The Seattle Odyssey…
Personification of Duty
Just before the turn of the 21st century, drove in Odyssey Technologies in Cybage life. Odyssey was the first amongst our second-generation customers, and started off the growth-through-references trend that Cybage was to behold for years to come. One of our delighted ex-customer POCs—Dan Eshner—had joined Odyssey as its new CTO, resulting in Cybage being roped in as its offshore partner.
Odyssey was a hardcore technology startup nurturing ambitions of pioneering the delivery of integrated services, content, and permission marketing to handheld devices. Their aspirations resulted in a rapid scaling of their Cybage team to 30+ professionals. The size and technology made them our most strategic customer at the time. In fact, it was the Odyssey stardust that led to the birth of many future Cybage stalwarts, including our current CTO, Jagat Pal Singh, who started his career as a team member on Odyssey projects.
Unfortunately, along with being our strategic partner, Odyssey also was a very ‘stress’tegic client! Right from the beginning, they bullied Cybage executives and project team to the hilt. The teams slogged. Frustrations built up. Work-life balance went for a toss. Nerve-wracking feeling of being exploited crept in. And how all of us wished for Odyssey to just disappear! But what could we do? Odyssey was our largest customer, contributing over one-third of our revenues. Additionally, of course, they had smartly ensured that the gap between invoices and remittances was a big enough deterrent to discourage any unceremonious exit. So somewhere in between their size and backlog, they were teaching us an important business lesson – What more is to business than business?
Then disaster struck—Odyssey started going down. Rapidly. Privately funded by their CEO Steve Wood, it did not have enough funds to sustain an offshore team. Yet the deliveries had to be met if Odyssey had to see sunrise. Steve requested us to consider deferred billing. Cornered again, we had no room to maneuver. Cybage had already been hijacked, with a huge payment backlog, where was the choice but to continue? Besides, we didn’t have enough critical mass to absorb so many excess engineers that would come back to the resource pool. So, resigned to fate, we continued working clinging to a small hope of Odyssey’s success.
Then one dreadful day, the much anticipated mail from Steve arrived in the Inbox of Odyssey employees and the extended Cybage team. Most of the mail contents are hazy in my memory at this time, but I do vaguely recall a part of the closing sentence.. “.. seems like we were ahead of our times..” The sun had gone down on Odyssey. And along with that, our huge backlog of $300K+ had disappeared in darkness—a fortune from the point of time relativity!
A few days after Odyssey declared bankruptcy and we had bitten the bullet, I received an unexpected mail from Steve apologizing for the abrupt closure of his organization and his contractual relationship with Cybage. The mail did not exhibit any hints of the ruthless businessman Steve that I had gotten accustomed to. Instead, his tone was remorseful and of a dispirited man who intended to square off his obligations towards partners who were there for him. I did not think too much about the mail, having been already enlightened on the difference between assurances and honor. We had already come to terms with our loss, had moved on, and had zero expectations considering that this person had treated us so unfairly in the past, and was legally protected by his bankruptcy. Why would he bother now to honor his obligations?!
Over the next few months, we heard through grapevine that Steve had taken back his job with Microsoft (the one he had earlier quit to conceive Odyssey). Sadly, his troubles still hadn’t deserted him as he was in the middle of a divorce now that required him to sell his house. Then one fateful day, we received a courier from Steve Wood, with a little note of apology for the delay. The note had an explanation that it took a while longer than he had expected for his house to go on sale and to redirect the resulting proceeds between his personal and professional obligations. And along with the note, there was a check for Cybage covering the entire outstanding amount!
Now why would a downright shrewd businessman like Steve do something so outrageous? Or, perhaps, this requires relook at the definition of ’shrewd’? Doesn’t an act like this defy the sanity framework of business? Maybe that is what made Steve a bad entrepreneur? Or was he? Didn’t he help lay one of the shaping pillars of an organization that eventually grew 50 fold from the day he walked away from it? So many questions! And only one simple answer. When it comes to doing the right thing, there are no multiple choices. There is only “one” right thing to do; however, it requires tremendous follow-through courage and impeccable integrity. Sure, doing the right thing may not always make great business sense. But that’s where Steve facilitated my evolvement as a CEO … first, by helping me learn; and then, subsequently helping me unlearn “the same lesson”…Isn’t there more to business than mere business?!