New Hope? New Monthly Plans? A New Moviepass Model!

Updating this quickly after the new ATM news. I can only assume the worst here. I assume the following now.

  • The company is desperately broke and sales of the yearly plans did not work well
  • Utilization likely still too high

Why any institutions would give these guys any money at all is a puzzling thought.

Assume the business model and my financial model are off. Things look bad.

–—

I have created a very quick new back of the envelope model for Moviepass.

This is a pretty wild guess and it may be way too optimistic.

A few key points on this model – and why it could be way off:

  • The company has not shared an updated official subscriber number in months
  • Former Utilization rates claimed by management are not reliable.  The new limited plans have not been in the market long enough to be reliable predictors of consumer usage.
  • Churn rates from old plans and uptake on new plans are not well known.
  • The sales mix of the new plans is not known.

Why I believe the model could be near reality

  • Against all odds – the company seems to be surviving without new funding
  • The company has shown willingness to be brutal to consumers in order to survive – massively limiting inventory – making the product at times nearly impossible to use.   Thus it is likely sub numbers are way down, and usage is also way down.
  • I believe Moviepass will continue to limit the use of their lower end product.
  • I believe the uptake on higher end Moviepass products will be limited due to competition from AMC and limited consumer demand above $20 a month

I do not recommend buying the stock on this model.   Any feedback is welcome on Stocktwits.  Consider this a conversation starter for now.

Will Moviepass HMNY Be Delisted This Week? Probably Not – But the Clock is Definitely Ticking

HMNY the 92% owner of Moviepass is at risk of being delisted off of the NASDAQ this week for failing to trade above $1 for at least 30 consecutive days. It’s been a while since HMNY has seen their stock price above the measly 1 buck level and the bosses at the NASDAQ I am sure have likely had enough of Ted Farnsworth and his antics.

Once shareholders rejected Farnsworth plan for a second reverse split of HMNY’s shares within just a few months after the last 1 for 250 split, the die was cast for a delisting. Many believe the news of the delisting will come this week, while others are betting that the company will find a last ditch effort to save itself from this next humiliation.

My guess is that HMNY will be able to stave off delisting this week, but that if they don’t deliver a meaningful bit of news within the next 90 days they will likely head to the OTC trash bin sometime shortly there after.

My reasoning for this is the following. First, HMNY does have most of the ongoing listing requirements in order. They have enough publicly held shares, revenue, total shareholders to meet those requirements. I believe they have enough stockholders equity as well, although that one is dynamic.

The obvious requirement they are lacking is the bid price staying down in the one to two penny range. The NASDAQ hates penny stocks as they are well aware that this leaves shareholders vulnerable to the scumbags who manipulate shares with pump and dump schemes. These are ugly circumstances the NASDAQ would prefer to avoid.

That said, the NASDAQ is also well known for continuing to extend the life of certain companies if they believe it may serve their investors or serve the interests of the NASDAQ itself. Moviepass and HMNY I believe will get a stay of execution based on this motivation.

Moviepass and HMNY took such a wild ride from media darling to unloved villain in such a short period of time, the NASDAQ may well be willing to cut the company some slack to see if they can get their act together.

The company could make a legitimate argument that it has retooled itself to deliver a sustainable business plan. And if Moviepass can show some positive momentum with its new plans introduced this month, and show that it is no longer setting cash on fire like it has in the past, the lords of the NASDAQ may grant the company a 180 day extension to allow the then to come into compliance.

What is the likelihood that HMNY will come into compliance within that time period? My guess is far less than 10%. With 1.6 Billion+ Shares outstanding, it would take a Christmas Miracle to get HMNY above $1. The only way I could see that happening is if somehow HMNY started to generate enough cash to start doing a meaningful share buyback program to seriously reduce the number of outstanding shares. Or if in an extremely unlikely event HMNY could find someone to loan them a big chunk of money based on their improving fundamentals that too could cause the stock to jump past the $1 range for a extended period of time. Or a combination of those events could happen. Although that is also highly unlikely.

Another option the company is still trying to pursue is making another run at doing the reverse split. Any R/S would have to meet stockholders approval of course, and there’s no reason to believe a new R/S would receive a yes vote without a significantly improved plan, execution of that plan and a CEO change.

There is some possibility that the company could be bought out at some premium from the low price it is trading at today. The event would make the delisting irrelevant. The company leadership has indicated in the past that there has been buyout interest, however everything this company has said has been proven to be outright lies or half truths to this point. So there is no good reason to believe a solid buyout is in the offing.

