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My Take on MightyWords

by Hawke published Aug 26, 2016 12:40 AM, last modified Aug 26, 2016 12:57 AM
I was recently prompted by others about discussion of MightyWords Inc. A company where I worked as CTO. In reading press releases and quotes of the CEO, I have a similar but also slightly different take on events I thought I would share here...

The short version: MightyWords, while not as flashy a world changer as was hoped by the CEO Chris MacAskill, was actually a successful business plan and implementation (though it underwent changes to adapt), despite all the contradictory press, but the semi-hostile takeover of MW by BN, followed by 9/11 triggering BN's mandates, and the CEO's loss of interest, lead to a buyout and selloff of MW by BN.

The much longer version...

I was hired as CTO at MightyWords Inc. (MW) around September 2000.

MW was initially a subsidiary project spin-off from Fatbrain Inc. (FB), at the time the number 3 online bookseller behind Barnes & Noble (#2), and Amazon.com (#1).

My resume stated clearly to everyone at the top, "If you haven't been in business at least 3 years, not shown a profit, and/or are VC-only funded, please don't contact me." I had been getting swamped in recent years by .com startups offering "all you can eat pop and pizza", and "oh dude, we have this really killer idea that will be the next" [insert great company/idea]. But they didn't have any decent business plan, they were generally developers with (maybe) a good idea but with no business savvy, etc. And the insanity of the competition of "pissing matches" to see who had the highest burn rates, rather than trying to get to profitability. No thank you. I am much more physically conservative than that.

Even more irritating, head hunters (recruiters) and the like, clearly weren't paying attention to the large bold disclaimers at the top of my resumes, and kept calling. It's nice to be wanted, but getting a dozen (or more!) calls a day from such can become very irritating.

Then Chris MacAskill called me, and the first things he said were:

"We haven't been in business for 3 years, we are 100% VC funded, do not expect to be profitable soon."

I responded skeptically but gratefully "well at least you actually read my resume, please go ahead and give your spiel."

The next hour Chris explained about his vision of "greater than a magazine article, and smaller than a book", and an open market place for writers and readers to connect, taking out the middle-men of publishers and brick and mortar distributors.

Better yet, he shared a potentially viable (well, at least reasonably thought out) business plan, and that they were interested in me as CTO. And they had around $46 Million in Venture Capital.

I agreed to be flown out to California in the next few days (I was in Utah, working for Franklin Covey). This was just after my experience with "The TSC Fiasco".

I then underwent the most grueling interview process I have ever experienced, 13 hours nonstop, from when Chris picked me up in his Jeep at the airport at 8:00 am, rotating through someone else interviewing me every 45 minutes (With Chris leap-frogging to the interviewers to fill them in and ask them to further target things), not even stopping for lunch, they just brought in sandwiches for me to eat as we continued. Then the final hours Chris took me to dinner, and filled me in about me. He hit the nail on the head. He knew my strengths and weaknesses very clearly. I was very impressed with his effective process, implementation, and interpretation. I was candid with him about my late teens and early 20s and the trouble I had been in (so as not to have a repeat of the TSC fiasco), and he was very understanding. After all this, he still made me an offer. I told him I would get back to him after I was back in Utah, to give me a few days to think about it, and he dropped me off at the motel, and I flew back the following morning.

After much debate with my then wife, and some back and forth negotiations on relocation costs, stock options, bonuses, etc. I accepted the job of Chief Technology Officer.

I drove my Bronco there the following week, and stayed at Chris's house for several months while I house-hunted for a place for my family, while catching up to everything going on with Fatbrain, MightyWords, Scient, Barnes & Noble, Adobe, Microsoft, IBM, HP, Amazon, and more.

MW had been piggy-backing on the FB infrastructure, staff, and building in Santa Clara. I was assigned with building an IT department from scratch, and getting as much independence from FB as possible (though still keeping our HQ in the FB building).

At the time FB had I believe around 300/350 employees. MW had some exec and sales staff, maybe a dozen employees in total, most loaned out from FB?

Meanwhile, Scient was doing all of the development. I started visiting their San Francisco offices (entire floors of open floors without cubicles), they were using the then hot "XP Programming" methods, two developers at a screen, switching back and forth.

As I played catch up with their efforts, while also beginning to build the new IT infrastructure from scratch, and arrange collocation facilities, and hiring IT staff, I also began delving into the code snapshots from Scient.

IT WAS CRAP!

It was some of the worst-written code I have ever had the displeasure of seeing in a professional setting.

