Lessons from A Startup Nightmare

Entering Startup

Let me tell you about the year from hell. Or 18 months, to be exact.

It started in April 2012. I got a call from a former employer for whom I’d done an internship while still in school. The web project that I’d worked on back then for a pitiful E700 a month quickly turned into a million-making machine. I saw nothing of that success money, even though the founders had happily suggested at launch that the 3 people in the marketing team would be rewarded with a profit-sharing scheme of some sort – you see, we needed a little extra motivation, as they’d just announced that we’d be selling adultery for a living.

So I got the call, and with it came the chance that I’d been waiting for ever since I left New York where I’d grown up for 8 years: the chance to come back to the US. They wanted me to join their shiny, brand new LA office and launch another star product. I would get to build it from scratch and oversee all operations. Thrilled at the opportunity, I signed a work contract with the French HQ and hopped on the next plane to LA, with the promise of an Executive work visa and a bright future.

I arrived to decent living conditions I must admit, corporate housing for a month in a fancy downtown condo. That was the extent of my good fortune, though.

On my first day at work, I was greeted by an unpleasant surprise: this star product that I was to develop and manage had been launched a month prior with appalling branding, no preliminary positioning study and a really crappy growth strategy by a product manager who happened to be the founder’s best friend. I wasn’t in charge of squat. And this office, it was the pit of hell. People who barely said hi to each other in the morning, two distinct social groups that never interacted together and a messed-up hierarchy based on your being French or not. But I took it, reasoning that my upcoming visa would make up for the conditions.

While my visa paperwork was being prepared, I signed a lease on an apartment, purchased furniture (a girl needs a place to sleep, right?) and worked my butt off. Eventually I got the appointment for a visa interview in France, was handed a return plane ticket and flew to Paris. At the consulate, my visa was instantly refused on the grounds that the package I was being offered was a joke compared to the type of visa the company had applied for. I was stuck far from my belongings, far from my work, and far from my greatest hope.

With no immediate family in France, I stayed on a generous friend’s couch, lived out of a suitcase, worked remotely while respecting a 9-hour time difference (making socializing virtually impossible) and waited for another, more sensible visa application to be filed. That took 10 weeks. It wasn’t much more sensible and it got rejected again. The company then tried for another, less ambitious visa but that was turned down too, they’d seen my face one too many times at the consulate. Desperate, I wrote a heartfelt letter of appeal to the president of the United Stated – to no avail. By then I’d had enough of living like a bum. I took a lease in France and gave up the one in LA, not the easiest task to arrange at a distance.

February 2013. I’m still working jet-lagged hours, far from my amateur team and difficult target market, trying my hardest but not achieving much. My boss asks for a big hit, a street marketing campaign so huge that it will turn heads in the press and in the general public. I plan it from Paris and right before d-day, I decide to apply for a temporary visa so I can at least come and monitor the operation. I get it and fly back to LA. The operation’s a flop – not surprisingly, the product not having found its position still. But I see a chance there and decide to stay in America the permitted 6 months to turn this baby around and file a request for an H1-b visa.

I take a lease on a new apartment and until the end of summer, I put my full energy into market studies, a new positioning strategy and some major re-branding. The site starts to show signs of life and one of the biggest partners on the project agrees to reinvest. My visa procedure is going along smoothly, I’m on the right path.

During that time, my stress levels are through the roof. I am constantly anxious, my body balloons up, my hormone levels are all over the place – as confirmed by a terribly expensive doctor that I couldn’t afford in the first place. The financial situation is disastrous and I have to beg for my salary every other month. That’s ok though, it’s for the right cause.

In September, there’s a small setback in the visa process but I go back to France anyway. Living in two places at once is taking a serious toll financially so I decide to wait it out over there. My boss is curiously silent about the project, though, and delays any marketing decisions while I’m away. Eventually he admits that he’s decided to decline the reinvestment and stop the project, but that he absolutely wants me on board, that we will discuss options when I get back. In the meantime, he asks me to contribute to another project of his, the one that he co-founded with a dear friend of mine – I do it. And, finally, I get my H1-b visa.

I pack up the remainder of my belongings, arrive to the US and continue working on project B while I await my fate. My boss suggests a few options for me moving on, he just needs to validate them with his brother & co-founder. I works days, nights and weekends at this new task, once again showing my strong motivation and work ethic. But a couple weeks later it’s suddenly a different tune. They have no more room for me in the company and I’m getting laid off via email – effective one week prior!

The news hit hard but I think – It’s ok. I have a visa that is transferable, I just need to find a new job. The company has no legal obligation to revoke my visa status, so while it’ll be hard to be on the job market again, at least I get to stay in the US. All good.

Job-seeking between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is like trying to find a source of water in the middle of the desert, but I make a few good connections with companies that show interest in my profile. One, a startup that I would LOVE to work for (the job allies digital marketing & nutrition, my ideal!) shows serious intent to take me on in the New Year. I grab a ticket to New York where their office is located for a decisive last meeting.

That meeting is scheduled 2 days from now. The lawyer is ready to transfer my visa asap. There is hope. Or there WAS. I just received notice that my visa status was revoked by the company that got me into this mess in the first place. They didn’t need to, but they robbed me of my chance to get the job that I deserve in the country that I call home. Why do good people lose?

Still, I’m not about to proclaim this year from hell a failure. I learned, so much. I learned what truly appalling management looks like, how one-hit success can get to people’s heads and how important loved ones are in times of struggle. I learned my strengths and weaknesses so that I could act on them to become a better person and professional. I’m coming out pretty beat, I’ll admit it, but in a way much wealthier.

Despite it all, I have things to look forward to, and writing is one of them. So thanks for reading guys, and Happy 2014! Let’s make our own story this year, and never stop fighting for our dreams.

Please, share this message with everyone you know who manages a startup or who’s looking to join one. I really appreciate it!

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