Few things are more inspiring than Silicon Valley’s startup scene, but every now and then, startup dreams can turn into absolute nightmares. One woman recently shared her horrible experience working at a startup on Medium complete with late paychecks, forged pay stubs, and employees lending up t0 $50,000 to the CEO to cover expenses.
Penny Kim is a digital marketer from Dallas, Texas. Back in May 2016, she moved to Silicon Valley to take a job at a startup where she worked until August — the point she realized it was all a scam.
Although Kim left the company name out of her story, the internet quickly found out that the startup was WrkRiot, a job-search web site that has gone through multiple name changes (previously JobSonic and 1for.one).
Kim’s story starts when she was offered a job in July after multiple interviews. Her offer was $135,000 a year, plus equity, and a $10,000 signing bonus to relocate from Dallas to Silicon Valley.
Long story short: Kim never got her signing bonus, payments were always late, and a bunch of her co-workers were not getting paid on time either. The biggest allegation is that WrkRiot allegedly photoshopped Wells Fargo payment receipts to trick employees into believing they had been paid. Kim wrote:
“Thursday, August 4th was D-Day … That afternoon in the office, Michael emailed each employee a personalized PDF receipt of a Wells Fargo wire transfer with the message: ‘Here is the receipt. It has been calculated for the taxes on your semi-monthly salary and signing bonus. The money is arriving either today or tomorrow. I am sorry about the delay.'”
WrkRiots software engineering team was made up of mainly young workers from China depending on the company’s work visa to stay in the U.S. WrkRiot’s CEO, Isaac Choi, allegedly convinced two of his employees to loan money to the company. One employee lent $50,000 and another $15.000, according to Al Brown, WrkRiot’s former CTO.
According to Choi’s Linkedin Page, he seems to have quite the resume having held positions at J.P. Morgan and founding multiple companies. He writes the following in his Linkedin Summary:
“Having always been the youngest person in the room, I have always needed to fight to make my voice heard. Some experiences were good, but other’s turned into a nightmare…but the truth is no failure was a step back for me, rather the lessons I learned from my mistakes helped me build the foundation that I needed to succeed.
“I believe that boundaries were created only to be broken both in my professional and social world. When a person is faced with the option of retreating or pushing forward it is always best to believe in yourself, your dreams, your visions and your team…nothing can be gained by losing your heart and will to moving ahead.
“In short I am the person that would like to defy the odds and take my future into my own hands.”
The company had around $695,000 funding in total. Choi personally invested $400,000, Brown invested $230,000, and the employees’ $65,000 creates the total. Brown told Business Insider that Choi had promised to put $2 million of his own money into the company, which never materialized. They burned through all their capital in 10 months and failed to find additional funding.
“Every week, [the CEO] said the money was coming, but something happens — a long list of stories. I broached it in May and June with pointed questions, and I was not getting good answers.”
Kim was fired in August after filing a wage claim with the labor board for not paying her on time. While this is illegal, Kim writes that Choi claims she tried to “kill the company by turning the team against him by encouraging them to file wage claims.” It was later revealed that Choi had a mole amongst her co-workers relaying everything she and her co-workers said back to Choi.
In the end, the company did eventually pay Kim back in full. However, she has yet to see her signing bonus.
Since Kim published the post on Sunday, it’s captured a lot of attention on Hacker News. Multiple former employees and advisers have come forward with their own experiences. Daniel Tunkelang, a former adviser for WrkRiot, penned his own Medium post cutting all association with the company. He wrote:
“Effective immediately, I have terminated any association with the company, and I have asked them to remove me from their team page and anywhere else they may have referred to me. I never received any cash compensation from them, nor do I plan to exercise the options they issued to me. In other words, I have no financial connection to the company.”
WrkRiot also posted their own rebuttal to their Facebook page, threatening legal action against Penny Kim.
Shortly after, WrkRiot literally scrubbed the internet of their existence — their Facebook Page, Twitter, and even their own website have all been taken down. As of now, it’s unclear whether WrkRiot is still running and whether their employees still have jobs. CEO Isaac Choi, of course, is nowhere to be found at this time.