It was a complete mess. Also I was concerned the Adobe DRM was going to be a disaster, it was such a bad user experience.

I frantically warned Chris, but they had already spent millions, and was committed to the path, so I had to just make do with whatever they gave us. But I sent the code base back several times over the next few months until launch.

Meanwhile, I needed to buy and build server equipment to host this crappy code. I did some early load testing evaluation, and with the help of my first IT staff member, Todd Featherston, we were able to calculate how much hardware we were going to need, and it was going to be a lot!

Scient had written with the mandate of using Solaris as the front and middleware, and Oracle as the DB.

We setup a colo at the AT&T Redwood City facility, with about racks of servers of Sun Ultra boxes, and expensive Oracle DB licensing.

I remember writing the largest single check I have ever personally written (professionally), for $1,300,000.00 for just one VAR payment! The totals were far more than that between all payments.

Finally we launched in December, after many sleepless days ( I did not sleep for about 2 weeks straight) getting ready, crappy Scient code and all.

The Adobe DRM was, as predicted, a disaster. We had a 200% support rate, for every purchase made, it generated on average 2 support tickets trying to get the user able to read the document!

Also, millions spent on the servers, with such poor coding, the website was groaning under the traffic loads. It was terrible.

Even before launch, I had started the process with my newly growing IT team (and I continually emphasized "team" over "Department" to everyone, to encourage closer commaraderie), we began business scope meetings with Chris, & the other VPs, on Mightywords 2.0 (later nicknamed "Project Widowmaker").

We worked furiously over the next few months completely starting fresh. 

I talked Chris into letting me throw away most of the Scient design and go with our own, far less expensive, and we predicted far better performing, and more importantly user friendly, overhaul.

I then worked 25 days straight without sleep (yes, zero sleep for 3.5 weeks). Though I never required this of anyone else, many worked until they couldn't, and then slept in their cubicles, until resuming.

We ran home to grab clothing changes, and that was about it.

My team's significant others were getting increasingly irate with me, and thus the project developed the name "Widowmaker", because someone was going to make my wife a widow soon. :-) (I really wish I could have gotten those leather jackets folks!). ;-)

We managed to get support down to around 50%, but that was completely intolerable. And we would get killed by Slashdot Effect like traffic with the Scient code.

So, we finished on time and under budget, and the launch of 2.0 went well (though not perfectly). I can't remember now if it was February 21st or March 21st that we launched (or some other date?)?

Around the same time, the world's .Com bubble burst! But we were okay. We had plenty of money, and we were getting leaner and meaner for a nice slow burn and getting towards break-even and profitability sooner rather than later.

While Lycos Excite down the street suddenly closed their doors without warning their employees, and many others imploded, we were doing well.

The new MW 2.0 worked wonderfully. The user experience was SO MUCH BETTER. 

We dumped all of the Solaris boxes except the pair of e4500 Oracle DB arrays, and switched to 1u VA Linux and 2u Custom Built rack mounts for the front and middle-ware.

Our performance was immensely improved!

By Spring of 2001, we were purring along nicely.

We had a fully open-platform eBook delivery system that worked on any operating system that could read PDFs, with a non-invasive "good enough" DRM, and the largest content library available anywhere at the time, and we were fast on the way to becoming "zero burn" and going into the black!

I was fully staffed up, had my own administrative assistant that doubled as tech writer. I went from averaging 90-120 hours per week, to what felt like a vacation at never more than 60 hours per week (my AA wouldn't let me overwork anymore). :-)

I had time with my family, and could finally enjoy being back in my home state of California and all the wonderful things it offered.

But trouble was brewing.

At one point, we did a pilot with Amazon.com, though several of the VP's (and I), kept asking Chris if this wasn't going to infuriate BN.com? He kept assuring us it would not be a problem.

We selected the "best" 200 titles from our huge growing content library, and processed them into Amazon.com's site.

In the following weeks/months, the top 50 selling eBook titles were from that 200!

And sure enough, Steve Riggio was raked over the coals about investing in a company giving profits to BN's number one competitor, Amazon.

While the .Com Bomb was disconcerting (though not at all surprising to me or many others), our sales numbers were rapidly climbing, and we were building a repository of e-Content larger than any of the nearest competitors.

The VPs and myself had expressed concerns in earlier months about the relationship with Stever Rigio of Barnes & Noble. We were concerned there was a major conflict of interest in BN's investment in MW.

They had about 43% controlling interest of MW. The rest through other investors, including about 10% from Fatbrain's early seed money.