The most likely scenario is that the company will get an extension from the NASDAQ and they will try to continue to turn the company around. Unfortunately, it is also likely they will eventually run out of time and end up getting delisted and moved to the OTC market. From there a lot of things could happen, ranging from going private, to later being bought out, or to eventually just go bankrupt. Only time will tell.

I am of course hoping for a Christmas Miracle. And yes I believe in Santa!

Chapter & Lesson #14

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” 

ABRAHAM LINCOLN 

One of my favorite stories from this era is from a meeting I had with Steve Ballmer, the then CEO of Microsoft, while I was enrolled in Microsoft’s special Executive training program they called “The Bench”.  The Bench program was put together in 2000 shortly after Ballmer took the reigns of the CEO spot after Bill Gates decided to step away from the CEO job and become the Chairman.  Microsoft was becoming increasingly concerned that their young managers were not up to the task of leading the company to whenever it was they wanted to go, and decided some good schooling for young talent might be the right answer.  Most people did not take the training very seriously, but I found a lot of the content in the courses at least somewhat valuable, and the access to the other people in the company and the networking provided by the program was definitely worth the price of admission – which was free if you were nominated to it!

It was spring of 2001, via the program, I had received an invite to go and meet with Ballmer, the topic for the meeting was undisclosed, and the entire setup of the meeting was very odd as we were told that no preparation was necessary- this was highly unusual when meeting with the CEO at Microsoft, as it turned out that was all by design.  The meeting was setup in Steve’s personal conference room in Building 34.   Ballmer had a special wing in building 34 dedicated to him and his support staff.   To get in there you had to pass through a special security area where there was a guard at the door of the wing and you had better be coming with an invite or you would be swept out of there quickly.  Apparently, all the windows in the CEO wing are bulletproof as well (and no I am not making this up).  As you walk through the wing there are all kinds of handlers and special staff in there who are dedicated personally to seeing out every detail of Ballmer’s every move.   It is a bit intimating to even step foot into the place.    

After receiving the odd invitation to meet with Mr. Ballmer, I asked twice if there was any prep required for the meeting and was told it was not necessary.  This had me concerned as most meetings with Steve Ballmer or even any of his VP’s would require pre-meetings, and sometimes weeks of planning to get the exact powerpoint deck, messaging and every other detail ironed out before getting in the room with one of these guys.  So this was for sure going to be a somewhat different and odd meeting with the CEO.

When I arrived at the conference room there were about 6 other people who also were assembling at the same time, these were other Bench Program members, but none of them were in the same class group I was in, so I had no knowledge of these people and only slightly knew a couple of the people in the room.  We were told to go ahead and go into the room and wait for a while by one of Steve’s assistants.  At this point, it still was not clear why we were there.  Then a gentleman came in and introduced himself as the monitor for the meeting, he was not a Microsoft employee, but some consultant Microsoft had hired to run this little dog and pony show.

It soon became clear that this meeting was really going to be some weird young executive meat market or talent show for Steve Ballmer.  The moderator asked us to come up with key issues for Microsoft that we wanted to talk to Steve about when he got there.   As a group, we were to identify the topics and present to him why we thought they were important to discuss.   The moderator told us we would have 30 minutes to pick the topics and who will present them and that he would be back just before Steve arrives.

Moments like this is when shit got really weird at a place like Microsoft.   Figuring out who is going to talk and what about, agreeing on the topics, it was like an instant chess match unfolding before your eyes.   Game of Thrones style, everyone was working through the right way to look good, please the king, and not come off looking like a total jackass.  Most everyone was failing miserably at the task. 

Unfortunately for me, I was a young and overconfident fool, so I opened my fat mouth and said I thought we should talk about competing with Google.  My reasoning was that Google seemed to be enjoying a strong connection with technical Reviewers and Press analysts I had been visiting as of late, and many of them had told me that we should be looking more closely at them. Some were suggesting that Microsoft should start forming a partnership with them or be looking to buy them.

At that time Microsoft had a product called MSN Explorer which was essentially a customized version of Internet Explorer with a bunch of buttons and chrome on it that pointed users exclusively to MSN properties.  As part of my job leading MSN PR, I had recently been out pitching the product to the press.  Most of the press basically liked the product but they did not like how it handled the Internet search function.  The search functionality was locked to use only MSN Search at the time.   I had several reviewers tell me that they would never use or recommend a product where they could not use Google as their primary search engine.  The cognoscenti of the tech media had already made up their mind that Google was important, and it was the best Internet search engine available on the market.   It was concerning to me and I felt like Steve should know about it.   This was the VERY early in the days of search.  It is hard to believe that Google didn’t really get started in search in any serious way until about the year 2000.  Adwords had just been invented and were just starting to roll out on Google. 

