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So Your Startup Died. What Do You Do With All That Swag?

Theranos pullovers. Quibi T-shirts. While some tech workers junk the trinkets leftover from employers who went belly up, others see them as historical artifacts.

June 18, 2022 7:00 AM PDT

Megan Auringer started as a project manager at construction startup Katerra in January 2018, the same month it announced an $865 million fundraising round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, the world’s largest private tech investor. Over the next few years, the company kept collecting checks from venture capitalists, while Auringer collected free items branded with Katerra’s logo. The beautiful branding of the Katerra rain jackets, water bottles, backpacks, T-shirts, and vests “made it feel and look like a really well put together company,” she said.

After the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last June and announced it would shut down operations, Katerra kept Auringer and about two dozen of her co-workers employed in its Phoenix office while laying off hundreds of others. The laid-off employees left behind discarded Katerra-branded items everywhere. ”People didn’t want to be reminded,” she said.

Startup employees across the tech world are bracing for similar fates. Sequoia Capital is coaching startups about “survival” amid a “crucible moment” as rising interest rates batter growth stocks and startup valuations. Once high-flying startups such as delivery app Gorillas and financial tech firms Bolt and Klarna have slashed hundreds of jobs. One-click–checkout startup Fast, which doled out piles of hats and tees to employees and potential customers to raise awareness for its service, went out of business this spring after raising more than $100 million.

Past tech slumps and scandal-driven fallouts have had obvious, serious implications for employees: forced relocations, lost medical insurance and shattered dreams of riches. But the rapid wind-downs, messy bankruptcies and failed acquisitions have also presented a more innocuous question to startup workers: What do you do with that closet full of swag leftover from your dream startup?

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