Never volunteer for the away team
Alternate title: A brief history of Crowd Fusion, The Daily, and working your way out of a job
In August 2008, after living unhappily in LA for a year, my wife and I called it quits. I resigned my Editorial Director position at Mahalo.com, where I’d been helping Jason Calacanis run the (at the time) human-powered search engine as part of his initial management team. We headed back to New York where our two-bedroom apartment had remained unsold for the entirety of our tenure in LA.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I was used to dedicating myself to a startup. I started chatting with Judith Meskill, former Editorial Director at Weblogs,Inc., who was working with Brian Alvey, the company’s co-founder, on a new startup: Crowd Fusion. They asked me to join them as their Social Media Evangelist. The position and pay were a huge step down from my previous role at Mahalo, but I like working with cool teams doing cool things, so I accepted.
A Crowd Fusion History, Chapter 1: Vertical Publishing
At the time, Crowd Fusion was attempting to make a run at being a Weblogs, Inc. 2.0 of sorts, but instead of with blogs, they wanted to build data-rich sites like IMDB in various verticals, the first two being tech (Obsessable) and green (Super Eco). I was quickly promoted, and started helping run Obsessable. Unfortunately, both sites launched right around the time the online ad market hit the crapper in late 2008.
We were failing as a company.
A Crowd Fusion History, Chapter 2: CMS Services Business
So we started shrinking and rethinking. Everyone took steep pay-cuts, and eventually, they all left except for five of us: Brian Alvey (CEO), Craig Wood (CTO become COO), Ryan Scheuermann (Director of Engineering), Rus Werner (Senior Dev), and me (Director of Special Projects). We had built an amazing platform on which to run our sites and decided to become a CMS services company. We relaunched Crowd Fusion as such, offering the Core as a closed beta Open Source at TechCrunch 50.
We landed TMZ as our first client. Then part of MySpace. Then a Best Buy investment called Tecca. Somewhere along this journey I became part of the core management team. And then…
A Crowd Fusion History, Chapter 3: The Daily
In the late summer of our first year as a services business, NewsCorp hired us to build the system to publish a daily tablet-only news publication: The Daily. We worked closely with NewsCorp staff and Chaotic Moon, the mobile software company that built The Daily iPad app (more on them later), to architect what The Daily would be.
For two years, I was working on-site out of the NewsCorp building with our largest client for a minimum of three days a week, every week (and most weeks, I was there five days a week).
I had tremendous support from my colleagues. They constantly found ways to let NewsCorp know: This is one of our most highly valued resources and we value you and your business and that’s why he’s here.
For two years, whenever there was a problem with the overnight production of The Daily, my phone rang in the middle of the night. Whenever there was any difficulty with the Newsstand Apple Push Notification Service (our team, working with The Daily, were—if not the—one of the first CMSes to ever integrate Newsstand functionality), I received a phone call at 5am.
During the second year, when I was VP of Product Development, all of our client-facing developers were reporting to me and I was running all product management and client services for our clients’ projects, COO Craig Wood told me: “You’re the most important person in this company right now.” This was flattering, but this time it wasn’t a strategy with the clients—it was a strategy with me to make me feel valued and not hate the constant interruptions in my life caused by The Daily and our other clients.
This was tiring. It also wasn’t a burden that I suffered alone: Our entire team had to rally whenever there was a fire to put out.
The Daily was a great client that helped us grow our business to new levels. But they were also Crowd Fusion’s demise (at least as a services business).
The Daily was too big for us to grow past gracefully at the pace that we as a management team wanted to grow our business. They were also high risk, because NewsCorp could pull the plug at any minute (and they eventually did). In November of 2011, four of the five people who had remained when Crowd Fusion flipped into being a CMS services-based business met in Philadelphia to discuss how we could productize and move away from this business.
A Crowd Fusion History, Chapter 4: Becoming a Product
The solution, which presented itself in early 2012, was Ceros. Ceros was a successful British company with a decent sales pipeline and some large existing clients. They had a largely flash-based product that was doomed to eventually die since Steve Jobs had effectively killed off Flash and the rest of the world was moving towards mobile devices that didn’t support Flash. We had the tech that they needed to continue to grow. And they had several things that we’d never had as a company: a sales team, a focused product with a healthy sales model and a clearly defined target market, and a young CEO who was focused like a laser on selling that product.
So our two companies started dating. Dating quickly moved to heavy petting and engagement, and before we knew it, we’d acquired Ceros, merged the two companies, made Simon Berg (the aforementioned young CEO) our CEO, and renamed and refocused Crowd Fusion as Ceros.
I was on board with these changes, and argued heavily for them if we were going to grow and succeed at the level that we all wanted.
But there was one problem: What do we do with all our existing customers? MySpace had already sold to Justin Timberlake (ha!), so they were no longer a customer. Tecca was being shuttered (sad; it was a good tech site). TMZ was strong and in need of our continued support. Multiple Telepictures sites were launching/relaunching on our powerful platform. The Daily was huge and in need of our continued support. The solution?
