My birthday was last month, May 16th, 2021, and having just turned 24, I’ve been reflecting on the 3 past years since founding Groundhogg and some of the obstacles we’ve faced and choices I made to overcome them.
It seems that there are no right answers when it comes to business, only results. Some actions will produce desirable results, others will produce undesirable ones.
Every action has both positive and negative consequences, and in some situations, it feels sometimes like I’m choosing between the lesser of two evils. Having said that, I’ve come to a turning point and a decision is forthcoming.
What am I talking about exactly?
There have been a handful of naysayers in my career as the founder of Groundhogg, and I’m afraid it’s my own doing. My shortcomings as a new founder attracted negativity.
Over the past 6 months, there has been a very real and carefully orchestrated effort by a handful of individuals, who we seem to have alienated. They are attempting to undermine our company’s credibility (and personal authority) and prevent Groundhogg from being a force that enables small businesses and agencies to launch, grow and scale. This includes…
- Actively promoting competitive products in our own private Groundhogg User group
- Engaging with our customers privately to entice them away from Groundhogg
- Posting take down articles about Groundhogg and me personally
- Personally messaging our team members and draining their time and energy
- And more…
Our team and I have spent an enormous amount of energy dealing with it. We’ve obsessed about it, struggled with it, had meetings about it, and more.
The fact is, we’ve never had to deal with this before, and frankly, we don’t know if we should censor it, delete it, or exactly what to do?
My philosophy is that you can either “affect” people or “infect” them. So far it feels like every time I see a post, comment, or message from this group its purpose is to affect our community.
Yet, every time we’ve engaged in damage control with this particular group of people we’ve ended up pouring more fuel on the fire.
It hasn’t gone away and we’ve got lots to learn and we know we have to do better.
So, how did we get here?
In my estimation, I’ve made these 5 decisions that have negatively impacted our progress and consequently given rise to our group of naysayers.
Decision #1. Promising a public deadline on Groundhogg 3.0
About a year ago a competitor was coming to market in our vertical and that put an enormous amount of pressure on our team to produce results, fast. I had plans to rebuild Groundhogg, but competition lit a fire under my butt.
I was already thinking of having a whole new do-over for Groundhogg so I made a promise to you and myself. It was a reactionary plan to keep our base (you) engaged and excited. I thought the newest version of Groundhogg promised to be the answer to all our customers’ desires, and my own. And also that it would be done by the end of March 2021.
In hindsight, here’s why that decision may have not been the best idea.
- My vision of 3.0 was a massive undertaking, and I gravely underestimated the amount of effort that would be needed to make it become a reality.
- Focusing on 3.0 limited our ability to deliver on CURRENT feature requests, instead, we made the promise to include new requests in 3.0, which in reality would take quite a bit longer.
- As we are building it, we are seeing plenty of opportunities to make it way better, so it is taking more time.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and we instead could have stayed focused on building on top of what we had rather than going back and doing a ground-up rebuild, which hindered us from being able to work on new stuff.
But dwelling on the past does not bode well for the future, so how do we move forward and learn from this?
Well, Groundhogg 3.0 is coming along nicely, and I truly believe it will solve a lot of problems for our members beyond what we already solve with our production version. We’ll continue to work diligently on it and deliver on our 3.0 promise. We made several GREAT hires to make it a reality. We are indeed excited about bringing this to WordPressers.
And we’ve recently made a lot of progress on our other products as well, like our Booking Calendar and the new Groundhogg REST API.
Decision #2. I told several customers I didn’t agree with them
Anyone who’s been a part of our community for a long time is aware that I have very strong core values and beliefs. We do many things differently as both a company and as software than many of our competitors.
For example, we have a strong emphasis on support, training, and general business/growth education, templates, and front-line interaction with customers on the company side.
On the software side, we are open source and heavily integrated. Our funnel/automation builder is unique in the category, we have many agency focused features, and we are incredibly developer-friendly.
That comes with both pros and cons for different kinds of businesses. It means that Groundhogg works better with some businesses than it does with others. I’m okay with that.
We understand our product is not a one-size-fits-all. Groundhogg’s advanced features allow advanced users to do cool things. Agencies love the white label feature and data portability. WaaS developers like our multi-site features. WordPressers love conditional logic. Some things we are improving on. As you grow, we grow.
From day one I had a very specific vision of what Groundhogg would do, and who we would serve. In the early days, it was just me and one other developer, and we were incredibly focused on producing things that would get results for customers, fast.
However, what we were focused on, and what a select group of users wanted from us did not line up, and we got a lot of push back as we focused on things they didn’t specifically ask for.
Then I made a huge mistake. I admit I had been laser-focused on product development, and not so much honing my communication skills. So I had no idea what I was creating when I disagreed with my customers. Some felt I wasn’t listening, lacked empathy, was telling them “what they should do”, or that I didn’t care if they were a client or not. In some cases, to make matters worse, I told some of my clients that their opinions were wrong.
Telling a customer they are wrong is not a good choice for a few reasons.
- I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has taken kindly to being told they are wrong (especially since there are no right answers after all).
