Change is in the Air

By now, people who follow me on Twitter or other places around the web may have picked up on the fact that I’m going through changes right now.

I guess everyone is. The economy is bad. Jobs are hard to come by. It just seems like that cycle of life has come where everything changes for good or for bad.

For me, my changes come in the form of living in a new city, in a new state, in a new house… and with a new housemate.

I guess the first indication something was up was when I changed my Facebook relationship status from Married to It’s Complicated. No that wasn’t a joke or some crude publicity stunt to see how many people noticed. It really did happen.

Actually, the complication began six months ago and out of respect for my wife, I won’t go into those details publicly. Needless to say, things have not been good or healthy and there is adequate blame to go around.

It became clear that things were not going to work out for us back in August but having been married for eight years, having a 5 year old boy, having financial concerns, family concerns, to name just a few it was not as easy as just saying “Goodbye”.

I think we both have agreed that “Goodbye” had to be a healthy (as much as possible) goodbye without anger and with respect.

Last weekend, we began the process of saying “Goodbye”. We had possibly our best conversation of our entire marriage, a two hour long intimate moment where we laughed, cried and put it all out on the table. Funny when couples are at the final moment, they get that way. I guess there’s nothing to protect or lose at that point.

On Sunday, I moved in with a good friend in Alexandria, Virginia and am acclimating to a new lifestyle.

My changes involve not living at home with my wife or son, living in a different state, in a different Metro area (Finally in the DC Metro!) and I am actively changing my lifestyle habits.

It will take time for everything to settle down. I’ve already been approached for dates (which is weird!) but am not really looking for anything more than friends.

The next months, particularly with the economy, I’m planning on focusing everything I have on work and business. I’m an independent consultant and my bread and butter relies on closing deals and building WordPress-related products and services.

I will probably do a bit of personal travel. Maybe now is a good time to do that cross-country drive I’ve wanted to do for years now? I will be making friends (I always got along better with women than men, particularly before I got married and before I tamed things down on that front).

I don’t plan to get into another relationship anytime soon. This is me time.

I plan to spend a fair bit of time in Baltimore with my son as well. He is my pride and joy and I’m devastated about what this means for him.

At any rate, I figured I needed to say what happened since everyone seems so curious about my personal life. Which is also weird. :)

Passion, Relationships and Thought Leadership

Back in the bad old days of blogging, the way to get attention was simple. Flame someone long enough and hard enough and they would take notice and respond in comments, or otherwise. Bloggers realized their power for change and took their platforms seriously, calling into question media accounts in politics, public relations nightmares such as Edelman’s Walmart stunt and other such things.

On this blog, I’ve taken this tack in the past flaming my friend Duncan Riley and earning my place, for a time, in the Google hierarchy as #3 for “How to be a whore”.

Yes, I was ranked #3 for how to be a whore. Classy, as always.

With my platform, I took HP to task for jerking a customer around and turned around a PR disaster into an amazing demonstration of customer service in the social web world.

I took to Twitter and established a “personal brand”, whatever that is, for being a no-bullshit czar and calling people to task when they were presenting stories or thoughts in a way that I felt was disingenuous.

For whatever hard-nosed approaches I took to relationships in the web world, I also encouraged and linked to and cited those who I felt were thought leaders. I shared blog posts in Google Reader and FriendFeed and linked people prolifically on Twitter.

The world still operates in much the same way online as it does in any other area of life. Business, politics, technology, personal relationships – they are all the same. You will never agree with everyone else, nor should you. If everyone looked at the world the same way, we’d live in a very boring world.

When it comes to passion, it is the thing that drives people to be better than what they would otherwise be. It makes them thought leaders and brings about change. Always.

The things is, the change is sometimes good and bad and that’s where passion gets you into trouble. When passion drives you to be unbending and, for lack of a better word, bigoted or dogmatic, then passion runs the risk of getting in the way and interfering.

Truth is, particularly in the blogosphere where everyone has a voice and everyone can potentially affect dramatic change, is that passion often has to be tempered in favor of relationship. Passion may drive you to make sweeping accusations, or lump different groups of people into the same bucket with the premise that “you know what I mean”.

This is harmful. Very, very harmful. This destroys relationships, and relationships are the balance.

Relationships looks at the world and say, “what you and I are together is more important and more powerful than what you and I are apart.”

