Last year, Chris Brownridge made the tough decision to shut down his startup, which meant letting go of about 20 employees. “It was a really, really difficult process to go through,” he says. “Having worked closely with them for three years, I tried my hardest to figure out how to look after them.”
Brownridge found that there were few resources available, particularly when it came to mental health or coaching services. Outplacement companies had steep rates and weren’t necessarily a fit for people in the tech industry. “In the end, I did exactly what every company is doing right now,” he says. “I created a spreadsheet, put them all on there, and passed it around my network.”
In November, he started piecing together the centralized support community that he wished existed—a rather prescient undertaking. As the coronavirus swept the country, he teamed up with an investor to revamp the platform, which yielded the current iteration of Silver Lining, a job board and network for laid-off tech workers that offers free guidance and career resources. “It’s obviously going to be challenging for people to find work until this passes because the amount of jobs available has shrunk significantly, and the talent available has grown enormously,” he says.
The economic fallout from the coronavirus has crushed nascent startups that have seen their customer base and revenue shrink and have little funding to fall back on. According to Layoffs.fyi, which compiles data from public reports, more than 430 startups have laid off upward of 55,700 employees. (That number is likely even higher given the tracker only accounts for layoffs that have been reported.) Even the more established tech companies—those worth tens of billions of dollars—have seen their fortunes turn abruptly. Just a few months ago, Airbnb was gearing up for one of the year’s biggest IPOs. Now the startup has laid off 25% of its staff, slashing 1,900 jobs. And Uber just announced another round of layoffs, bringing its total losses to 6,700 jobs this month alone.
Some companies are, of course, still hiring. Tech giants like Amazon and Netflix have flourished as demand has surged for delivery services and streaming platforms. Some startups have seen an uptick in customers who have turned to their products while stuck at home, ordering Peloton bikes and relying on Zoom for social calls and work meetings alike. Many VCs are trying to pair laid-off tech workers with companies in their portfolio, while others are sharing spreadsheets with the names of people who have lost their jobs—a practice that predates the coronavirus pandemic. Recruiting and networking platforms like Drafted and Upstream are now catering to workers impacted by ongoing layoffs.
“The way we think about it is that in a pre-COVID world, our product was focused on getting referrals into your company,” says Vinayak Ranade, the founder and CEO of Drafted. “Now we’re focused on sending referrals out of your company.” Last month, Drafted launched the Layoff Network, through which people can nominate friends and coworkers who have lost their jobs. The platform prioritizes referrals from former managers and colleagues who can vouch for a candidate. “The way we’ve structured it is that we’re putting the job seeker first,” says Ranade. “Any person who gets vouched for by a former manager is immediately featured in our real-time talent feed, to every single recruiter on the platform.”
More than 750 companies have recruiters on Drafted’s Layoff Network, from Big Tech to Fortune 500 companies. Ranade claims the platform is drawing workers from other industries, too, as the word spreads. “We’re actually starting to just get our first people in retail and warehousing and other essential services industries,” he says.
Part of the challenge, Ranade says, is that there isn’t a straightforward way for laid-off workers to find jobs in the industries and companies that are hiring right now. He gives the example of a retail worker who might think to look for another retail position rather than considering a job at a grocery store. “The networks that have opportunities are kind of disconnected from the networks that need opportunities,” Ranade says.
Brownridge is skeptical about the utility of job platforms in this moment. “I think everything I’ve seen is missing the point, to be honest,” he says. “There’s just not as many jobs out there right now, and a jobs platform is unlikely to change that in my opinion.” Those who are interviewing for jobs have, in many cases, found the application process prolonged indefinitely. Brownridge has also heard from a number of workers whose job or internship offers have been rescinded.
Though Silver Lining does include a job board, Brownridge has focused his efforts on how to provide a digital lifeline for unemployed tech workers. As of this month, Silver Lining grants members access to a network of so-called ambassadors, who can share their expertise on everything from résumé writing to upskilling—all free of charge. Coaching sessions and workshops can take the form of live webinars or one-on-one sessions or recorded content. Another key piece of Silver Lining is making mental health resources available to people who are out of work, along with helping them sort out unemployment benefits and health insurance coverage.
The hope is to “put as much in front of people as possible,” Brownridge tells me. “I’ve talked to a lot of people on the platform and within the community in the past few weeks,” he says. “[For] many of them, it’s the first time they’re having to even go searching for a job, [or] the first time they’ve done a résumé in a long time.” And as companies move to remote hiring, video interviews have become more commonplace. Brownridge posits that people don’t always know where to look for resources to navigate these changes—or they might just find those services too expensive.
Silver Lining is largely serving tech workers right now, but Brownridge wants to expand beyond that in due time. “I have been approached by folks across different industries to look at creating a similar type of community,” he says. “Travel is a big one. And the focus is on community, rather than any sort of job matching or sourcing, because right now I don’t think anyone is hiring in travel.” Brownridge himself is constrained by time and resources, given his desire to keep the platform free—and the fact that he has two young kids at home.
One positive change that Brownridge hopes the coronavirus crisis might catalyze is greater transparency around layoffs. “Something that I had a frustration with before COVID happened is that the communication around layoffs tended to be very obscure,” he says. “I would talk to people that came into the community, [who had] been laid off at different companies, and they found out the day of. And it’s just a huge shock.”
He hopes people will cultivate other digital communities for workers in need—and that companies might turn to platforms like Silver Lining preemptively, to embrace a more empathetic approach to layoffs. “I’d love to see communities like Silver Lining—or others that appear—become part of the conversation before the layoff actually happens,” he says. “It’s not an afterthought.”