CHAPTER 20

The Prospectives Adam Hurly Levi Hastings

Upon interviewing Kate Canary (@katecanary) for a job in March 2014, I knew that we would very likely be working together, and that we would get along famously. She had applied for a copywriting role on our team at Birchbox Man, and although the company’s hiring process is always slow—it was four months between her applying and starting—I knew almost instantly that she was “the one.” Her writing was quick, witty, and precise, and she was the last copywriter (of 15) to survive the massive layoffs that Fab.com had endured the year prior. That told our team two things: She was a stellar candidate, since she was their sole survivor, and she was desperately needing a new job. “They were growing explosively so they just needed the help,” Kate says of her being hired at Fab in May 2012; it was her first writing job after a career switch from non-profit theater administration. “I was blissful at Fab, because I was writing all day and getting paid twice as much as I was in theater. I was also loving tech life and the utopian things: free lunch, unlimited vacation, beer on tap.” Then, in mid 2013, the layoffs started: “Twelve copywriters alone. That was 80% of my team, and similar numbers across the company, just decimated.” Subsequent, smaller layoffs would follow, leaving her as a team of one. Kate was desperate for a career-defining challenge, but also for job security. At Birchbox, we both started timidly (I joined 9 months prior, in October 2013), but would grow to own our respective verticals of the men’s editorial operations: Kate writing and supervising the production of nearly every men’s webpage (sometimes a hundred per month), as well as the copy for all email and marketing campaigns; and I, managing the production of all articles and videos that educate men on how to build a better grooming routine, how to get healthier skin, fuller beards, fancier coifs, and of content that would sell our products. For each of us, there was an immediate sense of gratitude, of requited value and purpose. A void was filled.

If you honed in on our men’s editorial team in its fullest state—five people for 18 months, until @thomaspardee got a new job last December—we were a close-knit, nimble crew, supportive of one another but each autonomous as we built a men’s grooming authority. We got each other through bad breakups, through bed bugs, through deaths—Kate’s father passed away in November—and through happier milestones. (Her fiance John confided in us, upon first meeting, that he would be proposing in Paris a week later. They’re getting married in May.) The five of us were and will remain bonded in this way. “Everyone in creative environments calls their colleagues a family,” Kate says. “I always thought it was an overused word, because ‘great colleagues’ are just great colleagues. What about friendship? Why do we call coworkers ‘family’? But this was the first time I felt it—you guys are my family. We care so intensely about each other and respect each other, and we would never, for example, abuse our unlimited-leave policy, because if you check out and leave without proper planning, it affects the people you love. They have to cover for you.” As I’ve said before, this same policy gave me such solace when I also needed it most, allowing me to work remotely from South Dakota or San Francisco and thus enjoy time with my own family. Kate compares this relationship to the one she had with her parents as a child and adolescent: “I never had a curfew and I never got in trouble. While a lot of that is my nature, it was also because my parents trusted me. I wanted to make them proud and show gratitude for their trust. That’s how Birchbox operates too. And even when my dad became ill, and I knew I would be away for an indefinite period, I wanted to make it easier for you guys having to cover for me when I was gone. My ability to plan for that was taken away, but everyone just took over for me, and picked up the pieces so I could be with my family.” Kate and I both grew to appreciate Birchbox as the stability in our lives; if anything goes awry, at least our professional selves could feel settled. At least the means by which we afford our stressful existence is supportive, is strong.

What I also love about Birchbox is that it celebrates “learning through failures.” If you try something and it flounders, then it isn’t a lost effort. It is knowledge gained; discovering what doesn’t work is an important part of knowing what does. This creates a very open-minded, patient, cooperative community—it’s certainly part of why our small team grew so close. Adds Kate: “From day one, I felt like I was being pushed out of my comfort zone. I got to pitch ideas and know that it was OK for people to disagree. Maybe one in 100 ideas is a good one, but that’s what is expected: to propose new ways of thinking, to see things differently.” It took me nearly a year, I’d posit, to really take the reigns of my job, to feel as if I had stumbled enough and tried all the wrong keys before turning the one that worked. But when I did, everything clicked. My boss was able to take a few steps back, allowing him to focus on bigger business strategies, as I commanded things with confidence, writing scripts and delivering video edits with such assurance, defending editorial decisions that might otherwise interfere with brand or company goals—”This video isn’t for sales, it’s for traffic. This article isn’t being written for longevity; it’s for short-term, immediate revenue.”—and educating colleagues on best search-engine practices, data-backed and revenue-driving content strategies, YouTube channel growth tactics, and the likes. I finally became a fully-fledged editor, confident as a writer and producer, and delightfully surprised that the circuitous, mostly depressed years had led me to this. Birchbox baits its employees with a three-year “tribbatical”: Work for three years, and you get a three-week, completely disconnected, paid leave, plus a travel stipend. (My pal Carlos—@closalvarado—is on his now, in South America.) Before Birchbox, I had never been in any job for more than a year and a half. October 2016 marks three years since my start, and it baffles me that just three years prior (in 2010), I was working at a crummy video rental shop in North Beach, San Francisco. That’s what Birchbox is to me: marked change—the learned solution after many failures.