In the Great Depression (and by the way, I have a bunch of Great Depression stories coming soon), the United States entered what can only be described as a period of long winter. During that winter, people could not rely on their government, their businesses, their ways of life. All they had was each other. Families hunkered down with families. Friends built deeper relationships. All they had was each other, and those relationships formed a core foundation for the generation that would come. To this day, that generation is known as the Greatest Generation.

Passion fuels the fire, drive and ambition and is the catalyst for so many great things in history. Passion is also the catalyst for the greatest failures in history.

Thought leaders are the ones who know how to tap into passion to accelerate their goals, but know when to tap the brake and fall back on relationships to enhance their goals.

Be careful not to sacrifice relationships on the altar of passion.

How the Cable Guy could salvage the DTV transition, and why he's afraid to try.

If you don’t live under a rock, you probably know about the U.S. transition to Digital TV broadcasts coming in February.

If you’ve been following it, you know that the number of people affected, i.e. those who receive only over-the-air television, has constantly been in dispute. The Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Consumer Electronics Association, Community Broadcasters Association, and a host of other interest groups with three and four letter abbreviations have all weighed in over the past 3 years (since the “hard date” for cut-off was set) with dueling statistics on how many people are effected by the switch, are aware of the looming transition, have used the Converter Box Coupon program the Government has in place to try and help, and so on and so forth.

We’re not sure how many people get over the air TV exclusively. But we know that a recent test in Wilmington, NC did not go over so well, and could be an indicator of the chaos next February will bring.

What about the Converter Box program? It has been plagued by problems, especially the lack of inclusion of “analog pass-through” mechanisms that would let digital boxers receive the analog signals from “Class A” T.V. stations, low power community stations that often serve minority communities and rural areas. Those stations are not required to switch, but with the wrong converter boxes, could lose much of their audience in one fell swoop.

The status of the program, along with the education campaign that has gone with it, can be summed up with this hilarious, but sadly accurate parody of the PSAs that have been airing more and more frequently thanks to an FCC requirement.

It’s October 19th as I write this. We’re just under five months out from the analog shutoff. And no one really knows what will happen after those transmitters go dark and a few million Americans turn on their TV’s to see…maybe nothing. Just snow. And even if they got a converter box, they might still have a problem.

See, unlike analog signals, which might come in fuzzy but still provide a picture, a DTV signal either gets received, or it doesn’t. There isn’t a trailing off of the signal, there’s just a cliff. And we don’t know for sure how well the digital signals will work or how many people will be affected by reception problems.

And remember those LPTV stations? They are just starting to get funding for their own transition, but they may well be out of business before they can get to it. And what about communicating emergency information and alerts? This is a vital function of broadcasters, whose licenses are conditioned on the requirement that they satisfy the “public interest” in exchange for free airwaves. All those little battery operated sets that people in hurricane and tornado prone regions keep around “just in case?” Worthless. And battery-operated digital sets are so expensive they’re almost impossible to find.

The government agencies in charge of this debacle, the FCC and NTIA, have had since 2005 to prepare for this. There have been many, many oversight hearings on both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol, where a littany of officials, including FCC chairman Kevin Martin and (Acting) NTIA boss Meredith Baker (who has been the third NTIA head since the transition date was set) have told skeptical lawmakers that all is and will be just fine.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, D-Fl., has repeatedly asked where her constituents should turn for emergency information post-cutoff. Her warnings have been ignored by much of the media outside the telecommunications world. But Senate Commerce Committee member David Vitter, R-La. has been strangely silent on the issue despite his state’s tragic experience with Katrina.

So how bad will it be?

We don’t have to find out.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there was a way to get a reprieve for consumers without delaying the transition which will give needed spectrum to public safety personnel as well as open up a whole new generation of wireless networks for consumers and business?

What if I told you that the solution is probably not far from where you are sitting.

It’s Cable TV.

Not the fancy HD Digital Cable with On Demand, but plain old analog cable that you can plug into your “cable-ready” T.V. or get with one of the millions of analog “black boxes” that are rotting away in warehouses.

Cable companies have wiring running past just about every house in America. It’s just that not everyone gets the service hooked up or turned on.

The industry has agreed to keep analog signals flowing down their pipes until 2012. What if the cable companies simply “lit up” a limited analog service (say, carrying the broadcast channels, LPTV signals and regular announcements on how to get DTV reception) and let people get hooked up and plug in for a limited amount of time, during which they would know that a) they need get the problem fixed before the temp service stops and b) give the government time to make sure the job is done right.

