The Death of Patch and Why Coming to Korea Was Always a Good Idea

I mourn the end of an era.

Not in South Korea, although an ending is coming soon (I am coming back for a second year and should write about all that is happening, but that is for another post) when my job in Dadaepo, Busan, finishes and my school turns the sole remaining foreign teacher position into a part-time role. This leaves the school with three Korean-English teachers, a PT’er and a new director who I’m not sure will or won’t teach, while moving between two branches. Unfortunately, it also leaves me out.

Thankfully, even a tough English teacher job market in Busan gives me an opportunity to get another one pretty quickly, which I did. I will return in early March, in Gimhae, one city away, but at least I will be close (and, hopefully, on the Busan-Gimhae Lightrail). Also, employed.

I am fortunate that my school has always been upfront with what was happening–granted, they often didn’t tell me what was happening until the last possible minute, as in typical Korean fashion, but I eventually didn’t feel completely in the dark. Others have been dumped with sometimes only a week or two notice, nullifying their contracts and the 13th-month severances, return flights in the process. I may not have had an option of staying another year with this company even if I wanted to go PT (for her own reasons, the new director apparently wants to hire someone who speaks British English), but I am leaving on good terms and in good shape (literally, since being a teacher in South Korea has resulted in a roughly 40-pound weight loss over the past year).

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Hiking has helped. Maekkoli, ehhh, not so much.
Beating traditional Korean drums has also helped.
Beating traditional Korean drums has also helped.
Easily losing arm wrestling matches to cocky Korean professional wrestlers with massive freaking arms at bars has probably not helped much for weight loss. But, it is good to be knocked down a peg now and again.
Easily losing arm wrestling matches to cocky Korean professional wrestlers with massive freaking arms at bars has probably not helped much for weight loss. But, it is good to be knocked down a peg or two now and again. Seriously, I didn’t realize how huge his arm was until I saw this picture. That’s a lot of samgyapsal.

Unfortunately, many, many people at my old company were not so lucky when, on Friday morning in the U.S., a conference call announced the layoffs of a vast majority (reports are saying two-thirds of what, when I left, was a 1,000+ employee company, but friends still there have indicated it’s closer to 90 percent) of the remaining staff at Patch.com, the hyperlocal venture started by Tim Armstrong, a former bigwig with Google and current CEO of Aol. He convinced the-then flagging former internet powerhouse (people may laugh and say “Aol is still in business?”, but the company whose catchphrase “You’ve Got Mail” spawned a movie in the late 1990s has seen its stock surge in the last couple years. They also bought The Huffington Post during my tenure) he had taken command of to purchase the-then tiny little news website, convince them it was a good idea to invest $50 million in it and then expand it to about 1,000 websites across the U.S. in just a couple years.

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The big talk around the virtual water cooler as I was preparing to leave the company in early 2013 was that, after consistently losing money since its inception in 2009, Patch would become profitable by the end of 2013. Hyperlocal journalism would thrive and Patch would be at the forefront of the revolution.

That didn’t happen.

Earlier this month, some company called Hale Global, which apparently fixes ailing companies, bought a majority stake in Patch. On Friday night, while I was sobering up from a barbecue dinner of soju and Cass and preparing to go to sleep, New Jersey was waking up with (now) former Patch employees–and my friends–announcing they had just gotten the boot.

Hi everyone, it’s [Patch COO] Leigh Zarelli Lewis. Patch is being restructured in connection with the creation of the joint venture with Hale Global. Hale Global has decided which Patch employees will receive an offer of employment to move forward in accordance with their vision for Patch and which will not. Unfortunately, your role has been eliminated and you will no longer have a role at Patch and today will be your last day of employment with the company. …Thank you again and best of luck.

I launched the 100th Patch site, in Morristown, NJ, which was a big deal at the time. And Patch proceeded to be a massive part of my life for the next two-and-a-half years. I cannot overstate this. As a 24/7 job, it kind of had to be. With company-provided Macbook Pro in hand, I put a lot into it and (most of the time) loved what I did (I didn’t love the weight I gained from the sedentary lifestyle I had adopted, however).

But, eventually, long after Tim Armstrong’s “Grassroots” conferences in October 2010–where we stayed at luxury hotels and drowned ourselves in bottomless booze and optimism at three Patch coming out parties in New York, Chicago and San Francisco that now feel like a very, very long time ago–once the belts started tightening a little more, then a little more, then a little more, I realized I needed to go back to Korea.

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I still have this hoodie. I should have stolen this dude’s apron.
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These two photos were taken at the NYC Grassroots conference. They had giant banners announcing our presence and dudes in Patch-related uniforms to serve us. How the hell could we NOT feel important?

Today, while I am very sad for those who have been able to survive several more reductions and layoffs since I left on Feb. 1, 2013, I also feel validation for the decision to leave Patch on a high note and try to finally get over the 55-day Korean window I made for myself when I left Busan in April 2010 after less than two months.

On Feb. 1 last year, there was still even enough money in the Patch budget (but just enough) to give me a proper going-away shindig at George & Martha’s American Grille in Morristown, where I promptly blacked out and woke up on the couch at the house I was living in at the time.

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Feb. 1, 2013: My eyes tell me I was about halfway to gone when this photo was taken.

People were definitely excited for me. Some were cautiously optimistic. Some weren’t so sure. Really? After the first two times had been busts? Also, how much was I being paid to teach in Korea? Sure, we get an apartment and airfare but, I was making about $43,000 a year at Patch. I also was about to turn 34 years old. Was it a good idea to try Korea for a third time in nearly eight years? (Of course, no one I worked with in Patch was saying this, at least I don’t remember any of them saying so. While we still had budgets, they were shrinking quickly. Everyone knew something was coming.)

After hearing about today’s slash and burn, nearly a year after arriving in Korea and preparing for a second year, I am once again reminded that, yes, it was a good idea.

Part of me feels like I am getting better at knowing when it’s time to go before the fun stops, a life version of not being that dude still at the party when the host is ready for bed. But, it’s not really like I’ve been given too many choices. It’s just the vocations I have chosen to call careers: I was laid off from a small newspaper chain in Princeton, NJ, in late 2008. After I was let go, I heard of continued reductions, in workforce, in pay, until the company was a skeleton. Then, there was Patch. Then, there was the school I’m at now, amid a slumping Korean economy where fewer children are being sent to expensive hagwons, in a bloated foreign teacher market.

I can either keep going or stop. Which one will result in many more interesting stories to tell? Life is reduction. It restricts and restricts and we’re asked to work with less. Eventually, there’s nothing there. If we’re still alive at that time, we can either move on or stop.

Good luck, my friends and former co-workers back home. Good luck, my friends and fellow teachers here in South Korea, whether you are sticking around for another tour-of-duty or ready for your next adventure. I am ready for mine.

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