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A new year gift

New year’s day, 2024.

Celebration? Wishes? Joy? Not exactly.

Resolution? Launch new goals? Kickstart the new year with a bang? Nope.

Well, there was a bang. Just not the kind I was looking forward to.

The day started well. I woke up early. I was going to sit down and write a few words, to revive this blog.

This blog had been dormant throughout last year. So nothing like the new year to inject some life into it.

But first, I checked my phone..to see if I’d missed something important.

And there it was, a customer’s message: “PracticeNow is down. Can you check?”

It was 4:50AM. This customer had a class starting in 10 minutes. But neither him nor any of his students could log in to the platform.


Quite unusual. But no need to freak out yet. This wouldn’t be the first time that the platform had gone down.

And we’d always been able to bring it back online reasonably quickly.

If all else failed, a server restart was our loyal, goto solution.

This time though, it was different.

“Your account has been suspended for delayed invoice payments.”

Side note: We’d tried paying them in the last few weeks multiple times, unsuccessfully. They wanted us to pay them, but their systems couldn’t accept our valid cards.

There was already an open ticket with their support team, where they were still investigating an issue with their billing system.

I frantically tried again now, with various credit cards. Nothing worked.

That gave me the chills.

I called up Leena, my tech co-founder. It was still the wee hours, but she picked up after a few rings.

After a quick check, she re-confirmed my worst fears: Our server company had shut down our servers and suspended our account. There was no workaround to get the server back up.

I told the customer that we would need more time to figure this out.

“No problem. I’ll share the link for students to join the class directly.”. That was his gracious, patient response.

With the clock ticking, the pressure started mounting quickly.

It was now 5:30AM. There were more classes by other teachers, scheduled to start soon.

The messages started coming in.

“We’re not able to login”

“Students are not able to pay for their classes”

“Is something wrong with the system?”

“When will it be back?”

Our servers are hosted at Heroku – a US-based cloud computing company.

When the servers are up, the service is fantastic. 99.9999% uptime. Fast deployments. Auto-scaling. Highly secure.

But..they’re like Google when it comes to support. They believe that by building great products which never fail, support becomes almost unnecessary.

I like that philosophy. It’s because they have a great product, that we’re paying a premium for their services.

But..this time, on this New Years’s day, we were left holding the bag.

The only way to reach their support? Email.

The time it takes for their support to respond? 24 hours. Minimum.

I still wrote to them. No, I pleaded with them, to get our server back up.

If there was ever a perfect storm, I think this situation would have been a good contender.

  1. We couldn’t get into the server. So, we needed Heroku’s help.
  2. Their support is only on email. And that takes forever at the best of time.

The clincher? It was also New Year’s Eve in the US.

We couldn’t get their attention on standard working days. How in the world were we going to get it, during one of the biggest holidays of the year?

That’s ACT 1.

Now starts ACT II 🙂

If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my 15 years of entrepreneurship, it is that each of us has the capacity to step up to any occasion. No matter how hard it is.

We just need to be patient. With ourselves.

So, the first order of business was to stay calm and composed.

What’s the worst that could happen? It could take another 2 days to resolve.

Would that disrupt operations for all of our customers in a very bad way? Yes.

Would that reduce trust in our brand significantly? Yes.

Was this a life and death situation? Thankfully, no :).

The above perspective helped me switch on the creative part of my brain.

The ideas then started to flow.

  1. What had I done in the past, when I needed attention from a company? I’d escalated to their senior staff.
  2. How had I escalated? By using “unusual” communication channels. For example, if they wanted us to email them, I @mention them on a public tweet instead. Most companies are careful about their public image and don’t want a bad comment/tweet showing up on search results.

I could use the same pattern here as well.

Whom should I escalate to?

Their seniors managers? Their executives? Yes. Good options.

But in this case, I needed the best option.

I put myself in my own customer’s shoes. Who will they reach out to at PracticeNow, if all else fails?

They know that the buck stops with me, the CEO.