Then BN bought FB. That gave BN around 53% controlling interest! But Chris assured us this wasn't a problem as BN liquidated FB's employees, assets, and contents.

Meanwhile other eBook companies were dropping like flies, while we had vast amounts of content pouring in, and sales steadily growing.

But Chris, and some of the other investors, didn't feel the numbers were growing fast enough. They weren't "interesting", in the way of the .Com Days booming. It was steady month over month sales growth, and we were looking at potentially breaking even in less than a year! But Chris was clearly losing interest in this lack of flashiness.

I can relate. Having done both several times, I prefer to be CTO over CIO because I like innovating and making a significant bleeding-edge difference (CTO), and quickly get bored with "maintenance mode" (CIO).

Somewhere along the way, an additional nail was driven into the MW coffin in our relationship with BN.com.

Once we launched 2.0, we gobbled up the market share of all our competitors, especially BN.com's horrible eBook experience. They were still using the Adobe horrible DRM, and if I remember correctly, they only had about 5,000 titles.

We were "SPANKING" BN.com and all our competitors. After we launched 2.0, BN.com's sales plummeted close to zero, while ours shut up and kept growing by double digits month after month!

By Summer 2001, we had more than 50,000 titles live, with another 75,000 already uploaded to our internal backend servers, and Margaret and others lining up another 100,000 titles in coming months.

While Chris was somewhat losing interest, the rest of us were very happy, and by August we were looking at less than 6 months to the wonderful "Break even" if sales number continued growing as they were.

Then the morning of my birthday, I received a phone call from my head of the Support Department, Rob Verri (and long time friend), telling me to turn on the television.

I did so just minutes before the second airplane crashed into the second New York Twin Tower. It was 9/11.

I quickly received text messages and phones calls from employees asking to stay home. I allowed them to do so, but I drove myself to work. Though the "cubicle farm" was empty, my attitude was to "not let them win" but not changing anything and continuing with work as usual.

On that somber day, Chris MacAskill was actually in New York. He was close enough to report to me that he could hear the bodies of the people hitting the pavement when they jumped!

He helped with triage in the ensuing hours of chaos.

Steve Riggio lost many friends an family that day as well.

Being so close to it, both Steve and Chris in the following months became very withdrawn.

BN went into "circle the wagons mode", and began pulling out of all their online investments, and where they had controlling interest, shutting down the companies.

In October Chris was talking about giving up on MW, that the numbers for the industry as a whole just weren't interesting enough, and told me to make plans for a shutdown.

I protested, as did the other VPs. Stating clearly there was plenty of money left. He informed us that BN.com wanted their remaining millions. The VPs and I thought it was fine, they could take it, we were so close to break-even, and even without BN we would still have more than $10 million remaining from the other investors. Frankly we would have been happy to have BN out of the picture and off our backs.

But Chris announced that MW was to be more, and to all our department heads to begin planning for shutdown, but do not tell our employees.

We plead with Chris not to kill the MW dream that was coming to fruition so wonderfully. But he was in a very dark place, and our pleas fell on deaf ears.

Worse yet, I unfortunately, after several days of no sleep, wrote him a lengthy email lambasting his decisions (especially ending MW), and I'm afraid I stupidly burned my bridges with him at that point.

I regret that greatly. I really respected and liked him a lot, and until then had felt so very well supported by him. One of those things I wish I could undo, but alas...

I took him aside and informed him that I HAD to inform my employees, but that we could incentivize their staying to the end, and help them transition.

I informed my team around early November, that mid-January would be the shutdown, but that layoffs would begin in December.

They would all get at least one month's severance, plus anything to help them with finding work.

I encouraged several to hurry and take advantage of the advanced training programs I had budgeted for everyone.

By mid-January I think all that was left of the IT department was myself, Karl Mueller (?), and Todd Featherston. 

As we took the website offline, a firesale began on all the remaining assets. I bought a few of the servers myself (and built Dev 2 Dev Portal with them).

In early January I also moved my family to Idaho and family, to keep our personal burn rate as low as possible while I built my own new businesses.

Finally in February, I bid California adieu, and rode my motorcycle to Idaho, a whole adventure unto itself in winter... http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/february-ride-from-ca-to-idaho-brrrrrrrr.2173/

I am sure many other have different perspectives of the events, that is the human experience. But this is how I recall events.

I still think the whole eBook thing was a dealt a terrible blow, setting things back at least a decade with the fall of MIghtyWords, and the "old school" close-minded obsolete publishers slowed the advancement of the industry significantly.

 

 

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