- It looked as though I didn’t want to listen to Groundhogg customers.
- I was bleeding trust because some felt like I didn’t care what they thought.
These interactions were causing discomfort for our members. It was painful for my team to deal with the private messages in their inbox. And though I have very thick skin, my mentors were trying to coach me to hone my communication skills.
I have learned that my style needs to be refined. I’m working on it. I have to take time to think about the tone of what I write or the words I choose when I speak. This letter is especially hard because this is a soft skill that takes practice.
- I learned that even though I authentically listen and digest, the person may not feel that from my style. So, let them know with a kind word such as “I hear you”
- Some requests were not doable with our time and budget. So I would just say “no” or dumber things like “I’m protecting customers from themselves” It wasn’t what I meant, but what I said that raised alarms” (forgive me for that one). I have learned that based on the request, I can simply reply with, “This is not a priority for our team right now, we are currently focused on delivering ______”
- And finally, if they tell me my competition is doing this and we should too, it’s okay to say “Hopefully we’ll be able to provide this in the future, but if this is something you need right now we may not be the best fit for your business at the moment.”
I’m learning every day.
Decision #3. I didn’t let it go.
Would you rather be right, or get what you want? Sometimes being right isn’t as important as you think it is.
I do not have a need to be right, though I do have an ego, I’m only human. I don’t really like being told I’m wrong, like most people. Usually, I can let it go and take it in stride. However, I took exception when my integrity, beliefs, and leadership skills were being questioned. I drew the line as they say. My mentors counseled me to let it go. I didn’t.
This same handful of members continued to question Groundhogg’s direction and my leadership publicly. I kept getting emails and Slack messages about the negativity they were spreading in our group and the groups of communities we engage in. I was under pressure from all sides.
And do you know what I did? Exactly what I should not do. I engaged in a losing battle One in which no one wins. I continued to engage and justify my beliefs and decisions, expecting their own opinions to change.
This has harmed not only Groundhogg’s reputation but my personal reputation as well.
I unknowingly fed the toxicity. And despite the protest of my team, mentors, and some Groundhoggers, I continued to let this group of individuals remain in our community. The big consequence is that it continued to drain my team’s resources. This took valuable time away from the customers who need our help to grow and succeed.
What I probably should have done is ban the infectors from the group, and transfer the attention to our core customers who rely on our products and services.
Decision #4. Damage control
We owned up to it when we missed the 3.0 deadline and posted a video in our group. The first reaction to the announcement raised a big red flag for us and our other members. It openly mentioned how well our competitors were doing and how they perceived Groundhogg to be struggling, or that our future was “uncertain.”
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, I don’t think that missing a deadline has anything to do with our future being uncertain. We’re certainly not the first company to have this happen.
My gut reaction was that the post (disguised as feedback) had the intent to damage, to inspire doubt and fear.
So, wanting to protect our brand, and our business, I deleted it. I certainly don’t want potential new customers to see that, certainly not on our own turf. I then proceeded to delete several other posts, comments, threads, from the same group of people. For the first time in the history of Groundhogg, I had put this handful of members on post moderation and mute.
This only served to inspire the infectors to shout that we “censor genuine customer feedback.”
Genuine feedback? Maybe. In my view, the level of negativity was too much to allow. My team called it bullying, slander, and libel. This is what’s called a no-win situation, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
If I protect the integrity of the group, I’m an untrustworthy government that censors its citizens. If I leave it up in our private group I invite more dissent, anxiety, fear, and doubt into a group that exists to promote and elevate others. We can only let our core values guide us.
Decision #5. Confronting customers privately
Finally, and probably the biggest mistake I made, was to take it upon myself to reach out to our band of unhappy customers, personally through messaging and email, and “lay the law down.”
As CEO I see it as my job to protect the organization from assault, and I felt very much under attack. My staff and community were being demoralized. I felt I had to take action.
Again, in hindsight being 20/20, this was a terrible best choice. Tone and personal customer communications are not a strong suit of mine. So when I reached out privately and said in no uncertain terms, “your dissent is not welcome here.” It just fueled an already raging fire, which led to this pretty damning take-down article.
I won’t be engaging customers on a personal level anymore, for any reason. Official support and company channels exist to put a level of professionalism and protection between the company and the customer.
Group rules and a code of conduct exist to allow you to remove infectious content without having to personally call anyone out. I will be relying on them more heavily in the future.
This is a lesson to not let your personal feelings influence your professional decisions. Remember, “it’s just good business.”
It takes two to tango.
The irony of it all is that this situation falls squarely on my shoulders alone. Had I made different decisions I might not have lost countless hours of sleep, cut many date nights short, and might not have spent my birthday writing this.
This goes to show the power of words, tonality and having the wisdom to know when to act from the heart or the head. Maybe also having the wisdom to invest in someone who knows a few things about PR and good communication skills when these issues come up. We did not know how to respond to these attacks, which was a learning curve.
Take responsibility, make no excuses.
