Gartin remembers when Smith told her to tell the channel leaders the work would be month-to-month. And she remembers her response as well.
“I said, ‘I can’t tell them it’s month-to-month. No one will be invested enough.’ So I didn’t tell them it was month-to-month, but that wasn’t my understanding anyway. They had a six-month contract, and as far as I knew, they were going to get it renewed. So, when it kind of ended abruptly, that really surprised me.”
And, yet, she also admits there were signs that Smith was right. As much as she enjoyed the work, “It was not without its headaches,” she says, “and things seemed shaky at times with the company.”
Gartin worked full time, on a salary she calls “comparable” to what she made at Qualcomm before she was laid off in early 2010, but on the books she remained a temporary, hourly employee. She didn’t discover this until she worked a holiday and didn’t get paid for it. When she asked why not, no one at the Carlsbad office knew. After calls were made to Charlotte on her behalf, she was told first that she was on temporary status “just to see if it would work out” and later that although it was working out, no change would be made.
There were other signals, too, such as simple technical issues that went unaddressed, things that Gartin says “didn’t match up with the expectation I’d been given that this [project] was the future of the company.”
For example, channel leaders were asked to generate polls once a week. In the poll box on the side of the web page, the questions appeared twice. And levels of permission needed to be tweaked so that bloggers could not, accidentally or otherwise, publish their content without it going through the channel leader.
“They had folks on the tech side in North Carolina,” she says, “and then suddenly they weren’t available. They had been retasked to do something else. So for 60 to 90 days, we weren’t going to have them. I thought, ‘Really? This is your flagship?’”
Payday, too, presented its own red flag. “When you pay somebody late three months in a row, they know something’s up,” Gartin says. “We’d turn in our invoices, and we wouldn’t always get paid on time.”
And, then, on May 27, Bernard Smith “resigned.”
The official story he tells is that he “saw that things were shaky. I saw that things were taking a lot longer to develop different aspects of the project and didn’t feel like my feet were on stable ground. Ultimately, I decided to explore other opportunities.”
That, of course, made Gartin nervous, too. But Smith says he had been led to believe “there wasn’t a great concern with anybody [else] because Peggy was doing such a great job and the bloggers were doing such a great job,” so he assured her that she didn’t need to worry.
And, yet, Smith also says, “I wouldn’t say I was shocked” that Tree pulled the plug on the project so soon. “In my gut, I was getting the sense that their tolerance to invest in the future was shrinking.”
In mid-May, just before Smith’s resignation, Tree sold its Home Loan Center, which operated as LendingTree Loans, for $55.9 million. The move, Smith says, was likely designed to free up cash. It made the company look “instantly healthy, which wasn’t a great long-term strategy, but if you want to make your shareholders happy in the short term, it’s a really good thing to do,” Smith adds. “And while they kind of spun it differently, I was getting the feeling that the company was willing to sacrifice anything in the short term to make their company look good now.”
Gartin admits that she, too, questioned how much financial sense the blog project made. On top of the thousands of dollars going to bloggers daily, there were also the hourly rates paid to channel leaders and salaries for the rest of the Carlsbad team who worked on the site’s evergreen content and search engine optimization (refining web pages so that people find them more easily in search engines such as Google or Bing).
“Obviously, this thing can’t continue if you’re just spending money and you’re not making any money,” Gartin says. “Maybe this was naive on my part, but I took it, like, you guys are the business people. You’ve given me the task. I can do the task, and we can make a great blog site, but you’re going to have to balance the books.”
On June 30, Gartin was told that the channel leaders would be paid only through the end of the day. But in their contracts Tree had promised them two weeks’ notice.
“It took a couple of days for [Tree] to come around to that,” Gartin says. But eventually they did. The channel leaders received an additional two weeks’ pay.
Those checks arrived on time.
As of July 15, everyone employed on the content side at the Carlsbad office was let go.
Elizabeth Salaam worked briefly for Tree.com, posting to the food and dining channel.