So, like an idiot, I told Ballmer that I thought Google was beating us badly on Search, and that important folks in the industry were telling me Google was going to be a really important company.  Before I could get much else out, he stopped me dead in my tracks.   Ballmer said, I have looked extensively at the Search market and ran the numbers, I don’t ever see search being more than a $300 Million-dollar business.  (Yes he was very wrong, but that really doesn’t matter)

As a young guy trying to move up inside of Microsoft, I was not about to challenge the wisdom of our CEO in a training class where I was supposed to be learning how to be a leader inside of Microsoft.   Steve was a renowned numbers guy, he was the friggin CEO of the company,  and who was I to question whatever math he had done.  I slinked back into my chair, and just sheepishly said,” I don’t know about the revenue part, I only know what others are telling me who I have talked to across the industry”.   He gave me a look like, “who gives a shit what those people are saying, I am the CEO of Microsoft!”.   I failed that meeting.  Big time.

I found out that later that day that Ballmer had called the VP of my division, Yusuf Mehdi, and told him I was a whiner or had a bad attitude or some such thing.  Yusuf caught me later that day in the hallway and said to me, “what did you say to Steve? He thinks you’re a real pain in the ass now!”   I, of course, thought to myself, “oh shit, I must have really pissed this guy off if he took the time to call my boss and tell him he didn’t like me, that went way worse than I thought!!!  I was devastated.  I wondered if my career was over that day, and sort of wished that it was.

I spent the next few years trying to avoid any eye contact whatsoever with Steve Ballmer.  I was just hoping he would forget who I was at that point.   It was an awful experience really, not just the meeting with Ballmer, but the entire Microsoft bench program in retrospect.  By the time I finished the program, half the people in my study group had quit the company, and only a few remained in the program as most just didn’t see the point of going anymore.  It was yet another signal that I missed that I should probably be spending more time thinking what to do beyond Microsoft.    But the primary lesson was more obvious.   As the old saying goes, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.  I wish God would have provided me a muzzle on that day!  

Learning Lesson #14 – When you are a lower level employee in a big, highly competitive company with a cutthroat culture, be very careful when speaking your mind about what is going wrong in front of senior management. 

First, it is important to understand that CEO’s and Senior Executives have probably already heard about the problems you are worried about before.  They are after all running the company and it is unlikely they are totally clueless where the problems lie. 

Secondly and more importantly, in my experience at Microsoft, senior executives honestly don’t really care what you think.  Mostly they want to know that you are loyal to them and that you are not going to rock the boat too much or make them look bad.  

I am sure this is not true in all companies, and Microsoft was for sure a unique culture in those days.   But generally, I think this is true at most big companies.   You are way better off keeping your mouth shut while early in career, continue to try and learn and grow your perspective while trying to move up the ladder. 

When you are early in your career, your job #1 is to make your boss look good.  Just repeat it to yourself, “nobody really cares what I think”.  It hurts, but it will help you move up the ladder and set you up for success later down the line.   

This is particularly true in an environment where the senior management is paranoid.  Which happens to be almost all big tech companies in this age.  Voicing problems and concerns are often seen as a sign of disloyalty or weakness to the leadership in a tech company.  Where the culture is based on fear, you have little to gain by expressing problems.  Even if you think you have a solution to the problem, it is likely not going to be welcomed advice.  Of course, HR departments, and senior managers will tell you they want to hear all your ideas and to bring them forward.  But be very wary of that message, HR will tell you a lot of things in the corporate world that are simply not true, and if you are looking out for your career, you will do better keeping your mouth shut and going along with your senior management.   The fact is the paranoid senior management at your company is likely already very well aware of the problems you see and they have probably already debated them endlessly in meetings you weren’t invited to!  So don’t try and be a hero – it will leave you looking like a zero. 

The ONLY exception to this rule is that if you have a problem that you think could be damaging to your manager, and you have real data, NOT JUST GOSSIP, that will back up your point, it is worth sharing that data with your manager in a private meeting with ONLY your manager.   The problem and the data should be presented in a non-impassioned and straightforward way, and you should not bring a strong opinion to the matter.  Rather, you should simply state that you thought it was important that your manager knows of the issue, and if they need any other assistance that you are there and ready to help!

