The Start-Up Beatdown
Chapter 1: The Interview
I sat in Sean Etin’s cluttered office, reading what I thought was very possibly the worst thing ever written. It was the story of Stoogle Google, a furry, multi-colored, four-eyed alien that lands on earth and secretly befriends a little boy. Ignoring the always-dicey ‘secret-relationship with a minor’ plotline, there were numerous problems in the book, the most glaring being a syntax error in the first sentence (with more scattered throughout). The cover art, obviously drawn by the author, featured the pear-shaped alien posing awkwardly in front of a Photoshopped outer-space background. So, drawing and writing obviously weren’t this man’s strong suits. “Maybe he was good with animals, or something,” I thought as I tried to speed through it …
I looked up at the clock hanging in Mr. Etin’s office and let out a groan. I had been left alone for the last forty minutes, and was well into the third hour of my job interview. Had they forgotten about me? Did I get lost in the shuffle? It was entirely possible. The place was a chaotic maelstrom of activity and crackled with an intense energy. Something very important was happening in the company that I did not understand. Something to do with emergency meetings, lawsuits and replacing board members. Mr. Etin was in attack mode when I first met him, spitting out a dozen names and phone numbers from memory in quick succession, as he briskly walked through the hallway, West Wing style. Before that, my first of what turned out to be four interviewers, Flo, was called away two or three times during our meeting to deal with some crisis, leaving me alone in a tiny kitchen, with nothing to do but stare through the window at the hundreds of geese congregated on Sean’s lawn, decimating it with their feeding.
It could be that they were testing me. I had read that sometimes companies purposefully put their potential hires through uncomfortable or strange situations in order to gauge how they would react. It’s possible. Leaving me alone with a book whose very letters and words seemed flecked on with fecal matter, and, I thought, would probably make my ass dirtier had I used its pages as toilet paper, for seemingly no purpose seemed a little odd. Was I supposed to seek someone out and remind them I’m here? Am I supposed to wait patiently for Mr. Etin to return? And what about the book? Beyond its obvious test to my intestinal fortitude, was reading it a test as well? If Mr. Etin, God forbid, asked me what I thought of it, I could be in big trouble. He could be testing my tact, my honesty or my taste. Or, worse yet, maybe he didn’t know it was horrible. I began sweating under my itchy gray-brown suit as I tried to come up with the most diplomatic way of saying the book wasn’t fit to prop up furniture. I really needed this job …
All of my life, I wanted to make cartoons. I grew up in the 1980s, the Golden Age of violent, cheaply-animated, but ultimately enjoyable cartoons. I avidly watched GI Joe, Transformers, He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Visionaries, Thundercats, Sivlerhawks, Challenge of the SuperFriends and even Go-Bots. Basically, if it was on TV, I’d watch it, and with great interest. Every day after school, I’d invite my friend over, dump out my box of GI Joes, and we’d make up new, violent adventures. These practices ended up having a pretty large effect on both of our lives, as I tried my hand at turning my love of children’s animation into a profession, and my friend later joined the army …
In college, I transferred into NYU’s film and TV program, where I studied animation, script writing, storytelling, production and editing. I stayed in New York for the summer and interned for Sunbow Entertainment, the company that made so many of the cartoons I loved as a kid. I continued to intern there until I graduated, and later, was offered a job as a Creative Assistant, where I scouted for new projects, spoke to agents, story edited scripts, and learned the ropes from a really great boss. It seemed like I was quickly climbing the ladder, and would soon fulfill my dream of developing and producing my own show.
