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.
At the end of 2018 Jordan suggested we make a move in the exhibitor space. Nearly all of our sales were done from inbound or outbound marketing and we were missing opportunities from people who had never heard of us.
He pitched a plan where we would be prudent about the gamble, perhaps we should start off as a small sponsor, he said.
Jordan had not seen Boiler Room.
We decided to gamble big and bet our 2019 strategy on becoming a high level sponsor of a major trade organization. This sponsorship would give us the biggest booths on the show floor, prime placement, and signage everywhere.
As usual Tim and I made this decision based on our egos and didn’t really think through the logistics. “How hard can it be to get one of those big booths.”
We read a lot, and took a lot of advice on what to do. Most of the work leading up to the event was done by Tim and Jordan. My contribution was to partner with Georgetown Cupcakes for our event swag.
I decided to test the idea by sending a box of cupcakes to the office and see what the reaction would be.
The night before the first big event I was a nervous wreck.
We had done all the practice we could, but I was worried we would be called out for being the amateurs we were. We spent the first 6 months of the year waiting for this moment and now only time would tell if our gamble would pay off.
On game day as we walk over to our booth, one of our newest team members, Aaron, asks me, “so how many of these have you done?”
I stop and reply, “Aaron…this is the first time… for all of us.”
The team came through and all of our practice paid off. The escalators into the trade show floor led straight to our booth.
10 smiling faces with cupcakes were there to great people.
We tried the lines we practiced to attract attention as people walked by.
“Have you heard of OpenWater” — this was Rebecca’s refrain. Mine was “Chocolate or Vanilla?”
Our competition, 20x the size of us stopped by to congratulate us.
We looked like we knew what we were doing. We acted as if.
Then we became.
If you have never played Starfox 64, let me tell you, in 1997 it was all the rage. Having control of a futuristic space plane on a 3-D terrain was pure joy.
There was one level which mimicked the Independence Day movie scene where an impenetrable alien ship would hover over and destroy world icon locations.
This level was one of the top designed plays of all time. You had about 5 minutes to take out an alien ship and help save a planet, but there was a chance you may not succeed and if you didn’t, this was the outcome:
22 years later, I still remember the feeling of defeat while reading the words MISSION COMPLETE on the screen. The Star Fox team powered up their Arwings and made it on to the next level, leaving behind a planet that relied on them, that they let down.
2019 was really good for the company. I consider it our coming of age year. Our industry sponsorship gave us a strong name in our field, we signed an anchor customer that will allow us the means to expand to Europe, and we started building out our management team.
As this year comes to an end, I can’t shake the feeling that even if we make serious mistakes, Tim and I will still come out ahead, but the future of those that helped us build this company is not so firm.
Earlier this year we made a wrong hire and gave that hire broad decision making power. His forth day on the job he fired a very well liked employee. What seemed like a prudent business decision turned out to be a power grab as he then started marginalizing young leaders with ageist comments or demeaning advice from people getting actual work done.
During his first 2 weeks, nearly every day one staff member or another would reach out to Tim or myself. On day 15 he was fired.
A few days after the firing we had our second annual support retreat in DC. About 30 people gathered in a commercial kitchen as we cooked handmade pasta. Seeing so many people in the room gave me a feeling of worry. I thought to myself, “all these people…are part of my organization….eish….”
At the time we had about 40 people who depend on OpenWater, today that number is over 50 and continues to grow.
I recognized for the first time what a responsibility it is to run a company. I used to think of employment as a job, if you lose your job you find another one — but many employees helped build this company from nothing. People have become friends with one another. They have watched and helped each other grow.
I missed this context and I will consider it my biggest regret of 2019.
Perhaps this too is part of our coming-of-age.
“Koo-nul, where are you from?”
“Oh I’m from New York, but my parents came here from India”
“That’s so nice to see, your family must be one of the good ones”
– Private Equity Investor comment to me in 2019
Earlier this year my brother moved into his new office space on Park Ave. He is a physician and fortunate enough to be running his own private practice. He was never very good at working for the man. As the family came to all congratulate him, I turned to my mom and asked, “ma… wasn’t dad’s office somewhere around here?”
