Letter From Silicon Valley

It was twilight in Santa Clara, and the air turned cool as I took the Lawrence Expressway exit off 101 and drove into the Backbeat parking lot. The dance club was all purple and yellow neon; bouncers wearing turtlenecks and headsets guarded the door. Clubgoers of all ages, their faces wolfish with desire, were dressed to impress. As I joined the long line, I knew that everyone there harbored a single shared hope for the night: to hook up with that special someone and go home with the phone number of a man or woman who would make their days worth living. Who would change their lives forever.

Who would give them a job.

Every month a Silicon Valley club or hotel plays host to a networking party called the Layoff Lounge. A Los Angeles entrepreneur started the Lounge to help his own former employees find jobs, and the idea caught on as out-of-work dot-commers used up their round-the-world plane tickets and COBRA benefits. Today Lounge events in 20 U.S. cities draw an average of 200 attendees, who each pay an admission fee of $10.

I first heard about the Layoff Lounge from a woman I met at a party in San Francisco. An event planner in search of work at a time that few Bay Area companies were planning events, she was, by her own admission, a Lounge regular.

"Is that one of those pink-slip parties?" I had asked, referring to popular shebangs where the newly unemployed drown their sorrows in beer.

"No, it's like speed dating meets job hunting," she explained. "One person gets up and talks about the job they want, and everyone else scribbles down contact information. They go around the table like that, and then everyone switches tables."

OK. Had to see that.

As I affixed the red tag to my jacket, I felt like a married guy slipping off his wedding ring before going into a singles bar.

After checking my coat, I introduced myself to Terri Tiemann, a recruiter who had flown up from southern California to host the event. Terri explained that blue name tags were for job seekers, and red name tags were for employers. There was no third option for interested observers, so she told me to take a red one. As I affixed the tag to my jacket, I felt vaguely duplicitous, like a married guy slipping off his wedding ring before going into a singles bar. I was immediately extremely popular.

The growing crowd was an even mix of men and women, though my red badge stood out in a sea of blue. Mingling near the bar, I met a group of women who until recently had been employed by Aurigin Systems, a patent-management-software company. Ange Peebles, a fiftysomething human-resources manager, told me she was wary of joining another start-up. "Something Fortune 500 would be nice," she said. "Of course, after Enron, there's no way to find out if a company is stable. You'll just never know."

Below the main stage I found Libby Sartain, senior VP of human resources at Yahoo (a.k.a. Chief People Yahoo), preparing her keynote speech. She apologized that she wouldn't be able to talk to me afterward because she had a plane to catch. "I have to make a swift getaway," she said, although she acknowledged that if the 300 blue-badgers filling the dance floor began throwing rÉsumÉs at her, a hasty departure might be difficult. "Hopefully, no one will hurt me," she said.

Standing in the spot usually occupied by bands like Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums and local alternative rockers Ones and Zeros, Libby kicked off her presentation with the bad news. "At Yahoo we're getting 10,000 rÉsumÉs a month for fewer than 100 openings," she said. Amid the groans, she did her best to offer encouragement, though her job-hunting insights ("Sometimes you have to move down to move up" and "If you follow your passion, you'll be OK") did little to inspire the crowd. Eventually, she got down to more actionable advice. "Consider relocation," she said. "The houses are cheaper in Texas."

As Libby scampered off stage right, the Layoff Loungers moved en masse to the dining area adjacent to the bar. It was 8 p.m., time for the evening's main attraction: the speed-networking event known as the Karma Club. Terri directed attendees to seat themselves at one of 60 or so small tables, five to a table. Then she laid out the rules. Each person had five minutes to describe the job he or she was seeking and solicit relevant contacts from others. Then it would be someone else's turn. "Do not spend the entire five minutes talking about yourself," Terri warned, making it obvious that this was not her first trip to Silicon Valley. She checked her watch. "OK, start now!"

Since I was neither job seeker nor employer, I decided to float. Settling at a table near the bar, I listened to Jeff Baxter describe how things went awry after his previous employer -- a food-delivery service -- moved away from a business-to-consumer model and began selling to businesses. "I'd clean toilets at Yahoo because I know they're committed to being successful by moving into the B-to-B market," Jeff said. As the five-minute cutoff approached, a woman at the table interrupted and asked what Jeff was looking for. There was only enough time for her to suggest he check out Sanmina, a contract manufacturer, but Jeff didn't hold out much hope. "Didn't they just merge with SCI?" he said. "I think they put a hiring freeze on sales and account managers."

"It's five minutes," Terri yelled. "Switch!"

The network effect was more powerful a few tables down. A Dutch woman who had held a product-marketing job at Phillips was looking for something in the medical-device space. "Have you thought about PDAs instead?" asked Sean Lannan, whose title, according to his business card, is "Multifaceted Finance Executive for High-Growth Companies." Sean suggested that the woman look into Handspring, a Palm competitor, partly because he had heard that they were working on some great products, and partly because he had once met founder Jeff Hawkins and thought he was a nice guy. Just then 25-year-old Vlad Gluzman, a Ukrainian-born programmer who had been laid off by Java-in-your-E-mail pioneer Zaplet, began pecking on his Palm. "I have a friend who's a senior software engineer there," Vlad said, "and he has a good relationship with the founder Sean mentioned." Vlad gave the number to the woman, who seemed willing to give it a try.

"Five minutes. Switch!"

After about half an hour Terri announced it was time for everyone to change tables and form new groups. In the shuffle I met Rich, a Wharton M.B.A. and former general partner of a Sand Hill Road venture-capital firm. "It wasn't a dot-com fund or anything," Rich said, "but it became clear they weren't going to do another one." I asked him what he was doing at the Layoff Lounge. "You never know who you're going to meet," he explained.

Later I mentioned to Vlad Gluzman that I had just met a laid-off VC.

"Ooo," Vlad said, laughing. "Harsh."

At 9 p.m., Terri looked at her watch and called the final time-out. She also announced that there was one more job that attendees might want to consider: hers. I guess the monthly commute from L.A. was getting to her, so someone else would have to take over her Layoff Lounge duties. Within seconds Terri's tall figure disappeared amid the ravenous throng.

Aside from the folks who rushed Terri, it wasn't clear how many people actually found promising job leads. But simply getting together and doing something proactive seemed to give everyone hope. On my way out I ran into Ange Peebles, who reported happily that she had made some potentially fruitful contacts. She was also pleased that the Layoff Lounge hadn't turned out to be just a front for a singles party. "I saw some seemingly dating conversations," Ange said. "But that's OK. That's part of it."

As we walked out, I asked Ange what she planned to do next.

"I'm going to try and find a company I can believe in," she said. "Is that asking too much?"

Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity) and a contributing writer at Inc. He is considering wearing a red name tag every night he goes out.

Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.