It was 1998, and it had been 5 years since we launched FuturesNet and two (2) years since we made the decision to move the entire platform to the Internet. The unfortunate result of these drastic changes was that FuturesNet was dying a slow and painful death. Although we were way ahead of everyone else by creating a database driven website, people thought the Internet was free, so why did they have to pay for our service. But, like any good entrepreneur, we kept pushing forward, making change after change to trying to find that silver bullet. The result, frustration, major delays, and oh yeah, we were hemorrhaging money. The reality was that we were allowing others to control our destiny, forcing us to make major changes instead of controlling our own journey through small incremental changes. The result, we had lost all focus.
Then one day while sitting at the conference room table with a six-pack of beer trying to figure out our next move, an epiphany hit us. Everyone thought the Internet was free; Microsoft had just bought Hotmail (a free email service) for $500 million in December of 1997. Why not take the piece of the technology that everyone was using within Futuresnet and make it a standalone application? It would be a disk drive on the Internet, but it had to be free. Thus, the birth of FreeDrive – 20mg of web-based storage. It was a quick and easy change and to be honest and it was a last-ditch effort. So, in July of 1998, FreeDrive was launched, we were the first web based storage site and we vowed; no more drastic changes; we would control things from here on out. Over the next year, we grew the user base, we continued to market and enhance the technology, we took a gamble, and it was starting to pay off. Then as fate would have it, while in Las Vegas for a conference, we signed up our one millionth users. As we celebrated this huge accomplishment, none of us realized what lay in front of us. The hockey stick curve had begun, and our lives were about to get crazy. It took us 18 months to get our first million, thirteen weeks later, we hit the 2 million mark, then 11 weeks later we hit three million users. 10 weeks later we hit 4 million users, and the trend continued until, by early 2001, we had reached 18 million users world-wide.
Baby Steps = Success
It can be said that FreeDrives story has been told thousands of times before. A last-ditch effort to keep the company alive turns into success. Look at FedEx and the Fred Smith Vegas story as one example. But as I look back, I ask myself what was the biggest one or two things I learned from that journey. What came to mind immediately was that we were allowing others to control our offering. We knew we were on the right path, but we didn’t trust ourselves enough to stick to the vision. We kept making major changes altering our platform in hopes that we would finally hit on the right formula. Two things happen when you follow that path, you lose your sense of focus as a business and when that happens, your team loses their sense of purpose. The result; is that the business feels like a sailboat adrift at sea, waiting for the wind to push you in a direction, but not really sure which direction that will be. When the wind does finally begin to move the boat, you have no way of knowing where you are going, you are just there for the ride. This is a recipe for failure.
That is why I am a huge believer in small incremental changes. It gives you time to assess if you’ve made the right changes without totally derailing your vision or mission and/or giving your employees whiplash. It’s hard to continually alter your brand and even harder to keep your employees believing and trusting that you, as their captain, are steering the ship in the right direction. When you begin to compound all the small changes, big things can happen.
As for FreeDrive, we stayed true to our commitment to small, incremental and calculated changes, each time we took time to step back, see what was working and what wasn’t working. This allowed us to stay focused on our direction and stay firm to our foundation, by adding a block here or a brick there. Truth be told, some changes worked, and some didn’t, and there is nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, if it didn’t work, it didn’t hurt our brand as much, we were able to control things financially and finally our employees trusted us as the leaders of the company and in the end went to extreme measures to produce and amazing product.
The End of the Wild Ride
In the fall of 2001, we sold a majority interest to EMC, EDS, and Motorola. By 2003, there were 28 million users signed up for the service. My time at FreeDrive had come to an end. Eventually, FreeDrive was sold to AOL. It was a wild ride, full of the lowest lows and the highest highs. But the journey taught me a lot about so many things, but mostly about what I believe in. Now I get to coach others, so maybe the lowest low’s are quite as low.
If you would like to know more about Pull the Chute, please feel free to reach out. You can email me at email@example.com or call my cell 615-572-9500, I look forward to hearing from you.
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