After the burst of the dot-com bubble and the deepening of the economic recession that followed 9/11, I was struggling to keep FatWire Software afloat like just about every other tech startup CEO. The company had 2 years of zero growth, and sales remained flat at $10M. We had already downsized, but our bank accounts still couldn’t keep up with our burn rate. Customers just weren’t buying, and some went under without paying their bills. My partners and I knew that if we didn’t make a dramatic change, the years of sweat and toil we had poured into the business would come to nought. So at the end of 2002, after seemingly endless days of asking myself, “How long can I do this?” I finally came up with an answer.
Most people don’t think that the solution to running out of money is to buy something big, but that’s exactly what we had to do. I searched for acquisition targets and eventually discovered that a competitor of ours, OpenMarket, was going bankrupt. At its peak, OpenMarket had achieved a billion dollar market cap, but we ended up buying it out of bankruptcy for about $6M. Their product had a larger international customer base and more person-hours of development, so we decided to replace our original product–which my very talented team and I had spent the last five years building–with theirs. This was a decision of the head over one of the heart. And it paid off. After one year, FatWire grew its sales to more than $20M, achieved profitability, and laid the groundwork for an acquisition by Oracle.
Fast forward to the next world-altering crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am running Rover Diagnostics, a biotech start-up developing an ultrafast point-of-care PCR test for infectious diseases. I started Rover with my co-founder, Sam Sia, back in 2018 without an inkling of the widespread devastation that a novel coronavirus would bring, but with a sense of the huge potential demand for faster, easier, and cheaper testing for infectious diseases, like the flu and RSVs.
In early 2020, we had developed an early prototype of our test instrument, the Lightspeed, and we were still figuring out which diseases to target. Then COVID-19 hit New York hard, and the answer became painfully obvious. For the next 9 months we collaborated closely with Columbia University under the NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, to speed up the development and validation of the Lightspeed.
We had to reimagine our earlier vision of where and how the instrument would be used in light of the severity of the novel coronavirus and the need for widespread testing in a variety of locations. We needed to make it faster and capable of processing many more samples as cheaply as possible. We also had to make sure that the test kit, where the human sample mixes with reagents, was so easy to use that no specialized training was required. And of course keeping the operator safe from contamination grew even more important. Finally, integration of the test instrument with a Lab Info System (LIS) so that people could easily access and share their results on their smartphones became a top priority.
It’s pretty hard to predict exactly what force beyond your control could send a business reeling, so being adaptable to whatever comes is key to survival–whether it’s by “zooming out” to see beyond the normal scope of your organization and make a dramatic strategic change, or by “zooming in” to narrow the focus onto a specific urgent need. The pandemic has shown that uncertainty is more certain than ever. Only in learning how to ride the shockwaves as they come can we keep from getting crushed by them.