SYNGEd

A year in the life of a dot-com employee

Photo by Shem PamplinThis time last year, almost to the day, I was wrapping up the first week of my new job by viciously karate-chopping and roundhouse-kicking my now-former copy editor in the head.

The action was happening on the screen of a vintage, eight-foot-tall, arcade-regulation Mortal Kombat video game, but the stakes were still high: my boss and CEO, Gary, was in one of his free-spending moods, awarding a crisp C-note to the winner of the first annual Synge.com office-wide, round-robin Mortal Kombat tournament.

Funny now how it was called "first annual."

I lost badly in my first round of virtual combat, but I didn't care. I was spending the first Friday at my dream job drinking bottles of bitter microbrew and playing video games after a satisfying day of work. I had just started writing for Synge.com, an Internet start-up in a Costa Mesa office park, and one week in, I already knew that this was the job I wanted to retire from—the job I was led to believe I could retire from if I chose.

Until this first week on the job, I knew just one thing about Internet start-ups: boatloads of people were getting filthy rich off them. Industry legend had it that even the secretaries at Yahoo! were now millionaires because they had chosen slave wages with stock options over entry-level salaries. There were some signs of a waning economy in the Internet industry in early 2000, but the horror stories of failing dot-coms were still several months off. As far as most people were concerned, the gold rush was just beginning.

Make no mistake, I never wanted to get rich; most working writers aren't in it for the money, and that's always been fine by me. But I was a few months into my marriage and needed a steady payday as opposed to the irregular freelance checks I skimmed by on as a swinging bachelor.

So I'd sent Synge my résumé along with a few of my best clips. They were looking for "edgy and irreverent" writers. Because Synge was "aiming to become the MTV of the Internet" (a phrase frequently used in team meetings and always sounding more like a prayer than a goal), they needed a small army of new recruits. A month later, I got the call: "Can you come in for an interview?"

After two weeks of interviews and writing pointless features on spec to prove I knew the difference between a first- and a third-person story, I was hired as a content producer for Synge.com: The Ultimate Pop Culture Experience ™.

Quick back story on Synge: after a failed attempt as a fluffy website for the teen set, the company shifted gears in late 1999 and re-launched as one of the premier portals—or "online communities"—for the highly desirable 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Its purpose was to function as a destination point for Generations X and Y and whatever the trendy subculture of the month was at the time. At its peak, it read like a cross between Maxim and Spin, only better—in my opinion, anyway.

I'll admit I was pretty proud of myself when I got hired at Synge. A few weeks after I started, an editor there told me I had been picked over quite a few talented writers in what she called "a highly competitive race."

"Finally," I thought. "I paid my dues, and I'm being recognized for my writing."

It took four more months before several co-workers finally told me one of the reasons I got hired was because the vice president of content (affectionately nicknamed Spicy by the CEO) thought I was gay.

"Hey, everybody," Spicy allegedly chirped one afternoon before my first day. "I just want to announce that we've officially filled our Hispanic Gay Guy quota."

She meant me.

I don't remember my first reaction when I heard the Hispanic Gay Guy story, but I do remember laughing—eventually. It actually took her three months to figure out I was straight, even though I checked off the "married" box on all the new-hire paperwork I returned to her. Maybe she thought the picture of my wife on my desk was of my transsexual life mate.

None of this would have bothered me if this hadn't been the same person who, along with the CEO, thought that Synge.com could jump into the media forefront with a "Racist Joke of the Day" feature.

But such insensitivity can't sully the memory of my first day on the job. Me, the Hispanic Gay Guy, sitting at my enormous oak desk overlooking the connecting 55 and 73 freeway onramps. I felt like a writer boldly sailing into uncharted editorial waters; I actually had my hands on my hips in a comic book-like stance, looking toward the new media's distant horizon.

This was cooler than just being a writer. I was now a content producer! I was a journalistic pioneer!

For months, the working conditions at Synge were great. The offices were done up in typical dot-com décor: part Romper Room, part Animal House. A small disco ball hung from the ceiling. A Ping-Pong table doubled as our conference area. Plush furniture was covered in faux animal fur. If Greg Brady had had an office in the '60s, this is what it would have looked like.

It wasn't what you'd call a professional work atmosphere, but the advent of the dot-com start-up had torn down the imitation Bauhaus interiors and felt-lined partitions of corporate America and replaced them with cheap Chinese paper lanterns.

Despite the chaos, there was no other publication I would have rather been working for. The people with whom I spent upward of 12 hours per day, six days per week were consistently brilliant. When we weren't being micromanaged, our creative team was an editorial juggernaut with sharp edges and nasty points. As a group, we were actually creating a small buzz in the dot-com industry. I was being assigned to high-profile press junkets in swanky Hollywood suites, interviewing megalomaniacal celebrities like Robert Duvall (typical bitter old man), Nicolas Cage (surprisingly charming) and Angelina Jolie (lips much smaller in person). To offset the potential boredom of the fluff, I scored interviews with cult icons (Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell, Strangers With Candy's Amy Sedaris, Clerks' Jason Mewes). On top of that, I was being singled out by my peers as one of the writers whose voice defined Synge.

