(This is chapter 34 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I dreaded returning to work Monday morning, after receiving a letter Friday putting me on one-month probation. I also dreaded seeing Margaret and Neil, since they would have heard on Friday that I was no longer their manager. Neither of them mentioned it when I walked in. I went to my desk and emailed Donna Intracaso, our VP of Human Resources, to arrange an emergency meeting.
I walked into her office, angry and upset, and started telling my side of the story. Donna, a mature executive with a calm and kindly manner, listened but gradually turned the subject around to me. Was I okay? Had I been through any difficult changes lately? The question took me by surprise. I hadn’t wanted to mention it, but I told her that my marriage had just broken up.
“Don’t you think this might have affected your job performance?” she asked.
“I really don’t think so,” I said. “I was trying hard to keep my focus. I think the problem was that, first, my boss got fired, then suddenly Michael became my boss, and I don’t think he knows how to manage people–“
She stopped me. “Look, there’ve been a lot of changes all over this company. Let’s put this aside. You are valuable to us here. But you’re very stressed, and you’ve been through a lot. I’d like you to take this whole week off to rest. Starting right now. Fully paid. Okay? Then you come back next Monday and hit the ground running.”
I stared at her. “The week off?”
“I think you need it,” she said with a smile.
It was probably the only thing I wanted to hear at that moment. I shot out of the office and went back to my new apartment in Times Square, where I quickly found myself staring out the window wondering what to do next. I had left a phone message with my stepfather Gene, because I often talked to him about problems at work. He called back in the early afternoon.
I read him the letter and he agreed it was bad. “This Michael Rose,” he asked, “do you think you can patch it up with him? Does he want to help you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “We just don’t see things the same way. I’m new in this part of the company, I don’t really know how to do marketing and biz-dev, I need a manager who’ll give me guidance and support. I also don’t think he wants somebody like me on his team. I think he’d rather somebody younger he can shape and mold, not an older transplant from the tech team. He’ll be happy to get rid of me.”
“Well, you don’t have to let him. Remember, you didn’t take this job for — what’s his name, Michael Rose? — and you don’t have to leave your job for him either. But, this letter is pretty bad news. How much did you say your stock options there are worth?”
“Eight hundred thousand dollars.”
He whistled. “You have to keep this job.”
I sometimes wonder how people manage to get through life without mentors to turn to. Gene had been a senior executive at an electronics firm called General Instrument, had managed a division with 250 employees. He was now retired and had struggled hard with cancer, and this struggle had taken a lot out of him. Still, he was able to give me some of the best advice I’d ever gotten in my life, when I needed it most.
“Marc,” he said. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say. But I think this is what you have to do.”
“Don’t accept the week off. Go back in tomorrow morning and tell them you’d like to start getting back on track right now.”
I groaned. “You’ve gotta be kidding. No way. I need this week off.”
“I’m sure you do. But if I give one of my employees a week off because he’s got marriage problems or whatever, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking this guy can’t take the pressure. I’m thinking he’s on the way out, sooner or later.”
“I can take the pressure,” I said. “But I need this week off.”
“How much did you say your stock options were worth?”
I didn’t like his suggestion one bit, and told him I wasn’t going to take the advice. I went to bed that night still mad that he had suggested it.
I woke up early the next morning, drank some coffee, sat on the windowsill and watched the people on the street for an hour and a half, turned on my computer and wrote Donna an email:
Donna — thanks for the helpful talk yesterday, and for the offer of a week’s rest. On second thought, I’d like to decline the offer and get busy fixing the problems we discussed. I’ll be in at 9:30.
The first few days of my “probation period” were rough. I felt embarrassed and exposed, since everybody I worked with had heard the whispers about my demotion. It took a while for me to begin getting my confidence back.
