After they got the news, they sought asylum two blocks away, in the bar where they went so many times as colleagues and now, as colleagues no longer. They arrived in the early afternoon, and this is what they did: Drank. Toasted. Drank. Hugged. Drank. Till it is now 8 p.m. and some are stumbling and plenty are smoking and a man by the bar who has just lost his job keeps biting off the ends of his sentences with tears.
"The entire company basically had a feeling," says Lauren Crist, who had showed up for work nervous Thursday morning at the Motley Fool offices in Alexandria, the day the death knell sounded. For two weeks she had heard the pitch of the rumors grow shriller, had nursed her anxiety. Would she be let go?
And then like that, one-third of the company's staff was chopped -- one-third, out of a close-knit group of 350. And Crist, who is 22 and was working in an administrative position, was one. For seven hours now she has moved through this crowded, well-lit bar, through clots of people she calls "family": an embrace, a few words, another beer. There are those who are leaving and those staying on, here to lend support, but it's impossible to tell the difference. Everyone looks glum.
The workers, dressed casually, most of them in their twenties and thirties, sit at a long table at Murphy's Grand Irish Pub on King Street. A woman wears a baseball cap that says "got FOOL?" Perhaps half of the 90 people let go from the Fool's Alexandria headquarters are here. (Counting those laid off at the company's U.K. branch and those who worked from home, the total comes to 115.)
Of course, people are upset over the loss of their jobs. But they also bemoan the loss of a dream. The Motley Fool, the personal investment advice company founded in 1993 by brothers Tom and David Gardner and friend Eric Rydholm, and which moved online a year later, was no Johnny-come-lately on the dot-com scene. As an Internet and multimedia presence, it promoted the idea of individuals making their own investment decisions; as a company, it promoted the casual, fun-loving atmosphere that has become the hallmark of dot-coms. There were toys, games and employee-drawn murals; workers chatted frequently on message boards, and wore whatever they felt comfortable in.
"This is my best pair of jeans," says Michael Grimes, pointing to the ink- and paint-splattered pair he wore to work on this, his last day.
"I've got a killer angle on my foosball shot," says Mike Cannon, who was also laid off. Then, more seriously, he says: "There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't want to go into work." He is 32, spent six years in the nonprofit world before coming to the Motley Fool and has never been laid off before. Still, it wasn't a shock.
"I was [working] in Soapbox, so I saw it coming," Cannon says, referring to a new Motley Fool site that serves as a trading post for financial and other kinds of research. The site was scrapped Thursday. For two months, Cannon says, he knew the site needed more resources than it was getting, sensed things were coming to an end. But all he could do was wait, and smoke a lot of cigarettes.
The layoffs were an attempt at corporate restructuring made necessary, company officials said, by weakness in the Internet advertising market. It was "the basic dot-com dilemma," Cannon says. "We just didn't have time. It's a shame. It's a real shame." He lifts his Newcastle to his lips -- stops. "I worked with the best team I ever have in my life," he says.
"The atmosphere that has been created has been one of family," says Richard Engdal, who has just stepped into the conversation. "And as much as we appreciate the business decisions, it's really hard to lose family."
"I'm not going to be able to see you guys tomorrow," Cannon says.
"Are you out?" says Engdal, who is not.
"I'm out," Cannon says.
Engdal, tall and ponytailed, puts his hand on Cannon's shoulder, and leans in for the sort of hug that guys do: brief, distant, manly.
Mac Selbe, 27, who is also remaining at the Fool, stands on the fringes of the group. "It's not your fault, you know that," he says to Cannon.
The day was strange from the get-go. News of the impending layoffs had already hit the media by the time many Fools, as they call themselves, arrived at work. But not everyone had heard, and no one knew who specifically would be affected. Around 9:30 in the morning, management sent an e-mail around to a third of the company, calling for an 11 a.m. meeting.
So: moment of truth. A third of the company rises and leaves their desks. They gather and find out that they are not the lucky ones.
"They cared," says Crist of her bosses. "They were very emotional about it."
They came back to their desks, began boxing their things, left for the bar where they'd gathered many evenings after work. And stayed. This was to be the last time they'd all be together, and who could blame them for lingering six, seven hours?
And when they leave, many will go home to post farewell messages to Motley Fool discussion boards. A few will express frustration.
"I'm bitter, angry and bitter," posts one laid-off Fool who goes by the handle 1numbXfool. "Anyone wish to gossip?"
But most post messages more along the lines of lou2's: "I'm ok, a little shell-shocked, but ok . . . I don't know who took it harder -- the people who kept their jobs, or those of us who lost them."
If the spate of layoffs that have hit dot-com companies has made newly freed techies nervous about their job prospects, it hasn't yet hit this crowd at Murphy's. Perhaps the news is too fresh. Most say they're confident that good workers can still get jobs. By the time she left the office for good, Crist says, one co-worker had already fielded calls from five recruiting companies.
Leaning against the bar is a young man who was already interviewing for a new job when he was let go, because he knew the ax was going to fall. Indeed, he found out about the layoffs while on the phone with an interviewer Thursday morning, he says, when the interviewer asked him if he'd read about the layoffs in that day's Washington Post. It felt, he says, like getting his pants pulled down.
He's happy to talk but not to give his name. He doesn't want to compromise his severance package. (Employees who were laid off will get at least one month of pay, the company said in a statement.) And when he speaks, his voice trails off into sobs. He felt so comfortable at the Motley Fool, he says, that he used to walk around barefoot. Where else could he do something like that?
"I clapped for Tinkerbell," he says, and by that he means he believed in a fantasy of sorts. He believed in his company, in its zany, laid-back zeitgeist, in its ability to survive despite the crumbling of dot-coms and start-ups all around it.
Later, there are more shouts and more toasts, more drinking. The young man with the breaking voice moves in among a group of people.
"See you tomorrow," he shouts, and laughs ruefully.