My dad too was an entrepreneur. He ran an import/export business in the 1980s selling Oriental Rugs. Turns out none of the Johar men were very good at working for the man.
I asked my mom to dig up some photos of that office and I wanted to share them here. My dad’s office was off Broadway. It was in a warehouse like building which only had a freight elevator. I have faint memories of the elevator man pulling a lever to bring us up and pushing it down to stop once we got to the floor.
Driving through Manhattan, we passed through the same commercial neighborhoods my dad would pack his van with and sell. He commented, “That store still owes me $400.”
I shuddered for a moment. I realized the dreams that my brother and I are living now are the dreams my parents came to this country for for themselves. We live in this city now with all of the same ambition — but also have the luxury, the nice office, the budget to take cabs, seamless, you name it.
My parents would share stories about how a fun night would be downing a bag of chips with a Budweiser in their studio apartment. They would relish in the memory of folding up clothes and shoving them into a pillow case, their substitute for the real thing.
They made the most of those dreams, eventually moved to the suburbs and put us into an incredible school system and community.
They are proud of what they did, save, invest, save more. Live modestly even when times got better.
I have no plans to stop taking Uber, ordering seamless, or buying any jeans necessary, however I did want to take the time to tribute this journey. I know it is not unique to my family nor is it unique to immigrants.
Here are some pictures of that office:
My mom and I had the idea of getting these memories collected and framed into art work on my brother’s new office wall. In addition to the pictures above here are some of the photos we used for inspiration from that era, along with a sketch my mom drew.
For the unveiling, I picked Father’s Day. My Dad doesn’t accept gifts so we always have to be creative. The father’s day card included a print out of the pictures I shared above. After handing the card my mom brought up the painting.
Here it is in full grandeur.
I arrived at Terminal 2, The Queen’s Terminal, London Heathrow International Airport. I tried to shift into UK mode. I played Bohemian Rhapsody in my headphones.
I was here for a meeting with Decanter Wine Awards, a division of Time Magazine. The largest deal our company ever had a chance of signing, the deal that would bring us European operations if we won it, and most importantly the deal my company trusted me with to deliver on.
I switched to Estelle — American Boy featuring Kanye West.
Who the hottest in the world right now.
Just touched down in London town.
Bet they give me a pound.
Tell them put the money in my hand right now.
Tell the promoter we need more seats,
We just sold out all the floor seats
Who Killing em in the UK.
Everybody gonna to say you K
As I made my way to my hotel, I started to reflect on how this opportunity came about. Nearly 2 years earlier a business development rep sent a cold email to a bunch of places in the UK, Decanter was one of the few to respond.
The demo got passed along to Jordan, the same Jordan that brought Oracle for us in 2018 would now be responsible for nurturing Decanter. Spring and Summer of 2018 continued with several demos and a confirmation that Decanter would move ahead with us. Then, radio silence….
Jordan continued his outreach, every few months, until the winter of 2019 when a new IT person from Decanter reached out claiming, now was the time. We re-did nearly every demo and call we had in 2018 for this new person and by April we were told once again Decanter would move again. Then, delays. More delays.
On one of the last calls before this meeting I flipped out, with the customer on the line I said, “I’m done with these calls. You can talk to Jordan, but I’m done until further notice.” Jordan looked at me in horror, I was rude to his prospect.
He continued on, isolating me from any more calls until we had a draft agreement. Two more months continued with a technical proof of concept which would culminate in my trip to the UK.
I was jet lagged and tired out of my mind from all of the prep, but I had to let the world know I was in London. I purposely picked a place on Leicester Square so I was walking distance from sights I could document “for the gram.”
The weather was perfect and I made my way over the river Thames towards South Bank. For these two hours, I stopped thinking about the deal. My mind wandered back 11 years, when I was last at South Bank. I was still working at the government and my dreams of starting a business were still just that, dreams.
