My Day Interviewing For The Service Economy Startup From Hell
by Amanda Tomas
I was running to the interview, worried I’d get there late. My temp job was over as of a few days prior. Rent was due at the end of the month, and I needed a new source of income, fast. I was sending out multiple applications per day and I finally had a bite.
A new start-up company called Handybook called me quickly after I hit submit on their online application. I breezed through a phone interview and was invited to interview in person for a Customer Experience Associate position the very next day. Although it wasn’t an ideal job, and I wasn’t sure how much it paid, it did promise full-time, steady employment and a standard benefits package — exactly what I needed to get by.
Sweaty and out of breath, I got to Handybook’s Chelsea offices moments before my scheduled interview time. I navigated my way through narrow hallways until I reached a nondescript door, and opened it to reveal around 15 employees at their desks, who all looked up in surprise at my intrusion.
“I’m here for an interview?” I smiled into the office space, trying not to feel uncomfortable by everyone sizing me up at once. Someone went to find the interviewer and I perched on a battered couch to wait.
The office was like a cliché of a start-up company: Everyone was wearing T-shirts and jeans, typing away on laptops and iMacs. The space was cramped and smelled vaguely like pod coffee, cleaning solution, and sweat. Every wall was a whiteboard full of cryptic notes and doodles.
Finally, Lindsay* came to get me, and we walked through a cluster of shelving and into a window-filled conference room with a long table and chairs. A LEGO set took up one end of the table and the walls were covered in more white boards.
Lindsay kicked off the interview with some basic questions about my background and then transitioned into more creative questions like “What websites do you normally hang out on?” and “Describe what makes you unique in 10 words or less.” I answered easily, and soon she smiled, got up, and asked me to wait.
A few minutes later, she walked back in, along with a tall Indian guy, sharply dressed in a crisp button-front shirt and slacks, expensive watch gleaming from under one cuff.
“This is Ajay*, one of the co-founders.”
Ajay flashed a grin and we shook hands and sat down. He asked me to describe myself and I gave him a practiced elevator pitch of my background and experience. He nodded and quickly took over the conversation.
“So, as you might already know, I started this company while I was getting my MBA at Harvard. Before this, I worked for McKinsey & Company…” he paused to gauge my reaction, “which is one of the top business consulting firms in the world.” I smiled, feeling slightly small in comparison, with my bachelor’s from a cheap state school and less-than-glamorous work experience.
“The idea for Handybook occurred to me when I was studying at Harvard. It was so hard to find a reliable cleaning service to tidy my apartment! You know?” He smiled hard at me.
I gave a smile and nodded back, as if I was familiar with the difficulties of finding a good cleaner when I was a student. I’d actually worked retail part-time throughout school so I could afford to pay $200/month rent splitting an un-air conditioned house in Atlanta with three other people. Hiring a maid would have been laughable.
Ajay seemed not to notice that he was striking the wrong chord. Maybe he expected me to be impressed, but his tone-deafness sent up a small red flag for me. I brushed it off — I needed a job, and a co-founder flaunting his privileged background should not be an automatic deal-breaker.
Besides, Ajay was promising me a world of opportunities. If hired, I’d be trained in all aspects of the company within a year! I might even be able to start my own branch of the business.
I responded enthusiastically, and Ajay shook my hand and left the room. Lindsay walked back in, smiling.
“Congratulations! Ajay thinks you’d be a great fit. The next step in the process is a tryout day. It will be a full day of work, like an extended interview, and unpaid. Could you come in tomorrow?”
I quickly agreed.
“Great! You’ll need to bring your own laptop and smart phone. Will that be a problem for you?”
My laptop had been stolen a year ago, leaving me with a creaky old Dell hand-me-down running Ubuntu, and my iPhone was two generations behind. I assured her it would be fine, anyway.
“Okay, our Customer Experience Associates normally begin work at 8 a.m. and wrap up the day around 8 p.m. They work five days per week, plus one rotating weekend shift. Is that okay?” She looked at me warily.
I hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Yep, that will be fine!” We shook hands and I left, feeling good. I was sure that since things were moving so fast, the job would soon be mine.
On the train ride home, I vaguely recalled that I forgot to ask about salary. I’d ask about that tomorrow.
When I arrived the next morning, the office was dark and quiet. Three employees sat at one of the tables, the glow from their laptops and the sunrise silhouetting their faces. They were the Customer Experience Associate team.
They looked surprised to see me, and it turned out no one had told them I’d be there. After some awkward introductions, I sat down and began setting up my laptop.
To break the ice, I started chatting with Josh*, the Associate to my left. He was blond, slightly overweight, and had just graduated from a state school with a bachelor’s in business.
“How long have you been working here?”
“Almost six months. Before this job I worked for Amazon.”
“Yeah, I was in one of their warehouses in Pennsylvania.”
“How do you like it here?”
