A year in the life of a dot-com employee

Ms. Fortune 500 was leaving. We were staying. What did she know about Synge that we didn't? Anxiety broke out like hives.

Work became a little less fun after that e-mail. The walls between workers and management gradually rose higher. Now, all political interoffice communication took place on the sly. Covert walks to the local bagel shop became our primary means of social interaction. Then we found out we couldn't leave in groups because management began to monitor who left the office together. It got to the point that when any office news broke, e-mail was the only way it could be passed along. When a human-resources insider suggested that management was reading our e-mail, we switched to the harder-to-trace AOL Instant Messenger.

We were paranoid, but we had every right to be. For instance, no one in management would provide solid evidence that the Las Vegas prize package we had offered to Synge subscribers in a prelaunch promotion was ever awarded. And our website made me queasy, suggesting as it did relationships with high-profile companies that none of us could verify.

The end seemed near the day our air-conditioning system began to emit an unidentified yellowish gas. The editorial office looked like no man's land after a World War I mustard-gas attack: there were no windows to open; outside, a July heat wave was incinerating plant life and softening asphalt; and management was in New York, looking for new venture capital. We looked at one another through the haze and realized, I think, that the party was just about over.

The party officially came to an end on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2000. Rumors were firing hard through the e-mail and Instant Messenger circuit that something bad was going to go down. No one really knew what was planned, but the following Monday afternoon, people started getting individually paged by our HR guy. Each was asked to come to Spicy's office, where Spicy told the employee he or she was being laid off—well, sort of. One of the copy editors tells it better:

"I really wasn't even sure I got fired," the editor said. "She just looked at me and said, 'I guess you've heard that the company isn't doing that well. We're having to let some people go, so . . .' and then she started crying. It's like she wanted me to finish her sentence so she wouldn't have to say the words."

The body count: more than half the editorial team got its walking papers that day. It took just a couple of sobbing people to return to their desks and start packing before everyone in the office realized that a page from the HR guy was as good as a bullet. While the bloodbath was taking place, my managing editor took me and another content producer out for afternoon drinks at the Shark Club down the street.

"I just want to let you two know that management is firing half the staff right now," she said between swallows of Guinness. "You still have your jobs. I just brought you here so you wouldn't be in the office when they were clearing out their desks."

Just like that, it seemed, Synge had become a dot-com clichť—although, looking back, we always were a dot-com clichť; the layoffs just brought it to my attention. Synge was part of a new trend: collapsing Internet start-ups. The bankrupt dot-com practically became a punch line, yet I continued to trick myself into believing that Synge was different, as if it were the one content-based website immune to an industry plague that was as ruthless and thorough as the Black Death.

After the first mass layoffs, almost like clockwork, employees kept jumping over the gunwales of the leaky craft that was I always congratulated them on finding something better, something stabler, but secretly, I hated them for leaving while the rest of the skeleton crew waited it out, still telling ourselves that landfall was just over the horizon.

During the fall of 2000, in a last-ditch effort to stay alive, Synge changed its business model for a third time. Now, instead of being known as a teen site or a community portal with a hip, 18-to-34 demographic, we became a "business-to-business" site that provided content to other Internet sites for a fee.

Those of us clinging to any hopeful sign grasped this one hard. But the new model sputtered, and with only two or three clients to write for and hardly any revenue coming in, the company was in desperate need of outside money.

That's when management started courting just about anything that resembled an investor, a process that usually required an on-site tour of the Synge offices and an inspection of the troops. This posed a problem: there really was no Synge staff—or office—to speak of anymore. The editorial department was down to a couple of content producers and a managing editor—hardly the powerhouse it was just a few months before. And our once bustling and vital offices now had the look and feel of a junior college library: drab, pointless and lethargic, with nothing but the sound of the wind and the chirp of a cricket. There was one depressing reminder of how vibrant things had been: a collage of photographs tacked on a cheap, two-foot-by-three-foot corkboard. It was Synge's version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, but instead of names chiseled into stone, we used photos of intoxicated ex-Synge employees taken at various team-bonding field trips. Other than those photos, our offices resembled an office-supply graveyard: dozens of expensive computers, phones, empty desks and filing cabinets, all unused and illuminated by bad fluorescent lighting. What smart venture capitalist would ever sink capital in a company this barren?

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