Social Enterprise

Lessons in unemployment from the dot com bust

Crossloop co-founder Mrinal Desai shares his story of a long stint he spent being unemployed after the dot com bust earlier this decade in hopes that it might help a few of the many high-quality technology professionals searching for work right now.

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Crossloop co-founder Mrinal Desai shares his story of a long stint he spent being unemployed after the dot com bust earlier this decade, in hopes that it might help a few of the many high-quality technology professionals searching for work right now.

When Desai's high-paying gig at Silicon Graphics (SGI) dried up, he was forced to move, work odd jobs (like stringing Christmas lights), take contract work, and set up a makeshift office at Starbucks. He ultimately dug his way out by doing some creative professional networking that led to learning opportunities and, eventually, job opportunities.

Listen to Mrinal's story in this edition of the Tech Sanity Check podcast, or read the transcript below. As he mentions in the interview, you can find Mrinal on Twitter and Linkedin, as well as on his personal blog.

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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Q: We're going to talk about your experience being unemployed and some of the pretty useful stuff you got out of it during the big tech downturn in the early part of this decade. So let's start with you explaining why you literally called yourself, "CEO, Vocationally Challenged, Inc." after the dot com bust.

Desai: One big part of a phase like this, as one goes through it, is to maintain your sense of humor. So, to me, it was making the point that I want to enjoy my journey as much as the destination, if [I] get there. So using something that subtly attracted people in a conversation, or would be like "What does that mean?" I never shied at telling people that I was unemployed, but bring humor in allowed me to have a conversation with people.

And it was the best thing that happened to me. I'm personally very proud of it. Many people told to me, "Why are you always telling people that you're unemployed. It's not usually something people talk about." For me it was one of the best things that happened to me, not only in hindsight but when I was going through it. You know, even in my Linkedin profile (where I used to work) I pretty much only described my experience in employment in-depth. Everything else was just where I was and for how long.

Q: When was it that you actually lost your job or became unemployed?

Desai: I came from India in '99 in the boom time. I was fresh off the boat. I used to manage SGI, Silicon Graphics, the largest Asia-Pacific account in India. So I was pretty confident that if I come for business school, do my MBA, I was at least going to potentially get a job at SGI. I was in Monterrey [California] and the school was in Monterrey.

And, you know, man proposes God disposes, at that time. When I finished [business school] in 2001, not only was the economy totally tanking but SGI was also going down. So when I came out of school in 2001 there were no jobs. So I actually moved up to the Northwest to Portland, Oregon, where it was at least cheaper to live, compared to California. But it seems unemployment followed me because Oregon had the highest rate of unemployment at that time.

So I never actually got a chance to get a job. I did a lot of part-time stuff here and there, including stringing lights for Christmas in downtown Portland, which was a big win for me mentally because culturally I had not grown up to do that stuff and I had all my personal ego in my head, that "I have an MBA, I have an engineering degree from the best school in India, and I have worked for five years in one of the best companies in India, so why would I be stringing lights in downtown Portland." So that was a huge win for me in terms of just overcoming myself mentally because I think a lot of people will relate to the psychological challenges one faces, especially in this phase of your life."

Q: So you're in Portland and going from job-to-job, what kind of stuff did you do that eventually moved you toward your next job, which was at Linkedin, right?

Desai: When I was looking for a job, one thing I was doing was networking off line, and I was actually spending a lot of my time at a local Starbucks, which was my "office." And I would make sure that I didn't sleep in or just hang out at home and be alone, so I would head out [in the morning] with my wife and go to Starbucks and sit there for four to five hours and read. So I started building relationships with a lot of other people who were regulars there.

And one of the other things that I did was I actually audited a class at Portland State University because I thought maybe a business professor could potentially introduce me to the business community in Portland because I was new to Portland. So I started building those relationships and actually the professor did introduce me to a marketing director at a flat panel display company called Planar, and he gave me some consulting gigs at Planar and [I] did some jobs there. Actually now he is the V.P. of marketing at E-Ink, which makes the display for the [Amazon] Kindle. So what I'm trying to bring out here is that it's all about relationships, and maintaining them forever. It's long term. It's not for, "Can you get me a job? No? Okay, bye, bye."

