Life After the Crash

The market for Internet stocks has crashed, but that doesn't mean that your career has to crash with it. Here's a set of lessons on how good people in dotcom companies gone bad can reboot their careers.

The Web designer's nerves nearly failed him when he entered the Redmond, Washington campus of Microsoft for a job interview in May. The designer, Eric Smith, was 27 years old, and he was out of work. His previous job had evaporated a few weeks earlier, when UrbanEarth.com Inc., an 11-person Internet startup devoted to hip-hop music, went out of business. Meanwhile, his landlord was threatening to kick him out of his Seattle apartment because he had fallen behind on the rent. In the back of Smith's mind was a nagging fear: Maybe I've got no business trying to get a job here.

Then, partway through the interview at Microsoft, Smith realized that things were going to be all right. It didn't matter that UrbanEarth had perished amid a mass extinction of unprofitable dotcoms. It didn't matter that Smith hadn't finished college, or that he lacked the classic résumé of an all-star programmer. He had gained a vast amount of Web experience from his yearlong stint at UrbanEarth, where he had designed 100 Web pages and created 1,000 online images, ranging from horoscope icons to stylized graffiti. Despite its global might, Microsoft urgently needed graphic designers with hands-on Internet experience. Within two hours of reviewing Smith's portfolio, Microsoft manager John Oberon had extended the designer a formal job offer at more than double his previous salary.

There's an important lesson in this job-hunting episode. The dotcom shakeout is one of the year's most misunderstood business stories. Most media outlets are portraying it as hubris brought low, suggesting that seekers of Internet careers must now suffer the shame of unemployment or low-paying jobs -- just as steelworkers and auto workers had to do in their industries a decade ago.

This time around, though, busted companies don't necessarily translate into busted careers. "It's hard for me to think of people who get laid off by a dotcom as victims,'' says Carol Mahoney, 42, senior staffing manager at Intuit, the Mountain View, California-based finance-software company. She and her colleagues are hiring such workers by the dozens. So are swarms of other companies in New York, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and other hotbeds of Web activity.

At Microsoft, for example, senior Internet recruiter Jenna Hall, 29, focuses on failed or failing dotcoms. Whenever such a company goes under or announces a massive layoff, she puts together a dossier with contact information on as many of its employees and executives as she can find. Then she emails that dossier to department heads throughout Microsoft. She couldn't be more popular within the giant software company if she were doling out free trips to Hawaii. In June, for example, when she circulated her dossier on Petsmart.com, recruiters from 11 different Microsoft departments sent her thank-you notes that very day.

Microsoft currently has 3,000 unfilled jobs (the equivalent of nearly 10% of its 34,000-person workforce), and many of its vacancies are in Internet-related areas. As a result, says technical recruiter Cynthia LaRowe, 33, it's the employer who often has to do the most ardent courting -- even when a job candidate is out of work.

Nonetheless, people trying to recover from a "lost year" at a dotcom can misplay their hand. For all of the lip service that the high-tech world pays to the idea that there's no penalty for failure, there is a complex, unwritten code of behavior for workers and managers whose résumés include a brush with disaster. Master the proper etiquette, and you can be back in business -- maybe even with a raise or a promotion. Get it wrong, and you might spend months at home, waiting for the phone to ring.

Consider the artful maneuvering of Reema Singh, 30, a human-relations manager who until this spring was working at Beyond.com. That company had high hopes of selling software over the Internet, but it kept stumbling, and in January, it laid off 20% of its workforce. Instead of panicking, Singh started going to job fairs, where she chatted with representatives from bigger, more secure companies. She hit it off with recruiters from Intuit and began scheduling serious interviews right away.

During those sessions, Singh didn't rail against the stock market's rough treatment of Beyond, nor did she claim to be an underappreciated talent surrounded by clods. She simply acknowledged that Beyond was facing tough times and said that she was gaining valuable experience by learning what an HR manager could do to keep a troubled company from unraveling. And she shared stories of helping executives fight employee attrition once it became clear that stock options would not have much value at Beyond.

"You learn what tools you can give to managers during stressful times,'' Singh says. That resilience appealed to Intuit managers, who gladly hired her on the belief that she could bring fresh thinking to their relatively stable enterprise.

On the whole, recruiters say, lower-level employees from a failed dotcom can rebound nicely -- if it's clear that they picked up vital job skills from their last employer, regardless of the company's overall fate. It also helps to be realistic about prospects for titles and stock ownership. When bigger employers woo startup castoffs, they generally offer competitive salaries, but they seldom make a 26-year-old a "senior executive Web designer" or award her 50,000 options.

For top-level executives from a doomed dotcom, it's important to have a reasonably candid explanation of the company's missteps -- and an ability to point out a few lessons that they drew from the experience. "I always want to know whether candidates understand what went wrong,'' says David Pritchard, 38, director of business-group recruiting at Microsoft.

Lately, UrbanEarth's top executives have learned the importance of introspection. Venkat Balasubramani, 29, a cofounder of the company, says that when he began looking for a new job, he expected employers to be impressed by the "risk tolerance, initiative, and self-confidence" that he showed in forming his company, even though it eventually failed. To his chagrin, he found that they were pretty skeptical of UrbanEarth's basic business plan and that they wanted to know what he had learned from the company's demise.

Gradually, Balasubramani came to terms with his company's shortcomings. UrbanEarth was a content and commerce site aimed at a young, racially diverse, nonaffluent audience -- a brave idea, but not necessarily a quick moneymaker. It was also funded on a mere $350,000 -- not nearly enough to sustain a company through tough times.

During the spring, Balasubramani put out 40 feelers, and soon he landed work as the in-house lawyer for WildTangent, a Seattle company that specializes in tools for 3-D animation on the Internet. He's not as high on the organization chart as he was at UrbanEarth, and he doesn't own nearly as much of the business. He says that occasionally the change makes him a little wistful but that it also comes as a relief. The new company has $15 million in venture funding, "and I only have to worry about a small piece of the overall business,'' he says. "I don't feel as though the success or failure of the company is riding on my shoulders.''

Similarly, Nathan Webb, 28, the former CEO of UrbanEarth, has resurfaced as a vice president at WhitePages.com Inc., a Seattle company that provides Internet phone directories. "I wouldn't jump to a dotcom now without seeing the books or without believing that there is a path to profitability," Webb says.

As for Eric Smith, UrbanEarth's one-time art director, he is adjusting his work habits to the more measured pace of Microsoft. His first assignment has been to work on a layout for bCentral, a small-business Web site whose design sensibility is the buttoned-down antithesis of UrbanEarth's gritty look. No matter, he says, he's flexible.

On a recent morning, Smith proudly shows a visitor the elements that make up bCentral's home page. While he didn't create all of those elements himself, he did refine some of them and help lay them out. And he spent several hours doing so -- far more time than he would have taken for an UrbanEarth project.

Such work is fine for now, Smith says, but his real passion is computer animation. And his roller-coaster ride has convinced him that if there's a path to an animation career, he'll have to find it himself. Eventually, he says, he would like to transfer to Microsoft's computer-animation team. "But it's up to me to make that happen," he remarks. "That's not something that my bosses are going to do for me."

George Anders (ganders@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company senior editor, is based in Silicon Valley.

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