My Experience(s) in the Tech Bubble, Boutique Edition

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By all accounts, I’ve had a successful freelance writing career. Though I’ve mostly left the freelance world behind for a stable staff position in continuing education media, I had the good fortune of doing client work for a lot of big companies and media organizations, with my byline viewed by millions in some cases. (Like the time a story of mine got syndicated by the now-defunct Yahoo! Shine). But I’ve had my share of bad experiences, too. A career in media/technology has its ups and downs—-or rather, its spectacular ski jumps and horrific subway collapses. Because when things go wrong in tech and media, they tend to go REALLY wrong. While painful to endure at the time, these bad experiences serve as valuable lessons for the future—and excellent cocktail-party conversation. Here are two of my favorite examples.

When Content Marketing Goes Snake Oil
I’ve done a lot of “content marketing” over the years, which is a fancy way of saying that I wrote keyword-optimized articles that were designed to drive traffic to websites. Those articles made money for the publishers one of two ways—-1) driving more traffic to websites so that those websites could sell more advertising; or 2) to help generate sales leads from the traffic that came to the sites (it was hoped that readers would click on something that captured their email address). Sometimes it was a combination of both. It was a common business model in the mid-2000s, but it’s started to wane in recent years because the value of online ad impressions keeps dropping, and it’s hard to convert any content website’s visitors into  paying sales leads. The steep obstacles don’t stop a lot of  companies from trying to make it work, though most companies these days have moved on to “branded content,” also known as “native content” (which I’ve also done. It’s basically targeted ad copy made to look like a magazine.)

A year or two ago I spent about six months writing healthcare content for a website that helped generate sales leads for insurance brokers around the United States. They wanted to set up a comprehensive content-marketing portal that covered all kinds of topics—ranging from healthcare to personal finance to fashion—and hired reputable journalists like me to do the articles to ensure high content quality. (The insurance brokers sold all kinds of insurance and wanted to attract a wide audience demographic of affluent 30-50somethings with discerning tastes.) I was hired based on my two decades’ experience creating vetted healthcare content. I did stories on topics ranging from how to choose a pediatrician or a chiropractor to why it was a good idea to get a flu shot, always quoting credentialed medical professionals and using scientific evidence to support the articles. My editor loved how this kind of high-quality, professionally sourced copy got rewarded by the Google search algorithm and helped drive traffic to the lead-generation site. I was paid well for the work and did it for several months, always earning praise from my editor, who (bonus!) always paid me on time. (Anyone who has ever freelanced knows that low-maintenance, kind editors who pay well on time are the Holy Grail of the publishing industry.)

Then all hell broke loose.

My longtime editor suddenly announced she was leaving the company. (I learned later that she’d been fired). She was replaced by a “brand strategist” who wanted to quintuple site traffic in only two months, and start selling way more ad impressions on the site to boot. She called me up one day and informed me that I needed to stop writing “biased” medical content (She apparently thought that interviewing actual licensed physicians for medical articles was a disservice to the “alternative medicine” crowd) in favor of schlock copy that promoted juice cleanses, “vitamin cures,” and encouraged people not to vaccinate their children because it was so much safer to just use homeopathic remedies instead. (Because, apparently, there is big money in online ads for all of this snake-oil stuff, and Miss Brand Strategist wanted a piece of it.). Not only that, Miss Brand Strategist informed me I was going to have to quintuple my already full workload in exchange for—-wait for it—-greatly reduced pay. When I politely explained that as a science writer, it would be unethical for me to do any of that—-and I certainly wasn’t dumb enough to do five times the work for one third of the money—I summarily got cut from their list of freelancers.

Which in retrospect wasn’t much of a loss. (I wouldn’t have my very good job right now had I put my byline on that kind of garbage, for one thing; I could never look at myself in the mirror again, for another.) But in the short term, it was a painful loss of income. Still, I know it was the right decision. I stayed in touch with my former editor who had been so good to me during her tenure, and she later told me that the lead-generation company ended up in dire straits within about a year of the “brand strategist’s” implementation of her snake-oil ad-sales strategy. (Go figure.)