Two things would happen:

  1. We would greatly decrease the number of people that would lose access to their over-the-air stations while allowing for a better focused campaign to help the most vulnerable consumers (seniors, language minorities, etc) who may have been missed by the haphazard and last-minute campaign put on by the NAB and FCC.
  2. By measuring how many households hook up to the “transitional” cable, we could get a much better number on how many households got missed by the converter box program but receive OTA signals. We’d also know where they live, so they could get help converting during the time the transitional service is up.

This sounds like a good idea, right? Sort of a mulligan for the FCC and NTIA. And a way for the Cable industry to get some much needed good karma by offering a hand with what could be a very big problem.

But the industry has two roadblocks in the way. First, House Energy and Commerce chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has warned against the industry trying to use the switch for corporate gain. One does not want to incur the wrath of the longest-serving member of the House. And the FCC has also offered cautions to the industry. Nothing gets chairman Martin’s blood boiling like cable ever since they balked at his “a la carte” pricing proposal a few years back.

Second, if the NCTA coordinates any kind of unilateral effort by the industry to help, it could run into antitrust problems. Competitors to cable, including Satellite services, FIOS provider Verizon and maybe even broadcasters themselves might see an attempt to dig the country out of a hole as a power grab and sue. Litigation is not pretty, folks.

There are other, more wonkish concerns as well, This stopgap service could possibly pour gas on the smoldering tire fire of “must-carry” and “retransmission consent” disputes. But

But at this point in the game, letting cable offer a broadcast-only and time-limited service in order to put some more time on the clock might be the best way to turn what could be a major disaster for many into a quantifiable problem that could be fixed with a coordinated effort.

Or we can see what happens and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Just an idea, that’s all.

Things we can agree on.

I had the misfortune recently of sitting through a discussion of the policies of both Presidential candidates on data protection and cybersecurity. Or so I thought.

While the representative from the Obama campaign, a respected law professor and privacy expert who I have seen testify before Congress many times, was direct but cautious in his answers to the moderator’s less-than-pointed questions, the representative from the McCain side, a former FTC commissioner who has also done good work on privacy issues, filibustered, brought up irrelevant things like ACORN instead of talking about problems with the REAL ID Act, and managed to mention taxes 3 or 4 times at least. I’ll have to check my tape while I write the straight news article on the event.

So I left the Rayburn building feeling a bit down about our prospects for achieving things like more broadband access or sane copyright enforcement. But then I got a call from an acquaintance familiar with some of my older blogging work, asked me what I think about Network Neutrality.

Now, I make my living as a journalist. I strive to be objective, which to me means being fair and yes, balanced in how I report on events. This doesn’t mean I give equal time to both sides, or I don’t find a way to debunk a statement or ask a tough question when I hear someone lie to me. It means I keep an open mind, observe, and report. If something is wrong, I find out and report that. I don’t opine for myself. For someone who is self-taught and started as a blogger, it’s not easy. But even as a blogger, I try to be nuanced. There’s too much “hate speech” going around on tech policy topics, whether copyright protection, network management or intercarrier compensation (don’t ask). And topics as complex as these can’t always be boiled down to right and wrong, black or white, A or B.

Back to my phone call. I was giving my personal opinion, based on my years of experience following the telecommunications industry in the private sector, as a journalist, and as someone who enjoys thinking about the law.  Actually, I wasn’t giving much of an opinion at all. How can I?

Surely, there are legitimate issues in dealing with things like network management or network neutrality. They’re complex. They’re often overblown and turned into political footballs. But it’s perfectly reasonable, I said, to believe in things like equal opportunity, rule of law and honesty. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t tip the scales on either side. Do the right thing. Simple, right?

Does that translate into specific policies I advocate? Absolutely not. I’m no more in favor of specific regulations than I am of total deregulation. If you ask me what I really think about a specific net neutrality bill, I honestly don’t have an opinion one way or the other. Really. I just told you what I think one paragraph ago.

I’ll boil it down to this: Look at any policy issue and ask what the right thing to do is. It’s right to make sure the consumer gets what he pays for. It’s right to make sure if someone owns something and another uses it (outside of fair use), the owner gets paid. How do we get there? I’ll let others talk about it and I’ll sit back and report. And if I see bullshit, I’ll ask about it.

What’s my opinion? I don’t know, and I probably don’t care. The wonks and the businesses can hammer out the details. But I think we can all agree that there are things we can agree on in technology.

Agreed?

