10 Months of Living Dangerously:
The Tale of a Marketing Startup
If 1st World Society simply collapses overnight in a furious wave of Zombie Attacks and speeches by 2nd term President Donald Trump I often think I would find myself wandering through the woods. Perhaps hiking high up into the Sierra Nevadas — on the run from the burning cities, the zombies and some loose confederacy of bikers and nightclub owners — late at night. In the distance there would be a faint glow of a campfire. Fellow survivors huddled around, quietly inviting me to a dinner of canned beans and some gluten free macaroni liberated from a zombie ridden Trader Joe’s in Mid-town Los Angeles. “So what did you used to do?” I’d say, in a desperate attempt to break the lingering silence of the forest. “Me? Oh. I used to work at a startup.” I’d nod. “You too huh?”
When I read Dan Lyons’ Fortune sneak peak at his book “Disrupted” I felt that distinct sense of, “Oh you too, huh?” Now this isn’t meant as a defense of Lyons, or a defense of HubSpot, or an attack on Lyons, or an assault on HubSpot. In many ways, Lyons sounds like a guy who took a job that simply wasn’t a great fit. A lot of times he sounds like a guy who has a lawn that does not welcome anyone under the age of 40. HubSpot’s corporate culture still sounds awesome in certain ways, allegations of HubSpot’s treatment of female employees and their efforts to harass Lyons into silence sound despicable.
Even though I find Lyons to be something of a Millennial Bashing cliché, I could not help but feel a pang of sympathy for the man and his experiences.
See, for the better of 2015, I was the only SEO Manager at a startup marketing agency. Looking back, I feel like those 10 months in 2015 were an instructive detour. Here are all the things I never wish to experience again in my professional work life. Here is the living, breathing illustration of who I hope I never become. Here is something I will never do again unless I am given a handcuff brief case jammed with exactly one million dollars.
These are my 10 months of living dangerously inside a marketing startup. Warm up that gluten free macaroni and gather around the fire.
It was not the right fit from the beginning. I knew that after the first interview but I took the job anyway. Why would I take a job that didn’t fit? Because everyone needs a job. That isn’t the answer a dedicated HR Professional wants to hear. It just happens to be the brutal truth.
I had been promoted as far as I could be promoted at my current job, a promised pay raise had been delayed for two months, and I was right in the gun sights of an emotionally disturbed “co-manager” who viewed any opposition to one of her ideas as a fire-able offense. This co-manager used to get violently drunk after work and dispatch three page emails on why whoever she hated that day should be fired to upper management. She went as far as to call me on a Saturday night at 1 AM, drunk and screaming, “Get out of my way and stop ruining my life! Or I’ll ruin yours!”
Any job was better than that.
A day later I called in sick and started sending out resumes.
The first reply back was from a startup marketing agency based in West L.A., right on the border of Brentwood. I went in for an interview. Looking back the warning signs of a bizarre year were right in front of me like headlights hitting the reflective green paint of a highway sign at night.
The office on Wilshire Boulevard and Bundy was a closet. An incubator office that rented for a $500 a month or so. It was the kind of place you rent when you are headed in one of two directions in life: you are either on your way up, or on your way down. The SEO Team … well there wasn’t an SEO team. It was three people:
Sales Wizard (not his real name), the Would-Be Designer (not her real name) who both co-owned the company. An unpaid intern who was the Social Media Department and the Graphic Design Department. The rest of the SEO team were some guys hold up in a flat somewhere in India.
The whole business model was the same business model a lot of larger (junk) SEO agencies had pioneered. Sell small business owners marketing packages for $2000 a month, then outsource that work to India while pretending that it was done Stateside.
The pitch was simple… Sales Wizard was the Sales VP at another SEO Agency (which, essentially, had the same scaled up business model of reselling Indian SEO to small businesses). He alone had taken this company from zero to $10 million in sales in one year! He had been let go because he was just too damn good at his job, and now he was going to build his own marketing agency. He quoted the “E-Myth” like the New Testatment, he quoted “The 3 Hour Work Week” like the Old Testatment.
He was so full of shit. But I did not mind.
I work in marketing, okay? I’ve been working full time in inbound marketing and SEO for more than 4 years. I am the guy who invented love to sell lipstick. I know what bullshit sounds like because I have mastered the art of writing the bullshit.
I never put stock in the promises of a new job. They always go unfulfilled. I approach every new job and job offer like a painter approaches a canvas. I ask myself, Okay, what can I make out of this opportunity?
