If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’ve mentioned more than once the unique experience of my first startup – and the fact that we all lived in a house together. It might not have been the most, erm, legal method of running a business, but for the first few months of working with them, a ranch-style house with 4 bedrooms was both home and office.
When I’d first started with the company, the company house was already in full swing. The CEO asked if I’d consider moving in, and I let her know that it wasn’t likely since I had the cat. She insisted that it would be fine, everyone would enjoy having me in the house – more on that later. Between the lines, however, it was clear that there was an incentive to the company. The more people in the house, the lower they could go with
salaries stipends, and the less the house would cost per capita. I moved in a few months later.
I went from earning $1,500/month and paying $500 of that towards my subleased half of one bedroom in a two bedroom apartment, to earning $1,500/month and paying nothing towards rent or utilities. What a steal! You know, comparatively.
For the bulk of my time in the house, I was living with about 12 people – most of whom were on the engineering or management side. I found myself sharing a room with two of the three other women in the company, along with my cat. There were two beds (and no space for more), and I picked the short straw and found myself sleeping on the floor – or, more often, on a couch out in the living room. Oh, and one of my roommates was the CEO.
Thanks to the startup environment, sharing a bedroom with the CEO didn’t seem overly intimidating or outlandish. As a fresh college grad, it really felt like an extension of my time at Cal. We would work around the clock, but we enjoyed each other and were overly enthusiastic about what we were doing. While I was still sharing a room, a bathroom, a kitchen, the home was much nicer.
There were some nice aspects of living in the house, and some not-so-nice. Yay: big kitchen; Boo: it was always a mess.
We were living with some brilliant adult human beings, who couldn’t be bothered to rinse their own dishes. On several occasions, we’d come into the kitchen to find that, instead of taking the trash out when it filled up, someone had put another paper bag next to the trash and started filling that up, instead. One time, someone literally taped their garbage to the garbage bag, because it otherwise wouldn’t be able to stay up.
Ok, rant over. Moving on.
The company paid for all communal groceries, which meant I only had to spend money when I wanted something obscure that nobody in their right mind would eat. This was especially beneficial, since back then we weren’t exactly getting paid market rates.
On the weekends in which we didn’t have a fire to put out, most of the guys would go on, let’s call them hallucinogenic adventures, running amok on the fire trail and calling at the end of the day asking for a ride back from wherever they ended up. Or, at night after work, we would round up in the garage and mimic That 70s Show.
We were working hard, but I found myself genuinely wanting to spend time with most of the people living in the house.
About one month in, I first considered leaving the house. The CEO asked me to meet with her, and in a very serious and compassionate tone, let me know that she couldn’t live with the cat anymore. She told me that it was for the best if I gave my cat to a family member, a friend, anyone.
I obviously refused.
When I told her I’d rather move out, she balked. This was the first time the veil started to shift – this wasn’t a happy family living in a house together. It was part of the bottom line, a way for the company to retain more money. Me leaving would mean that the costs no longer made sense for the rest of the team, so they all got involved. The whole household called me into the garage for a Town Hall meeting.
This was the first time in my life that I’d felt trapped in a living situation – which is probably saying something since I’ve lived in both sorority and fraternity houses (Bay Area rents were and remain unreasonable, but I digress). The team offered more suggestions of where we could put the cat – someone’s parents offered to take her, for example. As generous as that may be, I still refused to hand my cat off to anyone – let alone a stranger.
So, instead of letting me leave, my coworker/cohabitant/at-the-time boyfriend (yes, yes, never again) volunteered to move out, himself. He’d wanted to for a while, apparently. The CEO took his room, I kept my cat, finally had space for a bed, and everyone was happy. Although I still felt uneasy about the whole experience.
A few weeks later, we had another recruit coming to us, straight from college. He wanted to stay in the company house while he got to know the area, before finding his own apartment nearby, but we didn’t exactly have spare rooms. Instead, the powers that be volunteered the room I was sharing with another lady.
This poor guy not only had to share a bedroom (and bathroom) with two women he was meeting for the first time, but he didn’t even have his own space in the bedroom. He was literally sleeping on the floor at the foot of my bed for weeks, before another space opened up in the house.
Much to his credit, he didn’t complain about the situation. This guy was a saint throughout that period.
About 2 months into my stay at the company house, we finally got an office. Instead of putting cash towards the office rent and disbanding the house, it became a mainstay – even part of the branding. I, however, moved out the next year.
All in all, it was an experience. Chaotic, gross at times, but usually with really good people. I honestly think the housing situation allowed the company to survive, but in a pretty predatory way. Yes, it was a good choice at the time, considering… but it stuffed a bunch of strangers in an unideal living situation, all while soothing over the fact that we were paid less than minimum wage. But this is often the definition of bootstrap.
It’s not exactly a normal rite of passage, and while I only stayed in that house 9 months, I’m ultimately glad I did it. I learned a lot about the value of setting boundaries, and made some of the closest friends I keep to this day. Plus, nothing will ever come close, in terms of awkward coworker situations. Bring it on, current company.
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