The New Savvy celebrated our 2nd anniversary in July 2017, but we couldn’t celebrate. We were in mourning; I was mourning.
What a difference a few weeks made! In May, I was brainstorming on how we should celebrate. The team had worked hard and we had record traffic, revenue and concluded a successful first-of-its-kind, women-only personal finance conference. What we have achieved is far from where we need to be, but surely these milestones are worth celebrating.
Or so I thought. Till we got hacked.
REALISING YOU’RE VULNERABLE & A HACK VICTIM
It started with little issues that seemed a bit out of the ordinary, but also common things that appear on other sites that might be a false alarm. A user sent me a message that said I had some broken links to a page they loved to visit. My team received reports of bugs on the site, or a piece of content triggering a browser error, this happened for a few days.
The console I used to manage my site’s content started acting up, I’d get logged out and I was advised that I’d logged in somewhere else recently. This raised alarm bells so we engaged our web server manager to investigate and I was told we had plugins that may have malware – something common with my website platform that we could clean up.
The little clues of something gone wrong continued to happen, but I couldn’t figure out what was causing it. It was like someone was controlling my site but who?! It became clear what had happened when on a Friday afternoon, we got locked out. I couldn’t publish content, and within minutes the whole site was down. Unreachable. I’d been hacked and lost full control of my business.
At this point, I was panicking and was inconsolable. I asked everyone I know for help. 6 brilliant developers/techies were assembled to brainstorm for ideas. No one had a clear idea of what to do. There were no best solutions, everyone was, at best, hazarding a guess.
The worst thing? I was completely clueless.
“Have you received the ransom demand?”
No, I haven’t. And with each passing day, my heart sank. Every day, I tell myself to be strong, to (wo)man the f*** up. To not worry and focus on finding a solution.
Then the ransom email came. I was excited because people told me that it’d be a low 5 figure. And if that can help to save the company, I was willing to do it.
But boy, I was SO wrong. The hackers demanded…..
50 BITCOINS?! That’s S$150,000.
Are they insane?
So we employed a strategy of good-cop-bad-cop. A friend sent an angry, outraged email scolding the hackers. The emails were full of expletives and insult not suitable for print. I, on the other hand, pleaded with them with all my might, begging them to return my work of 2 years.
They didn’t budge.
The following week was harrowing for me. I couldn’t stop crying. And no matter how much I told myself to stop being silly, I just couldn’t stop.I was drinking myself silly at night. So that I could remain numb and not be destroyed. I had to put on a strong front in public because as the leader of the company, I’m supposed to be the fixer. Not be emotional or break down.
I had to find a solution fast. It was tough handling the developers who were kind enough to help me and my team who stepped up to crisis management.
Thanks to the brilliant engineers helping me, we were able to restore 60% of the site, and we didn’t pay their $150,000 ransom. No friggin’ way I will ever do that.
The developers that helped me were insightful and relentless working around the clock ticked, counting down each of the 72 hours we had available before the files being permanently destroyed. Before Ii was robbed of everything I’d worked for over the last 2 years.
3 SOLUTIONS TO HACKING
We had 3 strategies:
1. Wayback machine + scraping of Google cache
A lot of the content was indexed on Google and a website that keeps permanent archives of previous versions of a website. However with over 700 pages, putting it together from this was like trying to repair a broken glass, and many of the templates, images and content would not be recoverable. This was a worst-case scenario, it would take months to get it to half of what it was.
2. Website Backups
For sure we could have just rebuilt the site quickly from a backup we did the previous week right? Our site runs on WordPress, and while we do backups, they are saved on the same server, and the hacker had taken care of these, tracing each backup folder and destroying them too, leaving me with a hard copy backup that i had done 7 months earlier of the content.
3. Finding the hackers that didn’t want to be found
If we could find the server the hackers were storing my stolen website we may have a chance to recover it ourselves. One of the developers was from Thailand. He had some contacts that understood the dark web and tor network and we had figured out the hackers were using a file server here to host the file while they waited for the ransom.