They were interviewing SEOs because they found out that their Indian SEO backbone … simply wasn’t up to the task. Shocker, I know. So they wanted someone to build a team around. By January, they had plans to rent a real office and bring on a real sales team. By April they would have enough accounts to start building an in-house fulfillment team and ditch the outsourced help.
I thought to myself, yeah, I could do that. All the Sales Wizard needed to do was bring on accounts and he seemed well-qualified to do that.
This is where my story and the Dan Lyons’ story diverge. I have no tales of meetings where I talked to a teddy bear or offices akin to adult romper rooms stocked with beer. My marketing startup had nothing in common with the Millennial focused startup culture that dominates Silicon Valley. Instead, my startup marketing story is sad and a quintessential personification of Los Angeles itself.
Los Angeles comes down to two types of people: The People Who Made It and the Wannabes. This dichotomy does not just apply to the film industry. It is everywhere and defines everyone.
The Wannabes are the 40 year olds at Starbucks. They have all these great stories about where they used to work, and who they used to know, and who they still talk to, and the audition for the Big Role they just missed out on. But the Wannabe always has a plan for Greatness right around the corner. They are 40 year olds going on 20, and they are just about to start their own food truck, or produce their own movie, or, yes, start their own marketing company.
The Wannabe is thirsty and sad. Unable to find satisfaction in a simple life, and sadly past his prime to achieve the life he wants. The startup I joined was powered by this Thirsty and Unrealistic Wannabe Drive. The Sales Wizard even said to me once, “You never know. You and I could be at the Oscars next year…” I just nodded.
I did a lot of nodding over the next 10 months.
My first week would turn out to be a reflection of my next 10 months. Manic, panicked, uncertain, poorly managed mad scramble to duct tape process into place, and a constant push to make this small marketing startup look big and important to our clients.
My first day was consisted of a Skype call to hire a new fulfillment team in India, a two hour conference call with a client who was pissed off that our content sucked, and a meeting where we discussed basic process issues like scheduling social media campaigns and using a content calendar.
Every week for the next 44 weeks I would have that same first day. I never got to do the real job; the job I was hired to do, the job I love to do, which is optimizing websites for search, tweaking and writing content, find new ways to bring new eyes to a businesses’ website. I am pretty good at it. But I did very little of it.
Mostly, my job consisted of conference calls to angry clients where I was supposed to lull them into believing they were getting awesome results all the time. Then turn around on a Skype call to India and yell at our fulfillment team because our clients weren’t getting awesome results. I felt like a fraud, I felt like I was wasting my time, I felt like I wasn’t doing my job. But I was doing the job the Sales Wizard and the Would-Be Designer wanted me to do.
They both looked down on real work and real skills. The Sales Wizard would often wax rhapsodic about “The 4 Hour Work Week” and “The E-Myth” and recite Toni Robbins. The only true, noble work was sales. Anyone could do a job, he insisted, if it was properly systemized. Everyone was replaceable. It was dispiriting to be informed that my skillset was not valuable. It was looked on as something anyone could do as long as you had a mythical Difference Engine to systemize everything.
By December, I spent half the week on the phone with clients or potential clients talking up our Greatness like a cheap car salesman, and I spent the rest of my time trying to systemize our SEO process. By systemize, I mean trying to teach Indian subcontractors how to do SEO in 2014.
My Teachable Moment was a complete disaster.
Modern SEO is a multi-layered discipline that requires the ability to cogently compose a sentence, analyze data and trends, understand code, do basic technical things like update Wordpress and have a broader understanding of more complex technical situations that can effect your presence on Google. It also requires constant education. If you are not up early on a Sunday morning reading Moz Blog for fun, this is not your job. SEO is hard to learn and harder still to teach, especially when teaching involves a 12-hour time lag and a sizable English language barrier.
The Indian Fulfillment Team would turn in 150-character title tags that read like a bad Words with Friends hands. “Best Most Awesome Legal Services Legal Practice Legal Lawyer Los Angeles, CA”. I would tell them to go back and rewrite it. They would come back with “Very Best Most Goodly Lawyer Los Angeles and Orange County CA”. They would send me reports on all their link building campaigns weekly, and it consisted of line items like “Article Posting”, “Social Bookmarking”, “Web 2.0 Profile Submissions”, and my personal favorite “Search Engine Submissions” (I don’t think search engine submission has worked since the late 1990s).
Tactics like posting articles to sites like Ezine, social bookmarking for links, and building Web 2.0 profiles are all SEO fads that died out in America a long long time ago but they were still the keystone of almost every Indian SEO company.
