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Bird brained

Inside the electric scooter startup with big workplace problems

Illustration by Alex Castro

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Emma* was up late working on a complex analysis from her laptop in bed for Bird. In mid-March, as COVID-19 was extinguishing public life in cities across the world, the scooter company announced that it would pull its signature electric two-wheelers from some areas. Every day since had been a scramble to put together cost-cutting proposals and revenue alternatives to the brand’s core rent-and-ride business, from an IT project that would save the company hundreds of thousands in hardware costs to leasing out small fleets of scooters to restaurants to use for deliveries. Emma didn’t mind putting in the extra hours — in fact, she was used to it. 

“It’s hard to explain just how cool the energy [at Bird] was,” she says. Her co-workers were young, brilliant, and sincere in their belief that their electric scooters were going to change the world. “We were fucking obsessed with our jobs.”

The next morning, March 27th, Emma received a calendar invite ambiguously titled “COVID-19 Update” — and a flurry of concerned texts and Slack messages as other meetings around the company were quietly canceled. At 10:30AM, she logged into the one-way Zoom webinar. After an uncomfortable wait, a woman’s voice began reading a script in a choked monotone, informing the attendees that they had all been laid off. The speech was two minutes, and the meeting abruptly ended. Emma watched as her computer automatically logged her out of her email and Slack accounts and then reverted to a locked gray screen.

a woman’s voice began reading a script in a choked monotone, informing the attendees that they had all been laid off

Emma was one of 406 Bird employees who lost their jobs that day, out of the company’s 1,400 or so worldwide. (dot.LA first broke the story of Bird layoffs, and obtained audio of the meeting.) In some ways, Emma was one of the lucky ones. She was luckier than the many employees who’d received the news secondhand, either because their shift was at another time of day or because the company had purchased a webinar license that was too small and accidentally locked many invitees out. She was luckier than the IT staffer who apparently wrote the script to instantly deactivate their accounts — with no idea that it would be used to disable his account, too, which then disrupted the whole process until the remaining IT staff could find a plan B.

And at least for a couple of minutes, Emma was luckier than Rebecca Hahn, the chief communications officer who was appointed to read a curt firing script, seemingly through tears, instead of the company’s founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden.

As much as she’d loved her job at Bird, that was the day that Emma began to reflect on some of the troubling things she’d seen at the company that she’d previously been willing to overlook. And she wasn’t the only one. Conversations with 16 former Bird employees across a wide variety of departments paint a picture of erratic decision-making, careless leadership, and puzzling, ever-changing metrics of success that left even the biggest internal believers privately wondering if their business model could ever add up to the dream they’d sold investors.

But more than anything, Bird was a workplace with high turnover. Employees were laid off in ways that felt careless and dehumanizing. A mass firing over Zoom wasn’t really so out of line with what people had already experienced. 

Bird set out to establish a scooter-based future for transportation. That meant it paid close attention to how long each scooter lasted on the road. The company, however, seemingly spent very little energy on how long its employees lasted in the office.

At the end of the day, some believe that the $2.5 billion valuation that helped make Bird the industry’s fastest-growing unicorn was also its greatest curse. “When you put that crown on a company,” says one former employee, “they owe it to investors and to themselves to grow at all costs. … And when you only focus on growth, you stop focusing on people. … Once that snowball started rolling down the hill, there was no stopping it.”

Bird always leaned into its own lingo. The company had a program called “Get the Flock Out” (or “GTFO”), which encouraged employees in the government partnerships department to expand how many scooters were permitted in each city, according to employees familiar with the program. The startup never shied away from cutesy puns. There were Birdwatchers, the contract workers responsible for monitoring the fleet; “nests,” where Birds were assembled to charge; and Birdhunters, who were responsible for retrieving lost scooters. The proprietary language might have helped contribute to the sense of solidarity embodied in the catchphrase “BirdFam,” which even laid-off employees continue to use when speaking about their colleagues.

Almost across the board, former employees have nothing but praise for their peers (including managers and direct reports), calling them “phenomenal,” “talented,” and “super motivated, super, super smart.” Every day at the unprecedented company was a thrill, inventing new paradigms and writing the rules as they went. “You got to watch an idea blossom into an industry,” says a former staffer, “[Having] a front row seat to that... was an amazing experience.” Former employees say they loved spending time with their co-workers on nights and weekends and found themselves wanting to talk about work even off the clock. 

But their impression of the executive ranks tells a different story. Bird’s leadership was described in various interviews as “bros with personality problems,” “doofuses,” “creepy,” “very into nepotism,” “not sound decision makers,” and “a bunch of frat boys who all looked and sounded alike and made a lot of money.”

