Tales From the Dotcom Darkside

The Road Ahead

While Kim was lucky enough to bounce from a dotcom misstep to an ideal job, other HBS grads are still milling in the wake of the layoffs, trying to retool their approach and find the shoe that fits. Maya Dani, 29, started with Gorefer.com in August 2000, and immediately was waist-deep in the ensuing organizational chaos that ultimately led to her leaving the company in December 2000.

"Gorefer.com was building technology for people to use the Internet as a platform for sales leads. They wanted to target every market, and for various reasons we began on the home improvement side," Dani says. "We would pay people $2 for leads, and then a partner would pay us twice that."

Like all HBS alumni, Dani's business acumen didn't jibe with the frenetic positioning efforts and constantly changing focus of the company. Four years' experience in investment banking didn't help her achieve the suspension of disbelief that seemed so readily available to coworkers.

With a '95 HBS grad also working at Gorefer.com, her reservations were only compounded by a fellow alum trying to make sense of the situation. The two were in constant conversation with the CEO--they tried to sway him to adopt a more centered, prudent approach, but it didn't take. The repercussions of the 2K slowdown were immediate, and 20 percent of the staff was laid off two weeks after her arrival. "I was hired as director of business development, then I sort of became director of marketing. I was whatever I wanted to be," Dani adds, a whimsical recollection underscored with the clarity of hindsight. "The CEO was spending more time in-house when he should have been pounding the pavement."

Gorefer.com closed for good in February 2001, after having raised $12 million in venture capital--a relatively small figure by the industry standards at the time. Meanwhile, Dani took a job in banking, left that, and then worked as a consultant for five months. She's still looking for that proper mix of structure and entrepreneurial spirit.

"I ended up quitting the banking job after six months. I decided if I was miserable, I should just leave," she says. "The decision to leave Gorefer was the beginning of several cascading events in my life. I really felt like many of my classmates at HBS, and I felt we could think up the next great idea as opposed to thinking out a long-term plan.

"I think my expectations were really high coming out of B school. I talk to headhunters, but quite honestly I am not putting 100 percent into my job hunt. I am really nervous about picking the right thing. Just this last week I've really started looking."

"What was interesting," says Kim, reflecting on the dotcom effect on the Class of 2000, "was that HBS was a reflection of what was going on in the market at that time."

With hard roads behind them and lessons learned, the Class of 2000 is taking the road back, one that is uniquely theirs.

"The entire thing was a giant Ponzi scheme," contends Tom Arnold, 30, another member of HBS 2000. "It was essentially the process of waiting as long you could until the other guy got chicken and sold out."

Arnold, who interned at Chipshot.com during the summer of 1999, was not swayed by the alluring dotcom industry upon graduation, but he still got laid off as a consultant for Booz-Allen-Hamilton in November 2001 despite playing it smart and going for the "old school" approach upon graduating.

Ponzi scheme or not, there was a definite undercurrent of weirdness at the epicenter, and I recall it well working as a Web hosting consultant in Silicon Valley in 2000. Finding myself deemed an expert on hosting at all of 28 years young due to a background in facilities management, I had the job of giving 15 to 20 top-down weekly facility tours. Typically the CEO, CIO, COO and all the other acronymed employees were under 30, leading these groups; the thirtysomething midlevel-management types stayed back in the second echelon with the elder bean counters in silent tow.

Dress code was inverted according to rank, and more often than not, you could pick out the CEO according to who had the loudest shirt. As large companies go, this one was a little slow to send the higher-ups to investigate this suddenly lucrative end of the business, but like smart middlemen, they stocked up on Levi's and shovels after the gold rush kicked in. One group of East Coast headquarters heavy-hitters materialized unexpectedly one day, clad in garishly overdone suit-and-tie getups. The dominant monkey of the group lit into me for wearing the business casual retinue that was standard fare in dealing with dotcom companies.

"Does anybody have a jacket this guy can wear for today's tours?" he asked, horrified. The tactful rebuttal to this overture was that a) This is the West Coast, and therefore anybody in a tie is not perceived as tech-savvy, and b) dotcommers tend to trust people who look like them. Walk the walk, talk the talk, and make small talk as prescribed were the proven keys to making the sales.

Unfazed by this perfectly logical line of reasoning, Mr. Old Guard stalked furiously into the break room to find my superior, who was engaged in a heated foosball match. His party of a half-dozen suited cohorts, looking a little uneasy at the exchange, waved me off and urged me to disappear for my own safety, job-related and otherwise. I nodded and met my appointment, a trio of start-up folks whose CEO was named Boogie.

In the end it all came tumbling down, of course. But for one brief flash, I witnessed something brilliant and funny and patently untypical. Things have since returned to normal, thankfully, as many of us, no doubt, have stocked up on ties in anticipation of returning to its environs.

Jason Probst is a freelance writer in Southern California. He has written for ESPN, maxfighting.com and Gridlockmag.com, among other publications. His next project is comprising a dotcom business plan written entirely in Haiku.

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This article was originally published in the July 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tales From the Dotcom Darkside.

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