I received an email and then a call almost immediately on a Friday night at about 10 pm while I was still on sabbatical in Bali. I have taken a year off to relax, and recover from burnout in a world that I really wasn’t fitting into anymore.
It has been 7 months since I had said goodbye to my last client and I was starting to wonder what I would do next. I had been experimenting with a lot of new skills, creative pursuits and ways of working, but nothing that I could really live off.
Then I got the call, late Friday night as a recruiter had seen my profile and had asked me if I would be able to come in and consult for this startup that had grown massively but was really struggling with finding their feet.
It was an online payment solution that was going up against Paypal and they had done incredibly well in the beginning, but now sales were flat, management was panicking and the investors were getting incredibly twitchy.
I arrived in LA, late afternoon on Friday night, 3 months later and by the time I’d checked out and grabbed an Uber to the place I was staying, it was already 10 pm.
I did not worry too much though as I thought I have the weekend to rest and then on Monday I can start work fresh.
I pulled up at a large, extremely modern villa, with beautiful tropical trees. It was really impressive. I had not really looked at the address that they had sent me, relying that Uber would just take me there. I checked the address with the driver, he said it was correct.
The door opened and a guy stood there in his late 20s. “Zoe”, he said, “come in and let me show you your room. We spoke on the phone 2 weeks ago.”
This was odd I thought. I don’t know him and he’s offering me to stay in his house. This seems odd.
Anyway, I got out, got my stuff as I did not feel like I had any other choice and followed him in.
The house seemed pretty calm, and I saw no one else there. He showed me to my room. White and grey. A very bland, boring yet elegant room. After the riot of color in Bali, this made me feel quite down.
The vibrant colors in Bali were so uplifting to me. I was already thinking, what have I done!
I unpacked my stuff, and now I just needed to freshen up and get into bed and sleep. The flight had been super long and I was jetlagged, but I had to try to get some rest.
I had no en-suite and the guy had not shown me where the bathroom was, so I had to go find it.
I opened the door and looked out. I was on a small corridor and the end opened up to what looked like a glass balcony, probably overlooking the rest of the property. Again all white, even the carpets. Only dotted with dainty elegant green palm trees now and then.
I tried the first, second and third doors, all locked. The third opened and suddenly I was in a maze of bodies. It was so steamy, but what I could make out were that there were about 20 people in there all completely naked and they appeared to be having a party. My eyes adjusted to the steam and I began to make out female forms, dancing, drinking champagne and laughing ridiculously. They were all young, possibly early 20s and very beautiful and of Southeast Asian descent. I saw the guy who opened the door to me.
Something in my head just said LEAVE. So I turned around and opened the door and left. I must have only been in there 30 seconds, but I had got the lay of the land pretty fast. I had spotted the guy that had opened the door to me, but I don’t think he had seen me.
I walked back to my room slowly. Thinking about what I had just seen. I just felt really sad. Not again I thought. Why does it always have to be like this?
A couple of hours later, a knock on the door and someone shouting my name woke me up.
I got up dazed, grabbed a robe, and opened the door. It was that same guy, luckily clothed. I was wondering what he was going to say about earlier if anything.
He said “Zoe, we have a meeting in one hour in the office to go through the plans for the next month. Numbers are down and we need you to step in right away”.
I said, “it’s 2 am on a Friday night.”
“Yes”, he said. “But we are in crisis mode and the investors have called a meeting. All senior staff will be there, so please get dressed and be downstairs in 45 mins and a car will drive us to the office. It really is only a few minutes around the corner.
“Okay”, I heard come out of my mouth.
We drove a couple of minutes to the office in silence. He did not mention what had happened in the bathroom in his house and neither did I.
We pulled up to a large wooden villa-style office, not dissimilar to the house I was staying in, just that the entrance and the front of it was wood not white. Must be the same architect I thought. They both look incredibly expensive places to live and work, considering they are in trouble.
“Classic” I heard myself mutter under my breath.
