Powers Unfiltered

An entrepreneur’s journey into grid computing and partnering with Microsoft, by John Powers

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Growth: Part One — Growing Pains at Velocity Micro?

February 11th, 2007 · 16 Comments

I’ve planned a series of posts on the opportunities and perils of growth, with non-Digipede examples.  Here goes.

The first example comes from, of all places, my new home PC.

Last summer, my reliable old Gateway began to suffer from the same fate that eventually afflicts every PC — it was getting old, slow, and cranky.  I limped along with it until late fall, but enough was enough.  Five years of use and all the associated waxy buildup had brought it to the end of its useful life as the Top Dog computer in the house.  Oh, it’s still useful (I’m typing this on it now, more on that later), but it was time for a hot new PC.  I shopped around, decided not to go boring / mainstream, and settled on an “upper-middle” performance PC from boutique vendor Velocity Micro.  A little pricier than a Dell / HP / Gateway / whatever, but they got good reviews, looked cool, and claimed engineering, attention to detail, and support far above those of mortal huge companies.  And their blog, to which CEO Randy Copeland contributes, proclaims in the heading:  “Velocity Micro — Obsessed with building the perfect PC experience.”  I decided to find out.

The buying experience was quite good.  I configured my machine online, placed the order, and began receiving timely updates on progress — order received, released to production, built, shipped.  The steps took a few days longer than forecast, but that can happen, and at least communication was good.  My machine arrived, set up and ready to rock — and it rocked.  Fast, beautiful, quieter than expected, NOT overloaded with stupid trial bloatware (are you listening, Dell and HP??), very nicely built.  Ahhh.

I went through the (non-trivial) migration process to put all relevant files and applications on the new machine.  Then I reformated the old Gateway hard disk, did a clean install of Windows XP, and sent it off to a corner to serve up music files to the house network.  The Velocity Micro box took its place under the desk in the den as Top Dog computer in the house, where it performed flawlessly — for about 60 days. 

Then, quite suddenly, it suffered some type of misfortune (most likely some sort of hardware failure, more on that below) that caused frequent application and OS crashes.  Frequent as in every hour, then every half-hour, then every few minutes.

OK, that can happen.

My first call to tech support was excellent — smart guy, can-do attitude, did not treat me like an idiot — and we worked out a plan.  I got a memory test utility, which I ran overnight, and sure enough, found many, many memory errors.  A couple of quick experiments moving RAM around made it seem like it wasn’t the memory sticks but the motherboard.

OK.  That can happen.

My second call to tech support was excellent — I reached the same guy (we’ll call him Guy One), and he agreed that it was most likely the motherboard, but said he’d have both a new motherboard AND new RAM sent out right away, just in case.  When the parts came, I could schedule a tech to come out to my house and fix the whole thing (I can swap RAM, but I’m not going to mess with replacing a motherboard.)

Wow, things are going great.  I would NEVER get support like this from Dell or HP or Gateway (yes, I know this from personal experience).  No wonder Velocity Micro is experiencing “triple-digit” growth (to quote CEO Randy Copeland on the company’s blog).

But — and here comes the tie-in to my earlier “growth” comments — the parts were never sent.  I called three days later, got a different guy, who found that despite Guy One’s best intentions, “Shipping” had never bothered to send my parts. 

OK, that can happen.

But it shouldn’t.  This is where the growth-induced strain in Velocity’s internal systems and culture began to show.  Guy Two is also smart, has a can-do attitude, and did not treat me like an idiot, and he was clearly upset that his company had failed to deliver for a customer — but at this point the customer (me) had lost interest in the difference between “Guy Two” and “Shipping.”  The customer wants Velocity to function as one unit and to deliver — instead, I was learning about how somebody I could NOT speak to was screwing up the life of the guy I COULD speak to.  Quite possibly, to handle triple-digit growth in orders, Velocity’s processes and systems for coordinating customer support and shipping have changed; I imagine that both functions have grown, new people are working both new systems, and some person, process, or system had slipped, and my parts were just sitting around in Richmond as a result.  Guy Two went off to kick some ass, but my good will was rapidly being used up.

