The Bearer of Bad News
A short list of moments in the day when Roger Lee is thinking about layoffs: while waiting for someone to show up to a Zoom call. After his two young children have gone to sleep. At 5 a.m., before his first meeting of the day.
Since starting Layoffs.fyi as a side project at the start of the pandemic, he has cataloged nearly 450,000 tech layoffs in a public spreadsheet, updating the list whenever he can find a few minutes.
Though Mr. Lee, 36, reads bad news constantly, he remains a stalwart optimist about tech. He recognizes the pain that layoffs cause, but he also believes the industry will “100 percent” bounce back.
And Mr. Lee believes that talking openly about layoffs in the industry he loves is healthy. “The reduced stigma has the potential to be really positive,” he said. If people are speaking openly about layoffs, he reasons, workers can find new jobs efficiently.
Layoffs.fyi is both a symptom and a cause of a cultural shift toward transparency about layoffs in tech. Though Mr. Lee would never claim that his site is the only force driving this trend, he does think that it has helped workers put their own layoffs in context — and has helped the public understand the downturn. After tech companies fought to scoop up top talent during the pandemic, rapidly rising interest rates pushed companies to start making drastic cuts this year and last.
“Having this website engenders more transparency,” said Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford. As so many tech workers are laid off in Silicon Valley, he added, “the stigma has almost totally evaporated.”
Over the past three years, Mr. Lee’s site has become a meaningful resource. Recruiters scour the listings for talent after big layoffs, and workers post their information when they lose their jobs.
Tim Sackett, who runs an I.T. and engineering staffing firm, said that looking at Layoffs.fyi saves him “a tremendous amount of time,” because it points him to workers who are actively looking for jobs.
Media organizations, including The New York Times, often cite Layoffs.fyi as a source for the latest tech layoff figures. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics shares data on layoffs in various sectors, it does not track them at venture-capital-backed start-ups and tech companies in real-time. So Mr. Lee helps fill the gap.
“If you have fantastic government data on the state of tech,” Mr. Bloom said, you don’t need a site like Mr. Lee’s. “But if that data does not exist, Layoffs.fyi becomes invaluable.”
“There was just a complete data vacuum,” at the start of the pandemic, he added. “It’s impressive he was so early.”
Mr. Lee didn’t mean for any of this to happen. “It does feel weird,” he said, “to be the bearer of bad news.” But he has kept going. He said his site gets at least a million views per month — and more than that in busy periods with a lot of layoffs.
Mr. Lee had been following layoffs in an informal way since 2015, as he looked for talent to hire at his previous start-up. When the pandemic hit, he was on parental leave. He thought maybe others would find his process useful. “My original motivation was to be helpful,” he said. At the time, he added, he was struck by the volume of layoffs occurring. “I thought, wow, seven in one week, that’s so many.”
Soon, the layoffs — and the demands of updating the tracker — accelerated. By April 2020, he said, “I was spending all of my baby’s nap times updating the site.”
Mr. Lee follows an informal set of self-imposed rules about what companies to post about, and when. He makes a judgment call about whether a company counts as “tech”— Buzzfeed: yes; Disney: no;— and sometimes sits on information until it has been reported in the news media.
“I don’t want to be a place where employees find out,” Mr. Lee said. “I get these ‘scoops’ but don’t try to break news.”
“I don’t pretend these are hard and fast rules,” he added. But, so far, he says they allow him to provide information that is useful to people without accidentally causing panic.
Mr. Lee runs Layoffs.fyi as a hobby, and he spends money on it. In addition to his time, he estimates that he spends about $200 each month on the cost of its servers. He said he has declined to run ads, though he has been approached.
But the site’s popularity did help give him the idea for a new company: Comprehensive.io, which tracks compensation in tech job postings, on a public list.
He considers Comprehensive.io to be the inverse of Layoffs.fyi — it focuses on opportunities, not cuts. “I likely wouldn’t have come up with the latter without the former,” he said.
“Part of what gave him the intuition that people would find the pay transparency data interesting is how interesting people found the layoffs data,” said Teddy Sherrill, Mr. Lee’s longtime friend and a founder of Comprehensive.io, which now has a staff of about a dozen people.
Though Mr. Lee is not yet 40, he takes a long view of tech. It helps that he has spent about half his life building websites.
When advertisers first reached out to Mr. Lee asking if they could run ads on a site he built as an adolescent, he told them he didn’t want to talk on the phone.
“I feared if I talked to them, they would realize I was a 13-year-old,” he said.
By 2002, Mr. Lee and his childhood friend ran some of the most popular sites for teens, according to Nielsen data published at the time.
One of the companies he co-founded was SubProfile, a social media service built on AOL’s instant messenger platform. By his junior year of high school, he said the site was generating “six figures in revenue” and getting at least seven million unique visitors per month. (Nothing he has done since has exceeded that traffic, he said.)
He received his first paycheck from an advertiser at his parents’ home in the suburbs of New York.
“It was definitely a surreal experience,” Mr. Lee said of his time as a teen entrepreneur. “That’s when I first fell in love with the internet.”
Mr. Lee sold another company, a study guide site, while he was an undergraduate at Harvard.
After graduation, he co-founded an internet ad sales start-up called PaperG in New Haven, Conn. Mr. Lee was at the company, which has since changed its named to Thunder and was sold to Walmart, for about seven years.
Krystal Benitez was hired onto Mr. Lee’s operations team at PaperG in 2012. By that point the company, and Mr. Lee, had moved to San Francisco. Ms. Benitez said that Mr. Lee often gave informal financial advice to the staff, including several lunchtime lectures about investing and retirement planning. Personal finance is “a very near and dear topic to his heart,” she said. Indeed, Mr. Lee soon founded a 401(k) start-up called Human Interest, which was valued at a billion dollars in 2021.
“There’s maybe no better way to have impact on people’s financial lives than through employment and how they’re paid,” Mr. Lee said. He added that his interest in personal finance has animated his career, from Human Interest to Layoffs.fyi to his work now on Comprehensive.io.
Mr. Lee’s early enchantment — and early success — with the web continues to power his optimism about the industry, and his view that lives can be improved through technology.
“The economy has gone through two boom-and-bust cycles that I’ve been a part of,” he said. “Both times, tech came back stronger than ever.”
“I know it has its downsides,” he said of the internet. But, he added, “The upsides are so, so positive.” He believes that human traits, including our best impulses, are magnified online.
“You might think the person behind Layoffs.fyi would be a cynical character,” said Tyler Bosmeny, a college classmate of Mr. Lee’s who was the first employee at PaperG and has since invested in his companies. But, he said, Mr. Lee is “the most optimistic person I know.” He added that Mr. Lee often sees thorny issues as data problems that can be solved with tech.
“What’s most hysterical,” Mr. Bosmeny added, is that “this was his idea of taking a break.”
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