It helped that I had some friends within the company, some people who understood and appreciated my style. It was true that I never appeared very organized, that I tended to have a slapdash approach to company business. This was something I’d have to change if I wanted to be taken seriously on the marketing/product side. But it was also a fact that I worked hard, focused on priorities, avoided distractions, got things done. I also had a reputation for understanding the industry well, and for speaking up to help the company make difficult decisions.
Still, when Michael and I began our awkward series of weekly meetings to “review my progress” I could easily see that he didn’t want me on his team, that we were just going through the motions. I had no future working for Michael — if I were going to stay at iVillage, I needed to find myself a new base.
Luckily, there was an area in the company that badly needed the kind of help I could give. The very busy Community department was sinking in a morass of broken message boards, and I began working with department head Susan Hahn and some of her senior staffers like Kathy Snead, Brenda Hafer, Faith Maupin, Tawny Faidal and Chris Mattoni to get the systems back on track. I didn’t want to go back to being a techie, but I realized I could help by being an interdepartmental project manager for Community, a liaison between this department and the Tech team. It wasn’t clear who I’d work for in this capacity, but I figured if I just made myself useful somebody would figure out where to put me in the organization chart.
But right now Michael Rose was the only boss I had, so I had to find a way to get out from under him without giving him a chance to fire me first. This would be a tricky maneuver. I decided the best way to do this would be to go on offense. It had been nearly a month since he’d written the letter about me, and now I was finally ready with my response.
I wasn’t sure this maneuver would work, and I figured there was at least a decent chance I’d be fired once I sent this email. So I cleaned up my office first, put all the papers I wanted to save into a small neat pile, backed up my personal files from the computer onto a portable drive. If I was going to get fired, at least I could make a quick break. I emailed my letter:
From: Marc Stein
Sent: Tuesday, December 07, 1999 9:03 AM
To: Donna Introcaso
Cc: Michael Rose
Subject: Response to Letter
I am writing this to state that I contest virtually all the facts in the letter that Michael Rose wrote to you on Nov 8, 1999.
I’d like to illustrate this by studying one of the first points Michael states about my performance: “We have now learned that bills have not been paid and you never brought this up to anyone. We cannot find invoices and you did not understand the contracts or their terms.” This is completely untrue, and in fact Michael has little knowledge of the situation. The contract in question was with PeopleLink, and here are the details of the event.
Jan 1999: iVillage launches PeopleLink Instant Messaging with a contract signed by my predecesor, Tony Morelli. The launch of the product does not gain a user base and is soon de-prioritized.
Summer 1999: I take over Tony Morelli’s responsibilities. The PeopleLink contract is included in the papers Tony hands over to me. No mention is made of payment. I begin looking into the purpose of our relationship with PeopleLink. After a preliminary investigation, I send out an email to several iVillage senior managers proposing that we discontinue our relationship with PeopleLink. Many respond, and I am eventually persuaded by Sean Casey, Macdara MacColl, Steve Lake and others that there is much untapped potential in the product, and that I should familiarize myself with the product before making this decision. I invite the vendor to make a presentation to me, and begin a series of discussions with them. During one of these discussions, PeopleLink informs me that we never paid them the monthly ad-revenue share agreed to in our contract. I begin reading the contract and find many questionable or ambiguous areas. I get in touch with the Legal department, and Aimee Rubin is assigned to review the contract with me.
Fall 1999: Aimee Rubin leaves iVillage before the contract situation is resolved, and I am told by the Legal department that I will not be able to get anybody else’s time until her replacement is hired. I tell Michael Rose about this, and am not given any helpful response. I let the matter rest until Jen Salant tells me she needs to review all my contracts for budgetary reasons. In reviewing the contracts I tell her about the PeopleLink situation, and she offers to help me study the contract in detail. We spend a few hours over the next two weeks reviewing it, and make progress understanding the terms. Finally Michael Wechsler arrives to replace Aimee Rubin as our contact in Legal, and he and I agree on the correct terms for the revenue share. After requesting and receiving ad numbers from Steven Gold, I determine that we owe PeopleLink $5983.62. I promptly make an appointment with Brenda Wilson to find out how to properly create the invoice for this payment and how to process the regularly monthly payments in the future.
