Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer
August 17th, 2010
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.