Published on sfGirl.com in the late 1990s, what was it like working at a dot.com?
Dot.Diary by Jane Galt
An inside look at life in a dot.com start-up
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Had I known, maybe I would have been more prepared for the insane journey into dot.com land that I have embarked upon. A right-of-passage, of sorts, that has transformed my perception of work place ethics and has given new meaning to the phrase “work party.”
It all started about 10 months ago when I moved to San Francisco from Southern California. I had been working for a big, conservative corporate company since I graduated from college 6 years ago. I knew that the Internet industry was in full bloom just up the California coastline. After all, many of my friends had opted for the “Internet revolution” over the more secure, safe bet that one has on an established industry. Curiosity finally won over and I decided to see what this “Internet” talk was all about. But what the trade magazines fail to tell you and the Web sites forget to mention, is what really goes on behind the doors at a dot.com start-up.
So I fled my safe, but very narrow existence in the suburbs of SoCal to take a chance on the Internet world. I accepted an offer from a company that was just beginning to form. My company’s demographics parallel most dot.coms, with the general population being under 35 and single, including our management team. Now I’m not saying that there’s anything necessarily wrong with being born in the same generation as the CEO of your company, I just never expected that in my late 20’s we’d be the same age. At my former company, not only was I among the youngest, but I was also one of the last remaining girls that did not have a ring on her left hand. From what I have viewed at start-ups in San Francisco, I’m not sure if they are even taking applications from those who have already walked down the aisle.
So what happens when you throw a bunch of young, single men and women in a loft or converted warehouse located just south of Market Street or somewhere in the Mission, add the intense and insane pressure that comes from working in an industry that is moving faster than the speed of light, stir in some alcohol at a dot.com launch party and shake?? Plenty.
After my first day of getting acclimated in my new company (because that’s all the time the industry will allow for acclimation), I was invited to check out a dot.com party. I was expecting to see some suits standing around, or perhaps sitting in an auditorium, listening to the President or some such top-level exec spew off facts and figures about how their new product, or service, or partnership would change the face of Internet B2C, or B2B, or B2B2C as we know it today.
Boy, was I wrong.
What I entered was a stylish nightclub with a DJ spinning some down-tempo records in the corner while a half dozen 20-to-30-something girls in tiny tank-tops and tight fitting skirts stood around one of the several strategically placed bars while their male cohorts looked on. I made my way to the bar, pulled out my wallet, only to discover that my cash was no good here. The drinks were free. With choice cocktail in hand I made a beeline for the scrumptious eats that were across the way. As I started to pile my plate high, a member of my dot.com’s management team tapped me on my shoulder.
After swallowing the piece of sushi I had just placed in my mouth, I mumbled a shy hello. He was, after all, a member of our exec team and I had been professionally “groomed” to have some fear, and of course, the deepest respect, for the powers-that-be in a company. I noticed the drink in his hand and the wide smile on his face and tried to relax. He asked how I was doing and I immediately tried to rack my brains with some company-related subject to broach. He gave another slow smile and said, “Let’s not talk about work.”
After a few more trips to the complimentary bar, we were discussing more meaningful topics, such as, why he broke up with his last girlfriend and what color highlights I was thinking about putting in my hair. Not the conversation one might think to have with a company’s executive officer. As soon as I accidentally spilled my second cosmopolitan on the floor, he kindly offered to give me a ride home. Without even a thought in my mind, I gladly accepted.
The conversation on the ride home continued to be that of a truly personal nature. We reached my apartment and I thanked him profusely. The next thing I know our mouths were just inches away from each other and then it happened – I kissed him. But, more importantly, he kissed back.
The kiss went on for more than a few minutes before the reality of my kissing behavior set in. I kissed a member of my dot.com’s management team! How did this happen? Why did this happen? What was I going to do tomorrow when this kissing extravaganza was sure to interfere with my newly formed Internet work life? These thoughts whizzed through my mind as I stumbled out of the car and ran up to my front door.
The next day was more then excruciating. It’s one thing to hook up with someone from the office; it’s an entirely different story to kiss the person in the office that is gives quotes on the company’s performance in press releases and is conducts company wide meetings to address the new team goals.
