This is the quarter that changed everything.
Foxbox Digital started the year on a high from the success of 2019. We grew our team and invested in our culture. We created a culture book called The Foxbox Way with the goal of maintaining and strengthening our culture as we scale the business.
We created a tagline for Foxbox Digital, Move Purposely. We did some soul searching and tried to sum up who we are in two words (what do you think?)
Then COVID-19 hit the US hard and everything changed.
It impacted us, and I had to take necessary, stress-inducing action. The end result is that we are surviving through this. I'm sharing everything that happened with complete transparency, and I'm sharing what I learned as a leader (and the mistakes I made to learn that lesson).
Thank you for reading,
We have a new tagline!
Our new tagline is: Move Purposely.
I know many companies go on for years without ever creating a tagline, and in many cases, a tagline isn’t created until the company is very successful and popular. But I wanted to create one to communicate what stands us apart and to give our prospective customers and potential hires an idea of what it’s like to work with us.
I didn’t want to be just a software development agency. The world doesn’t need another company that can build software. So the biggest reason was to differentiate us and communicate our value proposition.
If you’re curious about how we created our tagline, we wrote about the process.
We have a new company culture handbook: The Foxbox Way (we share it publicly).
When I started Foxbox Digital in 2018, I wanted our team to be intentional about everything we do. I didn’t want to leave it up to chance or let the culture have a life of its own. In many ways, the culture of Foxbox Digital is an extension of how I operate.
I needed a way to communicate this to our team and prospective customers. I wanted our outside to match our inside. Meaning, a potential hire or customer should be able to have a consistent experience before and after joining us.
I have to say that I’m really happy with how it turned out. If you want to see our new company handbook, read The Foxbox Way, and if you want a behind-the-scenes look into how we created the handbook, check out this blog post.
We published some blog posts we’re proud of
When we write content, we take it seriously and put a lot of thought and work into it. An average blog post can take us a month to write, edit, and publish. The time it takes could be shortened if we didn’t have anything else to do, but for the most part, we make sure to get it right.
Here are three blog posts we’re proud of:
How We Onboard Our Remote Engineering and Product Management Team — We actually had this planned to publish before COVID-19 came into our lives. I think we do a really good job at remote work. If you’re interested in this, check it out.
10 Reasons Why We Love React Native *And Why You Should Too — React Native is the foundation of this company. We do plan on expanding outside of just React Native, but we thought this would be relevant for anyone considering building software.
How Switching From Ruby to Elixir Made Our Team Happier and More Productive — Another great, technical article on why we enjoy using Elixir.
COVID-19 and the impact on Foxbox Digital
Now, let’s get to the good stuff.
On Wednesday, March 18th, I sent a company-wide email about the impact of the pandemic on Foxbox Digital. I was cautiously optimistic: we were in a good place relative to other digital agencies, and definitely as compared to other businesses in general. And it’s also worth mentioning that new information was coming in every hour. Although there still is uncertainty at the current moment, nothing compares to March 18th.
From a logistical perspective, working from home was an easy transition and required basically no ramp up period. We’re a remote-first company, and so in early March with one days’ notice, I asked everyone to work from home. Someone came in sick to the office and I made the executive decision right then and there! We will continue to work remote until it’s safe for us to return to our offices.
Seeing the early effects of COVID-19 on the economy, I expected that it would be difficult to close new clients, and some current clients would either scale back or pay later, but I also thought that we would be able to close more clients than we actually did.
One advisor suggested I “flex every variable cost I could.” So I made the decision to cut marketing and recruiting. I cut my own pay in half, too.
But, as it turns out, I was too optimistic. The pandemic, and its aftershocks, got much worse here in the US and it impacted Foxbox Digital more than I thought. Like many other small businesses, I’m still waiting in line for the SBA Paycheck Protection Program, and for Congress to replenish the funds. And, because of my previously optimistic tone, I also caught my team off guard as the situation worsened.
What’s happened in the last month? We had clients scale down or pause development entirely. We also didn’t close some new clients that I had expected we would.
With that in mind, here’s what I said to my team on our monthly Town Hall:
We’re surviving through this pandemic. The truth is that we don’t know how long this will last. It’s affecting everyone: our current clients and our future clients.
In order to get through this, I’ve had to ask some of my team to make sacrifices. It was an incredibly difficult decision, one that gave me stomach pains for a week. As difficult as it is, it allows Foxbox Digital to live on. We’ve had to let one team member go, and had to ask several to go on furlough. One of our developers volunteered to scale back to half-time in order to be with his family, which was helpful for our company.
I can’t control what happens next. As you’ve seen, things are changing every day with this pandemic. I can't promise that we won't ask some of you to furlough again in the future.
What I can promise you is that I value every single one of you tremendously, and furloughing anyone is the last thing I want to do. I've already put this business at risk trying to make it work by trying to keep everyone. Most companies let people go a month ago.
What I need from you is to simply keep delivering for our clients. I know this is stressful, but what we need to do is focus on our work and that’s what you have control over.
This is difficult but if we come together and do what's needed, we will not only survive, but we'll come through this pandemic stronger than before.
Lesson Learned: Be Real
What I’ve learned through all this is when we’re navigating uncertain times, the message I deliver to my team needs to be realistic. I put an optimistic spin on my first message to my team. My goal was to put everyone at ease, and it backfired.
The interesting thing is that as compared to my super realistic second message, the first message actually made my team more nervous! They were all scared after I told everyone that the business, and the employees, were going to be okay. I’m sure they looked around and saw every other business laying people off and thought, something isn’t right. I had to hold an AMA (Ask Me Anything) a few days later to answer questions.
But, after I delivered my second message, this time over Zoom, my team saw that I took action and I did the things that needed to be done. I couldn’t promise they’d be safe and I acknowledged that I didn’t know what the future would bring. That was real, and they saw that.
When I ended my speech and opened up to questions, an interesting thing happened -- we started joking and everyone’s spirits lifted. We talked about our own experiences in social isolation, and what we had been doing to pass the time after signing off each day.
My rallying call worked. My goal was to tell it how it is, and encourage everyone to step up and deliver for our clients. Let’s focus on the things that are in our control, and not worry so much about the things that aren’t.
I’ve learned a lot through this experience about how to lead when things aren’t easy. I’m incredibly grateful and proud of my team throughout all of this. They have been positive throughout the entire experience, and they continue to push through, even with all of the stress and uncertainty.
I wish for everyone to be safe, and if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know. I know there are many businesses worse off than we are, and some have been completely destroyed, but we are all in this together as a community.
Stay positive, and stay safe, and as always, feel free to contact us with any questions.
Rob Volk is Foxbox Digital’s founder and CEO. Prior to starting Foxbox, Rob helped Fortune 100 clients, including Pfizer, USPS, and Morgan Stanley build and scale enterprise apps. He was the CTO of Beyond Diet and implemented technology that scaled to over 350k+ customers, and was the CTO and Co-Founder of Detective (detective.io), a venture-backed intelligence platform that amassed 200k+ users in a short time frame. Read more