As you build trust and loyalty with your direct manager, you will eventually be able to extend that trust to take on more responsibilities and your opinion on problems will matter more – not only to your manager – but eventually to others in leadership.  Take it slow, and don’t shoot your mouth off as a young gun, it is a really stupid way to shoot yourself in the foot! 

Chapter & Lesson #13

Chapter 13 

 

“It takes a leader to create the momentum, it takes a vision to direct the momentum, it takes a massive action to build on the momentum, and it takes self-discipline to sustain the momentum. Momentum is the bridge between a vision and its results. 

Farshad Asl 

 

After the big launch of MSN 8, and the total self-destruction at AOL Time Warner.  The damage was done,  AOL no longer looked like a threat to Microsoft.  The momentum had changed, for both companies.  New Internet darlings were being formed, and the fear of AOL stealing Microsoft’s relevance seemed almost silly in retrospect.   Many in the division said that we had followed AOL right over the cliff.  Now both seemed to be dead.   To me that description, while harsh, felt accurate.  MSN was still losing money and had no clear reason for existing now.   Sure, everyone at Microsoft understood that the Internet was important, but it was now less clear how important it was to Microsoft specifically.   Microsoft was still selling Windows and Office successfully and was becoming increasingly strong in the enterprise software space.   Leaders all across the company were growing tired of losing money on MSN, without the threat of irrelevance looming from AOL, the investment in MSN seemed more and more pointless.  

Without a raison d’être the MSN  Division was sent into a state of chaos.   The battle was over, Windows had no looming threat from AOL.  Yahoo! looked like an interesting business.  But never seemed to represent a big threat or big enough opportunity for Microsoft to take seriously.  Google was starting to look like a serious business to many of the people who worked in MSN, but CEO Steve Ballmer seemed to have absolutely no clue of how huge search would be.   Ballmer totally missed that Google was setting up to shake Microsoft to its core.   All the winds were out of the MSN sail.  It was a division with no momentum at all, it was losing gobs of money, and had no clear idea how it would ever make a profit.  MSN’s biggest problem was becoming its own existence. 

For the next couple of years, MSN and the Online Division at Microsoft was basically totally rudderless.  There would be multiple executive changes at the top, along with constant staffing reorganizations laced with new memos stating where the new focus would be.   As a middle manager, it got to the point that it was just embarrassing trying to explain the new goals and strategies the latest executive wanted to go after.   Almost every 6 months there would be a new division leader, new lieutenants would be named, and reorganizations would become a routine of life while working in that group.  It was painful to watch and be a part of it.  The silver lining is I was being paid well to put up with all of the nonsense.   Otherwise, it would have been totally intolerable. 

The oddest reorganization I remember was when Steve Ballmer named a guy who was a friend if his,  and one of his “mentees”, to head the Marketing and Business functions of MSN.  This guy (who I won’t name) had made his reputation at the company leading the battle against Linux.  Linux is an open source software program for operating systems, where people and organizations donate code that is then freely available to anybody who wants to us it.   Open source was considered to be a huge threat to Microsoft’s proprietary and closed Windows Operating System, where Microsoft made most ofit’s huge profits at the time.

This new guy’s claim to fame at Microsoft was that he had crafted a marketing campaign called “get the facts” which was a successful competitive smear campaign on Linux.  It used all the fear uncertainty and doubt you could muster up, to scare IT managers and developers away from using Linux.  Steve loved it, and apparently loved this guy.   Within a few weeks of him landing in our buildings across the freeway from Microsoft’s main campus, it was clear that this guy was a gun slinger.

One of the most outrageous things about the new guy was that he had 2 business managers, one of whom was an extremely attractive young female.  The other, who was not as attractive, seemed competent enough.    (It is not unusual for a senior executive to have a one business manager at Microsoft.  These roles basically do all the dirty work that executives don’t want to deal with.  They organize staff meetings, they take personnel meetings that the executive himself does not want to take or have time to deal with, they deal with administrative type stuff)   The consensus on the team was that 2 business managers for this relatively small group was far from necessary.   More concerning to the business, nothing was happening with this guy’s leadership, he seemed to be traveling all over the world, not leading the group in any direction at all, or making any decisions.  One odd side note, that everyone on the team noticed, was that his beautiful business manager was traveling with him on extended trips.  This was very unusual, in fact, it was much more common to see business managers stay back at HQ to handle any routine things that might come up while an executive was out traveling into the field.

