When Carlotta Stankiewicz was laid off in November after nine years at an ad agency in Austin, Tex., it came as a shock. Her husband, Paul, encouraged her to freelance and just take it easy while she figured out what to do next. It wasn't until Paul, an artist, was laid off from his job at a video-game development company in March that Stankiewicz figured her next career move.
Driving home from Paul's soon-to-be-former office with boxes of his work paraphernalia in the back of the car, slogans were running through the ad writer's mind: "Employment is for wimps," "Paycheck, schmaycheck," "My severance package is bigger than your severance package."
"I started to think: What can I do with this?" explains Stankiewicz, who took a scrap of paper and sketched some T-shirts emblazoned with the slogans. That night over dinner, she showed them to friends. Her impromptu focus group laughed out loud.
RITE OF PASSAGE. As a sign of the times -- when some people are seeing the loss of a job as a rite of passage, and when a startup can still be built on an idea and a Web site -- Stankiewicz is now selling those T-shirts and other "layoff items" at PlanetPinkSlip.com, which opened for business May 21.
She is betting that spirits and severance packages among the newly jobless will be high enough to generate sales of the $17.99 T-shirts, $12.99 coffee mugs, and mouse pads she offers. For those reluctant to tap their between-jobs nest eggs, her site also offers free electronic sympathy cards for the laid-off. Unemployment "is not a shameful thing -- it's happening everywhere," says Stankiewicz. "A lot of the market I'm targeting, the dot-com tech people, might have a little disposable income."
Unlike some dot-com ventures, PlanetPinkSlip was started with little investment of time or money. Stankiewicz figures she squeezed in about 200 hours of work on the project between freelance ad-writing assignments. Her former partner at the ad agency helped design the Web site for a couple bottles of wine and some of the T-shirts. And a friend who does Web-site development did the programming and coding in exchange for a couple of nice dinners. Registering the domain name cost $9.95 a year, the Web-hosting service is $18.95 a month, and buying some of the shirts for herself and as promotional gifts was another $150, she estimates.
VIRTUAL STOREFRONT. As for printing the shirts, taking the orders, and mailing them out, that's all handled by CafePress.com, which does the order fulfillment for "virtual storefronts" like hers. In the first two weeks, PlanetPinkSlip sold 15 T-shirts and three mugs. If sales pick up, her margin per item will improve because CafePress's charges are based on volume.
"At this point, it's kind of a self-sustaining thing -- I don't have to do much," Stankiewicz says. She does, however, have 55 subscribers so far to her newsletter, which she has yet to write. It's going to be lighthearted, she says, because there are enough serious publications about the job climate.
Stankiewicz figures PlanetPinkSlip is likely to thrive only as long as the economy stagnates, so she's hoping it's a short-term success rather than a long-term one.
After seven months without a steady paycheck, Stankiewicz admits to still waking up in the middle of some nights wondering what she's going to do. For now, she and her husband plan to try something they've long talked about -- collaborating on children's books. After all, she writes, he draws, and they have two daughters, ages 1 and 3.
They seem to be heeding one of her T-shirt slogans: "I wasn't fired. I was given a career-change opportunity." By Theresa Forsman in New York