Business was booming.
It was March of 2012, and the company that I started in college had been up and running for over two years, slowly but steadily increasing headcount to a team of about ten. Our modest three room office was bursting at the seams, so we decided to expand.
And expand we did. We went from 1,200 square feet to over 5,000. We had six private suites, a conference room, a large open area, and a huge attached warehouse/garage, which we used to park our cars in during the one or two annual rainy days in San Diego.
We were happy, content, and prosperous. Then, that all changed in an instant.
“Hey Greg…” said one of my employees as I answered my cell phone from home on an early spring morning, a tangible nervousness in his usually confident voice.
“You didn’t happen to take all of the computers home, did you?”
“What do you mean?” I responded, hoping that I had misheard him speak or that I was having a nightmare. My gut knew what his words meant, but my mind wouldn’t let me reconcile with reality just yet.
“Well” he said, “All of our computers are gone, and…”
“And there’s a broken window in the conference room.”
He didn’t need to state the obvious. We’d been burglarized. I felt like I just received news that a family member had died. My mind turned into a dizzying fog that wouldn’t burn off until the end of the day. I knew the implications that this would have; the time, money, and stress of recovery. I hopped in my car and hustled over to the office, eager and unrealistically hopeful to find it would be just a practical joke.
My passenger seat was glaringly empty on the ride there. For years, I had always taken my laptop home with me for some evening work, and thrown it on the adjacent seat. Today, it was not there. Only two days prior, I decided to start leaving it on my desk at the office when I went home for the day. What unfortunate timing.
When I arrived at the office, all of the employees were gathered in the parking lot. They didn’t want to go inside, so as not to contaminate the crime scene. Instead, they were all staring at the painfully obvious unsecured point of our office, a small broken window in the conference room obscured by foliage.
I unlocked the front door and made my way inside. Instantly, the place that I revered with so much enthusiasm, so much warmth, so much potential, was now just a symbol for humanity’s darker side. Sure, my name was on the lease, but this wasn’t my place anymore. It’s new owner was unknown, cloaked in the darkness and anonymity of the criminal world. He’d signed his name not with pen and paper, but with cigarette ash, blood from the broken glass, and fingerprints.
We couldn’t believe that this particular baddie had been so callous, so bold, so daring as to actually light up a cigarette inside the office, seemingly halfway through the job. It was a minor thing, but it represented so much more. He had taken his sweet time, not concerned with the worries that law abiding citizens have, like morality, punctuality, and civility. By not wearing gloves and leaving his fingerprints behind, it was like he wanted to get caught, as if being a burglar was a weighted burden that he hoped somebody else would remove from his shoulders by no choice of his own. Getting caught could do just that.
We felt particularly violated when we discovered the single only other thing missing besides the computers. My then girlfriend and now wife had a small stash of candy in her desk drawer. It was gone. This perplexed us. Why go through all this risk, and steal all of these pricey items, only to waste time nabbing a sweet treat? It felt uncomfortably personal.
Power cords and keyboards were scattered about the office like the guts of a gazelle that was feasted on by a hungry pride of lions. Various electronic accessories were strewn about like a breadcrumb trail to the window, the final point in time and space where the computers went from ours to not ours. The broken window was like a portal into the vacuum of space; once something had gone through it, it was never coming back.
The crook had at first attempted to pry open the window with a screwdriver before resorting to a good ol’ rock.
All but one of our MacBooks and iMacs were gone. Nine computers in total were taken, including three of my personal devices, one of which dated back to my high school age. The photos and memories that I had on those older machines had, sadly and regrettably, not been backed up. The fate of their contents were now at the mercy of the individual who was responsible for this mess.
After slowly letting the reality soak in, it then hit me.
“Please, not the server.” We had used an Apple Time Capsule as a way to store and share files amongst our team. Nearly all of our company’s intellectual property was on there. Documents, proprietary works, critical files and folders all lived on here. Almost literally, the entire value of our company was stored in a six inch by six inch plastic and metal box.
I opened the door to the server room slowly. It had been bad enough that the computers were gone. I didn’t know if I could take it if this too was gone. The door creaked on and the light came on. Like the lone survivor of a battle in war, the Time Capsule was there, still running, it’s little green light telling me that everything was OK, at least in its own digital world.
The policeman that was on the job was of the classical stereotype — slightly overweight, middle age, and unwaveringly confident that they would catch the crooks. After all, blood and fingerprints had been left behind. Blood and fingerprints! The suspect may as well have signed a guilt admission at the crime scene, right? Plus, this was the third incident at this property in just the last few months. If they were linked as we imagined, the abundance of evidence collected between the trio of crimes had to help things.
“We’ll get these guys, no problem”, the police officer stated without hesitation. Over my youth, I’d been given this reassurance before with stolen bikes and CD players that were never returned. I knew the likelihood of justice this time was still slim. I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.
But wait! The company a few doors down sold security cameras. Perhaps they had some incriminating footage. Anticipating we had the secret sauce to bring due justice to the incident, we headed over to see what we could find.
Our gracious neighbors poured over the tapes. They found something, but it wouldn’t be much help. A black SUV, possibly a Toyota 4Runner, left the driveway at around 2:00 AM. This was likely the criminal’s ride, but alas, the quality of the image didn’t provide any material information that would get us any closer to solving the mystery and getting our computers back.
