A Startup Horror Story from an Employee’s Point of View
I come from a humble professional background. So after spending many years in big corporate houses, I wanted to witness the cool workplace so many startups boast about these days.
I joined a startup media agency that was trying to sell digital marketing and traditional marketing as a package to local businesses. The only problem was that it did not have a business model yet.
We would sit in a large group to discuss the package. On average, the discussion would last for several hours. Everybody would come up with his or her own idea. A woman would write those ideas on a whiteboard. When everybody had presented their ideas, we would go through each of them in great length trying to fathom their practicality. Every day would end like that.
By the end of the month, we had a service package ready to be sold. The sales team was ready for the skirmish. The very first day they sold more than 30 such packages and got calls from many others who were interested. We were successful beyond doubt, and celebration was bound to happen.
Growing Too Fast
Within four months, we were a team of 30 people: copywriters, designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, mobile app developers. We were outpacing all of our growth projections. In addition, we hired remote freelancers to help the original team. Two new investors had joined us by then.
We started as a team of eight people, then suddenly the company had 50 people on- and off-site to manage. The team grew so fast the managers had no idea how to manage them. On top of that, many clients were growing frustrated with the quality our work. We had five designers making Facebook creatives night and day, 25 to 30 posts per person every day. A person was posting them to the clients’ social media page. Many clients had a different idea of what their Facebook page should look like and they were deleting posts as we were posting them. Meanwhile, many revoked our admin access to their Facebook page.
The final package consisted of social media management, particularly Facebook and Instagram.
We literally were sending five to 10 apology e-mails every day asking clients to re-grant us access to their pages. That went on for another month. Soon we were left with admin access to only 40 Facebook pages. The sales team was spending more time trying to bring those clients back than bringing in new ones. We even offered them a month of free service just to retain them and show our investors numbers.
Trying to Stop the Bleeding
The investors called me and a few other people to have a meeting. By the end of the meeting, they had forced us to name a CEO. The CEO was an ex-Accenture executive and blamed the startup environment of mismanagement for everything. There were many changes made in the way we work. Everything posted on the clients’ social media properties now was contingent upon the CEO’s approval. The approval process went through the project management system (PMS). We are no longer allowed to use e-mail, Skype, or anything else for communication other than the PMS.
The sales team’s function of acquiring new customers was forwarded to an external agency. We offered the first month free to anyone ready to sign the service contract.
By the end of that month, the agency had brought us close to 70 customers—but with no additional revenue. I sat with a few designers and a manager to create a universal design guide that would go on the Facebook page of every customer we were managing.
The design head was supposed to send the finalized design guides for approval to the clients. Only upon approval could a designer start working on creating Facebook creatives. The design head resigned two weeks later citing personal reasons. But we knew loud and clear what exactly happened. None of the clients approved the design guides; some even did not even look at the e-mail.
We resorted to sending a member of the sales team to the client and insist they either approve or reject the design guide. That did not work either. Most of the clients promised to do that soon. But none of them did. With our uncontrollable upstream of phone calls, they stopped picking our calls, some blocked us, and some even marked us as spam on Truecaller.
In that span, we lost most of the remaining paid clients. Then came the great startup dilemma: Should we proceed or halt? One of the investors backed out. Soon we were receiving the same number of calls requesting payment as we had been making to the client a few weeks ago to approve the design guide. Every incoming call was either a freelancer from a different number or a representative from the marketing agency.
We had a meeting with two of the remaining investors. Surprisingly the newly appointed CEO was nowhere to be seen. The investors had a meeting earlier where they decided they wouldn’t fund us further until we bring some money into the company. That was out of the question until the next month. One investor had an international flight that night. That was the last day we ever saw him.
With one conditional investor on board, the startup was clearly breathing its last. He sat with two of his trusted aides (he brought in many employees to the company). After three hours in the glass cabin, they introduced new packages with aggressive sales targets.
In midst of the discussion, a meeting was held in which a performance-based salary system was introduced. Ten people argued with the investor. They received their termination letter the very next day. A few more followed suit. Soon only eight employees were left, including a part-time designer, a freelance designer, a copywriter (they made him write the termination letters), two salespeople, a Web developer, a social media person, and the digital marketing manager.
The next week, demonetization happened. The investor would leave the office every morning and come back with a bag full of money. That was enough to fund us for another few months. We started offering new packages, and more than half of the remaining clients were retained.
The only problem was we no longer had the resources to manage them. The celebration was short-lived. Negotiating to bring back fired employees did not work. In fact, two law suits were filed. An out-of-court settlement depleted company funds.
The celebration stopped as soon as it started. The month passed with most of the clients refusing to continue with our services. Some even asked for refund. Free services were out of question with only one conditional investor.
We were all given two months to find a new job. Quite a journey!
Patel Nasrullah is a co-founder mobile app development agency Peerbits. He devotes his time to inspiring young leaders to take the leap of faith. With 10 years of experience of 10 years in Web and app development, he now gives full attention to the enterprise by offering mobility solutions for strategic planning and execution. For more information, visit: