How Strong Companies Can Weather A Crisis: The Ten Pillars That Got Us Through
Hi there, I’m Erez. CEO and co-founder of a startup called Rollout.io.
Here is my story and lessons learned from dealing with a major crisis our startup went through.
A little background
For the past two years Rollout has been providing a solution that lets iOS developers instantly patch bugs in live apps without the need to go through the App store review process. (yes, this is legit)
As a startup, we’ve been going down a fairly expected growth path. $3.5 million in funding, 12 employees across three time zones. Hundreds of Happy customers, and our SDK is installed on over 50M devices.
Then, starting on the morning of March 7 Apple basically told all of our customers to remove our SDK, saying it was a violation of their license agreement. You can learn more about that here and here.
A few hours later a Hacker News thread on the issue reached the first page on Hacker News and we started getting tons of inquiries on our website, followed by a lot of attention from the media.
This could have been fatal to our company. Instead, because we were prepared, we emerged even stronger.
Here are the ten pillars that held us up:
- Capture Creativity
When you’re busy with day-to-day work, it can be hard to come up with out-of-the-box ideas. On the other hand, when your back is up against the wall and the adrenaline is pumping, is often when the most creative ideas are born.
Make sure you capture those ideas. Even if you can’t run with them during the crisis, it’s great to revisit them later to get your creative juices flowing.
- Assemble an Awesome Team
I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true.
Your team truly is your biggest asset. Our team is distributed between San Francisco, New York and Tel Aviv. When the news broke it was morning in SF and already night time in Tel Aviv. It was immediately clear that this was an all-hands-on-deck situation. We knew we had to react quickly, but at the same time not panic. The whole team rose up to the challenge and we worked together as a team, leveraging each person’s strength.
First we tried to decipher Apple’s outreach, but we still had many open questions. Had something changed? Why now? What exactly was Apple conveying in its message (they raised a few different points) What can we do right now to address Apple’s concerns?
Keep in mind that at this stage we were working with almost no information besides the email our customers forwarded to us. We quickly had to react to customers and the media while assessing what we can do on the product side to address Apple’s email. The team had to be agile, creative and fearless through this process.
When this happened, we were already on a very tight schedule to release our new product, a continuous feature release system for mobile apps. The team had to stop everything and and focus on this event.
When an event like this happens, you need a team that will be willing to work around the clock, be positive, and focus on “what needs to be done”. For me, one of the bright sides of the whole experience, was how well the team performed when faced with such event.
- Clear Mission
Our vision at Rollout has always been to help mobile app developers move faster. Our first product lets developers fix issues in live apps instantly. About half a year ago we started working on a new product which goes beyond the issue of fixing production bugs and addresses the broader problem of developing and deploying new mobile features quickly and safely.
Having a clear mission gave us the ability to look beyond the crisis we were currently going through, and provided the shared direction we needed when making tough decisions.
Without a shared vision that we could agree on, it would have been difficult to reach consensus regarding the actions we needed to take during the storm.
- Work with a Supportive Board and Investors
The least stressful call was actually to our investors. Calling them each individually allowed me to have a personal conversation with each of them, opposed to a conference call. They are not only experienced investors, but also seasoned entrepreneurs and they fully understand the rollercoaster ride that startups can go through. They did not panic, pressure us for answers, or ask us to lower our burn rate. They were extremely reassuring, and in a calming voice helped us turn a crisis into an opportunity. They kept reinforcing that they too, fully believe in our mission, and our plans and encouraged us to be bold.
- Select The Right PR Firm
When the $#!+ hits the fan, you need to be able to call your PR firm to get guidance no matter what time it is. As it turns, we signed up with a new PR agency just one week before all hell broke lose. We chose them because we felt they will be a good fit for our culture of focus and speed. Little did we know that just a week later, we would get a chance to test our decision to go with them. Time was truly of the essence and we needed to answer our customers, the media, and even the trolls.
Our PR firm was on top of it immediately to help us get clarity on the message we wanted to convey. They also understand the media very well, what they are looking for, and guided us with help on what we should or shouldn’t say. As a CEO of a start up company, I was always very reluctant to hire a PR agency. After all, budgets are tight, and every dollar spent should have a clear ROI, but boy, am I happy I decided to spend that dollar.
- Select The Right Law Firm
As the CEO, one of the first things that was on my mind was to figure out if there were any liabilities from Apple or our customers. Issues like this can kill a company and I needed to know ASAP if the company was exposed in any way. I called our lawyers at 11pm their time with an initial update. One hour later we were on a conference call with the relevant partner in the law firm. Impressive.
- Foster Happy Customers
Bringing real value to our customers and providing excellent, personal support pays off when an unexpected crisis hits. The most heartwarming and supportive comments came from our customers. Here are a few examples:
“Thanks for the update. Good luck, let us know what comes out of it…”
“Hey guys…i know you have a lot on your plate right now with this apple stuff. hang in there.”
“I saw the news about Apple rejecting apps with Rollout : They’re making a huge mistake. Services like Rollout are improving the quality of apps in their store….”
“Regardless of what happens, you’ve got a team of geniuses over there and I’m sure you’ll land on your feet.”
When you’re on the front page of Hacker News, and the media is already writing a one-sided story, it’s easy to get distracted. Everyone needs to understand what’s truly important and what’s just noise, and distinguish between what we should react to and what to just ignore.
We saw many incorrect comments and stories about Rollout’s tech and about Apple’s guidelines but we just had to ignore them and focus on what’s really important — our customers, our outreach to Apple and our coming product launch.
- Awesome Life Partner
It really helps if you have an awesome partner. Building a successful startup is hard work and time consuming. Throw in an emergency, and the intensity grows exponentially.
When my wife heard me tell my co-founder over the phone — “We’re in a code red”, she understood that for the next few days I wasn’t going to be available and that she’ll need to handle everything else on her own. Having a partner that understands you and gives you the space to do what you need is imperative.
I haven’t quite built a great company yet, but I finally understand why so many speeches start with the speaker thanking their partner.
- Don’t Panic
Douglas Adams was right. You’ll get through this.
Particularly if you are in a management position, it’s important that you set the proper tone for your employees, partners, and customers. Don’t make light of the situation, but show that you have a plan for emerging from it.
This situation tested every element of our company, and as a result we have emerged even stronger than we were going in. Hopefully your company never has to deal with what we did. But if you ever do, these pillars can only help.