On one of those trips, apparently, Steve apparently received a heads up that some hanky-panky was going on.  To Steve’s credit – he put an immediate end to whatever was going on, and this particular leader never returned to Microsoft.   The details were never revealed to the team on exactly what happened.  But it was clear, something had gone very wrong with this rising star’s career, and it was likely a result of personal misconduct.

That VP’s firing was sort of a sign of the rudderless times in that division.  Another leader lasted only 6 months before he had a nervous breakdown.  Another was hired in from Kimberly-Clark who had worked on the Pampers brand, she was a disaster.  Diapers and software are not very deeply related, I remember a meeting where I had to explain to this person what Internet Explorer was, literally she did not know what an Internet Browser was, or how it was different from Yahoo (the web portal).   I knew she would not last past 6 months in that job, and she didn’t.    I could never quite figure out why she was hired in the first place.  

The place was a mess.  We had a running joke on the team that our job was to educate the newly named executives as they passed through the division.  We put a sign up on our doors that read “EEC” which nobody outside of our group knew what it meant, it stood for “Executive Education Center”.  It was one of the more idiotic corporate jobs I had ever been a part of.  I finally decided I had too much of the drama, the stupidity and the bridge to nowhere mentality that was taking over in the online group.  I started looking to get out and move to a division with more focus and better opportunity to keep my career moving forward.   It was a wise move.

 

 

Learning Lesson #13   Momentum is as important as any feature when working Technology.   I was lucky enough to get an up-close view of multiple big platform battles while working at Microsoft.  I learned that “capturing the narrative” of winning momentum is as important as any product feature you can deliver.

Momentum can come in many forms.  You can be far behind a competitor, but if you are stealing away market share from them, you can translate that into your own momentum.   Or you may be losing a lot of money in a business, but if you are reducing that loss significantly QTR over QTR that also counts as momentum.   You may launch an obviously technically superior offering, and if you can keep that superiority gap over the competition, even if you are not gaining share or profits yet, that can still be good for momentum.   

The ultimate in momentum is when you are taking share, increasing profits and or gross margins, and delivering a product that is perceived as better than the other guys.   If you have all of these things in your favor at any company or division, you will be riding high while it lasts.

Momentum convinces the press, customers, partners, and even your own employees that you are winning a battle.   The momentum is what creates the necessary resources to keep the battle well-funded, and the army well motivated.   If momentum dies you go to the grave with it, this is what happened to Nokia, Blackberry, Netscape, HP, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Bing and a host of so many other great companies and products.  

You can be way behind a competitor, but if you have more momentum, if you are stealing away market share, mind share or both, you can be perceived as winning. 

This is a critical element to recognize in technology competition, primarily because things change so quickly in technology.  You can be the leader one day, and in the doghouse the next.  Technology companies run on fear, and if you are not beating the competition, you are losing.  In the winner takes all world of platforms battles, losing means long days trying to reinvent your product, your company, and your reason for being.  Thus momentum is everything.  

If you find yourself in a place where there is no momentum and little hope in finding it, consider making a move elsewhere. 

 

<<<On to Chapter 14>>>

Chapter and Lesson #12

 

 

“You want to know what it’s like to be on a plane for 22 hours? Sit in a chair, squeeze your head as hard as you can, don’t stop, then take a paper bag and put it over your mouth and nose and breath your own air over and over and over.” 

Lewis Black 

 

 

Anthrax  & Business Travel 

The next incredible, or maybe bizarre, experience happened on my next trip back to New York City just shortly after that fateful  9/11 trip.  This trip was to finish the meetings that had been canceled during the week of 9/11.  It was October 12, 2001, just a month after the 9/11 attacks.  Tensions in New York City were very high, new security procedures were in place at all the major buildings in Manhattan, of course, the airports were now like military zones.  Everything and everyone in the city was still on edge at that time.   

One of the meetings scheduled that day was with Saul Hansel, who at that time was an excellent and very influential technology reporter for the New York Times.  The meeting was held in a windowless building in the iconic old New York Times building on West 43rd Street.   Just as we were sitting down to talk, a loud alarm started blaring in the building.  Saul didn’t seem too concerned, so we just continued on with the meeting.  The alarm did not stop, and it was getting harder and harder to ignore.  After several minutes of this alarm sounding off, Saul was getting a little annoyed and decided to go find out what was happening.  Just moments after he left the room, a loud voice came over an intercom system telling everyone in the building not to move, the man on the intercom said. “stay exactly where you are and wait for further instructions.”   After what seemed like forever, but was really only a few minutes, Saul returned to the room to give us an update what was going on.  He informed us that there was a possible bioterrorist attack underway and he had been told to go back to the room and wait for further instructions.   Just a couple minutes later another loud voice came over the intercom system and blared, “anybody who is not of the 3rd floor of the building evacuate immediately!  If you are on the 3rd floor stay where you are and wait for further instructions.”  This time, it was bad luck!  Of all the floors in that building, somehow luck had it that I was on the 3rd floor!

