Venture Capital Start-up Hell: Abuse, Narcissism and Institutional Sexism at MicroVentures

A New Chapter
On my first day at the trendy Venture Capital start-up in Austin, I was nervous. I had over-dressed and was getting acclimated to their books and filing systems, taking coffee-fueled notes. But it didn’t take long for me to realize something was amiss. During my first week, I was getting to know my co-workers, and I tried to strike up a conversation with a woman who sat in a nearby cubicle. “Get out,” she whispered in the break room. “Sorry?” “Get out while you still can,” she said. Okay. That was weird. My supervisor and trainer, we’ll call her Emily, was wide-eyed and panicked, flinching when the COO walked by her desk. A few weeks later, Emily put in her notice, citing verbal and emotional abuse. I ignored the obvious warnings, the poor Glassdoor reviews and the rumors, thinking that having an analyst job in VC finance would make it all worth it.

I came to miss those first innocent weeks of my time at MicroVentures. After 10 months, I was clearing my desk and scheduling job interviews; but my time at MV taught me a lot about office politics, and about top-down small businesses masquerading as start-ups to feign healthy office culture — about when to put your head down and when to stand up for yourself.

I attempted to post the following review on Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees can leave anonymous reviews about their experiences, but it was too long. I’ll leave the review here, in its entirety, in hopes to broaden the conversation about toxic work culture and to serve as a warning for other young professionals who are researching MicroVentures, MicroAngel Partners or MicroVenture Marketplace. Please note that the names of specific individuals have all been changed.

If you decide to take a job at MicroVentures, there are a few things you should prep for. They all center around one very influential, albeit unqualified and problematic, executive at MicroVentures. For the purposes of this review, we’ll call him “Chad”. Unfortunately, Chad controls every decision at MicroVentures, from strategy and development, to the purchase of printer ink and the number of adjectives in a promotional email. If you join our team, here’s what you can expect.

Firstly, there are severe communication problems from the management (ie. Chad), and expectations are vague, lacking or non-existent. The first three weeks of your employment with us, you will have trouble finding things to do. You need approval from Chad before a project can move forward and you haven’t been able to get a hold of him in three hours. His office is locked. It’s 3pm and you try to flag Chad down while he’s on his way to grab a beer from the fridge. You’ll most likely be ignored, because Chad has been procrastinating on a big project by playing mobile games in his office with the door shut and now he has a submission due in two hours, so your questions will have to wait. Just wing it for a few days.

Suddenly, you’ll be given a vague task that you’ll have to blindly figure out how to piece together something with the help of understanding co-workers. Chad will claim he “doesn’t have time” to train you. This isn’t a “hands-off management style” or “autonomy”; it’s the sloppy, ill-informed process of a man who has clearly never managed people before. When you make a mistake, even if it’s your first time, you’ll be greeted by a barrage of passive aggressive, conflicting and accusatory emails. If you’ve caught Chad on a bad day, you could get screamed at, pelted with nerf balls or publicly humiliated in-front of other co-workers. Over the coming weeks, your job security will be constantly threatened, thinly disguised as a joke. Despite being volatile and hard to contact, Chad will expect you to operate at his beck and call. He treats everyone on staff like his personal secretary (he told me that he should be my “top priority” and that I needed to respond to his private messages “in under a minute”); but he never holds himself to the same standards. Chad will ignore your emails and messages for days, only to turn around and blame you when a project falls behind schedule. Chad is constantly making excuses and blaming others for the procrastination and impulsivity that have proven to be detrimental to our business model and employee retention at MicroVentures.

I know what you’re thinking: “This isn’t so bad. It’s just one guy; I can work with other departments directly and avoid Chad altogether, right?” Wrong. Everyone works under Chad. And Chad takes it as a direct act of defiance and “disrespect for authority” if you try to go around him to seek solutions. When you try to ask co-workers for help or input on a project, he has been quoted saying, “Don’t ever go to anyone else with questions ever again”, “Nothing gets done here without my expressed approval”, and that he prefers it when employees aren’t friends because “it keeps them more focused and productive”. For example, in a fit of jealous rage, Chad once told me that I was not allowed to talk to our development team, and that I was a “distraction”. I was also warned by another co-worker to avoid networking events because “he’ll find out and it won’t be good.” Thinking of studying for your CFA or CFP certifications during lunch? Think again, or be prepared to get publicly yelled at for having your textbooks at the office. I have spent entire workdays without hearing my own voice, in a silent office of equally disheartened co-workers. Chad’s tactics of isolation are tell-tale signs of the control and manipulation typical of narcissistic emotional abusers.

Chad is extremely untrusting, seeking ways to question your intentions and point blame. I received a package I needed to finish a project and got yelled at for opening company mail. Chad said it was a “major red flag,” and that it was “clear” I could “no longer be trusted”. Management is also very tight-lipped about processes. When I once asked for clarity about processes and exceptions to rules, pointing out a discrepancy in our books and processes, Chad’s answer was, “that doesn’t concern you” and “don’t overreach for the tasks you were given — you are stepping on my toes”. Later that day, the books and accompanying process were corrected, with Chad taking all the credit. The message was clear: shut up and do your work; don’t let me think you’re a threat.