“There was a lot of buffoonery,” elaborates one departed employee. One such incident apparently occurred at an operations team all-hands last summer, when tensions between the company’s hourly wage earners and management were at an all-time high. Employees had been invited to provide feedback in an anonymous online form where their colleagues could “upvote” questions or statements they agreed with.

According to multiple sources familiar with the meeting, the discussion focused heavily on complaints of low pay and false promises, prompting COO Steve Schnell to shout at the room something along the lines of, “You can either shut up or get the fuck out!” He even offered a $1,000 bonus to anyone who chose to leave the company. Some in the room felt that he had made up the policy on the spot.

“You can either shut up or get the fuck out!”

In a statement responding to the story, Bird said: “During an operations all-hands meeting, Steve delivered a pay increase message to members of the team, offering them $1,000 to leave if they were not happy with that increase, similar to the Zappos pay-to-quit approach. Steve regrets using offensive language, and HR and the legal department counseled him about how he delivered the message following this meeting.”

In another widely known episode, Schnell traveled to a summit in Amsterdam, where he got so drunk that he decided it would be amusing to fire employees at random over Slack. “It was a joke,” says a former employee familiar with the incident. “He was like, ‘Haha.’ Only he didn’t say ‘Haha’ because he forgot.” This winter, Schnell was quietly moved away from his COO duties, though he officially retained the title. 

Asked about this incident, Bird said, “While at a summit in Amsterdam, someone took Steve’s phone and played a practical joke on two top-performing employees he’s close to, and those employees recognized it was a joke.”

Some parties were described as tame, but recent holiday parties were notoriously debaucherous. Sources describe some employees doing cocaine, pills, and marijuana. Relationships between co-workers were openly on display. 

Kerry Fischer, Bird’s Vice President of People and Places, said the company had not received reports or complaints of drug-related behavior. “Bird has strong policies against the use of illegal drugs and/or the misuse of legal drugs,” she said. “If we receive a report, allegation or complaint about an employee openly using drugs at our holiday party we would investigate and discipline that individual as appropriate. In addition, company-sponsored parties end by 10 pm.”

Travis VanderZanden’s first C-suite stint at a vehicular startup was as COO at Lyft, following its acquisition of his on-demand car-wash app Cherry in 2013. VanderZanden must have felt that he quickly outgrew the role because, in 2014, he gave the company an ultimatum: make me CEO, or I’m out. The board called his bluff — and then sued him for allegedly stealing company secrets. (He then countersued, and the two parties settled out of court for an unknown amount.) Despite the messy exit, he landed a new job at Uber where he worked for two years as VP of Driver Growth. 

Sources describe some employees doing cocaine, pills, and marijuana, and relationships between co-workers were openly on display

VanderZanden carried over both companies’ obsessive “growth hacker” mentality, touting their focus on scale in Bird’s early rounds of funding. Bird came to depend on Uber’s “land and expand” strategy of planting its scooters in new cities without permits, and then counting on their popularity with riders to persuade local governments to give them a pass. (VanderZanden also packed his C-suite with fellow ride-sharing alums: COO Steve Schnell and CPO Ryan Fujiu both put in time at Uber and Lyft, and CFO Yibo Ling came over from Uber.)

“[VanderZanden’s] ideology was: ‘We shouldn’t have to pay a city, the city should be paying us,’” says a former member of Bird’s government partnerships department. That employee voiced frustrations about alienating local governments with Bird’s cavalier attitude — damaging the kinds of relationships that took years to build. When certain smaller cities did reach out to them offering exclusive agreements, he claims he was directed to ignore their emails because they weren’t deemed profitable enough to be worth their time.

Bird sold cities a vision of reduced carbon emissions, traffic-free streets, and increased accessibility for low-income riders in transportation deserts that were known internally as “equity zones.” While Bird faced major pushback — and even some lawsuits — in cities like New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Milwaukee, many other municipal governments did see real opportunity in partnering with them. Those governments often requested access to Bird’s data to ensure compliance with their regulations, which became an ongoing battle, according to one employee familiar with negotiations. Bird had a financial interest in keeping its scooters in high-income areas on several fronts: it got more rides per day, experienced lower scooter churn rates, and had to allocate fewer resources to making sure scooters were kept inside the lower-income “equity zones.”

In one meeting, an employee raised the topic of placing scooters in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. According to a source familiar with the meeting, chief legal officer David Estrada responded that neighborhoods like that weren’t considered because “we want to make sure we get our Birds back.” “People were shrieking in their seats” at the apparent implication that Birds were more likely to be stolen in black neighborhoods, says the source. Employees later received an apology. 

