Last time we checked in with Jesse Thomas, founder of the interactive agency JESS3, he was posting drunken dick pics of his friend Matt Monahan taken during a "Geeks on a Plane" jaunt to India, organized by Dave McClure's 500Startups and sponsored by the likes of Google, PayPal, QualComm and more.
Since then, Thomas has been hyperactively posting on social media as if nothing could put a damper on his jet-set lifestyle. He recently checked in at the National Republican Congressional Committee, the offices of Spotify, the GAP, and even NASDAQ. He was in New York City for TechCrunch Disrupt this week, noting Marissa Mayer's "great smile" and marveling at the sight of "a grown man wearing 3d printed stiletto heals ..[sic]"
He should have been more concerned with what was going on at his company.
"As far as I know there is one employee left at JESS3, the namesake of the company," a source told Valleywag. A former employee concurred: "Everyone else has walked out except for JESS3's CPA, who has given notice but is still on board for the interim."
The timeline of events are hard to pin down. But some time in March, a cohort of executives resigned, including JESS3's creative director, VP of strategy, VP of accounts, and VP of operations. Last week, four other staffers in leadership roles resigned, including the director of client strategy and director of tech & operations.
"The next day everyone else was laid off except four lower-level employees, plus Jesse, [a second creative director], and the CPA," said the former employee, who estimated that about nine people were laid off, including contractors. Earlier this week that creative director resigned as well.
Thomas has yet to return our request for comment. But based on interviews with former employees, it seems that the initial batch of execs who left in March were concerned about integrity issues related to the incident in India.
Monahan is the CEO of AlphaBoost, one of JESS3's clients. Not content with posting the images of Monahan blackout drunk and naked to his personal social media accounts, Thomas then uploaded them to the official JESS3 company accounts. In one video featuring an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, you can hear Thomas shouting in the background, "If you’re gonna get naked, you gotta have a big ass dick, what’s going on?"
Thomas, who made Inc. magazine's 30 Under 30 list along with his business partner and then girlfriend Leslie Bradshaw, was once responsible for high-profile campaigns like Facebook Stories, and counted Google and Microsoft as clients. But in February, "we lost most major clients over the India incident," said one former employee.
The more recent employee resignations were related to concerns about the company's ability to make payroll and the agency's financial health, especially with the loss of clients. According to a former employee:
The problem is that Jesse is fiscally irresponsible. He enjoyed squandering money on promoting the company — t-shirts, stickers (it's really graffiti... search Statigram for 'JESS3') sponsoring random events, taking trips like Geeks on a Plane that didn't result in new business for the company, etc. Cost was never an issue to him. He erroneously believed he was a rockstar and lived accordingly.
(On the registration site, Geeks on a Plane estimates the cost of registration and travel at $7,000 to $10,000. General admission to TechCrunch Disrupt is around $3,000.)
The other factor in the company spiraling out of control was due to the departure of Bradshaw, who resigned at the end of November.
Leslie ran the day-to-day operations, ensured clients and employees were happy, signed new business, and otherwise kept the lights on. Because they were also in a relationship, Leslie could exert control over him, at least enough to prevent him from draining the company's bank account.
Once JESS3 started hemorrhaging clients in February, it was unclear to those that remained how long savings or loans could sustain the company. A former employee who initially thought JESS3 would not be able to make payroll said checks were sent late by mail, rather than direct deposit for the pay period through April 30th.
Despite that our most recent paychecks are in the mail, none of my ex-coworkers that I've talked with are optimistic that we'll receive any further payment that we're owed without a fight, if ever. (We were all paid 15 days in arrears too.) From what I've heard, most clients have given him termination notice, so even if there was money there's no chance that anyone would go back to work for him.
In a post on his blog yesterday, Brad Cohen, JESS3's vice president of strategy until mid-March noted the inherently volatile nature of small agencies, where struggles to make payroll are not uncommon. "My teammates at JESS3 were, by and large, some of the most thoughtful, hardest working, and most talented creatives I’ve had the pleasure of working with," Cohen said before noting that "a good team that is ready to disband cannot be held together by a bad leader," along with the following graph:
Signs of Thomas' petulant, insulting, egomaniacal managerial style can be seen in a 2012 email exchange, obtained by Valleywag, between him and Bradshaw. In it, he tells his then-girlfriend and business partner:
Kiss the ring and listen to my billion dollar guidance, or walk away with nothing. Fuck you for defying my authority and managing this company further into debt.
"I did not supply this email exchange and I regret that someone did," Bradshaw told Valleywag by phone today after I sent her the email to verify its authenticity. "That said the reason I am no longer with JESS3 is self-evident to anyone who has read this unfortunate exchange."
"The beautiful thing about our economic system," she added with a nod to Milton Friedman, "is that over time it is the market and not the entrepreneur who determines what is a billion dollar brand."
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