The Talk Every Startup Employee Dreads


I won’t fuck you but the company sure will.

During the height of the tech bubble of the late 1990s, pretty much anybody could get a decent paying job in IT, even someone like me with a worthless English degree from a shitty state university in New Jersey. But don’t get too jealous millennial kids. The economy of the dotcom bubble wasn’t as good as it may seem in retrospect. Even though I had been using FreeBSD for a decade and Linux almost since the beginning, that didn’t mean I was going to get hired at Microsoft or Goldman Sachs. That usually takes a B.S. from Stanford or MIT. Technically I was making a living wage. In reality, I worked for so many disreputable startups, and changed jobs so many times, I had to factor gaps in employment into my budget. I may have had health insurance once or twice. I don’t think I ever worked long enough in one place to use it.

Then there’s the talk every employee at every venture capital funded startup dreads. It goes something like this. The CEO calls a company wide meeting. There’s often food. If the food is good, get ready for the worst. There’s a presentation. This is a great company, the CEO maintains. You’re all valuable employees. Our time together has been rewarding and educational. We hope to continue to work together and grow as a company. You are all part of the — insert the name of disreputable startup here — family,  and there will always be a place for you at — insert the name of the disreputable and now defunct and long forgotten startup here — as long as I’m in charge of the company. Unfortunately while we believe that our business model is sound, the second round of financing has been delayed. We are currently seeking alternative sources of revenue, which we are confident will come through within the month. Unfortunately we do not have the revenue to pay your salaries at this time.

Employee: “Does this mean we’re all laid off?”

Tech Startup CEO: “You are not being laid off.”

Employee: “So you’re asking us to work for free?”

Tech Startup CEO: “Absolutely not. When the alternative second round of funding comes through you will all be given your back pay in full.”

There are few certainties in life. Democrats will never support single payer or stop talking about Russia. Republicans will continue to be racists. All cops are bastards. Dogs are stupid. Cats are assholes. The Israelis will never stop building settlements or oppressing the Palestinians. Windows 10 will continue to suck. All of these are certainties. But the biggest certainty of all is that once a startup employee gets the talk and is asked to work for free, even for a week, even for a day, he will never see another penny from the company. All “the talk” really means is that the cheap bastards you’re working for either don’t want to pay for unemployment, or haven’t filed the right paperwork that will allow their employees to collect unemployment after they’re laid off. The only purpose of the talk is to get you to quit. That way the company is off the hook, and you’re fucked. Sadly, the only thing to do once you get the talk is to quit. Keep your laptop. Send out whatever nasty e-mails you want to send out. Leak whatever inside information you can. Get your stuff and get out before they have the cops escort you out of the building.

The Fyre Festival’s employees just got the talk.

In my previous post on the Fyre Festival I said that I didn’t think Ja Rule and Billy McFarland were out and out scam artists, that a scam would have been better organized. But at some point you realize that the line between an out and out scam and a badly organized startup is never totally clear. Like so many tech startups in the late 1990s, the Fyre Festival was a company without a product to sell. They hired people probably knowing that at some point they wouldn’t be able to meet payroll. Judging by the leaked phone call, the Fyre Festival’s employees are onto the scam and intend to walk as soon as possible. Good for them. They’re in a lot better shape than most people who have heard “the talk.” Everybody knows about the Fyre Festival. The organizers are facing lawsuits from disgruntled ticket buyers. Those employees will probably not only get their unemployment claims accepted, they’ll probably get a cut of the money from the eventual court settlement. Let’s hope Ja Rule and Billy McFarland both do some jail time. Maybe in the future it will discourage these kinds of bullshit startups from ever getting any funding at all and hiring employees in the first place. It might also help put a stop to unpaid internships and the idea that a company’s success will eventually “trickle down” to its wage slaves.

Addendum: Nina Simone once tried to shoot a man for cheating her out of her wages. Just another reason she was a great artist and a great American.

2 thoughts on “The Talk Every Startup Employee Dreads

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