Engine Restart Checklist
On June 24, 1982 British Airways Flight 009 soared above Indonesia.
The Boeing 747 cruised at a calm altitude of 37,000 feet and suddenly a volcano spews ash. Smoke filled the passenger cabin. Engine 2 surged as a blue glow was being ingested by the turbofan blades.
At the flight deck the crew initiated the engine shutdown sequence. The fuel supply was cut off to engine 2 and the fire extinguishers activated. Within seconds engine 1 and 3 flamed out. A few seconds later engine 4 was gone.
The mountains around Jakarta are at 12,000 feet, this gave the pilots around 20 minutes to figure out how to stay in the air or they’d have to pull a 180 and ditch into the Indian ocean.
The Boeing 747 has a ram air turbine which uses the forward velocity of the craft to power essential electric services. One of those essential services dropped oxygen masks from the ceilings, yet one of those masks on the flight deck just didn’t work. More time lost and more altitude was lost getting to a breathable flight level.
Captain Moody gets on the PA system and announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
The crew urgently began the engine restart procedure. 248 Passengers, 15 crew. 16 minutes to go.
When COVID first hit the US economy I didn’t worry too much. I figured we sell online application and review software to so many industries (nonprofit, government, higher education, media), we were more or less recession proof.
Then came the close of our March books, it turns out nearly all of our customers stopped paying their bills entirely. What was a steady flow of cash turned into $100,000 per week loss in “altitude.”
Marriott’s CEO, one of our customers, shed tears talking about the mass layoffs / furloughs. Another Fortune 100 company told us, “don’t count on us paying our invoice. Not much you can do about it either.”
I just couldn’t believe it — when Tim and I first started the business we’d often hear the “check is in the mail” pitch, wait and wait and never get paid. I got a taste of what it must have felt like for the restaurants whose life work was undone in a matter of weeks.
Tim called this Operation Stone Age.
- Pull all open job offers
- Hiring Freeze
- Cut sales team in half
- Cut marketing team in half
- Cut back support in half
- End new R&D (cut development 90%)
This was April 5th. We activated the emergency line of credit. This gave us about 3 weeks to figure things out.
If you look at LinkedIn around April 5th you would see many companies boasting about their record breaking Q1s. I’m not sure why everyone was boasting because while deals were signed in February and March, no one was paying their bills.
We had bonuses due to our team April 30th and we made the commitment that any bonuses owed would be paid, if we had to make cuts, they wouldn’t start until May 1st.
I felt my job was to reassure the team 30 days at a time that their jobs were safe. I couldn’t make promises longer than that, but I knew if I went back on my word we would never recover.
Nearly every day in April a different leader came to me with a story like, “hey, [team member name] told me to forgo their bonus.” By April 10th I had messages from every single director asking for a pay cut to give the company more time. Tim and I continued the same refrain, “Thank you. Right now no. After May 1st, I just don’t know. But thank you.”
As a founder who did every job, I won’t forget the offer of sacrifice from everyone that came through in this desperate time.
As our cash levels crumbled I started to think about what happens in a global depression. Who wins? Restaurants that have been around for 100 years will be replaced with the people who have brand new ideas and are ready for risk.
I would remind myself that I had my health and while things are tanking, as long as I could work, I would find a way to build back. The biggest losers are those that try to hold on to everything they have.
I tried my best to split my brain into a “have” and a “have not.” I felt with our support volume down, our cash down, the next thing that would kill us is boredom.
I thought about rallying the team on big all-hands initiatives. I was also near certain that the pandemic would go away in 3 months and we just had to make it, albeit as a smaller company, but we had to just make it to the finish line.
Initiative 1 was to create a training / certification for our software for other IT partners to help out with. We charged $995/customer or $2495 per IT service provider. 11 people from the support department volunteered to help put together a training course.
I felt if we could get some cash now and give people a skill they could learn we would have some seeds planted for the reconstruction period.
The initiative would also have a multiplier effect in that our partners would be able to sell our product helping us expand our brand further.
Initiative 1 started as a success, we netted some $30,000 — the team worked hard and was able to celebrate being productive.
Then we entered May, June and July and this initiative yielded nothing else. It wasn’t for nothing, the seed is still planted and will take time to grow, but it wasn’t the magic wand that saved us.
I hate to say it, but PPP saved us. We qualified for the Federal Small Business Bailout program “Paycheck Protection Program.” We received money from the federal government to make payroll for 10 weeks. Thus plugged the hole in our wallet for April and May. The money gave us enough time to try, work, try again, work again.
During this era I was back in startup mode. I was working 12–14 hours a day for 6 days a week. I knew my burnout cycle and I knew I would need to give it at least 5 months of effort before I would really see any progress.
Back around March 15th, I would receive a daily email, pretty much spam about how a business could handle changes due to corona virus. These sales emails really annoyed me because I felt now was the time for a shared rescue plan.
Helpful step by step information needed to reach our customers immediately and it needed to be free.
4 months earlier one of our top customers pushed me into building a prototype of virtual conference software. I felt at the time the investment needed to make it work at scale would not be worth it, we would need to put all of our developers on it full time, and I would need to personally build some of the key components. That prototype ended up being exactly what our customers needed to get to keep running their events.
With the information I had learned in this process I was able to release a series of public service announcements. Each one went more viral than the previous. This led us to rolling out a new offering for Virtual Conferences. This was our Initiative 2.
My rule was that we had to be honest, there was a lot customers could do for free and if they wanted our technology they needed to know it was experimental. I would personally have to sign off on the deal and put my reputation on the line. “Things will go wrong, but I will remain on the project even during your live event to help fix issues as they come up.”
Besides my personal reputation, the efforts of our development team, marketing team, sales team and a few members of our support team were now focused on this new mission.
My day would start at around 6 AM talking to our UK team and then end at 10 PM with conversations with our Australia partners. I was juggling as best as I could, but I was literally back in every single department: Development, Sales, Bill Collection, Marketing, Customer Service.
If you messaged me at the wrong time I would just snap back. Today I’m grateful, but I know in the thick of things my mood was so unstable any reaction from me was an over reaction.
A few weeks went by and the work efforts piled up, but still no sales. I nervously wondered if my initiative was going to speed up our collapse.
Then came the first deal.
A week later the second deal.
A month later we are doing one deal per day or more.
In the 120 days since COVID shut down the economy, we went from the brink of laying off half of our staff to generating our fastest growing product line. We have completed $1MM in new orders and are accelerating.
At first I felt regret from finding success when so many are struggling.
However as we restarted our hiring we are hearing from the new team members how glad they are to be back at work. We hear from our customers how happy they are we helped them save their conference.
The pilots of British Airways 009 managed to restart 3 out of their 4 engines. The plane safely landed with no injuries to any passengers.
I think about the days that I had no time to focus on business fundamentals. I had to get the new technology working and literally could not find 5 minutes to talk to anyone. Yet during this time, one by one the engines of the company were restarted.
As hard as I was working, we could not have made it to tomorrow without the leaders cultivated at the organization. The team kept us at altitude long enough for the new engines to be built.
For this and for my health and the health of my family, I am grateful to have a good news story during this year that has been lost for so many.