So pretty soon my parts arrived, and the process of scheduling a tech was amazingly quick and smooth (thanks again, Guy Two), and the tech came out the next day (a Saturday). 

Wow!  Things are going great again!

But wait.  The tech swapped the motherboard, and everything still crashed left right and sideways.  Not exactly the same way as before, but close enough.  He spent over three and half hours here, reached the end of his troubleshooting skills (and far more than the end of the hours alotted to the problem), and he threw in the towel. 

OK, that can happen. 

It’s notoriously difficult to troubleshoot hardware from 3000 miles away, and it’s possible that this was not a problem with the motherboard, or RAM, or that the new parts were defective too, or, well, you get the idea.  But it’s also possible that the tech (not a Velocity employee) was not quite the right guy for this type of problem, or did not bring all the diagnostic equipment / software / skills / whatever to my house on a Saturday afternoon for a full-blown troubleshooting session.  I don’t know — I’m just the customer, I don’t build or repair computers for a living.  As the customer, this was another disappointing interaction with Velocity, because I had to spend Saturday afternoon at home while my problem was not getting fixed.

And on Saturday night, Velocity support is closed, and I had to leave on a business trip on Sunday.  No main computer for the Powers family this week. 

Guy Three at Velocity called while I’m away.  Velocity decided it was time for the machine to come home to Richmond for factory troubleshooting and repair.  Sadly, I agreed — there’s no point sending out random parts so that non-Velocity techs can turn my desk into a test bench.  On my return, I called to make arrangements for shipping.  Guy Four said they’d email me a UPS shipping label, and that the process for this happens mid-day each day, so I should get it by email the next day.  I said “OK, but if I don’t receive it I’ll be shipping it anyway and billing Velocity,” and he agreed.

The machine was backed up relatively recently before the crashes began, which is not the same as saying it’s current.  I at least wanted my email identities and recent documents and so on backed up before I shipped the beast away.  I spent hours and hours and frustrating hours between crashes and spontaneous re-boots trying to get a decent backup of those files, and only partially succeeded.  I pulled the old Gateway out of music-server status, re-installed Office, and re-commissioned it as the main household computer.  Email files are out of sync, a bunch of other settings could not be recovered from the Velocity Micro box — life sucks, but goes on.

Next day, no shipping label.

I decided to wait one more day because it’s a hassle to go to the UPS store and figure out all the options, so I packed it up and got it all ready. 

Next day, no shipping label.

I grumbled down to UPS to ship it myself, and notified Velocity of this, and faxed the receipt to the person they designated. 

Two days later (as the PC was arriving in Richmond), sure enough, I got a shipping label via email from UPS.  (I’m inclined to believe Guy Two’s assessment of where some of the problems may be — are you listening Shipping?  How about you, Randy?)

I emailed this information back to Velocity so at least they don’t have to pay UPS twice.

My computer arrived in Richmond as scheduled, and my machine now sits on a bench there on life support; today is its sixth day in intensive care.  Guy Two (I’m back to him now) calls daily to explain that it’s still failing, and we discuss various theories and chat about the difficulties of troubleshooting hardware, and how a hardware failure on Part A can cause Part B to fail, and when you replace Part A, Part B can cause the NEW Part A to fail, and so on.  I like Guy Two, he’s smart and connects well with customers and no doubt has a tough hardware problem on his hands — maybe next time I’m in Richmond, I’ll go get a beer with him.  Or not.

It was after one of these status calls that I saw Randy Copeland’s February 5, 2007 blog post, called “Watching the PC Industry.”  In this post he takes a few shots at his competitors, points to Velocity’s own “triple digit growth,” decries industry trends that he feels do not serve the customer’s interests, and generally pounds the table insisting that Velocity has it right while everyone else has it wrong.  I was particulary struck by the assertion that:

A simple formula of premium components, fair pricing, and my dedication to the ultimate support experience have made our company a national contender.

