Just three months after we sold Recipezaar to Scripps Networks Gay and I quit. We did not get along with Deanna Brown, our boss, and she made it clear that she did not want to hear from us at all on any topic. She put a yes-woman in between us and her and told everyone else to humor us but to ignore us. Life’s too short to put up with incompetence, especially when they’re your boss, so we quit in October 2007. The three people we had hired and brought into Scripps, Kathy, Liza and Debbie stayed at Scripps. In retrospect, I’m sure we would have been fired or, at least, strongly encouraged to leave, had we not quit on our own.
Last Thursday we found out that Kathy was layed-off.
When we got her email that she her last day was January 30, we assumed she quit. We were shocked to find out that they fired her! Kathy ran Recipezaar day-to-day and was a critical part of the site — she processed all the recipes which we never got to make completely trivial, it was still a manual job to fix the things people enter into recipes to make them suitable for the site. She managed and communicated with the community so she had a handle on what was going on. She filtered complaints and bug reports and kept us aware of what needed to be fixed or changed. Without Kathy, Recipezaar would stop dead in its tracks.
Scripps assumed that she was just a customer service rep and they’ve got tons of those, so what value is Kathy? Sure, someone could have been trained to replace Kathy, but Scripps didn’t even try that. In the 18 months while she worked there, Kathy was never asked to train anyone. Scripps is clueless about how the site runs.
The next day we found out that Debbie was fired too. I can’t say we were surprised by this and I don’t think she was either. Debbie was over-over-over-qualified for her job. We hired her in a Usability and User Experience position and Scripps turned her into a Photoshop-jockey, creating ads and adjusting photographs. This is like asking an astronaut to ride a tricycle. Scripps is lousy with Photoshop nerds and those people work for peanuts, so it only took Scripps 18 months to realize she was overpaid. Scripps has no desire for a User Experience designer even if they knew what it was.
The unorganized way Scripps is run never failed to surprise us, but what business person doesn’t know that lay-offs should happen at once, not over several days? Scripps doesn’t. They did lay-offs on Thursday and then Friday leaving the remaining employees to wonder over the weekend if they’d have a job on Monday. It’s a great way to destroy morale at your company.
So that leaves just Liza of the five of us that worked at Recipezaar.
If it wasn’t inexplicable enough, Recipezaar is the only site at Scripps that is meeting (and surpassing) its goals for traffic and revenue. Every other site they own is falling short of their goals. Recipezaar is also incredibly profitable. It had a 50% profit margin when we ran it. If Scripps did _anything_ right selling ads with their massive ad sales department for both TV and online, the profit margin must be 80% or more. Why lay-off two-thirds of the staff of a staff of three when those three people are generating lots of revenue and profit?!? Someone at Scripps is very bad at math (and logic). I could name five people that I worked with at Scripps in the short time I was there that were complete dead weight. For example, they have a person whose sole job is to manage the cellular phone contract for the company, a person who manages a staff of 2 in Receiving (of the Shipping and Receiving Department), and a person who is a glorified DayTimer — she schedules meetings. Most of their IT staff is weak and their developers are downright lazy.
The core problem at Scripps with respect to Recipezaar is that they think of it as a magazine that just needs regurgitated cover stories. We suspected this was true before we sold the company to Scripps, just as we were of every company that wanted to buy it in the previous years. Recipezaar is a software company; the site is software that has to be maintained and enhanced constantly. We correctly gauged every other suitor as a company that doesn’t understand software development so we always refused to sell it. But Scripps repeatedly insisted that they understood that Recipezaar was different and, more importantly, that they wanted more interactive sites like Recipezaar and that they wanted us to help makeover FoodNetwork.com and HGTV.com into more engaging and interactive sites. John Lansing, the President of the company, sat at our dinner table with us and talked at length about this understanding and desire for good software developers. Our experience with Recipezaar and at Microsoft was appealing to them.
If you can’t believe the President of the company, who can you believe? I tend to think he was being honest. Unfortunately, they hired Deanna Brown in the meantime to run the web sites and she never got (or more likely, understood) the memo. Deanna thinks a cashmere sweater is software. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we were lied to to convince us to sell it to them. But I can’t imagine why they would think that is a good idea. Why would anyone take something on that required work that they didn’t understand how to do had no intention of learning?
If Liza doesn’t pick up all of Kathy’s job, I don’t see how new recipes and reviews are going to be added to the site after January 30, let alone all the communication with the community. I already know that Scripps doesn’t care to fix bugs and only begrudgingly fixes performance problems. The site can’t grow without software fixes and improvements and a constant flow of recipes, reviews and photos. Like all businesses, if it’s not growing, it’s dying.
It’s almost the end of an era in my life.
Clarification: This post is not Recipezaar’s obituary. T&G.com is my personal site where I write about things that matter to me in my life. Please don’t read into anything I write as anything more than my personal thoughts. I called it “(Almost) The End” because, to me, it is almost the end of Recipezaar as I know it. In my Recipezaar book, quitting was the end of a chapter, the crazy half-assed redesign that we fought against was the end of a chapter and Kathy and Debbie leaving is the end of a chapter. That book is almost over. Liza leaving will be the final chapter. The site could last 30 more years but that book would be a sequel that has nothing to do with me. 🙂