Twenty-five years. When I reflect, I can't help but think of all the scary events where the odds seemed stacked against us. The times when the outlook wasn’t just uncertain, but it was bleak. I’m genuinely amazed that we got here, and even more grateful that we’ve hit our stride. We are now on a promising growth path, the likes of which we could’ve only dreamt of during the existential moments that pressured us to find new ways to hustle through.
In this 3-part series, I’d like to share some real-world crises that became crucial transitions, each part of the journey to get to where we are today:
Our First "Near Death" Experience
Our first “near death” experience came just 4 years in. For context, we had organically grown to a team of 8 people all providing IT support at Duke University and Duke Hospital. Each of us enjoyed starting and finishing our workday on campus, largely going on foot from customer to customer delivering computer support. It’s safe to say that supporting Duke was the entirety of our business, and without Duke, there would be no Net Friends.
In late 2001, Duke’s new CIO announced his intention to use the new HIPAA law as justification to eliminate all contractors from Duke within 12-18 months. At the time, there were well over a dozen companies like Net Friends that were supporting individual departments, divisions, and centers. The CIO intended to in-house all IT support to the newly rebranded Duke Health Technology Solutions (DHTS) team. We were personally informed that our days were numbered. It didn’t matter that our customers raved about us, and our reputation was rock solid as the most responsive and effective IT support option available. There was an edict from the top, and in short order, we saw that the CIO meant business based on policies and hiring at DHTS that began in earnest.
We were frankly terrified by these changes. However, we channeled our concerns into three primary actions, each of which enabled us to thrive and survive…
Response #1: Fortifying Our Reputation
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, one of these actions would set us up for the next two existential crises. Our first action was to ensure the primary business model we had successfully employed would be preserved. We knew we needed advocates to help fight for us, and that our excellent service and reputation counted for something. Put another way, we didn’t want to become the “low hanging fruit” that the CIO could easily eliminate. By ensuring we didn’t deprioritize the fundamental qualities that made our support services so popular at Duke, we gave our customers every reason to keep calling us and recommending us to their peers.
Response #2: Diversifying Our Services
The second action we took was to broaden the types of IT services we provided, so we were doing more than desktop, server, and network support at Duke. We started providing software development services, and creating new applications and custom databases. This opened new business opportunities for us, and new business risks as well (we’ll get to that later). The rationale behind the decision was that if the CIO was going to eliminate IT support providers at Duke, we could continue to work with our current customer base, but provide a different kind of IT solution for them that would still allow us to support their inspired mission and ideas. We had fostered close relationships with the researchers and clinicians we supported, and we wanted to continue helping them achieve their goals. To read more about how expanding our team and skills impacted us, skip ahead to part two here.
Response #3: Becoming HIPAA Experts
The third significant action we took was to lean into learning everything we could about HIPAA. We saw that the concept of cybersecurity was new and intimidating to a lot of our IT peers. We also noted that many could not or would not fully grasp what it would take to harden systems and design processes that would improve security and documentation. There was an opportunity here to become HIPAA experts so we could consult other departments or individuals who were struggling to comply with the new law and bring their IT systems into alignment with Duke’s policies.
There was an even bigger opportunity to demonstrate to the CIO and Duke that having highly motivated contractors like Net Friends on campus working alongside them was the fastest way to achieve their goals and maintain their posture as an industry leader that embraced technology. We developed service offerings highly tailored to Duke’s policies and became the clear leader in contractor support for Duke.
In the two years following this existential crisis, Net Friends more than doubled in size and was on a path to building incredibly innovative software and service products. We remained rattled by our awareness that our company’s future could be imperiled by a single individual and just one of their decisions. So even as we found ways to secure our place at Duke in the early 2000s, we were cautious and uncertain. This made us less open to taking risks because we already felt like Net Friends was in a precarious situation. We were not in touch with how the next big crisis and risk was going to come from within the business itself.
Overview of "Reflections on 25 Hard Won Years" Series
Part 1: Our First Near Death Experience (You Are Here)
Part 3: The Dark Side of High Growth