So I started networking and then I heard about Linkedin in 2003 and I said, "Wow, this might be a good compliment to what I'm doing offline." And so I just started playing around with Linkedin and it actually worked for me. It didn't get me a job through the contacts I made, but I met some amazing people through Linkedin. I've actually started blogging about it in my personal blog. I'm writing a series called, "I know what I did the last time I was unemployed." And that's all tips, because I want to share with people who are there potentially right now.

So I built these great relationships with people [back then] and I went to Linkedin in 2003 and Linkedin had about 40 thousand users at that time, and I said, "Look, I see the power in this tool and I want to work for you. And this is who I am offline, so this won't be a [chore] for me." Eventually, I went to work for them a year later in 2004, because when I [first] approached them they said, "We're not hiring, we're really small, but since you're such an early user give us product feedback." So one of the co-founders Konstantin Guericke suggested some product feedback.

I did that for about a year and built a long-term relationship with him and a year later, lo and behold, they raised another round of funding and they were interested in hiring someone for business development to launch their first revenue product. So I went in and joined Linkedin in '04 as the first business development guy.

Q: What are some of the ways to start if somebody's just been unemployed and they want to build the right relationships?

Desai: I think the first key thing is to do some internal introspection and [figure out] what is it that you're really, really passionate about. So, one of the things that I'm driven by in relationship-building is the voracious need to learn. I'm really, really hungry for knowledge. And I'm a business guy so I'm always looking for tech people to interact with so that they can mentor me. Or I'm looking for a teenager who can teach me about consumer services such as cell phones [for exmaple] because I may not be using it the way they are.

So indentifying things that interest you at a genuine level is really important because then you can reach out to people who are experts in that field. Once you do that, the other thing is there are tons of social networks now that can help. I definitely don't believe that they are a replacement [for real world networking]. They are more of an enhancement for what you're doing offline, because genuine relationships - at least if you're talking about building those for years and years - do need the body language and the interaction.

So [a social network], by no means, replaces good relationships, but it enables you to reach out to people, just the way I was using Linkedin to reach out to people when I was unemployed, but then I went and met those people and I still know all those people I reached out to, because I made it a point to maintain those relationships, independent of getting a job or not. So the focus was always on the journey and not the destination.

One quote that I really believe in, especially when you're looking for a job is, "I am NOT a business man. I AM a business, man." So you are a business by yourself. You are a product. You have to sell yourself. You have to make sure you promote yourself at the right places. Just the way you would go to buy a laptop at Best Buy as a channel, you have to figure out where are your channels to reach out to your target customer, who is potentially the hiring managers at the target companies. I have put a lot of these tips on my personal blog, which is mrinal.vox.com. I've basically broken it down about how individuals can proceed in the [best] way to go about job hunting.

Q: When you're doing this, it also becomes an opportunity for you to eventually help out someone else, right?

Desai: Absolutely. You never know, when you're building relationships you just do it because you're aligned on the values. And you don't do it because you want something from the other person or you think you're going to oblige someone else. You genuinely do it because you believe in the person. Life is short. You want to surround yourself with really nice people. I'll talk to a homeless person at a coffee shop, and hang out with him. If I can help him out and he needs some time to talk to someone then I'm happy to talk. I'm not going to lose anything, and he's not going to give me anything, and I'm not looking for his title or his net worth or anything. And I think that's where a lot of people lose out in real relationship-building.

Q: Why did you join a dot com company like Linkedin in the wake of what had just been the dot com implosion? Was there any reluctance there, and if you had been employed by someone like SGI the whole time do you think you would have still made the jump to Linkedin?

Desai: Yes, and primarily because I had reached the stage, or I probably did when I was employed that ... I left India because I wanted choices. I became an engineer, not by choice, but because that was the way things were done if you wanted a job in India. And my brother became a doctor. That's a very classic product road map for kids in India, overall. And I came to the U.S. because I wanted choices and I wanted to do what really excited me and Linkedin to me was who I was as a person. Their tagline is "Relationships matter."