Sensing that I was not feeling so comfortable with the whole kissing escapade, he asked me to meet him for lunch away from our dot.com headquarters. He explained that although it would be nice to pursue the kiss further with me, the timing just wasn’t right, with him in a leadership role and all. There’s a lot of work that needs to get done before we go IPO, he rationalized – a relationship of any kind could interfere. And of course no one in the office should find out about the “incident,” because, he said, they may not look at him in quite the same light.
Oh really? Thanks for breaking it down for me, Mr. Exec, I thought as I headed back to our office. This wasn’t exactly what I expected to experience my first days in the Internet industry.
But what I realize looking back: that really was just another typical day in the life of a San Francisco dot.comer.
Entry #2: The name of the Internet game: FUN
So what is the most important element that lures so many of us to seek employment at a dot.com start-up?
You may think it’s the possibility of your stock options turning you into an overnight millionaire, or maybe it’s the opportunity for those of us once trapped by Corporate America to experience the Industry Revolution that is taking place. There is no doubt these are very attractive incentives to join the ranks of the Internet elite.
But what keeps Internet employees working until all hours of the night, giving up our weekends for a company that may or may not be around in 5 months?
One word: Fun.
It’s a fundamental piece of my dot.com’s culture. The very first line of our mission statement promises, “We will cultivate an environment that thrives on fun.” Can fun truly be a foundation upon which to build an Internet company?
Fun is the number one goal for most Internet companies as they fight to gain and retain employees in the tight bay area job market. Most live up to that standard by creating an environment that sometimes feels more like a party than work.
The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, even though the work is hard and hectic. The typical work attire is a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and the always-stocked beers in the kitchen fridge are just another added bonus. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone at my dot.com without a smile to give away, even in the mist of a project meltdown.
Friday afternoons are big party days around here. Catered lunches appear in the late afternoon just begging all of us to shut down our PCs and partake in some company-sponsored R&R. The margaritas are blended, or sometimes it will be shots of Sake that are passed around – depending on the theme of the lunch, the drinks always follow suite. Give my dot.com company any reason at all to celebrate and you will soon hear music blaring and people laughing from somewhere down the hall.
Our CEO’s birthday is a prime example of dot.com partying at its best. On this particular Friday afternoon, scrumptious food adorned our conference room tables and ice-cold beers, in a variety of flavors, filled the fridge. Red and white wine flowed freely and as I scanned the room I noticed that engineers from upstairs were passing around a bottle of tequila. That was only the beginning. It went from having a few laughs and a couple beers with my co-workers, to an all-out bash, with the guest of honor at the helm of this dot.com fiesta.
At first I thought maybe I was just among the lucky ones, working for the coolest dot.com this side of Market Street. But, as it turns out, fun has to be one of the top priorities at every Internet start-up if they plan on being successful.
This is not going on in many other parts of the country, and for sure you will not bear witness to these types of party antics in many other industries. I know for a fact that it’s not going on at the SoCal Fortune 500 that used to cut my paychecks. I can’t imagine the 65-year-old CEO from my previous company taking shots on his birthday in front of potential clients, business partners and investors – all in the name of F-U-N, fun.
But does this party atmosphere help or hinder the productivity of a start-up? How can people stay focused when the emphasis around the office is to have fun? What kind of motivation does having a good time bring to the business?
There has to be something more than the elusive pot of gold that lies (hopefully) at the end of the dot.com IPO rainbow. Take it from me; a fun work environment and hard work go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.
What I see at work are faces of people that are in similar situations as myself. These are all smart, and in many cases brilliant, individuals, most of whom have made the decision, just like me, to leave the comfy and secure life within an established company and take a chance to work in a finicky market for a company that has a high probability of not seeing their 2nd, let alone their 3rd, round of financing. We are all playing the most important roles in our careers as we help create and launch the next, what we hope will be, “revolutionary” Internet product or service.
Traditional corporate America can’t offer you that.
With the feeling of exhilaration that comes from watching a company form and take shape, comes the desire to work hard, work really hard, to see if maybe, just maybe, you will one day be able to say that you played an important role in defining an industry that is altering the world forever.
The powers-that-be at successful dot.coms understand what they are asking of their dedicated, hard-working (and in a lot of cases, overworked) employees. They know that productive employees are happy employees.
As the market fluctuates and the Internet industry tries to find some solid ground, it looks like the fundamental nature of dot.com start-ups will continue to be built on fun. And in my opinion, that’s not such a bad way to earn a paycheck.
More to come ….