Unemployment Online

A dark, downtown bar, eleven o’clock: young people are swigging Heinekens and shouting over the music at one another. “What do you do?” a blonde asks a 26-year-old with a goatee, leaning in to make herself heard. “Oh, you know,” he says, dragging on a Marlboro red. “Crystal meth, angel dust, mushrooms.”

Like nearly everyone else here on this rainy November night, Mr. Goatee doesn’t have a job. He doesn’t even have a name – a nondisclosure agreement with his recently defunct Internet entertainment company prohibits him from talking to the media. And like the rest of the crowd at Rebar, an odd combination of Chelsea lounge and Irish sports bar, Mr. Goatee has come here for the cash-bar “Pink Slip” party, a monthly gathering for downsized dot-commers that started in July. The first party attracted 30 guests. Tonight there are 300.

By the door, there’s a cardboard box with a sign – drop-ski your tsktaskis here sic – in which partygoers are placing knickknacks from their former Silicon Alley employers. So far, the donations include a Mail.com baseball cap, a Pets.com sock puppet, and a Kazootoys.com kazoo. There’s also a battered copy of Patricia Cornwell’s Cause of Death. A dozen or so journalists flutter around the box, fanning out to gather anecdotes. “Hey,” says a bearded former dot-commer, raising his hand and bravely offering his name (Alan Cohen). “I haven’t been interviewed yet.”

“I didn’t realize showering could take all day,” Cohen says, laughing. “Shaving, too. Shaving can take all day.”

“Right now, I’m networking, looking for new opportunities,” he continues, nodding his head slowly, seriously, totally in control. “Right now, I’m freelancing.”

“I’m freelancing,” says Joshua Moss, a former senior producer at iCAST. “And I’m heavily medicated,” he jokes.

“I’m freelancing,” echoes a former employee of Luminant Worldwide, an Internet services company chronicled, partly fictitiously, in Rodney Rothman’s piece for The New Yorker. “Why are you writing this down? Are you a recruiter?”

“I’m a recruiter,” says a beefy guy in a blue-collared shirt, crossing his arms over a puffed-up chest. “I get attacked at these things.” He introduces himself as Robert Jenkins, the e-business specialist at Management Recruiters of Nassau. A guy in a black suede jacket overhears and offers his hand: Joshua Siegel, former CEO of Warrantys Online.

“It was the coolest idea, man,” says Siegel. “We processed warranty cards. You could even get instruction manuals if you’d lost them.” He sighs. “Our funding was pulled October 30th. I dressed up as a doctor for Halloween, hoping I could resuscitate it.”

Jenkins pats him on the back. “Give me your card, bro.”

“Thanks,” says Siegel, proffering his old business card with a weak smile. “All the numbers work.”

In an attempt to be festive, Pink Slip party founder Allison Hemming (also head of an Internet consulting firm called the Hired Guns) has decided to create a “wall of blame” for the next Pink Slip party out of old business cards with numbers that don’t work. The sign for this reads: john q. businessman, chief chief, pls forward mail to: my temporary sublet, phone: “the number you have reached …”, fax: see phone, mobile: none (can’t qualify for prepaid cell. credit cards are maxed). “Have you heard the latest?” asks Hemming. ” ‘B2B’ now stands for ‘Back to Banking,’ and ‘B2C’ means ‘Back to Consulting.’ “

Rob Viola, a still-employed Web developer at Idealab!, snickers. “When the steel mills in Pennsylvania closed, do you think they were throwing Pink Slip parties at their locals?” he says under his breath. (Viola came tonight, he says, because he’s “interested in pathos.”)

Then there’s the cake that Hemming bought, with white icing and raspberry cream. It’s inscribed: now what?

“That is just sick,” screams an ex-Priceliner.

“It’s not as bad as the urinal,” says Roger Kaplan, formerly of Kozmo. “A bunch of guys threw their business cards in there to piss on.”

t’s not as though dot-commers don’t embrace risk: Start-up technology companies have been crashing long before the invention of the Internet. But when they did, there was always a better gig – Higher salary! More options! Cooler perks! – at another promising start-up. High-tech employees tend never to take their eyes off the job boards – loyalty can only be bought with options if the IPO is on track – and layoffs were always just an opportunity to negotiate a better deal.

Since April, though, finding a new job hasn’t simply been a question of not dodging phone calls from recruiters. From start-ups like Modo, which burned through its capital before the L.A. launch party, to established companies like Razorfish and DoubleClick, each of which laid off more than a hundred employees, almost all the news from Silicon Alley has been bad. All of a sudden, people who once weighed potential employers on the basis of how quickly they might go public have started to worry whether they’ll have a job at all. Many of them are getting bitter – especially the barely-out-of-school rank and file who have never had a job that didn’t come with Fresh Samantha and free massages.