On another day, I might have considered this type of post a great example of the sort of entrepreneurial optimism and assertive attitude I often admire (and sometimes project).  But given the circumstances, it struck me as self-congratulatory and out of touch.  The premium components failed, the pricing can only be considered “fair” if the machine lives up to its billing (which it has not), and the “ultimate support experience” is, well, documented above. 

Listen Randy — my $3000 machine has done no useful work in over three weeks.  I know the status of my machine pretty much every day, which is good (seriously), but not good enough.  This is the Main Computer for the Powers household, and it’s been out of commission since January 18.  I’ve twice had multi-day delays in the repair process attributable to snafus in basic systems and procedures.  While your team is filled with smart, hard-working, technically competent people who understand the importance of customer communication, they are struggling with your rapid growth to deliver on their promises.  And no one has offered a date on which I can expect to get my machine back (or a new machine with my old drives in it, for example). 

Velocity can still recover.  I still remember the attractive box, the apparent build quality, the great performance, the positive references from other customers, and the positive interactions I’ve had with individuals on the Velocity team.  I am favorably impressed by the professionalism, intelligence, and customer focus of everyone I’ve spoken to at Velocity.  But none of that means anything if I don’t have a working computer.  I’m happy for your triple digit growth, your industry awards, and your obsession — but you have not delivered anything close to the “perfect PC experience” for me. 

So the next few days are critical — if I get a reliable high-performance PC that I can use for years to come, then the memory of the past few weeks will quickly fade.  If the slip-ups continue, and I remain unable to use the PC that Velocity sold me, well, our relationship will end badly.

As for lessons at Digipede, our own triple-digit growth company is hard at work reviewing QA and customer support systems and processes.  Have we slipped up?  Yes indeed.  And we recently had a customer call us on it.  (And now, all is well with that customer.)  But we also all (and I mean all) see the opportunities and the peril, and are working steadily to maintain the highest levels of quality and service as we grow.  The good news is we have been here before — the whole Digipede management team has experienced very rapid growth before, and we’re ready for it.  We are committed (I use that term advisedly) to getting it right for our customers, and in creating the “perfect grid computing experience” for them.  And if we don’t, let me hear about it!

Tags: Customer Service · Entrepreneurship · Growth · Startup Life · Usability

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Randy Copeland // Feb 11, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    John, I agree that we are/were experiencing some critical growing pains, especially in our shipping department. We really had a shipping melt-down around the time of Windows Vista’s launch, as you experienced first hand. What I’ve already done is promote a new shipping manager that started his first day as the boss last Monday. He’s extremely competent and committed to resurrecting my faith in our shipping team, and yours. I feel really good about the prospect for the ultimate PC experience. Although that may be in the eye of the beholder, I have a pretty critical eye.

    As for your system, I’m really disappointed that we’ve failed you, and will personally take a look at your situation first thing Monday morning. I understand it’s not enough to have the desire and goal to satisfy you, we must actually deliver. Expect either your system to be fixed or a new system in the next few days.

    Thanks for the feedback! Drop me an email if you want to add any more to this story.

    Randy Copeland
    President & CEO
    Velocity Micro, Inc.

  • 2 john // Feb 11, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    Randy scores a perfect ten for this response: Admit the problem, diagnose the problem, take steps to fix the problem, promise to do better, make a personal commitment, propose both Plan A and Plan B.

    Stay tuned, readers — I hope to be writing a happy ending shortly.

  • 3 Dean C. // Feb 23, 2007 at 3:25 am

    What a refreshing response to a customer! Ultimately, it’s the delivery that matters! Whatever you do, Randy…DO NOT OUTSOURCE ANYTHING out of Richmond! You are not only setting a shining example of delivering “customer service,” you are being a true Soutern Gentleman example to others. KUDOS!