Doesn’t matter how large the company. The buck still stops at the very top.

So, that would be my best option.

Now to the second question. How would I get the contact details of a direct communication channel, of the CEO of a large company?

After a few attempts, I found the email of the CEO on Google. And that of a few other executives as well.

I sent him a quick note asking for immediate assistance. And copied the other execs as well.

A few minutes later, my inbox was flashing. They was already a response!? Yay!

“This email id does not exist”. The CEO’s id was wrong.

“This email id does not exist”. The COO’s id was wrong.

“This email id does not exist”. The Senior VP’s id was also wrong.

This is how I felt then: you’re almost breathless, climbing up the last few feet of a steep hill. You can see the end is near. And then you finally reach the top…only to discover that there’s another kilometre left after that.

But if there’s one thing I don’t how to do, it is to give up.

So…back to the drawing board, it was.

A bit more Googling bubbled up the phone numbers of the CEO and some of the execs as well.

This was going to be risky. It’s one thing to discover that your email can be discovered easily by a customer, but finding that your phone number is easy to gather as well, would make most people concerned for their privacy.

If I Whatsapped these folks, would they block me permanently?

Once again, as the CEO of PracticeNow, if a customer is in urgent need of help tried reaching me on my personal number, I would try to resolve their issue first, instead of being concerned for my privacy.

I took a deep breath and sent out a bunch of Whatsapp messages. To the CEO, and a bunch of other execs.

Out of the 7 people I messaged, 1 person responded.

Not the CEO, but a senior manager. He said he would try to get someone to check on our account, but couldn’t promise anything, since it was New Years’s Eve.

Progress. Even the slightest step forward is welcome, when you’ve been stuck in a seriously bad situation for over 3 hours.

A few more hours passed, but there was no more news from their end.

I started to brace myself for one more day of disruption and anxious customers.

That’s when I got another response. From their CEO.

It was probably close to midnight for him in the US.

But as I’d expected, he turned out to be extremely helpful.

Within an hour, we received a call from their support staff in the US.

This is a company that’s hard to reach by email. And here we were, on a call with their staff.

Needless to say, things got sorted out fast after that.

Thankfully, since it was new years, most of our customers had taken the day off as well. So, the disruption was minimal.

At first it seemed that this was the worst way to start the year.

But perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.

I learned a lot that day.

  1. Don’t be shy to reach out for help: It’s pleasantly surprising how ready people are to help out. All we need to do is reach out and ask nicely.
  2. Value leadership: There are many reasons the best people are at the top. One of their traits is usually their obsession with customer care.
  3. Stay calm: When we’re upset or worked up, it’s hard to think clearly. If we want to switch on the creative, solution-finding part of our brains, we need to have the skill of staying calm under pressure.
  4. Build resilience: The obstacle is the way forward. It takes pressure to create a diamond. We get stronger only when we push ourselves to overcome challenges.
  5. Surrender: There was no way I could have known for sure that the CEO would respond. It was a hunch at best. Once I’d messaged him, I knew I’d done my best. If the universe felt the need to step in, I had the faith that it would do so. I gave myself permission to take some rest. What if no one responded? That’s a possibility I had to accept. It wouldn’t be pretty. But, hey, it wasn’t a life and death situation.
  6. Be grateful: My colleagues stepped up along with me on that holiday. It was teamwork at its best. I’m truly blessed to have the team that I do.
  7. Accountability is good, but responsibility is better: Accountability is the acceptance that I would be held responsible if the issue didn’t get fixed on time. Responsibility is empathy for our customers and a deep desire to fix the issue quickly to reduce their anxiety…because seeing them anxious make me uneasy. Responsibility leads to better relationships in the long term.

My new year started with a bang. Would it be the kind of “bang” I would wish for? No.

Was it good for me? Absolutely.

I’m now a bit wiser and stronger, because of that. 🙂

As Mahatria says: “You’re never given an experience that’s not needed for your transformation, and in turn for your evolution.”

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