So, to me, it was a no-brainer, even if they had no funding. I had played around with the product, I saw the power, and I saw the way it would enable a lot of people to do much better in life. So even if I had been at SGI I think it would have been a no-brainer for me, assuming I had found it and played around with the product. So, to me, being deeply ingrained in social media and social networking, even today, is not because it's the hottest thing that's happening right now. It is allowing me to do what I love doing: finding really nice people and building relationships forever.

Q: So you did well at Linkedin and were there during much of the early growth, but then you decided to leave Linkedin in 2006. You've said your experience being unemployed before going to Linkedin is one of the things that helped you take the risk and start the new venture where you're at now. So tell us about that.

Desai: When you want to start a business, the worst case scenario is that you're not going to have a job, potentially. You're going to fall on your face if it doesn't take off. And then you're unemployed again. I had lived that for almost three long years, so I knew the worst case scenario. I knew how to be happy and manage life sharing a cup of coffee with my wife on a Friday night. So I didn't need a lot to see what I was happy and satisfied with. So that was a big part.

I think that's one of the biggest fears I think people have if they want to start a company. [They think], "What if this doesn't work?" I was very comfortable with "failure" because when I got out of school I never even got a chance to do much. That was a big part of the motivation to take the leap.

The other part is that I have learned from my personal experiences that adversity brings the best out of me. It brings things out of me that I didn't even know I could do. Even when I was coming to the U.S. [from] back in India in 1995, which was my first attempt to come to the U.S., and my application for a student visa was rejected. And I couldn't even apply for two more years, but I stood fast in terms of my dream and I said, "Okay, I'm going to do my best that I have India, build up some good experience and my resume, and try again. I'm not going to give up."

So then I tried again in '99 and made it. And then, of course, in 2001 the economy tanked and so again I had to fight. Doing a startup is similar. You're in a chase and you have all these adversities you have to overcome. Somehow, it's always the best thing - if you have the right attitude - to bring out things you didn't know about yourself.

Q: I think one of the dynamics in life is crisis and victory, and sometimes you need a crisis to catapult you toward a victory. I think that's part of the dynamic you're talking about.

Desai: Yeah, it's like you never want to let a crisis go to waste. It's such an important time if you really want to grow.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

37 comments
comments
comments

Can't you find an American example? The Monterey Institute brings in foreign nationals who can afford its huge tuition--for a degree one can earn at nearby state schools for much less money--because it can't make the sell to US citizens. Its degrees aren't worth the money, so it sells residence and MBAs to help foreigners stride toward their "dreams" of success outside their own countries. Neighborhoods for miles around the school are glutted with Asians enrolled at MIIS, raising rents and vexing long-term residents. Then they stay and expect to be rewarded with jobs, depressing salaries. The person you interviewed is using resources that belong to Americans--the litany of a foreign national fighting to get a job here reminds me of a smart virus using a body's resources to hang in there.

Patelk
Patelk

A gentle reminder for all in these times. A great article that got me thinking about all sorts of things including reflection and I had a take away from this article that is positive. Great work Mrinal. Kirit - New Zealand

pionr
pionr

A lot of what Mrinal Desai said was applicable to people in all stages of employment. Thank you for making making this conversation available.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Another Computer Science doctor out of work.

shulage
shulage

Very introspective.Excellent Interview.

chas_2
chas_2

Thanks, Jason - great post! Very hopeful tone, always a plus for these times.

aeiyor
aeiyor

I'm in full agreement with pretty much the whole interview/article. I've had a short stint of being unemployed from a layoff that transpired a few years back. I pretty much did similar things as Desai had mentioned - I agree with networking. Be it fortunate or unfortunate, often its who you know that helps the most. Not to insinuate skills, education, experience have no basis as they do - but attitude and contact often prove the higher marks. At least that is IMHO. I believe the most valuable assets one has are: Attitude, Communication, People and Relationships. Next in line would be, Education, Experience, Self-Development, Self-Understanding.

sboverie
sboverie

I was also laid off after the Dot Com bust. I would tell everyone that I was involuntarily retired as my way of talking about being unemployed. Building contacts and relationships is important, if you are married then you should draw support from your spouse. Not so good if you are single, singles need to look to family and friends for support. I keep in touch with some ex coworkers and get a feel for what is happening in other parts of the industry. Desai showed that sometimes you have to take a job that is not related to you career. I think that it is helpful to have multiple revenue streams even when you are working full time. Multiple revenue streaming is being entreprenural and becoming a business with your own sales and services and maintaining that entreprenural attitude when fully employed.

rharper
rharper

The article was unlifting and inspiring for me. I am also in the market for a new position. Keep up the great work!

jmosher
jmosher

Thank you so much for your sharing, Desai. I can relate to everything here. I went through humbling experiences during the dot-bomb, and I'm way on a relationship-building, networking phase of my life now. When I read your thoughts, it's like me talking.

