It is two weeks before my fortieth birthday, and until last week my main thought was: bring it on.
Last week two things happened. We hired four more people, and then we looked meticulously at every city, reran the numbers multiple times, and discovered that our burn rate had spread to uncontained conflagration. The revelation was grossly belated. Our money would be gone in two months time.
In the past twelve months, the startup I co-founded has grown from three to 213 employees. My co-founder, Philippa, lives in Manhattan, so I run the office here in California, managing the people whom I have hired and grown close to, and she runs the company, closely involved, but from afar. Our assumption was that Joe, our CFO, was running the numbers. He was not. I could blame him—a friend of our investors who was forced upon us to manage their money—and I do. But I also know I willingly let the bliss of ignorance and buzz of small fame blind me.
We have spent the last five days playing God, negotiating and determining the worth of everyone who works for us. This morning I will lay off ten of my employees. The next twenty are already identified.
By order of our investors I will call it a restructuring, a reorganization around an exciting new opportunity with a partner whose well-known name I will pimp as promise of future prosperity. The partnership is possible. But this is a layoff. And it is smaller than it should be. Philippa and I have argued we should cut thirty people now, pivot focus, and control the fire. But we’re told we can’t send that sort of message to the market. The numbers matter, but never as much as the image of ourselves we intend for others to see.
Somewhere, fortieth birthdays are cause for black napkins that say “Over the Hill”, for mourning the death of your childbearing years, and settling into mid-life stagnation. Not here. In Silicon Valley, the fortieth birthday is license to go big and go celebrate just how young and productive you still are. Take the ladies to spa at Solage Calistoga, or VRBO a place in Cabo for couples debauchery. Your company just got acquired, or you secured your Series A, and/or you’ve trained for an Ironman, raised millions running the school auction, and are pregnant with your fourth child. At the very least, you’ve completed a successful home remodel and recently adopted a puppy. There’s nothing old or tired about you. As far as you’re concerned, you’re just getting started.
I don’t measure up to all the local standards (only two kids, house falling apart even without a pet, and I don’t bike or run except away from the PTA), and, without an exit or a big company salary, I have the kind of birthday budget that buys a prom-themed party bus with a dance pole rather than a hosted luxury weekend. But I’m more of a party bus gal anyway, and I measure my standards according to how my sons might see me. And so, two months ago, from inside my office on a Tuesday afternoon, I booked the party bus. I remember the day.
At breakfast, my family had sat at the blonde wood table where we ate all of our meals. “Are you the boss, Mommy?” nine-year-old Wilson asked, serious and slurping at the milk dripping down his chin. I’d been half-heartedly complaining to my husband, Noah, who also runs a startup company, about my investor, Samir. “Like, in charge who makes the decisions?” Wilson said through his mouthful of LIFE.
“She is,” Noah said, always supportive of me, though that was never wholeheartedly true.
“Philippa and I,” I said, “yes.” And then I said, “pretty much” because there was Samir, who oversaw everything we did with the inescapable and demoralizing authority of having funded it.
“But Philippa lives in New York,” Wilson said. “So you’re the boss, Mommy.”
I let this declaration stand. Why not? My son was proud of me.
Seven-year-old Ben, always inclusive and jolly, said, “Daddy has a company too,” and Noah nodded. The boys beamed, and drank their juice.
They do not know that most startups fail. They only know that we do what their town is famous for, and this makes us famous, in their eyes, too. They are sure their mommy can do anything; to them I am smart and strong. This is success. It is also temporary.
It is 5:15 AM and frigid for a California November. Outside it’s thirty-nine degrees, and inside it’s warmed to sixty-four. I’ve been up since 4:00 AM fielding work emails, floating inside the sense that I have found myself in some foreign dystopia. I drink hot water, and sit with my back against the wall on top of the heating vent in my kitchen, clenching my core muscles and waiting for the minutes to pass until I leave for swim practice. I stare at the document our HR consultant gave us yesterday.
Affected employees will experience a wide range of emotions. You need to be prepared to respond effectively. No matter what the reactions, do not take them personally.
I think about Cheryl, a spunky, single mom who swears endearingly, belly laughs, and carries a thick Craftsman pocketknife in her bra or skirt back pocket. She calls the knife an accessory: once a Menlo Park police officer and now a startup marketer, it is no longer legal for her to carry a gun. Cheryl is not unstable and I am not afraid of her possible ire. Her armed presence reassures us all on those late nights under the flickering fluorescent tubes, after she has made her homemade chai, and we have ordered fried sandwiches, finished beers and polished the deck, and we go trooping out into the blackened garage to find our cars. Cheryl can also run SCRUM. I am not worried for her. But I will miss her. In fact, I already do.
