Net Sites Take Liaison Role in Biz-to-Biz Transactions
. . . Neoforma Inc., for instance, provides information on hospital supplies . . . Infomediaries are gaining in popularity. Since its founding two years ago, Neoforma, a Santa Clara, Calif.–based company, has brought in more than 15,000 hospital product suppliers on its Web site . . .
Investor’s Business Daily December 14, 1998
Since the day that we had enabled our website visitors to communicate with manufacturers of medical equipment, we had been receiving email from people who couldn’t find what they were looking for on our site...
Actually, that is pretty much what it was like, only on a much smaller scale than people imagined. There were only a few of us interacting with customers. The rest of the employees were busy keeping the website running and growing. Much of my interaction with customers was with those outside the United States. This was very satisfying because international visitors were effusively grateful for the resources we had made available to them. Due to time zone and language disparities, they had been accustomed to the slow and frustrating process of sending faxes to request information on products. A simple question might take a week of iteration to get an answer. In most cases, we could cut that to a day or less.
As Neoforma grew and we established a department dedicated to assisting customers, I received fewer and fewer new messages. However, to maintain at least some connection with the customers, there were a few visitors I kept in contact with. They’d send me requests for information regarding who made this gadget or that, not knowing that I was the president of the company and usually delegated such inquiries. I’d spend whatever time it took to dig up any tidbits of information I could find in order to service them. This connection to our original purpose was very important to me.
At a moment when I was at the peak of frustration over the company’s growing pains, I received a Christmas greeting from Anton. It cheered me up immediately.
Anton was one of my favorite visitors. He was a distributor of medical equipment in Moscow. Whenever he was trying to find medical equipment for a hospital in his region, he used Neoforma. When he discovered that some piece of information on our site was out-of-date, he would send me the updated information. When he couldn’t find something, he would send a message to notify me.
His messages were always polite, intelligent and grateful. He would send messages just to say hello and tell me that he hadn’t sent any messages lately because he had been finding everything he needed on the site. And when he sent me that holiday message, he helped me through a tough time without ever knowing it.
Since founding Neoforma, I had not looked forward to the end-of-year holidays. We always seemed to be running low on money in November and December, which coincided with a time when almost all investment activity ceases for six weeks or so.
This was the first year that Neoforma had enough money to survive through the holidays, but I felt worse than ever. I had an intense case of the holiday blues.
For the first time in many years, I actually had a few weeks with very little that I had to do. I spent some time helping the programmers with their frantic website repairs. Hiring slowed down during the holidays. I wouldn’t be involved in fundraising activities until January. New development was postponed until the new website was stabilized, which also wouldn’t be until January.
This respite might have been pleasant had there not been several years of unrelieved stress waiting for an opportunity to break out.
Rushing to fill the lull, my postponed feelings poured in, bursting partitions and flooding crevices. The sediment was washed away, leaving exposed areas of raw emotion.
I didn’t want to let go, but knew I had to let go. I suddenly became vividly aware of my overwhelming personal financial risk and dwindling control over that risk, of my pride over the value I had helped create and my anxiety over losing that value, of my failure to cheer others up and the failure to cheer myself up as well. To put it another way—I was depressed.
Everything that I had helped create was staring back at me from a computer screen — in the form of a page on the Neoforma website. It was frozen introspection.
Logging on, I attempted a search.
When the site entered its third minute, searching for a response to my simple query, I peered over the screen, through the window of my darkened office. I saw tired engineers in their cubicles, struggling to bring order to chaos. And felt helpless to assist them.
In the absence of productive activity, I could only focus on my increasing sense of failure. Trying to shake my sense of unease, I got up and wandered the aisles, struggling to smile, to offer compliments, encouragement and suggestions. Then I returned to my office and closed my door, which I had seldom done before. I stared blankly at the screen again, my thoughts and feelings washing over me, unabated.
One day, I found myself thinking about the call I had received a couple of weeks earlier from a woman who was reviewing a credit application I had filled out. She expressed concern over what she was reading. My income-to-debt ratio was not good. She said, “Don’t you have some other kind of investments . . . you know, stocks or bonds . . . that sort of thing?”
I said, “No, I really haven’t had time to focus on outside investments.” Then, after a pause I said, “Well, there is the stock I have in Neoforma. Based on the last funding round, that would be worth . . . um ... about two million dollars. Now ... just be clear ... this is a private company and that stock is not liquid at all.”
She told me that she understood the risk factors, but said it still counted as a two million dollar investment. I was startled by her matter-of-fact acceptance of the monetary value that had been assigned to Neoforma.
As I typed in one fruitless search after another on the Neoforma website, it seemed absurd to think of Neoforma having this kind of value. On the other hand, I could not give up hope that someday it would again deliver amazing value to customers like Anton, who had come to rely on us in our early days.
Without that hope, I would have been completely lost.
I was feeling an increasing sense of dread. I even dreaded facing the fact that I needed to escape my increasing sense of dread. I was not unfamiliar with depression, but this time I did not have the luxury to indulge it. Because I had so much invested, financially and emotionally, into Neoforma, I was anxious that the company depended so much on me. I felt that if I dropped my guard for a moment, the increasing pressures on the company would overwhelm me. And, if I were overwhelmed, the threat to the company would increase— which would make me even more anxious. If that was the risk of introspection, I couldn’t afford it.
In my struggle to relieve the pressure, I chose to delegate control at almost every juncture where I could, to make the company less dependent on me. From my point of view, almost every time I let go of a task, a whirlwind of chaos and disaster had resulted. In attempting to hold things together, my panicked grip became tighter and more painful. But gripping so tightly only increased the tendency for control and composure to escape under the pressure. I was losing myself.
And then there was the deteriorating relationship with my wife.
