It’s a normal summer afternoon in a breezy hutong. Cicadas are buzzing, dogs are yawning, and old men are playing with their wooden bracelets under the shade of a willow tree. But to the people in the courtyard down the alley to the right, it’s the calm before the storm – a local startup is holding its weekly happy hour.
Stacy puts down the imported cookies and chips she bought from April Gourmet and carefully arranges them on a nice plate. As the head of the startup’s HR department and its only member, holding the weekly happy hour is a big part of her job. It’s not only an opportunity to bring the company closer together, but also an essential selling point for potential employees. She then brings out a few bottles of beer from the fridge and arranges them in the middle of the table. With everything now set up, she pulls out her phone and takes a photo. Carefully choosing the best filter from VSCO, she thinks about how helpful this will be for the next “Do What You Love” post on the company’s WeChat blog.
“Is it happy hour yet?” Daniel asks, excitedly looking up from his workstation. He is the new product manager, and it’s his first week. He is still amazed by the fact that every morning he can get free brewed coffee from the office, not to mention that the beans are hand picked from an organic farm in Yunnan Province. And he doesn’t even have to take the subway anymore. Instead, he can fully embrace the hutong lifestyle and bike to work like everyone else. He still works unpaid overtime until 9 PM, but it’s so much more flexible. In fact, he can take a nap anytime he wants – the company has prepared a sofa from IKEA specifically for that purpose. So, even though he had to take a pay cut to join the team, he still feels it’s the right choice.
“How’s your first week going, Daniel?”
Jeff, the CEO, has just walked in from the yard wearing his signature smile. Jeff has been an entrepreneur since graduating from college in the Bay area. Having sold his first three companies for a profit, he’s now on his fourth startup. He is a tech snob, a jazz enthusiast, and also a part-time cross fit trainer.
“Oh hey Jeff. It’s been great!” Daniel responds, trying to hide his admiration. He hasn’t told Jeff that he was actually the reason why he chose to join the company in the first place. Daniel couldn’t forget the vibe he felt from Jeff the day they met for the interview. Young, passionate, adventurous, and persistent, Jeff was the exact opposite of Daniel’s former colleagues – employees at a local gaming company who only cared about getting married, having babies, and buying an apartment.
“I’m glad you like it. You’ve been a great help in the first week. We’re lucky to have you,” said Carol, the senior product manager, and also Daniel’s supervisor. She sits on the bench under the courtyard’s only tree.
Carol has been with the startup for almost two years. The excited look on Daniel’s face reminds her of her early days when she was also driven and determined. Now, however, she’s more worried about unmet KPIs, unfinished specs, and the endless pushback she gets from the leadership loop. Happy Hour – and its assortment of alcohol – is now her getaway.
She thinks about how she’s become stuck. Leadership can’t figure out a clear business model, the marketing team files an endless stream of feature requests that clearly oppose the product direction, and the new PM Daniel is like a newborn baby, asking for new tasks everyday. Meanwhile, she hasn’t received a raise in two years, and to make matters worse, her 5% stock options – purchased from her salary – will only deprecate more in the foreseeable future. Running these facts and figures in her head, she drops the beer and pours herself a glass of whiskey from the flask in her purse.
“Startup life is exciting, but also challenging,” says Jeff, looking out at his team members, who have by now arranged themselves in a semicircle in the courtyard. His well toned forearm glows golden in the fading sunlight.
“You may know that we’ve been seeking A-round for a while, and I can tell you that we are receiving lots of solid feedback from potential investors.” His voice is firm as always, although this most recent feedback has all begun with the word “Sorry”.
“We’ve made great progress and we are way ahead our competitors. We will disrupt the norm. We will change everything!” Jeff takes a deep breath after the speech. Does this trick still work? Judging from Daniel’s face it’s still effective. That’s a relief to Jeff. The company is definitely not going to survive through autumn, and the last thing he wants to deal with is office drama.
Jeff thinks about whether or not he can squeeze a bit more money from his family, and starts to feel guilty, especially considering the support his dad gave to his previous startups.
“Things have changed so much in China. Maybe I should go apply for an MBA and move back to the Bay,” he says to himself. A cool breeze blows through the yard and almost makes him sneeze. He looks at Carol, but he has no idea what she’s thinking about.
Carol remains in the yard sipping her whiskey before lighting up a cigarette. She’s clearly no longer a fan of Jeff’s speech. She’ll go meet her friends for drinks later to celebrate Katy’s recent promotion and Jessie’s pending relocation to Bangkok.
“What’s worth celebrating for me?” she asks herself, taking another drink. The shade of the tree accentuates the outline of her face. She wants to look for a new job. She can’t wait to to be the person who always describes the startup experience as an awesome journey. One thing is clear, however: no more startups. But if it has to be a startup, she’ll at least have to be a co-founder. She packs up her bag and walks out.
“Bye Carol!” Daniel yells after her. Darkness has slowly taken over the yard, but he still enjoys the dim twilight. He thinks back to Jeff, and how he wants to be just as cool someday. He secretly remembers everything Jeff said by heart, and goes over it in his mind.
“We are disrupting the norm. We will change everything.”
For the first time in his life Daniel feels he’s capable of accomplishing something and making a difference. He wants his parents to be proud. He walks back to his seat and volunteers to work on the A/B test plan.
There used to be a cat in the office that kept Daniel company during long, quiet overtime hours. But where’s Toby tonight, he wonders. He then overhears laughter from the yard two doors down. It’s another startup and they are having a craft sausage barbecue night for their happy hour. Toby must have gone there.
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