Today is the last day I can cancel the bus, I think. The idea of having a celebration for myself has begun to seem unsound.
Last night, Wilson seemed to smell my shame. He asked why I wouldn’t run a football pattern with him before we settled down in his bed to read.
“Sorry buddy,” I said. “I’m distracted. Sad.”
“What for?” he asked, and I told him why. “Just don’t do it,” he said. “You’re the boss, Mommy. Right?”
If I ever had been, I am not now. I feel responsible, and also like a hired goon.
I table the potential bus cancellation to revisit later, and consider how much I would like to climb back into bed with Ben, who always receives me with raw gratitude and delight. Curling around him and breathing in his groggy breath, I would be instantly warm and safe—revered. But I need to swim and it’s time to go, so I push myself up and stretch out my shoulders, reminding my body that it wants the sweet burn of endorphins, especially right now.
Just get out the door, I think.
Get in the pool.
The swimming has always sustained me. But today I am apprehensive.
The swim is good and hard and I am indeed more exhausted and calm as I drive to the San Mateo Marriot to collect Philippa, who has come for the initial execution. Today I will fire the people I hired, and she will wait for me to finish. Then we will stand together, as partners, in front of the ones who remain, and partially feign excitement over the “next phase” of our company. She gets in my car and as always, I am glad to see her.
“How you doing?” she says in her chipper English accent.
“Eh,” I say, conserving articulation and alluding to gloom.
“Right,” she says, acknowledging our anguish, but in her optimistic way. We are emotionally worn out and nervous, but she is not from here. I don’t think she adequately foresees the fallout.
I maneuver the few blocks to the office, slump back into my seat, turn off the engine and raise my eyebrows at her. The planning for this has been heady and charged. But now I feel kind of weak, as if I am six and developing a fever. I want somebody to put me back to bed. I wish that we could flee.
“Who suspects it?” she asks.
“No one,” I say. No one does. Today will be the end of the blind march toward success, of the trajectory toward bigger, better, and more, more, more.
Our business is starting to shut down. This morning will be the last time we will ever spend in our office without knowing that everyone is simultaneously working for us, and job-hunting. The panic doesn’t take long to spread, and it is rarely unjustified.
I use my hot pink and orange customized badge to buzz us through, and Philippa and I slip into our nearly brand new office, large enough to have two break rooms stocked with Chardonnay, abandoned condiments, and large tubs of Costco pretzels. We fall into the lobby, past the never-been-staffed receptionist desk and the cluster of low-slung gunmetal couches that form a semicircle in the entryway. The adjacent wall holds hanging racks populated with copies of stories from tech trade magazines. The photos of us have been mercifully flattering. Past the press, we enter the still, overheated air of our own little valley of plastic.
I think: In this place I have been who I wanted to be.
The 8 AM sun streams in and illuminates flying colonies of dust motes, hovering most heavily above the Operations team’s domain. They are pretty, and a kind of delight. I have become office-proud because, unlike our previous dark, shared space in a dentistry complex near the train station, we are now three floors above the Hillsborough landscape of green, and the entire western wall is gleaming glass. The fifty yards of seats and partitions look expectant, the way I have come to anticipate they always will in the early mornings when I arrive: generally first, and always alone. But not today.
I think: What will they look like tomorrow?
Philippa and I greet the HR consultant and hide her in a clandestine conference room, and then Philippa says, “good luck” and “I’m sorry” to me. She means it, and I know this. I nod and give her the go ahead to grab a cubicle. I retreat into my newly inhabited corner office, as if putting distance between us will make any difference, alter our calculated attack against whom we have chosen. But we are both rattled and upset, and I need a silent screen to stare at until I have to speak. I sit heavily in my cushioned swivel chair and review the schedule, and also what I’m meant to say. Cheryl is at 8:45, Peter at 9. Thereafter others follow fifteen minutes apart until finally, at 11, I tell John to leave the building. The script is clear, and I am reminded to stick to it.
“After careful evaluation, I regret to inform you that your position is being eliminated. Your last day of employment with us will be today.”
Will anyone ever fire my sons? Unquestionably, someone will hurt them. Please let it not be me.
I try speaking the words aloud but my voice cracks and I go silent at the word “eliminated”. I have more saliva than usual: it pools like a moat around my tongue. Through my glass partition I scan the room for Cheryl, will her not to show, and decide to save saying my lines for the real performance. A dress rehearsal would land the final straw inviting utter disingenuousness. I read through the document.