Forgive me for being melodramatic, but life was rather incredible.

In all the excitement—the celebrity contacts, tequila-fueled potlucks and festive surroundings—no one in the lower ranks ever considered that management was making decisions that would kill Synge.

 

Synge's downfall began with poor financial planning. In the early days, management confidently assured us that Synge was in great financial shape and that we were funded by several major venture capitalists.

I'm sure there were a couple of investors—there had to be—but whenever we asked for names, we were told, "They're private investors." The only one mentioned by name was CBS, but we soon found out that CBS was nothing more than management's perpetual dangling carrot, its hope, its Promised Land, where money flowed like water from a tapped rock. We were told for months that CBS' late-night-programming people were "into what Synge is doing." Two months into my tenure, Spicy told me over drinks that CBS was going to pony up $8 million. Of course, that was "between the two of us," and I was advised to keep my trap shut until an official announcement was made. I'm embarrassed to say that I believed her.

Such financial tales made everyone believe that spending "slightly over $1 million" on the redesign of the site (with a homepage that usually took 45 seconds to load—when it didn't time out) was smart. Same with the hiring of a trendy, Manhattan PR firm to organize extravagant launch parties in New York and Los Angeles (which would take place weeks before the proper site actually launched). Ditto for the thousands spent to get Howard Stern to (unenthusiastically) read a script detailing the many reasons his listeners would enjoy visiting the dot-com site he was pretending to find interesting that month.

But who was going to say anything? Who was going to question some of the more obvious flaws in the business model? Certainly not I. I was still as deluded as the rest of the staff. Peaking at about 30 people by the spring of 2000, we were constantly distracted by flashy perks. At staff drink nights, the big guys bought us all the cocktails we could hold down at Habana. (I developed quite a jones for the apple martini.) We were frequently treated to takeout for lunch, flown to Las Vegas for hedonistic weekends in the name of "team bonding" and whisked off to Los Angeles in limousines for "business meetings." And I haven't even mentioned the afternoon rubdowns by Edie, a handsome European woman with arms like Mark McGwire's. Under Edie's vigorous touch, I usually ended up feeling as if I had cheated on my wife.

On the surface, everything was perfect. Occasionally, one of us in editorial would mention that the 75-hour, 6-days-per-week workloads were killing morale, but the perks usually pacified us—until late in May 2000, the month Synge took its first major blow.

Although Synge's content was pretty clean (no nudity or hardcore profanity), it still wasn't something you wanted Grandma to read. But Synge's marketing vice president nevertheless had a problem: her potential clients were balking at sponsorships and affiliations with us because of some of the bawdier content on our homepage. The appearance in our media kit of the word "whore" was apparently a deal breaker. Hell, according to marketing, even Trojan Condoms—a company whose raison d'être is sex—reportedly passed on a Synge affiliation because of some of our content.

What came next shouldn't have been a surprise—but it was. One Monday morning, we got a company-wide e-mail (that's how all important company news was distributed): the marketing VP had resigned. On the shop floor, we read that as a friendly firing.

Normally, such a departure wouldn't have been a big deal. Synge had seen a few: there were the content producer who was reselling articles he wrote for Synge to an LA magazine as first-runs and—my personal favorite—the junkie who was fired via Post-It note.

But the departure of the marketing VP made us survivors hesitate: she, after all, had come to us from a serious, Old Economy, Fortune 500 company; she presumably knew what she was doing. We, on the other hand, were mere New Economy kids. Spicy, for example, was the former publisher of The Catalyst, a free, Long Beach-based poetry fanzine she wrote, copied at Kinko's and distributed to local coffeehouses. I had published my own zine and worked as a contributor for OC Weekly.

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 cliché—although, looking back, we always were a dot-com cliché; 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 Synge.com. 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?

Management was undeterred. We'd frequently get e-mails saying that potential investors were coming by and asking if we could all please be typing at our desks so the mostly empty office would look productive. One afternoon, the editorial department was even told to take a day to rearrange our barren offices so they looked (in the words of the management missive) more "hip," with "the feeling of a lot of people still working there." We broke down nine desks; created the company's second Ping-Pong table; and constructed a "media room" out of couches, a butterfly chair and cheap inflatable furniture from Urban Outfitters. The visit passed without a glimmer of hope.

Finally, in January 2001, everything—work, enthusiasm, funding—slowed to a tedious grind. Since Synge had only a couple of clients to write for, we sat through hours of downtime. Now, instead of writing the usual three stories per day (with a combined word count of about 2,500), I was working my way through all those books I had pretended to read in college.

