On June 21, three dozen of Fresco News’s 40 employees gathered in the company’s cramped Manhattan office for a visit from a special guest: one of Fresco’s investors, Ashton Kutcher.
Kutcher had clearly been asked to give a pep talk. He said he believed in the company’s mission to empower “citizen journalists” to join the media landscape by selling photos and videos to local outlets, which is why he had personally invested a lot of money, recalled an employee who was present. Then he told the staff they wouldn’t be getting paid on time.
Fresco, a venture capital-funded startup founded in 2014 by then-19-year-old John Meyer, had missed at least 10 payroll periods between 2016 and 2017, internal messages obtained by The Outline show. Employees were eventually paid for most of them, but the inability to reliably meet payroll month to month put a strain on the business. By June, Fresco found itself unable to pay employees for a full month, and Meyer told his staff Fresco was about to close on a multi-million dollar partnership that would solve its woes. He just needed a little more time, and a little faith from employees.
Meyer gave Kutcher a box of branded Fresco merchandise, according to an employee who was present at the meeting, which the actor/investor attempted to re-gift. “Kutcher looked at me and said, ‘I don’t need this,’” the employee said. “‘If you want it, you can sell this on eBay and pay your rent.’”
Nine days after Kutcher’s visit, Fresco’s deal fell through. In a Slack memo to staff, Meyer seemed stunned. He said he was had no choice but to lay everyone off “effective immediately.” He said Fresco’s executives would be “working around the clock” to pay back missed payroll as soon as possible.
Of course, Fresco isn’t unique. It’s every startup you’ve never heard about.
About 75 percent of venture-backed startups fail, according to research from Harvard Business School, typically after investors stop putting money in around the company’s fourth year.
Still, founders of struggling startups “feel the pressure to keep up the facade of success, even when things are actually falling apart behind the scenes,” Fortune wrote in a 2014 analysis of why startups fail. Founders’ need to maintain appearances — not only to boost their own egos, but to bluster their way into another round of funding — can distract from the needs of the actual business.
I worked at Fresco for three weeks in 2016, shortly after graduating college. The job mostly consisted of sourcing photos from social media, vetting user submissions, and uploading content into Fresco’s database. We were required to work nights and weekends and paid $12 to $14 an hour. The job itself was relatively painless, aside from the weirdness of working for a CEO my age. We were promised salaries and benefits were on the horizon, though I left the company once I found a more stable full-time job elsewhere after just three weeks of graveyard shifts.
One manager wasn’t surprised when I quit — the company had high turnover, he told me. It turns out this was just one symptom of the chaotic culture that developed as the company grew and came to a head as its finances dwindled.
I spoke with 10 former Fresco employees who described the decline of a company facing intense pressure to sustain the veneer of success while secretly struggling to pay bills. Most requested anonymity because of non-disclosure agreements and fear of retribution.
Fresco embodied the modern tech startup in many ways. Like the CEO, the staff was young; most were in their late teens or early 20s. The leadership was overwhelmingly male: Just one of the company’s five current executives is a woman. All communication was done over Slack. At one point, one executive had a personal fridge full of Soylent.
Despite seeming like a parody of startup culture at times, Fresco had all the ingredients for success, not the least of which was a product that promised to cut costs for businesses, generate revenue for investors, and foster community among its users.
If Fresco embodied the Silicon Valley archetype, Meyer was the quintessential founder. He started developing iPhone apps, including the most popular early flashlight app, in high school. His Twitter handle and catchphrase is @BEASTMODE, a motto that embodies the always-be-closing playbook typical of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He dropped out of NYU after his freshman year to focus on Fresco, supporting himself with the money his apps generated. “Waiting four years to get a degree before I can completely focus on what I’m passionate about is impossible in my mind,” he wrote in a 2014 Medium post, shortly after deciding not to return for his sophomore year. The following year, he was awarded a Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 grant from PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel designed to encourage young people to drop out of school and start businesses.
“When you’re going through series A with no revenue, it’s like walking a tightrope. It’s a social game, almost.”