The Disappearing Job Offer
Around that same time, I got a job offer from a small California-based company that did lead generation for a chain of drug-rehabilitation hospitals. They wanted to do what a lot of companies were doing at that time—-create an online magazine that would theoretically drive traffic to their company site and generate patient leads. It’s a common business model in healthcare marketing, and I had a lot of experience with it, so I accepted the offer. Most of the staff there were under 25 and didn’t have a clue about how to start a content-marketing portal (in retrospect, that should have been my first clue of trouble ahead), and I was supposedly going to have full leeway on how to run it.

However, the job offer was rescinded shortly after I accepted it.

Apparently, the company had been sold, and the buyer decided to cancel all the new hires before we’d been on the job for a full week. The company even tried to get out of paying me for my few days’ work by saying that a job offer had never been extended, and that I’d been hired only as an unpaid intern. (I had a signed offer letter, a salary agreement, and an email trail though, so I managed to leverage that to get what I was owed.) When I told some longtime colleagues of mine what had happened, they told me that they’d also had similar experiences with lead-generation companies doing bait-and-switches, sudden job offer cancellations, nonpayment for provided labor, and the like. (Another common occurrence is the practice of tech startups and media companies asking people to do an “interview project,” where you provide several days’ worth of free labor to see if you’re “good enough” to be hired. Oftentimes, the people never got hired because they weren’t “good enough,” even though the companies still used the work they did for free.)

Apparently, building in labor costs into your business model doesn’t make the VCs happy.

It was around this time that I determined it would be a good idea to leave the online content and tech startup world behind for good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s a) that VC capital tends to make people evil; and b) the ad-revenue media model is dead, even if some are still trying sleazy, sharp-elbowed remedies to revive it. Sometimes it’s best to just get out of Dodge and go back to more civilized climes, rather than trying to make a go of it in a ghost town where the water has dried up.

Peace.

My Experience(s) In The Tech Bubble: Part I

I’m reading Dan Lyons’ book DISRUPTED right now, and enjoying every page, simply because I’ve been through my own version of almost every situation that he depicts myself. It’s laugh-out-loud funny while also being highly disturbing. I already learned long ago that tech startups are the new sweatshops, but it’s nice to see a real journalist pointing that out in response to all the deceptive, “rah=rah” tech puff pieces that are out there in the mainstream media these days. In reality life imitates art—or vice-versa, depending on how you look at it. My experience working with multiple Silicon Valley-type companies over the years as both a staffer and a freelancer is a lot like the HBO series Silicon Valley, which Lyons has written for. It’s cultish and weird, with very little connection to how the world actually operates. Profits don’t matter, people “die” at 35 (or younger), and you learn to wear the colors and speak the language of your “cult,” (also known as your employer.)

The most frequent cult color of my past employers/clients are various shades of navy blue, most of them trademarked. Cult terminology ranged from the ubiquitous “synergy” to wackier terms like “I-trafficking” (sounds like an egotistical drug dealer) and “electronic wainscoting” (a fancy way of saying “background color” for websites). And let us not forget that old chestnut, “bandwidth.” (Meaning, “Do you have time to drop everything and work on this project for me?” rather than cable-transmission speed).

My first foray into the tech world was as a proposal writer at a dot-com PR “consulting” firm in the early 2000s. (Like many similar shops of that era, the company is long gone; for the purposes of this blog, I’ll call it “The Dead Agency”.) It was my third major job after getting out of grad school (I’d already spent time as a research publications editor at a major investment bank/corporate finance firm, and as a book trade/acquisitions manager at a huge university library system). I’d also written for newspapers and magazines on the side while holding these day jobs, and had built up a portfolio of some nice clips over the previous two years (some Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune pieces, features in a couple of glossy, now-defunct niche magazines). I was hired largely due to my master’s degree from an elite university (University of Chicago) and because I knew a couple of people who already worked there. Oh, and because I was an actual published, professional writer.

It was 2000, and the economy was booming. But even in boom times, job prospects for writing/publications/types generally suck, with fifty people up for every job. (These days, it’s more like 150 people up for every job.) I’d retreated to my library job in academia (a full-time, grownup version of the work-study job I’d held part-time in graduate school) largely because the boiler-room environment of working on Chicago’s LaSalle Street (the Midwest’s answer to Wall Street) for a year or so left me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The pay there sucked, but it was peaceful. Still, I hadn’t had to go looking for my job at The Dead Agency—it sought me out via my grad school’s alumni program. I had one total-BS interview, no reference check, and they offered me a job. $35,000 a year (a decent, but not great semi-entry-level sum in 2000, and a raise over what I was earning at the university), full benefits (including free health insurance) and a “fun” workplace culture that included hip offices, casual dress, foosball, free chair massages, and all the free beer I wanted every Friday. In return, I worked sixty to seventy hours a week and frequently slept under my desk. I got harassed by horny tech bros (this was in 2000, before they were actually called horny tech bros.) One of them even gave me a full-body pat-down one day as I was leaving the office, and didn’t understand why I reported him to HR.

