There are few things in life more soul-crushing than a terrible job. Having to spend a third of your life working a job you actively hate produces a special kind of existential dread.
And yet there’s value in bad jobs. They can help you realize how precious your time and energy are, and that you shouldn’t waste them on a job that doesn’t leave you fulfilled. A terrible job is often the impetus for finding a better one.
In that vein, MEL is collecting stories about the worst jobs people have ever had. Our first installment comes from digital media entrepreneur Eric Franchi, who sold his advertising technology company Undertone in 2015 to an Israeli software firm for $180 million. But long before he was a successful entrepreneur, Franchi was an introverted freshly-minted college grad who dreamed of making it big in telecom sales. His first job after graduating in 1998 was as an account executive at WorldCom, the infamous multibillion-dollar telecom provider that went bankrupt years later amid an accounting scandal that ended with the CEO and CFO in prison.
It was Franchi’s first job, and also his worst.
Eric Franchi, 40, New York
Current Job: Investor and entrepreneur
Worst Job Ever: Account Executive at WorldCom (in 1998)
How I got in
I was 21 years old and had just graduated from Penn State with a degree in marketing, which was the major you pursued if you wanted to be in business in some capacity, but weren’t sure of what you wanted to do.
I had moved back to Staten Island, where I grew up, and was eager to start my career. I wanted to wear a suit, make deals and work in the city — bridge-and-tunnel talk for Manhattan. This was 1998, during the peak of the stock market, so a lot of people with my mindset went into finance. I avoided it, though, because I was never very good at math.
But I loved the internet, so I decided to get in on the dot com boom instead.
I went on Monster.com and applied to a listing for an account executive job at WorldCom. The thinking at the time was that every company was going to need high-speed internet, so one route into the internet industry was selling infrastructure (which was what WorldCom did).
WorldCom called me back within 24 hours of my applying and invited me in for an interview. I distinctly remember the office address: 100 Wall Street, in the Financial District. I thought, Wow, even the address is cool.
The guy who conducted the interview had a nice suit on and a fancy watch and said, “I owe it all to WorldCom.” I want that, I thought. He told me WorldCom has an amazing training program, that I’d have my own sales territory, and that I’d be selling a complex, in-demand product. I said, “Sign me up.”
WorldCom officially offered me the job days later and I started the following Monday. I put on my cheap suit and hopped on the Staten Island ferry to my first day.
When I realized it was going to suck
Training lasted a day or two and consisted of being handed huge manuals. Read this and get to work, we were told. And the great job I was told about was one of those Boiler Room-type sales environments you only see in movies nowadays — a large floor filled with salespeople who canvassed the neighborhood and then made sales calls all afternoon. At the time WorldCom was still a giant company—tens of thousands of employees—and I was on the lowest rung of the totem pole.
I was a door-to-door salesman. I was made to go out to various offices in lower to Midtown Manhattan and try to talk to someone at each business about their internet access. The goal was to speak to the decision-maker at each office, get their business card, then call them later from the office to set up a formal sales meeting.
This was during the summer, so I was schlepping around New York City in 95-degree heat, sweating through my cheap suit.
But I still believed in the company, and was consistently number-one on the leaderboard in terms of activity. I was young, hungry and naive, and I had stars in my eyes about being super-successful.
It was before 9/11, so building security was still very relaxed. I would just walk into a high-rise, take the elevator all the way to the top, and then work my way down each floor, stopping at every office along the way. It was a numbers game. We had quotas for how many offices we had to visit, business cards to get, calls to make and appointments to arrange. We were not incentivized to keep existing customers happy — just to bring in new business.
One time, the security guards noticed I was working my way down their building one floor at a time and decided to mess with me. I hopped back on the elevator and they locked me in there, just long enough for me to realize I have claustrophobia. Then they sent the elevator down to the lobby and kicked me out.
It was high-stress and the turnover rate was similarly high. Co-workers would be there one day, and gone the next, with someone new in their place. You can only sustain that level of intensity for so long before it wears on you.
How I got out
My feelings about the job shifted after one particularly slow sales month. The branch manager was angry with us and kicked us out of the office and made us knock on some doors. When we came back that afternoon, the managers would count the number of business cards we brought back. That’s when I started to think, Maybe there’s an easier way to make a living.
I soon realized there were opportunities closer to what I wanted to do, which was making the internet, not selling it — internet content and media.
I lasted a little less than a year at that job, which was longer than most. But I’m still thankful I worked there. Working sales was one of the most constructive, invaluable experiences of my life. I went into the job knowing I had to break out of the shell, and that’s exactly what happened. I learned how to handle rejection, how to open a conversation, how to handle stress, how to calm someone who’s upset and make them laugh.
So much of what we do in business is persuasion — making someone listen to you and convincing them that your idea or decision is the right course of action. Everyone, no matter what the profession, is selling something. And that’s why everyone should work a sales job.
WorldCom actually helped me get my next job at About.com, a high-flying New York internet company at the time. They said, “If you could do what you did at WorldCom, you can definitely sell banner ads to advertising agencies.” About.com is actually where I met Michael Cassidy, with whom I later co-founded Undertone.
Sales is hard work. And there some people who thrive under that pressure. But there are many who don’t, and quickly earn an appreciation for what they really want to do.