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

Great article. I empathize with the many people that now find themselves out of work. I was also a victim of the Dot-com bust and I was laid off when my entire group was eliminated. Every job I had ever had "found me" so the idea of looking for a job was very new to me, and it took me 10 months. Here are my tips: - TELL EVERYONE! - it was mentioned in the article, but I want to restate it. The more people that know you are looking for a job, the better. Tell your family, your friends, even strangers on the street. Most jobs are born of personal relationships - a friend of a friend type of thing. Your hairdresser may know an hiring Executive or an HR director and bingo! They end up telling them about this "great person I know." - PROFESSIONAL CERTIFICATIONS and ASSOCIATIONS - I took the time to obtain my project management certification (even though I had been managing projects for 15 years). I also received my security certification. It is amazing what those 3-letter acronyms can do to get you through those hiring doors. Most certifications also include membership to professional associations - providing great networking opportunities. - MAINTAIN YOUR "WORK WEEK" - Maintain your normal work schedule. Treat "looking for employment" as your day job. Do it from 9 - 5. Maintaining this regimen will not only ensure you are devoting adequate effort to finding your next job, it will help your mental state as well. You are much less likely to fall into a "couch potato existence" or depressed state. - STAY POSITIVE - Maintaining a positive attitude will not only help you personally, it will help you get hired. You may feel like gloom-and-doom, but do everything you can do suppress if not hide those feelings. Firms are looking for up-beat, positive-minded folks. Good luck. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

jonsaint
jonsaint

Jason, Well done this morning. I keyed on Mr. Desai's words regarding his relationship with his wife and the boost he obviously got from his marriage in that down period of his life. I hope his marriage is equally beneficial to them both now that he's back in the chips, so to speak. I was put on 30 days notice to either resign or be terminated back in the summer of 2001, just after I was married. My wife supported me fully during that bad period of several weeks. Like Mr. desai I was able to work my networks to find other work and kept employed until I retired four years later, on my timing. I know you sometimes put into play controversial topics that get you a lot of ad hominem criticism. But keep up the work anyway.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Listening to a positive person always is a good thing. Thanks Jason.

stevex_1999
stevex_1999

You might ask yourself the question, 'What is an American today?'. Unless you are very naive, anyone who lives in our borders, citizen or not, legal or illegal, has the right to consider themselves an American. It is a foolish and outdated term anyway with no real meaning. Questions of nationality can only be asked in places where they matter. That long ago ceased in this FEZ - Free Economic Zone which is my term and which more accurately reflects the political and economic realities exposed by long standing policies. This makes your post and question, irrelevant. As long as a person can pay, they have a right to stay.

Mrinal.Desai
Mrinal.Desai

Always be Creating (relationships) :) I am glad it helped!

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Appreciate the feedback and glad you found this interview helpful. Mrinal is a really good guy with a terrific story to tell. I also appreciate your note about a great spouse being a big boost in tough times. I couldn't agree more. Also glad to hear that you were able to retire on your own terms.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

We offer transcripts on videos but not on podcasts. It's a little too labor-intensive. However, this podcast is only about 15 minutes long, if that's any consolation or incentive to listen.

joeypeleg
joeypeleg

while i was working ,i never found the time to socialize and to just meet people.Thank you for pointing it out .Intuitively,i have been consorting with more people since i was laid off and it's starting to pay off. I have been using "crossloop' for a long while, and it's the first add-on i install in firefox.cudos.

kferraro
kferraro

Thank you Mrinal for some really wonderful insights and Jason for making it available at TechRepublic. I am actually going to sent this to some non-tech people because it is such a good way to look at opportunity in the face of what many would see to be a bad situation.