The 3rd floor happened to be where Judith Miller’s desk was, a reporter who had co-wrote a recent best seller on bioterrorism, “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War” she had opened a threatening letter containing a powder-like substance that appeared to be like talcum powder, when she opened the letter the powder came flying out of the envelope, which led to a scare that the envelope could have been one of a series of attacks that had been unfolding throughout that week.    

Those attacks became known as Amerithrax from its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) case name, and it occurred over the course of several weeks beginning on Tuesday, September 18, 2001, just one week after the September 11 attacks. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two Democratic U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others. According to the FBI, the ensuing investigation became “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement”.  

The next set of instructions blared over the intercom, everyone who was remaining on the 3rd floor needed to slowly walk down the stairs to the lobby area of the building.  We picked up our stuff, headed out of the room and started walking down the stairs.   In the old New York Time’s building, there is a  large grand staircase that enters into the bottom floor of a large lobby area.  As we approached the lobby coming down from the stairs we were shocked to see that the doors of the building had been chained shut from the outside, emergency personnel were suiting up into hazmat suits.  We were trapped in the lobby – like of group of people who had just been exposed to an unknown contagion!

We were told to remain calm and stay in the lobby area.   We could see outside the front of the building, all traffic had been shut off to the area, there were only police, fire and hazmat vehicles out front.   At this point, everyone who had been locked into that building was feeling very rattled.   We were all thinking the worst, had we been exposed to Anthrax? or maybe something worse?  Nobody knew, the Health Department gathered samples from the desk of the reporter, and they would be flown immediately to a lab someplace in Virginia for testing.  Oddly, there was no place in NYC who had the capability to effectively test for Anthrax.   Panic in the lobby area kept going up, we were informed by one of the reporters who was locked in the building with us that a woman in the NBC offices just a few blocks away, who was Tom Brokaw’s assistant, had tested positive for Anthrax.   There was a very real possibility that this entire group had just been exposed to Anthrax, a lethal substance that can kill people with a horribly painful death. 

I called back home to Seattle to my wife to explain what was happening.  It was a hard call to make.  I tried to be as unemotional as possible.   I told her about the events that had happened up to that point, and that I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but to stay near the phone.  I told her I loved her and I would call back as soon as I knew more.  I can only imagine how unsettling that call must have been for her.    

After a couple of hours of waiting, and tensions getting higher and higher, with the people in the lobby including a host of New York Times reporters all locked in and now demanding that they be allowed to leave the building.   The Health Department finally hatched a plan to deal with the escalating situation.   They took down specific information of everyone who was in the building and was on that 3rd floor, where exactly they were on the floor at the time and numbers where they would be able to contact you as soon as they got back the definitive results from the tests of that spilled substance.   My group happened to be just around the corner where the envelope was spilled out, which did not provide me with any additional comfort.

Adding to the stress and confusion of the situation for me and my travel companion.  We had plane tickets scheduled to fly us home that evening.  We didn’t know if we should go ahead and take the plane back to Seattle, not knowing if we had been exposed to Anthrax or something else.   Would it be safer to stay in New York City, in the event that if we had been exposed to something we could seek more immediate medical care?  Nobody from the health department could give us a straight answer to that question.

Anthrax itself is a tricky substance.  It takes about 10,000 spores of Anthrax to make you sick.  It is worse if inhaled and it can kill you in about 2-3 days.  It can also contaminate you by contact on your skin,  that takes longer, up to 6 weeks to kill you.  It produces toxins in your system, and the symptoms are cold or fever like symptoms.     It is easily treated with Antibiotics like Cipro.  However, once you show signs of symptoms, it is already too late to treat it and there is nothing that can be done, you will die.   So timing is of the essence if you are exposed to Anthrax, you want to seek treatment immediately. 

It is not totally clear exactly how much time you have, but the health department official seemed confident that as long as I was back on the ground in Seattle within the next 12 hours, I would be fine to start treatment then if needed.  They would contact me via my cell phone and home phone as soon as they had results.  If the powder tested positive for Anthrax, I would need to contact the local health department and have them approve a prescription for the Cipro immediately when I arrived in Seattle.    