Startup Layoffs, Pt. 2 — Two Perspectives

apocalypto head chop.jpgThere are two sides to every story, and two unenviable roles to a firing. While I don’t expect newly aroused sympathies to change anything, awareness of each other’s perspective can help make the process a little less painful. That is, if you believe yanking off a band-aid is less painful than pulling it off slowly . . .

Cutting expenses is one thing — delaying purchases, ditching the PR agency (God, they hate being the first to go), abolishing free soft drinks (really?). But cutting people is, well, personal. Leader truly get their mettle tested in the process. But since it’s not something managers do that often, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising how badly most of them handle it. Email? Over the weekend? Like the pink-slips of old, big-company cowardly. Bad form.

Notes for the ‘choppers’

All you managers under pressure –though I don’t expect arrogant CEOs to read this, much less heed the points — it’s time to act, or be acted upon. Look on the bright side: a headcount reduction gives you the opportunity to reshape the organization. Let’s face it, not everyone you hired ended up exceeding expectations. Even if the hiring process included a probationary period (it always should) to admit a mistake was made, during a RIF you get to lop off anyone close to the line.

Encourage yourselves with the conviction that the organization will be better, leaner, and more dedicated than ever before. Just remember that the folks you want to stick around will judge very carefully how you handle the process.

Some observations and considerations (nothing comprehensive) for you unenviable leaders:

1. Once the decision is made, move swiftly.

Bring all your appropriate managers into the process — they’ll surely have something to contribute. Then meet with them 1:1, provide them a directive (e.g., 20% cut), and let them own the decision for their people. Complete this process all on one night, off site — no closed doors, which only feed the rumor mill.

2. HR (if you have one) may or may not know best, but should be completely involved.
The HR managers that I hired for recruiting skills turned out not always to be the best HR administrators; nonetheless, they are employee advocates, and should be your sounding board. If you’re big enough to have hired an experienced HR person, they will have the forms and know the laws. On the other hand, if you’re a startup taking 20 people going down to 15, you probably won’t (shouldn’t) have an HR person. I’ve used PEOs (Professional Employer Organizations) such as TriNet (which make business sense up to a couple dozen employees, beyond which the fees dictate you wean yourself of them), and when we went through our Bubble 1.0 layoff (40%), they knew their stuff — had done quite a few, in fact. Helped us think of everything.

3. All the packages and details for outgoing employees should be complete before the button is pushed.
Prewire everything. Most of all, your IT guy/gal (if they’re on the hit list, you’d better solve that problem first). All the letters (I’ve found that including recommendation letters in the package buys a lot with people), instructions (such as the consequences of their stock options), copies of the Confidentiality Agreement that they signed at hiring, etc., should be bundled together. I’ve learned to lean towards trusting people to behave (although it hasn’t worked out 100% of the time), so I wouldn’t immediately cut off email, or block access to their computer. Big companies will always do this; if you’ve managed your startup well, with full transparency, there shouldn’t be a need. Sales and marketing people will often want to send out an email blast to customers and contacts; let them. Blocking them will only result in them doing it from their personal email. But passwords to Salesforce.com, VPNs, etc. need to be covered. Provide your managers with a comprehensive checklist for each employee.

Sequoia's solution.jpg4. Execute as simultaneously as possible — and with military precision.
This was impossible during my first big layoff, when we went from 175 to 125 (not to mention things were so out of hand, my finance director — who obviously did not expect to be terminated — ran around the building, screaming epithets, while I chased after him . . . swear to God), but for most situations it can be done, late afternoon, at most in two or three passes per manager. Have two people in the room, if you can. Everyone’s rehearsed, the package is delivered, and the whole thing takes two minutes. Remote workers will have to be done by phone (not email). Don’t expect anyone to sign anything on the spot — just collect keys, passes, etc., and don’t shame them by making them clean out their desks in front of others. Let them come back. Treat them with dignity.

5. Don’t drop another shoe
Make your cut deep enough to last. And when it’s done, gather everyone together and have a state-of-the-company address. Tell everyone what the runway looks like from here. Make them comfortable that you won’t be nicking away at things over the next few months, which only leaves everyone paranoid.

I expect there are more and more of you out there coming up on a crappy experience like this. (For more good reading on the topic, go here.) But there’s a happy ending. When it’s over, you’ve done your job (as described by Sequoia, at right), and you’ve done the very best you can for the outgoing — and bonded with the keepers — you not only attain a pride of passage, but things get better very quickly.

