We asked for your nightmare tales of startup employment. Did you ever deliver — sending narratives of woe, scams, drugs, psychotic managers, drinking at your desk and more hookers than a venture capitalist could handle. These are your stories.
Our sister site Gizmodo recently asked its readers to share bad experiences while working for startup companies. The nightmarish stories that promptly filled their inbox were far more disturbing than anticipated. Here are some of the worst tales of woe.
The One With All the Drugs and Douches
I moved to Silicon Valley as a youthful, totally oblivious woman. I’d heard startups were all about “work hard, party hard,” so when I got hired at an all-male startup (myself being the ‘marketing chick’ because….of course), I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
This “sales automation” startup claimed to automate the entire sales process. This mythical unicorn failed to ever materialise or solve any sales problems, as it was nothing more than a scam flimsily disguised as technology. Incredibly enough, they are still operating despite their never-ending BBB complaints.
My boss was the co-founder. All looks, no brain. And damn, was he obsessed with looks (part of the reason I was hired, but we’ll get to that in a minute). He quickly became possessive of me, and was desperately, subtly trying to make a relationship happen for the better part of a year. He’d frequently make me go on trips with him, sit alone with him in his office, and gave me total preferential treatment over other employees.
Eventually, we hired a couple women and moved to a bigger office, and he continued the awkward treatment by giving me my own office, letting me leave early, etc. He referred to anyone over 110 lbs. as “fat chicks” and constantly reminded me to “Just not eat. Do you want to be fucking fat and disgusting? No, you don’t.” On days when I dressed down, he would remind me that “You need to get it together.”
I’m sure everyone thought we were having an affair, and I started to feel like such a bad human being, and so awkward going into work, that I hatched my escape (I was financial stuck at this job until I found another). The creepiest part of all this is that the entire management team thought this was acceptable, and as a result, no one dared say anything to me.
To top off the sexual harassment, the management team openly encouraged drug use and regularly did coke…in the bloody office! Over time, as they slipped into the steady decline of ‘failing startup,’ screaming matches ensued in the office and drug use amped up. The VP of Sales, who was a spectacular prick with a notable coke addiction, enjoyed calling me the ‘marketing chick’ and said that I should ‘leave the real work to the boys.’ My only shield from this mega douche was my boss, who regularly asked me to get him Xanax, Adderall, and a myriad of other drugs. The CEO was a disbarred (or let’s say massive failure) financial guy who constantly regaled us with tales of his glory days. “Oh the things I saw,” he would start, “Whorehouses in Asia are…crazy. Just nuts. I mean…so insane I can’t say anything in front of anyone.”
Our CEO even promised the entire company that if we “worked hard” than “we can expect results and better kick back, relax, and get the coke and yachts ready because shit’s about to get cray.” No, I’m not kidding. They were just full of great ideas.
The most impressive part of this startup was their incredible chutzpah. Put to positive use, they probably could have done amazing things. The founding team had absolutely no shame, and I’ll give it to them – they had a legit talent for scamming the VC’s. Credit where credit is due, I am certain these people will continue to make a fine living one the bubble has popped. Not only can they drink and out-drug anyone under the table, they can bullshit the best of the best. Wolf of Wallstreet, step aside, you amateur. These people are professionals. If you want to learn the fine craft of trickery, I highly suggest an employment stint here.
When I announced I was leaving under the diplomatic guise of ‘going to grad school’, the CEO came into my office and basically verbally attacked me. He said that I’d never get another good opportunity like this (ha!), and that I was getting older (in my 20’s), so I didn’t have much life left in my career. I told him I was going to b-school, and he retorted that I should just “not do that” because there are “a lot of talented guys out there, people with actual pedigrees…and as a woman, you’ve got a lot going against you. You won’t ever be competitive for those types of jobs at this point.” But being the resourceful guy he was, he had a better idea mind for idiotic woman folk like myself! “Why don’t do you do, like, some sort of ‘client relations’ at a banking firm? They really like your sort of look.” To this day, I’ll never know if he was referencing secretarial duties, prostitution, or both!
Mazels to you too, bro. And away I sailed.