Dead Agency supposedly existed to provide “expert IT brand consulting” to blue-chip clients—which was just a fancy way to say, “We build websites.” Our biggest client was British Airways, and we frequently used screenshots of the site the company built for them five years earlier in our RFP proposals. The odd thing was, we didn’t seem to have many clients other than British Airways, and that work had been done years before, sometime around 1996, when the Internet was a premature infant which relied on dial-up and mostly didn’t work. My job as a proposal writer was, in part, to help bid for new business. I worked on a team of six other writers in conjunction with a bunch of Type A salespeople who would get most of the financial return on the thick RFP proposals the writers toiled on. (We put in all the time, research, and creativity in exchange for a low salary and bennies; the salespeople got the byline, the glory, and a shit-ton of cash if the deal went through).

Except most of the deals didn’t go through. We had maybe a 5% success rate, which sucks even by boiler-room standards. After I was there a year or so I wondered how the company was making any money. There had been an IPO that brought in billions even though the company never earned a profit (and the stock options I’d been granted upon hire were worthless, since the stock had tanked below even the rock-bottom option strike price and never went up). At one point the office was so full of contract coders that many of them were sitting at folding tables, working on their own laptops, but it was never quite clear what client account they were building all that code for. (I asked a few times when waiting for project research to come in on a proposal, and was told that the project was “proprietary,” and summarily told to go play Foosball.)

Which is not to say that we didn’t bid on a lot of big clients. During my time there, I wrote RFPs for companies and organizations ranging from Mattel to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to Ford to Enron. (Yep, Enron. And my corporate overlords were really mad when we lost that contract to a competitor called Redfish, which unlike The Dead Agency at least managed to survive the aftermath.) We won maybe 5% of our bids, which is a crap ratio by any standard—-and it largely had to do with the company massively overpricing its services despite the fact that the IT staff mostly wasn’t up to speed on the latest tech.

Free stock photo of person, creative, working, writing

When not spending 60-70-hour weeks writing losing RFP responses to loser companies like Enron, life at The Dead Agency had little to do with work. One day, my boss told me I needed to become the proposal team’s PowerPoint expert. (circa 2000-01, this was actually something you could put on your resume without being laughed at, so I bit.) He told me the team was going to be spending more time doing PowerPoint pitches to prospective clients, and he wanted our stuff to look good. He told me to spend a week learning as much as I could about “optimizing” PowerPoint for business pitches (the fact that PowerPoint was created for this express purpose notwithstanding), and to prepare a Lunch and Learn presentation on the topic. He also told me to make it “fun.” So I did.

I was one of very few women on our team, and most of my fratboy-type male colleagues spent most of their time streaming bootleg South Park and Simpsons clips on their PCs (this was before YouTube). So I developed a presentation on how to sell bootleg South Park and Simpsons clips to the executive suite, complete with embedded video (a hard thing to do in 2000), sound-enhanced slide transitions, custom animation, and enhanced templates. Oh, and writing to target the “South Park demographic.” I thought the whole assignment was kind of ridiculous, so like a mouthy seventeen-year-old kid with senioritis, I made the whole assignment into a joke, complete with sketchy interpretations of the federal “fair use” copyright statute. I fully expected to be laughed at, demoted, or even fired. (I was honestly hoping for the latter so I could get a severance package from my rapidly-tanking employer before it folded, but no such luck).

Instead, I got a promotion. I even got invited to give my assclown presentation to the company CEO, who was visiting from New York the following week. He loved it, and wanted it posted to the company intranet so all seventeen of The Dead Agency’s worldwide offices could view it. (The fact a nonprofitable company that thought assclown presentations were worth promoting worldwide had seventeen offices around the globe, including Hong Kong and Tel Aviv tells you something else, too. The Dead Agency was like the Theranos of IT brand consulting. All hype, no product).