As the complexity and intensity of my work at Neoforma increased, my ability to communicate with Anni had decreased. In my hours off work, I had difficulty slowing the frenetic journey from problem to solution. My thoughts and speech patterns became terribly efficient— not the best for intimate conversation. I had shifted into a mode of solving problems, not talking about them. The tension this created between us was inevitable.
As the enormity of risk I had placed upon my family increased, so did my desire to separate the pressures I experienced at work from the time I spent at home. The last thing I wanted to do was scare Anni and the kids with the reality that our entire lifestyle was balanced on a knife-edge.
I had been tucking this stress into this compartment and that stress into that compartment, all nicely controlled by a central load-balancing system. At work, the system worked pretty well. There, I was able to hide my emotions with relative ease. My tendency to keep everyone at a safe distance helped me maintain a fairly consistent composure.
At home, that was a bit more difficult. Most successful relationships are built upon a foundation of beliefs and feelings that have been shared at very intimate levels. Mine and Anni’s certainly was. We both needed and craved the rejuvenation of our intimacy. It was what made us more than two.
But, increasingly, our pursuit of intimacy was interrupted by the grip that Neoforma had over me. Any time we breached the surface tension, dangerous hairline cracks would appear in my carefully constructed compartments. A kiss could release the memory of a sad or stressful interview or the most recent incident of someone crying in my office—an almost daily occurrence now. A needy hug might trigger a jolting moment of panic that I had forgotten to pay a bill or communicate some key instruction.
My ability to connect was dissolving. My libido had dwindled to a dull flatness for extended periods. The fear of letting go had become my survival mechanism. I couldn’t risk it.
In the earlier days of Neoforma, Jeff and I had been able to talk about nearly anything that was bugging us. We had vented our stress on each other nearly every day, arguing aggressively, holding nothing back, knowing that once one of us had exhausted his opinions or complaints, we would each go back to our business, still friends.
As the pressures on us increased, Jeff and I spoke with decreasing frequency. We’d go a week or so without talking. When we did meet, we had little to share beyond a cursory acknowledgment of the feeling that we were being increasingly entangled in a web of our own creation.
His role was focusing outside the company. My role was focusing inside the company. Alexander’s presence had driven a stake right down the middle. Once Jeff and I stopped regularly venting our emotions with each other, our simple disagreements tended to explode into nearly violent incidents. Of course, thick-skinned guys that we were, we did not take the time to look at why we’d get so pissed off at each other. We each just assumed that the other was becoming increasingly irrational. It became easier for us to simply avoid each other.
There were many people at Neoforma that I liked very much. Many that I might have become friends with under other circumstances. However, Jeff and I had learned early on—through Cassandra and others — that there was, that there had to be, a solid wall between the two of us and the employees. If either of us were to display the slightest indecision or weakness due to a personal friendship with an employee, the entire company would suffer. So I couldn’t turn to anyone at Neoforma for help.
Of course, I didn’t believe I needed help, exactly. But Anni disagreed. As patient as she had been with me over the last several years, she became increasingly insistent that I get some outside help. It was that, or learn to deal with being single again.
So, although I was definitely not comfortable with the idea of asking for help, I figured that I might be okay with asking for advice. I was having a natural reaction to an unfamiliar, but not entirely unique situation. I thought that there must be people out there who specialized in advising company executives on how to handle the stresses associated with chaotic growth.
I asked a human resources manager whom I respected if there were anyone who specialized in this situation. She recommended someone who said, “Oh, you’re looking for an executive coach. Well, I have a couple of great recommendations for you. One is a woman who I have had great feedback on. The other is an extraordinary man named Greg. He certainly isn’t right for everyone and he won’t work with everyone. But if you are able to connect with him, he’s the best.”
Executive coach. That sounded okay. I could ask for some coaching. After all, I hadn’t founded a large company before. This was all new. I wouldn’t be admitting personal weakness. I’d just be bringing in another consultant. We had certainly hired plenty of those.
Once I had bought into my rationalization for hiring someone, I interviewed the two recommended coaches. The first interview was not memorable. The second interview was something else entirely.
The man I met did not fit my image of the suited business consultant. Greg Brodsky was dressed casually and appeared to be in his forties. He sported a shiny bald head, sparkling eyes and a knowing smile. He was of average height, but moved with a confidence that projected a larger presence. I’d later learn that he was actually in his sixties.
Greg relied less on his college education and business experience than on his forty years of practice with assorted martial arts and his study of neurolinguistic programming. He was not a psychologist, but he knew a lot about people. His unconventional background and style were very appealing to me. I found him very easy to communicate with, though I could see why he wouldn’t be right for everyone. He did not waste words. He had no preferred theory of human behavior. Whatever worked was the right thing to do. And he had no shortage of things to try. So, I agreed to meet with him and try a few things.
Since Greg was not a psychologist, I thought I might be able to avoid digging into my emotions and focus instead on behaviors to improve my stress management. I figured some good advice on how to make me more efficient would reduce the stress to a manageable level.
It didn’t work out that way.
No matter how superficial I tried to keep an issue I discussed with him, Greg managed to get me to expose the roots of my response to the issue. Some of those roots went very deep.
I met with Greg for about a year, with dwindling frequency. We did “good work”, as he called it. He gave me the tools to better manage my stress. He helped me and I accepted that help. It was a big deal for me to accept help.
I had felt very alone in my inability to inwardly cope with my stress and inadequacies. It was not until years later that I would read disclosures by several well-known executives describing the bouts of extreme depression they had suffered. I didn’t hide under my desk for hours at a time, as one had, but I certainly would have welcomed the idea that such an escape was possible. It would have helped to know earlier that I wasn’t alone after all, that it is okay to admit limitations and seek help.