CXO

Surviving a dot com

Do you feel like you're a B2B pioneer or a cyberslave? In this TechWatch, Bob Weinstein talks with former and current dot-com employees about their workloads and what questions you need to ask before working for an Internet company.


Bonnie Russell uses words like “sweat shop” and “unethical” to describe her eight months working for a small dot-com ad agency in Orange, CA. Amy Fried preferred the adjectives “disorganized,” “inconsistent,” and “chaotic” to capture her one year working for a New York-based dot com selling online software applications.

Both opted not to name their companies because the dot-com community is small, and bad-mouthing former bosses is not wise.

Russell is now the president of 1st-pick.com, a Del Mar, CA-based Web site linking attorneys and physicians to potential clients and customers. Fried is now a headhunter specializing in new media at New York City search firm Roz Goldfarb Associates.

The dot-com dream: Financial woes and poor management?
Although Russell and Fried’s previous dot-com jobs differed, they both left their jobs disillusioned.

What went wrong?

Russell was dazzled by promises of wealth and security but instead found uncertainty, endless days, and barely enough money to support herself.

“We believed everything we were told,” she said. “Management misrepresented the company, inflated the number of hits per day and, worst of all, exaggerated the amount of commissions we could potentially earn.”

The reality was that no amount of hustle could bring in enough to support Russell above her meager hourly pay.

Fried’s financial picture was a lot better, but she had to endure constant pressure because of poor management.

“All the employees were at the whim of a 28-year-old president who was practically winging it,” she explains. “He would change direction every few weeks or wake up in the middle of the night with a brainstorm and make it a mandate the next day.”

All dot coms are not like the ones described by Russell and Fried. Fried should know, since she now works closely with the hottest firms in New York’s Silicon Alley and follows the intense Internet culture scene closely.

Russell and Fried naively walked into bad situations when they should have checked out the companies beforehand. Yet, the sexy magnet-like attraction of a hot dot com was enough to defray rational thinking.

As in all business, there’s the good—and the bad
The advent of the dot com has created a new business model, from both the management and employee perspectives.

Inexperienced business owners, barely five years out of school, find themselves with multimillion-dollar bank accounts, running companies while having no clue about managing others. Similarly, employees are suddenly thrust into overdrive, where the pace and speed of work is beyond their wildest imaginations.

Working for a dot com can be exciting—if you know what you’re getting into beforehand.

David Mather, managing director of Christian & Timbers’ West Coast operations in Cupertino, CA, says many young people with fantasies of working for a cyber-chic company have no clue what it’s like working in Internet time.

“The reason for the long work days is because the Internet never shuts down,” he said.

Tim Cahill, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Homepage.com, a B2B company that designs home pages, knows firsthand how difficult working for dot coms can be. Creating a niche for his company, which offers the unique service of outsourcing home pages, keeps his 101 employees working at breakneck speed.

If he dares slow the pace, a competitor may overtake him.

Survival for a dot com means “compressing 10 years of a normal company into one year,” said Cahill. That means working at an inhuman pace for long periods of time. Unlike Russell’s and Fried’s bosses, he never hid that fact of life from his employees. In fact, he went out of his way to drive that message home during weekly meetings.

There are other companies like Homepage.com that make it a point to be up-front with employees. The key to finding them is asking plenty of questions. Speak to employees, especially former ones, and find out what working conditions are like.

“Screen the CEO and find out what long-term plans are in place,” Fried advises. “Don’t be timid about grilling management. If you’re going to be working like a dog, you have a right to know what to expect.”

Finally, have no illusions about working for a dot com.

“The Internet has changed the way we work,” observes Michael Tchong, editor of San Francisco-based Iconocast, an Internet newsletter that closely follows the e-marketing industry. “You’re not going to cut it with a nine-to-five mentality. People must get used to working 50- and 60-hour weeks,” he said.

Despite the changes technology has brought, ironically, “we’re returning to an older work ethic,” Tchong explains. “Farmers began work at the crack of dawn and quit at sundown. So must we.”

Sound forbidding? Not really. It’s all about adjusting to change. That’s an old story these days.
Is working at a dot com killing you? Is the workload you’ve taken on more than you expected? Is the work you’re doing worth the sacrifices you’ve made? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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