Sunday, April 17, 2011

a look back at Participate

Recently, I ran across a re-post by social business analyst, Jerimiah Owyang, about his experiences at a "dot-bomb" company in the 1990s. This post resonated for me on many levels because there are some that think we are in a similar bubble in the industry today, in addition to my own experiences as a dot com survivor. Below are my reflections on that era.

Fresh out of college, I entered the job market in 1999. Armed with my liberal arts degree from Carleton College, I wanted to go into journalism. After pounding the proverbial pavement I eventually landed a gig at MSNBC as a part-time producer. Because of the lack of hours, I also took up a job at a startup called basically built and ran online communities for businesses back in the day. Some of our clients included AT&T Worldnet, Ace Hardware Corp., Cisco Systems, SAP AG and Microsoft. My first role at Participate was that of a chat host for AT&T. Basically this meant I was there to answer questions (like a support desk) and make sure people weren't doing things they weren't supposed to do. In many ways, I thought my experience as a college dormitory resident assistant was the perfect training for the job. Anyway, I did this for a few months, and eventually started managing the community for another account (Careerpath, now CareerBuilder), and then MSN Games. But enough about the job, and let's explore the environement and culture at the time.

Being situated next to the El in a Chicago loft, the environment was interesting. There were rooms where you would not hold meetings for when the train passed, you couldn't hear a thing. Being a loft, the heating and cooling was always a challenge. There were days where it was so cold (hot air rises in a loft) that I would wear gloves to type. Also, the ceiling leaked. There's something to be said about affordable rent, I suppose. For the most part, the office was an open floor plan with desks grouped together in pods, and offices around the edges with no ceilings. As the company grew in size, we added folding tables like you see at picnics, and folks moved downstairs to the basement. We affectionately called these co-workers the "mole people." We eventually outgrew our space in Lincoln Park and moved to the western loop. For reasons beyond me, we also had our name on the building -- but that was what you did back then, I suppose.

As for the culture, I could not have asked for a better group of co-workers and friends. Everyone there was incredibly warm and passionate about life in their own way. Aside from working together, we drank, hung out, and generally had good times together. In many respects, my life at PDC set the bar (no pun intended) for what a work environment should be.

A few times stand out in my head for life at PDC. One was St. Patrick's Day. Being in Chicago, this was a big deal. I remember that we pretty much wrapped up the day after lunch and headed over to the local pub (conveniently, less than a block away.) We spent many an hour there, only to go on to a different bar when it got dark. Another time that sticks out in my mind was the first company holiday where we shut down the bar/restaurant/pool hall. Our VP at the time was passing our $50 bills to people leaving so they could take a cab. Bear in mind, we were next to the El, so taking a cab seemed rather silly. Who was I to argue with the VP though -- I took the money and then got on the El. When we moved downtown, the culture did indeed change, but the people were still great. When it was time for me to move on (literally, to Seattle), Participate offered to move me out to Seattle. It helped that I worked on the MSN Games account and would be in the Redmond, WA region. Still liking the work, how could I say no?

While the company lived on for several more years before being acquired by another company called Outstart, for all intents and purposes my life at a dot com in that era ended when I left for Seattle. Looking back, I am certainly one of the lucky ones. While I didn't become a paper millionaire overnight, I also didn't lose my job. Things were crazy at times, but I'm not sure how much of that was the industry as it was a certain time and place with the right people.

I cannot thank my colleagues from Participate enough. Not only was it a great place to work with wonderful people, it helped me find my passion for community -- online and offline