At the time of the Anthrax scare, all Cipro had been locked down by the health department and was being stockpiled for the possibility of a weaponized Anthrax attack.  There were all kinds of fears that a dirty bomb filled with Anthrax somehow could be set off in a crowded populated area as some kind of follow up a terrorist attack from 9/11. 

With that information I called my wife back at home, and asked her to get going on tracking down who at our local health department could prescribe Cipro upon my return if needed.   This turned into a nightmare for her.  She called the health department, and they treated her like a crazy lady, they knew nothing of the New York Times building incident and basically treated her like she was an insane person.

She called officials at Microsoft to try and get help, which they did try and help.  It was overall a big mess.  They kept telling her that nobody in Seattle had any exposure to Anthrax reported and there was nothing they could do for her.  It was crazy, there is no system in place to deal with things like this, I highly doubt there is any such system now.  In hindsight, I probably should have stayed in NY to wait and see what the results were and then get treatment there.  But when you fear you might risk dying, all you want to do home to see your family as soon as you can.  It was one HELL of a long flight back to Seattle, wondering, worrying, had I been exposed to this stuff, or something else, every hour that went by on that flight seemed like an eternity.

Finally, when we landed and my cell phone messages started buzzing in.  I called my voicemail, as you did back in those pre-smartphone days, and there was a message from the NY Department of Health, the powder had tested negative.  It was talcum powder, it was a hoax!  A terrible hoax and scare for me and my family.  Business travel is hard enough, getting stuck in DC on 9/11 and caught up in the Amerithrax scare 2 weeks later in New York was starting to kill my love of the road.   The joke around the office was don’t travel with Bob!  He’s bad luck, you’ll be risking your life..  I had to agree, my record was looking spotty!

 

Back on the Road this time with Bill Gates! 

The third big adventure on the road was on October 24th, 2002, I was now the head of PR for MSN, and on that day we were launching our latest competitive threat to AOL called MSN8.  It had all kinds of new features, better personalization, improved email experience, parental controls, and other good features we were proud of.  It was the first time that we really had something that was as good as or better than what AOL had been offering.    

We had planned a big elaborate launch event in New York City.  The event was at the height of our spending, we erected a huge bubble in the middle of Central Park – imaging a bubble like you see that cover swimming pools in the winter, only 10 times the size.  Inside the bubble, we would host over 300 press people, partners, industry dignitaries and the like.  Michael Eisner, the chairman and CEO of Disney would make a special announcement with Bill Gates where the companies would partner to deliver special Disney content via the newly minted MSN 8 product.  To celebrate the launch Lenny Kravitz would play for the press, and Bill was the host and keynote speaker.    It was a big event for the company and a big deal for me personally. 

I was assigned to accompany Bill Gates for the day’s press meetings.  In the morning we had a long list of press engagements.  I was nervous and excited to have a chance to spend a day with Bill.  It was for sure going to be a unique opportunity. We were all staying at the W hotel.  Bill had come in the night before on his private plane.  The rest of us all flew in the day prior, economy class of course!  I got up early that morning, I was told to meet Bill in the lobby of the hotel.   Bill, his driver, and a small security and PR entourage showed up right on time.  Bill seemed to be a little groggy but ready to go.  We walked out to the busy New York street, where there were two cars waiting for us.  I never knew this prior, but Bill’s security and medical people followed in a car behind Bill wherever he went.  The other care would contain a driver, another security person, Bill’s full-time PR person, and myself!  to ride in the SUV that would lead the two-car caravan.

Making Bill Gates Ride hump!

So here I am with the richest man in the world and a business and technology icon, trying to sort of act like this was not a big deal.   Once we all gathered on the street next to the cars everybody started loading in the cars, it was all very routine to them where they would ride, they had done this hundred of times together.   In Bill’s car, which was a big SUV, the driver and security person both jumped into the two front seats.  Bill’s PR person, and Bill jumped into the back seat.   I was sort of standing there waiting awkwardly to see where I should sit.  Bill Gates deadpanned me and says “get in” and scoots over to the middle and I get in and shut the door.   I immediately think to myself, “oh shit” I just made Bill Gates ride hump!   Not a great start with the CEO I thought to myself… 

Luckily, I had some fantastic news to deliver to Bill that morning.  Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, and the most important technical press reviewer of all time, and probably the most important tech journalist ever, had published his competitive review of MSN8 vs. AOL8 that morning, and MSN had won big!  It was a huge win, and as the head of PR for MSN I could not have been happier to hand that newspaper to Bill.   I asked him, “have you seen the Walt review yet?” He said “no”.  I smiled and handed it to him.  I said, “I think you are going to like this one”.    As we raced through Manhattan to our first meeting, Bill quietly sat and read the review.  The review headline read. New MSN Online Service Outshines Its Rival AOL” He read the article in about 3 minutes time, he put it down, and said, “that is the best review we have ever had from Walt”.  Bill was in a great mood for the rest of the day.   

