It’s called "flaming out." That's when your startup runs out of cash.
In March 2003, the Internet bubble had burst, the ad market had cratered, and our little company was on the brink of flaming out. Our team had labored to build a compelling service that attracted millions of members, but website visitors don’t pay the bills and we didn’t charge membership fees. We were encouraged to plan an "orderly shutdown" – provide employees a few weeks’ severance, pay our bills and close our doors.
We had a mission we cared about deeply. Military.com aimed to make it fundamentally easier for military personnel and veterans to access all the benefits earned in service, from GI Bill benefits for college to finding jobs after leaving active duty. We’d raised money from professional investors who didn’t like to lose, and taken money from friends and family who couldn’t afford to lose it. We’d already had a round of layoffs to cut costs, which meant I had to let friends go. And it was about to get worse.
During those dark days, our CEO and Navy Veteran Christopher Michel reflected that, "When you fail in business, at least no one dies." Oddly, putting failure into stark perspective was helpful. Realizing that the worst-case scenario was endurable (awful, but endurable), helped me to compartmentalize fear of failure and just channel all my energy into the fix. The company and the team were worth saving, and I wouldn’t let it slip away without doing everything in my power to save it. I leaned in.
I’d led marketing, where I drove membership and supported our sales team. Now, we were a skeleton crew and needed money desperately. I didn’t know exactly how to sell, but I knew how to speak passionately about an audience and a service I believed in. After refining the list of advertisers that fit our audience best, I hit the road.
In that recessionary environment, advertisers weren’t buying much media, especially from little Internet companies on the brink of bankruptcy, so it was important that our fiscal realities weren’t written all over my face during presentations. Each deal was critical: it meant payroll, internet hosting fees, office rent. But advertisers wouldn’t buy because of our necessity; they’d buy because of confidence in the upside we’d deliver for them.
We bounced back from the brink. It worked because those handpicked advertisers resonated with our audience, and because everyone on our team understood that making successful connections between members and advertisers was our lifeblood, the key to thriving and fulfilling our mission.
Military.com grew robustly, and was later acquired by Monster Worldwide, where it continues in the hands of a team committed to supporting that community. I moved on to other companies that connect people with opportunities, but still receive notes from members grateful for my support in pursuing their ambitions. When people ask me about those early days, I say we were lucky. It’s amazing how lucky you get when you lean in.