On January 18 I walked into my office at ebeon Ltd. in New York City to find everyone gathered in the unfinished conference room listening to a phone call from our managing director in Ireland. He told us that the company had missed payroll, that there would be no severance pay and that no one was quite sure what has happened to our 401k deposits. The telephone was sitting on the edge of the table, stretched as far as possible from the wall. This was fitting because, despite the fact that we were given state-of-the-art global cell phones, no one had gotten around to buying an extension cord. The upshot of the conversation was that eircom, the majority owner of our Dublin-based e-commerce architecture firm, had just had a board meeting and decided not to give our company a new round of financing. Ebeon had ceased to exist.
The shock wore off when the phrase “possible liquidation” was mentioned, and the office sprang into action. Employees started grabbing empty boxes and loading anything of value into them. I packed up my laptop, cell phone, stapler and fresh box of tissues. The swift-and-merciless put Unix servers into trash bags and wheeled them out the door. At the same time, deliveries from Staples arrived and were either pillaged for the box they came in or thrown onto dollies and put in the trunks of cabs. Someone called a cousin in Long Island and told him to drive his van into the city. The elevator operators looked the other way. Everyone in the office was on the phone to a recruiter, 401k provider, health insurer, bank manager or angry spouse. People I’d never seen with a cigarette were openly smoking and throwing the butts in half-filled Starbucks cups. I contemplated stuffing the postage machine into my laptop bag.
There was a short discussion about whether we should stick around until our managing director got back from Dublin. I summoned my leadership abilities (one of the reasons I was hired), gathered my belongings and marched out the door, pausing only to grab some spare Lipton tea packets. I had to go to a coffee shop to pick up an emergency check from a friend. Visions of bounced telephone and rent checks spurred me on.
By the time our managing director arrived from Dublin, ebeon looked like a house in Who-Ville after a visit from the Grinch.
How I came to be sitting in a coffee shop in Grand Central Station on a rainy Thursday afternoon with bags of files and office supplies at my feet is not a new or shocking story for anyone who has followed the demise of the dot-com industry in the last year.
I arrived in New York in June 1999 to take a job with a sweatshop start-up that paid me $2,100 a month (my rent was $1,400), had no air conditioning and offered no health insurance for the first three months. The big payoff was the promise of riches once the company went public. After seven weeks of dripping onto my keyboard and working into the night, I downloaded my e-mail addresses of friends and job contacts and headed for a recruiter. In the summer of 1999, things were good. Very good.
Headhunters were shocked at my low salary and threw out phrases like “free massages” and “company-wide rafting trips.” To someone struggling to pay off a Northwestern master’s degree in journalism, and whose last job as web editor at a Chicago museum paid $30,000, it felt like entering a new universe — one that included an office espresso machine! I had three job offers in two days and became a project manager with Pixelpark, a German Internet services firm. I received an attractive options plan and a $20,000 salary increase.
In October, the company flew us to Berlin for a half-million dollar IPO party featuring silent silver-suited dancers, a never-ending buffet and a popular German rock band whose one lyric seemed to be “Do you love your MOTHER?!” We danced, met our colleagues from other offices, drank Kiwi martinis and went home at dawn. Pixelpark was the largest Internet firm in Europe, and this was a major press event in Germany. The company went public on the Frankfurt stock exchange and the stock climbed steadily from its opening at 16 euros (approximately $16). By March 2000, one share of Pixelpark stock was worth $196. Back home, the U.S. office was paying a typically outrageous $62 a square foot for office space in Soho and had only two clients.
In April 2000, a reality check arrived courtesy of the NASDAQ crash. Pixelpark’s managing director in Berlin took this as a sign, and the sign read “Exit.” The stock price had plummeted, and the New York office was deemed too expensive to keep open. By May, we were through. For the 15 or so employees, it was a soft landing. We were given two months severance pay and treated to a boozy lunch at a just-past-hip café in Soho as a farewell. We stumbled into the late afternoon, hugged each other and made plans to meet the following week to talk about our new fabulous jobs. We flagged down cabs that took us to other bars where we regaled other friends with our terrible news.
The industry had taken a knock but was still standing. Even after stock prices fell, venture capitalists still reached for checkbooks and start-ups kept starting up. But shaky business plans were given more than a once-over, and CEOs stopped throwing lavish launch parties. There was a pause, but no panic.
