I Worked For a Bad Company Once
That’s the first truth of this story.
I was quite happy, and my family were quite happy, living in the world’s greatest mountain town. My partner and I worked on a variety of client campaigns; launching sites, consulting, and enjoying a work-life balance that we’d barely dreamed we could manage. We were surviving, building our business while connecting back to our health and happiness. Our daughter was thriving with the skiing, skating, and fresh mountain air. Our Toronto house was rented out to a nice family that we trusted. Aside from the cat becoming an eagle’s lunch (or a coyote’s, or a bear’s), all was going very, very well.
And then the connection request from LinkedIn happened, and the next thing I knew I was dealing with a recruiter from a company looking to launch an Android tablet into the education market.
If you know me, you’ll know that education and education technology are my ultimate passions. Coming from a family of committed, talented teachers, I’ve spent the bulk of my career working on the periphery. I taught ESL in Asia, worked in educational publishing, and turned a massive interest in the web and the power of digital into advocacy work, research, and connecting educators to powerful and engaging technologies. I spent the last few years eagerly connecting with experts and teachers through a variety of social networks including Twitter, Facebook, Nings, and conferences. This work is so close to my heart as a parent, a learner, and person who really cares about where all this technology is taking our society, and our kids in particular.
The opportunity was on the table. To become part of a bold start-up vision, and to impact education through a ground-breaking product that could offer choice in an increasingly branded, proprietary market. To engage with classroom professionals and content producers through a unique (and Canadian) initiative. It sounded great. It sounded like just the perfect next step, even though it would mean leaving our blissful mountain town and heading back to the challenges of Toronto life. It would mean we’d have to rent a temporary residence until our tenants’ lease was up. We’d have to pull our daughter out of school, where she was just making her bones, and interrupt her increasingly positive experience. And it would mean a tremendous shift in our business, where we’d developed a good balance of client work between the two of us.
It would mean a lot of fast, hectic, and disruptive change. The opportunity seemed to be worth all of that.
After I met the team and flew through of series of interviews (me interviewing them as much as they were me), I felt confident that I’d be working with a group of dedicated and passionate engineers and a leadership team that truly had a great product and a genuine desire to make a positive impact. I know that several of my former colleagues also felt this way at the outset. The poop had not yet hit the propeller.
Within a few weeks, the voice in my head started to speak up that something wasn’t right. I tried to quiet it. It kept talking.
Where there was supposed to be reams of initial market research, there was none. Where there was supposed to be fledgling partnerships (with people like the Khan Academy, Discovery Education, and leading publishers), there was none. There was an ugly, buggy device that didn’t work. There was a lack of response (or outright temper tantrums) when questions came up, particularly from actual classroom teachers – future users of the device. There was a focus on “putting a stake in the ground”, or inventing numbers to satisfy some sort of completely bombastic projections for somebody, somewhere. There was doublespeak, lies, and a growing sense of discontent. There was volatile, abusive leadership that saw a colleague I have deep respect for fired without severance. She had also taken a chance on the company. There was $80,000 spent on a “branding agency” that provided little more than a powerpoint of recommendations (none that were followed up on). I started to experienced a sense of panic, of despair, and of guilt. I put my family through a lot just to show up there.
Things came to a head at an international education technology conference in Philadelphia in June 2011. After a series of embarrassing and unfortunate events involving my direct supervisor, a self-styled “thought-leader” with a penchant for spewing half-truths to potential partners and customers, I decided I’d had enough. Enough of defending my decision to stay with the company, of apologizing for the state of our product, and of putting my reputation on the line for what was revealing itself to be a complete farce.
I flew home from the conference, resigned, packed up the car, and headed across the country to diffuse and recover with my family. Good riddance.
Then something unexpected happened. The CEO of the company contacted me to let me know that my manager had been terminated. He asked that I reconsider my resignation, and that there would be sweeping positive changes that would affect the whole team. He asked me for a plan, and if I would lead the marketing and communications efforts going forward. He promised that the leadership would act transparently and honestly. He assured me that big opportunties lay on the horizon. And he apologized for the behaviour of my supervisor.
And I believed him. I turned around and came back. I’m big on giving people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it bites me in the ass, but there you go.
And it did. The plan I created with the collaboration of the dedicated development team, which started with market research and focused on pilot testing, feedback, and the development of features that solved classroom challenges, was ignored. Nobody signed off on it. I hired a fantastic agency to create an entirely refreshed brand presence, collateral, and digital design. The phrase “please bear with me” left my lips as frequently as the sun rose. Once again, my colleagues and I were asked to pad or invent numbers and to make excuses for a product that still wasn’t ready, and probably wouldn’t ever be. I managed the production of a user guide and End User License Agreement and was told to cut and paste from other electronic manufacturer’s pieces. I hope nobody ever saw it.
I focused on securing product testing with leading educational technology leaders and programs, including a 6 month pilot with student teachers in over 30 sites in Ontario. I held a focus group, to be told later that our leadership didn’t believe what the teachers had told them.
The panic and depression returned. I felt stupid for being so gullible. I felt stupid for again dragging my contacts and trusted relationships into this mess. I was exhausted from constantly defending myself, paranoid about the people who might slam me behind my back, and overwhelmed at the idea of losing my salary and benefits and building from the ground up again.
During the last week of this company’s miserable existence, none of the leadership responded to email or phone messages. 30 devices were supposed to arrive at our pilot institution. I was organizing a $10,000 display to arrive in Florida in 2 weeks time, along with meetings with people that were graciously giving me a second chance.
Mercifully, the end happened for me. The team was called in on a Monday morning and the hammer dropped. $19 million spent. No customers served. One month of severance. Thank you, and goodbye. I called everyone who’d ever been involved with me in my capacity there and apologized, and apologized again.
This post has been sitting in my drafts for over a year. It’s ready to be out there. So many amazing things have happened in the time since the tablet debacle. I’ve had the amazing good fortune to work with educators and product developers who are truly trying to create special things for teaching and learning. I value these clients like family, because their work impacts important people like my 10 year old. She deserves great teachers who have great tools at their disposal, built by people who really care about making a difference.
I worked for a bad company once. It hurt like hell, but it doesn’t define me. And that’s the truth.