beware the company that trumpets small freedoms
Monday, July 3 2000
Despite myself, I'm carrying around a little too much of that goofy CollegeClub.com WTAWTAW emotional baggage. I really thought today was a work day, so I rode my bike to work, went straight to my desk, and after a fashion, actually did some work for my employer. Nobody was there but a group of asscrack exhibitionists working on installing the new downstairs kitchen. This wasn't unusual; I'm often the first to arrive in the morning. But by around 10am it was clear that no one except me would be coming to work today. I felt kind of stupid; on Friday I'd made a special effort to look at my employee handbook and today hadn't been on the short list of approved holidays. Either the handbook was wrong or all my colleagues had a gentlemen's agreement to take the day off. Who's keeping track after all? Everything around that place seems to be done by gentlemen's agreement, and why not? I'll do twice the work under a gentlemen's agreement that I'd do chained to my computer. The failure to understand this motivational principle is probably one of the biggest contributing factors to CollegeClub's current dismal state of affairs (alongside the market downturn and the lack of a business model).
Back when I first started working at CollegeClub in October of 1998, everybody in management made a big deal about how laid-back the workplace was. We could, we were told, come to work in jeans and tee shirt! We were expected to rejoice that we'd somehow avoided the dullness of a conventional corporate workplace. At the time I didn't know any better; this was my first introduction to dot com culture. I was only dimly aware that a dot com bull market was well under way and that every company, no matter what its business, was scrambling to purge the spaces from their antiquated un-URL-like names and append dots and coms to the ends. I wasn't familiar with practices at such companies, and if CollegeClub managers told me that wearing informal clothes was a revolutionary privilege, I was prepared to be a believer. I didn't know that this was a standard protocol in the new economy.
Soon enough, though, I became aware of a haunting dread that veiled the emotions of the old-timers, making them at times seem like pod people. I remember at "new employee orientation," the proto-HR person didn't seem to know how to respond to our unbridled positive energy as we naïvely gushed about how much we enjoyed working for CollegeClub. We were met with nothing but unsmilingly awkward pauses as she repeatedly brought our attention back to the matter at hand: the employee handbook. A few weeks later she was unceremoniously fired, a scapegoat for yet another operations fuck-up perpetuated by her co-founder boss (he was finally canned a few weeks ago).
But I didn't really know how creepy and cultlike CollegeClub was until the infamous Idyllwild retreat of November, 1998. For the first time, I saw CollegeClub's CEO as an unprincipled, unnuanced bully, unwisely frightening and emotionally destabilizing his employees in the hopes of making them somehow achieve more. I know I wasn't the only one who felt this way. On the ride home, Kevin the then-new DBA was nearly as horrified as I was by what he'd just endured. Indeed, CollegeClub went into full-on damage control mode the following week as they realized the extent to which they'd alienated their large number of new hires. Obviously, something was just a little bit wrong with this company. Maybe that's why they'd drawn so much attention to the bone they'd thrown allowing us to wear tee shirts.
(Mind you, for all the talk about being cool with casual dress, the managers of CollegeClub never felt particularly comfortable with the employees actually dressing that way. I distinctly remember having a conversation once with the best-performing guy in sales in which he told me of a conversation he'd had with the VP of Revenue - the erstwhile VP of Operations referred to earlier, recently fired for his inability to generate detectable quanties of said revenue. "I'm your best sales guy, so why don't you take me seriously?" this top-performing sales guy had asked. Responded the VP of Revenue, "you have facial piercings and you wear Harley tee shirts, that's why.")
Lo and behold, when I was hired by my present employer, which is also in the business of building web communities, there was no mention whatsoever of a dress code or lack thereof. Nor, for that matter, was there any mention of the fact that the drink machine requires no money. These were cultural features one could pick up simply by looking around, and no one felt the need to trumpet them.
Moral of the story - beware the company that trumpets small freedoms.
I'm an inherently cynical, jaded person, so I found the process of containing my alienation from CollegeClub's idiotic Highschoolesque atmosphere a personally-degrading ordeal. The fascistic Monday morning meetings, the awkward, embarrassing company cheers, the complete sacrifice of anything artistic or imaginative in the sad hope of appealing to artless, unimaginative institutional investors, all these things took their toll.
I must say that I take enormous satisfaction in the current state of affairs at CollegeClub, despite the negative impact on the pipe-dream wealth I was promised. It's confirmation of essential karmic truths about the Universe. I wouldn't want to live in a universe where such an emotionally sick and degrading company could actually seize market dominance with its brutish tactics.
I feel vindicated to be the de-facto spokesman for all those who have been demeaned, bamboozled and otherwise betrayed by this company. My site has become a meeting place where people exchange all sorts of juicy information about this rotting would-be web player. I find myself knowing more about the company now that I'm outside it than I ever did when I worked behind its bleak grey Stalinistic iron curtain. I was fired mostly so I would be silenced, but it turns out that the firing has only made me stronger. Nietzche smiles upon me! They had no idea when they hired me, then a humble peon with unglamorous, unthreatening HTML skills, that one day I'd be the one to rub their noses in their own foul feces.
Kim was down at the Dr. Block studio all day, but she returned in the evening with Jolie and we three sat around drinking wine and half-heartedly watching There's Something About Mary on HBO. Then Kim and Jolie drove off to some big rave-type-party in downtown Los Angeles. Knowing what a hermit and a crank I am, Kim didn't even invite me. But that was cool, because it meant I could sit here in front of my computer all evening obsessively checking the stats for the CollegeClub demise page.
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