As it turned out, I climbed the ladder too quickly. Shortly before I joined, Sunbow was bought up by a German conglomerate. This move confirmed what I had already suspected to be true: Germans and children’s cartoons don’t mix. The first thing they did was take a look at the bottom line: “Ach du lieber! These employees who have been making successful children’s shows for the last 20 years are costing a lot of money!” “Ja. Let’s fire them and get down to real business,” I’m sure they said, as they got ready to schizer in their secretary’s mouth. So, they fired all of the long-term employees that made the company great. The next move the German’s made was hiring the CEO’s childhood friend to be the COO. Here’s another helpful hint to those that are reading this and happen to own a company: Don’t put a known drug addict in charge of your company’s money. The COO, working out of the conglomerate’s London office, quickly proceeded to drive everyone crazy. The story goes that one of Sunbow’s properties drew interest from MTV. Contracts were drawn and everyone was ready to head into production. All they were waiting for was the COO to sign the papers, which he was too strung out on Codeine and Morphine to do. After two weeks of waiting, MTV took their business elsewhere. So did the creator of the property. So did many of the remaining employees, who knew a sinking ship when they stood on one, and jumped to another company. When I started as an intern, there were about 20 employees working out of the New York office. By the time I joined as a fulltime, paid employee, there were only four. Soon after that, it was just two – me and my boss, who I could tell was absolutely miserable working for the Germans and their drugged-out, incompetent moneyman. Within months of my hire, she left for a cartoon company in England, bequeathing me as the sole employee of the New York office, and in charge of all creative decisions.
I tried to make the best of my situation and do as good a job as a 23-year-old creative executive with no staff and no contacts could. I got in touch with creative folks and their agents, and tried to make cartoons that I would want to watch. Deals always petered out when the COO got involved. I stayed there for a year and a half and finally got so sick of the incompetence that I quit. As a strange coincidence, the day I left was the same day that the CEO of the German conglomerate stepped down from his post. It turned out that he got in trouble in Germany for major tax evasion and had to flee the country. The COO, whom everyone knew had a drug problem, was fired a short time later. Sunbow officially closed its doors about a month after that.
I had meanwhile moved to LA, ready to work for an animation company that wasn’t run by Germans. I thought with my unique experience and resume, I’d get a job in no time.
That turned out not to be the case. I sent out hundreds of resumes and used the contacts of my original, good boss to meet with some of the most important people in the business. Though they gave me their time and their advice, they could not give me a job. I didn’t give up hope, though. I knew somebody would have to offer me a job at some point.
Again, I was mistaken. I didn’t get a single interview in the nine months I was in LA. I was quickly running out of my savings and decided enough was enough. If I were to be unemployed, it should be in an area where the air was clear, the traffic didn’t drive me crazy, and the people weren’t two-faced, image-obsessed scumbags. Furthermore, it should be a place where I knew my food and board would be free. It was time to move back in with my parents. So, I packed up my car and drove 3000 miles across the country, back to suburban Maryland and the very house I grew up watching cartoons. As a final ‘fuck you,’ I got a call on my cell phone as I was driving through Nowhere, Oklahoma. It was an animation company wanting to interview me, but only if I could make it the next day. I hated LA.
Things began to turn around in Maryland. I put a tourniquet on my cash flow problem, and continued to send out resumes online, changing my address to LA, New York and anywhere else that had a job that was somewhat related to what I wanted to do. My plan was, on the off chance someone would actually contact me, to fly, drive, or run to where the interview was to be held, and pretend to live there. Then, in the two weeks I said it would take me to quit the job I didn’t have, move there.
For some reason, my parents had a problem with their 25-year-old son and former creative executive living in his old room without a job, so I also applied to area jobs that I felt I could be somewhat competent at. Within a couple of weeks, I got calls for interviews, both in the area and in New York. It seemed like a matter of time before I was to get something. It was either going to be a cool job in New York, where all of the money I earned would be drained away towards an exorbitantly priced, miniscule apartment, or a crappy job in Maryland that would allow me to save my money. I thought to myself, “if only there were cartoon companies around my parent’s house. I could stay here, replenish my now nearly nonexistent savings, and get some more experience for my resume. I wish that were possible.” Incidentally, I think in a very unrealistic style…
I was ready to interview with Blue Sky Studios in New York, but it got postponed at the last minute. Strangely enough, I got a call on my cell phone that very day from Seashel Productions, a children’s entertainment startup company housed not 5 miles from my parent’s house. They wanted to interview me.
A higher being (God? The devil? Bob?) heard my wish, gave me just what I prayed for, and then laughed maniacally when I realized that I wasn’t quite being specific enough … But I’m getting ahead of myself …
Sean burst through his office and rushed to his desk. “You finished reading yet?” he asked, as he power-walked to his chair.
