(This is chapter 33 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The exit scene had gone all wrong. After a desolate night at the Hotel Pennsylvania I crashed with my sister Sharon, her husband Jeff and their two young kids Matthew and Rachel on 100th Street in the Upper West Side for a few days.
I took the subway back to Queens several times in these first few days to talk to Meg and the kids and try to re-establish some control as our world became slowly unhinged. I was very worried about the consequences of what I’d done, and how the kids were dealing with it.
Abigail and Daniel seemed to believe me when I told them that nothing important in their lives would change, that this would turn out okay. But Elizabeth was very angry at me, and could not understand what I was doing. I guess in a way she was speaking for her mother. I later learned that it’s common in divorcing families for the oldest child to have the hardest transition. My own parents divorced when I was eight, and I remember my older brother Gary being more upset than I was at the time.
But as I strained to see my next steps clearly during these crisis days, I also felt myself sinking into depths of unexpected anger. I guess my marriage had felt oppressive to me, because I was suddenly remembering everyone and everything that had ever made me feel oppressed, and it was all coming up to the surface. I was in a rush to liberate myself from something, but I wasn’t sure any longer exactly what I was doing, and my steps didn’t feel right.
It’s funny that before I’d left the marriage, I always thought I’d feel unburdened, carefree, at this moment. Now, somehow, carefree was the opposite of how I felt.
I decided to get an apartment right away, because I couldn’t go on camping out on Sharon’s couch, and I needed to prove to myself and everybody else who wasn’t sure what I was doing that I was serious about this, that I had really walked away for good.
I decided to find an apartment in Manhattan’s theater district, because Elizabeth had just started 9th grade at an exciting new public school in that neighborhood, the High School of Professional Performing Arts. I thought it would help patch things up between us if I found a place near her school so she could use it as a convenient second home during the day.
I had to spend a chunk of my dot-com money finding an emergency apartment in midtown Manhattan. I ended up paying $2150 a month for a little box near the intersection of 47th Street, 7th Avenue and Broadway. The Palace Theater was my next door neighbor. The fifth floor apartment was grimy and dark and you could hear drunks and psychos out the window late at night. I liked the place a lot.
But I don’t think I felt good for a single moment during the couple of months following the end of my marriage. It made things worse when Elizabeth announced that she didn’t like her new school very much, and wasn’t sure she was going to stay. Meanwhile, my job was turning weird and I felt completely detached from all the drama going on there.
Every part of the company was adjusting to our new status as a market leader and a Wall Street powerhouse, and the emotional level within the middle management circles was always intense. My boss Alexandra was a stern and self-assured marketing executive, so I was surprised when I started noticing her voice taking on a shaky, frustrated tone at department meetings. It got worse each day: her polished veneer had begun to slip, and she began muttering darkly about “changing priorities” and vague “problems” when we talked about our projects. She was also, I noticed, suddenly being excluded from top-level management meetings. What was going on?
Another executive filled me in: Alexandra had fallen out of favor with top management, and now she was getting “the squeeze”. They were excluding her from meetings and planning to take away her management responsibilities. iVIllage didn’t like to fire people, my friend told me, so instead they made unwanted employees feel so humiliated and neglected that they’d resign. Just a day after I heard this, our Human Resources manager Donna Introcaso dropped by and announced that our team was being reorganized. I would now be reporting to Michael Rose, a young guy who’d just become the Vice-President of Business Development. Alexandra’s desk was cleared a few days later; I never found out exactly how she’d left.
This was a surprise I didn’t like. I had worked with Michael Rose, a charmingly callow and fast-talking young man with gel in his spiked hair and a vaguely upper class Ivy League background. He was actually a funny and likable guy, but I could not see him in any way as a boss. He certainly lacked gravitas, though he did seem fairly sharp.
I was working on two projects, and they both confused the hell out of me. The first was Email. Our iVillage Email Service had a few hundred thousand active users, and according to our visitor reports email was the “stickiest” application on our site — that is, a user with an iVillage email address was most likely to return frequently on a regular basis. So, I was supposed to come up with a plan for bringing in more email users. It was the kind of challenge I might have enjoyed if I weren’t going through a painful divorce at the moment, but as it was I simply couldn’t think of anything brilliant, though I tried.
Other people also tried to come up with brilliant ideas to sign up new email members, and I had to work hard to kill some terrible suggestions. IVillage had very active message boards — they were the best part of the site, in my opinion — and new users were required to enter a valid email address to register for the boards. Somebody proposed that new registrants should have to have iVillage email addresses to sign up for the boards — this would supposedly increase our traffic because more people would sign up for email addresses and become regular email users.
I thought this was an absolutely horrible idea, because it would make it harder for new members to use the message boards. I met our head of community, a dignified woman named Susan Hahn, who strongly expressed the same concern to me, and with her help I managed to kill this bad idea. But, I knew, I wasn’t going to make it at iVillage just by killing bad ideas — I had to think up some good ones to prove my worth.
My other, bigger project was FamilyPoint, the company we had acquired. I now had a second employee on my team, Neil Whitley, a nice young guy with a business degree who seemed perplexed by the emotionally charged working atmosphere at iVillage. He filled me in on how FamilyPoint’s “clubs” worked — members would invite other members via private email, they would share photos and notes and build family trees — and we began working together to plan a new iVillage community format, “Clubs”, which would encompass not just family groups but parenting communities, medical communities, entertainment communities and any other applications we could think of. It was our job to figure out how to define this new offering.
