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Greetings From Recession Camp

Even downsized dotcommers need a little work-life balance. That’s why Andrew Brenner and Michael Feldman founded Recession Camp — a refuge for Bay Area job hunters who’d rather bicycle Skyline Drive than wait by the phone with Oprah.

Andrew Brenner might be the only person in the world struck by an epiphany while waiting in line for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. That was back in late June, and Brenner and his friend Michael Feldman — both recently laid off from Silicon Valley jobs — were attending a matinee. “I was lamenting the fact that there weren’t many people to hang around with during the day,” remembers Brenner, formerly vice president of business development at the wireless infrastructure company Mspect Inc. “I said to Michael, ‘There’s got to be tons of people out there right now who are out of work and going through the same issues we are.’ ” Then the epiphany hit: What if, Brenner and Feldman wondered, they created a way for casualties of the economic downturn to meet and spend time together? Thus, Recession Camp was born — a weekly series of inexpensive, casual events, such as bike rides and picnics, publicized via recessioncamp.com and an email newsletter that targets just about anyone wanting a break from the monotony. “You look for a job several hours a day, and then you need something to do with your time,” Brenner explains. Brenner, 32, and Feldman, 33, were proud of their brainchild. “We high-fived each other and were pretty excited,” says Feldman, whose job as CEO of Tools Inc., an Internet marketing startup, ended in February. But the head counselors of Recession Camp didn’t know how their scheme would be received by others. The answer? More enthusiastically than they ever imagined. The first event, a hike held in early July, attracted 6 people. A similar event in late August attracted 25. The mailing list now boasts 600 subscribers, with about 50 more signing on every week. And Brenner and Feldman have received inquiries from the similarly unemployed about starting chapters in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. “It’s a great idea,” says Christina Mueller, 32, product manager at AltaVista until six months ago. “It’s a way to get people out of their solitary lives looking for a job, which is something you pretty much do on your own.” Mueller heard about Recession Camp through word of mouth and has attended a baseball game and happy-hour event with the group. Though she didn’t know anybody affiliated with Recession Camp before joining, she says, “Everyone is really social. It’s just a good crowd.” To be sure, the circumstances that prompted the creation of Recession Camp aren’t very funny, especially since the recent pattern of layoffs shows no sign of slowing down. But both Brenner and Feldman believe that it’s important to maintain a sense of humor — and a sense of perspective. As Brenner says, “You really need something to keep you active and happy while you’re looking for a job. You’re not going to sound very good in interviews after sitting and watching Oprah for four weeks.” Brenner and Feldman didn’t start Recession Camp to make money — a fact that some in Silicon Valley find difficult to grasp. “Even though we’re in a recession, everybody’s still focused on startups and money and stock,” Feldman says. “We tell people about Recession Camp, and they say, ‘How do you make money?’ We say, ‘We’re not even trying.’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t get it. What’s your revenue model?’ When we say, ‘We’re doing this for fun,’ they’re like, ‘No, no, there’s got to be some other reason.’ ” But the reason really is just to have fun — many of the camp outings are activities Brenner and Feldman say that they always wanted to participate in but couldn’t because they were so busy working. So far, Feldman says that he has most enjoyed Recession Camp’s outing to the San Francisco Food Bank. “We had pallets of frozen peas that we had to break up and put in plastic bags,” he says. “We built a little assembly line where one person opened the baggie, another person broke the peas apart, a third person scooped up the food, and finally someone put it in the bags. We were doing a good thing, and the work was actually fun.” The most popular events have been the group hikes; the least popular was a matinee of Rush Hour 2, though, as Brenner points out, “You don’t say, ‘Boy, that movie sucked’ as much when it was only six bucks instead of nine.” Of course, the camaraderie offered through Recession Camp is often as appealing as its actual events. “This is a support group without the support-group label,” Brenner says. “People talk about how they got laid off, what kind of severance — if any — they got, how to apply for unemployment, what they’re looking for in a job, and whether they’ll change careers or move out of the area to find work.” Because conducting a job search can be so isolating, Brenner says, “it’s reassuring to talk about things. You say, ‘Okay, I’m not off-base’ or ‘There’s someone else like me out there, and I’m doing the right things to find a job.’ When we’re hiking around or waiting for a movie to start, I step back and hear people talking with each other — meeting for the first time and getting some reassurance and having fun. That makes me feel as if I’ve done something valuable.” Not that being a counselor is an entirely altruistic act. No summer camp would be complete without a little romance, and Brenner admits that he’s been on several dates with campers ( which isn’t as taboo as it sounds, given that those campers are his own age ). But Brenner is eager to make one thing clear: “We didn’t start Recession Camp to meet women.” Both Brenner and Feldman say that Recession Camp has reminded them of the importance of leading a balanced life. Camp will end when they find jobs — which means it may or may not last beyond the summer — but they both hope to continue pursuing extracurricular activities purely for fun. “Now that I’ve taken some time off, gotten some perspective, and met a lot of diverse people, I have been able think about how I like working at a startup, how I’m very entrepreneurial, and how I want to build a company. At the same time, I want to make sure that I keep perspective and keep my priorities in order,” Feldman says. “And I think a lot of other people are figuring that out too. We’ll see if it holds true as the economy starts to turn around.” Echoes Brenner, “For the past few years, people in the Bay Area were in such a go-go-go frenzy that they didn’t look out the window and enjoy the view. Recession Camp is an acknowledgement that we need to get a little more balance in our lives. It’s hearkening back to the feeling I had at summer camp.” But Brenner adds with a laugh, “Of course, it’s not the same. I’m not in a bunk bed in a cabin with 10 other teenagers.” Curtis Sittenfeld ( csitten@soli.inav.net ), a former Fast Company staff writer, lives in Iowa. Learn more about Recession Camp on the Web.

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