I knew within two weeks of watching the new fulfillment team work that the campaign they were pursuing would do next to nothing for 90% of our clients. As the 2014 Christmas Holiday closed in, I grew frustrated and I told my bosses that, Hey, this work isn’t going to cut it.
The Sales Wizard panicked. He talked a lot about “getting results for clients because we’ll be moving into a big office and scaling up in January 2015, and we need to get results to retain clients and get sales.”
I whole-heartedly agreed. We planned to do a Skype call with the Indian fulfillment team where the Sales Wizard intended to clearly outline what he wanted and what changes we needed to make.
I sat cross-legged on my apartment floor in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles at 9pm. We did our conference calls from 9pm to 11pm because of the time difference. The Sales Wizard jumped on and said, “We need to get results for our clients. We’re moving to a bigger office and scaling up and we need to get results. We need to get results. Is what you are doing going to get results?” They said say yes. He said nothing.
This was a pattern that repeated itself throughout my 10-month tenor. The Sales Wizard said everything and nothing at the same time. When you drilled down into him the less you would find. He seemed like a facade of a person. A series of self-help books, platitudes and motivational tapes that walked around wearing a Human Meat Suit. Over and over again, his concept of leadership was just to talk about results and success, then stare off, expectant look on his face. Like he was waiting for success to be dropped in his lap.
I fumbled on trying to manage an overseas fulfillment team that was hopelessly outclassed and outmatched. Truthfully, I ended up redoing some of their work on weekends (unpaid of course). It was easier than explain how basic tools, like Moz’s Title Checker, worked for the 5th time. I grew tired, discouraged and depressed as the Holidays grew closer. I went to the gym more, worked harder, and clung to the belief that when 2015 arrived I would be able to build my own in-house team. I held on thinking that I would finally get the tools needed to make this company a real company.
But instead I faced one of the most toxic managers I have ever known.
When I think of 2015 I think of the last act of “Boogie Nights” … ‘Long Way Down (One Last Thing)’. Those words define 2015 for me. Not a complete loss of a year, but instead a third act where I struggled and dragged my way towards a modicum of success amid a maelstrom of chaos and professional toxicity. That toxicity was brewed by my second boss, The Would-Be Designer.
I knew from the beginning that she was … strange. No, let me be honest, I knew from the beginning that she was an awful and ill-tempered human being. Strange is the polite version of that sentiment. When I first interviewed I came prepared with a list of questions. Standard questions that showed the right amount of interest in the job and were also designed to give me insights into this position. I reached the third question when she literally started screaming, “Why are you asking so many questions!?” Frustration writ large on her face because she really could not grasp the questions I was asking; her entire attitude was arrogant and screamed, “Why is the monkey talking? Why isn’t he working?”
It was a red flag. However, I was coming from an office where a colleague was openly threatening and actively trying to get everyone in her department fired. The occasionally hot-tempered office manager did not seem like an insurmountable challenge. Except the Would-Be Designer was part owner of the company, married to the other owner of the company, the Sales Wizard, and, therefore had zero accountability.
She also had ambitions to be a lot more than just the office manager.
By the time I was hired, the Would-Be Designer had appointed herself Content Manager without any experience as a professional writer or editor. She knew how to use Basecamp, and would waste endless hours detailing how we weren’t using Basecamp correctly. She spent hours upon hours obsessing on which piece of content went in which Basecamp folder. The Would-Be Designer thought content management was simple because all you had to do was put the right Word doc in the right Basecamp folder.
The blow back from clients was almost instantaneous. Almost every other conference call digressed for 20 minutes to discuss a Facebook post that was rife with typos, a Twitter post with an inappropriate picture, or a blog post that completely missed the mark when it came to a company’s services. Problems with content are not uncommon. Some clients will nitpick and dissect every piece of content generated; they suffocate creativity and end up crippling their own marketing campaigns. But weekly or daily complaints (legitimate complaints) about content points to a big flaw in your content management process.
“Are you reading the content?” was my first question. “No,” she would reply, “I just manage the content.” Content management is more than just organization. It is part project management and part Editor in Chief at a major newspaper. It requires a dozen different skills, chief among them a keen editorial eye. “I just manage content. The writer needs to read his own content.” True but at the same time anyway writer needs feedback and push back from a strong editorial voice. But it is impossible for anyone to have a finely honed editorial voice unless they have spent years in the trenches crafting content. She had never written content before in her life.
Circular conversations like these became something of the norm. They would follow a pattern I could diagram, a bit like this:
The client does not like the content.
It is the client’s fault. They are too picky; we are trying to be creative.