A Crowd Fusion History, Chapter 5: The Away Team(s)
We saw this problem looming. Even before the Ceros deal was complete, Simon, Brian, Craig, and I met for breakfast in the early summer of 2012 to discuss a possible solution: spinning off the services business to someone else or as its own entity. The one big sticking point that came up was who could run that business. The only sane answer was the person who had been running it steadily for the past year while the company was refocusing on the Ceros deal and becoming something new: me.
They asked me if I’d be willing to do this for the company. As a person who dedicates himself to the businesses he’s involved in (this is partially a selfish move motivated by my salary and my vested stock in these businesses, of course), I said yes.
I volunteered to lead the Away Team—the services part of our business that we were jettisoning in favor of the focused product that was Ceros.
As a business decision for the company, this had to happen. It was a solution for a large problem that the company was facing that challenged its new mission.
But for someone who had dedicated nearly five years of his life to this business, who had taken extreme pay cuts during tough times, who was betting on this company to win and wanted to be part of the company’s entire narrative, it was a mistake.
Never volunteer for the away team.
The moment I said yes, there was relief from everyone involved in the decision. They were clearly grateful that I was volunteering, but something else had changed: Suddenly, I wasn’t one of them.
I wasn’t a person dedicated to the business and the direction it was going. I had volunteered to lead the team focused on our past, the services-based CMS business, instead working with them on the future-facing product that was Ceros. The reasons why I’d made that choice didn’t matter. I’d volunteered for the Away Team, and, therefore, I no longer mattered to the business the way I had moments before. I was now part of something that had to be disposed of. I was part of the Other.
This change didn’t happen immediately, and our plan for what the Away Team meant changed multiple times.
In fact, I never went off to lead the Away Team.
We ended up keeping this services business running as a new Enterprise division of Crowd Fusion/Ceros and I became EVP of Enterprise, running the entire old model for our company, the services-based team, internally. However, in running this team, my primary goal was to keep it profitable and from being a distraction to the main business.
We met with The Daily and told them the business was changing to Ceros, a product aimed primarily at brands, not publishers, and that we were no longer focusing our efforts on the CMS services business we provided for them. We worked out a deal via which we sold them an Away Team of developers and their Crowd Fusion license, so that they could run The Daily without us. I project-managed that entire transition. By the early Fall, I was suddenly no longer on site at The Daily and they were no longer our client.
We began doing this same transition with our other remaining clients. I went from having the vast majority of our developers and support staff reporting to me to having no direct reports.
I became EVP of Product for Ceros and was granted a Co-founder title, but I’d been focused on Enterprise for the past year while we’d been refocusing on the merger with Ceros. I had a lot of catching up to do on what our main business was now.
I also had quite a bit of overlap with our new CEO, I believed that Simon, whether consciously or not, saw me as that person who had volunteered for the Away Team—someone who wasn’t as dedicated to his company as I should have been.If our roles had been reversed, I would have envisioned him in the same way.
He also hadn’t worked with me closely around a product, so he, being a product-minded CEO, didn’t think I was really a product guy. It was clear I needed to either take a diminished role in Ceros or leave. So in mid-December, I left.
Ironically, this decision was made in the same week when The Daily was shut down.
It was as if the Universe no longer wanted me to be doing this.
If I had actually been part of the Away Team that had gone to The Daily, I would be unemployed by the hands of a cell phone scandal.
Aside: I staunchly believe that The Daily would have had at least another year to live if it hadn’t been for all the political problems NewsCorp was facing due to the scandal. The Daily had subscribers and a substantial audience, it was groundbreaking, and it was a two-year-old start-up on a five-year plan within a huge company that snuffed it out before its time. Note: This is all my opinion and is not based on any knowledge I have of what really happened.
If we had spun Crowd Fusion off as a separate company, we would have just lost our largest customer and would most likely be facing death as a company.
If we had sold the Enterprise business to some other group, we would have just lost our largest customer and would most likely be seen as a poor investment.
As it was, I was no longer part of Ceros.
The parting was extremely amicable, however: I’m still friends with everyone there.I’m certain that as Brian Alvey has always told me, the stock that I have received in this (his) company will far outshine the stock that I was given in his former Weblogs, Inc. co-founder Jason Calacanis’s company.
For a while after I left, I was debating getting the band back together. As one of the original five who were part of the company at TechCrunch 50, I have a license to use the entirety of Crowd Fusion code on my own projects, as long as I don’t go into competition against Ceros (something I would never do as a shareholder). I also knew a handful of trained Crowd Fusion developers who’d recently been let go from NewsCorp.
However, as I mentioned before, I like working with cool teams doing cool things. When my friends Ben Lamm and William Hurley heard I was on the market, they asked me to come work for one of the coolest teams doing cool things I’d ever worked with: Chaotic Moon Studios. I accepted their offer at the beginning of March. Then I flew out to Austin for SXSW and began working for them shortly thereafter. I was in Austin when the news broke about William Morris Endeavor (the largest and oldest global talent agency) and Silver Lake Partners (a leading investment firm in the technology sector) taking a stake in Chaotic Moon Studios.
I’m having a blast at Chaotic Moon. It’s great working with many of the same people I worked with during the early days of The Daily and to see how much they’ve grown as a company since then. I’m excited to be part of the next chapter of their business and I hope to remain for the whole story. I have no plans on volunteering for any away teams this time.