To those of you who are upset with me and/or our company(s):
“I’m sorry. Thank you! I appreciate you. Mentors come in many forms, and we don’t always like the way they present. I didn’t fully understand at first, but I value the lessons you have brought me. I accept full responsibility for the outcome. I’m grateful to have learned these lessons early, and that you were beacons of change for us. Not only have we heard you, but we talked about it, internalized it, sought counsel from our peers, and we’re doing something about it.”
So how do we move forward from here?
At this point, it’s hard to say whether some of these relationships can be salvaged. I feel we may be beyond the point of no return. Feelings were hurt on both ends. Things were said. It may be best to just go our separate ways.
However, that is not my decision to make this time.
Should some of you wish to come back into the fold, and spend time elevating others, as is this reason for Groundhogg’s existence, you are welcome. However, toxicity and negativity in our community are not welcome and will be removed.
If there is no goodwill in your intentions, then we invite you to make a clean break, ask us to remove you from our communities & email lists knowing that our minds and hearts are moving forward with lessons learned and a new outlook on how to better communicate with our customers.
The choice is yours.
I’m reminded of our core values.
At times like this, I’m reminded of our core values, what makes us, “us.” Throughout this whole situation, I lost sight of the core values that guide us on several occasions, and I regret that. Moving forward, I intend to ensure that I, and my team, use those core values as a compass.
For those who don’t know our core values, here they are:
Add value to people’s lives.
A company that does not add value to peoples’ lives is not a company, it is a vanity project. And I’ve seen a great number of vanity projects in the last few years, especially in the marketing space. Every day when I wake up I’m thinking, “how are we going to help people today.” Because if you help enough people get what they want, you can have what you want.
Obsess about the customer experience.
If a customer is not successful with our products, it’s on us. Everything we do should make the experience of using our tools easier, not more difficult. We have recently started working with a UI/UX designer for the express purpose of bringing this core value to life.
Sweat the details.
When thousands are relying on us, we can’t afford to drop the ball. We must tear everything apart and put it back together to make sure that the products we ship are the best versions of those products. This also extends beyond code, it encapsulates replying to messages, meeting deadlines, writing documentation, following up with customers, and more.
Honor our commitments.
If we commit internally to meet a deadline or help a client with a problem, you can be sure that we’re going to go to the mat to honor that commitment. If life gets in the way, which sometimes it does, then an equal if not superior alternative will be honored in its place.
Sometimes our ego gets in the way of an opportunity to help someone become better. Competition is an inherent human trait, and when we see someone who is not as developed as ourselves in a certain way we can often choose to let them know we are superior, rather than bring them up to our level. We must strive to always choose to bring them up to our level rather than make ourselves feel superior.
Take responsibility & make no excuses.
Taking responsibility means owning your projects, and seeing them through to completion. It means accepting risk and doubling down when the going gets tough. We must all be a part of the collective force that drives innovation and change. And when things work out we must own what we need to improve, what we learned, and what we’ll do differently next time rather than assign blame and stay the same.
There are no right answers.
At every turn, I intended to do the “right” thing to ensure the wellbeing of our community, our company, and the success of our customers,
Problem is, there are no right answers… only results. While Groundhogg has experienced its share of many successes, we certainly felt the pain this time too.
But there’s also a lesson which has been learned by myself and my team. We are taking this experience to heart and will use the feedback we received to ensure we can recognize these issues as they come up, and use this experience to help us become better at what we do!
Changing our tune!
Over the last several months we’ve been making a conscious effort to improve the way we interact with customers in all facets. We’re always asking ourselves how a response might be perceived, and if it helps them solve a problem or just creates more friction.
Some of our new initiatives include answer more complex questions via recorded video so that there is nothing lost in translation and tone isn’t lost over text and two new customer success programs to help you get answers to your burning questions.
We’re making good on a major backlog of feature requests and making sure you have the tools you need.
We are putting this behind us and closing the book on this chapter. It’s possible that some will remain angry with me and I accept that. Our team will be doing much more listening moving forward.
For those customers, the small businesses and agencies who wake up every morning to make their mark on the world, we’ll continue to be here for you, 100%!
When I wake up every morning I don’t think about having to go to work, I don’t resent the grind. My life is my work. I exist only to serve and elevate those around me, to empower and to guide. As they say, he who loves what he does; does not work a day in his life.
If you feel the same, you’re in good company. We’ll go to the mat to ensure your success and positive results in your business. Failure is not an option.
The Groundhogg team and I will put 110% of our energy behind you, and focus purely on ensuring you have the tools, knowledge, and guidance to achieve greatness.
I’ve never felt more inspired, and I can promise that those who work with us will feel that inspiration in their own business.
There may not be any right answers, but working on Groundhogg, working with small businesses, working with agencies, and working with you has always felt right to me.
We serve Groundhoggers worldwide, and we love what we do. We will take all of these high-value lessons and let them guide us into the future. I started this company at 21. Today I’m 24. I feel extremely fortunate to have earned the trust of so many Groundhoggers and my team. We have many exciting plans and sexy features in the works. We will only get better.
Thank you for your continued trust. We will do better and will always go those extra miles for you, even when the going gets tough!