I woke up, showered, ironed my clothes, and started to make my way to Canary Wharf to the offices of Time, Inc. I got there early, around 8:30 AM and found a small cafe run by Italian women to prepare at. I enjoyed my espresso, omelette and sourdough bread.
I was nervous and reflected on the chat I had with Tim the night before. He told me that the whole team was rooting for me. Jordan and I tried to stay low key about this deal, but this one deal would be larger than every other deal we signed that quarter, combined, it was clear that all eyes were on us, and because the close was on me, I felt all eyes on me.
I felt my reputation was on the line, bringing this deal home would be expected, but failing, failing would make me a has-been at my own company.
The meeting starts and immediately I felt different than any other meeting I have been in. The managing director, senior IT staff, and a few of the day to day staff filled the room as I figured out how to connect my monitor.
With 6 counter-parties in the room my nervousness dissipated. My mind shifted into auto-pilot and I realized, I was trained for this moment.
The sales process I spent years learning came back to me with full tactical force, I went through the steps of the Sandler Submarine.
- Bonding and rapport
- Upfront Contract
In the United Kingdom, rowing is a well followed sport. You may remember from my previous post on our name that in rowing the term “Open Water” means a victory so far ahead of the competition that you can see open water behind the winning boat.
As the meeting ends, one of the people in the room asks, “so what is OpenWater?” I demonstrated using 2 TV remotes as rowing shells. I showed two remotes fiercely battling until one pulls away creating a blank space on the table.
As I finish my explanation one of the Decanter employees takes the winning remote to the edge of the table and points at me:
“This is you…., and that remote way back there,
that, that… that is [the competition]”
This victory was not just OpenWater. It was OpenWater-on-Thames.
We won the deal. We celebrated with a dinner. We went back to work. By the time we fully deliver on our agreement 2 years will have passed, we will have a full fledged European operation, and we will have forgotten the amount of hard work that went into this milestone.
On August 23, 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit the Piedmont region of the Commonwealth of Virginia, United States, at 1:51:04 p.m. local time. The shock wave from that earthquake started causing tremors in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC within minutes.
Tim and I were at a sales meeting at the National Association of Tank Truck Carriers. Mid pitch the room started shaking. Immediately, my mind flashed back to the kindergarten lesson of how to stay safe during an earthquake, and I made a beeline towards the door frame.
Everyone remained in the room and laughed, “you know Kunal this is an office building, the frames are fake… also it was a brand new building built to withstand any east coast earthquake.”
Meanwhile, 7 miles away in our DC office as the tremors shook the 50+ year old building, Zack had a different idea of how to handle the pending crisis. Fearful of the building falling down and our servers getting crushed in the rubble, he spent a few fearless minutes checking in all of his code to the cloud.
The thing about Zack is that his entire team knows they can count on him. They can count on him to give the best answer, to be the most fair arbitrator, and to be on hand when they need him. The thing his team doesn’t know about him is that there was a time no one knew he would be a leader.
While I don’t exactly think that sacrificing one’s safety was the best move, it is one of many stories that define who Zack was before he became who he is.
As I closed out 2018 and took stock of what I wanted to achieve in 2019 I learned that I was near burn out. I peeled back what was causing the burn out and realized that I was working with customers, working with staff, and working on the business. I decided for 2019 I’d spend the most time with staff and let the staff work with customers and work on growing the business.
I was thinking about a future OpenWater. Tim would be in his mountain HQ3, I would be at the beach HQ2, and there would be a trusted team at HQ1. Perhaps this team would come from an outside partner who buys a stake in OpenWater or perhaps this team could be grown from within.
In January, I launched the Leadership Anonymous meeting.
We started the conversation talking about adjectives we would use to describe ourselves in the work place and then adjectives that we use to describe leaders we admire. Some of the adjectives that came up for leaders we admire include: Caring, Intelligent, Focused, Humble, Capable.
Later, I asked the team to share stories of leaders they admired. Jordan described his grandfather and uncle. Both who went on to lead very successful and lucrative years. The key phrases Jordan shared that he felt were the most powerful included: “My grandfather embodied the idea that everyone is human and should be treated that way. If someone seems poor or looked like they were struggling he would make it a point to treat them even better. To my grandfather lifting people up was the best thing you could do.”