Then, like a Wizard who just discovered time travel, I proclaimed loudly and enthusiastically,“To the cloud!” I was, of course, referring to Apple’s iCloud, specifically the tracking feature that I had implemented on all the computers. In theory, I would be able to see the location of all the machines. I fired up the app on my phone, optimistically hoping for a smorgasbord of dots on a map, indicating the locations of my stolen goods. Refraining from rubbing my hands in a sinister fashion, I felt like I was now the criminal mastermind.
But alas, iCloud’s “Find My Mac” feature has one critical flaw. The computers need to be powered up and connected to Wifi. Unless my assumption was off, it was unlikely that the smash-and-grab artist was going to take these home and start browsing Pinterest. Like the security footage, this route would also prove to be fruitless. I began accepting the fact that Mac wasn’t coming back.
My insurance agent met me at the office, and we began the process of initiating a $15,000 claim. He noted that it could take up to two weeks to get the check. Until that time, we’d be sans technology and consequently, unable to earn revenue. Since we’d just plunked down a hefty sum for the new office, we didn’t have the cash in the bank to procure a new fleet of shiny new Apple computers. We’d have to improvise.
At an earlier time in my life, a wise family member once told me something when I was struggling through a relationship issue. “Greg, I know what you are going through. It’s tough. But I’ll promise you this much. One year from today, I’m going to treat you to a cup of coffee, and you’re going to tell me how this challenge ended up being a blessing in disguise.”
One year later, I would indeed meet him for coffee. As he predicted, all was well. He was right, the hardship had been worth it. I would have to apply this same conviction to my current struggle.
To get through this bump in the road, I had to let some good team members go. As painful as it was, we just couldn’t afford the payroll without any earnings coming in. For those who voluntarily stayed, they understood the challenges that lay ahead. The team and I huddled in the conference room with the broken window, which was a stark reminder of the obstacle we’d been presented with. White board markers appeared, judgements for silly ideas disappeared, and we got to brainstorming. The topic at hand? Simple: “What do we do for two weeks without computers?”
After a few hours, we came to one conclusion. We had to change the business model. We had to go from a people-first service, to a technology centric approach. We had to build the system to run itself, without us there to intervene. We had to create a product, as opposed to a service. Using the extra computers we could borrow from friends, family, and employees, we got to building. Over the first weekend, we had hammered out most of the critical components, and a press release would follow early in the week.
We launched. All was working. Users were digging the new approach. Top line sales did slip 20%, but labor was down more than 50%, giving us a net gain. We had a long road to go, but we were showing signs of recovering. My tension started to subside.
I started to look on the brighter side. It could have been a lot worse.
The Time Capsule could have been stolen and the sole surviving Mac could have been grabbed. We did have insurance, so we would be made financially whole. Thankfully, my friend and insurance agent had only recently convinced me that such protection was a smart move. Only a few nights earlier, my wife had been in the office until midnight alone. I was grateful that she was safe and sound, and that the criminal’s schedule was misaligned with her’s.
Then, less than a week after the incident, I got one of the most surprising emails of my life. The sender indicated that he had seen our new business model that we announced, and would like to discuss an acquisition of our brand. He was none other than the owner of the company I had ruthlessly competed against for the last two years.
As an indirect result of the break-in, we were now being acquired.
As we began gearing up for the sale, my wife and I decided that fresh new surroundings would be an effective way to put this ordeal behind us. After the sale of the company was finalized, we wouldn’t have any specific need to be in San Diego anymore. Much of our family resided in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the region had attracted me due to it’s ecosystem for startups and tech. One good friend even encouraged me to pursue my passion and relocate to “Entrepreneurial Candy Land.”
We packed our things and moved up north. I didn’t know anyone at all, so I decided to be incredibly proactive in pounding the pavement. I attended any meetup or event that I could, eager to meet new folks that were interested in the same things I was. At one such event, I would meet a fellow techie, and we quickly discovered we were both into racing and cars. I’d just finished filming part one of a racing TV show, so I was excited to chat about it.
Over the next 18 months, we continued to get to know each other better, conversing about our three shared passions; cars, startups, and dogs. Then, the time came when we were both aligned on bandwith, vision, and timing. Both of us were obsessed with all of these new “on-demand” services popping up like Uber,Instacart, and Homejoy. We thought it would be pretty cool to create a place where people could discover and discuss these new products. In October 2014, we launched Whttl to the world, which would help users whittle down all of their local options for top-tier services.
Now, looking back thirty months later, I can confidently say that the burglary was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It was the catalyst that led to a chain of events that included selling my company, relocating to San Francisco, meeting my cofounder Tim, and starting a new company.
I couldn’t be happier. Every day, I get to work with startups to help spread the word about their awesome new products and services. It’s exactly the role I dreamed of having years ago.
And what would I say to the burglar, if I ever met him?
This article was originally published on Linkedin.
About the author: Greg Muender is the founder of Whttl, a tool to discover and awesome services around you, like Uber, DogVacay, and Airbnb. Use it to find the sweet startups that have launched in your ZIP code and thus, #winatlife. Drop Greg a line via greg<at>whttl/dot/com or check him out on Twitter.