Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Marketing Embarrassment:

In the mid-90's, I was the quality assurance manager for a small software company that excelled at compressing speech, making it possible to store the faithful sounds of talking heads in remarkably small files.

The company officers looked for a way to expand their reach, and they found it: web broadcasts. In order to expand into this (then) non-existent field, they needed money. They managed to go public, simultaneously pitching their secret plans to many venture capitalists.

In my long software career, I have resisted many temptations to throw all my resources into an exciting breakthrough idea to make my fortune. Each time I got a truly exciting idea, I considered the odds that I was not alone; that others were working in secret to make the same breakthrough, others who might be well-funded. Why should I compete with them, just because I could not be certain they were out there?

My speech-compression company faced this fix. They were unaware that at least five other companies, bigger and better financed, were aiming at the same goal, and well-known to the venture capitalists who never gave us a second look.

The desire to get into broadcasting led my company into a fascinating embarrassment. They found a company in Atlanta that was developing software to optimize website distribution, a key ingredient in making broadcasts efficient. This company, which I shall call 'X', sent us a demo that was quite exciting, and officers of our company decided to pass this demo on to select customers as a sample of what we proposed to do.

As the QA mgr, I had an advisory role in this decision. I was adamantly against it. I argued that we had no contract with Company X, and therefore no way to ensure support, or eventual delivery, of this software. We had had no time to test it, so we knew little of how it might affect our customers’ systems. My opinion floated away in the wind, and we sent the demo out.

You will never guess what happened, beause real life trumps the imagination, every time.

Our customers tried the demo, and they got back to us with a few urgent questions. We called X to get answers. Their phone numbers, which we had used extensively the week before, were disconnected.

Company X had dropped off the face of the earth. Emails went unanswered. We could not find them. And I must say, our officers lost some of the enthusiasm they had had, to partner with this company.

Company X contacted us three weeks later. They had moved to Seattle, set up for business again, and how could they help us? Oh, hadn't they told us they had been planning to move? What a shame.
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