In every room, there are cameras set up — some that record audio — where Chad can see your computer screen and your chair. So don’t think about taking an hour lunch or working with your team in the conference room or sitting at an empty desk near the window on a nice day. Even when Chad is out of town, you will get messages asking where you are and wanting to know why you’re not at your desk. When the creepy camera watching was brought up in front of our President, Chad laughed and denied having “any spare time to be monitoring the footage”.

“Why didn’t you go straight to the President to voice your concerns?” Good question — you can’t. Chad will sit in on that meeting to make sure you don’t say anything negative about him and disperse blame if you do. Historically, the President has always sided with this executive in internal disputes, even blatantly obvious HR violations.

Maybe you’re thinking, “But venture capital is trendy. Maybe the pay will be good.” Wrong again. Compared to other salaries in Austin’s financial firms, MicroVentures is scraping the bottom. And if you’re a woman vying for the same position, your salary will be even less. Be prepared to be looked up and down by Chad if you’re wearing something he finds appealing. “Hot damn!”, he said when he saw me in a pencil skirt and heels. (Sidenote: my grandmother had just died an hour before, and I was coming into his office to let him know I’ll be taking a bereavement leave — which I wasn’t granted.) “Maybe there will be room for growth.” Wrong again. A position for Project Manager opened up, and Chad’s wife was hired on, without the job listing ever going public. A few months into my job, our team grew and I trained a young man, fresh out of college, for my same position to later find out, accidentally, that he was making 25% more than me for the exact same job and title, with less work experience. Whether intentional or not, Chad’s hiring practices and management style is riddled with nepotism and gender bias.

When horrible reviews began to surface on Glassdoor, our President called a meeting to discuss the changes that could be made. They started giving out recognition awards and let co-workers take lunches together, but after a few weeks, the intimidation tactics went right back to the way they were before. It’s worth noting that the President is a kind-hearted genuine man, tainted by the actions of those he protects and defends. But the harassment and manipulation tactics from Chad didn’t stop after my employment ended. The day after I left MicroVentures, Chad hacked into my personal Skype account to read my messages. Chad was bragging about sending a password reset email to my work email, that now only Chad had access to. I was able to recover my account, but was enraged by the continued harassment, breach of privacy and lack of action by our President. My guess is that these things won’t change, and Chad’s treatment of his employees will pretend to improve every time a bad review rolls in, only to slip back to explosive anger and emotional manipulation.

Maybe you’re thinking “Look, I don’t have much work experience and I just need a job”, then MicroVentures is a good place to park your certifications while you look for a workplace that treats their employees with dignity, trust and inclusion, and that’s fine. So, dear applicant, here’s my advice:

  • During the interview, take their answers with a grain of salt. They have been known to lie in interviews: about the average tenure of employees (it’s not two years; it’s roughly nine months), about flexibility with work hours (you have to give 30-day notice for work-from-home days — hope your kids never get sick!), and about independence, autonomy and trust (there isn’t any).
  • The ping-pong table does not define company culture. For some reason, they bring it up at interviews to look like a trendy start-up, but the real atmosphere is far from relaxed. Ask to speak to a current employee to get the most up-to-date perspective on office culture.
  • Don’t let them factor in “discretionary performance” bonuses into your salary estimate. These won’t happen as often as you like, if at all. Same goes for the options. If a lower-than-market-rate salary is supplemented with equity, do some research on the company to make sure it’s a worthwhile investment.
  • Google what “gaslighting” means, Chad’s main tactic of self-preservation. It’s helpful to remind yourself that you’re not crazy, and to keep a record of correspondences.
  • Ask about their mission and core values. I forgot to ask in my interview, and when I asked during my employment, this executive and the President looked at each other and laughed.
  • Your co-workers will be lovely people. Go to them for help and advice, regardless of isolation tactics used to make you question yourself. Get up and go for a walk. Take breaks. Know your legal rights, question their excuses, and negotiate for the salary and benefits you deserve. Never doubt that you are valuable.

TL;DR:

Pros:

  • Snacks
  • Beer
  • Location

Cons:

  • Salary
  • Communication
  • Lack of independence
  • Unclear expectations
  • Micro-management
  • Passive aggression (emails and private messages)
  • Regular aggression (throwing things, threatening to flip desks)
  • Threatening job security
  • No upward mobility
  • Gender biases/Sexism
  • Nepotism
  • Isolation
  • Distrust
  • Having to work for a miniature buffoon wrapped in an Apple watch, with a Trump-style self-worth characterized by narcissism and contempt for dissent, a 5'3" unkempt former-frat boy with a Napoleonic complex and the emotional intelligence of an avocado.

Advice to the company:
To the President, Chad isn’t your only option for upper management, and you shouldn’t tolerate someone who fluffed their resume and references, calling you stupid or telling you to shut up in front of your own employees. If we get acquired, no other company (with an HR department) will tolerate or justify his actions. He’s a liability and, judging from my conversations with former employees, he’s the sole reason people get worn out and leave. Empower teams to have autonomy and recognition, and promote from within. Hire on people with more management experience to take on parts of Chad’s job. Insist that he teach you the rest.

And please, write a mission statement and core values. It’s been almost 8 years.

Photo Credit: Forbes