observed the price obsessively. It twitched up to thirty-five then slid slowly over the course of the afternoon, settling at thirty-two something. I remembered some fine print somewhere about a twenty-four-hour grace period. I phoned the Merrill Lynch broker who was in charge of our accounts and canceled my bid. The following day, the stock tumbled another five points. Within a month it was trading in the low single digits.

A round of layoffs soon came, followed by another a few weeks later. The second took my own boss, Margaret, a fastidious and demanding editor with decades of experience. Finally we remained a patchy crew, barely able to keep the site updated. We devoted ourselves desperately to the slightest revenue-generating hope. Most were dashed as advertisers pulled out of deals and partners closed shop.

There was a methadone clinic next door. As the weather warmed, junkies sometimes lay passed out against the wall, legs splayed like they'd been shot.

Most nights, we'd gather after work at the wood-paneled Irish bar on the corner, making dark little jokes about the way things were.

The company was sold again, on the cheap, to a direct marketing billionaire. He installed his dour, headstrong, imbecilic son, who appeared to be about twenty-three years old, as chief executive of the dying operation. They picked our bones and declared that virtually everyone would be laid off come September. I was told I'd keep my rum ration if I stayed aboard the sinking ship until the last mast disappeared into the sea. I got my new job instead.