The client does not like the content because it talks about their business doing cosmetic surgery when they are law firm.
It’s not my fault. They should have told us that.
They also noticed horse was misspelled in their Facebook post.
I can’t read all the content. I just manage the content.
Nothing was ever the Would-Be Designers fault. She accepted no responsibility for anything and always found someone else to scapegoat. She both managed a writer and a social media manager but took no responsibility for the people she managed. Or the work product those people produced.
When cornered and confronted with her mess the Would-Be Designer would lash out, screaming and verbally browbeating employees for hours on end for her mistake. One time I saw her verbally abuse and browbeat an unpaid intern for 4 hours. It was brutal and soul destroying to watch.
By January 2016, we began interviewing for all positions within the company. The minute most candidates met the Would-Be Designer we would never hear from them again. Occasionally she would get into full blown arguments with potential hires. Other times she would spend an hour after an interview nitpicking their faults. A few times an offer would be extended but rebuffed because the Would-Be Designer would offer candidates an hourly rate that will not even be minimum wage in California by 2022.
This startup began to feel like a jeep on an African Safari. It had taken a wrong turn in the jungle and now was sinking slowly into quicksand. It was the classic trap. Not enough seed money. Not enough clients. A SEO Agency business model that was derivative and unmemorable. Two startup founders that were unlikeable and odd in the extreme.
There was one hope on the horizon. We had one reputation management client who had found a tiny amount of success with us. Late January the CEO of the company invited myself and the Sales Wizard to fly cross country to their annual sales convention. It was part meet and great, part dog and pony show. The promise was that this company was on the brink of increasing its reputation management spend. All we had to do was show up.
For a brief moment I finally saw a glimmer of hope. What felt like a dead end job at a dead startup was briefly alive. New clients, more money, potential to grow. Like most glimmers on the horizon this one turned into an illusion.
The client liked us, they were not in like with us. There was resistance from some corners to the thought of an outside marketing company. And once more there were issues with content. I sat through a 2 hour long drubbing from this client’s in-house social media manager that elucidated every real and perceived problem with our content, from typo to branding. Whatever chance we had of sealing a deal to expand that client’s reputation management budget died that day.
By the time we got back to Los Angeles the writer in question ghosted and was never heard from again. Partly because he knew he was in over his head, partly because the expectations placed on him were ridiculous, partly because he could not tolerate the daily meetings and endless emails that detailed every thing he did wrong in the most unprofessional way possible. That left us with no content writer and one social media intern who spoke English as Second Language.
By February, plans for the new office fell through. The company moved to a slightly bigger incubator office on Wilshire and Federal.
That same month I started quietly applying for jobs.
As a writer my first impulse is to detail everything, as an editor I stop myself, and ask, what is the point? From February to when I quit in September I find myself stuck in the same story and I find myself writing the same story over and over again. I was working at a startup company that was mired in ennui.
We began losing clients. We stopped adding new clients. We hired ten content writers in a five week span and each one of them quit within a day. We hired sales people that would bring in leads that would never close, and as a consequence those sales people would leave too. The Indian SEO team performed worse and we eventually fired them, only to replace them with another Indian SEO fulfillment company that did about the same.
I felt trapped in a netherworld, working at a company that felt like it was on the verge of failure. I saved money and stopped spending money. Instead of spending my weekends planning out marketing strategies and partying with friends, I spent them game planning for unemployment and wondering if I should pay down credit cards or save money. It was exhausting.
I thought about quitting and just freelancing until I could find a full time job. I felt obligated to stay. I had clients I really liked and that I did the best job possible for. I gave up any pretense of managing the Indian fulfillment team. My attitude shifted into “to hell with them. I’ll do my job for my clients. If I get fired or laid off, I know I’ve done my job.”
Everyone else seemed to shift too. We had given up on hiring a full time writer. The Would-Be Designer declared that hiring a copywriter in Los Angeles was too difficult and cost too much. What she really meant was that she could not find even a junior copywriter who would take 8 hours of non-stop verbal abuse for $10 an hour. We hired a college student in the Midwest who banged out mediocre blogs for $15 a post.
Our Social Media Intern was bumped up to part time Social Media Manager. Two weeks after she became a paid employee the Sales Wizard and Would-Be Designer pulled me aside and told me they thought our newly promoted Social Media Manager was unsuited for the job (she was because she’d never done it before). This led to a four month, on again, off again job search for a replacement that went nowhere.