“This is not a layoff. We’ve decided to shift our business model and restructure our workforce. The decision is final.”
Layoffs are done to save money, to tourniquet the bleed of ignorant over-hiring and spendthrift leaders. Nearly every “lean” startup performs them. Fifty percent of the people I know have been laid off at one time or another, just as others—and some of the same—have been divorced. People survived such mundane tragedies, even thrived in their wake, and yet somehow I assumed that I could not, my husband could not, my children could not. I would not make-do well after having a job or husband that left me. I imagined I would wake up at one in the morning, enjoy a few seconds of calm, and then be struck with the memory that I had become a failure, a cast-off, an anonymous anomaly.
What else are you, once you have been eliminated?
Most Common Reactions
I can’t help but assume that anger and denial, maybe shock, will be the prevalent reactions today. I assess that I can handle those. I am angry too, and not only at myself.
As I wait for Cheryl to arrive, my fingertips get nervy. I can’t type. My hands seem stupid, two numbed appendages, and I hold them under the desk, squeezing them between my legs. I want to reply to the email that just came in, subject line: Final Confirmation, Bay City Buses Transportation. Suddenly it’s obvious: this is no time to be planning a party.
A month ago, on Halloween, I came to work with permanent pink streaks in my long blonde hair and a rhinestone skull thrust through the closed-up hole on the top of my left ear. John, our timid web design guy with a superhero obsession, was dressed as Captain America. Cheryl, like seven other women, was a cat. Stephen the engineer had rented a full body gorilla suit, and my VP of marketing, Zoe, a perky blonde triathlete who insisted on cycling to any of her son’s lacrosse games that took place within a thirty-mile radius, was decked out in Goth makeup and black nail polish. The company costume contest was planned for 3 p.m.
At 10 a.m. that day I attended our usual Wednesday morning investor meeting in the large frigid conference room. Philippa was on mute, Joe postured across the way wearing his vacuous wholesale smirk, and Samir reclined next to me with his shirt stretched across his bocce ball potbelly, his bare feet propped on the table to the side of his laptop. His feet were brown, his toes uncalloused, and their particular shade and smoothness served to highlight the horn yellow color of his longish, moon rind nails. I studied them as we did what had become the usual dance, a box step around launch schedules and the latest scheme to organically acquire more email subscribers. We sold daily deals, and I believed we hawked them with the highest intent. The press called us “GroupMom,” and we publicly proclaimed ourselves “Groupon meets Avon.” My noble ambition was to help local businesses and empower local moms, and indeed we seemed to have raised a modest but loyal family of employees and clients. It wasn’t enough: we needed more customers. But my purpose had been served.
At 1 p.m., I met with product management and faked assurance over the next release, then sat in the pit of cubicles recently desegregated to prevent engineer supremacy meetings. I wanted to hear things. The North Bay deal, some sort of Halloween-themed wine tasting, was selling like hotcakes, and our VP of Sales, Ginny-from-Texas-who-drove-a-pink-Hummer, was electrified. It was a silly thing. The product we sold would not, by and large, benefit anyone. But as I watched the sales numbers climb—watched the figures reappear larger with every click of the cul-de-sac-shaped refresh arrow at the top my screen—my sense of accomplishment and self-reassurance rose with them.
At 3 p.m. Cheryl won the costume contest, catapulted to victory with a subpar outfit because she was loved and this was what mattered. I handed her the cauldron of candy and sped off at 4 to relieve the sitter.
Cheryl arrives, tall and dark, fresh-faced and strong. She bounces into the light gray pool of carpet and chin-high partitions, ergonomically adjusted screens, and scattered oscillating space heaters. She powers up her computer with a smile and says good morning to Lisa, a manager who was put through notification training last night, and so knows that Cheryl is about to be let go. She also knows, as do I, that thirty-year-old Cheryl has just put in an offer on her first house with her new husband. We both know that Cheryl is good and hard working, and we are already jealous of her next employer. We know her cats’ names, ask after their illnesses, and buy her Vitamin C packets, nail polish, and cookies we know she will like. There are twenty of us, and we all do these things for each other, make small offerings to camaraderie and the collective familial feeling of toiling toward a common goal. We spend all day together. Or we did.
Lisa’s “morning” back to Cheryl, though mute to me, looks as if it is uncharacteristically curt and somber. Behind my wraparound desk I put my head between my knees, interlace my fingers, then throw them over my head to stretch my shoulders. I hold my breath for five long seconds and then I blow it out, and in, out and in.