The party didn’t last, however. Shortly after 9/11, the company was out of VC money, offices got shut down all over the place, and I was out of a job—no severance offered other than negative-value stock options for The Dead Agency’s soon-to-be-delisted stock. And that, as they say, was that.

Stay tuned for Part Two: My Time in the (Second) Tech Bubble: Boutique Edition.

Peace.

 

What I Like (And Don’t): A Tribute to Prince

Prince is dead. I enjoyed his music. I wasn’t a rabid fan, but I knew most of his major songs by heart and always liked to watch him perform. I knew that he wrote songs for lots of other musicians, too (“Manic Monday” is probably my favorite non-Beatles song ever, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor is magnificent.) Prince was a storyteller, and as a storyteller myself his work always struck a chord (pardon the pun) with me, even as a child. Circa 1984 at age ten, I had a Purple Rain LP that I wore out on my portable turntable. I watched his videos a lot on cable, and always wondered why he had those asymmetrical buttons on his crotch on all those pairs of skintight purple pants of his. (Nobody else had pants like that, not even Michael Jackson. As a poor kid who mostly wore hand-me-downs and thrift-store clothes at the time, I thought it was cool that Prince wore clothes nobody else seemed to wear, and people seemed to like that about him instead of tease him about it, like I was.)

Prince was an enigma, a quiet, shy person who didn’t say much out loud but said a great deal with his writing (lyrics, music, and other art forms). He valued solitude and peace but took no crap. I especially admired that about him, and even as a ten-year-old kid, thought I’d found a kindred spirit when he showed up at the Grammys and didn’t give any acceptance speeches other than “Thank you.” Prince let his art do the talking and that was it. In the mid-1980s I was a latchkey kid from a broken home that nobody at school seemed to understand because I was quiet and different, and when I saw Prince, I said to myself, I want to be like THAT when I grow up.

Okay, well, that part probably didn’t work out quite so well. I don’t have a sprawling mansion in Minnesota and I don’t have millions or dollars, and nobody besides my immediate family would mourn me if I died. But I do think I stuck to that notion. I, too, value solitude and peace and take no crap. I wear what I like, and I use my creativity to make my living. (It’s not a rock-star living, but it’s a decent one.)  I have ethics and apply them to my work and my life. Prince seemed to do the same.

Here’s my tribute, such as it is—-a statement of what I like, and what I don’t. It’s not much, but sometimes it snows in April.

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I don’t ask for much, folks. Be nice, be factual, pay attention to reality, do your fact-checking, and make art. Learn to recognize what is real and what is manufactured. Tell the truth, and don’t be petty. Don’t break all your toys and go home when something doesn’t go well. Persevere. Don’t trust what authority is feeding you: learn to test everything empirically and draw your own conclusions. Speak truth to power. Learn to embrace change instead of fighting it, because the only thing that is constant in this life, is change. Sometimes the “inevitable” isn’t inevitable at all. Sometimes the good guys win, even if it makes you mad, or sad.

Where there’s smoke, there’s generally fire.

You are who you associate with. (Lie down with dogs/get up with fleas, and so on).

You can often tell what kind of a person someone is by how much profanity they use, and how they use it. (Profanity itself isn’t bad. But targeting it at specific people for malicious reasons is. Prince often used profanity in his songs, but never in real life, and he’d call people on it if they did it around him. Just ask Van Jones.) Generally speaking, if you wouldn’t want your kids or your mom or your boss to hear it, it’s probably something to keep either in your bedroom or in a barroom.

Picking fights with your friends and then abandoning them when they stand up to you is generally called bullying, not friendship.

I like tea and ice cream. I like comfortable shoes. I like red lipstick. I don’t like schmoozing.

I don’t think money should open doors. Only people should open doors, and for reasons that have nothing to do with themselves.

The world needs more humility.

The ends never justify the means if the means are wrong.

Don’t be fake. I don’t like fake people. If you don’t know how to be real, start by being yourself. (Stop trying to impress people with your stuff or your job or your friends, and just be kind. That usually works.)

Class cannot be bought. There is nothing more offensive or tacky than seeking money for its own sake. Make your work worth something. You’ll feel better about yourself and the rest of the world will, too.

Ignoring injustice is the same as perpetuating it.

Peace.