When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep On Going

With all the doom and gloom of the past few months and all signs pointing to hard times ahead, I’ve been thinking back to earlier in the decade, during the dotcom bust. I was at Live365, the Internet radio network, and we had burned through millions of dollars with no appreciable revenues nor a business model. Our CEO/founder had left, and I found myself promoted to the management team well short of my 30th birthday and with no management experience to speak of. Our investors, having lost faith in the prior management team, had the Company on a very tight leash.  So tight that we depended on a wire transfer every two weeks to meet payroll and other obligations.
At one point, our ISP shut us off, and we had no Internet access at the office. I had to get an employee to drive a check over so that they would turn us back on. Even worse, our site went down when the people we bought bandwidth from got shut off themselves. It wasn’t our fault, but we were still down, and the worst part was that we didn’t have enough cash to migrate to another bandwidth provider. I’ll never forget one of our employees offering to make the Company a personal loan. I couldn’t accept it because I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to pay him back.
Amazingly, our users didn’t give up on us. They set up alternate forums to discuss what was going on, sent pizza to our offices and, most importantly, gave us moral support. I won’t go through the litany of hardship we faced but, suffice to say we almost went under a few times. We were able to survive through sheer will, the dedication of our employees and users and a lot of luck.  There were so many lessons learned, but, in particular:
1. Be as transparent with your employees and other stakeholders as you can be. At one point, we had to tell everyone in the company that coming to work was optional and that the next payroll was in doubt because of our cash issues. Even though it was bad news, they appreciated the transparency. In hindsight, I would have been much more communicative than I had been.
2. Cultivate a trusted adviser or mentor outside of the workplace. I think people should do this anyway but it helped me a great deal to have someone I could talk to about the issues I was facing and dispassionately help me evaluate the scenarios and available options.
3. Remember whom you work for and where your fiduciary duties lie. Yes, you ultimately work for yourself.  But, as a founder or management team member, you may have fiduciary duties to shareholders, both common and preferred, to employees, creditors and customers.  Their interests can diverge even in the best of times and especially so when things start going pear-shaped. I made some painful decisions that ruined a friendship but were for the ultimate good of the company and satisfied my fiduciary and ethical obligations — and, to reiterate No. 2 above, I’m glad I had a trusted adviser to help me make sense of things during such an emotionally fraught period.
4. Accelerate non-advertising revenue models. This is a more practical recommendation.  Even if your usage and advertising metrics are growing nicely, now is the time to accelerate development of non ad-based models and prioritize the other revenue streams more highly.  Your investors and poptential investors and acquirers will appreciate this. Not only that but they are likely to discount your ad-based revenues anyway, so any momentum you can show outside of ads will bolster your story.
5. What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. Easy to say, hard to live through. But just keep telling yourself this when things really, really suck.
6. Pray! Seriously, luck plays a big role. Do whatever you can to make your own luck.
While it’s going to be a bumpy road ahead that will involve a lot of pain for many people, I think it actually will be better this time around: The Internet, the web and mobile are real media with real users, real revenues and real business models. Add to that the fact that it’s orders of magnitude cheaper to develop and go-to-market than it was then, and I don’t think the downturn in our general field will be as drastic as it was back in the day.
Raghav “Rags” Gupta is VP of International Partnerships at Brightcove, where he has worked since 2005. His blog can be found at www.ragsgupta.com.