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The Decline and Not-Quite-Instagrammable Fall of a Design Startup

Photo by designmilk (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every time I think I couldn’t possibly read another startup post-mortem story, a new one lands, and I find myself — once again — drawn in. This genre plays on the seductive power of schadenfreude and voyeurism, but at its best, it also explores something broader and more nefarious about this moment, and not just in the tech industry. Courtney Rubin, in The Marker, does just that when she chronicles Homepolish’s collapse. There’s the usual mix of a polarizing founder (in this case, Noa Santos), hubris, and greed disguised as a desire to “democratize design.” But there’s also a deeper story about exploitation, class, and the gap between (heavily filtered) appearances and the ugly reality on the ground.

On June 21, Santos — sitting alone under a crystal-accented chandelier in the office — put three-quarters of the company on what was supposed to be temporary unpaid leave, maybe two weeks, he said, according to former employees who were there at the time. (The other quarter of the company stayed on for minimum wage.) “If you can handle a paycheck or two, I do remain optimistic,” an ex-employee said her manager told her, emphasizing the considerable chunk of time the company had employed her.

By July 22, as most employees had gone a full month without pay, Santos’ husband Instagrammed a photo of a six-bedroom, $1.6 million home the couple had just bought in East Hampton, complete with two ponds, a tennis court, and a Jacuzzi.

Designers were still in the dark about what was happening, and there were still near-daily posts on Homepolish’s Instagram. Referrals had slowed, but some designers reasoned it was summer and people were away. It took the designers a while to realize they, too, weren’t being paid, because things had always been a little haphazard in the finance department.

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