There was a palpable shift in the office air on January 28. (That’s 2016, just a month ago.) We’ve all signed NDAs, and I have to respect a lot of the finer details here, but I’ll say this: I could see meetings happening—with my own eyes, and on significant people’s calendars—that told me a big business shift was going to occur. Every year, we would make more revenue than the last, but as is the case with most startups, it costs a ton of money to operate the business and get it off the ground, and those costs can increase as the business expands. Birchbox, now in its sixth year, was no exception, and it’s difficult to navigate this rapid expansion without shuttering; this is precisely what Kate experienced at Fab, and a fate that Birchbox would need to avoid. Like any young business, we wanted to be profitable as soon as possible, and rightfully: We needed that confidence from investors, and from the public, in the hopes that we could become publicly owned soon—this is textbook startup growth protocol. Late that night, Kate and I received a meeting invitation to “talk about some changes to the business”, set for 10:45 the following morning. I texted her and said that I was fairly certain of something: We were getting laid off. It was speculation, but I wanted to be ready for the worst, and I wanted her to be ready for it, too, even if it gave us grief now. Just an hour earlier, Kate was with a friend who asked her how work as going. “Work is the least of my problems,” Kate told her. “When you texted me, I was surprised on the one hand because I was sure that we were too valuable. But, then I thought about the inevitability of cost cutting, and about how Fab had to let go of so many talented people…it very quickly made sense to me. They would need to be leaner.”

I couldn’t sleep that night. I was in bed by 12, asleep at 2, up at 5. My stomach kept turning, and I laid motionless until 7:30. I made a hefty breakfast to pass some time, then did a full morning grooming regimen, which I rarely make time to do; I wanted to be as put-together as possible for my final day as a grooming editor. I got in the shower, hydrating my hair with my favorite conditioner, then using my favorite cleanser and exfoliator to make sure my complexion looked extra clear for my likely last day; I shaved my neckline precisely two fingers above the Adam’s apple, in a U-shape up to both ears, as I had demonstrated to our subscribers. I returned to my room, and first applied toner to my face (it balances the skin’s oil production), then followed with a serum (the real secret to looking young), and a tinted moisturizer (to mask any redness in the face). I put some concealer under my eyes to hide the dark circles from lost sleep. I blow-dried my hair into place, then applied my favorite styling paste, and locked it in with some cool air from the blow dryer, exactly as I had taught other guys to do. I rubbed unscented lotion on my hands, arms, and neck, then sprayed the pulse points with my favorite fragrance, a scent longevity hack I included in a video about maximizing the effectiveness of cologne. I put on some nice slacks, a new sweater, and a beautiful top coat, so that I would look as professional as possible as they cast me into unemployment. I stared at myself in my bedroom mirror, one last time, very proud, very scared and unsure of what would come next, but very ready to walk into the fire. I promised myself to stay poised—and Kate followed suit. At least we would be together when it happened. And so, I walked to the 4/5 train one last time on this routine, commuting to Union Square and transferring to the 6, then up two stops where it lets out just below our building. I timed my arrival for 10:30, so that I wouldn’t be dragged into any other meetings—just the one with my friend, my family.

Forty-five people were let go that day. This was close to 25% of the U.S. headquarters. By 11 a.m., Kate and I had our white folders with our severance letters, staying entirely calm, even smiling to one another in support. We agreed again to stick together—to gather our belongings quietly, then make our exit in tandem. By now, many of our colleagues were hugging their own departing teammates, and the news had quickly infiltrated the whole office that many of us were making one grand exit. We closed our computers and quickly scooped up our things, as our devastated, teary-eyed coworkers surrounded us for a goodbye embrace. We mostly held it together, but I lost it when the adorable PR women surrounded me just as I neared the exit. There was so much uncertainty and confusion in their eyes, and they had been some of my best friends for over two years. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” they said over and over and over, as if this was anyone’s fault. “It’s ok. It’s fine,” I said. “It happens. OK? It happens. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. I love you, OK?” We composed ourselves in the elevator, then rode down to the lobby where a dozen other sad, confused castaways were waiting. “You too?” we asked, receiving grim, tearful nods. I couldn’t believe who joined us—entire marketing teams, vice presidents, and the most recent employee of the month. We gathered the troops, put out a call to others who were cut, and marched across the street to our company’s favorite pub, where we drank and bitched and made light of everything for seven hours. We exchanged contact information and promises of support, eventually joined by those colleagues who felt welcomed enough to join. That was one of my favorite days I’ve ever lived; I’ve never experienced community and camaraderie and revelry like I did in that bar. I was with people I loved and wanted to help, and the feelings were requited—a fitting conclusion to our Birchbox tenure.

“Birchbox was a very obvious step forward in my career, but more than anything, it gave me confidence,” Kate says. “That’s a quality I’ve had to learn in my life, because I came from such a vulnerable world in theater, with all my imperfections on display, and then Fab kept me on my toes the entire time. Learned confidence has become one of my greatest professional assets. I see the layoffs as necessary business. It’s disconcerting, yes. You can look at it negatively and personally, but it had nothing to do with us or whether or not they valued us. It’s just what a business does to survive.” I agree with her; for both of us, Birchbox was that fulcrum point in our careers, and to reflect on it any differently would be a disservice to the company and to our time spent there. “Layoffs should never pull the rug out completely,” she adds. “Within six months, I will have lost my dad, gotten laid off, and gotten married. So in the scheme of my life, this is the least impactful event. I absolutely loved this job and it mattered so much to me and it was so generous to me when I needed it to be, but I can take this as a change that opens up another opportunity. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared and heartbroken, especially with me being so Type-A and craving stability. But it feels manageable, and I suspect that good things will come of it. Life gets harder, but people get better—that has been my family’s ethos while grieving our loss. We keep saying ‘We will never get over this, but we will get better.’ I used to think I had to deal with each problem one at a time, and once I dealt with each one, I could be happier. But the problems never stop. The only thing that gets better is how I handle them. The whole point of life is that you must grow from each problem, each lesson. You have to use those experiences to strengthen yourself. And it’s actually nice to realize that they forever remain a part of you.” To Birchbox: Thank you, for everything. From both of us.

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