Since I put a lot of effort into fixing a payment process that had never worked before, I was very surprised to read Michael’s interpretation of the incident. I am sorry to say that I feel most of the judgements in his letter are similarly unsound and ill-researched. I had worked for less than two months at the time he wrote this letter, and in that time he barely made an effort to get to know me. He claims I am disorganized, but he has never endeavored to find out whether I am organized or not. I do not believe I have spent a total of more than two hours talking directly with Michael Rose in all the time I reported to him, so I do not think he is in a position to make the statements about my performance that he made in the Nov 8 letter.
I have no desire to pursue a battle with Michael Rose, and in fact I believe we both respect and like each other. But I do not think it is fair for that letter to remain in my files with iVillage, and I believe I can support this contention at any level of detail necessary.
I hope we can discuss this in person whenever you have a chance.
Michael’s office was very close to mine, and I could practically hear him breathing as he opened the email and read it. I knew I was on shaky ground, that I was mutinying against my own boss, that he could fight back in many ways. I could only pray that this would turn out all right.
About ten minutes later an email came back, from Michael to Donna, cc’ing me:
Donna- as you know I am very busy right now and I do not have time at this moment to deal with this.
Hmm, I thought. The guy blinked.
These were the crazy last months of 1999, the big buildup to the turn of the century, the turn of the millennium. The stock market was zooming, Bill Clinton had survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal and was entering his final year as President, the big songs on the radio were Eminem’s “My Name Is” and Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba”. A lot of people were worried that the world was going to end on the evening of December 31, 1999, and a lot of phony companies were making money on the “Y2K scare” — selling consulting services and software inspection programs to ensure that all the computers of the world wouldn’t crash once the calendars changed from 1999 to 2000. Every techie I knew considered the Y2K computer scare an absolute joke — the entire data processing world runs on SQL, we knew, and SQL stores binary dates — but companies like iVillage wasted millions of dollars on Y2K compliance and inspection. It was some kind of sign of the times.
Myself, I was becoming a hermit. It was funny that I had moved to Times Square, one of the loudest and most crowded spots on Earth, only to retreat into a bleak box to spend my evenings alone, talking to nobody on the phone, the door locked. I had shut down my social life, and I had completely stopped updating Literary Kicks. Friends like Brian Hassett would call me up, would stand downstairs and ring my buzzer, and I wouldn’t answer. Guns ‘N’ Roses had a song about this:
Sometimes you need some time on your own
Everybody needs some time all alone
I wasn’t even listening to Guns ‘N’ Roses at the time. As part of my new hermit lifestyle, I had begun listening to classic Broadway albums at night after work: Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate by Cole Porter, Pal Joey by Rodgers and Hart, Girl Crazy by George and Ira Gershwin, Conversation Piece by Noel Coward. For some reason, this was the only music that could help me feel calm. And nobody else I knew wanted to sit around listening to jazz showtunes from the 1930s, so this helped me justify my intense desire to spend my time alone.
I was easily able to come alive, though, on weekends when I got the kids. All three would sleep over every Saturday night, though Elizabeth had an active social life and was often in and out as Daniel and Abigail and I would conduct adventures all over Manhattan. We walked the Brooklyn Bridge, went to see “The Music Man” on Broadway, climbed the Empire State Building, explored the cliffs uptown, found the castle in Central Park.
I probably would have spent the last night of 1999 alone, except that my apartment in Times Square became a magnet for several friends including Brian Hassett, the Beat scholar Attila Gyenis and the talented Greenwich Village singer Lauren Agnelli. We hung around my apartment till around 11:45, then went downstairs to join the crazy crowd. The ball fell and everybody yelled and threw stuff and sprayed champagne.
We woke up the next morning and the streets were a mess and as far as we could tell the world had survived.