The commonality between everyone’s stories were that the people they admired did more than talk, they spend their lives being the person they said they were. We felt the strongest leadership came from people who don’t show they are in charge but are still widely followed.
As you’ve probably figured out from my other posts, one of the music duos I admire is Daft Punk. Their first album was titled Homework and on it was a track called Teachers. The track talked about the influences that molded their technique. On a repetitive electronic loop they list a DJ or music producer’s name followed by is in the house.
As the track was released in 1997, I hadn’t heard of just about anyone on this list. Here is the first verse. The names I recognized are in bold.
Paul Johnson, DJ Funk, DJ Sneak, DJ Rush, Wax Master, Hyperactive, Jammin Gerald, Brian Wilson, George Clinton, Lil Louis, Ashley Beedle, Neil Landstrumm, Kenny Dope ,DJ Hell, Louie Vega, K-Alexi, Dr. Dre
What surprised me the most about this list was Dr Dre is known to have influenced an entire generation of hip hop musicians, but Daft Punk to such a level, I never would have guessed.
The first time I heard Teachers was actually in the 2008–2009 music scene with this song. In 2008 another DJ, Laidback Luke released a re-edit of the original. Here is the last verse from that song, with the names I recognize in bold.
deadmau5, paul woolford, dj dlg, redroche, tiga and felix, serge santiago, erol alkan, junior sanchez, switch & sinden’s, hervé & diplo’s, pete tong, daft punk
Just about all of them this time. This song was about the music producers that influenced LaidBack Luke while paying homage to Daft Punk that inspired the entire generation.
So besides LaidBack Luke, it turns out the hip hop producer Swizz Beatz who produced for hip hop legends like Busta Rhymes, DMX, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, lists Daft Punk as one of his top influences. He used Daft Punk’s Technologic sample in Busta Rhyme’s Touch It.
At some point the teacher became the student and student the teacher. The influences blend so smoothly that you reach this stage everyone is just learning and growing from one another.
Tim likes to say, “The rising tide raises all ships” which reminds me of Jordan’s grandfather’s idea of lifting people up from all walks of life.
The end game is this pool of leaders cut from the same cloth of influences. To me, this is the ultimate reward of leadership. I’m excited to find out what kind of leaders the team at OpenWater will become, here and elsewhere in their long careers.
Starting the day with a good morning message seems polite but it drives me nuts. I banned it.
Hollywood has done a great job of glorifying what a morning looks like for a business executive. In the movies, you see a business executive walk in. As the executive swaggers towards his (and its usually a he) office he is greeted by various staff members. Each staff member has dialog that is more or less the following:
Good morning Mr. Johar. Here is your coffee.
Good morning Mr. Johar, Bitcoin is currently trading at 17,000.
Good morning Mr. Johar, your meeting with Karlie Kloss is confirmed for noon.
The reality is nothing like this.
With communication going digital, most good mornings start on Slack. I’ve usually started my work day before others get in, and with my office in the back corner most people’s first opportunity to wish me good morning begins on Slack.
The typical cadence for someone when they come to work is to head to their desk, check their emails from the evening before and then head to go get their morning coffee.
More likely that not, one or more emails they received is some crazy shit that came through from a customer that could use a second look. So just before heading to get their coffee, I get a message: Good Morning. I reply Good Morning and then I get further details on what the problem is at hand.
You may not be aware, but it turns out a big part of our communication over the internet operates in a similar manner. You may have heard of the protocol TCP/IP which is a set of messages computers send to each other to make sure messages sent are actually received. The key part of TCP is known as the 3-way handshake
The first part of the handshake is SYN. This is that first computer saying good morning.
The second part is the computer replying ACK. This is the second replying, top of the morning to you too!
The final step is the first computer returning a SYNACK message, which is basically just a thank you.
