COVID, Lockdown, and my lessons from Apollo 13

I’m an unashamed Apollo space nut and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the original Apollo astronauts including Jim Lovell and Fred Haise.

Now Jim and Fred were on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission that, because of an oxygen tank explosion, nearly ended in tragedy. However, due to incredible work of everyone at Nasa (& the contractors), they managed to bring them home safely (side note: this is 50 years old now, and it still seems like science fiction).

One of the key points from Apollo 13 was that the crew had to constantly wrestle with what worked on the spacecraft – which wasn’t much after the explosion. To review all the systems and facilities that they had at their disposal to try to wring as much life out of them as possible. To get home, they had to fly the spaceship in an unusual configuration which, in the excellent movie of the same name you can hear Tom Hanks (playing Lovell) say:

“It’s like flying with a dead elephant on our back,”*

The reason flying the spaceship was difficult was because their centre of gravity had changed.

Aside: this article deals with my business and how it responds to Covid. I don’t touch on the huge tragic human cost here – I’m not equipped to do that & I’ll leave that to better commentators. However, I will take this moment to applaud our fantastic NHS, and all the key workers currently putting their lives on the line to keep this country (& other countries) running. My hope is for a better society post-Covid.

Centre of Gravity

I reflect on Apollo 13 during these times of Covid; as, for pretty much all businesses out there, our centre of gravity has changed too, perhaps permanently.

And we too need to ‘learn how to fly‘ again.

What does that mean for me and my company?

How does this affect Glass Mountains?

The easiest way of describing how to learn to fly again is to talk from the perspective of my company: Glass Mountains.

We build and support WordPress sites, and, whilst I’m biased, we’re good at. We have a good heart and always look out for our clients, trying to do the best for them.

Through a strategic partnership, we’ve managed to secure quite a bit of work from the US.

Our Glass Mountains team (all freelancers, bar me) are all remote and have been for many years. We have a core team of around 6 but that expands depending on needs (e.g. we have Google Analytics & Google Tag Manager experts etc we draw on when needed).

So we are used to working remotely and used to dealing with remote clients.

That’s good. That part of our spacecraft still works.

Word of Mouth

My company was set up in 2001, I was a freelancer for digital agencies initially but within a few years I was sat at my desk at home, selling my wares, and building & supporting websites directly.

So I’ve been at this a long time.

A plus point of being-around-a-long-time is that this has allowed word of mouth referrals to occur. We’ve been around for long enough to be front of mind when people ask other people questions such as:

  • Who did your website?
  • Can you recommend anyone to help with our WordPress site?
  • We need some help and support – who do you trust?

I won’t pretend that this word of mouth strategy was part of some orchestrated, carefully planned marketing strategy – it was not. It is simply a bonus point of being in business a long time, and being one of the good guys. If you do good work, that ends up being your best marketing.

Eggs? Basket?

However, let’s not get complacent here.

Word of mouth referrals are great but you don’t get much control over them: referrals happen when they happen. Yes you can say to trusted clients “Do you know anyone who could benefit from our services?” and I don’t think it harms to rattle the tin in that way occasionally.  But in many circumstances, you’ve just got to sow the seeds for word of mouths referrals to happen, and then harvest the results later on.

I’ve been aware for a while now that I/my company does not do much on the front foot – we do a great job, and we get referrals – super. But smart companies do more.

Back in time

During the 2008 recession, things were tough and, similar to today, I had to reassess what we could do to deal with prevailing, harsh, business conditions. However, there was no ‘we‘ then – there was just me – on my own.

With little website work coming in, I started running a few hands-on workshops; whether it would be ‘how to use Twitter‘, ‘how to blog‘, ‘how to set up a WordPress site‘ – you get the idea.

The workshops were for about 4 people (as that was the maximum I could fit in our old office in Newport), and I would run them in a morning. They were paid for events, not big money – but if you managed to run two workshops a month, then that is money in the bank & not to be sniffed at.

Furthermore, I liked running them and, without blowing my own trumpet, I was good at them – I like explaining stuff to people – it just comes naturally to me (note: there are a bazillion things I am not good at, so the key here is to play to your strengths).

Old Habits

However, I got out of habit of running them. I’m not 100% sure why, it just kind of fizzled out.

Perhaps it was because as more work came in, I didn’t feel the need to run them.

Or perhaps it was the effort of getting bums on seats – even with only 4 people, you had to do a lot of work to get the places filled. I tried to partner with people who might be able to help fill seats but it never really worked.

A big mistake

And that was a mistake.

The workshops delivered a lot more value than just the entrance fee.

Indeed, if you analysed it on immediately bottom line, you’d probably ask “You ran a Twitter workshop with only 2 people and earned X? Are you nuts?!“. Which would be a valid question. But it would miss an essential point.

I ran lots of workshops. And each workshop was attended by a few people.

Over time, this added up to a sizeable tribe of people.

Those people left the workshop thinking that I knew what I was talking about (no comment from the back!), and went away saying nice things about me & my company (yes, I know you can’t take ‘saying nice things’ to the bank, lemme get to that). Also, some people came back for other paid work, or even whole websites etc (we certainly got a few big projects from starting relationships this way).

The workshops ended up being a pipeline filler. People would pay to come (to learn, admittedly) and, if you did a good job, you were actually selling to them (as a side effect) – but selling in a way which didn’t feel like selling; which is why it came naturally.

