On Cyber Monday 2011, the biggest shopping day of its breakout year, the apparel company Bonobos confirmed its worst fear: Its e-commerce systems were not able to handle heavy traffic. As told to Tom Foster.
We thought we would get a lot of traffic, but we got an order of magnitude more. We were offering up to 60 percent off and sending our e-mail newsletter in waves. Each time we'd send one, the problem got worse: Transactions would bottleneck, and it resulted in a deluge of customer service complaints.
That evening, we decided we would take the site down and leave it down as long as it took to fix the tech issues completely. We also decided to make sure that everyone who missed out would get a chance to shop the sale after we were back up; we would have as bad a month financially as we needed to, because we deserved it.
We put up a "fail whale" page that showed a guy with his pants at his ankles and the line Caught us with our pants down. We were saying, "We screwed up."
I answered calls until 3 the next morning with our customer service team, the Ninjas. We were down all Tuesday and Wednesday. We spent six weeks working through the customer service queue.
It felt insurmountable, but it brought people together. I remember seeing everybody jamming on a Saturday and seeing the good energy and thinking, We'll be OK. The Ninjas saved the company.
When things go well, as the leader of the company, your face gets splashed all over. On days like that, I feel like a fraud, because I'm absorbing all the credit, and I deserve only a fraction of it. The flip is true when something goes wrong: It actually is all your fault. And your job is to fix it.