October 22, 2013

Real Valley Stories: "The Missiles are in the Air... Please Stay"

Editor's Note: Part 10 in an irregular series of stories from my 15 years in Silicon Valley. Part 9 talked about the time I emailed the entire company about impending layoffs days before they took place. This time, a story about how, during a stressful time at the office, I got a job offer at a competitor, and over not much more than a weekend's time, rescinded and stayed instead - all while gaining new promises for career growth.

Ten years ago was a time of change, or so it seemed. I'd just gotten married, and Silicon Valley was in the throes of a deep recession. The once-packed highways became easy to drive again. Parking lots were empty and constructed buildings didn't have any tenants. Two-plus years into my job, we'd already seen our unfair share of peaks and valleys. The CEO had been replaced, as had our VP of Sales, and the Marketing team had almost completely turned over, making me one of the more senior folks, surprisingly. But while I believed in our technology, our future was not certain, so when a former colleague gave me a call, asking me to interview at his new startup, I figured I'd give it a try.

At the time, amid a national recession, and extreme risk aversion by our target customer base to test and deploy equipment from startups, meeting our numbers each quarter was challenging, to say the least. On the marketing side, we found our budgets compressed down to nearly zero, and our options were increasingly limited. Our trade show and travel budget was eliminated. Our online advertising budget was deleted. We even took our PR work completely in house, paying only for the typical wire service fees, followed by strategic emails or phone calls from me to press to push the success stories we did have, or try to take the reporters off the scent of how dire things seemed.

The Friend Throws Me a Job Opportunity

Then came the phone call. A former director of product marketing who'd found a new home asked me to come in and interview for the role of digital marketing manager. I polished up the resume and started the process - talking to the hiring manager by phone, and eventually coming in for an interview.

Stepping into the competitor's office was a dramatically different feeling than the quiet library-like ghost town of the startup where I worked. This one sported bright colors and the fresh smell of new venture funding, being bankrolled by one of the Valley's biggest names. The interviews went well, and I remember specifically driving them to be a pioneer in the space, using Google's AdWords, which at the time were untapped waters for the industry, and could be a fast way to get inexpensive leads.

A few days later, on a Friday, I got a phone call, and they wanted to move forward. I got the job. They wanted me to start as soon as possible, which put the ball in my court, to call HR and let my employer know I was leaving. So the next day, on Saturday, I called the VP of Human Resources, catching him at a kid's softball game. I told him I didn't want a lot of drama around my leaving, that I just wanted to be done by that Friday of that week. The sooner out, the better. I was excited about moving on.

The Best Phone Call from HR Ever - and a Note from the CEO

The next morning, Sunday, I checked my work email and saw a rare message from the CEO, with a simple subject line: "please stay". The body of the message too was short, but said he was traveling to Europe, didn't want to lose me, and to reach out any time. That was interesting.

Later that day, the VP of HR emailed to say he wanted to talk that night. So I awaited his call. Overnight, I'd gone from having two feet out the door and feeling like a low-level peon to someone who'd gotten the attention of senior management. My wife, appropriately, rolled her eyes, and told me to be wary.

Which Direction to Take?

That night, he called. It was after 10 in the evening, and I paced back and forth in my apartment kitchen, telling him how with our company's situation, and recent changes in the marketing team, I just didn't see a route for us to be successful. Citing Bush's comments at the time as we started battles in Iraq, I said, "Marketing needs a regime change." Seconds later, he answered with the coolest line I've ever heard from HR. "Louis, the missiles are in the air."

From that moment, the tone changed - not from one where I was on the way out, but to one where I said what I would need to stick around, including the obvious meeting or exceeding in compensation, but additional responsibilities, and transfering to a new boss, whom I'd already had a ton of respect for.

Never Take the Counter-Offer?

That made Monday awkward. In addition to putting through my usual tasks, I met quietly with the HR VP again and practically every roadblock I saw as preventing me from staying was knocked down. I was promised the salary match, a title change, and a changed reporting structure. The people who had limited my ability to succeed were going to be out of the way. And all it took was my sending a note back to the competitor that I had rescinded the offer. I obviously couldn't tell them why, but I had to let them know.

You read in career guidance books to never take the counter-offer. Despite any financial gains, the reason you were interested in leaving is usually still the same. The people are usually the same. But I drafted a "Sorry but..." letter and sent it off. This no doubt surprised them, and it really burned my friend, who'd brought me in, as he left me a livid voice mail which landed me on his bad list for years to come.

And yes, I was immediately worried I'd flubbed the decision - especially as I saw this company eventually launch, put out their share of positive releases, and have glitzy booths at our mutual events. But their star faded, even as I got more opportunities to own our strategic direction and help the company grow out of its darkest points through new product introductions, several cycles of upgrades, dramatic customer expansion and eventually, an IPO filing - although we never did quite make it.

The biggest surprise in all this, even during the darkest times for us as a company and as an industry wasn't that I could find a new role, or that things ended up right after all, but that I had allies higher in the food chain than I had ever anticipated - people who agreed with my views, and respected me to the point that they would give me an opportunity to succeed on a path I saw made sense.

And those missiles that were in the air? They landed, and eventually the people that were slowing us down and making roadblocks for me and the company found new roles somewhere else. As for the company that almost pulled me away? They never went public, instead selling back to their primary investor. They burned bright for a short minute and eventually faded away. It turned out I had made the right choice.

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