I found out a couple of weeks ago that I will soon be fired. It’s slightly more complicated than that, I suppose. Avid readers of the blog know that 25% of my company was fired in late September. Many of the remaining top performers started their job search immediately afterwards and found something they liked 1-2 months later. Mass layoffs underscore the stark differences in labor mobility between different professions. Not only do my coworkers in “tech” have much less difficulty finding high quality job offers, but, because they are better compensated and have more savings, they can also afford to be more blase and selective about the job search. I have been “lightly” looking since late October but haven’t found anything I truly liked; again, this is a luxury of working in my field.
Leadership’s plan, after the September layoffs, was to partially “pivot” (god, I hate that term) into a different business model, to be introduced before the Thanksgiving-Christmas shopping season, and to raise another round of funding early next year so that we wouldn’t literally be broke. Despite being understaffed, my team built the technology for the new business model on schedule. But, by that time, something had changed. As people left the company, their responsibilities were dispersed among their coworkers or were eliminated entirely. (In one ridiculous email I received, the departure of a product leader prompted a “sharing” of her former responsibilities by thirteen other people on her team.) The new business model was a dud, initially, and will take many months of tweaking to fix, if it is even fixable. At one town hall, the CEO retracted the promise of another funding round before quickly transitioning to other topics. I started attending leadership meetings, and found out that we had stopped spending money to acquire customers for our core business. Our monthly revenue was slowly sliding towards zero.
Also alarming was the fact that my team had virtually no new work to do after our scramble to meet the Thanksgiving deadline. I pestered my boss about this topic, and she finally admitted to me that our venture capitalists, in all their wisdom, had reversed course in October. The new plan was to achieve profitability. And, given that 90% of our costs are payroll, this would entail an additional, even larger round of layoffs. In fact, her primary job over the last couple of months was to devise a plan for a sort of ghost ship: a company that could function with only a skeleton crew manning it. (Planning my team’s work for the next quarter naturally became deprioritized.) Ironically, she became her own executioner: a company with a technology team of 5 needs an executive with very different skills than one with a technology team of 50. I became my own executioner too. My boss mentioned that she could try to rework her plan to avoid firing me, but I told her I’ve been miserable the last few months and would rather continue my job search while unemployed.
(As an aside, my boss had not received official sanction to tell me this news, for obvious reasons, and swore me to not repeat it to anyone else. I didn’t entirely abide by that admonition; I convinced one of my friends, who was so unhappy that she was about to quit without a job lined up, to stay a month and collect severance. By the time you read this, the layoffs will already have happened.)
I’ve always respected my boss’s spunk, even though I’ve occasionally been on the receiving end of it. She confronted one of our board members about the decision, and he whined, self-pityingly, “Being a board member is a hard job”.
There are a few (very obvious) points to be made about this debacle.
It is remarkable how little experience or expertise you need to run a company. Our CEO went to Wharton for undergrad and Harvard for her MBA. She was the “CFO/COO” of one (apparently) failed company for a year before co-founding my current company. She received her bachelor’s degree a year before I did. The other co-founder has slightly more experience. She worked at the Clinton Foundation for 4 years before becoming a co-founder. I have had interviews with a few companies in the last two months, and many of the “CTOs” and “CEOs” are people in their 30s, like me, who convinced some investors to give them a few million dollars for an idea that may or may not work (probably the latter). These aren’t bad people; they’re just likely in over their heads, much as I would be if I were CEO. They know how to do something: leading a small team, being a product manager at Google, building a CRUD app. But it is highly unclear how these skills translate to running a company, and being responsible for people’s livelihoods. Is it too glib or dismissive to say that if the idea is good, it will attract the money and talent to implement it, and the choice of a leader is only of marginal importance? It seems to me that a leader matters much more if the idea is questionable. Because then the company’s success is not assured, and these tricky decisions that might require expertise — managing finances, hiring capable executives, deciding how quickly to expand, figuring out how to do marketing — matter much more. Is a recent Harvard Business School graduate knowledgeable about any of those things? At the very least, they weren’t at my current company. It’s an irony of capitalism, a weird counterpart to imposter syndrome: the people self-aware enough to realize that they are not capable of running a company are also the people least likely to be running a company, even if they would probably do a comparable job.
We tend to think of highly compensated jobs — CEO, venture capitalist — as being hard ones. As indicated by the quote above, the people in those jobs also see it that way! The natural corollary is that the people who succeed at those jobs are talented, the winners of the game of meritocracy. I’m deeply unconvinced: that these jobs are truly hard, in a sense that my job isn’t; that the game is meritocratic; and that much of the discourse surrounding success in the startup ecosystem isn’t completely self-serving and reflective of selection bias.
One final point. Companies take advantage of people who are not self-interested actors. I’ve had friends who’ve worked 70 hour weeks for my company. Friends who have taken pay cuts to work for a “mission-driven” company. Friends who have driven themselves to sickness through stress and lack of sleep. Friends who have wanted desperately for my company to succeed, probably even more so than the founders and executives themselves.
I had originally used the word “rational” instead of “self-interested”, but I think that’s an unfair characterization. There’s nothing irrational in caring about things besides yourself. The problem is that such an attitude requires goodwill and compassion on the part of the thing you’re caring about. Does the venture capitalist who thinks, as he’s giving the instruction to fire dozens of people, that he is the one with a “hard job,” have that goodwill? What about the CEO, who, a few months before the last round of layoffs, exhorted her employees about “overcoming adversity” and compared our situation to that of “wartime”? There is no goodwill in American capitalism, or, perhaps, capitalism in general. The only semblance of goodwill is from one person to another, which, cruelly, is what managers often take advantage of (“you’re letting down your teammates”). It is time to turn that atomized, ephemeral feeling into something more pervasive and durable. We need to unionize our workplaces and raise money for politicians who support that goal. But, failing that, we should at least put ourselves first: above a company that is soulless, and above people, much like you and me, who don’t know what they’re doing, but, unlike you and me, will be rich regardless of the outcome.