The One With Rudy and the Russian
I have quite a few terrible tales from working at a educational software start-up company a few years ago. The first thing you must understand about this company was the it was run by the oddest couple of individuals. One was a young, mid-twenties silver spoon business major, let’s call him Rudy, who never actually held a real job in his entire life, and the other was a Russian millionaire, let’s call him Andrew, who made his fortunes after the Soviet Union collapsed, buying up assembly line factories and getting them to operate at a profit, with questionable means. As you can guess, none of these people had any idea how software was made, or how to run a software company. I will give them credit though, the business model was sound and the idea could of been a huge hit. Unfortunately they seemed to do everything they could to undermine the company and it’s employees at every turn.
I can go on and on in great detail about all the terrible things that happened here that focused mainly on the two owners, but I will give you the highlights.
First let’s talk about Rudy. After we secured our first major investment of VC funds, he got all the employees together to make the announcement of the good news. Or so we thought. He brought us all down to the parking lot to show us his brand new BMW M3 he bought. He then, without telling any employees, or leaving instructions, went on a 3 week long vacation.
We did hire a lot of international folks to come in and do text translations for us so our product could be global. Rudy had the habit of telling interns he would pick them up at the airport when their planes arrived. He never picked them up. We left interns at the airport stranded overnight on more than one occasion. Even worse, there was an instance of Rudy not completing an inters visa paperwork. This poor intern picked up their entire life from Italy to come here to work for a summer, and was sent right back once they landed in the states.
Like all bad managers, Rudy would over promise potential customers and flat out lie about the capabilities or functionality of our software to make a sale. He would then come back to the office and proclaim that we need feature X in 2 weeks for a customer. Of course this feature would take months to design and develop. We would then be chastised for our lack of ability to deliver on his vision.
With another round of VC funding, we moved into a big new office. This place had all the bells and whistles, TVs, PlayStation, Foosball Table, Kitchen, you name it. When employees would use said facilities during lunch or taking a small break, we would be screamed at to get back to work. The facilities were there just to attract more investors, not to be used by employees.
We also had an excellent employee who was going through a rough personal patch in his life. A family member was gravely ill, and he would sometimes come in late or go home early to visit this family member in the hospital. I was the software manager at the time, so I gave him permission to do so. When I was questioned by Rudy where this employee was, I informed him of his family issues. Rudy called for the immediate firing of said employee. I had to beg to get him to keep his job. This guy was great at what he did.
I have plenty more about Rudy, but let’s talk about Andrew now.
Andrew would insist he could solve any software related technical issue the development team would come across, without any actual knowledge or training. He would hear about our issue in our development meetings, go home and Google it. Come in the next day and demand we stop wasting time and implement his solution. Obviously they would fail miserably, and we would waste so much time trying to convince him otherwise. We were then blamed for his decision.
Being an assembly line factory man, the key to completing any task would just be to assign more developers to it. If a task was estimated by the team to take a developer 2 weeks, simply forcing two developers to work on the same task, he would expect it to be done in half the time. If you know about software development, this is never true.
At some point, he had a hook for potential investors in Arabic speaking countries. He promised them a demo of our software in Arabic in a few days time. We had no one who spoke Arabic. Arabic is also a right-to-left text, and our software was never designed to handle such an arrangement. We worked late many nights in a row to make it happen, and he never even did the demo.
Also, for some reason, he made his wife a major player in the companies day to day operations. The employees never saw her, but she did a lot of personal shopping with the companies day to day operating budget. Tens of thousands of dollars she spent.
Both Rudy and Andrew would also seldom actually come into the office. If they did, it was from about 11am to 1pm. But not to worry, they installed web enabled cameras all over the office to make sure employees were coming in on time, working, and not leaving early. People would get chewed out if they went to the bathroom for to long.The saddest part about the job was that we had so many great people working there, and we all knew it. The idea was solid, the software was coming along, but in the end, people just couldn’t take the owners anymore and left one by one.
The One With “Drink At Your Desk Day”
I worked for two startups. One of them was a failed descendent of The Well, which was one of the first/oldest online-ish communities started back in 1985. The year was 2000. I was the sysadmin. It was one of those stories where everything seemed absolutely fine one minute. We were 200 employees in a beautiful Bay-front property in the town of Sausalito, California. Every Friday was “drink at your desk day,” and you could imbibe while “working” from the comfort of your favourite beanbag chair.
The next day I was told to arrive at work two hours early, and when I showed up, I was given instructions to leave pink slips — literally pink pieces of paper — on each and every chair in the office. Everyone was being laid off, and I was the bearer of bad news.
Then I had to immediately lock everyone out of the network and email. Fun times…
The One With The Ballsacks
C. Rogues writes:
Typing this out in paragraph form would probably result in a spiral of depression and PTSD symptoms that it would take me days to dig (read: eat) my way out of, so here’s a bullet list.