“Yesterday I was a Yippie – a young Internet professional – and today I’m out of a job,” e-mails a former content producer at iCAST. “Ever since I sat down in front of my first Apple IIe, my generation has been encouraged to look toward the Internet as the source for a better, brighter, smarter, more well-connected future. Graduating with an English degree from an Ivy League school, I was supposed to move to New York and get a dot-com position, begin building my connections and my 401(k). But my path has been paved with broken benefits and shattered stock options. I would become eligible for unemployment benefits within four short months, and all before my 22nd birthday.”

What’s an Ivy-educated English major to do? Especially when the jobs that are out there no longer come with company trips to Vegas, days at Great Adventure, or free beer every Friday? “When I first got to Urbanfetch, we had Champagne Tuesdays and Lobster Fridays,” says Sudeshna Nayar, a British-accented 33-year-old, clutching a Zara shopping bag in Rebar’s foyer. “By the end, we were having Pizza Tuesdays and Krispy Kreme Fridays.” (Urbanfetch shut down October 13.)

Then there’s the atmosphere. “At San Francisco Interactive, we’d have these cool brown-bag lunches on Fridays,” says Trevor Brown, who got three weeks’ severance when he was laid off from the New York office in the fall. “We’d get into these really intimate convos about abortion rights or transgendered people, pre-op, post-op stuff.”

When their companies went belly-up, many were reminded that, never mind the Nerf toys all around the office, they still worked for a business that had an eye on the bottom line. “The last day of work, we had to wait for hours for our last checks,” says Lou Charles, an ex-UBO.net producer who says that he was “living large on the corporate card” before the company closed. “It was like being on a cheese line, a welfare line, man. So degrading.”

Until two months ago, Jeanne De Sanctis, a convivial brunette with a voice as deep as Angie Harmon’s, was the director of music and content for SonicNet, a division of MTVi. Though she says her lawyer advised her not to say anything negative about her former company, she admits that her dot-com dream has died hard. “There was a little of ‘I’m not going to be the “It” girl of the music biz anymore,’ ” says De Sanctis. “Once, I started crying on the subway, tears streaming down my face. But then I said to myself, ‘Get it together! That job didn’t own you, you owned it.’ ” She laughs. “The next day, I got comp tickets to Radiohead at Roseland, and I was like, ‘This is okay – cool things are still happening for me.’ “

She frowns.

“You know, I had the director’s share of options,” says De Sanctis. “I mean, I had as much as you could have! Whatever. MTVi will never go public anyway.” Her frown deepens. “But – fuckin’ A!”

Just as Fast Company sang the praises of the Internet economy in its ascendance, a Website called FuckedCompany.com is dutifully recording its decline. A mock memorial to dead dot-coms, it’s run out of the garment-district loft of Philip Kaplan, a 25-year-old programmer with his own Web services firm. “But PK Interactive is a real company,” says Kaplan, a tall, self-assured 1997 Syracuse grad, as he shuffles around his home office in cargo pants and black Nike sandals. “We’ve been profitable since day one, not like an annoying Internet business.”

Kaplan has been the pessimists’ oracle since Memorial Day weekend, when he started FuckedCompany.com on a lark. He sent the site’s URL out to a half-dozen friends and left for a trip to Brazil; by the time he got back a week later, 20,000 people had logged on. Most wanted to play the site’s “Dot-Com Dead Pool,” an e-company riff on the “Celebrity Dead Pool,” a Howard Stern diversion in which the regulars bet on which famous people will die first.

Now FuckedCompany.com gets more than 400,000 page views per day, both from people who play the game and from those who just want to read updates on the Internet apocalypse, posted on the site whenever it strikes Kaplan’s fancy: “BabyGear.com is out of business and left with almost $10 million in debt. Woohoo that’s some good spending, cowboy!” FuckedCompany.com is now the 2,250th-most-popular site on the Web and ranked No. 9 in traffic among all high-tech-news sites on the Internet, according to PC Data. “That’s fucking crazy,” Kaplan wrote when informing his public of the accolades on the site. “You all should be ashamed of yourselves.”

By chronicling the failure of other companies, Kaplan may have, oddly enough, found a way to cash in himself. When he put the site up for auction on eBay in September – as a lark, of course – the bidding reached $10 million. “Press started calling,” he says. “Then my buddies called up, and they were like, ‘Dude! We just bid $10 million for your site!’ ” Real bids, he claims, also came in – at around $3 million – and Kaplan says he’s now negotiating a sale.

In his spare time, Kaplan also writes a newsletter for his FuckedCompany.com subscribers with a more personal point of view. “This year I wasn’t invited to anything cool, and I still haven’t finished my custom light-up Tron suit,” he wrote on Halloween. “So I wore my proud to be a policeman T-shirt and went to some NYC loft party that pretty much sucked. I want to be like those elite people who hobnob with Leo and Lenny Kravitz. Which brings me to my next point: Anyone who does anything halfway cool in this town – Internet or otherwise – invite me to your parties, dammit.”

