For Some Entrepreneurs, A Small Silver Lining In Layoffs

Illustration of hands reaching toward each other.

While 2020 has undoubtedly been met with a tide of tech layoffs, to Olivia Clark the belt-tightening trend in startupland is nothing new.

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Before WeWork cut thousands and Juul laid off hundreds, Clark had been quietly tracking layoffs in tech for the past year. On behalf of Boston-based Drafted, a referral technology company, Clark sends out a weekly newsletter of layoffs to over 1,200 recruiters. She estimates about 100 subscribers join each week.

While spreadsheets have become a defacto response to job cuts in tech, entrepreneurs like Clark have found other ways to leverage the power of networks, from newsletters to Slack groups. And in the process they’re finding avenues to fight the stigma associated with being laid off–an increasingly important and human cause as tech has a moment of reckoning.

After a year of tracking layoffs, Clark said she thinks it’s important for companies to publicly address these events when they happen. Being quiet or “sweeping it under the rug,” she said, hurts the employees.

“In reality, [a layoff is] a super inconvenient displacement of really, really qualified, amazing talent,” Clark said. “With the layoff list, we’re pointing talent acquisition teams in the right direction, but we’re also validating those people who were laid off.”

She added: “As a company, if you can own up to the fact that you’re experiencing a layoff, it is a little bit of egg on your face at the moment, but like, you’re making the experience better for your employees.”

Addressing the cuts is exactly what Chris Brownridge, the former CEO of GawkBox, did when he shut down his startup last summer, laying off his staff of 20. Brownridge created a crowd-sourced spreadsheet, a trend we unpacked in a previous story, for his employees, but it didn’t feel like it was enough. Moreover, the data felt messy and hard for recruiters to sift through. So he created Silver Lining, a site for job-seeking candidates to upload profiles and for recruiters to look at structured, aggregated data. Brownridge also plans to add a forum and Slack group.

“I felt the pain [of layoffs] from the employer side, and it is painful for the employer especially when you care about [your workers],” he said. “I don’t want to keep seeing spreadsheets thrown around, I think that is not the right answer. We need a standardized way to deal with it, with a community behind it.”

Silver Lining is a two-sided site; candidates can submit profiles for recruiters from top companies to review. Brownridge declined to share the amount of people signed up for the site so far, but said that architects, UX designers, engineers and community managers have signed on.

While Brownridge was vocal about his layoffs, he thinks the culture might have to change before it becomes more common. Through growing the platform, he’s realized that outplacement services aren’t yet top of mind for high growth startups, even in the wake of massive job cuts. He said it’s a “positioning challenge” to pitch Silver Lining to a head of HR who is more focused on growth versus an eventual chance of cuts.

Around the same time Brownridge launched Silver Lining, Megan Murphy was laid off from a Chicago-based startup.

“My company was worried about perceptions and asked me to frame my layoff as a ‘position elimination’ as a result of restructuring versus a real layoff, so i felt pretty isolated,” Murphy told Crunchbase News.

After Murphy was laid off, her friends got laid off a few weeks later from a different Chicago company. Then Chicago’s Jellyvision, another company in Chicago, had layoffs. Jellyvision was the only one of the trio that had a spreadsheet. Murphy said she realized that spreadsheets only worked for some.

“It wasn’t like I had a big community that I was leaving the company with, where a spreadsheet really made sense,” she said. “And my company wasn’t really in a position to invest in the people that were being let go.” So she created Chicago Superstars, a community for people laid off from local tech companies in the city. It has a spreadsheet, Slack and a newsletter.

Murphy created a sheet of candidates that traditional, and often viral, spreadsheets miss. For example, Juul and WeWork laid off hundreds, if not thousands of employees, which circulated widely on Twitter. For smaller companies, with lesser known names or branding, the same attention isn’t given, Murphy explained.

It took three hours for her to create the landing page and a Google Form for Chicago Superstars, and within 24 hours, Murphy said her post about the community had over 60,000 impressions on LinkedIn.

Here’s a snapshot from their slack.

There are over 70 people in the network with a mix of recruiters and job-seekers, including a Chicago-based community Sales Assembly, which works with over 125 companies in the city.

Murphy said it works: one user was looking for a referral at Spotify, and the cohort got him an introduction within an hour. Sarah Menke, the CEO of staffing agency Premier Talent Partners said that even spreadsheets are “a way to ensure no stone goes unturned. …where spreadsheets may not work to help everyone, if they even help one person then it is effective. To add your name and skillset to this list costs you nothing and yet it may well lead you to a new dream opportunity.”

For now, however, the first name on the spreadsheet is Murphy herself, as she looks for her next gig. The experience taught her that networks, in whatever shape they are, make a difference.

“There’s some skinny boost you get from everybody sharing the spreadsheet,” Murphy said. “But the power of the network and where you actually get a foot in the door is through introductions.”

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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