One the 3-way handshake is finished the first computer can start telling the second computer whatever it really wanted to talk about. The idea behind the 3-way handshake it to make sure the other computer is listening and ready.
What happens when a computer says good morning, it receives a reply but then never says thank you?
You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon when you’ve started a texting conversation with someone and then mid-story they disappear. You start wondering to yourself, did I say something wrong? Or just wtf where was the BRB?
In the world of TCP/IP, when computers send SYN, receive the ACK but never send a SYNACK, they are actually creating really bad situation in machine they are tacking to. This is called a SYNFLOOD attack and it is one of the popular ways hackers use to deny access to a system.
What bothers me about the good mornings is that they are often paired with a break mid-good morning as the staff member goes and gets their coffee.
Our team is usually busy at the same time, like the Tuesday after a long weekend, which means I’ll get 5 to 7 good mornings, with a long pause before finding out what the real ask is.
When I see good morning, I pause what I’m doing to brace for whatever is about to come next. When nothing comes next I end up burning patience way too early in the day for no reason.
I spent a lot of time figuring what it was about going to work that gave me stress and I decided to do something about each item. It turned out this SYNFLOOD of good mornings gave me anxiety. I started to pair the phrase “good morning” with “I’m about to unload some crazy shit on you.”
It got so bad that one morning my mom wished me good morning via text message at the same time I had 9 half-open good morning exchanges in Slack. I ended up flipping out at my mom. Of course mom’s always forgive but it was time to address this with my team.
I gave a summary explanation of the above to each of the team members I work with on a regular basis, and quickly instead of getting the good morning; [pause]; unleashing of problems; I now get it all in one message. [Good morning, I am having xyz issue, can you take a look when you have a chance]
I can start addressing whatever the trouble is as the person gets their coffee. Everyone wins :).
I actually never banned good morning, but requested that this good morning pattern interrupt be compressed.
However, one morning I walk in and one of the new staff members says to me, “good morning!” her eyes slowly shift, and she says “sorry I heard you are the guy that banned good morning.”
So there you have it. “Good morning” is banned!
Before WeWork popularized the idea of a co-working space, small businesses just getting their feet off the ground would rent space from “Shared Office Spaces.” These are cube-farms with unpleasant lighting, bad internet, and coffee served from vending machines. A far cry from the cold brew on tap and comfortable couches startups are used to working out of.
I was notorious for never decorating my office or work area. I would not even put down a picture of family or friends. I guess I had always felt the office was for function — it needed to provide space for whatever the mission at hand was. I never considered it my office, rather just an office I was working out of.
The nice office was never a point of contention for Tim or me. We both always felt it was about function — who needs the most space; or the most quiet. Based on that and that alone, determined how the offices were split up. For many years, it meant neither Tim nor I would get the nicest spot to work out of. It also meant as functions changed we would move around.
I found some pictures of our first offices. You can see our amazing white board decoration along with the blank wall.
When we moved into our Arlington location, we finally signed a long term lease (7 years), for office that had more space than we would need for the foreseeable future. I realized that wherever I sat, it would be the place where memories would grow out of. I finally felt like it was time to make the quarters I worked out of into my office.
At first I thought I would dig up old screenshots of the software over the years — but as I uncovered them, I found much more. I found the history of our story unfold photo by photo.
Behind me is the pre-history wall. It was the origins of vOfficeware, just as I left my job at the government and Tim left his job at KPMG. I had just finished my last assignment with the Department of Defense, and I received an award from NATO. I thought it was apt that we started awards management software. I also have the newspaper from Obama’s inauguration. The rest of the wall I call The Obama Years.
For Christmas that year, Rebecca had gifted me this Thomas Edison Quote: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Throughout all of the successes there were tons of experiments that didn’t go the way we planned. I tried starting a manufactured food company with my dad, Bollywood Chutneys. I really liked this quote and I wanted to honor all of the people who have been with us on this journey. Especially in the earlier days, we let go of people in unprofessional ways, other people left us in disgust with the way we were mismanaging things. Each of these people shaped us for the better. Alongside these memories is also screenshots of how our software looked at different phases.