As an agency we found very limited success pitching web design services to our existing clients right before Mobilegeddon. I brought in a friend who was a web developer. We worked well together. The one thing we did not have was a designer. We interviewed dozens of web designers but they all passed after encountering the Sales Wizard and Would-Be Designer. Or that their fees were in the $3000 to $5000. This is the time that the Would-Be Designer got her non de plume because she decided that she could be a web designer too.
She had gone to FIDM and used to have a modest clothing line that went nowhere. She thought of herself as a designer and that instantly made her our new web designer. Except she had zero experience in the world of web design. She did not know the first thing about Photoshop or creating a sliced design. The first time I ever mentioned slicing and Photoshop she declared, “What is that? Why do I need to do that? I don’t understand.” She opted for drawing out designs on Jing in stick figure form, then sent them to our developer to mock up. Every design came back looking like something a first year college student might do in his first semester. They were terrible and 10 years behind the design curve. She thought each design was perfect and brow beat our clients into paying upwards of $15,000 for each design.
When the redesigns launched, they launched rough. Towards the end of my tenure, we launched one website where literally nothing worked. Clickable buttons lead nowhere, the link structure resembled a drunk toddler with a Spirograph, the content was on the wrong pages and the PageSpeed was in single digits.
I was asked to fix it after the fact and after this website’s traffic hit the ditch within two days of its relaunch. “Did you test all the buttons and menus to make sure they were working?” “No, I just do the websites,” was the response from the Would-Be Designer. “Did you create a map of the URL structure?” “What’s URL structure? That’s something you should do after. I just do the websites.” “Did you check all the pages to make sure the content was placed properly?” “Why? That’s the client’s job. I just do the website.” “Did you run the demo through a PageSpeed Test and do a crawl before launch?” “No, that’s an SEO thing for later. I just do the websites.”
The Would-Be Designer claimed that her main job now was designing and project managing website development, but claimed no responsibility over any part of the redesign process. Any other company she would have been fired. But she co-owned this one and was married to the other co-owner, Sales Wizard.
The Sales Wizard simply receded into the background by the Summer. Some people would say his devolution was sad. For me, it was infuriating to watch. He would talk about getting results for clients, he would talk about bringing on new clients, he would talk about growing the company, he would talk about this client adding more websites, he would talk about how he visualized a million dollars that morning. He would talk and nothing would happen.
When we got leads for new clients, the Sales Wizard would not call them. When he called them, the Sales Wizard could not close them. He would chase clients that were deeply un-serious about their marketing effort for months to no avail. When we tried to hire people he would spam Craig’s List with Job Ads and then call in EVERYONE for an interview, from 20 year old college students to 50 year old Black Hat Marketers. Then he complained that he couldn’t find anyone that wanted to work for him. Most of the time he would just go off and sulk, or go to long walks to Whole Foods because his only other hobby was “eating clean”.
He was lazy and vain and so thoroughly ensconced in the self-help Cult of Positivity that he firmly believed that if he visualized enough and talk big enough success would simply rain down upon him. When the skies failed to open and rain success he would whine and blame everyone else.
I left at the end of Summer. Too exhausted and too tired to even try anymore. I decided I would rather go back to freelance work than live in a perpetual state of uncertainty and chaos. I gave two weeks notice and said I would extend it to four weeks. I was, by this time, the only SEO talent they had. Even the Indian Fulfillment companies were refusing to work for them any longer. I wanted to stay until they hired at least one person to replace me.
Instead, I was told that if I didn’t want to work there any longer I should just leave immediately. It was an astonishing declaration. I was fine with it but it also left our clients paying for SEO campaigns that no one was running.
I spent two days compiling documentation and lists of passwords. I packed everything up. That night I received an email from the Would-Be Designer. She was pissed (here emails read like rants from a spurned 16-year-old when she was angry). At the bottom of the email she wrote, “Are you done? Or are you coming back tomorrow?”
I wrote back, “I’m done.”
I never came back.
And I never looked back.
I started freelancing and within 3 months a client offered me a full time position. I did alright for myself. These guys are still around too. I see them every so often on social media. “You got to fake it to make it,” the Sales Wizard told me once. From what I know, that is exactly what they are doing. Not a startup anymore. Just a union of two grifters who have a handful of clients that pay and get next to nothing for it.
Even though I have moved on my startup experience lingers in the back of my mind. I see a lot of my experiences as symptoms of a larger disease that infects every corner of the American Dream. A privileged and entitled view of the world where employees are treated as disposable, wealth and profit are deserved instead of earned, and a culture that emphasizes selling a mediocre service over creating a great service.
The Quick Buck Economy that offers nothing and takes everything.
This America now.