He smiled faintly, “Not bad.”
Matias* sat to my right. He was from Brazil, in his thirties, thin and wiry, with a receding hairline.
“You have a lot of opportunities here,” he nodded seriously. “I’m planning on starting up the Chicago office.”
Josh looked at him with pity but said nothing.
“Yeah, I really hope Ajay lets me head up that team,” he nodded again.
I asked Matias what I could get started with, but both he and Josh shrugged. I sat back and waited, making myself a cup of coffee.
Around 9 a.m., some of the tech team began drifting in groggily. One programmer with thick black glasses and even thicker black circles under his eyes gave me a bleary smile.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked. “Can you take a joke?”
“Sure.” I smiled. Another programmer sniggered quietly.
The Customer Experience Associates were busy, answering phone calls routed through their personal iPhones and typing away on their personal laptops. I was surprised to see Josh working from a cheap netbook, and asked him if Handybook supplied him with the computer. “No, it’s mine,” he said, before picking up another call on his iPhone.
Around 9:30 a.m., Lindsay finally arrived in the office. She greeted me and asked me to introduce myself to everyone, so I gave a quick speech and got a few brief nods of acknowledgement back.
I’d spent a few minutes the previous night Googling Handybook and a few of its employees. After Googling Lindsay, the first page of results was filled with links to all of her social media profiles — Twitter, Facebook, MeetUp.com, alumni groups for the Ivy League college she graduated from — all under her full name and without any privacy settings. After a few minutes of clicking I wound up learning about all of her hobbies and interests. I saw photo albums spanning the years from high school into the present, flipping through photo after photo of Lindsay smiling hopefully into the camera.
The other woman in the office was the third Customer Experience Associate, Ashley*. She hadn’t spoken much to me, but as soon as the programmers arrived, she began joking around loudly with them. She was from a small town in Wisconsin, but her dream was to become an actress on Broadway. She filled the whole office in on the success of her last audition, for a small production somewhere in Missouri. She had turned in her two weeks notice a few days ago and her glee at leaving was barely contained.
After one phone call, Ashley announced, “Oh my god. That was the maid Mrs. Wong again. Crazy Chinese lady!”
A programmer giggled and called out, “Ashley, do your Chinese washer woman impression again!”
“My Chinese washa wo-men?” she pulled back the skin on the sides of her face. “I do you laund-wy! Own-wy ten dollah!” She laughed hysterically, “I clean you house!”
The programmers sniggered loudly. “Ching chong!” someone yelled out and collapsed into laughter. Dark-Circles guy peered at me out of the corner of his glasses to gauge my reaction.
I forced out a smile, but red flags were flying in my head.
Ajay finally made his entrance around 10 a.m., and everyone in the office took that as a cue to buckle down and get to work. Ajay sat down directly across from the three Customer Experience Associates and me so that if we had any questions, he was right there to answer them.
Since I still hadn’t received any instruction for the day, I asked Ajay what I should do. He looked confused.
“Just set up your phone and the web apps and start taking calls,” he motioned vaguely toward Matias, who showed me what apps to download.
“So just … start taking calls?” I confirmed.
“Yeah,” Ajay responded, slightly annoyed that this was so hard for me to understand.
My iPhone began ringing a few seconds later. Hesitantly, I pressed Accept, and let my previous customer service experience kick in.
“Thank you for calling Handybook, this is Amanda,” I answered by rote, earning an amused look from Matias. Too fancy.
“Hi, I was wondering how much you quote for a bathroom re-tiling?” the customer asked.
I had no idea, so I asked to put him on hold, and turned to my co-workers. Josh shrugged, but Matias told me to ask how big the bathroom was. I got back on the line and wrote down the dimensions.
I still didn’t know what to quote, so I put the guy on hold again. Matias looked stymied.
Ajay was listening in. “He wants to re-tile the bathroom?” he asked. “How long does that take, six hours? Give him a quote for six hours.”
I was pretty sure it took longer, but Matias quickly calculated how much six hours would cost at the standard rate, around $250. I seriously doubted this was correct, and quickly Googled “bathroom retile quote,” discovering that the job usually took two days and cost $1,000 minimum.
I quickly announced what I found. Ajay looked at me blankly. Matias smirked. The customer was still on hold. I guessed we were going with the $250 quote.
“TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS???” the customer was incredulous and began guffawing loudly. “I’ll take two!!”
Lunchtime finally rolled around, and Lindsay began taking orders.
“We buy lunch for the office every day,” Lindsay told me proudly.
“That’s great!” I smiled.
When our food arrived, we all headed toward the conference room to eat.
“So Amanda, has any company bought you lunch before?” Lindsay prompted.
They had. “Yep, my last company used to take me out to eat and the one before that bought us lunch all the time.”
“Oh,” she pursed her lips. “How nice.”
An awkward silence took over.
