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IQdestination - My Life at a Startup
We had an intern at IQdestination at the very end and she asked for some thoughts on everyone's experiences at the company for her thesis. Being a writer, this was interesting to me just to have an excuse to do some writing, but as the end of the company came, which is still happening as I write this, I thought it might also give me some closure on the process. As it stands now, I'm not having a very good month :(.
The Bone Collector
That's what I feel like right now.
It's a week and a half after I no longer work for IQdestination, having been laid off along with almost all other staff. Yet I am still working. As I write this, the website for IQD is running in my basement, serving a few clients and hopefully landing me some consulting work.
This week has been crazy for me, as was last week. I went back to the office on Thur to meet with a couple co-workers and talk about setting up a consulting business for a few clients that want to keep the platform going.
More of the same on Monday, and Tuesday. And Wednesday, though that was a bit different.
Wednesday afternoon I left with everything running and went home, ready to baby sit kids for the night. I got a call a couple hours later from my former boss telling me the landlord was kicking everyone out and he was heading back to take down some servers. He wanted to know if I could help with the move. Most equipment was going to the CEO's house, but they were leaving some servers for the main website there. I couldn't come and told my wife to go out and enjoy her night.
As I drove to the grocery store with my kids, I called my former CEO as well as my boss and reitereated my concerns over leaving anything there to their voice mails. I told both of them that I could host mail and the website for some time here at the dkRanch. I'm sure my kids were a little freaked out by my agitation on the phone, though they were kind enough not to question me about it. As we went through the store and came back home, I half expected someone to ring the doorbell with a couple servers in their arm.
After the kids went to bed, I called my former boss, Charles, again and we talked. Evidently the server room, which has a separate card key, had had all the cards revoked, so he couldn't get servers. So he went home and was heading back in the morning.
I slept in and got up to find two messages for me. I called Charles back and he told be that he and another former employee, Mike, were removing all the servers and wanted to know what I needed to host the site. So I told him and then got dressed to head into IQdestination, for what I thought and still think, was my last time.
As we downed servers and packed up equipment, I was reminded of what Charles had said about our consulting efforts. It was like "picking the meat off the bones", he had said as we tried to woo former clients and obtain some work for ourselves. I packed up my truck and drove off with the production servers that were needed to run the website. On the way home, that phrase seemed a little off, having just loaded up a bunch of equipment. I felt more like a Bone Collector, actually taking away bones of a dead animal.
Later that day I went back for some more equipment that I needed. I was under pressure this time as one of our potential clients wanted a demo at 3pm. I setup everything, booted the servers, assigned an address, moved the DNS, and wala, it worked. From my laptop. I also checked my wife's computer and it seemed to be there. So I called the client.
It didn't work. I felt like an idiot since I hadn't checked from a location outside my house. I made some excuse and went back to work. For some reason I couldn't get traffic in past the DSL router at my house from the outside. I could see the DSL router, but nothing else. Tried different machines, moved the load balancer. Even rebooted the DSL router, thinking the ARP cache needed to be cleared (much to the annoyance of my wife). She was working and I didn't want to disturb her.
Finally at 4:30, I bailed. We needed to talk about money given my lack of income and our nanny's worries. So we talked, decided to give her notice, and I started a downward spiral.
I'm not sure why I felt so bad. I think part of it was the fact that I had helped build some software of which I was extremely proud. It was a damn fine system that ran well, was extremely flexible, and met a need. Our last marketing effort proved there was a market. And we failed.
Not I, probably more management, but I still feel some pain there. I've also been worried for six months and been looking for a job. No responses. None. Nada, Zilch, zippo, pick your acronym. The fact that our life might get turned upside down didn't help either. As it is, I need to see about selling our minivan today to lower expenses.
I came to IQdestination, .com in those days, in July of 2000. I had just resigned from my previous job, somewhat forced out by the new CTO, and was in demand. I posted my resume on the web on a Friday and had a dozen phone calls by Monday noon. So I started talking to people and had some interviews. IQdestination was my first interview of the week, I think that Tuesday. I wasn't really looking to go with a startup, after all, this would be my third job in three years, all at progresively smaller companies. I was nervous about startups and was seeing the market start to tank, so I was more interested in a larger company. But I was in demand, getting 4, 5, or more calls everyday, so I thought it would be a good warmup interview.
I went in to this little office park office, tiny sign on the door, a true startup. Walking in, there were cubes and a small receiptionist area with no receiptionist. Eventually I met Charles and it looked like a new company. New furniture, sales people toiling away in cubes, their chatter evident. Large whiteboards with lots of specs and diagrams.
We talked and it was the typical this is what we do, where we are, etc. I may have been a little arrogant, with all the calls I'd gotten, but I'd also learned from my last job to ask questions. Get the scoop. Find out about the company and who you will work for before accepting the position. I'd gotten burned last time and was determined not to let that happen again. Ironically, I'll probably take the first job I get next time around.
