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Escape from

Actor-writer describes his '21 Dog Years' at dot-com retailer

Mike Daisey
Mike Daisey was one of the "freaks" recruited by in the late '90s.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Mike Daisey knew the exact moment it was time to leave

It was when he realized he was becoming his job.

The author of "21 Dog Years: Doing Time @" (Free Press) started at the company in 1998, the peak of the dot-com boom and Amazon's success. Within two years, he had moved from customer service to business development.

But he was nagged by the thought that he didn't belong there, that he'd become a "directionless office drone" waiting for his lottery ticket -- Amazon stock options -- to pay off. It didn't help that one day he found a spreadsheet showing the salaries and stock options of his fellow employees.

So he left. It wasn't easy, he recalls -- he truly loved the company. He still does, even if his memoir of its hothouse atmosphere has become fodder for his one-man, off-Broadway show of the same name and a very funny book.

Amazon was the prototypical dot-com company -- an Internet monolith that attempted to change the way stores did business, whose stock price climbed to the stratosphere on the backs of tens of millions of dollars in losses. One reason for its success, Daisey says, was the passion of the employees.

"I think things worked because of the crazy, cultish atmosphere," he says. "If anything, [Amazon's employees] were hyper-competent. They'll martyr themselves in the place of the customer."

His own relationship with the place, he adds, "was more like a tortured love affair."

A statement on corporate life

Daisey had little idea what he was getting into when he joined Amazon.

A part-time actor, part-time slacker and full-time temp, he joined Amazon when the company sent word to temp agencies to send it their "freaks," he said. So Daisey -- who majored in aesthetics at Colby College in Maine -- was told he was "exactly what [Amazon was] looking for."

A statement on corporate life

What he found was a classic '90s workplace crossed with a kind of religious cult: a high-tech cube farm where people's desks were made out of doors; where, despite investments in the latest technology, its servers would fail and its customer service reps took notes on paper; where the Customer was King, but the employees were little more than serfs living in darkness; and where everybody pledged fealty to Time magazine's 1999 Man of the Year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (whom Daisey paints as a genuinely nice guy with a genuinely strange laugh).

Though the book and show are about his Amazon experience, Daisey points out that he is trying to make a larger statement.

"The goal of the book was to write about the office environment," he says. And that environment, he continues, has infiltrated life away from the office. "I still find myself using the word 'upsize,' " he says. "Office culture is American culture."

The entire concept makes Daisey uncomfortable, he says.

"As a country, we're profoundly unaware how much control we've ceded to corporations in the last 10 years. We're the hardest-working people in history -- yet only 15 years ago, we were talking about [a fear of] Japan [and its productivity]," he says.

"Now our stock options are gone, but we still continue to work. It scares me a little."

Rave reviews and perhaps a tour

For Daisey, the solution was leaving Amazon and returning to the theater -- but it took patience, he says. After vacillating over how to use the proceeds from the sale of his Amazon stock and being unable to get off "Internet time," his wife blew the money taking him on a trip to Spain, home of "the laziest people on Earth," he says.

"It was wonderful," he writes, "a perfect balm after my addiction to dot-com speed."

But he couldn't get the company out of his system, and the "21 Dog Years" show was born.

"My wife thought it was a terrible idea," he says. "She was looking for a break [from Amazon]. I said I'd do it in an unheated garage for four weeks."

Eighteen months later, "there's no end in sight," he says. The show has gotten rave reviews from the New York press, and Daisey may take it on tour.

Meanwhile, he still has friends back at Amazon, and perhaps even Bezos has heard of "21 Dog Years." Has Daisey gotten any reaction from the company?

"Not officially," he says. "I think if they can, they're remaining conspicuously silent."


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