“People were shrieking in their seats” at the apparent implication that Birds were more likely to be stolen in black neighborhoods

When asked about this incident, Bird denied that it occurred, and added: “We have strong social equity efforts to serve lower-income neighborhoods and David Estrada never advocated or suggested that we stop that service.” (Estrada is no longer at the company.)

Another former employee alleges that the idea was brought up semi-jokingly “in multiple meetings” to remove the tracking devices known as Bird “brains” from scooters intended for equity zones and place them in mailboxes in the area so that the Birds could roam freely elsewhere without government detection.

When asked, Bird said: “This is an alleged suggestion that was never explored nor developed. Such an idea would be contrary to our brand and business model. It runs counter to our public commitment and track record of data transparency with cities in which we operate.”

But in plenty of cases, Bird did backtrack on its most benevolent gestures. After publicizing its free helmet program, Bird lobbied with the California government against helmet requirements. For all the talk of sustainability, the vehicles Bird boasts can last over 18 months in one study went to waste in under a month. And the widely touted “Save Our Sidewalks” initiative, in which Bird pledged one dollar for every scooter toward infrastructure projects in certain host cities was quietly shelved last year.

Almost right up until the COVID-19 crisis, Bird continued to move toward expanding into new territories with what some perceived as little thought or research into market profitability. By the time Bird was pulling scooters from the streets, it had a presence of some kind in over 120 cities around the world.

While the expansion into Europe and the Middle East was a relative success before COVID-19’s disruption, the attempted expansion into the Latin American market in 2018 is regarded among employees as one of the company’s greatest missteps. A theft ring in Mexico City made it particularly difficult to get the business off the ground. “We were losing thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars a day [in Chile and Mexico City] because we weren’t getting any rides,” says one former employee. 

“We didn’t take the time to understand the culture,” says a former member of the data team. “We were trying to impose values and a system that didn’t necessarily work for [them].” Bird cut its losses and paused operations in Latin American cities even before the pandemic obliterated their bottom line, employees say.

The fixation on expansion meant hiring sprees. As recently as this winter, an employee familiar with the onboarding process estimates that the company was bringing in between 10 and 15 new employees every week while offboarding around five. And periods of fervent hiring were followed by waves of layoffs.

“We were losing thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars a day [in Chile and Mexico City] because we weren’t getting any rides.”

The recent layoffs on March 27th were reminiscent of what one source referred to as “The Pizza Party Firings” of 2019. On March 14th, 2019, former employees say, as the office was celebrating Pi Day with pizza, some employees were corralled into a conference room where they received a brief speech, not unlike the one given on this year’s Zoom call, before being escorted out of the building by security with no opportunity to retrieve their belongings from their desks. Between 4 and 5 percent of the workforce was laid off that day.

Bird provided the following statement: “We did not host a companywide pizza party prior to a reduction in force in 2019. It’s true that 4 percent of the Bird workforce was laid off in March 2019.”

In June that same year, the company acquired the electric vehicle company Scoot in order to get access to the competitive San Francisco market. By December, it laid off up to two dozen Scoot employees. Something similar happened after Bird bought its German competitor Circ this January. And according to a former Circ employee, it implemented significant cuts following the acquisition.

“Why are you gonna hire that many people if you’re just gonna treat them like they’re disposable?” asks one employee who lost her job last spring.

The boom and bust cycles were visible not only in the hiring and firing processes, but in everything from employee perks to department budgets. “The company swerved constantly,” says a former employee. “Basically, all the resources would always be pulled towards whatever they’d decided was necessary in the moment and then pulled away from other things, which was the most spastic way to run a company.”

Bird would throw expensive holiday parties, and “then months later it would be like, ‘Freeze spending,’” says a former manager from another department. “[They] had to keep a certain amount of money in their account at all times. Once that money fell below a threshold, it was like, ‘Hold off all payments.’” Several employees described bridges burned with third-party vendors, from independent lobbyists to a nationwide shipping company. According to one employee, Facebook also suspended Bird advertising after the company failed to make payments, disrupting Bird’s ability to find and hire new contractors. (Bird denies that Facebook advertising was suspended.)