As we talked, I got the feeling from Charles that I'd like to work with him. I don't get this very often, in fact, rarely, but I liked Charles. After our meeting, I went into the development room. This was a large L-shaped room where 5 people sat at desks positioned around the wall. It was crowded, but a nice environment, most of the developers with headphones. I met Dave and a couple others on the team. They group interviewed me, asking questions, feeling me out. I thought it went well and left to go on other interviews.
The recruiter called me a couple days later and said they'd like to interview me again. I asked that I get to meet the executives at that point as well so I knew who would be running the company. I also had two other companies I was very interested in as well. Lucent was a good job, ironically in their e-learning group, but I didn't like the people that much. Doubleclick.com was the other and I really liked them, but they were too far a drive.
When I came back to IQD, I met Dan Burke, whom I really liked. He was the COO and we shared a mutal love for writing that we would discover later. I also met Brent, a high energy, dynamic, sales type guy. He impressed me as someone who'd be able to make a company go, but was like my last CEO and it made me slightly nervous.
In the end, I decided to take less money at IQD than the other two jobs because of the casual atmosphere, the group work environment, but mainly because of the people. Charles, Dave, Matt, Mike, Tatiana, and Rob were a good team and I looked forward to working with them.
As with my previous job, I was somewhat dropped into the role of database administrator. Everyone was busy and the weekly site changes kept the pace high. The first few weeks I got myself oriented and poked around the servers learning what I could. There were 3 or 4 sales people hired at the same time as I and we went through the same group HR session one day, so I got to know them. I also brought in my dog on Fridays. I have two great danes, so they are always a hit with people. Little by little I got to know people.
IQD was a fun environment. A dart board and ping pong table in the conference room encouraged people to play together. We tended to maintian a balance, even from the sales perspective. People tended to work 7-6, with some flex for starting for finishing. On the development side, we had lots of short meetings outside while a few people smoked their cigarettes, or while playing darts. We worked hard and fast, but not taking such big projects that they couldn't be completed in a week or two.
We were also growing rapidly. At this time we were getting close to 50 people, many of them on card tables spread throughout the office. It was starting to look like a shelter of some sort. So a building was found, actually the present headquarters, with space for most everyone. A few of us spend the weekend running some additional cables and settting up servers one day. It was fun, with a dozen people moving and talking, pizza provided for us, and my 2 yr old climbing on cubes. This was the atmosphere I was looking for.
Only part of the company moved, however. The IT and marketing groups stayed behind at the old office. It was strange for me because I tended to move between the offices and it seemed there were new employees everytime I went to the new building. It also fractured the IT people a little. Before it had been Charles in one office and everyone in another. Now Dave got his office, Tat and I shared an office, and everyone else in another. We stilled did group interviews as we grew, all of us getting a resume and taking turns asking questions. I'm sure we freaked some people out, but I think it helped us to hire people we liked.
Not to say we didn't have problems. All the management, including Dave left one week for different reasons. We had a developer that they were letting go becuase he wasn't able to do the work and had told him to not come in this week. Of course he did. And when he couldn't log in, he started asking questions. I felt really awkward and went to the other building. Our COO there didn't want to confront him, apparently everyone thought he was a little unstable. Eventually someone asked him to leave and he did, but it was a little freaky.
Not long after that some people got threatening letters from this guy and some companies we did business with got some crazy faxes. I'm not sure it was this guy, but everyone suspected it was him. A few months later when everyone moved to the new building he showed up one day and spit or threw something at Brent's car. It was crazy and got our front door locked, which was a huge pain. I remeber we had a security guy parked outside for a few months and an investigator showed up one day. We took a picture down from the wall that had shown the entire company when it was taken and I used my digital camera to snap a picture. I emailed it to the investiagor. A strange situation.
As we got near Christmas, we started looking to bring the systems that we ran from Dallas back to Denver. This was a good move to cut expenses slightly, but with a larger initial captial outlay. I think this was a good decision even today, and gave us some control we wouldn't have otherwise had. We also at this point started to move away from the auction based services that IQD had started with for classroom training into more of the e-learning space. The dev team began integrating a learning management system from Learnframe, Inc. into our product. This was the first big evolution of the company away from the retail customer, laptop giveaway marketing, and into the business space.
With the integration of the learning management system (LMS), we made out first big play into the business world, trying to sell our platform to companies more than consumers. Our web site started to stagnate from the public side as we poured lots of energy into building the things that a business would need. We still made our weekly releases and started to slowly get them more automated so there were few late nights. Everyone once in awhile we would have a large group of items and I'd get on the phone with Dave or Matt from home and we'd jointly update the site.
The LMS was supposed to save the business. With large license fees, we were going to make it. But we couldn't sell it. More time was probably spent by the IT group building the stuctures to hold and manage licesnes, than was spent actually closing deals.
