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Paying the Ultimate Price:
Fallout from the Dot Com Boom

by Kent Lewis

For many of us, the dot com boom of the late 1990s was synonymous with business plans on napkins, extravagant parties and memorable but irrelevant Super Bowl ads. Many of us "in the business" at the time also witnessed the dark side first hand: bad judgment, greed, budget cuts and layoffs. Many of the horror stories of the post-boom era included lost jobs, lost fortunes and personal bankruptcy. My experience was very similar, with one major exception: the dot com boom, and subsequent bomb, killed my boss.

My first interaction with Ryan Wilson was over the phone, when we discussed an employment opportunity in his PR group at a full-service agency. He had a deep, booming voice that projected confidence and intelligence. His knowledge of technology and agency management helped him create the largest group within the firm. At the job interview, his frame matched his voice: tall and substantial. He hired me as an online PR consultant, and later, encouraged me to write a business plan and build an Internet marketing team. With his help, I did just that.

A year later, after parting ways with the agency, he asked if I wanted to join him in building a startup, where I could run my own team. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I had to take it. In January of 1999, we opened the doors of Wave Rock Communications with six employees and two clients, funded by Ryan's 401K. Two weeks later, we had eight clients. By the end of the year, we had 18 employees and had generated nearly $2 million in revenue, all funded through profits. Ryan's vision and intuition were critical in Wave Rock's growth and credibility within the industry.

Our first year was amazing. We had a solid team, great clients and plenty of fun. At the top of his game, Ryan enjoyed a CEO moniker and spending time working on a new house with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, while the new house was solid, cracks began to show in the company's foundation. By early 2000, it was clear that our meteoric growth, fueled Ryan's ego, had led to a few questionable decisions, including leasing 25,000 square feet (a decision that would be primary contributor to the agency's undoing).

For the six months following the stock market crash, Wave Rock's clientele held steady (fueled by the previous year's budget allocations). During that time, however, the senior management team had a major falling out. Disagreements over management style, personalities and equity ultimately led to Ryan firing myself and another co-founder in September of 2000. We left an agency we'd helped build to 34 employees and $3.5 million in less than two years.

Within weeks of our departure, Ryan found himself dealing with clients that were decreasing or eliminating their marketing budgets due to sharp revenue drops. Wave Rock employees began to leave. The immense cost of office space and a recent build-out compounded problems. By early 2001, Wave Rock was bleeding badly and Ryan looked for a way out. Salvation came in the form of an "asset" acquisition by another agency.

In one fell swoop, Ryan managed to transition seven of the remaining Wave Rock employees and himself to the new agency as well as negotiate terms with creditors. From a tremendous personal low that included insomnia, weight gain and depression, he bounced back. Ryan began exercising, eating right and thinking about client work again. His dry sense of humor even returned.

Within weeks of his formal hire announcement at the new agency in June 2001, Ryan suffered a major heart attack and died at the age of 43. I got the call from a former coworker the morning after his death and was shocked. We hadn't had a meaningful conversation since he'd fired me nine months earlier. I felt guilty, concerned that our difficulties had contributed to his death. This feeling was alleviated, however, by his girlfriend. She told me that only weeks before his death, he'd mentioned that he missed working with me and looked forward to reconnecting. It was as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from my conscious.

Ryan was a visible, influential member of the Portland PR community, and his funeral was appropriately large. A vast majority of attendees had a personal connection with Ryan and missed him terribly. Even a few of his former professional "nemeses" were in attendance. Most surprisingly, there were many other attendees that I was fairly sure had only a peripheral relationship with Ryan, but were of a similar age and perhaps understood the profound nature of the situation: dying at a young age, fueled by the dot com bomb. Ryan perfectly represented an era in Portland's agency history: success and failure, surviving and dying.

I still think about Ryan from time to time when I hear a particular song (he was fond of Haircut 100), encounter a particular piece of trivia (he tried out for Jeopardy!) or run into former friends, clients or coworkers (they're everywhere). Sometimes, I think he's watching over me as I navigate my own business through the new economy.

I'm a student of history, attempting to learn from the past so I don't repeat the mistakes of those who came before me. The dot com boom was more about greed and stupidity than anything. For me, however, it became more about losing site of what is important in life and not being able to make peace with those you care about. In Ryan's terms, I've learned to "pick my battles" and know which is my "hill to die on." I'll never forget the years I spent working for and learning from Ryan. His memory lives on with all of us lucky enough to have worked with and for the next great Jeopardy! champion.

 

 

Paying the Ultimate Price:
Fallout from the Dot Com Boom

by Kent Lewis

 

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