Ep. 1 – Down, But Not Out: How Google Dealt Visitor Queue a Death Blow

7 minute read

This is a direct transcription of episode 1 of Down, But Not Out. To listen to the full episode, check it out on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

For the first episode of Down, But Not Out, I thought I’d share my own Down, But Not Out Story and talk about how Google Dealt my company, Visitor Queue, a death blow that almost put us out of business. 

Background

In 2017, I started a company by the name of Visitor Queue. Visitor Queue does IP address reversal to identify the companies that are visiting other companies’ websites. We sell this to a few thousand companies across the globe. So that their sales team can follow up with those leads and hopefully close new business. We’ve worked with some larger names like Microsoft and Jones Lang Lasalle. And then we work with some smaller companies as well. 

Setting the Scene

We started Visitor Queue in June of 2017. Which is when we finally registered the name and started building out our software. At that time it was just me and my co-founder, Taras Zubyak, that were working on the company. Taras was building out our MVP as I got other things ready for our launch. We were able to launch an alpha first with a few hundred testers in about September of 2017. Then in December of 2017, we launched our full beta and opened it up to a few thousand more testers. After enhancing our software, we eventually were ready to launch our full paid product, in April of 2018. Things were going great, we were growing at an impressive rate, and we thought that nothing could tear us down. What we couldn’t have predicted was that in February of 2020, we almost lost everything.

February 2020

Our Down, But Not Out story happened February 5th, 2020. I remember that day like no other. That morning I had shared an article on LinkedIn that talked about how to become a Forbes 30 under 30. I looked at all the stats from previous years and came up with this is how people become Forbes 30 under 30. Because it was of interest to me that’s something that I wanted to do. It’s something I still want to do and something I’m working towards. I thought it was ironic that right when I shared that this is what my day turned into. So I get into the office, I’m sitting there and I’m working away on something. My Marketing Manager, who is also in charge of customer support, turned around and said “Hey, our clients are complaining they haven’t seen data in their dashboard for 12 hours,”.

We were used to a delay of five to six hours at most from the Google Analytics APIs. It was out of our hands. 12 hours was way too long. So, I started looking around and I messaged our developer right away and I said, “Hey are you seeing anything on the back end where is the issue here? Can you tell me about what’s going on?” He said we’re still getting data back from Google Analytics so I don’t see where the issue is and he started looking at other areas where there might be issues. I start digging around into actual Google Analytics on the front end to see what data shows on Google Analytics in our system.

I’m in there and I’m looking at the reports that we usually get. I notice that there’s two fields that Google previously supplied to its users and were previously available in the API because we’ve got about 10 different fields from Google Analytics. What you did on a website, the pages you viewed, and then a network domain and a service provider. I’m looking at this network domain and service provider report and it’s coming up with “Not Set”.

That’s Google’s classic “We’re not going to tell you what this is“.

I’ve never seen the service provider and network domain report, the two fields we absolutely needed to provide our service, come back as “Not Set”. So, I became alarmed and I started looking around through other reports not noticing any changes. I started looking on forums and I came across a Google Analytics forum. So, Google owns the forum, where people could ask questions, like a community little section for everybody. People are also mentioning they haven’t seen a network domain or service provider come back for a number of hours.

It’s all coming back as “Not Set”. I’m seeing post after post of people confirming this and then I get a little alarmed. I message our developer and I say, “Hey are you not getting these fields back? You’re getting everything else other than these fields?” and he goes “Yeah” and I go well that’s going to be a problem, that’s not good. I was holding on to optimism that Google had made a mistake. They usually tell you when they’re going to sunset something, when they’re turning off a product, they’re making a change that’s going to break something, they’re usually pretty good at telling their clients.

I’ve seen it multiple times like when they got rid of Google Plus, no one really cared, but they told everybody they’re getting rid of Google Plus so I held on to some optimism now they would have told us if they were getting rid of those two fields. 

We reached out to our rep at Google to see what was going on. We got an email back that says those are removed and they’re not coming back

The Tough Part

I remember the weakness in my knees like it was yesterday. This hurt because we were at a few hundred thousand dollars in recurring revenue. We had six employees at this point we were growing 400 percent year over year. Visitor Queue was on a really good trajectory to do seven figures in 2020 and really get up there in recurring revenue and now we were back at zero without those two fields in the Google Analytics API. We were screwed. Visitor Queue was completely out of business if we didn’t have a service to provide to our 250 clients.

I’m sitting there thinking and going through all the scenarios in my head. Luckily for the first few days at least I had this killer drive that clicked in. It was like a fight or flight.