Then we added ElementK as content we hosted locally. Instead of sending someone to ElementK. With greater margins, this was supposed to save the company and we'd see our revenue take off. Didn't really happen. We'd get a few good deals, but then it would stagnate. What we sold to many corporate customers was still ILT (instructor led, or classroom training), something people were interested in.
Then came IQReference, a resell of Books24x7.com, then IQView and finally IQBuilder. That's where the company was when it failed.
With each of these, we'd see a drop in revenue as the sales force was switched to the new product and the old ones were left to whither as an afterthought. Then revenue would increase and we'd make another change. In between the products, we added other items. IQUnits, and other prepaid training programs, new types of training, nothing consistent, each item meant to "save" the company and give us a tremendous revenue boost.
Sometime in the fall of 2000, we hired a recruiter fulltime. At that point we were hiring so fast it made sense to not pay the fees of other agencies. Vickie was our recruiter and I think we all really liked her. She was dynamic and fun to be around, always working to get "fun money" for things to do with team.
We also hired McGyver, a contractor in the fall to fix a few issues we didn't have time to do. He came with an incredible resume, athlete, mutliple languages, worked with the founder of Cold Fusion, lived abroad, musician. It was truly an amazing resume. And probably not true, but a good laugh. Unfortunately his code wasn't so great, so Matt redid lots of it when they guy left.
Rob was the first person let go in the first year of the company. Of course, 4 of those months only had 5 or 6 people employed, but about 6 months after I started he was let go. Most everyone agreed it was for the best, especially after the letters came.
Then we let Vickie and 4 or 5 other people go in late January. Sales weren't where we expected and the business plan was altered. This was around the time we started on the LMS and there was a company meeting to announce this. They were givena few months pay and use of the office to try and find a new job. A pretty generous severence.
Then sales were saw toothing again and near Memorial Day 2001, a large portion, probably 40-50% or our 60 people were let go in one group. This one was having everyone told they were in one of two meetings and the unlucky ones being let go. I remember Charles took the remaining dev team out and everyone felt awful, including Charles. I felt sick and it was hard for me to go back to work. My officemate, Mindy was one of those let go and I took it hard. For a few weeks I moped through work, staring at her empty desk. Eventually Tat moved back in with me and I started to feel better, but we were all nervous.
Throughout the company, sales had always been posted on a large whiteboard every month for everyone to see. We could track the totals daily, as well as electronically, but the white board was a kind of "out in the open", it's a "real sale" place. From July through December, we exceeded our goals every month. Those of us in the dev team often talked and were nervous. In fact, worried.
More than a few people were looking for work, and eventually it became a fragmentation in our group. Moral was low, and the rumors and concerns were high. Money was getting tight and we wondered if we'd see the new year.
A few people quit in the fall of 2001. The lucky few who found job. Most of us worried and looked. Eventually this led to a fallout between Dave, our IT director, and Charles, our CTO. Dave and a few others were let go around Thanksgiving.
We were close and I felt sick. I was told the day before so I could prepare and change passwords and stuff. That afternoon I ducked out and spent most of the day at Barnes and Noble, unable to face Dave. I also went in late on Fri and didn't see him before he left. I don't really regret it, but Dave and I were, and are, friends and I couldn't face him that day. Eventually we talked later, but that was one of my hardest days at IQD.
Then in February of 2002, a couple more people were let go, including Tat. This was completely unforseen by me and kind of unfair I think. She was told while I was gone skiiing and I really felt bad after that. I never got another officemate and it kind of haunted me for the next two months until I was let go. We were also given a 10% paycut, but could take 2 days a month off for it. Encouraged not to, but we could. I did this in March.
The Last Jerk
As things were looking bad, my wife asked me one time if our company was having its last jerk. The last twitch like a dying animal. It seemed funny at the time, and I wasn't sure it was happening. It was and I think that was an appropriate simile for the last two months of IQD.
Brent called a meeting in March for the company and told everything things were looking bad, but if we all gave it 60 days, we had a chance. He said if we came to work, we should work and that there wouldn't be any more layoffs. We would work until the end and then call it quits and have a party.
Well it almost happened. We went until a board meeting on April 15th or somewhere around there. That afternoon about 10 of us were told that everyone else was being let go. If Brent could get funding by Mon or Tues, then we ten would continue the company, otherwise we were out also. Then he took everyone to happy hour.
It was a shocking day and weekend. Not sure what to do myself, I called a few others and found people in shock, some were angry, some sad. People felt betrayed by the layoff of others and the suddenness of the announcement.
Two Years Later
Boy it's been a long time. It's April 27, 2004, just about two years after the failure of IQDestination. I just had lunch with a three friends from there, Matt, Kevin, and Chris. I still hear from Charles at times and I need to get a lunch date with Mike and DaveO. I've also heard from Sheila, and a few others at various points over the years.
Weather at the Ranch
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