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!