Notes for the ‘choppees’

Now, let’s take the other perspective. Some of you are going to be on the receiving end. And most of you — who thought everything was cool a couple of weeks ago — will be stunned to hear it. (Things probably were cool.) But the pressure from investors, coupled with genuine fear about the marketplace, has instilled a new mindset in your leaders: survival.

Some observations and considerations (nothing comprehensive . . . and this is not to be construed as legal or even professional advice) for you who are about to find the axe befall you:

1. Don’t flip out
Yeah, never thought you’d be on the list. Neither did I. But the highly charged moment of termination, when your stomach is knotted and blood is rushing to your head, is not the time to seek answers (much less revenge). Cooperate. No, I wouldn’t sign anything — there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a day or two to read everything. Just know that, in the end, the company has the leverage — in your paycheck, severance, stock, and references/recommendations. If you really feel you’ve been wronged, get a lawyer.

2. Don’t expect much
Leaving the corporate world for the startup world, you said goodbye to lots of resources and perks. When I was fired from my corporate job (by a back-stabbing son-of-a-bitch bastard who needed my P&L because his was dying and oh, yeah, I didn’t see that one coming), I got nine months’ severance, outplacement services, and a glowing recommendation letter. When the VCs pulled the plug on a startup I joined as Senior Vice President of Marketing, I got two week’s pay. (I appealed to the CEO — who was obviously on the way out himself — and they upped it to three weeks.) In startups, you hope for two-weeks pay. (It’s all about conserving cash, remember?)

3. Center yourself
Go for a run, or take it out in the gym. There’s anger that needs to be processed, and you need to move past that to get to the next stage: excitement about what you’re going to do next. What make things especially hard for people in startups is that your world is pretty much tied up in your work. Sure, you have loved ones, but on an hours-per-day basis, when the company you worked for — the thing you were so passionate about being part of and helping build — suddenly goes away, that’s a big hole in your life. Take advantage of it. Indulge your family or loved one with some time. Plot your next moves. Maybe, start something yourself.

4. Move on quickly
You know what they say about a broken heart — nothing cures it like something sweet and new coming along. The sooner you get on with your life, the better. Spend as little time looking back as your mind will allow. The remarkable thing is, nine out of 10 times, people say (maybe not Stuart Sutcliffe) that life got better after leaving the organization. Whether or not you subscribe to the ‘everything happens for a reason’ theory, everyone I’ve crossed paths with who’s been through the shock of getting fired — even at my hand — ended up with no regrets.

There’s a lot of nuances I’m skipping over, some are location-specific, some company-specific.
Whereas California has nixed non-competes, they’re alive and well on the East Coast . . . and they suck. Companies may hold stock grants and severances (by law, they can’t withhold back pay owed) hostage to get non-competes signed, and they’re usually at least a year, sometimes longer. Ridiculous.

Then there’s your vested stock options. These conditions can be all over the map — now might be a good time to reread your Stock Plan and Stock Option Agreement. Is the company entitled to repurchase your vested shares? (I hope not). At what price? If not, you may have only 30 days to purchase them yourself. But again, at what price? The recent Fair Market Value may not reflect the economic crash . . . and you might find yourself having to write a check for several hundred (or thousand) dollars, or forfeit the ownership.

Just a heads up. But hey, things could be fine. Just because a half-dozen startups have already had major layoffs, doesn’t mean yours is about to . . .

Forewarned is forearmed.

Discussing DISQUS

Several months ago, I decided to give Disqus a try. Disqus is a company that provides a social commenting functionality to blogs. It replaces/hijacks a blogs comments and replaces with their own commenting system. I really liked the ability to reply to comments via email as well as comment threading.

Jason Yan and Daniel Ha have been extremely helpful over the past months in helping me with comment syncing (that is keeping a store of my comments inside WordPress as well as in their system) and being extremely attentive to suggestions and feedback.

However, I’ve decided to drop Disqus and return to native WordPress comments. I told Daniel I’d write this post as a point of feedback for him and his team and to hopefully provide some structure around my thoughts.

Spam

Recently, there has been an onslaught of spam here and yes, I have the ability to remove comments but they should never make it to my blog at all. I was under the impressions that Akismet was being used to control spam flow but now I’m told they moved away from it. This could explain the onslaught of spam. However, I’m just not comfortable with lack of spam moderation functionality and the lack of “assume is spam” mentality when a comment is unknown to the system. If there’s a hint that it is spam, it should be held for moderation at all costs.