  • 4 Reggie // Mar 7, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    Very interesting post. I recently had a big headache with Velocity Micro. Just after Microsoft Vista was release I went to dell to purchase the XPS 710 but learned they were having problems getting the soundcard driver from Creative. I waited a few weeks and still nothing so I went to Velocity Micro. On their site there was nothing stating that they too were having trouble getting the soundcard. So I configured the high-end computer (north of $5,000) and went forward with the purchase. It’s been a month and I still do not have my computer. I’ve called in 6 times and 2 times the customer service lied point-blank to me. Once I let them know that I was a techie and could see through their story their tune changed. Anyway I’ve had terrible experience with Velocity Micro and will not do business with the company again. In my opinion it was more important for them to get the order, than to give me excellent service. Heck I would be happy with honesty.

  • 5 Chad A. Johnson // Mar 7, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    I am currently experiencing the same frustrations with Velocity Micro. Based on what I have read on their website and reviews from major computing publications, I expected to get a high quality computer and exceptional customer service. It has been 5 weeks and I still don’t have my computer and the customer service that I have received has been dismal. I have experienced a lack of communication, misinformation and unkept promises. I definitely had expected better service from Velocity Micro. Hopefully my opinion of the company will change when I finally receive my computer.

  • 6 john // Mar 8, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    Reggie and Chad — I am sorry to learn of your unpleasant experience with Velocity Micro. While I experienced significant problems and delays in my recent PC repair / replacement, I have NOT had a problem with their customer service. I have never had anyone at VM lie to me, nor have I experienced a lack of communication or misinformation. I have found their team to be honest and professional — but stretched thin by their growth. You can take my advice for what it’s worth, but I found I got good results by staying positive and factual in my descripition of my issues with VM, and by taking my issues up directly with their CEO Randy Copeland. I hope your experience with Velocity turns around, as mine did, and I hope Velocity is listening to your complaints and making the appropriate changes.

  • 7 Chad A. Johnson // Mar 9, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Thank you, John. I hope my previous comment didn’t come across wrong. I just am experiencing a lot of frustration and disappointment. I really thought I had stumbled on a great up-and-coming company that would build me a machine to make me the evny of all my friends. I have emailed Randy and outlined my experience in detail so that he can determine what went wrong. After reading his comments on various blogs, he reminds me of where Michael Dell and his company were before they got so big that the average consumer can get lost. I would love for my confidence in Velocity Micro to be restored.

    Great posting by the way. Your take on Velocity Micro’s rapid growth, and not their business model, as being the root of your issue seems to be spot-on.

  • 8 Randy Copeland // Mar 15, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Just to keep up, I’ve been in contact with both Reggie and Chad, who know each other and are friends. Both have their systems now and are on the road to recovery. I really appreciate the direct feedback, and it’s been a big help with some of the decisions we have had lately.

    I wanted to point out a few additional changes we announced Tuesday in the press:

    — We have announced a brand new 8000 square foot support and repair center that will open in May. The new facility is directly accross the street from our current operation and will allow us to better stay in front of support needs as we expand. It will also have a dedicated shipping team and expanded phone system.
    — We launched our industry-first “Conceirge Desk” program Tuesday. It’s a support option answered not by sales or tech, but by customer advocates that can be involved with any issues a customer may need additional help with that are not being met. If the tech lines are busy, a conceirge will answer, take a message, and literally follow up with tech (who are based in the same area) until the call is returned. They can get a salesman on the phone with you, or accounting, or shipping, or track down any answer you need. They understand honestly is key. Fun fact, we only hired hotel front desk staff for this position, because they had such good people skills. We are very proud of the program!
    — Besides the previously mentioned new shipping manager, I also created the position and hired a Vice President of Operations, Brent Stanton, who has previous experience at Dell and Circuit City.
    — Lastly, we wanted to make sure we were not missing out on great tech candidates, so we increased the base rate for new hires by 25% on Tuesday. I don’t want to miss out on talented people to save a little money. We all know that the best people are worth the money they earn.

    Hope this followup give you a sense of the commitment I am making to continue our capabilities focused on the ultimate customer experience.