I came up with four different options, we either shut down and walk away, we try to sell our client base to a competitor, or someone else that wants to buy our client base. The third option was to pivot and try to build something else but that would be incredibly hard to do. But, pivoting in the middle of a crisis to try to get product market fit is next to impossible. The fourth one was we have to rebuild what Google Analytics was providing us. It pretty much starts with Google Analytics telling us these are the service provider, the network domain of the companies visiting this website, the pages they viewed, the amount of time they spent, the source and medium, and so on. Then, we take all of that, we clean all of that data, and we display it in our dashboard. 

The Tougher Part: Replacing Google Analytics

Up to this point, we’ve built out a lot of great features, it’s just Google was that first plug that we needed and it was removed. So, we were going to do our best to pursue the fourth option, replacing Google Analytics with our own data. I brought our team together and I said, “Guys this is it, this is the end game. We have no other option other than to rebuild what Google Analytics was providing us as quickly as possible otherwise we are completely out of business,”. I made sure they understood that this was the ninth inning, step up to the plate or were screwed.

I’m gonna be honest I’ve never been more proud as a leader than I was that day because I was able to rally our troops to step up and fight with me. After getting them all rallied up and telling them this is what we’re doing, we laid out our tasks of how to rebuild this component. It might sound easy to some but some technology enthusiasts out there understand that building a javascript tracking script and tying it into an existing system isn’t easy. To put it in perspective, this should have taken us three to four months to build this replacement for Google and we had negative 24 hours at this point.

Our lead developer was working 20 hours a day to try and push out a replacement for Google in a time frame where we didn’t we didn’t lose all of our clients. We had sent out an email to all of our clients notifying them about what was going on, and why they were not seeing any data in their account. We explained that we were building out our own system and that we would refund them for the lost days.The cancellations we’re just going and going and going. I don’t blame clients for leaving us when that happened, that makes sense to me. But, all that was going through my head while that was happening was that we’re still not back at zero. 

The Toughest Part: Work Work Work

I know the weekend’s a crucial time because clients aren’t online on the weekend, we’re strictly B2B, so clients aren’t going to be online and checking if they’re missing data and canceling on us. So, I sat down with our team and our lead developer predominantly and I said “We don’t have an option here, we need these two days to make up for it, and launch Monday or Tuesday otherwise we’re we’re not going to be a good spot with our clients,”

Over the weekend we were able to put together something that’s mostly usable. We relaunched on the Monday after the weekend. We were pretty much back to an MVP and we cut some features that we didn’t need. Then, we put out a notice to our clients that explained that they can now see data again, but they have to add this tracking script, the Visitor Queue tracking script.

Down But Not Out Podcast

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

We were able to keep about 80-85% of our clients which hurt, it really did, but the thing I kept telling myself the entire time was 80% is better than zero. Those five or six days were probably the most sleepless and stressed out times of my life. I almost lost two and a half years worth of work, I almost lost a few hundred thousand dollars, 250 clients, everything I’d worked on, everything I dreamed of was almost gone. 

It took us 10 months to fully catch up and we’re just now catching up to where we were previously. Now getting back to our current growth trajectory, we were at about five employees before, we’re at about nine now. 

Did I Consider Quitting?

I don’t remember considering quitting. I remember it sucking. Reliving it just hurts to bring up at times. But, I think it’s a great story to share and something that might inspire somebody that’s going through something similar. I’ve never been a quitter, and I wasn’t about to start now, especially with something I have worked so hard for. A lot of the greatest accomplishments were because someone was too stubborn to give up.

What is the Key Takeaway From This Experience?

What I learned from this experience is that I shouldn’t have built on top of someone else’s platform. Any of the good entrepreneurs out there will go, “Well, you built on someone else’s platform. They can make changes. That’s your fault, you should have had a replacement ready,” That’s right, we should have had a replacement ready. But we didn’t. We were chasing growth, we were hitting 300-400% year over year. If you were in that position, you would want to keep driving growth.

If you are building on top of someone else’s platform, have a backup plan or be okay with the fact that they could drop you any day. Either build that backup plan, that we probably should have had ready but we didn’t, or be okay with the fact that they could drop you one day. Mentally prepare yourself for that worst case scenario because it will likely happen if you’re built on top of someone else’s platform and reliant on their APIs or for them to drive your client growth. That could change in an instant and your business could be thrown through a loop.

Final Words

Thanks for listening and I look forward to sharing more Down, But Not Out stories in the future. Don’t forget to subscribe to Down, But Not Out to be notified about new episodes. Check us out on Apple Podcasts and Spotify

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Taylor Hamilton

I am the Marketing Coordinator at Visitor Queue. I recently graduated with an advanced diploma in marketing and administration from Fanshawe College. I love spending my spare time outside with my dog Peach! I am a firm believer that there are no secrets to success, only preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.

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