One thing made coming to work interesting in those final weeks: a morning cup of coffee and a jalapeño bagel while I logged on to FuckedCompany.com. For those not initiated in the phenomenon, FuckedCompany is nothing more than a website with message boards that allow anonymous dot-com employees to vent about their jobs. At its best, the site is a raw, honest look at the trappings of Internet warfare; at its worst, it's a way for spurned dot-com worker bees to air out their employers' dirtiest laundry. For Synge, it was both.

Ex-Synge (and a few current) employees took to FuckedCompany's message boards with a vengeance. Eventually, every secret, scandal and rumor was posted on the site. The relationship between our CEO and Spicy was the subject of much detailed speculation. It wasn't so much that they dated but that they seemed to want to hide it. In the doomed ship of our office, the actual substance of their relationship—friendly? romantic?—became a bigger issue than the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.

So when I wasn't reading a book or monitoring FuckedCompany, I was playing Ping-Pong and secretly hoping someone in management would secure a client so that the editorial staff could start writing again.

But it was too late. Now, instead of phone calls from publicists trying to sell us on their celebrity du jour, we were fielding calls from creditors asking for the CEO.

"Thanks for calling Synge," one of us would usually answer. "How can I direct your call?"

Put the caller on hold. Page the CEO's office. Get told by CEO to take another message.

"I'm sorry, the CEO is away from his desk right now. Can I take a message?"

There were a lot of those calls in the final weeks—mostly from creditors but quite a few from the CEO's family, too, most likely asking him what he was doing with all their money. It was rumored that the final weeks of Synge were being funded by the CEO's wealthy relations. It wasn't uncommon to walk past the CEO's office and see him staring at the ground with his head in his hands.

I genuinely felt bad for him in those last few days. I even felt bad for him when our paychecks started bouncing and all he could do was tell us to wait a few more days and try to deposit them again. That disclaimer spawned a ritual: a co-worker and I made biweekly "coffee runs," which were actually trips to Synge's bank to cash our checks right after we received them.

On one such coffee run, I received a warning from the universe.

"Hello, I'd like to cash this check," I told the gray-haired, grandmotherly teller at Bank of America. "Any denomination is fine."

She handed me a stack of new twenties and mentioned something about good timing. The co-worker I came to the bank with was working with a teller to my left, but her transaction wasn't going as smoothly.

"I'm sorry," her teller said. "There was a recent withdrawal on this account that would make it impossible to cover your check."

No clients. Creditors calling all day. A depressed CEO. Bouncing paychecks. They were all obvious signs that Synge's future was limited. If this wasn't the end, we could sure see it from where we stood. But the reality of impending doom didn't strike me until my managing editor was asked to cease all magazine-subscription renewals.

I was scheduled for my one-year review about a week after I overheard the boss put the kibosh on magazine renewals. I knew a raise was out of the question, but I'd go along with the charade of a formal job-performance review anyway. My managing editor set up a meeting after lunch at 1 p.m. We never got around to it: the CEO sent out another of those group e-mails to the last six employees at 12:23 p.m.:

Guys,

I have some bad news. The funding that was promised to us last Friday did not go through. Therefore, I have no choice but to let everyone go effective today. I will mail you a check next Friday for work done from Feb. 1 through Feb. 7, but the company cannot afford any severance. I thought we were on the right track, but the market conditions have proved too difficult—I wish things could have worked out a bit better.

And that was it. For weeks—even though I hoped the company might pull out of its nosedive—I had been taking my personal belongings home. It took just 10 minutes to collect the last of my crap, but it seemed longer, more confused—like I'd just been sucker punched at a bar and was trying to regain my bearings. I still couldn't get over the fact that I had just been fired on my one-year anniversary. I drank six apple martinis at Habana that afternoon, fully aware of the irony.

Days after that e-mail, the rumors started up again. There was still a strong bond among ex-employees; trauma will do that. My favorite rumor was that the final firings were a savvy move by management to clean house and start with a new, untainted staff. I believed it, especially because the CEO and Spicy went to see an investor in San Francisco the day after that final e-mail. The fact that the site was still functioning with a "Looking for Freelance Writers" posting added fuel to the rumors.

But they were just that: rumors. A month later, the company's URL no longer brought up Synge's Java-heavy homepage. Dialing the office phone number resulted in a recording of that familiar canned operator's voice saying the number has been disconnected. Those final checks we were promised never came, and they most likely never will. In a recent e-mail, our former CEO said he was liquidating the remains of Synge's offices—any money left over after he paid off the creditors would be used for our final checks.

With everything that happened in those 365 days, that last e-mail still makes me laugh hardest during the ex-Synge employee reunions at Habana. That and the fact that for a moment, I believed it.

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