Relentless Pursuit Streamlining Technology
Tag lines come and go, but streamlining technology is a purpose that will not waver. Although we have over 35 years transforming business, some lessons are so painful that you are either forever demoralized or emerge dramatically stronger. Whatever the outcome, the easiest thing to do is blame others or the circumstances. The reality is that leaders are always responsible and it is no different in this story.
Small Town Boy Does Good. After 14 years traveling the nation and rising through the ranks, I bought out the owner who originally started the firm in 1978. The owner was a gregarious man who could sell a 6 figure deal an hour from meeting a customer. He also easily humbled you not only with business savvy, but as a millionaire regularly assisting with hospice. When the complexity of new technology began to wear on him, it never occurred to me to do anything other than buy him out.
Art of the Long Con. By that time, I had hired most of the staff. One in particular was a Cox Internet installer. He was an Eagle Scout with limited experience, but good intelligence and learned quickly. Two years later, Eagle was my right hand technical person eclipsing all others. The firm was growing fast and Eagle was concerned about hiring a “friend” that he knew from Eagle Scouts, but who already had certifications. Since they were really just acquaintances, we both decided there was little conflict and we hired the barnstormer too. Barnstormer turned out to be a solid performer, but I learned sometime later that the two were actually best friends.
Topple the Competition. Since we were the first Microsoft Gold Partner in Oklahoma, customers were eager to work with a vetted service provider. We expanded to Oklahoma City with Eagle running the branch, while we continued to groom Barnstormer locally. Then the talons came out, as both Eagle and Barnstormer began to complain profusely about how terrible their peers were. Even worse, both Eagle and Barnstormer seemed to just lay down. There was little revenue from Eagle’s branch and limited billing from Barnstormer months after his son was born.
Leave the Wounded. With such a colossal failure, the board quickly scuttled the branch and we moved Eagle and the rest of the branch staff home. We regrouped and offered Eagle a promotion as a Vice President. Eagle stalled on responding and then suddenly quit for a “new opportunity”. Soon afterward, Barnstormer did the same followed in succession by a few engineers.
Pirates Attack During Daylight. It was all part of the plan, as Eagle and Barnstormer had told staff and customers that the firm was in dire straights and going under. We found out later that Eagle and Barnstormer had become pirates selling block time to existing customers under their new venture, while still employed by our firm. The message was simple: “We did all the work and these people are going bankrupt”. Recruit what players you can, try to get other employees to leave, and plunder as many accounts as possible.
Black mirror. Eagle was going to be in management, so he knew most strategic initiatives and was privy to vast amounts of intellectual property, from customer lists and pricing to marketing information and agreements. Astonishingly, major customers had no qualms about having a new startup working out of an abandoned house with full access to all of their data. Soon it didn’t matter, because the new venture was a Microsoft Gold Partner with offices. It was like seeing an evil twin that copied everything we did right down to phone extensions. The only saving grace was a push for phone systems, which we had no interest in providing.
Spy Left Behind. Perhaps the most masterful part of the pirate plan was the spy left behind. The spy was an old furniture owner from Dodge City that had gotten some training and became a network engineer. Dodge was preparing for retirement, so the extra paycheck from the pirates probably came in handy. Dodge told customers and employees the story of how we were a revolving door of turnover losing engineers (never mind that the average tenure was 8.2 years). Dodge pretended to do work while trying to rack up bonuses. Unknown until afterward, Dodge sabotaged every customer or employee we tried to get back. A common tactic was to get a copy of the offer to former employees and then present it to new employees to show they weren’t appreciated. Former customers were regularly told fables about all the complaints Dodge had to handle. Sometime later, supposedly when enough damage had been done, Dodge abruptly quit because he “couldn’t take the pressure”.
Rifle and Loot. Altogether, it was over a $2 million hit to revenue. The pirates had also done a good job of soiling our reputation in the marketplace and plundering some key players. Despite all of the bad acts, the problem was what could you prove? Especially, when discovering fun little tidbits like Eagle performing Barnstormer’s last review and backdating it one year to circumvent the employee agreement. The District Attorney was tied up with drug cases and the criminal fraud charges were not a slam dunk. Civil litigation would probably take a decade with any real proceeds going to attorneys and it was unlikely the pirates had the means to pay. Besides, if it looked like a losing cause, the pirates could simply declare bankruptcy and flee to pillage another state.
Tally and Rally. The foremost responsibility of an Eagle Scout is living with honor. My wife says “it’s just business”. Whatever your faith, forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is choosing not to let hate or those who have wronged you have power over your life. If you’re a business owner, you likely caught several mistakes in the previous narrative. All of them have been documented and frequently reviewed to never be repeated again. Since the pirates were using our intellectual property and emulating everything in our business, the only choice was to change everything.
Shooting the Gap. What if you changed the model? Instead of pushing layers of unrelated technology products requiring lots of man hours to maintain, what if you eliminated complexity and cost for everyone? Streamlining technology eliminates any motivation to sell hardware or software and bill by the hour. It provides a specialty and niche focus. Midsized organizations in particular appreciated this approach. With a better mission, literally every document, process, system, and motivation was different.
Educate and motivate. It’s great to have new technology, but if people aren’t taught about it then you only get confusion. What if you informed people about how to get things done and not some marketing hype? What if you provided weekly: how to articles, case studies, comparisons, myths, videos, white papers, breaking news, and occasional business stories? The bulk of service providers have no unique blog posts and rarely update their websites, much less provide anything for customers to learn and do for themselves.
It’s been several years since the marauding of the pirates and they are still around. The pirates were one of Dell’s Small Business Partners of the Year last year and Eagle was the Small Business Entrepreneur of the area too. You might be surprised as we often send them leads, since phone systems and selling hardware are not our mainline business.
Today our firm is more prosperous than ever. More importantly, we have a better purpose for managed services with tremendous staff and stellar customers. When people ask what keeps you motivated, I often say “pirates”.
Sometimes you just need a good story. Yes, this one is true.