“Want to hear a joke I heard today?” a programmer asked, eying me and giggling. “What’s the difference between a woman and a refrigerator?”
“…what,” I said.
“Refrigerators don’t moan when you put meat in them!”
Lindsay smiled at me apologetically and Ashley broke out into braying laughter. I just stared.
After lunch, it was back to business. I picked up more phone calls but mostly had to pass them off to my coworkers, since I was unable to access the scheduling system. I began to realize that the Customer Experience Associates were answering calls for all Handybook locations, nationwide. They were in charge of scheduling bookings, quoting for services, resolving customer complaints and service provider no-shows, following up on unpaid bills, and the most serious of all: administering disciplinary action for service providers.
“Service provider” was a pleasant euphemism for Handybook’s fleet of freelance cleaners and handymen. After signing up with Handybook, service providers received text alerts about available jobs, which they could claim for themselves by texting back, on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Service providers slowly built up their hourly wages over time, with good reviews from customers. Bad reviews or no-shows resulted in disciplinary action, on a three strikes, you’re out basis.
In the middle of the afternoon, Ashley received a call from a service provider in Virginia, who was calling to alert the office she would be late to a job.
“I’m disappointed in you, Lupe*,” I heard her say. “You’re usually so good!” Ashley used a honeyed voice, but made it clear she was saddened by this dip in performance.
“Ajay, Lupe is not going to make it to her job, she says she’s stuck in traffic.” The cleaner was on hold.
Ajay looked at a white board. “How many strikes does she have?”
Lupe wasn’t among the names listed, so Ashley wrote her name in and ticked off one mark against her.
“Tell her we don’t accept excuses,” said Ajay.
Ashley let the cleaner know and hung up.
A few minutes later, another call came in. It was the owner of the house in Virginia, calling to say she was also stuck in traffic and wasn’t sure if she’d be home in time to meet the cleaner.
Since the service provider’s excuse was verified by the customer, Lupe was off the hook. Ashley called her back.
“You’re very lucky, Lupe. We normally don’t accept excuses, but since you’re such a good worker, I asked to make an exception for you this one time.” She smirked at Ajay and erased Lupe’s name off the white board.
Lupe sounded audibly upset, and promised to get to the job.
“Next time, no exceptions,” Ajay commanded. “We can’t trust what these people tell us. They will try to get away with anything.”
Late in the afternoon, the Handybook marketing team walked into the office. They had spent the day handing out coupons in the street. They were clean-cut, preppy white guys in Handybook T-shirts and khakis. They smelled like alcohol and were laughing loudly.
“Hey Ajay, great news!” one of them said, “We got some good responses from two elite Yelpers. They like the freebies, so expect to see some five-star reviews soon!”
“Great work, guys,” Ajay grinned.
“Heyyy, Josh,” one of the marketing guys came over to our table and stroked a hand down Josh’s shoulder.
“Hey Josh, what’s up? You feeling cool? You look so handsome today, man, love that shirt.” The marketing guys were cracking up.
Josh’s face flushed but he smiled gamely. “What’s up, guys?”
“Ooh, can I take you out for a drink?” The marketing guy bent over and blew in Josh’s ear. Josh stiffened but tried to laugh it off.
The marketing guys started laughing and Ajay laughed along. I looked at Josh, who focused intensely on his netbook, the screen filled with an article from Vice.
Late in the day, one of the programmers took out a toy helicopter and began flying it around the office.
Ajay was still at his laptop, laughing along but looking increasingly desperate at his lack of control over the employees.
“Come on, guys, what about some work?” he asked pathetically.
Everyone ignored him and began to play with the helicopter, chatting loudly and dodging the helicopter as it was piloted toward their desks.
Lindsay walked over to me. “So, how’s your first day so far?” She smiled. “Don’t you feel like you’re back in college?”
I smiled tightly.
Finally, the sun began to set. Everyone packed up and left, leaving the Customer Experience Associates behind, toiling away into the evening. Ajay remained, watching us carefully.
Eight was approaching and I was exhausted. Visualizing months of twelve-hour days in this office made me feel sick. I still hadn’t heard anything about salary, so when Ajay left the room briefly, I took the opportunity to find out.
“Josh, this has been great — but how much does this pay?” I whispered to him, packing up my laptop.
All of a sudden Ajay walked back in and Josh looked panicked. Ajay looked at us suspiciously, but turned his back for a moment.
Josh silently mouthed, “Thirty … five … K… with benefits!”
I could not leave fast enough.
After I got home, my phone rang incessantly with calls routed through from Handybook. I turned it off and climbed into bed, wondering if the other Associates were still picking up.
Postscript: Handybook recently changed their name to Handy, raised an additional $30 million dollars in venture capital funding, and hired an Amazon exec to be their CFO.
*Names have been changed
Amanda Tomas currently works at another start-up making $30k per year, but at least she has 8 hour days.
Photo: The Mamas Network