Whenever files are transferred between computers they leave logs and the hack was no different. It wasn’t easy as the hackers also took control of my server, installing software that would kick us off the network after very short time periods, sifting through thousands of log files. Then like what felt like finding a needle in a digital haystack, we managed to trace the IP addresses of transfers during the period and found one on the dark web that looked suspicious.
We found the database!
And we needed to transfer it quickly, there must have been less than a few hours left in the 72 hours. But the hackers had encrypted the files, and we needed to find a specific key that could decrypt it, otherwise, it was 5GB of useless. The next steps read like some Hollywood movie script but we managed to locate the private key, and we got the files back.
LIFE AFTER HACKING
7 days later, The New Savvy was back live. We – the developers and my team- spent the next 2 months reconstructing the site and articles. It was a huge effin’ mess. Links were broken, images were all missing, tags were gone, calculators destroyed. Many features were not working, and there were bugs.
When you are in the situation of being robbed of 2 years of your work being reduced to nothing, you learn a lot about yourself. I am hardly an emotional person. Most of the people who know me well will describe me as strong, tough and resilient.
While the hacking didn’t break me when it happened, the following months were painful.
First, the worries about image and perception.
What will people think of me? Do people think I’m incompetent? What if our readers don’t trust us anymore? What if my investors lose faith in us?
Then, the self-doubts crept in slowly but surely. In waves, growing and gnarling snarkily at you. Subsequently, in a sandstorm that sweeps and engulfs you. Till it gnaws you up alive.
Why was I so stupid?
I asked myself that question repeatedly.
It was all MY fault.
The doubts turned into self-blame. It was painful and insulting.
The irony was that,… Despite me crumbling inside, I was perfectly fine on the outside. I was working hard, giving talks, doing media interviews and socialising. It made me sick. I felt like a fraud.
Whenever anyone asked me if I was okay, I always reply (albeit too) cheerfully that I was doing fine. If anything, it was an experience that toughened me up. If this doesn’t kill me, what else can stop me? Right? Wrong.
IS WALKING AWAY WEAK?
Truth is I wanted to walk away from all of it – the company, the team, the investor, the work and the community we have built. I didn’t walk away because:
a) I was passionate about my work/ job/ company
b) the amazing community
c) I didn’t want to disappoint the people who trusted and loved me
But it wasn’t just any of those reasons. I am sure these 3 were strong reasons that kept me going. But they were NOT the reason I trudged along.
The reason was that I am selfish and afraid. I didn’t want to seem weak. I didn’t want to be perceived as a failure. And on a more rebellious manner, I didn’t want to be defeated. I wanted to win the hackers and show them they didn’t break me.
I should have sought help emotionally, but I didn’t. I considered going for professional help but couldn’t get past the mental barrier.
I was wallowing in a vicious cycle of feeling lost, anxious, depressive, self-pity and anger. I was an emotional wreck, and it started to manifest socially. I became withdrawn and resentful. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and avoid eye contact as best. I felt like no one understood the ordeal I went through. Even if they empathised/sympathised with me, they were just polite. So what’s the point of rehashing the story?
I went into hiding, hibernation thinly veiled as…”rest time”. I needed time to recuperate from the trauma. I ignored messages and just tried to escape from the world and my friends.
I solder every working hour. Then, I will come home at night, completely unhinged. I sought comfort in alcohol and depended on mindless activities to numb myself. But pleasure fades, and gloom will invade your core unless you are truly happy.
I couldn’t find the solace or strength I was desperately looking for.
I had an existential career crisis; asking myself repeatedly:
Do I really want to do this?
What’s in it for me?
Why do I do this?
Is this worth it?
The past few weeks, I have asked myself those questions more than I should.
THE HIGHS ARE HIGH BUT THE LOWS ARE LOW
Why be a startup founder?
For a girl who has seen her family struggled in business, the last thing I wanted was to have my own business. I wanted to be in Finance. Where I can get a stable income and generous compensation. I didn’t want to struggle financially. Or worry about the emotional swings.
Yes, this is exactly where I am.
And slowly, I found the answer. The answer that brought me back to my feet.
