Money was tight for Andrew Blankenship this winter.
That’s why Blankenship, 28, who lives with his wife and baby right outside of Stockton, Calif. was psyched to learn last February that his video had won the grand prize — $10,000 — for a contest run by Poptent, a video production network with offices in California and Philadelphia.
Poptent, which became Vizy after a merger in January, acted as the middleman between brands and freelance filmmakers, running contests like the one Blankenship won (that contest was for Visit California, the state’s tourism and marketing arm) and contracting directly with videographers.
But three months later, Blankenship still hasn’t gotten paid and his normal contacts at Vizy say their hands are tied. He said he’s owed $14,000 for the contest and other work he did for the company. The last time he got a check from them was February. He’s been making videos for the company since 2012 and said this was the first time he’s had to wait this long for payment.
Blankenship isn’t the only one who’s been chasing a paycheck. At least four other filmmakers say they’re owed thousands of dollars, including Philly-based Michael James Murray ($10,000) and Buenos Aires-based Federico Fracchia ($14,000).
Nick Henney, 35, of Indiana-based 323 Media, said his whole business was built on work from Poptent for the last two-and-a-half years. Poptent helped him gain access to clients he never could have found on his own, he said.
“I owe them my career,” he said, “but they do owe me a bit of money.” (Henney declined to disclose how much.)
Those problems raise a bigger question: What’s become of Poptent?
Earlier this year, the eight-year-old venture-backed startup merged with U.K.-based Userfarm to create a new company called Vizy. The merger came after a round of layoffs at Poptent, which Vizy CEO Nick Pahade said was “partly driven by redundancy due to the merger and the new offering, but also to be fiscally responsible to the business and our shareholders.”
But now you might ask if the merger was a sign of things to come.
Pahade, who was Poptent’s CEO at the time of the merger, left the day-to-day operations of the company in April, according to his LinkedIn. When we reached Pahade, he confirmed that he had left the company and directed us to the company’s current owners for any further questions.
Userfarm is now trying to distance itself from Poptent, according to an email that Userfarm recently sent to their members.
“Userfarm is back and we’re not with US based Vizy Inc, ex Poptent, any more. It wasn’t working, and we’re sorry for this,” the email reads.
We’ve reached out to a number of Poptent employees but no one would speak on the record. Userfarm CEO Bruno Pellegrini did not respond to our request for comment as of press time. No one at Innogest Capital and TL Capital, the two venture capital firms backing Userfarm, have gotten back to us yet.
According to the information we could find, it looks like the company’s owners have shut down Vizy’s North American operations:
- Vizy’s office at 2401 Walnut Street, which received a mayoral welcome in early 2014, appears to be shuttered. When we visited yesterday, the door was locked and the office was dark. The company name was not listed on the building directory on the first floor. Chuck Block, who owns the building, did not respond to a request for comment.
- Poptent’s West Coast office was shut down in April and everyone was laid off “with little notice,” said a former staffer who asked not to be named. By the time the West Coast office was shut down, the staff had been winnowed to four, the staffer said.
- Vizy.com, which used to be functional, now redirects to Userfarm’s website.
- Chief Marketing Officer Kurt Lohse left the company in April, according to his LinkedIn. He declined to comment, citing a separation agreement.
- Poptent investor Mark Koulogeorge wrote in an email: “I am not in the loop. We merged with a European entity and no longer have material ownership. The European acquirers are in control.” Koulogeorge said he was never on Vizy’s board, though a spokeswoman for Vizy said in April that he was.
- As recently as May 8, Vizy was still posting from its Facebook, though one disgruntled filmmaker has commented on all of the company’s most recent posts. Its Twitter has been deactivated.
- Company owners have hired a Chief Reorganization Officer, a consultant named Nat Wasserstein who specializes in helping companies “during times of transition, change and financial distress,” another former staffer who asked to remain anonymous told us. That was confirmed by an email that Pellegrini sent to Blankenship, one of the filmmakers whom Poptent owes money.
This past weekend, Pellegrini wrote to Blankenship:
As a simple european branch of Vizy (formerly known as Userfarm) we are not responsible for the job you took with Poptent months ago.”
Blankenship reached out to that email and phone number, too, about the money he’s owed and said he didn’t hear back.
“Whoever’s in charge of this,” he said, “they’re not taking care of their most valuable assets.”
Knowledge is power!
Subscribe for free today and stay up to date with news and tips you need to grow your career and connect with our vibrant tech community.