The sign in the kitchen read “Your mother doesn’t work here. Except for Karen Carbonnet.”
So of course I never did the dishes.
And that’s the kind of place it was. Family oriented, everyone became friends, dated, squabbled and married. It was what I imagined life on a kibbutz was like: everyone pitching in and doing everything together. Living too close to each other. Knowing each other too well. Every now and then someone would show up who didn’t fit and couldn’t stay. You had to fit. Fit was everything.
It was my first startup.
Back then, when punk rockers roamed the earth, you could start a company and legitimately spend time trying to solve a real problem. Five years of slow progress wasn’t unheard of or even laughed at. You had time to chase money, to find a customer base. Time to completely change your business model, when it was clear, yet again, that this one wasn’t going anywhere. Back in the day when Crossing the Chasm was a real phenomenon, not yet a book from ancient history. It was a feat that couldn’t be done in six months with a viral video and some good Facebook traffic.
This was my job, my home, my family.
It started as a two week gig before I went back to college. I had a really great, full-time summer job working at a gym when suddenly I was horrified to discover that I was expected to lead an aerobics class. I don’t remember anyone saying anything about leading aerobics classes during the interview, but I was a little desperate for money at the time so it’s possible I tuned it out. Several weeks after orientation, just as they were putting the squeeze on me to pick a spot on the group fitness schedule, my high school friend Lynn called me. She was leading marketing for some kind of “Artificial Intelligence startup” and needed an assistant to fill in until her permanent hire, Peggy, could start work. I jumped at it.
I worked for Lynn and, despite my short contract, made myself at home. They were so nice to me, after a mere two weeks the whole place fit me like a cocoon. They hated their receptionist, a cranky woman who made everyone feel uncomfortable. At the end of my contract they told me they were going to fire her, did I want the job? Yes. I would go to school and work for them. Part time for three years.
Along the way I worked for Ken, who had such a fierce temper most people were afraid of him. The first time I met him he was kicking boxes from one side of the office to the other, shouting the entire time “get these fucking boxes out of my area now!” I was his first personal assistant and the only one who would stand up to him. My first performance review was hysterical. I argued every single point – they were all negative - and we ended up with a written debate all over the margins of my paperwork. I made him cross things out, worried about my “permanent record.” By the end of the meeting we were laughing. I wish I had a copy of that review, I would frame it. Underneath he was a total softie, of course. All bluster and drama, he was good at covering up his marshmallow center. I left him to work for Doug and it was like breaking up with boyfriend.
The company had cliques, but not like the ones you see in high school. The cliques overlapped like Venn diagrams. You could hang with the smarty-pants PhD kids and still have lunch with QA. The lawyers were sassy. The support staff was an amazing intellectual gaggle of hippies. If only they would have worn bathing suits, or even underwear, in the spa. And yes, there was a spa. It was the 80s. You weren’t anyone if you didn’t have an office gym with a hot tub. Oh, and a rock mural that represented the crust of the earth.
I graduated from college and went to work full-time for Steve in Channel sales. He looked like Baby Huey and had an ego the size of Manhattan. He could sell his ass off. Now, when I think about it, that was an especially amazing feat. What the heck was he selling? I still can’t tell you even though technically, I was selling it too. And while he might have had some charm, the work relationship deteriorated quickly. He wanted me to run away with him and he wouldn’t shut up about it. Eventually I had to file a claim for sexual harassment because nothing I said would make him stop telling me about how we should just go to a hotel together. Right now. Ew.
It never occurred to me to leave. Even after numerous layoffs, the departure (defection) of dear friends and years of difficult transitions and reductions in pay. I was like a baby bird that wouldn't leave the nest. I needed someone to literally push me out. After 8.5 years, the longest I would work anywhere, another Steve finally put an end to it. My lay-off wasn’t a total surprise, and yet it came as a shock. I’d been looking for another job, never believing I’d actually leave. How could I? My family was there. Quite literally.
And yet it was time to fly.
Today, 20 years later, I still miss it. I miss all of them (well except for Steve²). The smarty-pants PhDs with long beards, desperately in need of haircuts. The crazy aunts and uncles from customer support. The snotty marketing siblings. Grandpa Gene. Peter Pan Kehler. The myriad of mother figures, including my actual mother (an editor), who all nurtured me with good and bad examples of what not to do in business. This place shaped my point of view about what to expect from your company - and damn near ruined it. Nothing since then has been as fun and full of camaraderie.
Theme parties that were actually fun. Beer bashes that everyone looked forward to. Hard work, long hours, affectionate pranks and some of the strongest friendships of my life. Many of which I am still fortunate enough to have today.
I’ll never forget the day Brian and I raced Ed on dollies around the building – me standing on the dolly, Brian pushing me, impossibly fast. How we didn’t crash and crack our heads I will never know. Except that the place was a little like Neverland. Maybe we had some fairy protection.
Neverland. We never made a product that could cross the chasm. Never drove enough revenue. Never made it to the real world, with real “value.”
And yet, to this day, it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I compare all of my companies to this one.
The little company that ultimately couldn’t. The little company that spawned so much.