Facebook suspended Bird advertising after the company failed to make payments

Compensation for Bird’s own employees was also described as highly discretionary, partially based on the timing of one’s start date, which is not unusual in quickly growing startups. But being liked was also described as one of the most valuable assets one could bring with them to the company. And to be liked, according to various sources across different departments, it never hurt to be a white man. “When you looked at the same experience level and tenure within the company, and you looked at people of color versus not, you did see some favoritism,” says a former employee who served as a lead in one of Bird’s employee resource groups. Meanwhile, both men and women interviewed for this article confirmed that they were aware of instances where women were making less than men in equal or even lower positions on their teams. 

Issues of diversity and inclusion at Bird were a low-lying debate that would flare up every few months. Employees said many women at the company felt frustrated by a lack of female presence in the C-suite or on the board. When an employee raised the question in a biweekly all-staff, VanderZanden allegedly appeared uncomfortable and said, “We just got one,” presumably referring to Rebecca Hahn. 

“Travis would talk about how hard it was to get a woman on the board because no VCs are women,” said another source.

Race was no less of a contentious topic. One former employee describes being a person of color pushing for diversity at the company as, “Not knowing you’re in a fight, but feeling really exhausted at the end of the day.”

As with many modern startups where there’s an indelible divide between salary-earners who build out processes and the wage-earners who implement them, there were three levels at Bird. First was the well-compensated, overtime-exempt side — people in data, engineering, product, city operations, finance, etc. Second was a group that often got lumped in as a catchall term: “operations specialists,” hourly, non-exempt wage-earners whose duties might range from answering support calls to coordinating retrievals of scooters that had “gone thermal” (Bird-speak for “caught on fire”) to helping launch new products like Bird Pay. And third was the Flyers, the gig workers who could pick up individual tasks like moving or charging Birds through an app in exchange for one-off payments.

“gone thermal” is Bird-speak for “caught on fire”

Of the second, hourly-wage group, one interviewee says, “They have this large group of people who weren’t making that much money, but had gone to good schools, doing really routine work and not getting promoted.” Former employees in these roles who gave interviews referenced unfulfilled promises that they would be promoted within their first six months of employment. Another salaried employee puts it more bluntly: “Hourly employees were treated like shit. They were expected to work, work, work. A lot of people who should have been put on salary were not.” It also was not lost on employees interviewed that the hourly group had a much higher makeup of people of color.

On company demographics, Bird said: “We’ve worked hard to build a diverse team of employees, including on the executive management team, and we know we can and will improve.”

One thing that might help explain the apparent inequity at the company was the loss of a forum to effectively bring complaints. When the head of people and culture Taylor Rose left the company over a year ago, former employees complain that she wasn’t effectively replaced until Kerry Fischer came in as VP head of global people and places the following fall. The gap in HR leadership, sources allege, made it difficult to escalate questions of pay disparities and discrimination.

Bird disputes this account, saying: “We have consistently had an HR head, and a robust global HR team. Our compensation model was developed and vetted with a third-party consulting firm that works with other global companies. Gender and race have never been considerations for compensation. Instead, we look to seniority, experience, expertise, and performance as key criteria. We’ve worked hard to build a diverse team of employees, including on the executive management team, and we know we can and will improve.” 

This winter, the company implemented a more standardized, formal performance review process in order to ensure more equitable career movement, which some saw as encouraging. Unfortunately, as one former employee puts it, “not enough of the people of color remained [at the company] to see it play out.”

Over time, some employees began to grow doubtful of the business model — especially once it became clear how quickly Bird was burning through cash. Regardless, Bird did successfully secure $275 million in Series D funding on a $2.5 billion valuation in October 2019. Investors were apparently encouraged by the strategic pivot to unit economics over growth-above-all.

But the unit economics argument is a difficult one to parse. “A good day for a Bird is two rides,” says a former employee familiar with the breakdown. “And the average ride is about five dollars.” Only, “a day,” she clarified, is not actually a day, but the amount of time a Bird spends “in the wild” (i.e., charged, undamaged, and available on the streets). Meaning that $10 of revenue might actually stretch over several days or less than a day. Start to factor in the operating costs and the liabilities — from city fines to scooters thrown in the ocean to the long winter months when many Birds enter “hibernation” — and the profit margin only becomes more anemic.

Some employees speculate that these kinds of convoluted calculations were an intentional move to obfuscate a troubled business. “Travis would say during the meeting, ‘We’re profitable per ride, if you exclude some other stuff,’” says a former engineer. “No one would ever just say, ‘We’re profitable, period.’”

One thing that may have heartened investors was Bird’s willingness to move away from its micromobility ideals internally. The New Ventures team, described as a “startup within a startup” was intended to explore revenue alternatives. The program, where Schnell’s efforts were reallocated following his soft removal as COO, had mixed results. One of their projects was Bird Pay, a mobile payment app that had the misfortune of debuting around the same time COVID-19 was beginning its sweep of the globe. 