    Randy

  • 9 john // Mar 15, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    Randy — your comments and participation here are always appreciated. These sound like great steps (I’m taking notes as we expand at Digipede as well), and I wish you and your team all the best. My replacement system from Velocity works great, and I appreciate your continued interest in direct feedback.

  • 10 Lee // Mar 29, 2007 at 1:28 am

    John, the posts on “Powers Unfiltered” were quite interesting because I’m currently going through a similar situation. However, I’m not getting the same results as you, Chad, and Reggie. My computer has been at VM since 2/22/07, and the last contact I received from them was on 2/23/07. I’ve called myself on 3/7, 3/16, 3/20, 3/22, 3/26, & 3/27. The responses I received have been: 1. Still working on it., 2. “Waiting for motherboard from manufacturer.”, 3. “Received motherboard.”, 4. “It’s all set. You’ll have it by 3/26.”, 5. “It’s still on the bench. Last note says, No video out. I’ll have the tech call you.”, 6. “I talked to senior tech. He’ll says he’ll call you”. Yesterday, I also sent a long email outlining history of computer problems and including a plea for help to Randy Copeland. It’s now 9:23pm on the 28th in Virginia, so I guess there will be no communication from VM today.

    I bought my VM for the same reasons you guys did. It had great reviews, exceptional support, quality construction. It seemed well worth the extra money. Granted, from all the glowing reports on this company and their machines, I probably got a lemon, but…like Chad, I really want to be a believer. I started crashing in the first 6 months. They had trouble finding a tech to service me in Maui. I had to use the computer in short spurts for months to avoid overheating. They finally found someone to help in my area. That fix lasted for a short period of time. Back to monitoring the heat level. It started to self-destruct in November 2006, and finally died on 2/17/07. I know it’s old in computer lives (received it in June 2004), but, I’ve had very few periods of expected performance from this machine.

    I also know I’m female and 60 years old, but I’ve owned computers since 1986 while I was in college (graduated summa cum laude in 1991). I’ve successfully replaced almost every component in a PC over my history. I was Chief Financial Officer for a high-tech firm for over 4 years and the tech’s used to come to me for help with PC’s. (They were Mac based. My accounting department was the only one with PC’s.) So, I’m not an idiot or a nubie.

    I understand the problems with Vista, but shouldn’t that be diminishing by now? All I want is my computer back in good working condition. It seems you guys with bigger resumes are getting better service than the average Joe/Josephine. Can you put in a good word for me? If not, can you recommend a good choice for my next computer?

    Lee

  • 11 john // Mar 29, 2007 at 6:00 am

    Lee — I’m happy to post your comment here (I still get VM readers on occasion), and to express my sympathies. I don’t believe I have any more pull with Velocity Micro than you do, and I really had not intended this blog to become a sounding board for those with customer service issues with VM. I think you’re doing everything right:
    – keep your interactions with them positive, but frequent;
    – escalate to Randy, and explain your experience in detail;
    – repeat.
    As you know, fixing computers is tricky. On top of that, they could easily have parts issues (e.g. waiting for motherboard…) and yours (and mine, and others so frustrated that they post here) may just have been “lemons,” a few bad computers out of the many they make. But keep reminding them that’s their problem not yours, and insist on names when someone promises to call you.
    As for any “next computer,” my only experience with desktops other than VM is now a few years out of date. I had no trouble with my old Gateway, for what that’s worth.
    I hope this is resolved quickly for you. For me, time for a vacation. I’m actually off to Hawaii (the big island, not Maui), where I hope not to need a computer tech…

  • 12 Bill S. // Apr 13, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I recently purchased a Velocity Micro Gamer’s Edge PCX. The computer runs great but they shipped the wrong keyboard. I sent an e-mail with a photo of the incorrect part and received a reply within one hour stating that they were shipping a new keyboard. I received it in 4 days. I also got a request for the shipping employee I.D. number on the box. I assume that was done so that they could take corrective action.