I went back to the recruiters. There were still a lot of jobs out there, but I was picky this time. No shaky start-ups, no venture-capital rounds of funding, no 25-year-old CEOs playing Ping-Pong and smoking joints for lunch. I didn’t want IBM, but I wanted something solid. Ebeon offered the chance to travel to Europe and learn some new technical skills. They were 51 percent owned by the largest telecommunications company in Ireland. They had some big clients, including the Bank of Ireland. And they had big plans for the United States. I picked a start date two weeks away and traveled to Chicago to see my friends. I came back to New York and went to Coney Island, where I walked the pier and contemplated my luck — my salary had gotten another $20,000 bump.
I was the third employee hired. We set up shop in temporary offices in the Graybar building in Midtown Manhattan. Our neighbor was a middle-age real estate broker who kept popping his head in the office and saying, “What do you guys do again?” What I did was travel to the Dublin office to learn ebeon’s complicated e-commerce delivery process and wait to apply it to our first real client. The attitude of the home office employees was somewhat skeptical. They had a strong office in Dublin and management was raising some eyebrows by expanding to New York, California and Milan (“What? Are we in the bloody fashion business now?!”). Ebeon already had an office in London.
I think the employees saw us taking another pint of the company blood every time we hired someone new in the United States. The Dublin CEO didn’t seem worried. He rented an apartment on the Upper East Side, treated us to dinner at the chic Thai restaurant Vong and bought rounds of drinks that totaled hundreds of dollars at the end of the evening. NASDAQ, Smazdaq . . . this was living.
In the fall of 2000, we moved to different temporary offices on 53rd and Lexington. We were having Internet connection problems and network problems. In fact, we were having all kinds of problems. The company was growing, but there was no one to handle human resources issues. I handed out W-4s, copied passports and green cards, and tried to explain why we didn’t yet have a 401k set up. My Irish computer had a pound sign instead of a dollar sign. I worked on the redesign of the company intranet, trading e-mail volleys with the Dublin office over whether we were an “organization” or an “organisation.” I started to get the feeling that Dublin didn’t “realise” ebeon was a global company.
Later that fall, we moved to our permanent space and finally hired a managing director. The sales team seemed to be getting some leads. Despite a few unfortunate hiring choices — a condescending project director who made the staff feel like they were about to get spanked and a sales guy who spent most of his time planning his honeymoon in Maui — ebeon had assembled some of the brightest people I had ever worked with. We were assured that by January we would land some big projects. We headed into the holidays with a low-key dinner at a high-end Mexican restaurant because the London office had “overspent” on a wild party with a Matrix theme.
Around the same time, our cell phones lost service a few times due to “account non-payment,” and someone in the office said his insurance was void. People traveling for work were told to use their own credit cards and wait for reimbursement. Small steps on the way to the brink, but no one had their arms out for the fall.
After the abrupt closing of ebeon in January, there was a period of outrage. In New York, our final paychecks were deposited, and then, in a manner more suited to an organization in Sicily, the money was removed in the middle of the night. A message board for grievances and information was set up and accusations flew. I started signing my missives “celtictigermyass.com.” but in the end, we were left to borrow money from family and friends and wish we’d made off with the expensive Italian office chairs.
After a few days, my condition became clear — unemployed, uninsured, owing money to the IRS. I headed off for a mandatory appointment at my local unemployment office in downtown Brooklyn. After I was chastised for walking in with coffee — “You can’t bring that in here. This is a GOVERNMENT office!” — I waited in a long line without the aid of caffeine or The New York Times to relieve my boredom. The orientation included a pep talk about broadening our search horizons, i.e., if we worked with computers, maybe we could fix refrigerators!
I left the building relieved that I would continue to receive my $344 a week and was mocked by a sticker on the subway touting the possibility of making $100,000 a year from home. The web address was “www.idontwork.com.” I continued to call recruiters, answer ads and send my resume all over the Internet. Every day there were new layoffs and one headhunter informed me that she had 400 resumes and five open jobs. I started to entertain the possibility that my only marketable skill may have been acquired during a 1988 stint as an off-campus bartender.
After two months of living on borrowed money, unemployment checks and vague memories of dining out, I decided to trade espresso machines and stock options for four weeks of vacation and a solid pension plan. I took a job as a business analyst for the New York Transportation Authority. In what may be a sign of things to come, I can’t start until they’ve processed my application and done a criminal background check (outside of some loud Campus View parties, I should pass). This could take several weeks. This will be my fourth job since arriving in New York less than two years ago, but, since the city government is unlikely to disappear any time soon, it may be my last. Now if I can only figure out how to get my coffee inside . . .
Christy Conklin has been a deck hand on an Australian cargo ship and a freelance writer for The History of Notre Dame Football CD-ROM. She is waging war with her landlord for the return of her security deposit while waiting to take her position with the New York Transit Authority.