When Bird Pay was launched, employees say they were granted unlimited spending on the app for the first month, a move that some suspect was implemented to inflate numbers for investors. But employees were unimpressed with the product. “Obviously, it’s super glitchy like everything we’ve ever launched,” says one employee. Most notably, users had to manually enter the amount they owed for each transaction. Due to the difficult-to-discern decimal point that appeared, according to former employees, VanderZanden took the app out for a spin one day in Santa Monica and accidentally wound up paying thousands of dollars for a cup of coffee. “[He was] furious, apparently,” says one of the interviewees who shared this story. 

Bird denies this incident saying, “Our CEO never paid $1,000 for a cup of coffee because of an early version of an app feature that was quickly fixed.”

Bird’s CEO accidentally wound up paying thousands of dollars for a cup of coffee

VanderZanden did not take kindly to public smears of his image. When The Information reported that Bird had lost $100 million in Q1 2019, VanderZanden grew irate. From an airplane, he began posting rampantly on social media — including one chart that displayed Bird’s unit economics from an unrepresentative, peak summer month and a graph that showed year-over-year revenue growth but, as one Twitter user pointed out, failed to include a Y-axis.

On internal Slack channels, VanderZanden’s staff followed his lead. “Anytime there was something negative about Bird in the press, someone would post it [on Slack] and the comments were very positive. ‘The journalist doesn’t understand the full picture!’” A former member of one of the mission teams alleges that the company hired a brand protection agency to defend the company on trending LinkedIn critiques. Another former employee describes the public displays of loyalty as “like a cult.” Of the employees who survived the March 27th layoffs, she says, many of them were “yes men.”

Employees were given the opportunity to put their money where their mouth was. Upon getting hired, they were given various options to divide their compensation package between salary and stock options, a common practice among startups, which effectively amounts to placing a bet on the success of the company. Employees laid off this March would have a year to exercise the option to buy stock in the company for a drastically lower price (called a strike price) than the general public would after an IPO.

Laid-off employees were surprised to check their latest options grant to see that their strike price had plummeted from a peak of over $3 to just 14 cents. Several of the former employees interviewed speculated that this was a result of a comparably revised post-COVID valuation going into the next round of funding. “I have a year to buy my stock, but if I had to make the decision right now, I would say the company’s not gonna make it and I’m not gonna touch those shares,” says one employee.

In response to the strike price, Bird said, “We repriced options after a third-party 409a appraisal was completed. The updated strike price has zero impact on the company’s preferred valuation.”

When the cloud of COVID clears, Bird will likely have to reckon with the inherent impossibility of pleasing all of its stakeholders. The vision it sold cities is not a profitable one, and the vision it has since sold investors goes against its entire mission. On top of that, its fixation on growth to meet its impossibly inflated valuation has proven unsustainable. It remains to be seen if their pivot to profitability has come too late.

The vision it sold cities is not a profitable one, and the vision it’s sold investors goes against its entire mission

“This isn’t just a Bird problem, but an industry problem and an investor problem,” warns one former employee, who hopes that others can learn from Bird’s mistakes. “If you’re going to give a valuation that high, you have to help that company grow at a sustainable rate. No one was holding anyone accountable.”

Since March 27th, those who were laid off have banded together. Despite the disappointing end to their time at the company, most of the former employees interviewed maintain fond memories of their former colleagues and are proud of what they built. The publicity around the firings inspired a number of tech companies to reach out for interviews and job offers, helped along by former managers who spread the word about the quality of their work. 

One former engineer who left the company voluntarily recalls watching as the layoffs unfolded in the public eye: “[It] was such a terrible PR move. They got a lot of loyal people... to turn against them.”

As many leaders in the tech industry have learned the hard way, one bad decision can have long-lasting implications. It all calls to mind one of the lines read out the morning of March 27th: “When we come out at the other side of this unimaginable storm and begin to scale up unpaused markets, increase fleets, support riders, build products, and more, we hope we can work together again.” 

Former employees disagree. “Bird lost,” says one man who was laid off last month. “They lost irreplaceable employees. They lost employee satisfaction. They lost brand loyalty… I’ve never seen such a large group of people come together to get through such a difficult time together.” He added: “We are BirdFam. We are truly family.”

* Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved

Update April 24th, 4:20 ET: Bird denied that Facebook suspended their ability to advertise and said David Estrada is no longer with the company. The article has been updated to reflect those facts.