After five years in the Internet industry, I got tired of phoning the office from a ski trip in France, disgusted with cellphone calls at my grandmother's funeral and literally sick from the endless stress-induced colds and flus.
So I quit.
The first month, I rested. The second month, I traveled. Fresh from (and rejuvenated by) the rolling hills of Tuscany and the gothic castles of Germany, I was poised to dive into the fray again, landing plum Internet interviews in Manhattan and San Francisco. But it took just one meeting to discover the industry had left me disillusioned and worn out.
During a freakish June storm, I hurried off the New York subway in my mishmash ensemble, a blend of corporate America and hipster Net chic. Attempting to shield my portfolio, I headed down Hudson Street with my Mini-Me umbrella, battling heavy rain and a 30 mph wind. Suddenly a gale-force gust overtook me and collapsed my umbrella into a crumpled heap; a bent metal rod hooked onto my hairclip. Unable to extricate clip from umbrella, I felt my way toward the shelter of a doorway, finally prying loose the clip and my drenched locks.
Six blocks later, my first priority was a pre-interview restroom primping. The man in the lobby didn't look up when he told me there was no restroom downstairs, and any elevator would take me up to my dot-com destination. On the 14th floor, I was greeted with a long empty corridor oddly lacking either people or signage. I feared I had the wrong floor and made my way through a labyrinth of dirty white hallways, passing one bathroom door (which was locked). Ten minutes later, I located the receptionist, whose desk was adjacent to the "other" elevator. By now it was already 10 a.m. and, bedraggled or not, I had to announce myself. I sat down to wait and surfed the company Web site on the pastel iMac in the lobby.
Clicking through the "page error" messages, I attempted to refresh my memory on the site offerings and layout. But my mind raced with a million thoughts.
Why was I here? Do I really want to work with a bunch of smart aleck dot-com MBAs, who throw out phrases like "VC says we're the leaders in this vertical ASP space"? Even if I do have a business degree and have worked in the industry for half a decade, I'm sure I never held a meeting in something called a "pod." In fact, as I recalled my last three years working on a major newsmagazine Web site, I couldn't remember a single trace of anything resembling annoying Internet kitsch. Well, except for the giant orange beanbag accidentally sent to me by a start-up that didn't realize the edit staff, not the business staff, could alter their destiny with an article touting their neato new site.
It turned out human resources had forgotten to set up a meeting with the person in charge of the international division, so it was just me and Jason from "biz dev."
Jason: Do you have your résumé with you?
Me: No, I'm sorry, I e-mailed it and don't have a hard copy. (How hard, Jason, would it be to print it out?)
Jason: (Fidgets with his hands; no pen or notepaper in sight.) So, tell me what you did at Newsweek?
Having never worked at Newsweek, I politely corrected him, and launched into a summary of my experience, boring myself to pieces and, from the look on his face, boring him as well. Then it was my turn to ask questions, which I carefully prepped at home to show both my vast industry knowledge and keen insight into the challenges facing the company. I fired one off and settled back in my chair.
Jason: (Looks unimpressed.) Well, as our S-1 registration states ...
(Gee, Jason, thanks for answering the question by implying that I didn't bother to do my homework and read your registration statement to go public. However, since your S-1 covers finances up through Q3 1999, and my question pertained primarily to commerce initiatives kicked off in Q4, your answer is not only rude, but irrelevant.)
Accordingly, I now assume that this interview is pretty much over, so I spend the remainder of my time focusing on the question that's been on my mind since we started: What's up with those dark-red, bloodshot eyes? Are you high? Or did you pull an all-nighter at work?
That did not bode well for my desire to work for this company, or any start-up tech firm. Even with the NASDAQ bouncing wildly and people flocking back to Old Economy jobs, I'd clung to the idea that smart new businesses with smart people could hold interest for me. Maybe 90 hours per week could still pay off with the right decision. I remembered the rush I used to get contemplating vast, bountiful Web opportunities. Eagerly anticipating my leap from traditional publishing to a start-up, I was sure it would leave me invigorated, enrapt in the frenzy and chaos, doing high-fives over cubicles and sharing plans with colleagues for early retirement.
Instead, I felt like the only online veteran without the equity for a car down payment. Still, I was too burned out to go through the interview motions with Jason from biz dev.
Jason continued on, leaning back in his chair with his fingers laced together, dragging out the time until he figured it was OK to terminate the interview. I began to daydream about the jobs I'd learned about online that spoke to my nonprofit interests, like the yearlong assignment in Eastern Europe requiring German-language skills. After a two-week refresher course, I could probably sprechen like a champ. The $12,000 salary was certainly troubling, but I was sure people successfully get corporate grants for such jobs. But visions of my monthly mail from names like Sallie Mae, Unipac and Teri reminded me of my mandate to earn an income that actually pays for my business school education.
I thought of my former colleagues who had left the security of traditional media to jump on the dot-com gravy trains. Some had struck it big with smart choices and perfect timing, deservedly reaping the financial rewards that grant freedom for future jobs. However, many were still waiting in cubicles at silly-name start-ups with delayed IPOs and strike prices approaching or greater than the sometimes single-digit market price. Even folks who could barely send e-mail or still called it the "World Wide Web" left in droves. It wasn't hard to spot those about to jump ship; they suddenly started lurking around my office with a newfound interest in our company Web site. Once they began peppering me with questions on "hypothetical" Web sites, I would open my drawer, hand them a photocopied article on negotiating equity packages and send them along armed with Internet jargon for the next interview round.
Jason and I bid adieu. As I rode the elevator down to the lobby, I noticed it had stopped raining. I called to check my voice mail, recognizing the names of two Internet firms who wanted to know about my interest in their business development and marketing positions. My adrenalin rose and I quickened my pace, memories of Jason and the previous interview fading with each step.