thezar
thezar

Learn to spell and proofread. The article has errors that I could not call typos. Examples: "exmaple" instead of "example". "Indentifying" instead of "Identifying". They show that proof-reading/spell-checking was not done. Not the way to make an impression. (Yes, I know that was an incomplete sentence, but at least I knew it and used it on purpose.) As Desai said, all learning is good, especially if it pulls you through your pride.

ebsfrmr
ebsfrmr

This interview took me back to those days, when I was likewise trying to start a business, find work, and discover my path through very challenging times. Indeed, getting out to have a cup of coffee with others on a weekly basis offers great support and potential for opportunities and personal growth. In addition, attending business support/networking meetings, various classes offered on subjects related to my goals, etc expanded my skills and understanding. Pursuing interests you are passionate about by being an active self-motivated learner, volunteering your time and talents are an excellent way help you to hone your developing skills, along with taking short-term jobs. Definitely, having a great attitude, without fear, helps you to see opportunities in an otherwise cloudy environment/perspective. Allowing the downshifting experience to open your eyes to the many blessings and advantages you actually have in this life can help you to brainstorm and find your unique creative reserves deep down. It really can help you to figure out what is truly important to you, and appreciate all the roses along the path. Again, great interview. Can't thank you enough for posting it.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

Great discussion and a timely topic in today's business environment. On a note of weirdness, back in 1998, I was a senior architecture consultant with Entex. Entex held the contract to handle the technical helpdesk queries from user's on SGI's high-end workstations. I was called up to Mason, Ohio to help interview technicians and set up the desk. Small world ain't it? In another bit of weird synchronicity, in 2001 I was the Technical Director of Virtex Networks, which was one of the first third-party IT infrastructure management companies that was later aquired by Leapfrog Services. I agree with Desai that forming lifetime relationships is critical in your professional career. I am not yet convinced that LinkedIn is the extension of the professional organizations for engineers which exist, but I do know that several of those organizations are now heavily leveraging it.

Mrinal.Desai
Mrinal.Desai

I couldnt emphasize it enough that its ALL about surrounding yourself with good people and it starts at home - with yourself to begin with (how well you know yourself, believe, etc.) and with your family. My wife was and is a HUGE enabler and believed.... I have penned down a few of my thoughts on this notion on my personal blog but its all about People, People and People Jason - thanks again for the opportunity and am available to help ...

jalander
jalander

i just read the interview.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

The transcript has been added now.

Mrinal.Desai
Mrinal.Desai

.... to see the response and am really glad it is helping. Even if one person gets something real out of this, I am stoked, Lisa!

lisaw1
lisaw1

Thanks, Jason - I'm happy to be a Tech Republic member. Keep up the good work! Everyone else beat me to the punch, but thanks, Mrinal!! I've sent this URL to several folks who are battling the unemployed blues... We can all learn so much from each other. Life is all about relationships; thanks for the reminder.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

this interview is more about life than technology. Glad you found it helpful!

Mrinal.Desai
Mrinal.Desai

.... further back to the relationship one has with oneself :)

avidtrober
avidtrober

Jason, thank you for this article. This is an article I think all IT Republic readers could benefit from. IT/high-tech is our profession, but it's not life itself. And, there SO MUCH about life we bring to the job, or don't, based upon our values, attitude and character. I love the bit in the article about building relationships genuinely, not because I have something to sell you, or some other 'exchange-only' motive. The article starts out with focusing on what we're really passionate about. I left my job last fall to go back to just that. I was in no danger of being laid-off...very well-paid, couldn't find better benes anywhere, bonus, perks, privileges, etc. ...And, I left. I went back to my own business (industry-strength.com, my pre-corporate career), because one HAS to live life from your inner core passions, or you're not really living. It's touch in ANY economy, much less this one. There's a lot of unknowns, unprecedented challenges, and more. But, at the same time I'm far more alive than the "security" et. al. of a corporate job. This is a great article about LIVING. And, if you're being laid-off, facing long-term unemployment, perhaps watching your niche dry-up... this is the attitude, values and character to have. Thank you, Jason. This is a great way to start out a Monday morning!

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Thank you for your optimism. We sure need more of it.

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