High-tech jobless are life of this party

Allison Hemming can barely suppress her giggles as she watches people mingle at her party, jotting their phone numbers on napkins in a trendy New York club.

Matchmaking is common enough in a Manhattan nightclub like this, where dark murals, mirrors, and steady beats surround groups of eager singles.

But the phone numbers they're exchanging tonight are akin to business cards and rsums, not amorous advances. Ms. Hemming is throwing a "pink-slip party," and most of those attending here in Silicon Alley have fallen prey to the vicissitudes of the New Economy. In the past few weeks, a host of dotcoms and e-commerce companies have closed their cyber-shops or laid off some of their workers.

Yet in the dotcom world, even a pink slip comes with a twist. Being laid off carries so little stigma that recruiters have taken to dropping in at Hemming's shindigs, searching for high-tech help.

"Pink-slippers, if they have their back to you, they probably don't want to talk," says Hemming to one of the headhunters at the party. "A lot of them aren't here to network or anything - they got the e-mail pink slip and they just want to commiserate."

Earlier in the day, MTVi, a company that includes Web sites such as Sonicnet, MTV.com, and VH1.com, announced it was laying off more than 100 employees, about a quarter of its staff. And in September, other sites, including WebMD, Gear.com, and Hollywood.com, laid off hundreds of workers.

This is a far cry from a year ago, when recent college grads were watching their newly acquired stock options rocket on Yahoo! and planning to buy Soho lofts. Other young professionals left traditional jobs and joined the dotcom craze.

"I left a very stable job for a dotcom," says Ed Kaczmarek, a now-former marketer with Petplace.com. "I was just there for five months, then, bazoom! I was told on Thursday, and given the pink slip on Friday."

For the past few years, new e-commerce companies relied on the huge amounts of capital raised in initial public offerings (IPOs). Money was spent on new midtown offices and quirky television commercials, while revenues were but a promise for the future. For many dotcoms, this kind of "burn rate" - or amount of capital spent compared with money generated - was too high to sustain. Cutting costs meant cutting employees or even going out of business.

The pink-slippers and headhunters at Hemming's party are an eclectic mix of marketers, designers, and old-fashioned techies - a microcosm of the Internet community. A person can usually tell them apart by their dress: marketers in blue Oxfords and ties, designers in Prada sweaters and nose rings, and techies in T-shirts and camouflage pants.

Despite this diverse mix, the idea of community is a common theme with many at the party. The Internet was never about the NASDAQ and IPOs, some say, but about making it work.

"There was a lot of greed in the last few years," says Hemming, "but that really wasn't a part of the original community. I mean, stock options are great, but that's not the reason so many of us were excited at first, with optimism at the prospect of bringing the world together. Now there's a mass exodus of senior management people who are saying 'I'm outta here!' after the April downturn, and going back to traditional industry."

"Now that these interlopers are gone, those committed to the industry might be able to get back into things," she says.

Hemming, who hopes the pink-slip party becomes a national trend, got the idea after she herself was laid off in January. After her online magazine was shut down by the parent company, the staff threw a party, inviting all their clients, vendors, friends - and even competitors. "We were laughing, crying - it was a very personal experience. But then, as we were talking with lots of people, people started getting jobs!"

Charles Mayhugh scopes the scene, hoping to find some promising candidates for open positions at his company. He calls himself a "talent scout" for the evening, though his business card says he's an "Adrenaline Broker" for xleisure.com, a site that packages extreme outdoor vacations.

"We're looking for Web designers, tool-kit architects - and not just the tech-versed, but sales, too," says Mr. Mayhugh, who heard about the party through an online message board.

On this night, exciting job prospects are eluding Mr. Kaczmarek, the former marketer at Petplace.com.

"But I met a guy looking for tech people, and I know some people that were just right for him," he says. "You come here to network, and not just for yourself, you know? Hopefully, it will come back to you."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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