- “HR” was one guy with experience as an promotor for clubs.
- Any complaints went straight from “HR” to crazy arse owner, no documentation.
- Two (three?) CMOs in six months, one of whom was fired in part for staring at a potential employee’s breasts while meeting with her for the first time at a mummy blogger convention.
- In general, didn’t keep any employees over 27 for more than six months. That’s how long it took people who’d had other jobs before to realise just how fucked up the whole place was. The only people that stick around are those who got hired fresh out of college and don’t know any better or those who prize access to tickets to games and concerts over a healthy work-life balance.
- Summer was slow season, so there was a company-wide scavenger hunt…teams of 5-6 people in costume. One of the clues had you going up to the CEO’s penthouse in one of the tallest buildings in the city…apparently so he could show off how wealthy he is? (This also seems to be the point of him driving his luxury car the 1.5 miles from his penthouse to the office every day.)
- Said scavenger hunt ended at a bar where the company was paying for everything. Probably about a third of the staff (several dozen people all told, vast majority under 25) ended up drunk enough to puke on each other by the end of the night.
- Entire company was also invited up to his penthouse after the booze cruise that everyone went to, like a weird drunken adult prom that ended at your creepy teacher’s house.
- CEO/founder frequently used drugs in the office, mostly cocaine as far as I could tell. Generally, screaming at an employee almost immediately followed.
- Also once said “Huh. <My first name> <his last name> sounds good, doesn’t it?” while looking at me over the top of our computers. This was my third or fourth week there.
- Also wore jorts in the summer that were short enough to get the more than occassional flash of ballsack.
- Got “let go” for typos, after writing my own performance plan and getting ignored by “HR” for the full month. Decided to quit and walk away with my dignity intact, though I wish I’d made them fire me so I could get a wrongful termination suit going.
I like to think of startups as the Baskin Robbins of working. There are at least 31 flavours of bullshit. The first place I worked after I got out of grad school involved a coworker that threw her shoes, a “celebrity guest blogger” who interviewed potential employees in her bra and asked them who they voted for as part of the interview process, and a boss who we’re pretty sure had very early onset Alzheimers and in her fear and confusion lashed out violently. The whole place went under after 3 years.
The One With Hookers for Everyone
Quasi startup here … company has been around 11 years but is still in perpetual startup mode w/ ~80m revenue.
We’re a vendor agnostic enterprise integrator / value added reseller in the datacenter space. We chase every car imaginable, often burning out people who didn’t know any better, can’t self-manage, or otherwise expecting to come into an organisation pulling our revenue to have an actual organizational structure.
Hiring practices basically involve buckshot hit or miss. Partner-level interviews involved questions such as “so, what would you like to know about us?” and not anything more detailed. Got referred into the company solely because of one salesman’s word that happened to have beaten his girlfriend (while married) into a pulp. His coworkers are testifying against him in court but he keeps on working because he keeps on pulling in the money. I’ve seen 40% of the sales staff overall come and go in the last year.
Went on an international club trip this year because I won SE of the year award (80% new SE staff that year due to turnover, I’m awesome, but it wasn’t hard), and company funds paid for epic swag and hookers for anyone into that (mostly married).
The One With… Seriously, What’s With the Sex Workers
Worked for a start-up as a European Sales Manager. CEO got some VC money and instead of investing in the company bought himself a car, went to “meetings” where he picked up hookers, and basically blew through the VC money. Naturally, company went under, though the CEO went onto another company. Seems no matter how much of an arsehole you are, if you know the right people, you just move on.
The One With Human Trafficking
Worked for a venture funded start up from 2007-2010. Money ran out in 2009 but I couldn’t find another job. So essentially worked for a year without pay.
We managed to land a contract that had us working on commerce sites for several television shows, and things were starting to look like they might turn around…
Then my CEO was arrested in Haiti for trying to traffic kids out of the country after the earthquake. You may remember that one.
I was on paternity leave at the time. Contracts were canceled. I never went back. They shut it down.
The One With the Open Web Browser
Week 1: Called into manager’s office for having the web browser open “every time he walked by”. Product had a web-based dashboard, and the API docs were on the web.
Week 12: After doing another engineer’s job for 3 months while he looked for a new job, the other guy quit. They offered his job internally first, and I asked for it. Was told I wasn’t qualified because I didn’t have a PhD even though I had been doing the job for 3 months. They hired another PhD professor from a major local university. I continued to do the job solo for another year.