The final wall is reserved for the future. With our 7 year lease, I anticipate being able to add around 25–30 pictures in total, so each year I decided I would find a photos to memorialize the previous year.
Here is what I picked for the end of 2018.
Photo 1: Friends
I can’t underestimate the support I have received from my friends over the years. In some of the higher stress years, I acted in ways that most people would just want to walk away. The emotional swings, the sleep deprivation, the famous holiday party where I acted like an outright fool. Through all of it, I could count on them to show up and support me. I think that in 2018 we finally turned the corner of stability as a company, and I can’t be more proud to stand with him here.
Photo 2: Victory Meal
2017 was one of our toughest years. We faced a legal action, 2 of our strongest team members quit out of disgust for the way things were going. The staff that remained had this sense that we were stagnating. What kept me chugging along and staying positive was knowing that we had a verbal agreement from Oracle Corporation. They promised us in April of 2017 that their security review process was immensely painful, but if we stuck with them, they would stick with us. Jordan, one of our rising stars at the time, and as of 2019, one of our leaders, kept on the deal. We had to do demos across 12 time-zones, we had to repeat ourselves countless times, but he did the needed work. April of 2018, the deal was inked, and we took a rare moment to celebrate. Besides being one of the 100 largest companies in the world, Oracle confirmed our beliefs that we could make it.
Photo 3: Remote Staff Retreat to Washington
Our customer support is insane for a software company. Our median time to respond to someone during business hours is 12 minutes and we do well over 2,000 conversations per month. This engine works because of our network of work-from-home staff. More than half of our team operates from around the United States and Canada. It is because of these team members toiling away that our in-office staff can go out for a group lunch or to a happy hour. In 2018 we could start to budget for a new tradition: a retreat for the remote staff to come visit the DC based staff. In good times and in bad times, I want to always pack away some budget to keep this tradition going. I hope this picture keeps me accountable to that goal.
Photo 4: First time at a Trade show
Having an exhibit booth at trade show is expensive. A lot of money for 2 to 3 days. We always felt the money was a waste and really risky. After closing the Oracle deal, Jordan really pushed for OpenWater to pursue the trade show strategy. His mentors advanced their careers by pushing their respective companies on this path, so he felt it was the right path for us. This picture is of Tim and me, for the first time together exhibiting our software. I chose this picture because it reminds me of the rinky-dink cubicle we started from, this is known as the poor man’s booth. But like Tim’s dilapidated desk, this booth will go on to be the start of our next amazing journey.
In rowing, there’s a concept called “open water.” It’s used to describe the distance between two boats at the finish line. In close races, the front of the trailing boat overlaps with the leading boat. That’s normal.
But sometimes, when one crew has truly pulled away from the competition, there’s no overlap at all between the boats. There’s just open water. Our name conjures up our commitment to advancing our solutions and ourselves. One that evokes limitless possibilities and unbroken horizons. And one that reflects upon the people with whom we do business — the visionaries, the go-getters, the people doing everything they can to get ahead of the pack … and stay there. That’s OpenWater.
The story of how we decided upon this name continues below:
When we started the company, we thought for about 2 days to come up with our company name. We sell virtual offices! Duh vOfficeware; virtual office software. It made sense, we got a cool logo made, we had a tech looking vO brand made. We were really happy.
We never sold a single “virtual office.” We started releasing other products for invoicing, email, document management. vO Invoice, vO Mail, vO Paper. “What is VOPAPER?” “HUH? VOIN VOICE?” I’m confused. The name vOfficeware never really made it.
In late 2009 we launched “nonprofitCMS” — a content management system for nonprofits! Another great and logical name. It also was one of the main reasons we achieved such a high ranking on google — lot’s of people looking for a “nonprofit CMS.”
Well as of this year, we abandoned web site development. The shift has gone 100% to our product lines. We no longer plan to market exclusively to nonprofits; we need to target a wide net of prospects: magazines, researchers, trade associations, and corporations. We also offer a platform that helps automate awards competitions, abstracts for conference proposals, board of election votes, scholarship applications, and event registration. We struggled to capture “what we do” in a concise manner like vOfficeware or nonprofitCMS.