THE CHOICES WE MAKE
I found the answer while being on a 1-month medical leave. I had surgery. When you are physically unwell, you become emotionally vulnerable too. And you start asking yourself. Or the choices you make.
The answer is PURPOSE.
If you ask any other startup founders, successful or not, will they do it all over again? Their answers are usually both yes and no.
NO – Because we have no idea of how painful it is or imagine how tough it was. And if we knew, we won’t have done it.
YES– because no matter how treacherous the journey is, it was all worth it. The tears, the sleepless nights, the worries about Every. Damn. Thing. – money, hires, rent, sales, growth, investors, …. The list goes on.
It’s all worth it because we believe in a mission bigger than ourselves. Bigger than the desire for stability, richness, or fame. We believe in achieving something we had set our hearts and soul in.
For me, it was the purpose. The New Savvy …. had given me meaning to life. It is a platform I use to effect positive change. And make an impact, in whatever small way I can.
WHAT IF I FAIL?
So, come hell or high water, I am going to give it my all. My best shot. And if I fail, I fail. But in the process, my team and I have empowered thousands of women to be more financially savvy. We have helped them to think more about their finances. We helped them make smarter financial decisions.
And if that isn’t worth pursuing, then I am not sure what is.
I am not writing this for pity or sympathy or attention. I hardly share emotional or personal stuff. It’s also scary to put yourself out there because no matter how well-intentioned this is, there’ll always be naysayers. Or people who question my intentions. But I am taking a leap of faith to share this publicly so that you can learn from my mistakes. And my pain.
BUT DARLING, WHAT IF YOU FLY?
If you are suffering emotionally, or having doubts, or in pain… If you are a fellow founder, who is worried sick about your business or whose mind has been completely consumed by work… If you are stuck in situations that are making you unhappy.. or you are in a vicious emotional cycle, know that… Not matter how bad it gets,… There’s always hope.
Believe that you have the strength to come out alive. Trust in the process.
The thing about falling into a dark abyss is, … you hit rock bottom and… you realise, there is nowhere else to fall. No deeper hole. No more painful bumps. Just hard concrete ground.
And when the shit hits the fan, you learn how resilient and strong you are as a person. Humans always underestimate their capacity for pain. Or their will to survive.
To be faster, better, harder and stronger.
You learn to fight back. You learn to crawl. You live with the wounds that slowly close themselves up. And then they turn into scars, reminding you of the battles that you fought. Always reminding you not to make the same mistakes. Or to be paranoid.
ONLY THE PARANOID SURVIVES
After this whole hospitalisation scare, I realised how little time we have. Live life fully. Do everything with love. Be thankful for everything you’ve been given. Don’t compare. Fight the good fight.. ‘Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime.‘
Life takes you to strange places. Sometimes, maybe you don’t know where you are heading. But keep going, keep believing. And maybe, if you are lucky, you will reach your destination. Or maybe you won’t, but the scars, wounds and bruises you have accumulated will teach you the wisdom you will never otherwise acquire.
As for The New Savvy, we might have missed our 2nd birthday but here’s to hoping that we have the opportunity to celebrate our 3rd, 4th, 5th year…
And me? I took up full-time coding boot camp and managed to learn Ruby on Rails! 🙂
THINGS I LEARNT
- Our readers really love our emailers. Many wrote in to complain about not getting them. Concerned readers were worried and emailed us
- Focus on cybersecurity. It’s a damn chore but a chore you invest time in. Just like insurance. You never think you need it but trust me, you do.
- There are many kind people in the world. They helped me till the wee hours of the night, asking no compensation.Why? And how can I ever repay them? I felt undeserving, and I am forever grateful to them.So here’s to all you amazing souls – Laurence Putra , Jeff Lim, Keith, Uncle Raj, Dave Sanderson and Varun Ganesh.
- Conversely, in times of trouble, you see who your true friends are.Many people claim to be your friends and ply you with platitudes, but when you need them, they don’t lift a finger to help.
- Special thanks to the Instarem team who helped me to transfer money cheap AND fast. They went above and beyond to help us. They expedited the account set up and approval and was tremendously efficient.
- Praj leads a stellar team… Have recommended them to a few people!
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