The invitation was inevitable, irresistible, and infuriating: "Come to the PotatoWare IPO party," it said - a cruel reminder of my brief stint at the product-free software startup where my one claim to fame had been my incredibly stylish sneakers. How could I not go? After all, at least the food would be free.
When I got to the party, Dennis from marketing was standing on the glass coffee table in the middle of the waiting area, screaming at the top of his lungs. "Did anyone ask me if I wanted to be paid in options instead of real money?" he wailed. "Does anyone care how much sleep I lose worrying about money that I don't have? It's the emperor's new clothes! Only the emperor is in Armani, and his subjects are buck naked - naked of bucks, that is! We're not only naked; we're still borrowing money from our parents to pay our car insurance. Meanwhile, the whole world treats us like we're stinking rich!"
It was a clear case of IPOD: IPO Disorder. The post-traumatic stress syndrome of the '90s. Legionnaires' disease of the mind. Leprosy of the credit rating. IPOD usually strikes people under 40 who slave away at groovy startups and then become very rich without actually having any money.
Exhibit A: PotatoWare's office. The place is crowded with people I recognize - Curly Mop and Topknots One and Two, the two Jennifers, the two Matts, the nameless nerds from R&D. They all look as pasty-faced, fat-assed, and overworked as I do - instead of like people who have just gotten a big check from Publishers Clearing House, which is how they should look. A sure sign of IPOD.
Apparently, no one but Spud, PotatoWare's founder and not-quite-still-a-boy genius - who now really is a zillionaire - has been spared. During the day, Margo, head of accounting, checks her shares online every 15 minutes. At night, rumor has it, she sleeps with her laptop so that she can check PotatoWare's stock price the moment she gets up.
Donald from the digital-design department is out of his mind with IPOD envy: His twin brother, Ronald, works at another startup and has more "virtualbucks" than he does. How dangerous are V-bucks? Donald put Ronald in the hospital over an argument about which of them will one day own the Lamborghini and which of them will have to make do with a Bimmer. In the meantime, they live together (along with a roommate) and share an orange Pinto.
I mingle. Gina, Spud's assistant, who has been promoted and who has lost the nose ring and the attitude, is mentally bereft, trying to figure out what to do with all of that extra space in the new uptown condo that she hasn't actually bought yet. Never mind that she still lives with four roommates in a one-bedroom as big as the men's room at PotatoWare.
"You're so lucky," wails Topknot One. "Life is so much easier when you're broke and you know it."
"Charities hate me for stiffing them," Topknot Two cries. "My friends want me to pick up every check. But all I've got are V-bucks!"
There's a crash. Dennis has fallen through the coffee table. Too bad the glass company won't accept options.
The only one who seems to have figured things out is Curly Mop. She's started an IPOD support group - after having appeared in a magazine story ("The Virtual Rich") and then bouncing the check that she used to buy the magazine. She's also putting together a series of inspirational tapes and a recovery workbook.
Now she's thinking about launching her own startup. "Which, of course, will do nothing but perpetuate the IPOD," she says. "But if I get real bucks, who cares if everyone else gets stuck with V-bucks?"
This is the latest episode in The Spy's continuing saga, "Working behind Enemy Lines." You can visit The Spy on the Web (www.askthespy.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.