It’s the last month of the year so between dodging “extended 24 hours sale” emails, getting bombarded with trendy predictions for 2020 and juggling logistics to see friends and family, it’s easy to feel spread thin. Luckily, there’s the company party at the end of the week with an open bar and call for “festive attire.”
This year, however, many workers might have a 6-9 pm block on their calendar this Thursday night for a company party that they will never get to go to. Between WeWork’s layoffs and a number of other startups in and out of the PropTech world cutting staff due to valuation concerns, there are plenty of empty dancefloors at a lot of tinseled hotel conference halls.
I know this because I am one of the chosen many who got a “required” meeting request late-night on a Thursday and got laid off along with the majority of the company on Friday morning. It took everyone by surprise. We had energy and momentum, we had hit a number of important milestones and were about to celebrate a successful year of work. It was like running full speed into a brick wall. Disappointment, anger, frustration, heartbreak and fear coursed through all of our veins as some worried about work visas and others thought wearily of the promises made for the holiday season approaching.
Layoffs feel like whiplash for many but they can hit particularly hard in startups. From day one, people join startup teams because they believe. They drink the proverbial Koolaid about the importance of what they are doing. This belief, aided by espresso machines and foosball tables, fuels small teams to do the work of large teams for a fraction of the pay. With ongoing promises of promotion, equity, and making the world a better place you learn to love the grind because it will make it feel so when we (finally) “make it.” The power of perception is a game-changer. The agony of software bugs and missed commissions is all too easily offset by the promise of new leads and a fresh corporate trucker hat.
“It’s amazing how quickly a company can lose sight of the value within its own employees.”
A former colleague
I can’t emphasize how sudden it happened. In conversations with colleagues after that infamous Friday morning, everyone asked the same questions.
“Did you know?”
“What did we miss?”
“Were we too close to our keyboards to see what was happening?”
Adding injury to insult, the company won “Best Tech Startup in Orange County (California) 2019” the week after and was prominently displayed as a silver sponsor at the United State’s largest commercial real estate tech conference. Our booth spot had vanished, our panel spot was filled, but our name and logo were still obviously displayed. Were we missed? Hard to say.
Being far from alone in this experience, I reached out to others. While misery loves company, I wanted to change this into one of those “character building” experiences and I wasn’t disappointed with the followup conversations. I’ve learned what happens after layoffs can embody the entrepreneurial and holiday spirit in the most wholesome and refreshing way.
This is the part of the story where it starts to turn around, where the music changes, the clouds break and the rain clears to reveal a lush landscape. The unique qualities in these startups become part of the backbone of these dedicated and hopeful team members. Slack communities are created where former colleagues can reconnect, share life updates and job opportunities, and post inspirational quotes and congratulatory messages. Previous partners and clients evolve into potential employers, partners, and friends. People are gifted the chance to take a breath and think about the next step in terms of what is best for them and not what’s best for the source of their paycheck.
PropTech is in not in trouble of failing. These freshly available workers will find new spots with other companies. In fact, the special skill set that they have developed from working at a startup with high expectations makes them highly attractive to other companies. Others will likely use what they have learned to build new businesses out of the ashes of their old divisions. Thomas Walle, Unacast CEO & Co-founder, spoke of a company out of Finland that peaked in the 90s and later laid off thousands. Related, Unacast just released a fascinating report on WeWork data analysis.
“If you look at the innovation that has come out of Finland in the last 10 years, it is superior compared to other European countries and it’s because of these people,” Walle said. “Overnight, all of these people with great expertise and who knew how to work in a fast-moving startup found themselves unemployed. Even though they could have gone out and found work, they took it as an opportunity to start their own companies.”
Now is also an opportunity for all of us to take an introspective step back. With all the focus on customer-centric services and good user experiences, shouldn’t there be more care taken with the people making it all happen? The pillars of the hospitality industry are bleeding into commercial real estate. If tenant experience heavily impacts retention (and therefore profitability) then it only makes sense that this same hospitable attention is given to the people working behind the curtain to make the magic happen.
Caring, genuinely caring, outshines amenities any day. You can always makeover an interior, but you can’t create a community with a group lacking dedication. We need to realize that in order to put the tenant first we have to empower the employees that work with them.
So, I am choosing not to view these layoffs as a bad thing. I am taking this time to look introspectively to think long and hard about my network and my goals. We all want to build communities that matter and sell services people want. That is what matters. We’ll find our way back because it is our passion, our expertise, and we won’t stop until we make the difference we’ve been working towards.