Editor’s note: Guest contributor Peter D’Amato was recently laid off as a copywriter at daily deals site BuyWithMe, which cut half its staff and is trying to sell itself to Gilt Groupe. Below is his account of that day.
October 19 was a rainy Wednesday afternoon, and the remaining employees of BuyWithMe poured out cups of whiskey and wine from bottles purchased by the CEO. An untouched bottle of Prosecco sat ignored on another table. The mood was gloomy. The group had already torn through the half dozen boxes of pizza that had been ordered—it had maybe been enough pizza for the fraction of the company that would still be employed at the end of the day, but it was uncomfortably clear that it had not been ordered to feed all of the more than 200 employees waiting to find out if they were being terminated due to BuyWithMe’s failure to “identify sufficient funding to sustain [its] business current employment levels” (as my termination letter so ungrammatically put it).
The suspense on the day of the layoffs was a continuation of a pattern at BuyWithMe. Employees were often kept in the dark about changes affecting the entire livelihood of the company. Most assumed the company was healthy. In September, our new Chief Marketing Officer was talking about Superbowl ads, and shares in the company were meted out to employees. Just three weeks ago, a new copywriter was hired, leaving a job in publishing. Though there were signs that BuyWithMe was not as competitive in the group-buying “deal space” as it would have liked, the company emphasized that it maintained a strong position—claiming the number three position behind Groupon and LivingSocial.
But the scale tipped suddenly two Mondays ago. An email, accidentally delivered to a team of developers instead of the executive team, leaked a spreadsheet with names, titles, and proposed termination dates, as well as individual salaries, of a large number of employees within the company. Rumors gathered momentum in between the leak and the announcement of layoffs, but the company waited an entire day to say anything officially.
The meeting finally took place Tuesday evening, and confirmed that the company lacked the capital to continue paying its staff. Layoffs would be necessary, so the wave of hiring that had brought in new personnel only weeks before was reversed. Terminated employees would not receive severance. During the meeting, an employee asked whether the person responsible for the leaked spreadsheet would be held accountable for the release of sensitive information, but this was answered with a vague “no” (as of Wednesday afternoon, the employee in question was still employed at the company).
I waited until noon the next day to learn that my copywriter position was identified in the layoffs. My department was halved, while others were eliminated almost entirely. There was no advanced notice given—terminations were effective end of day—so most of those fired said their goodbyes and walked. The company stated that it would retain 85 employees, but many employees spared the termination resigned. Email accounts were deactivated almost immediately, security cards were collected, and the remaining members of the sales team quickly returned to the floor to contact merchants.
BuyWithMe was and still is a young company. Most copywriters, developers, account managers and sales managers were in their twenties, and for many this was their first job out of college. After a few months of working there, many felt the company failed to deliver on its promise to bridge the connection between small businesses and area customers. Up until the end, the company asserted that BuyWithMe took business from the old guard of traditional media, that we in fact nurtured small businesses better than competitors. But as one account manager put it to me: “We say it’s going to bring in new customers but a lot of the time people want to come in once. And the merchants say, ‘No one’s come back,’ or ‘We didn’t make any money.’ They don’t make any money.”
A few employees felt guilty about their job, one remarked that after the layoff, they wanted to “do something that will benefit other people.” While the company blamed a capital market that had “dried up” for the layoffs, many within the company complained about the aggressive acquisitions made – an old message written on a dry-erase board that read, “You don’t buy Edhance, Edhance buys you,” took on a menacing tone.
Staff reductions is keeping the ship from sinking completely, but the company recently announced there was only enough capital to continue running through October, after which, the remaining staff would be let go and the company shuttered. Gilt is supposedly interested in the company, but no agreement has of yet been reached. Gilt, which owns the upscale deals site Gilt City was rumored to be interested in purchasing BuyWithMe before the layoffs, but those earlier rumblings failed to materialize. Now it looks like the layoffs may in fact have been in preparation for that sale. It will be interesting to see what treasure Gilt will be able to pull from the wreckage.
Photo credit: Flickr/coconino