Saturday, October 27, 2018

Crisis in a High-Tech Start-Up: A Case of Collective Action

I'm bumping this to the top of the queue on general principle. It's about a minor crisis in a pre-IPO (remember those?) software startup, though by this time the company had been around for six years or so. That was back in the days when doing an IPO was the favored exit strategy rather than getting acquired by one of the Big Boys (Google, Facebook, etc.). The man who hired me at MapInfo, Sean O'Sullivan, now runs SOSV, which became the world's third most active seed fund in 2017. 

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I’m interested in collective creativity, in how creative activity in lodged in groups. I’ve explored this topic in a number of recent posts, perhaps most explicitly in a post that ranges from Shakespeare through the temporary village that made Apocalypse Now. This post is about a high-tech startup I worked for two decades ago. It tells a story of mounting stress and its release.

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MapInfo started as a student project in a course on entrepreneurship at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Some students prepared a business plan that was so good the instructor told them they might be able to make a business of this if they so desired. They desired so and availed themselves of the university’s mechanisms for turning student projects into businesses.

Mike Marvin, an administrator with an interest in business staked our guys for a year while they developed the software described in their proposal. When, a year later, they had the software described in the plan, Mike quit the university and joined MapInfo as CEO as one of the Founders along with the four students, Sean O’Sullivan, John Haller, Andy Dressel, and Laszlo Bardos. The business became successful and a few years later they decided they needed a full-time technical writer. This would have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

I applied for the job and was granted an interview. I arrived at noon on a Saturday in full business dress, knowing full-well that it would be extraneous. I was met by one of the student founders, the company President, Sean O’Sullivan, in jogging shorts and T-shirt. We clicked and I got the job. I was employee number 66 (or 67, somewhere in the upper 60s). This puts the company at the upper margin of the size of a typical band, the day-to-day living unit among hunter-gatherer peoples.

At that time the company was way behind schedule on a major software release, having already missed a year's worth of ship dates. I had to learn their (software) product and produce a user's manual in less than two months in order to meet their absolute drop-dead ship date. I did my job and the product shipped at that time.

But the software was buggy, the manual was quixotic, and customers were not at all happy. A company that had been under stress for a year took bad hits from its customers. The developers began the difficult job of cleaning up software that never should have shipped in the first place while the salesmen and company executives set out to appease disappointed customers.

This stress continued for several months when another major release came due. At this time I, as tech writer, made a major mistake that ordinarily would have gotten me fired – I'd messed up in getting the manuals printed. However, other things had been going wrong and Mike saw that my error, however costly, was not an isolated problem.

Well, I’m assuming that’s what happened. I didn’t get fired. And company morale WAS in the toilet. But I wasn’t privy to management discussions.

Mike took immediate steps to bring the company around, including among them an all-hands-on-deck company meeting. One of his watchwords was “no more surprises.” I had no trouble with any actions taken but, a week later, I decided that, from where I sat, we were still in trouble.

I was so distressed that I could not even talk to my boss, John Haller, another one of the founders. On a Friday morning I typed up a memo that said something like: “Something is very wrong. I don't know what, I can't talk and I can't think. I'm going home and I'll be back next Tuesday. Assume that I am working off-site.” I printed this out and presented it to John. He read it, nodded, and I walked.

What I did in the interval is not important, nor do I remember it well. What John Haller and Mike Marvin and the other Founders did was very important. But I wasn't there when they did it and I didn't talk with them about after I had returned.

But when I returned, it was a different company. The place was humming and buzzing. People seemed more relaxed, a grin on the chin, a little pep in the step, some glide in the stride. More noise, but it was happy noise.

And you could see the difference in email traffic. The company had an internal email system and people made extensive use of it. I don't remember much about the email traffic before and after except that there was more of it after, and it had a different tone. I particularly remember that emails from the secretary/receptionist had more zing to them.

So, we have a social system locked in stasis and full of anxiety. I mess up, am called on the carpet, and changes begin. Mike Marvin had put the company into a different mode of activity. Instead of operations as normal, it was time to reorganize. Then a week or so later I, in effect, said the reorganizing wasn't going deep enough. At which point, somehow, someone – no doubt several/many someones acting as a team – drove it home. When I returned the company had settled into a new, and more satisfactory, operating mode.

If, in telling the story, I talked only of my immediate boss John Haller, and the CEO, Mike Marvin, that's only because those are the only ones in the company I interacted with in this incident. Oh sure, I certainly had dealings with other folks during this interval. But it was my interactions with these two that were the most important. Just what they did with others and how that all worked, I don't know. But, even if we could examine daily diaries by everyone in the company during this period, we simply could not tell this story directly in terms of those diary entries in and direct way. It would be necessary to talk about various groups within the company and how those groups interacted. We would have to find a way to talk about the company as a social organism.

The company survived that particular crisis and went public a year or two later, though I’d left the company by that time. MapInfo was acquired by Pitney Bowes in 2007.

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