I Was Laid Off From A Unicorn Startup

© bnenin / Adobe Stock

Sad woman at table

© bnenin / Adobe Stock

Alicia Ostarello
Alicia Ostarello10

The second I heard ...and I’d like to introduce our new Chief Revenue Officer, during an unscheduled all-hands meeting to announce the new CEO, I knew I was toast. Burnt, stale-jam toast. Within two days, the rumor mill was in full swing, with everyone whispering speculations about the whens and whos of the inevitable cleaning of house.

No matter how many product managers swore up and down it was inconceivable that I’d be let go, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in the eyes of the powers that now be, I was dispensable. Three sleepless nights later, at 6 a.m., I got an email that confirmed my suspicions: I was to report to a morning meeting to be officially laid off with five of the six other UX writers on staff — and 450 other hard-working, Kool Aid drinking, rocket-ship start-up employees.

I got out of bed, texted my team to ask if anyone wanted to meet for boozy coffee beforehand, and debated between going full on slacker and wearing sweats to work, or donning a party dress. It was my last day, why not defy our strict no-alcohol policy and my internal no-weird-clothes dress code (implemented to be seen as manager material)?

Feelings evaded me during the morning commute. Here were all these chino-clad men and effortlessly cool women on the train, trying not to meet each other’s gaze, sure they’d be back tomorrow and thus bored by the getting-to-work rigmarole. And then there was me, knowing that in a few hours my daily life as I knew it was over. I got off the train, walked up the long flight of stairs, ran to a garbage can and dry heaved. Apparently, you can’t throw up your fear of the unknown — it can just make you a little queasy.

My soon-to-be ex-coworkers and I met at Starbucks, hugged, spiked our coffee with large doses of Kahlua, told each other our salaries to help with future negotiations and took a photo which I tagged on Instagram as #makelayoffsgreatagain. Together, we went into the office for the last time.

I had 80 minutes until my layoff. First, I emailed the core teams I worked with, saying if they needed anything from me to ask now or forever hold their peace. Next, I sent myself the few portfolio clips I’d gathered. Then, I wiped my computer of anything personal: Text messages, Slackversations, files. I used a company t-shirt to wipe down my belongings as I packed them into the standard-issue cardboard box provided to us by the security guards roaming the halls. (Yes, those cliches are true.)

In went my weird photo of horses sticking their heads in a car window. In went about 20 Larabars from the kitchen (no one was patrolling that and departing employees took full advantage). In went my collection of sticky-note to-do lists with tasks I’d never get to complete. I even packed my copy of Eggers’ "The Circle" that I’d shared in our library, but I changed my mind and left it on the shelf — someone with their job at this once starbound start-up needed it more than I did. Finally, I took a long swig of “coffee” and banged out a goodbye email to my product group.

That’s when the faces of those who still had their jobs started floating up to my desk. They seemed bodiless, as though the shock they were experiencing embodied their minds so completely that pulling a torso and limbs through space was too much effort.

You too? they asked.

Me too, I said. The inconceivable was conceived.

Men and women alike cried, and the tears fell almost exclusively from the team staying behind. I wanted to console them, and I tried with hugs and I love yous, but what could I really say? They did have the harder job, to stay and pick up the pieces. But there was a strange rift between us, like I was a home team pitcher being traded to the opponents before the big game. Sure, we’d be friendly going forward, but we weren’t on the same team anymore.

I reported to the layoff room, a meeting space usually reserved for product team pep-talks and puns, lunch-hour meditation sessions and Women in Tech events. The directors stood near the podium, unable to look any of us in the eye. Our typically stoic VP choked up as she read the company’s official statement, and several employees openly wept as others tried to ask astute questions like, do we still get the shares we were promised for not abandoning ship during the last layoffs?, and so if I sign an agreement not to sue you I’ll get an extra month’s severance? and wait, I have to spend my entire FSA by when before I lose it?

I tried to focus. We were supposed to check the numbers on our final paychecks to make sure we were paid appropriately. What was my salary divided monthly and then less taxes and then... never mind, better start shopping on FSA.com for $1500 worth of contact solution. An email popped up on my phone from a product manager still at her desk: You’re an amazing copywriter, she wrote. You don’t deserve this.

BuzzFeed, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, Wired — I couldn’t find a media outlet not reporting on the layoffs. They rehashed the last (and only) three years of the company’s history, from the billions of dollars valuation to the fall of the founder to the scandals in the stairwells to the comeback relaunch to now, sensationalizing a story that was so little like the company I knew. We were so much more than those stories. I joined the unicorn startup because I believed in the core mission: that an industry vital to the livelihood and health of many was severely broken and we could build something better.

My coworkers believed this too, and together we’d thrown all our energy into solving the seemingly unsolvable. We gave up a lot for this company: I knew of one coworker who’d lost his relationship, another who’d taken a leave of absence due to stress. I’d visited my aunt in hospice, but kept my phone in my hand and my job in my mind the whole time. We’d all sacrificed something because we wanted better for people, making choices for the company’s best interests instead of for our own. And still, when it came to push, we got shoved out.

There’s a lot to love about start-up culture: the crazy-intelligent people, the nimbleness of product development, feeling like glitterati when your company gets good press... but there’s also a lot left to be desired. Hyper-growth often leads to hyper-failure, untrained managers often lead to unhappy employees and a market so full of talent means every worker is, economically speaking, disposable.

Start-ups want you to believe you’re mission critical, that each person plays a role in success (this is All Hands 101), but the truth behind the brew-ha-ha is that often, you need them more than they need you — just like any other company out there. I hoped that at my next job, I’d remember that, and I’d put my phone down and myself first more often.

The layoff was over. We double checked our paychecks, picked up our boxes and crammed into the elevator. The house was clean, it was time to move on.


When Alicia was 17, she wrote an essay titled "I Am a Snail Watcher." The themes of that essay—noticing tiny details, celebrating small victories, and rooting for the under-appreciated—still apply to her daily life and affect her writing.