I sat in a white, nondescript boardroom. It was 3 am. There was 8 of us. One other woman, who was taking notes and the rest were guys. My “naked bathroom friend”, a few of his other “naked mates” I had spotted in there with him and then the older investors I deduced.
The oldest guy started talking about how concerned he was about the situation and that it was a disaster, that things were obviously going badly wrong and that there was a lot of pressure on him to deliver the numbers.
He droned on and on and I just started tuning out. It was 3 am and the more he talked and instilled panic and fear, the worse I started to feel. Something in my mind, just said Zone out. So I did.
He stopped talking. Then the naked bathroom guys did a great job of saying nothing in a lot of fancy words as an explanation as to why their company was failing.
They must have been educated privately in very expensive schools I thought. They have this slippery detached manner and way of sliding blame off themselves that I had seen before so many times. It’s very darkly elegant; in its own way, but deeply manipulative.
One of the investors looked at me and asked me if I had any comments so far.
I had a million things in my head that I wanted to say. I had only been the presence of them all for less than a few hours and it was blindingly obvious where the root of the issues was, but I decided that might not be the best idea at 3 am.
The meeting wrapped up at 5 am. A lot of droning, threats and blame shifting. No conclusions. I zoned in and out, part jet lagged, part trying to protect my energy from these vapid monsters.
What had I done, I kept thinking…
The door knocked hard, I woke up with a start. I had no idea what day it was. Someone was calling my name again. I felt dizzy, not in my body and huge anxiety.
They kept knocking.
“Zoe we leave in one hour, breakfast is downstairs, There is a town hall meeting with all staff in the office. ”
I looked at my phone. It was 1 pm on Saturday. I felt sick. Do these people have no respect for weekends? How is this working round the clock helping anyone?
I thought things might have changed since I had left the world a year ago. Certainly, all the news indicated that start-ups and investors were getting their act together and were not being quite so ridiculous with their hustle culture, but it seems these guys did not get the memo!
The town hall was messy. There were no chairs. Just big white screens with guys standing in front of videos and whiteboards in their huge pavilion that was at the back of the office. It was gigantic. How did they even have so much space you thought and so artfully lit somehow. So much glamour. The architecture, the lighting, the light wood, and brushed metal and the tasteful art on the walls. The whole thing was like being in a Nordic hotel, albeit in LA.
But somehow or another it was not calming. It was certainly beautiful, but it really felt like some upmarket mental hospital. Where the design was supposed to distract us, from the turbulent mess that was happening within.
There are too many masks and too much pretense here I thought. I felt deeply uncomfortable.
A woman I had not seen before pressed a piece of paper into my hand. It was written in English, German and Spanish. All the questions were different, it was not translated. Lucky I can speak all those I thought.
We were supposed to walk around and listen to men speaking at each station and then make notes to hand in, based on the questions. I can’t remember what they were now, but I remember having to watch a TV commercial, that was selling their payment product and thinking it was really impactful, but not in a good way.It was about a surgeon saving someone’s life in an emergency room. All very dramatic and it pretty graphic. Blood and organs showing and a handsome doctor saving the day.
I really could not understand who on earth thought this was a good idea, as the link up with the brand was beyond tenuous. But someone had obviously thought about it and decided a handsome hero surgeon saving the day was something that their customers would tap into.
This whole thing is a massive mess I thought. This is not consulting work they need, to save their numbers. There is something so dark, manipulative and cultish in here, that until they save their souls, nothing I do will work.
Everything about it felt so deeply ugly and full of pretense. All I kept thinking, was. Why did I do this to myself?
And then I woke up.
Art: Photo taken on Las Canteras Beach, Gran Canaria – Artist Unknown
This story was actually a dream that I had a couple of weeks ago. I woke up and wrote it all down immediately. It felt very real. So much so that I had a feeling of terror as I woke up, that this was, in fact, my real life, and something that had actually happened.
Perhaps it was a premonition or a warning. Who knows, but I shall certainly be careful of any phone calls, that offer this kind of consulting work.