A proper agency?

I also think perhaps another reason I stopped running workshops was I wasn’t sure if running them was something a ‘proper agency’ did – I think I lacked a bit of confidence in what the company was – we didn’t have a shiny office with an army staff – there was just me and the first shoots of a  trusted team of freelancers – was I a proper company? Was I a proper agency? What the heck did ‘proper agency‘ even mean?!

Return of the workshops

The idea of the workshops never did leave me though – because on reflection I had learnt that they were valuable to the company beyond the ticket value and, more importantly really, I liked running them. I liked meeting the people attending and helping them. And who doesn’t like doing things they….errr…like?

So a few times over the years, I looked into premises to perhaps run some more workshops – but the cost was typically prohibitive – at this point, I’d let the old office go so I would have to hire a place – and that would make the events either prohibitively expensive or leave very little money on the table – after all, the event had to wipe its face really.  You could argue doing them for free but, in my experience, people value ‘free‘ a lot less than they value a ‘paid‘ service.

Even as late as 2019 I was once again looking at premises – thinking of the physical space. At this point, the light bulb finally came on that why not run them as webinars? I’m pretty sure the idea came up before to be honest (I’m not that dense!) – but it was at this point I realised I shouldn’t really look for physical spaces any more and online webinars were the way forward.

However, the idea fizzled out again –  partially because I didn’t have the energy for it at that point (I’ll save that for another post), partially because I wasn’t sure how people would respond to webinars, and partially because again I wasn’t sure if I was geared up to having to promote workshops.

Enters from stage left: Covid!

Lockdown pretty much resolved one of my concerns for me (how people would respond to webinars?) because people had to respond.

Webinar software like Zoom has become common business parlance.

It’s almost as if a vast, upskilling has occurred across great swathes of sections.

Google Trends for 'Zoom'

Google Trends for ‘Zoom’

I posted the above in a previous article about Zoom – that spike is the Google Trends for “Zoom” – that graph pretty much shows you the vast upskilling as a spike. That’s it happening – right there. Not a gradual upskilling – a step change.

And that genie will not be going back in the bottle.

Good news & Bad News

So that’s good news if you can offer value by running a webinar.

The bad news for me was that this upskilling removed one of the obstacles I’d erected, so I now needed to get off my bottom and actually do something.

The First Webinar

We ran our first webinar a couple of weeks ago, and it was great – yes, lots of things we’d do differently but in all the ways I was hoping for, it was a success. Yes, this was a free event (note my comments earlier) but this was a start.

I’ve expanded on that first webinar and there is now a webinars section on our site, with lots of things planned.

Yes this will be hard work.

No it will not be an overnight success.

No, it won’t immediately bring return-on-investment. We are planting trees for tomorrow here.

But yes, I think this is still worth doing. It feels an authentic fit for my company and a return to something I loved doing – teaching.

Team Structure

I’d like now to revisit the whole ‘proper agency‘ thing I mentioned earlier….

I’ve witnessed the growth in remote working over the years. At Glass Mountains, we’ve been fully remote for many years.

I’ve seen the gradual acceptance of how we work as a valid type of company – i.e. the virtual company – you don’t have a physical office but, who cares? Can you do good work? Do people recommend you?

So come Covid, aside from a slight dip in work, the actual lockdown conditions made zip difference to how my company functioned – we already worked this way.

We didn’t have to learn to use Zoom, as we’d used it for years dealing with our US clients.

It was an eye-opener to see that, after all this time, we were now the ‘proper agency‘ – with agency with the configuration best fit for the prevailing conditions.

Funny that.

“I don’t care what it was designed to do!”

In my opinion, these COVID conditions have simply fast-forwarded what was inevitably going to happen with my company – the situation was forced on me, and in truth – I’m glad about the kick in the pants – I needed it.

Let’s end with a superb clip from Apollo 13 where legendary Flight Director Gene Kranz** (played by Ed Harris):

In the clip, Gene quips back that:

“I don’t care what anything was designed to do – I care about what it can do”***

So, ignore what you think your company was designed to do – what can it do?



p.s. a final note re Apollo 13. In the movie Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz but really he’s representing all of the Mission Control Flight Directors who helped saved the day. In photo at the very top of this post, we see Flight Director Glynn Lunney seated talking to all the team about what to do next. This photo was taken not long after the explosion had happened and the team were going off in all directions guessing and hoping things weren’t as bad as they were. They needed leadership, and they needed someone to pull them together with a cool head, and clear thinking. This is exactly what Glynn Lunney did – an unsung here of Apollo 13. Astronaut, Ken Mattingly – who said of Glynn that his performance was “one of the most amazing pieces of leadership I have ever watched”. Well done, Glynn.


p.p.s. apologies for the slightly rambling post – I wanted to get some of those points off my chest and I thought I’d perhaps depart from the more practical posts of the week, so something a bit more from the heart.




* – re “like flying with a dead elephant on our back” – Jim didn’t say this during the flight, though I think he said something similar after the event.
** – my boy is named after Gene Kranz and Mr Kranz was kind enough to send him an autograph. A prized possession,
*** – for the space nerds; in this clip Gene Kranz is tearing into ‘the Grumman guys;’ who designed the LEM. This is a harsh portrayal of them – in fact, the team from Grumman (who built the Lunar Lander) were exceptional and knew how to eek every ounce of performance out of their spacecraft.




No Comments

Leave a Reply