At first, Meyer imagined Fresco as a new kind of journalism based on the premise that millennials don’t “read newspapers or news websites,” as he wrote in a 2014 Medium post announcing the company’s launch. In 2015, the company pivoted to marketing itself as a budget wire service for media companies. Meyer began describing the company as a cheap source of content for cash-strapped local affiliates, a more lucrative model than his original vision for the company. Stations could send out requests for assignments that the app’s users could respond to, and the company soon became known in tech circles as an “Uber, but for photojournalists” gig economy play.
Fresco quickly grew from its original three employees — Imogen Olsen, then 20, who started as a content manager and social media editor, Chief Financial Officer Jeremy Ogorek, a then-22-year-old CPA from Chicago who Olsen said had cold-emailed Meyer asking for a job; and developer Elmir Kouliev, who was still in high school when he joined the company. By the fall of 2016, the company had more than 50 employees.
With growth came new challenges. Fresco’s company culture became unhealthy, employees said, due to long hours, relatively low pay, and interpersonal conflict. In August 2016, a small band of employees made initial movements towards unionizing Fresco’s newsroom, according to multiple employees involved, making a list of demands that included a $15 an hour minimum wage, a concrete vacation policy, and a full-time HR representative to address sexual harassment claims made by multiple female employees. (In a June 29 phone call with The Outline, Meyer denied there had ever been sexual harassment allegations.) The employees drafted their demands in a collaborative Google Doc, but three former staffers said it was leaked to management before they had a chance to finish it.
Executives, including Meyer, met to address the employee demands but “came out of that meeting with no resolution,” Olsen told The Outline. (Olsen was fired from the company in March 2017 and several employees said the reasons surrounding her departure remain unclear. Meyer denied there had been an attempt to form a union and said he has “no knowledge” of the executive meeting Olsen described.)
All this coincided with Fresco’s brewing financial difficulties, and the company missed its first payroll cycle in September 2016. Meyer said in an interview that this particular missed cycle stemmed from an investor backing out at the last minute. “We, like every startup, have hit issues as it relates to fundraising,” he said.
When money started running out at the end of 2016, Meyer and other executives reminded staff to stay patient and optimistic. The company’s Chief Financial Officer, Jeremy Ogorek, would regularly tell employees the company’s finances were fine, internal Slack messages obtained by The Outline reveal. The problem, according to Ogorek, wasn’t that Fresco was out of money, but that the company’s payroll processor needed several days of processing time, and investments typically didn’t come in quickly enough. As a stopgap, Ogorek would pay employees through SquareCash, Venmo, or Chase QuickPay — and, once payroll hit, require them to pay Fresco back.
Late paychecks and “less traditional” forms of payment, as Meyer called them, soon became the norm. Fresco was once again unable to pay its employees in November, internal communications and employee pay stubs obtained by The Outline show. “We had some minor fundraising delays with the latest wire, so I was unable to process the payment in time for the normal Friday paycheck,” Ogorek said in a company-wide Slack message on November 17. Ogorek concluded the message by apologizing for “this again,” adding that the company would soon be closing its series A round of funding. “This will be the last time we have to do this for at least a year!” Ogorek wrote.
Instead, Fresco began missing payroll more frequently, which had a negative effect on morale. Employees had equity or stock options, but they were increasingly regarded as worthless. (One former staffer called his shares in the company “Monopoly money.”)
In mid-December of last year, one employee from the marketing team confronted Ogorek after yet another missed payment. This employee recorded the exchange and provided it to The Outline.
“It’s very hard for us to do our jobs when we find out the day before payroll is expected to hit that we aren’t getting paid on time,” that employee told Ogorek.
Ogorek repeatedly claimed missed payments were “the nature” of working at a startup, and said that even though employees weren’t being paid “in the traditional way,” they were still getting payment on time through loans. “I get it’s an annoyance, but I mean, it’s a first-world problem to say the least,” Ogorek told the employee.
When the employee asked Ogorek to provide more advance notice when he knew payments would be missed, Ogorek said the sensitive nature of fundraising made that impossible.
“When you’re going through series A with no revenue, it’s like walking a tightrope,” Ogorek said. “It’s a social game, almost. If we tell [potential investors] we need money, then they don’t want to give it to us. So if we tell them ‘We need payroll this week, we need your investment,’ they’ll be like, ‘Wait a second, you don’t have payroll? What’s going on?’”