Lack of Theme Integration

The common response to my complaint of lack of theme integration is that most of the elements of the Disqus comment form are stylabe, and while that’s true, I don’t think it’s enough. Really, I don’t want the comments that Lisa designed for me to be displayed any other way. I like them that way. In fact, I like the WordPress form and behavior. It’s comfortable and familiar.

A benefit to the Disqus commenting system was threaded comments, however, WordPress 2.7 is coming with threaded comments so the point is moot.

Comment Moderation Panel

I always feel like I’m stomping through someone elses house when I go to my comment moderation panel. I imagine this is largely due to the cumbersome iframe that houses the Disqus moderation panel. Really, a WordPress plugin should be tapping into API that manages this stuff and allows a native user experience. This is the least of my problems, but it doesn’t feel right at all.

At the end of the day, what I really want is Disqus-lite. I want the social functionality of Disqus with the assumption of native WordPress benefit. I want reply by email and comment moderation by email in a WordPress context. My WordPress context.

I love the Disqus guys over any of the competition and I don’t close off the possibility of returning as a user one day. But for now, I’m going to shelve the idea and come back at another time.

Good luck to you, Daniel and Jason!

Even During a Recession, Small Businesses Still Should Consider Macbooks

I was talking to someone recently who just took a new job at a small web-company. She has been a Windows user all her life but she asked me what she should get in her new job. They were buying her a new computer.

Naturally, I suggested the new Macbook that Apple announced yesterday. The same thing occurred when my dad took a new job with a non-profit and considered getting a Mac, but it was nixed due to concerns over business application and utility.

To be clear, there is no better time to look at Apple laptops than now because the total cost of ownership is usually lower given that in most business environments, the selling point is Microsoft Office and Exchange/Active Directory integration.

Most purchasing managers will get caught in the trap of looking at the higher price tag for the hardware and assume that means that the TCO is higher as well. Let’s break it down though:

Dell Vostro 2510 Apple Macbook 2.0Ghz
Initial Pricepoint $899 $1299
CPU Equivalency Upgrade (2.0 Ghz) $75 $0
Office Software MS Office Pro 2007 – $320 iWork ’08 -$79
Extended Warranty ProSupport (3y) – $268 AppleCare (3y) – $249
PDF Creation Adobe Acrobat – $449 Built in Support – $0
Total Cost of Ownership $2011 $1627

Five Hundred Dollars in difference for the average small business. Not everyone needs Adobe Acrobat, but a lot do! Some companies are inclined to buy MS Office for Mac, but it sucks and iWork has almost universal compatibility. Mail.app has Exchange capability, or the Exchange server can turn on IMAP functionality to make mail clients other than Outlook work better across the board.

If IT purchasing managers take a step back and look at the reality of the purchasing, a hard look at Apple products is a strong move to tighten those belts.

Non-Competes in a Down Economy

I keep inching and inching into the beat of my colleague, Ray Capece of Venture Files, but I think it’s pretty important and weighty times for web professionals and small business owners alike. Unlike anytime in our history, the uncertainty of the future of our world and country are great.

Everyone is speculating about what the economic downturn bodes. Some Evangelicals I’ve talked to think that the investment of the Federal government into banks represents something akin to the fulfillment of end-time prophecy regarding the mark of the beast.

Others more focused on geo-political analysis believe we are seeing the end of the American Empire.

All of this is speculation and may or may not have merit. We simply don’t know. However, what we do know is that people are losing jobs, including in the web industry. We do know it’s hard for people to sell their homes without walking away still owing a mortgage. We do know that the impending baby boomer retirement wave just got pushed back.

A lot of companies, particularly smaller ones, like to use non-compete clauses to ensure that good help doesn’t go to a competitor when that help leaves. But what does that employee do when they are laid off and still have a non-compete?

While I will give my disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, I will say that anecdotal evidence suggests that non-competes are mostly unenforceable. Most laws are drafted in such a way that non-compete only have grounds when trade secrets are in play but countermanding court rulings suggest that no company can restrict someone from making a living.

Talk to your lawyer if you are unclear. At the end of the day, I suggest staying in a stable job if you can at least for a year or so until we put some distance between now and then. If you absolutely must leave, you probably don’t have to worry about non-competes with the economy the way it is. Take the job you can. Just don’t go sharing the information specific to the company you left with the company you are joining. That would be competitive and would probably be enforceable.