I get up and advance toward Cheryl, intrigued to find that I feel like I’m floating, naked and numb, the way I always seemed to rise above the dentist office chair when the sweet nectar of nitrous oxide was pumped inside my nostrils. Somehow, I reach her.
“Cheryl, can we talk real quick?” I say, aware that the come-on is pathetic and clichéd. I am a fool even my children would recognize. “So talk,” Wilson might say. But this is new to me—I don’t know how to be clever when I am hurting someone with whom I have grown protective and familiar.
Cheryl glances up, smiles, and then visibly fights not to recoil at my discomfort. The morning flush vanishes from her cheeks and the bottom drops out of my stomach. I turn and indicate that I want her to follow me down the hall, and then we walk, single file, away.
The twenty-yard trip takes an eternity, and when we finally buzz through the door and round the bend to the conference room, Cheryl registers the unfamiliar HR consultant who stands to receive her, and her pretty shoulders slump and fold in toward her chest. “Just don’t do it,” I hear Wilson say. “You’re the boss, Mom. Right?”
Suddenly I am desperate to protect him. And Cheryl. But of course, I cannot.
The object of this in person meeting is to convey as concisely and as humanely possible the pertinent information regarding the elimination of position(s) and how if affects the individual(s).
“Come in,” says Michelle. “Have a seat.” She tells Cheryl her name. Michelle is here to make sure I say the right things to Cheryl, to keep the company out of legal trouble, and also to go over Cheryl’s severance package with her as soon as I leave the room. Michelle will clean up the mess I am about to make—or try to.
“Hi.” Cheryl offers her hand and lets it be shook. There is no need to give her name. It is clear to us both that Michelle already knows it, as well as Cheryl’s address, birth date, social security number, and salary, which will cease in two weeks’ time.
We sit down. I take a deep breath, and almost cough on my own spit. “So, Cheryl,“ I manage. “We’re going to be focusing on some upcoming partnerships and we have to restructure our team here at corporate.” I sound like the anal-retentive yard duty, glasses perched on my nose, afraid of being hit by the big red first grade dodge ball, screaming at the children to stop horsing around. Why is my voice so high?
Slow down, I tell myself, wondering if maybe I won’t have to say any more. I am sure this is the point in the conversation, or delivery, that I would know I was losing my job.
Please let me off the hook, I think.
Say you get it. Say you’ll be fine.
Cheryl says nothing, so I continue. I tell her the “restructuring” affects people here at corporate and also in other locations. I tell her it is effective immediately.
The discomfort of the silence that follows is extravagant and deep. There should be questions, and anger. Maybe accusations. I wait for them, and then when she does not produce any, I fling them at myself. How did I let this happen? I think. Somehow I have been negligent and weak. But I am surprised to see her eyes begin to tear; surprised that she still says nothing. She waits for me to tell her more.
Stick to the script.
“This is not personal or reflective of the quality of the work you have done. We simply have to run this as the lean start up it is and react quickly to give the company the best shot at success.”
But, silently, Cheryl begins to cry. Anger. Shock. Denial. Acceptance. They did not warn me about the Sadness.
I open my mouth in a small dry O and look sideways in my seat at Michelle. She is smiling placidly. This is procedure for her—she does this shit all week, all year. How can she?
I decide to screw the script. I place both hands on the conference room table and look up. “Cheryl,” I say. “I’m sorry. We have to cut your position. It has nothing to do with your performance, with your work.” I am unsure how to say it best and so I say, “I’ll miss you. We all will.”
“I’ll miss you too,” she says quickly through controlled sobs. And then she says: “I understand.”
I’m not sure that I do. Michelle still as looks placid as a mannequin. She nods slightly at me, reminding me to deliver the critical closer. I restrain myself from giving her the finger.
“Today has to be your last day,” I say stiffly to Cheryl, feeling irrelevant and overbearing. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” Cheryl says. “I just loved it here. It was like…family.”
What’s this? I think, and sit up a good deal more straight. With a pang of regret, I feel giddy validation, and then the blunting blot of irritation and shame. My face feels as though it is violently blushing. I know that empathy, not relief, is the humanely appropriate emotion. Where does my anguish escape to? There is no outrunning it: I am immediately pleased—in a deep and unavoidable way—that it is painful for her to leave me.
To her, I am smart and strong.
Instead of leaving the room, I sit with Cheryl while she cries. One by one, I tell the rest of them.
When it is over, I cry a little too. But the tears feel forced. And I do not cancel the party bus.
Rumpus original art by Estevan Guzman.