In April 2017, Fresco announced it had raised $5 million in series A funding. In reality, it had about three months of runway. The money had been raised in bursts over two years, with small investments from more than 20 VCs. The $5 million was an aggregate of those investments, not the amount of money Fresco actually had in April.
At the end of May, the company got locked out of its payroll provider JustWorks for repeatedly failing to meet payroll, internal messages reveal. (Meyer denied that Fresco had been kicked off the platform, saying the company had chosen to move to another provider.) Two weeks later, Meyer told employees payments were still lagging behind, but he had “confidence” Fresco would sign a multi-million dollar deal with Univision at the end of the week, finally ending the company’s financial woes.
“Quick update: things are currently looking positive for paychecks to go out tomorrow,” Meyer said in a June 29 memo. Fresco’s employees spent the next day awaiting news about their paychecks, only to find out that Meyer was having an “emergency meeting with executives” in the afternoon. Around 4 p.m., Fresco’s head of community marketing, Johnathan Hamiter, began sending employees private Slack messages saying funding seemed “pretty bleak” and encouraging them to look for other jobs.
At 9 p.m., Meyer laid off the entire company — save for Fresco’s executives and anyone who wanted to stay on as a “volunteer” — via Slack.
According to Meyer’s message, Univision had “screwed over” Fresco “big time, and at the very last minute.” Univision changed the terms of its deal, he said, effectively offering him a buyout instead of a partnership. The terms of the deal required that Meyer remove himself from the company’s board of directors. (Univision did not respond to The Outline’s request for comment by press time.)
Instead, Meyer and the rest of the board voted against the deal, allowing Meyer to hang on as CEO and try to keep Fresco going without Univision’s investment.
"Myself and the board will be working around the clock to secure replacement funding to pay everyone's back pay, as well as provide long-term funding for Fresco," Meyer wrote in Slack. “This is absolutely not ending here.”
It’s unclear exactly which costs were pushing Fresco beyond its means, but employees believed Fresco had trouble deciding if it wanted to be a media company, a news agency, or a combination of the two. As it grew, the company continued prioritizing user-generated content and partnerships with local stations, but there were brief forays into original editorial and video work, including livestreamed recaps of political events and a videographer’s trip to Puerto Rico and Cuba for a documentary that were costly and ultimately fruitless.
The venture capital database CB Insights conducted a study of the essays startup founders write after their companies fail and found that 42 percent of companies failed because there was no market for them. But Fresco, at one point, was signing deals with local news affiliates across the country and was hailed by broadcast media bigwigs as a way to cut costs while maintaining, or even increasing, their level of output.
“It’s very hard for us to do our jobs when we find out the day before payroll is expected to hit that we aren’t getting paid on time.”
The second most commonly-cited reason startups fail? Running out of money.
But Steve Hogan, an entrepreneur who runs a startup rehab firm called Tech-Rx, told Fortune startups tend to run out of money when a founder overlooks all other indicators of failure, including internal disharmony, overspending, a failure to pivot, and a loss of focus — all mistakes that can come from inexperience coupled with the pressure to scale fast. “Unfortunately, sometimes [a lack of money is] the only ‘symptom’ that the leadership sees,” Hogan said.
A lack of funds isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Apple was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1997 before being saved by an investment from Microsoft, its biggest competitor. After the 2008 recession, both Tesla and SpaceX were burning money fast, and founder Elon Musk was on the verge of bankruptcy. Music streaming giant Pandora ran out of money in 2001, and founder Tim Westergren convinced 50 employees to work for two years without pay.
But as Ogorek once told an aggrieved employee, VCs don’t want to pour money into companies that can’t pay their staff. So Meyer sold prospective investors on Fresco’s attributes and downplayed its failures, to the extent he became unable to see the failures that were even there, employees believed. Olsen referred to it as akin to a “Steve Jobs distortion field,” claiming that Meyer was unable to realize his company was falling apart.
Meyer and his executives have declined The Outline’s requests for comment since the layoffs.
“I heard a quote from an entrepreneur who said that running a startup is oftentimes considered a pain contest,” Meyer told The Outline the day before the Univision deal collapsed. “Most startups fail. Most startups, in fact, pretty much all of them, have similar fundraising issues or finance issues.”
As of this writing, Fresco News still exists. It’s unclear for how long.