Also, if you can, honor your non-competes because it will speak better to your character. Sometimes it’s not possible. I get that. But all things being equal, if you can honor your non-compete, do so. When I left b5media, I was under a non-compete. In fact, I still am for another month or so. After my announcement, I had a number of blog networks approach me asking me to come work with them and I turned every one of them down because I made an agreement that I very well could stand by. So I did.

Startup Layoffs — The Unkindest Cut

Watch for RollingHeads.jpgLast week, Seesmic let seven of its 21 employees go — a full third of the company. Were they in a crisis? Depends on how you look at it. CEO Loic LeMeur had raised $12M, a Series B $6M of which came in June. But do the math: 21 employees, fully loaded is around $200k/month. Tack on bandwidth, storage, other hosting costs, legal and other services, marketing expenses, T&E . . . expenses are upwards of $300k/month. And with negligible revenue, that’s pure burn. At that rate, Seesmic would hit the wall in just over a year.

There comes a point in every CEO’s life when they realize that things have turned for the worse. Accompanying that realization — along with a gnawing knot in the stomach — is the stark reality that something needs to be done about it. These are the times that try . . . you know the speech.

CEOs worth their salt — or if they’re rosey-glassed types who prefer to ignore bad news, then the COO realists who watch their backs — keep an eye on the numbers, and know exactly when breakeven’s coming . . . or when the money’s going to run out. What changes things — and probably what changed for Le Meur — is the wellspring drying up. And at that burn rate, in this climate, he would have to start raising another round in six months (it always takes longer than you’d think).

Oh — there’s one other thing. Seesmic’s Series C would probably be at a lower valuation than Series B. You want to see things get complicated (ugly, even), go through a down round. New money makes out all right (it’s called the Alternative Golden Rule), but previous investors get squeezed. (Angels often get squished.) Employee options go underwater, plagues and locusts descend, and there’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

So Le Meur did what he had to do.

Letting people go is a miserable experience. And no matter how carefully you plan it, how humanely you handle it, it sucks. Everyone knows startups are risky, but startup hires are the most passionate, dedicated folks around. (Yours aren’t? Sorry — you hired the wrong ones!) Meanwhile, company founders think only of success. They radiate it. And they make promises, explicit or implied, to every employee ‘join us, work hard, and you’ll be rewarded.’ I’ve said those words dozens (really, maybe hundreds) of times. So when it comes down to having to let people go, a promise is broken. To them. And to their families.

Layoffs suck. But they beat the hell out of running out of money.

When all financing options disappear, your world comes crashing down, believe me. Once you’ve been there, you take a far more pragmatic view of letting people go.

I expect in the current climate to see a number of RIF announcements. I hope they’re done right. (There is a way to do it right.) Because on those occasions when they’re not, things are going to be interesting. Unlike the first bubble, today everyone’s voice can be heard — blogging, twittering, commenting, we can expect to read (and hear, if people comment using Seesmic) about some remarkably uncivil behavior, especially on the part of first-time CEOs.

Next post: Layoffs done decent.

BlogHer Comes to DC, Technosailor.com represents 33% of Male Population

BlogHer, the female-focused blogging organization and ad-network, touched down in Suburban Maryland yesterday for the Washington, D.C. edition of the BlogHer Reach Out tour. I had a chance to attend and apparently now have the label of a BlogHim (whatever that means).

It was my first event and, as with most guys that go to a BlogHer conference for the first time, I came away being wowed. I attend quite a lot of events and hear the same kinds of panels. Best practices on blogging. Best practices for making money online. Blogging 101. The gamut of standard cookie-cutter sessions.

BlogHer didn’t disappoint on this front with a Basic track and a more advanced track, and being an organization with a political orientation and being in the Nation’s Capital during an election year, there was the standard fare politically oriented panels as well.

What struck me about the organization was how diverse it was in terms of occupation. From open source geeks to political activists to mommy-bloggers and “data wrangler” statisticians and engineers – the audience transcended every discipline.

Of course, I met plenty of people I might not have otherwise met except at BlogHer. Many of the women attendees don’t venture to other conferences or gatherings for a variety of reasons – time, threat level: Alpha, or just that BlogHer provides a secure and safe environment.

It was definitely an eye-opening experience.

Of course, the day could not be entirely estrogen-based. Geoff Livingston and I, being one of only a handful of men at the event, had to create our own Man party outside with cigars. :)

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