Month 6: Everybody gets fed up of Mr. Manager and we tell the founder it’s him or us. He actually thinks about it for a while.
Month 12: Chip vendor goes out of business; product is toast. Pivot.
Month 24: Release “Version 2” post pivot. Founder hands out T-shirts that say “The Deuce is Loose”
Month 25-36: Founder repeatedly fires the VP of Engineering and hires a new one, but won’t ever let him do the job. Eventually just starts calling himself the VP of Engineering and CEO. Forces me to port the back-end analytics from C to Perl, Perl to Java, Java to Groovy. I start stealing his copy of CIO magazine.
Month 48: (Don’t judge me, the commute was less than a half mile!) After a round of Agile training where the founder threatens to fire the trainer if he’s a chicken, not a pig, we make fun of him. He tells me I should be grateful I have a job. I quit. Somebody who saw the light much sooner than I did hires me immediately for $US50k more per year because apparently I was grossly underpaid. My hair never grows back.
Month 52: Unable to hire engineers due to the founder’s reputation, the company sells at firesale to another company you’ve all heard of. He negotiates a $US1 million dollar facilitator’s fee, which is just big enough to make the friends and family investors lose money on their shares.
The One With the Company-Wide Meeting
So, I graduate college, search for a place to work and get hired by this sweet company (8 years old, so startupish). I was all excited to work for a “top company in the area” to work for. Worked there for four months only to show up to work one morning for a scheduled company wide meeting. On my way to work I had received an invite for a one on one meeting with the CEO’s admin for 10:20. When I arrived there was no company wide meeting. The upper management then systematically fired 25% of the company in 4 meeting rooms that overlook to main work space, one by one. Needless to say the waiting for your “meeting” was the worst part. It was really an awful day and never what I expected for my first out of college experience.
The One With the Thrown iPhone
My experience with start-ups is that, sometimes, people start their own companies because they’re impossible to work with. Yeah, some people have great ideas and some people want to make a lot of money, but some people are just arseholes.
I worked for an arsehole who regularly dismissed people from meetings, sent employees out to buy food that she’d immediately throw away, threaten to withhold paychecks, and pull all types of power moves. She was sure to remind us that she chose to start this company over accepting a guaranteed mid-six figure VP-level job at a local multi-billion dollar company. I guess that meant we owed her?
Once the company was out of the red, the angel investor and the other two owners promptly forced her out. She chucked her iPhone across the law firm where they made her sign the papers.
The One With the Scrunchies
I worked for a startup design firm for a while that had a propensity to work with other startup businesses, often times taking a share in the company in lieu of payment. Here’s a list of some of the company concepts I worked closely with, company names redacted – most of which are long gone, never got off the ground, or won’t make it to next year’s tax season.
1. Real time marine fuel updates. Failed because their way of getting updated pricing relied on them calling all marinas along the coast and ICW. Their owners were bonkers, the wife fancied herself a designer and was far from it (and the site reflected this) and they were overtaken by competitors leaving it up to them to get the pricing and them scraping their results. I think a divorce finally killed them off. Oh, plus they were trying to build a enterprise level software on the most bastardized WordPress installation I’ve ever seen.
2. Scrunchies with flashing LEDs. They were marketed towards cheerleaders and such. I got my hands of a couple of them. Their cheap China construction meant the seams would call apart within minutes and sometimes the LEDs wouldn’t work at all. Their downfall was that no one wears scrunchies.
3. Personalised Fatheads. Giant wall clings of photos of your children or bible verses or whatever. Their marketing sucked and no one bought them. Imagine having someone order a 5ft tall photo of their darling child mid rainbow-kick taken on an iPhone 3G. They don’t turn out well.
4. Social network revolving around a person’s good deeds. Actually wasn’t a terrible idea, really, except it relied on people posting their OWN good deeds on a website. Talk about humble bragging. Aside from a disaster of a build, it was soon realised by those in power that people who regularly do good deeds, in fact, DON’T do it for recognition and feel uncomfortable flaunting it.
5. A startup design firm that had a propensity to work with other startup businesses, often times taking a share in the company in lieu of payment.
The One With Google Plus
I worked at three start ups. One was a great experience, one was an ok experience, the other was godawful. This was about the godawful experience.
