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For Net consultant, a crisis, then a silver lining

Four-fifths of Steve Borsch's revenue evaporated in two months. But the problem sent the Web communication consultant in a better, new direction.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories about the recession's effect on the tech industry.

It's disastrous when 80 percent of your business's revenue suddenly and unexpectedly vanishes, right?

Not exactly. Well, at least not for Steve Borsch, half owner of Marketing Directions. The consultant, whose Connecting the Dots practice advises companies on how to use blogs, forums, and social networks to engage with customers, is about as focused on the silver lining as he is on the clouds.

The precipitous decline of his main work became the impetus to make changes he hadn't even realized were necessary, said Borsch, a married father of two who works in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Steve Borsch
Steve Borsch Steve Borsch

"There's a lot of pain and a lot of agony, but I felt greater clarity for me personally in the last 45 to 60 days than I have in the last couple years," said Borsch, 52. "There's this survivalist instinct. You cut to the chase. You forget the crap around the edges. You home in on the value you're trying to deliver."

And the shock waves traversing the economy also open up new possibilities, just as they did two generations earlier when the industrialization of the United States led Borsch's grandfather to a coveted job on the Great Northern Railway.

"There was a mad scramble among young people to get jobs that would allow them to move to the city. All these stories about how things were shifting, changing, moving off the farm--people living during that time were in great angst," Borsch said. "My personal opinion is we're living that same time."

Borsch didn't lose his job, but his tale holds value for those who have, or for those who want to make something better of their current position. The recession's consequences led Borsch through shock and some self-doubt to what he's convinced is a better direction.

Borsch works far from the coastal hubs where technology such as Twitter is better known, but he's been in the computing industry almost exclusively since getting his MBA, and he's a firm believer in the communication transformation the Internet enables. His specialty has been to help companies brainstorm about how to build a new, more social phase of Internet interaction with customers, moving beyond old-school methods such as mass marketing e-mail toward more personal discussions such as hosted comment boards.

The idea has appeal well beyond early-adopter companies such as Google or that are comfortable with the online world and familiar with how the Internet can bowl over barriers of geography.

But, Borsch found out, a project to build a fancy new interactive Web site also is expendable when a bad recession hits. Two big contracts evaporated.

Stage 1: Shock
"It was this jaw-dropping oh-my-God...I was stunned," he said of his reaction. "One had a budget that was supposed to be approved to start September 2. The budget still hasn't been approved. With the other one, they made a decision not to move forward with the initiative."

The result, combined with two smaller contracts also being canceled as those companies went into "scramble mode," is that Borsch's revenue dropped by about 80 percent in less than two months.

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His immediate response involved an unprintable expletive, then moved to self-doubt, then to a more constructive phase.

"Did I not do something correctly? Could I have done something differently? I immediately started to analyze what I did or didn't do," he said. "It took me a bit of time and a couple conversations to realize it didn't matter if I were Deloitte," a well established and vastly larger consulting firm.

Stage 2: What can you control?
After that came a more positive attitude.

"Most of this is out most of our control," he said of the global economic travails and the toll they take. "First I was pissed at George Bush for his laissez-faire attitude toward regulation," but then he became more assertive. "There are a lot of things you can't control, but what you can control is your reaction to it."

That led to the constructive phase. Specifically, Borsch concluded the service he was providing was becoming less valuable as cutting-edge Internet technology matured into a better understood phenomenon.

Stage 3: What can you do that's valuable?
"I came to the realization that I had to find tools to take what I'm doing and make it smarter," Borsch said.

He decided he needed to help companies not just set up technology for online engagement, but to integrate that better with corporate operations and measure how well it's actually doing. That means not just explaining the ups and downs of user forums, but also managing communication campaigns, rating the influence of particular individuals, integrating with customer relationship management software, and figuring out directly how a community site contributed actual revenue.

"Clients don't need to understand what's happening in the social-media space," Borsch said. "They're saying, 'How do I reach it, how do I get results?'"

And of course, there were belts to be tightened. "It's amazing how much you can defer. There are a lot of (areas) like direct mail where we have now discovered some other methods of getting the word out digitally that don't cost any money or are very minimal investments," he said.

A new phase
So what comes next? The chaos is starting to settle down into a new direction. One big choice is whether to drop his beloved "lone wolf" lifestyle, always looking for new trends, or to head for a more operational job within some corporation.

But it looks like the new analytical, numeric approach to his old practice is the leading contender. "I'm trying to figure out how I can turn this back into a significant growth opportunity, because I love it," he said.

Borsch has more leeway that thousands who've been more directly hit by the recession. His advice to take the bull by the horns, though, is germane to just about anyone.

"Wherever there's great flux, there's great opportunity. It puts everybody on pins and needles, on the edge of their seats, looking for other ways to do whatever it is. Whenever people are like that, they are willing to listen in ways they never had before. I find that to be incredibly empowering and ripe with possibility," he said. "That's what's giving me my optimism."

Next in the series: A young worker caught up in Circuit City's liquidation frenzy