As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Arpajian.
Scott rose to prominence as the creator of CNET’s popular Download.com website. He ultimately left the media outlet to co-found Rocket Paper Scissors, which produced Dizzywood — a safe, online children’s virtual world with programs and games promoting education, imagination and community. Today, Scott is CEO of the international software and app discovery portal Softonic, perhaps the largest website you’ve never heard of.
Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Scott Arpajian: My path to where I am now was a bit roundabout and a little random. My entrepreneurial roots were established in my childhood, when I organized neighborhood fairs, puppet shows, and even raffles — all for a profit. However, in college I trained to be an animator and illustrator, graduating with a degree in Communications with a focus on Art Direction. But I graduated in the midst of a recession and quickly realized that I was going to be living at my parents’ house if I wanted to be a Junior Art Director at a Manhattan ad agency.
I stayed in Boston (where I went to college) and kept looking. I found nothing in advertising, but then saw an ad in The Boston Globe looking for an assistant shareware editor. I was a self-taught programmer with a deep passion for technology. I couldn’t believe that I could get paid for doing a job writing about software that you could try for free.
The position was at ZiffNet in 1993, when shareware was new and distributed on floppy disks. ZiffNet was moving its software catalog online, primarily using CompuServe and Bulletin Board Systems. Then, in 1994, I lead the effort to move the catalog onto this new thing called the Web. We started with an FTP archive. Subsequently, we built a dedicated website. We were teaching ourselves how to do it as we went along. The experience led me to write one of the first best-selling beginner books about how to use HTML.
The book caught the attention of a San Francisco startup called CNET. On my second day working for CNET, I learned that they owned the domain Download.com, among several dozen other incredible domain names. After convincing the founders to let me run with it, I built and led the team responsible for creating what quickly became a must-use early resource on the Web.
After 10 years, and many product launches at CNET, I moved on to different things. I did a startup in the online game and virtual worlds space for kids. We had initial success, but ultimately failed to grow large enough to fend off serious competition from established media companies. That experience, however, led me to realize I really enjoyed gaming. So, I took the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em” approach and joined Disney’s social gaming division.
After that role, I took some time off. I was actually sitting on the beach when the phone rang. And, that’s when I first heard about the Softonic opportunity. I was drawn to the job because it would allow me to take all of my experiences to date — in the software download space, mobile space, and more — to face a new challenge. That challenge was multi-layered: in addition to relocating to a country with a completely different culture, the company awaiting me was in desperate need of a complete turnaround. It was a company that really needed some success and that excited me.
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Arpajian: I arrived at Softonic right when things had collapsed. My job was to get the company back on track and profitable again.
To get a sense of how bad it was, let me set the stage. In December 2013, the company was talking about massive growth and an IPO. Whereas Download.com supported North America customers downloading software, Softonic served the globe. Business was good.
In early 2014, however, Softonic’s reputation was in tatters. It was publicly vilified by its users and it was accused of spreading malware. And by the end of 2014, things had taken a terrible downward turn. The company lost some critical contracts and partnerships. Revenue dropped precipitously. Half of the staff was laid off. The business was hemorrhaging cash. Investors were nervous.
I joined in January 2015 after that crisis hit, but before the company had taken any steps to correct course. The darkest time was about four months in when I realized that prior to my arrival the company was almost insolvent. We were close to having the lights shut off permanently. The situation was much worse than I had originally thought. I had to quickly start working with our investors to avoid total collapse.
And, the craziest part? This emergency stabilization effort was happening mid-June. The rest of my family — my wife and two young kids — was due to arrive in Barcelona on July 1st. Everything was coming to a head at the same time, and some small part of me wondered if I should just meet them at the airport and immediately head back.
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Arpajian: It was a really rough time, particularly because there was a lot of frustration and animosity within the employee base. To manage the overwhelming challenge of saving the company under these conditions, I opted to break down the situation into manageable chunks that could be solved methodically issue by issue.
We set about focusing on what we could do to immediately grow revenue, to raise working capital, and to make additional cost-cutting measures. We succeeded. And, by doing so, not only did the company avoid bankruptcy, we started to return to normalcy.
Looking back, I think a major helpful factor was that I didn’t have a sense of personal failure with this project. I was new to it, so I was able to take bolder steps. Another factor that I drew on during the recovery was the failure of my own startup. I had previously lost a lot of my own money along with that of investors who had trusted me. I found tremendous learning from failure and, by the time I reached Softonic, I had become unafraid of it. Instead, I embraced one of the most important takeaways from that experience: when navigating through a turnaround, know that you don’t have all the answers and shouldn’t, since what you don’t have is time. You have to be bold, take risks, and most of all, make and execute decisions.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Arpajian: Softonic’s story is one that you see so often in business. The company was essentially paying the price on a number of missteps. It had lost the trust of its users, its partners, even its employees.
When I joined, I set about to re-establish that vital trust, knowing that it was going to take time and it would have to be re-built based on actions, not words. I took immediate steps to clearly signal that Softonic would be a very different company moving forward. We focused on transparency; clear decisions on how we conduct business; well-thought-out ethical and moral decisions based on principles. We focused on returning control over personal data to users, a seemingly counter strategy to the current norm from tech companies. We communicated that transparency and commitment to operate responsibly to the public and instilled that mentality into our employee base.
The most immediate benefits were twofold. First, employee morale began to rise. Second, the clear and strong commitment from a CEO to end negative business practices and to operate above board enabled Softonic to regain some important customer contracts — positively impacting revenue.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Arpajian: I have four.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Arpajian: I reached out to former colleagues, mentors, bosses. I gave my LinkedIn network a healthy workout — connecting with people who could reach out to others on my behalf. At that point, I found myself thinking about people who had been through similar situations and how they had handled them. One such individual (a mentor I admire) is Shelby Bonnie, the founder of CNET. I remembered how he had reacted when the company went through a downturn in the dot-com bust. I drew on learnings and advice from Shelby to guide me through.
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Arpajian: To be honest, I see my job here as being only half done. Softonic has weathered the storm and has emerged stronger. We have so much opportunity to grow.
Now the challenge is how to take what we’ve learned and turn that into strong momentum for growth that we hope will help people. We have a new product right now called Solutions by Softonic, which actually aims to do just that. Help users worldwide by connecting them with a community of people providing answers and recommendations for any challenge they may face, from tech problems to basically anything under the sun.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Arpajian: The two biggest things that occupy me in my spare time are the health of our planet and the increasing challenges of having a clean and sustainable supply of drinking water for everyone. I think these are the defining issues of the next 20 years. There is a population explosion in areas like Southeast Asia and Africa, serious drought and famine and not enough water for crops. The cost of water will grow, and geopolitical issues lead to holding water as a precious commodity. There are places on the planet where you can’t take water for granted. And this even has an economic impact on advanced societies, look at the western U.S. — we’ve experienced consistent droughts year over year.
Softonic has the incredible resource of 120 million monthly users seeking answers to their tech problems. I am always thinking of ways that we can excite and encourage that audience to solve some of our planet’s larger issues. Finding a way to leverage our audience to solve human problems is something I would love to be able to do.
Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Crowley: Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.