“Yes,” I lied, praying there were no follow-up questions.
“A piece of shit, right?”
I breathed in a sigh of relief. “There were problems with it,” I replied, wanting to sound at least a little diplomatic.
Sean Etin was a big man. Tall, thick and wide, he had a classic ‘bodyguard’ build and kind of reminded me of that bull Bugs Bunny sometimes fought in those old Looney Tunes shorts. He had a barrel chest, and a barrel stomach to go with it. I had already pegged him as someone who used his intimidating stature as a tool to get what he wants. I probably would have hated him in high school. He was a top-of-the-food-chain kind of guy, and not afraid to stomp on a few throats. He was in his late forties, with neatly trimmed, short brown hair combed back, and wore an expensive suit that did little to hide his immensity. His large, potato-head was accentuated by pocket of fat hanging under his chin. He crossed his thick, sausage fingers and told me a little about himself.
This was his fifth startup company. He was a millionaire by the age of twenty and tripled his money with his second startup company a few years later. He lost all of his money in his third and forth startups. The point of the story, he said, was that he knew how to run a startup company. “Well, half the time anyway,” I thought to myself. He had just gotten out of the real estate and land development business and proudly stated that he developed his mansion, where we were interviewing and where his company worked out of, along with all the other mansions in the area.
What he didn’t tell me was what the company did, and what I would be asked to do if I joined. “This is a startup company, and you’ll be asked to wear many hats,” he would say when I pressed him to what exactly I’d be doing.
He passed me back to Flo in the kitchen. I tried to ask more questions as to what the company did. I heard things about websites, music, technologies, TV shows and merchandise, but nothing in terms of a business plan. I asked about who was in charge of the creative decisions. That would be the head of marketing (which, for those that know, is never a good sign). She also warned me that Sean was a very difficult guy to work around, and if I couldn’t work in a high-stress environment, I should just walk away. “Sean can be gruff and sometimes verbally abusive. But he’d never hit anyone,” she said. I found the fact that she needed to say that worrisome. She continued, “If he ever hit me, I’d quit on the spot.” “No,” I thought, as I scanned her tiny body, “if he ever hit you, you’d be dead on the spot.”
I was into the forth hour of the interview, and was passed off once again, this time to Sean’s wife, Shelia. I was very tired and didn’t know why I had to be interviewed by the boss’s wife. I asked her what she did at Seashel, and she told me she didn’t work for the company. She very politely asked me for my resume and scanned it for a second.
“I didn’t know you also made movies,” she said.
Crap! I accidentally gave her my ‘production resume.’ In addition to the resumes with different cities on them, I also made a ‘production resume’ for when I applied to jobs like director or editor. This resume listed the assorted films and videos I made while I was in college and couple made just for fun. Most of them consisted of me making an ass of myself.
News of my production experience spread fast. Flo came back and asked me why I never mentioned I had video experience. I was pulled aside by Rita, the head of (and only member of) Human Resources and she asked me about the disparity between the two resumes I had. I was in trouble. I told her that I didn’t think my production experience was relevant to an office job and explained to her that I accidentally handed Shelia the wrong resume. Sean came in to the kitchen and told me he wanted to see my reel and to drop it off to the house the next day.
I was finally allowed to leave, five hours after the interview began.
I went home and cobbled together my assorted films and videos onto a DVD and delivered it to Mr. Etin’s home on Saturday, along with a spec script to show I could write for children’s television. On Sunday, I got a call from Mr. Etin. He was extremely impressed by my movies. Especially my music video to “Lady In Red,” a project I put together just for fun because the inherent sappiness of the song made me giggle. “Chris DeBurgh is my favorite singer of all time,” Mr. Etin explained. I didn’t tell him that the video was a contemptuous parody. “We’re going to need someone with your talents and experience very soon,” Mr. Etin spat into his phone. “We’re this close to being out of our start-up phase in the company, and we’re going to rush into production.” With what, I was still unclear about. “I’d like it very much if you were to work with us.”
And with that, I began working for Seashel Productions, the worst company in the world …
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