September 11—9/11—is a day marked forever in the history of America. It’s a day to remember the tragedy of thousands of innocent lives lost, the heroism of first responders, the affliction of those who lost their loved ones. But one story of 9/11 is rarely told. It’s the story of the startups and small businesses that died that day. Mine was one of them.
Certainly, the loss of a business—or many businesses—pales in comparison to the loss of lives. On September 11, when I mourned, I mourned for those killed. When I prayed, I prayed for my country. My own situation was not first—or even second—in my mind.
But I did have to face a sudden business reality. When any kind of tragedy strikes—hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, certainly a national tragedy like 9/11—businesses also are impacted. Those businesses most vulnerable—small businesses and startups—face the biggest challenges. Entrepreneurs must respond.
Like most Americans over the age of 25, I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I was in Houston, Texas at the headquarters of Compaq Computer. Remember them?
I had launched a startup two years before. This was the height of the “dot com” boom, and I was living in the heart of “dot com” territory—Palo Alto, California, the center of Silicon Valley. I had raised an initial round of investment from angel investors. My company’s mission was creating an online/offline content company to help small business owners and entrepreneurs connect with those corporations that could help them grow.
The company had grown quickly. By late August 2001, things were going well. My company had initial partnerships with Microsoft, FedEx, and Compaq Computer. But we’d run through our initial funding and our first income, and our coffers were empty. We needed larger partnerships to keep growing. Fortunately, in late summer, we negotiated a very significant deal with Compaq, which we were to sign in Houston on September 11. That contract alone could keep us alive for at least another year. Even more promising, we had an appointment scheduled on September 13 in Texas with the head of global small business for a Fortune 100 company interested in an even bigger deal.
Then, the first blow came—even before we traveled to Houston. On August 31, Hewlett Packard announced they were acquiring Compaq. I immediately knew our Compaq deal was in jeopardy. When a corporation is suddenly acquired, any small business or startup doing business with them is likely to get washed under by the tsunami of change and uncertainty the large company deals with internally. I was already worried the Compaq deal was potentially going to be stalled.
Nevertheless, me and my team traveled to Houston with some optimism: Compaq loved us, and the other, larger partnership was a real possibility.
But on the morning of September 11, sitting in Compaq headquarters, we watched live images of the World Trade Center Twin Towers falling. We were horrified by the tragedy. For hours, we were transfixed with the news, thinking of nothing else.
Slowly, however, reality sunk in. “Nothing will happen for at least a year,” we were told on that day by those we’d been negotiating with in both companies. But my company didn’t have the money to last another year.
That day—9/11—we realized the company would come to an end.
I wasn’t the only entrepreneur facing that situation. The American economy took a huge hit that day, and there are hundreds—maybe thousands—of business obituaries that could be written of startups that died on 9/11/01. Indeed, 9/11 was part of the story of the end of the “dot com” boom.
The reality is the future of your business is not entirely in your hands. Outside forces can determine the trajectory of your success. Entrepreneurs must have “grit”—resiliency. You must be able to figure out how to respond to unexpected setbacks out of your control. It helps to have a business plan that anticipates changes. It’s also wise to build financial reserves and credit worthiness.
What did I do? Back in Palo Alto, along with two key employees, I came up with a new business plan and launched my current company: PlanningShop. It’s still in business after all these years.
Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2019
This article originally ran in USA Today on September 11, 2019