The Dark Side of Dotcoms

In Columns, Technology
Dark Side of Dotcoms
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We are inundated by stories of people making it big and getting filthy rich –instantly– in the exciting world of internet startups. And it’s not just executive management or technical wizards who are hauling bags of stock option cash to the bank. Receptionists, mail room clerks, often anyone involved with a startup can expect to reap the benefits of its success.

But before you pack up your desk and go running for the next dotcom opportunity, listen to the stories from the dark side of dotcom. There’s a less than shiny world out there that the media is only beginning to explore, but many who have lived through the rise and fall of now-dead dotcom companies have long known.

I’m one of the many who have run the dotcom gauntlet and got nothing but another job at another company to show for it. My stock options would have been good for lining a birdcage, had I ever received them. Following are some lessons learned from my experience. The names of the guilty have been changed. Not so much to protect them as to protect me from the non-disclosure agreement I had to sign.

Even the most viable concept can be destroyed by failure to execute.

I eagerly put my pen to the non-disclosure agreement so that their great secret could be shared with me. And I delighted to the business plan revealed to me at my interview. That night, I thought it over and over in my head, making sure I was joining an organization with a plan destined to succeed.

I felt that the concept was completely viable. I thought that was all that really mattered.

In the end I was half-right. The plan was, in fact, completely viable as evidenced by our competition running away with the market and becoming one of the internet’s newest shining stars. What I failed to realize is that a good idea is nothing without the ability to turn it into a working business presence. I thought execution was the easy part of making an internet winner. I was very wrong about that.

Excellence in management doesn’t equate to excellence in dotcom management.

I had stars in my eyes as I learned about the team managing the startup I joined. Top executives from a very prominent company (you’d recognize the name, instantly) had joined forces to breathe life into an incredible business plan. They had, together, worked to create a dominant brand in their previous positions. I was excited to be working with professionals of the highest caliber.

What actually ensued blew my mind. I will never feel the same about corporate America again.

Each member of the team had outstanding qualities. But, like a car engine and tires, two very important parts of a car – they aren’t very useful without the rest of the car. Obviously, it was the whole of the company that they hailed from that made that company great, even though these people held high positions there. And don’t get me wrong, each of their outstanding qualities could hardly make up for their stunning inability to get anything done. And I thought it took somebody special to rise to the top. Silly me.

What startups don’t know about the web will invariably kill them.

While chatting with a coworker one day, she pointed out that it was interesting that only two of the twenty people working in our startup had ever worked on another web site. I was one of the two. I wandered back to my office and thought to myself, “If I had never worked on a web site before, what mistakes would I be making?” I made a bee-line for our site usage statistics, and what I learned shocked and amazed me.

Management had been interpreting these numbers and I never questioned their ability to do so. They had been making decisions –decisions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars– based on their findings. Their findings were completely wrong. Not only had we been working our butts off day and night to solve a problem that wasn’t a problem at all… the data was based on overall usage… and I was their number one user.

I cried. I laughed. I quit.

People cannot live on take-out and e-mail alone.

If you don’t have a life, friends, or family, working for a startup may be exactly the ticket for you. You can pretty much bet you’ll be put on a salary and then asked to work 12 hours a day. If you divide your salary by actual number of hours worked, you might find that you’re making less per hour than you did several years ago.

Be leery of perks. Those free catered lunches, sodas, and snacks are a cleverly disguised ploy to keep you from ever needing to leave the office. The free cell phone they’ll hand you is nothing but a remote imprisonment device. Your laptop/docking station is a handy way to force you to take your work home with you. The company I worked for had nowhere “safe” to store laptops overnight and it was against company policy to leave them in your office overnight for security reasons. Get it?

Beware the maniac dressed as a visionary.

The visionary comes bounding into the room hyped-up on two pots of coffee and desperately sleep deprived. The visionary uses more acronyms than the military, and can’t manage a sentence that doesn’t contain some sort of business buzzword. Spilling over with ideas that mean hours of hurried work in the name of speed to market, only to be completely revamped before you ever get the chance to complete them.

The business visionary functions under the delusion that any hare-brained idea is a stroke of genius. They spend the vast majority of their time making knee-jerk decisions that generally throw tremendous wrenches into whatever the people actually responsible for executing ideas are doing.

Don’t mistake mania for genius. And for goodness sake, don’t make the maniac the COO. They know nothing of operations. If you must have a visionary, find them a leash and somebody over them to hold it. It will save the startup, I promise.

Flailing as technique equals failing as technique.

You will find that startups have an amazing inability to make a decision and pursue it to completion. Every day is a new idea, a new pipe-dream to follow. Scrap whatever you were in the office until midnight last night working on. Behold the silver bullet.

This wishy-washy way of doing business ultimately waters down the business and marketing plans until what you’re doing looks nothing like what you started doing way-back-when. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with change and growth – I’m just saying that there should be some control. A method to the madness.

Failure to keep their eye on the goal, over-analyzing, and over-engineering have been the death of many startups.

The eternal struggle between Marketing and IT.

In case you didn’t already know this, the IT department rules any internet business. Marketing people can squawk all day long about what they want, but if the IT department doesn’t agree, they can just choose not to make it happen.

A savvy marketer or manager might just think they can fire belligerent IT people and hire new ones. Not in this market. IT people who really know what they’re doing are in such high demand that if you’re lucky enough to find one who is willing to work for you, you’d better be willing to whip out your checkbook and perk bag of tricks. And they probably won’t build what you want, either.

Marketing and IT people are two different breeds. The marketing folks want it yesterday, the IT folks want them to think through ideas before making them deliverables. Marketing folks tend to believe that if they read something in a technology magazine or see it on another website, that it will work for their site and that IT will have it finished by tomorrow. The IT department is laughing at them.

Fraternity rules. Nepotism inches out Dirty Knees for a close second.

The best ways to become a muckety-muck at a dotcom startup is to know somebody, sometimes biblically. You don’t need to know a thing about the internet, or business. Trust me.

Am I bitter? Of course I am. I watched multiple millions of dollars being flushed down the drain by people who sadly broke my faith in corporate business. I wanted to be working with immortals, would have been satisfied with mere brilliance, and found myself wondering how these people ever broke free of their after-school jobs. I saw first-hand that even the most viable business plan backed by millions of dollars can be destroyed by incompetence.

At least the Titanic had a band.

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