Finding yourself unemployed in 2014 in New York City will lead you to websites like AngelList.com, and keep your ears open to mentions of million dollar companies looking to hire young and quirky people to join their team, also known as a start-up. I am that seeking, unemployed young adult and this is some of what I’ve found.
The office is located in the heart of SoHo in New York neighboring an overpriced restaurant I’ve visited for wallet emptying cocktails and small expensive meals. I walk up one flight of stairs and find an open door where I meet eyes with a young woman wearing headphones, staring at a laptop. She is in the company of three young men devoted to their computers, all communally sitting at a large dining table by the window of this high-ceilinged, exposed brick, wood-floored SoHo space. I look to the left and find a newly finished kitchen with a large island in the center presenting counter tops that look like marble.
The girl with the headphones takes a minute, then connects the dots and motions her head to someone I can’t yet see, and out of her mouth comes “Brian.” Brian pops out in an oversized suit jacket and ill-fitting jeans, short hair, young, and recently acne-relieved skin. He has a pleasant face, shakes my hand, and brings me around to the communal desk and seats me beside a boy, maybe 24, working from one desktop and two laptops with the company’s CrunchBase profile enlarged on his desktop screen. Brian sits across from me and we begin the interview just a little too far apart from one another and too much in everyone’s space. I’m unsure of whether to speak softly or disregard everyone around me, so I must have fallen somewhere in between, and in turn projected a certain lack of confidence and assuredness.
What we began was a series of questions from Brian that contained no direction, no focus, and no end goal, while he asked me about my direction, focus, and desired end goal. We finished our chat and he walked all the way around the desk, causing me to take a few steps to try a maneuver around the boy seated next to me and get to Brian, but all we could manage was landing a few inches away from my original seat, facing one another, hovering over the boy and his three computers. Behind me was another guy thankfully wearing headphones.
Brian: Well, I actually just walked over here to shake your hand.
A story about a bean bag.
I cabbed through the Polar Vortex five minutes to China Town for an interview with another start-up. My interviewer/CEO was friendly, offered me some water or tea, and apologized for the open space, glass windows, and unfortunate lack of regular chairs and tables. After filling up my cup with water he led me to a glass-walled room filled with bean bags. My first thought- they just moved in and haven’t furnished the place yet. His explanation- this alternative office is not exactly for him.
He posed himself as a victim, doubting, chuckling, and judging himself for preferring a chair over a bean bag, and a private cube instead of connected pods and Desques. He went on to tell me how awkward it is to sit down on bean bags with women in skirts or dresses. Yes that would suck, I thought. I was not put at ease by the bean bag, I was only confronted with the struggle of my jeans riding down, past my butt crack, and anxiously mentally rehearsing how I would gracefully rise from the bag. I became self-conscious and unfocused and felt the most un-cool, that all I wanted was for this to be over. I didn’t want to it be over because interviews are nerve wracking, I wanted it to be over because my ass was showing. I’d never met this guy and we were facing one another bean bag to bean bag, and the table with my glass of water was now taller than me so I didn’t want to drink it and move my arm in a weird form and deal with smoothly replacing it on the now too tall table. Right in my line of sight I was confronted with the reality that he either needed to sit cross-legged or spread eagle, and he chose spread eagle just enough so I could see his jeans riding up his goods as the bag pulled him down like quicksand and held him tight for my viewing pleasure.
There is something to the bean bag chair, and there’s also something to toe socks, but that doesn’t mean either of them are a good idea. There are certain changes in this new workspace that do just the opposite of what’s intended, particularly during an interview, like using a bean bag for a chair doesn’t make this any less terrifying, and talking about myself in the company of an entire team doesn’t chill me out. Each candidate coming through a company’s door for an interview is nervous, needs the job, and has most likely prepped him or herself for this moment, and the bean bags and public interviews disregard any and all of that, blurring the lines, making it very unclear where we all stand. If the intention is to make me feel more welcome, I don’t. I feel transient and my presence unexpected, sort of like being invited for dinner to someone’s house and arriving while they’re still in the shower.
Changes are good if the changes being made are good changes. To an outsider it seems that start-ups are trying to one up each other by doing something more funky, more wacky, and more alternative which then leads up to the unfortunate situation of missing chairs and privacy long gone. Enough with the modern, simple furniture and bursts of red bubble chairs and MacBooks. Do something unique to your company, don’t make the same informative video as everyone else with the same quippy happy music. Also, stay comfortable. If it’s not comfortable, say bye. No one is going to think your company is more valuable and has more potential for success because the desks are connected and all the walls are transparent. “Startups”, which are really just businesses, are supposed to be comprised of creative and outside the box thinkers so why does every office, every website, and every soundtrack suddenly sound and look the same?