It was a social network that was targeted toward a certain niche market. It was a terrible experience because we were encouraged to work 12 hour days every day, and we pretty much had to – we had changes to major portions of our code every week. Features that were going to be our lynchpins would disappear one week, only to come back another week, and then they get frustrated when we have SVN merge conflicts. I one time I had to work 18 hours two days straight for a supposed launch that was supposed to happen but never did happen. That was always the thing. We’d have a launch date, but then our ghostly overlord who I never met would find some small problem with the app, which ranged from “I don’t like the colours” to “Google Plus just launched and we need to compete against them” to “I think we need to enforce a site wide curse filter”.
Also, company culture wasn’t my favourite. They’d sit back and make obummer jokes, and furious rants about the environment.
The One With Dexter
I worked for Ecko|Code which was a tech spinoff of Ecko and we did the Dexter Facebook game that went along with Season 6. God it was hellish. Each episode was on Sunday so we had to release our “episode” version of the game that Monday. So when you think Fridays would be easiest, they were actually the crunch days every week.
We had no set start time and the end time was when we were done… Sometimes I was there till around 11 with a 2 hour commute home. After the season was over half of the 12 people there were laid off and a few months later the company went under.
It didn’t help that the people running the company didn’t know shit about making games for the general population and tried to make the game into something they liked to play, like mmos. So midway through the 12 episode season they changed the entire mechanic of the game to match their idea of a good game nevermind that mmos are not even close to the realm of facebook games.
The One With… F*ck. Burn It Down.
No breaks, no lunches, no vacation time, no time off to be with my dying father. Yeah you can see the outcome of this when I went to the department of labour after I was fired for spending time with my dad on his deathbed.
The One With the Saddest Thanksgiving
Firing my whole staff on the Monday before Thanksgiving with no severance when the CEO of the company that was acquiring us (and the person driving the deal) was suddenly fired by his board (unrelated to our acquisition). We had used every dollar we had to make payroll during the due diligence period for the acquisition.
The One With Lumberg
Back in 2001 or so I got my first job out of school working for a small startup. There were 3 developers and the owner was a salesman through and through. I remember many late nights coding with him standing over my shoulder throwing out criticisms and suggestions. He couldn’t seem to understand why the changes he was wanting would take more than a few minutes. Any attempt to explain reality to him fell under into the category of “making excuses” and he’d rattle off some sales-speak rah-rah bullshit and continue to stand there watching us code. Thank God the company went under after a year or so.
The One With the Truth
Donald Pump writes:
Protip: Startups are the worst. They give you a bunch of stupid perks and make work “fun” so you have no life outside work. Then when you leave/get laid off you lose all your friends. Unless you get equity go work for a real company. You’ll live without the beer fridge and 15 minute massages every month.
The One With the Canadian Taxes
In the early 2000’s, a friend and colleague of mine started a company to aggregate news and user submitted content. It was one of the first sites of it’s kind, and helped shape the way ordinary users contribute to the news online. During the first two years of their operation, I designed everything they published, often working 30-40 hours a week remotely for the startup. For that contribution, I was given a decent amount of points in the company, and around $US5000 cash.
As time moved on, the site was applauded, listed in several “top new sites” articles from major publications, and grew an enormous user base. The team expanded, more investors climbed on board, and eventually new management started taking over in preparation to sell the company. At one point in year 3, the new VP called me and threatened to sue me, if I did not give back my points in the company, because he said they had redesigned the site and thought they could make a case that my design work had cost them money, becuase they had decided to redesign. He was a pushy lawyer from a major media family, and thought he could intimidate me into giving back my payment for 2 years of work. All they had redesigned was the skin of the work I had developed, changing the logo, colour pallet and some very minor layout points. I told him off and hung up in a rage. They never lawyered up or pursued that further.
Fast forward a few months into year 4… The management had gotten significantly closer to selling the company but the purchasing media outlet didn’t want to pay the early investors and developers, including myself. In order to circumvent our contracts, they reincorporated in Canada and devalued our points to next to nothing. Shortly thereafter they sold the company for $US65 million. My points, which had originally been considered founders stock on paper, would have been worth $US350,000. I was paid $US2000, but since I was paid from Canada, they TOOK CANADIAN TAXES out of my payment, reducing it to less than $US1500.
This is why I will no longer work for points. Fuck start up culture.
Holy shit. You are all heroes for making it out of these toxic messes intact. Are you guys okay? Does anyone need a hug? I feel like maybe you could use a hug.
Originally posted on Gizmodo Australia