We could not come up with a good enough name for ourselves; the best Tim came up with was “Open Water.” The problem with naming things is that the .com is never available. The owners of OpenWater.com wanted six figure offers before even considering a bid! We worked with the marketing company to help brainstorm names for us. They came up with a list of 150+ names that ranged from meh to really really bad.
The best they came up with was “Convergio” — since our software converges lots of data… or the scientific sounding 373 KELVIN (the boiling point of water). Neither of these .coms were available either; but they were costing in the single digit thousands. Then they sent us http://www.brandbucket.com/ — a site where you can buy brandable domain names at a list price (instead of an auction). We liked things like StackBot and Technoto.
The worst was “Olly olly oxen free” — I lost all respect for them for even presenting that to us.
As we thought it over; we needed to have good visuals to go on our marketing collateral. Sure convergio sounds cooler than OpenWater, but we’d face an uphill battle to determine what it means. Then we’d have to convey that brand and drill it into people. Also telling people on the phone Kunal at convergio dot com would involve a lot of hell in spelling disasters.
Finally, we concluded that we wanted real words. This way the marketing company could hit the ground running. We decided to list a few names we could live with just to move on with the process. We settled on OpenWater and Kelvin — for domains OpenWaterTech.com and Kelvin373.com. At first I thought we’d put it to an office vote, but then I heard Tim start pitching open water to the team; once he’d leave the area, I’d go and make a pitch for Kelvin. Sneaky — but probably not the best way to make the company name.
In our elevator lobby, I just asked a stranger, “what do you think when you hear Open Water?” He answered “I think clear, transparency, trustworthy.” “OK — how about Kelvin?” “I don’t like Kelvin, it sounds weird”
I liked Kelvin! I thought it could make a cool, futuristic sounding name. Kelvin 373 — the boiling point of water. The name really grew on me. @Kelvin373.com — easy to say — easy to type. What an ass, ruining my big pitch.
Zack and I came up with the idea of putting out a survey, ask our clients, ask our friends, and settle this. I asked questions cold turkey, like which name is better; but also drove people through our issues like hearing it on a phone or seeing it as a brand.
The closer the friend, the more hate that was spewed in both name options. Minutes after sending the survey email, I get a text from Connie: “Both of these names suck balls; one sounds like a plumber, the other sounds like an HVAC company.”
Alex: Where is the option for neither
Brandon: I like OpenWater and Kelvin; but not OpenWaterTech or Kelvin373 — I don’t see the option
Robyn: Kelvin sounds like the name of a fobby chinese man
Some friends asked, why not just use vOfficeware (something I thought long and hard about).
I described this process as choosing a presidential candidate. Neither option was good, but it was the cards we had to play. Every day we don’t have a name, we are a day late on our new strategy — and our backs are pressed up against a wall financially.
Outside of the friends though, the clients were more polite and overwhelmingly chose OpenWater over Kelvin. Even OpenWaterTech was better than Kelvin373. I was shocked. I was beaten badly, 93% to 7% — with 70 responses.
We’re now going to be OpenWater. I have very little, if any, buy in from my friends on this. I figure their opinions are honest; and frankly I believe it myself. I’m sure over time, the name will grow on me and develop a meaning of its own. For now though, I’m happier to have this decision made and to move on.
I wrote the private memo above in 2014. I wanted to publish it unaltered.
Pretty crazy to think now that there was a time we were not called OpenWater. At the time I wrote the memo, most of my friends knew that I had a company: vOfficeware (they pronounced it voff-iss-ware not the intended vee-office-ware), it stood for virtual office software. The idea was to take paper based offices and help them get to the digital age.
Tim and I had sold a grand total of zero virtual offices and rebranded to nonprofitCMS. This is the name our customers knew us by. Unlike vOfficeware we built over 100 nonprofit websites on a CMS (content management system.
5 years is officially the longest we have stuck with a name, so I think this one is a keeper 🙂