Game over?

One dotcom's two-year evolution leads it back to start-up status - and has it fending off extinction

It's been almost two years since the Monitor started following a dotcom start-up - then called Handshake.com - based in Southern California.

The company, now SimplyDone Business Solutions, sells e-commerce software to service firms that operate online.

It didn't start out that way. Its initial aim was to become a one-stop shopping outlet on the Web for customers buying just about any service imaginable.

The mission today is more humble: survival.

We've watched this company move from fraternity-house concept to big-time recipient of venture capital, with a stash of cash in the bank and a hefty payroll, not to mention gym memberships for employees.

And we've watched it become, in the wake of an industry shakeout, a garage start-up again.

A dotcom's evolution: the struggle to survive

The past six months for SimplyDone have been a case-study in good-old-fashioned belt-tightening - something some of us, not too long ago, never thought we would see from a dotcom.

Head count has fallen from some 50 employees (the company's peak) down to 16. Only two people date back to the original start-up team.

The four 20-something founders? Gone. They've moved on to other gigs. Marketing, recruiting, human resources? Gone. The expensive public-relations firm? Gone. Even the lobby receptionist is gone - replaced by voicemail.

The company also hopes to share its excess office space with another business in order to knock down the rent.

SimplyDone - which is no longer a "dotcom," having shed that part of its moniker before our last visit seven months back - has thrown its energy and resources behind its online-scheduling and workforce-management software. It also gives much attention to its charter client, Maid Brigade.

"We've taken the company to a pure technology and product-development company. That was the highest priority," says Michael Barton, SimplyDone's former chief executive. He joined SimplyDone a little over a year ago. But at the start of this month, he moved into an advisory role and eventually will leave the company.

With the emphasis now on technology, SimplyDone needs someone steering the ship with that kind of experience.

Enter John Kjenner, a man who comes with blue-chip experience (Disney and PriceWaterhouse Coopers), and knows the start-up world. Before joining SimplyDone in April, Mr. Kjenner spent a year managing WhatsHotNow.com (WHN), a builder of online stores for clients including Comedy Central and TV Guide.

Both the chief technology officer and the product manager also came from WHN. (Interestingly, WHN officially shut down its e-commerce business about two weeks ago.)

On the money front, SimplyDone still gets by on its last round of venture-capital financing (an undisclosed amount), which it won more than a year ago. Barton and Kjenner both contend that venture-capital firms now have little interest in bank-rolling existing start-ups. Indeed, many were badly burned over the past year by the heap of dotcoms that went belly up.

So SimplyDone hopes to survive on what's in the bank for another year or so.

"The [VC] market will be in a better position in the next 12 months," Barton predicts. Still, some experts contend that a year may not be long enough for financiers to forget the past.

SimplyDone's hopeful new motto: Slow and steady wins the race. "We're turning back the clock [and] going back to business the old-fashioned way - very slow, very methodical," Kjenner says. "We're very much taking the approach that this may be the only money we ever get."

While Kjenner shies away from profit projections, he's confident the business will survive. One promising sign: SimplyDone is in hot pursuit of two new clients. But the pen hasn't hit the paper yet. Barton points out that the sales process takes anywhere from six to nine months - the time needed to learn a potential client's business process and then reengineer it.

Then there's the ever-changing culture of the firm itself. When SimplyDone debuted in May 1999 as Handshake, it was the brainchild of four young guys who wanted to revolutionize the way people buy services. The goal: Link consumers with local service merchants. Need an oil change or your house cleaned? Log on, fill out a form, let merchants bid on the work - then schedule the appointment with the lowest bidder.

A bit ambitious, even the founders would agree. Still, what they lacked in experience, they made up for in determination and hard work. Back then the hours were long (80-plus a week), the leadership young - ex-CEO and founder Ajay Shah was 23 at the time of launch.

And the name of the game was having fun: late-night office floor hockey, no dress code (bare feet preferred), and a corporate apartment wired for cable.

Yet as SimplyDone brought in more-experienced leadership, the company shed its frat-house ways. That shift has certainly continued with Kjenner at the helm. "There is a little bit of old world coming in here," he says.

Kjenner, for example, instituted office hours (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Reasonable for corporate America, but to techies, used to sleeping in and working late, it was unheard of. "You would have thought I lambasted somebody's mother," Kjenner jokes. He made the change, he says, so that financiers coming through the office would see people at work. "I needed to manage appearances," he says.

The techies retaliated. The first day he announced the policy, one employee programmed his computer so that an alarm went off precisely at 6 o'clock. "I actually thought it was pretty funny," Kjenner says, recalling the incident. "The next day, when I was offsite with our board members, there was reportedly a chorus of alarms that went off, including the distinctive whistle from 'The Flintstones.' " Needless to say, office hours still stand.

A basketball hoop that used to adorn the back of the office is still there. New rule, though: No hoops until after 3 p.m. "The basketball games are very few and far between these days," says Aaron Stokes, a developer at SimplyDone and one of the few left from the original start-up days. "There aren't many long hours anymore," he adds, as the new leadership tries to more-efficiently manage projects - and costs. "After six or seven o'clock, everyone's gone - so there's no one left to play ball."

For Mr. Stokes, the ride has been bittersweet. He left college early - with only three classes left to graduate - to sign on at Handshake.

"The whole reason I came was to generate that quick cash flow. But it's now clear that it's more of a long-term investment," he concedes.

"So much money was put into this place. A lot of smart people came here. It's amazing how much effort, resources, and luck are required to build a company."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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