In fact these invitation-based “clubs” were an early hint of what would years later become known as social networking, and Neil and I were both excited by the possibilities. However, neither of us knew how to put together a proposal. I was the one in charge, and I managed to create a 36-slide Powerpoint presentation with lots of good graphics and quotes and a few jokes, but after I reviewed it with Michael Rose two weeks before our presentation date he didn’t seem impressed.
It was too much fluff, he said — it contained no substantial business information. He explained that I needed to run the numbers, estimate the costs, project the profits. Pictures and flowcharts were only half the job. I had to show how iVillage Clubs would make money, and exactly how much money they would make on which sections of the site, and how many quarters would it take till they’d turn a profit? What were the risk factors? How would we monitor success?
I had to admit that these were damn good questions.
Neil and I went back to work, attempting to answer the questions Michael asked. I called some meetings and attempted various kinds of research in the two weeks building up to the mid-October date when our presentation before Chief Operating Officer Allison Abraham and the rest of the management team was due.
We did the presentation and it was a bomb. I knew I blew it even before I began. I had come up with numbers and Excel spreadsheets and financial projections and quarterly breakdowns, but I was clearly shaky in my command of the business side, and I couldn’t answer any of the follow-up questions. The presentation went so badly that my friends on the management team didn’t even bother lying to me about it. “That’s okay,” Rich Caccapollo said afterward. “You’ll get better at this.”
Michael Rose asked “Are you upset?” and we talked for about five minutes. I was told to spend another two weeks on a new version of the document — though I wouldn’t have a chance at another presentation — and I threw myself back back into the work.
I don’t think there was any other time in my life when going to work every day felt so unreal, when I felt so disconnected from those who surrounded me every day. The problem was, even as I sat there trying to grapple with the crisis over iVillage Clubs, I was really thinking about the crisis with my kids and my broken-up marriage.
I went to more and more meetings, met with salespeople, shuffled papers around, read industry newsletters, tried to pretend I knew what I was doing in this stupid job. On a personal level, I did some tentative dating, and quickly discovered that I was not in the right frame of mind to do any dating. I tried to focus on keeping my head above water and improving my performance at work.
Then one morning in early November Michael called me into his office. It was the most shocking meeting I’ve ever had in my life. He told me to have a seat and read me a letter.
November 8, 1999
TO: Marc Stein
FROM: Michael Rose
CC: Donna Introcaso
Over the last two months we have had several discussions about your performance, and your goals and objectives in the department. I have been trying to work with you to resolve many of the performance issues we have discussed and I do not feel that we are making sufficient progress. I believe the first step we need to take is to remove your management responsibilities immediately in order to allow you to focus on developing certain skills which are necessary to be a manager and leader in this organization. The bottom line is that we need a leader in the services group who has both creative and analytic skills, as well as intuition and a vision of the future to take us to the next level. It does not seem that you possess all of the necessary skills needed to be in this position at iVillage.
Some of the skills you need to improve on are:
* Organization Skills — When you come to meetings you should have back-up and all the information asked of you at hand. During the Clubs process you were unable to find documentation or lists which you should have had and/or were asked to create. In addition, we now have 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.
* Presentation Skills — When you meet with people you need to present your ideas and not just say them. You should always create documents which are easily read, understood and concise. Up until the very end of the Clubs process items seemed scattered and there was never a comparison of features across sites and components.
* Leadership Skills — In order to lead a group of people you must engage them, show them you are an expert in what you are talking about and ask them for help when needed. With the Clubs project people were not engaged, you did not seek them out for their opinion and you could not answer many questions about the space and the competitors. Having this information in your head and not telling anyone does not build confidence. You need to be able to build confidence in a team.
* Communication Skills — You need to be able to express yourself and your opinions orally and on paper. You need to be able to convince sr. management of your recommendations. You need to be able to influence non-direct reports, and you need to provide your reports with direction, guidance and support.
* Analytic Skills — You do not need to be an analyst, but you need to be able to understand models, budgets and contract terms if you are to be in charge of them.
* Being Proactive — We need people to proactively look at new solutions and stay on top of the industry. We need someone to recommend new strategies and directions and this has not been demonstrated over the past few months.
Marc, in order for you to be successful at iVillage you need to work on these skills so that we can all help each other meet our goals and objectives. It is important that we see improvement over the next 30 days in these areas. I will be meeting with you once a week on Friday’s at 3:30 to help you and discuss your progress.
I managed to sneak out of the office and go directly home, because I was stunned senseless and couldn’t possibly speak. I’d never been so insulted in my life, and I’d been truly taken by surprise. I guess I thought I’d built up enough good will since joining the company to keep me from this kind of treatment. I thought my charm would get me through.
I was, I sadly realized, about to face “the squeeze”.
And, to make it worse, the $800,000 in stock options I hoped to vest in over four years would disappear if I faded away, like Alexandra had. But I didn’t know what to do next.
I stumbled back to my seedy apartment, the lights of Times Square blinking through my window, tried to collect my thoughts. I couldn’t understand how I had let myself screw up so badly. And I didn’t know how to fight back against the humiliation I’d now have to face.
And my family … my children were miles away, and I couldn’t remember why this had been a good idea.
I’d been warned about hitting bottom. It took me exactly two months to sink like a rock.