    It looks like V/M is trying hard to correct their problems, and when they make an error they are responding quickly. I would buy from them again.

  • 13 Heather Taylor // Jun 6, 2007 at 12:30 am

    All:

    I just wanted to introduce myself to everyone…despite the fact that I am late to the party, it seems. I am the Customer Care Manager for Velocity Micro.

    We did, indeed, go through a rough patch with Customer Care a few months back, partly due to expansion, and partially due to…well, me. Good techs need a good manager, and unfortunately, I ended up being out/working from home from January till April. It was very sudden, and as a result, the guys were keeping things together as best as they could without me there to “hold down the fort”. Not every team could have performed as well as they did under such difficult circumstances, but I am pretty proud of them all despite the (fortunately) few missteps that occurred.

    I am back as of mid-April, about the same time the last post was added here–and with a beautiful baby girl to show for my efforts. We’ve moved into our new call/repair center, hired some more really excellent technicians, and I think we’re doing much better for our customers as a result (though our “bad” was not as bad as other companies’ version of “good”). There are some other changes coming soon, including a more highly trained onsite solution, but they’re all geared towards providing all of you with the best service possible. And as always, we’re still hanging out in Richmond, Va…no outsourcing for us!

    If anyone–anyone at all–has any questions, concerns, or problems, please feel free to contact me at htaylor@velocitymicro.com. I’m here if you need me!

    Heather

  • 14 john // Jun 6, 2007 at 4:43 am

    Heather —
    Thanks for posting here. Congratulations on the baby girl (I’m teaching my baby girl to drive this month — time goes by faster than you think). Glad to hear you’re adding to your customer care team, and I wish you the best.

    All Velocity Micro Customers (happy or otherwise) — As I indicated in a more recent post, I’m closing off this thread and all others related to Velocity Micro. This blog is not the VM hotline, and I’m not part of the emergency alternative VM support network. I’ve begun deleting customer complaints regarding VM products and services, and that’s my policy from now on. Heather has been kind enough to put her contact information here, and she’s been assigned by VM to make VM customers happy. Please (PLEASE) direct your comments to her, or to the rest of the VM team.

    John

  • 15 Leonard Krieger // Jul 16, 2008 at 2:49 am

    Hello John
    I have read with great interest your article and comments on Velocity Micro and their “growing pains from 2007.” But as the website I have read is over a year old, (http://powersunfiltered.com/2007/02/11/growth-part-one-growing-pains-at-velocity-micro/ )
    What is your opinion now of VM? Would you recommend them? I am seriously looking at VM as my nixt choice in a home PC and I really would like your opinion and comments. I could not help but wonder what happened to your computer you bought from them? Do you still have it or has it been replaced? Was your system failures solved? Would you now recommend VM or for me to look elsewhere?
    I know that (from what I have read on other websites) that Randy Copeland gets “hands on” with customer issues. I have read many post on Hardforum in which Mr Copeland is sometimes the second post/reply to a customer bad experience with a VM product.
    I cannot tell you how frustrating it has been researching a new PC. The horrendous reviews of the Big Three (Dell, Gateway, HP) is, it seems, forcing me to look outside of the mainstream of PC Venders and possibly into the hands of Velocity Micro or perhaps Maingear.
    I hope you find time to reply with opinion as it would be MUCH appreciated. Thank You

  • 16 john // Jul 20, 2008 at 1:07 am

    Leonard, I closed this thread long ago, and have deleted numerous comments about Velocity Micro in the past year, but you ask a good question so:
    I still have my replacement VM computer, it has been a decent although quirky computer over the past year, and I’m basically satisfied with VM (the company). My machine has problems with not shutting down properly (it often bluescreens on shutdown), and its sound board has never worked properly (won’t record analog). For a Windows XP computer, this is not especially bad behavior (I’ve used many at home and work that behaved worse). And on a normal day, the performance is excellent — it’s fast and fairly quiet. So — I’d say their machines are at least worth considering.

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