What to Do When Business Breaks Down: One Guy's Tale

09/09/2011 01:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2014

Last year, a friend and trusted business colleague suggested that I read the book, Rework. I bought it without hesitation. The friend suggested the book, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, at a point when I myself was working through some of the fits and starts that befall most early-stage entrepreneurs. I was juggling tasks: sales, marketing, technical, operations, marketing (and, oh, of course, my regular life).

The book arrived, looking sleek and interesting, like most other books in the improve-your-business genre: The cover quote caught my eye, too:"Ignore this book at your own peril!" it screamed. I leafed through the book and quickly noticed anomalies. For one thing, it had pictures! I had never seen a business book with images. These looked like hand-drawn cartoons, seemingly drawn on the back of a place mat, as if explaining an important lesson. I read the book in one sitting, another first for a book about business.

I was hooked on Rework and its youthful, upstart approach to everything! "Ignore the World" suggested the heading of one chapter. "Go," "Grow" said others. The authors repeatedly deconstructed beliefs that so many C-suite folks have held sacred for years. Take meetings. "Meetings are toxic," this book crowed. They interrupt work: invite as few people to a meeting as possible, and set a timer. When it goes off, the meeting is over and attendees should rise and leave! I was surprised by this common sense propounded by two guys who were probably young enough to be my sons... (well, not that young!) I was hooked on their words and the messages they conveyed. Soon, I was seeking their online videos, reading read their blogs and following them on Twitter.

But this blog post is not a book review. Before long, I was able to witness the authors' wisdom in action. This is a story of how the "rubber meets the road," as we say in Detroit. It is a story of a man and a company who "walk the walk and talk the talk." That is, they practice what they preach. I met David Heinemeier Hansson at a time of crisis in his business, not my own

One day, looking at tweets, I noticed something strange. Many repetitive tweets were rolling into Cyberspace from @37signals to individuals' Twitter handles. They all had a similar message about a seeming moment of business breakdown. 74 characters: "I am sorry Basecamp is down. Thanks for reporting. We are working to get it back up again." Hundreds of tweets, or so it seemed, not unlike that one. Also peppering the stream were suggestions like this one: "Email me at david@37signals and tell me what you think." I was awestruck! Crisis communication "reworked," I thought. In real time, I was watching one of the founders of 37 Signals, a software company that creates Web-based collaboration applications for small businesses, respond individually to his customers. Talk about shaking up the boardroom! I couldn't imagine the president or anyone at any company answering customers by hand, let alone one-by-one! It appeared that each worried Basecamp user was receiving a response to his or her help-me tweet composed by David Heinemeier Hansson himself. The entrepreneur who wrote things like, "Planning is guessing," and "Underdo the competition" or "fire the workaholics and emulate drug dealers" was living his own credo: he was right in the thick the storm, aware at every moment how Basecamp's shutdown was impacting customers, communicating honestly about what he was doing personally to set things right.

Fascinated with this "rework" of crisis communication -- the normal drill might gently acknowledge a problem or deny it until fixed -- I wrote David Heinemeier Hansson myself. I directed a message to him on Twitter during the Basecamp crisis and asked if he was enacting his own "crisis communication plan." Yes, he answered, noting he wouldn't have it any other way!

I have been in PR and marketing for 20 years, and I have helped to craft and execute many crisis communication plans for clients and companies for which I've worked, but I had never seen anything like this. Crisis communication is considered a sub-specialty of public relations. Usually, it is a defensive stance designed to protect an individual or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. Here was David telling everyone that something went wrong with one of his software products (Basecamp), he didn't know yet quite what had happened... and the company was working to fix it. Rework in real-time!

Post-crisis, I asked David a few questions about the episode. Here, his responses:

Did you have a crisis communication plan in place?

We have a crisis theme which is "keep people informed and apologize for the pain" this is followed up by a few general guidelines, like update every 15 minutes even if there's no progress and write back everyone on Twitter.

Was this your first brush with crisis?

Ha, sadly no. We've been running a hosted software business for more than 7 years. We've had plenty of training in crisis management.

How did you first learn of the problem?

We have a sophisticated system of warning sensors that will tell us if the applications are in trouble. So we usually get pinged by those systems first, then comes the flood of complaints on Twitter.

What was the problem?

In this instance, we were hit by a bug in a client library for memcache -- the system we use for caching some parts of the application.

How was it resolved?

In the short term, we resolved it by restarting services and flipping over to backups. In the long term, we solved the underlying problem (knock wood!) through software patches and revised use of the cache.

He went on to say, " Effective crisis communication has the following components:"

-maintain connectivity with those impacted
- be available to the media, if necessary
-show empathy for people involved
-allow for open access to information
-regain trust
-be professional and show leadership, ethics and lessons learned and how you will be preventing against (a repeat) occurrence

What advice would you give others facing similar situations? What would you do differently next time? Have there been any other situations where you saw a customer in crisis?

David: "When it comes to communication, the biggest danger is sounded like a faceless robot. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused" is an example of weasel, robot bullsh-t. Own the fact that you have caused your customers harm. Don't sweep it under the floor with (language like) "this may have caused." It does cause! Otherwise your customers wouldn't have been complaining.

Also, inconvenience is when you have to wait another 5 minutes for your coffee. Pain is when someone spills it in your lap. If you're running an application (to which) customers are entrusting their documents and productivity, you're on the pain end of the spectrum, not the inconvenience end, when the system is down.

So counteract those instincts to be a robot by talking like one human to another. Apologize sincerely and profusely for the situation. Write a custom apology back to everyone who gets in contact to complain; don't just send a generic email blast. Yes, that might take a while, but it's worth it. You just might have a chance to come out looking better than you did before the crisis (although don't bank on it and don't test people's patience)."

I learned a great deal from David and Rework about crisis communication and what it means to be an entrepreneur. "Inspiration is persishable," says David in Rework. I have a feeling that this experience will stay with me for a long time and I hope that it does for you, too!