As a punk version of Warrant’s “Heaven” blasts out of the loft’s hanging speakers, Kaplan, who goes by the onscreen handle Pud, scrolls through the 400 e-mails he gets each day from the bitter, the frantic, and the just plain nervous. “All these people are my compadres,” he says in a deep baritone, thrumming his fingers on his brushed-steel desk. “They’re all just people like me, you know – dudes who work in Silicon Alley.”

Kaplan swipes at his mouse and today’s layoffs flicker onscreen. Employees have been shown the door at iChoose.com, UrbanDesign.com, SportsHuddle.com, Buy.com, WeMedia.com, iVendor.com, ArtistsDirect.com, Sandbox.com. It’s still only noon. For his item on Sandbox.com, Kaplan writes: “A Website where one can play games for free, Sandbox.com, laid off about 30 employees. Umm, what’s the business model again? (Question marks in tribute to my Latino brothers and sisters. One love).”

He opens a new e-mail: Another company has supposedly laid off all its employees. Another: Love your site – you should do stand-up comedy. “I archive the ones that are real ego boosts,” he admits, clicking his mouse to save the message. “And the ones from girls.”

Some of those who have been laid off will never again have a job where transgender issues are discussed over lunch in the office. Sudeshna Nayar is now at Dow Jones, but she misses “the excitement of Urbanfetch.” After leaving UBO.net, Charles is now at Simon & Schuster producing video games, but he doesn’t plan to stay. “I’m not going to be some guy with a corporate job,” he says. “That’s for later in life.”

For her part, De Sanctis has taken a “BizDev” position with LockStream, an Alley company that claims to have the only secure solution for digital distribution of music on the Net. “Look, content may be king,” she says. “But it’s also a bitch. I worked my ass off in that job chasing it.” At her new job, she’s working with a boss from years past, “rocking it out with him on a whole other level.”

Of course, there are those who have no trouble at all deciding what to do after their dot-com dies: Shortly after Pseudo.com went bankrupt, founder Josh Harris wired his entire house with 32 Webcams for an art project, and threw a party featuring a full-size boxing ring and sushi served on top of a naked woman. Around the same time, Jess Zaino, a petite, curly-headed 24-year-old former Pseudo employee from Ronkonkoma, Long Island, was stuck at her apartment in Fort Greene, collecting unemployment and listening to Aretha Franklin. A lot of Aretha Franklin.

A couple weeks after the company went under, Zaino was chilling out at home reading Joe Eszterhas’s American Rhapsody when she started to freak out. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ ” says Zaino. “Pseudo goes bankrupt and I get no severance, no nothing, just a ‘Sorry, guys, and here is security to escort you out of the building so we’re sure you’re not stealing the MP3 players.’ ” Then her life started to “suck” – her grandmother died, she got pneumonia, and she broke up with her live-in boyfriend of two years. “I did a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching at that time,” she says. “Learned a lot about patience and discipline.” She read the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness, and that helped her deal with her anger.

“Because,” yells Zaino, “I’m supposed to be a millionaire now, dude!”

And why not? In the small, weird world of Silicon Alley, she was a star. At 21, Zaino dropped out of college in California; in New York, she crashed one of Harris’s parties and told him she’d “lick the floors to work at Pseudo.” The next day, she got a job as receptionist. Eight months later, she had her own Web-TV show, StarFreaky, which featured her as a George Whipple-esque personality interviewing celebrities at guest-list-only events. “I loved that job,” she says. “I had my own show, I had pictures taken of me all the time, I had an assistant.” She was a cover girl – even if she was only on the front of Video Systems Online Magazine. Earlier this year, when I was reporting a story about the players of Silicon Alley, Zaino called, unsolicited, and offered herself up as the leading member of the “Internet Brat Pack.”

On a cold night in November, however, Zaino found herself working as an MTV production assistant, logging tape for a proposed MTV special, Revenge of the Rejects, an America’s Funniest Home Videos-type show that features discarded submissions from other programs. “Four-hundred-pound girls singing Backstreet Boys with their little brothers,” she says, walking the carpeted halls of the MTV offices on the thirty-second floor of the Paramount building. “Scary, right?”

Though she left MTV two weeks later, Zaino remembers her time at Pseudo as more than just a job. While we talk, she shows off a tattoo on the back of her calf that she had done the week after Pseudo closed. It’s the company’s logo, a circle about the size of a Snapple cap, half red and half black. “It’s flaking a little because it’s new,” she explains. “But I wanted to get it to represent my schooling and all that shit. ‘Cause I’m proud of what I did there.

“Way down the line, the Internet in the last few years is going to be remembered as an Andy Warhol, Max’s Kansas City thing. I can see the books that are going to be written.” She smiles. “And I’m going to be in them.”

Unemployment Online