It was fortunate that Bill was now in a good mood because the rest of the day turned out to be much more challenging.   Our first scheduled PR meeting was booked with the ABC morning show hosted by Charles Gibson.  Unfortunately for us, there was a huge news story breaking that day.  Earlier that same morning authorities had finally apprehended the infamous Beltway Snipers.   

The Beltway sniper attacks were a series of coordinated shootings that took place over three weeks in October 2002 in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Ten people were killed and three other victims were critically injured in several locations throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. The rampage was perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad (then aged 42) and Lee Boyd Malvo (then 17), driving a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan. Their crime spree began in February 2002 with murders and robberies in the states of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington, which resulted in seven deaths and seven injuries, bringing the total victim count to 17 deaths and 10 injuries.  It was a huge news story, and every news outlet was covering it 24/7.  It gripped the nation in fear.   

The Bill Gates entourage was now sitting in the green room waiting to go on the ABC Good Morning Show.  We  sat watching the TV’s in the room as details of the capture were unfolding.  Soon Bill’s scheduled time to go on had slipped by.  Bill waited patiently, and his time slipped again.  Finally, Charlie Gibson came into the green room and graciously said to Bill, “I can’t believe I am doing this, but I have to bump the richest man in the world”.   Bill and all of us were obviously disappointed, as Bill had come a long way and taken a lot of time to come out and do these meetings, and he had a lot of positive news about Microsoft to share that day.  That said, Bill was also very gracious to Charlie and made some good small talk with him, as we left the studio we walked through the set with Charlie on the way out, and Charlie promised he would someway make it up to Bill a later date.   It was incredible experience for me to see all of this take place.  Subsequently, the entire rest of the day’s of PR meetings were canceled, all coverage from the big networks was moved to 100%  focus on the Sniper shootings.   So we headed off to Central Park, where Bill could get some privacy backstage before leading the big launch event, and the rest of the team could prepare for the evening’s festivities.    

Bill ended up doing a fantastic job at the launch event, and the positive reviews set up the evening and the ensuing news coverage for a big momentum shift in favor of MSN.    It was an incredible day for me, one I will never forget.   The day also reinforced for me that the world is a very unpredictable place.   You can have plans laid out for months, and have done everything possible to make things go smoothly, and at any moment a new event can enter into the fray and change everything in a literal New York minute.   I also learned that year that traveling on business is difficult and exhausting, sometimes you can get too much of it, and that is a mistake. 

 

Learning Lesson # 12 –  Avoid jobs with too much business travel – business travel starts out as a fun and provides incredible experiences, but it also can become a terrible grind over time.  When you are early in your career, embrace all the travel opportunities you possibly can, seeing the world and visiting customers directly is a very valuable experience.  But be very careful not to commit to a lifetime of being a road warrior.   The first time you visit great cities like London, Paris, New York or whatever fabulous city you travel to for business, it is very exciting.  Meeting customers and partners directly face to face are invaluable for your career and building up your network.  Take whatever free time you have when doing business travel and play tourist visiting all the awesome places in whatever city you happen to be in.  It really is a fantastic experience. 

Unfortunately, after you have been to these cities 15-20-30 or more times, you have pretty much seen all of the top tourist destinations.  If you are lucky enough that your company will pay first class or fly you privately, most of this does not apply.  But believe me when I tell you, your enthusiasm for flying 10-18 hours on an international trip and then being expected to work hard for 3 to 5 days will wear down your body, mind, and soul.  You will start to really miss your family and friends, your house, your own bed, and your dog! Try to avoid any job that claims over 50% travel.  Those jobs are for suckers, and people who travel that much rarely move up the ranks very far.  Oddly I found that people who travel more than 50% of the time are often resented by their managers, co-workers, and employees.   The people who work at HQ’s are tribal, almost pack like animals.  If you are gone and away from HQ you will start to lose your connections with people, and they will start to think you are traveling just to get away from the office.   Don’t be fooled into thinking you will be a hero for all those hours spent on the road.  The more likely outcome is you will move up the ladder slower, and you will alienate the people who are the most important to you.