Yesterday’s announcement that Microsoft is going to merge its nascent Caller ID for Email authentication standard with the more populist Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is an interesting development in the war on spam.
But what does it really mean?
It means that sender authentication is headed towards a standard. Where once there were three, now there are two (Yahoo Domain Keys is another standard, although it’s still a little unclear whether it’s competitive or complementary).
Authentication is an important component of the war on spam because it allows ISPs and other email receiveing servers to verify that the sender of the email is who he says he is. Spammers don’t do that.
But authentication is only one facet to the war on spam. The others, at least the way we see them at Return Path, are (in no particular order):
Reputation: Proving you, as a mailer, are a good guy. Low complaints, good email capture policies, working unsubscribe, proper server configuration, and a host of other components.
Monitoring: Understanding how your mailings fare in the real world. Are you being blocked? Filtered? Blacklisted? Greylisted? When? Where? By whom? And most important, why?
Best Practices: Making sure you’re doing things the right way as an emailer, attacking the root causes of complaints and blocking, creating email programs that not only work economically, but work socially as well.
Payment: Ultimately, although I’m not sure what form it will take, someone will have to eliminate the economic free ride problem that created spam in the first place. Translation: mailers will probably have to pay something, to someone, to guarantee delivery.
There have been many postings about Microsoft’s recent announcement to use Ironport’s Bonded Sender Program as one of its many tools to fight spam and reduce false positives. I won’t belabor them here, but there are three common misconceptions I’m reading on the web and in blogs that I thought I’d point out and try to clarify.
Misconception #1: Bonded Sender is a Microsoft product, and Microsoft will profit from it. Why it’s not true: Bonded Sender is operated by Ironport, Inc., a completely separate company from Microsoft. Bonded Sender and its cousin, Sender Base, are used by over 20,000 domains. Microsoft is just the latest, and highest profile, user. I don’t believe that Microsoft is making any money from their use of Bonded Sender, but at a minimum, it’s not their product.
Misconception #2: With Bonded Sender, spammers can now buy their way into your inbox. Why it’s not true: While the premise behind Bonded Sender is that commercial emailers should put their money where their mouth is and have a financial penalty associated with spam complaints, that doesn’t mean any old mailer can join the program and pay to play. In fact, senders have to quality for the program by undergoing a fairly rigorous application process that is overseen by TrustE. If anyone doubts this, have a look at the application’s “email standards” section. I know a bunch of legitimate mailers who wouldn’t pass this — let alone spammers.
Misconception #3: Bonded Sender won’t do anything to stop the spam problem. Why it’s not true: Sure, it won’t stop it tomorrow. Nothing will. And it may not be the exact right approach to solving the problem, either. But starting to quantify and publicize mailers’ reputations, and starting to remove the economic free ride associated with spam, are important steps in the war on spam. Bonded Sender will inevitably change over time as the program gets market tested, but let’s give credit where credit is due for a good start.
Business Week just ran an interesting article entitled “I’m a Bad Boss? Blame My Dad,” which unfortunately I can’t link to because Business Week online is for subscribers only. The premise of the article is that our past is always with us…that the patterns of behavior established in our home environments as children inexorably follow us to the workplace.
You may or may not agree with the premise — certainly, there is at least a little truth in it — but the article had another interesting statement:
CEOs often get hired for their skills, and fired for their personalities.
I’ve always felt that Boards and CEOs need to view “personality,” that is to say, the softer skills, as equally important to the classic skills: strategy, analytics, finance, sales, and hard-nosed execution. People who can do all of those things well but who can’t inspire others, show empathy, balance self-confidence with humility, communicate properly and clearly, and operate with a high degree of integrity, will fail as a CEO in the long term. I’m not sure how Boards and hiring committees can adequately screen for those characteristics in advance, but they certainly should!
And for the record, if I’m a bad boss, I blame myself. If I’m a good boss, I am happy to give my parents credit.
Jerry Colonna, a well-respected venture capitalist in New York and friend of a friend, had an interesting post in his blog about Being a CEO. Any writing that quotes both Shakespeare and Nixon in the same piece should get a reference just for that, if for nothing else.
Anyway, he’s right about three things: (1) delivering the good news as well as the bad is an important part of managing a board; (2) having one or more consiglieris is important (although spouses CAN work); and (3) San Diego is one of the greatest places in the world.
I always thought that spam blacklists were well intentioned but problematic for the email ecosystem, since they are vigilantes in action and have no accountability and trackability. Periodically, I’ve even pondered whether or not they violate someone’s first amendment rights. It’s maddening to know you’re a good guy in the email world, you can get put on a blacklist because some anti-spam zealot decides he or she doesn’t like you on a whim, you can’t complain or get off of the list, you may not even know you’re on the list, then you’re downloaded thousands of times by naively trusting or equally zealous sysadmins, and boom — your emails aren’t getting through any more.
Then yesterday, I was looking at what’s probably the first blacklist for blog comment spam, dubbed by Brad Feld as BLAM. I immediately found myself using it myself to prevent my blog from getting overrun by the newest Internet evil. (Of course, I should be so lucky…my fledgling blog has all of one comment on it, but I’m sure there are scores of people ready to comment at a moment’s notice.)
So here we are at the dawn of a new era: the beginning of the blacklist for blam. I’m an early adopter of Jeff Nolan’s pioneering list and proud of it, which made me rethink my view of email blacklists for about five minutes. It didn’t ultimately change that view — email blacklists still have all the problems I mentioned above and have run amok — but it does make me hope that there’s a better long-term solution for stopping blam than the one the world of email has ended up with. Fred Wilson has some good thoughts on better tools for this as well.
Necessity, as always, is the mother of invention, but hopefully the blam blacklist situation won’t get out of control before someone tries to fix it, which may be too late. What I think we need now to solve the blacklist problem is a blacklist of blacklists, but that’s another story for another posting.
That’s not just the title of a mediocre 1980’s sitcom starring Tony Danza, it’s a question I get periodically, including last week in an interview. A writer I know is working on an article on entrepreneurship and asked me, “Before you started your own business, how did you like working for other people?”
The question made me think a little bit. I know what she was asking — how I liked being the boss instead of working for one — but the way she phrased it is interesting and revealing about what it’s like to be a CEO. One of the biggest differences between being in a company and starting or running one is that you’re not working for a person, you’re working for many people.
As CEO of the company, I work for a Board and shareholders, I work for our customers, and I work for our employees. That’s how I approach the job, anyway.
Return Path’s Board of Directors is my boss, even though I’m one of the people on it. I report to the Board, and the Board is responsible for hiring and (hopefully not) firing the CEO, so technically, that’s my boss. The Board is also made up (for small private companies, anyway) of representatives of our biggest shareholders. As the main owners of the business, they are concerned with the growth, profitability, and overall health of the company, and they want to make sure we are building shareholder value day in, day out. That’s one very important perspective for me to have every day.
But I also work for our customers. I have to see myself as serving them — and more important, I have to steer the organization to believe that our customers are at the top of our food chain. If I do, then things will go well in the business. We will have the right products in the market at the right time to bring in new accounts. We will have a tremendous service delivery organization that wows customers and keeps them coming back for more. We will beat out our competition any day of the week. We will keep people paying our bills!
Most important, though, I work for our employees. This is very simple. An organization thrives because the people who make it up come to work inspired, focused, and productive. When they don’t, it doesn’t. I can’t wave a wand and make everyone happy all the time, but I try to focus a significant part of my time on making sure this is a great work environment; that the managers and executives are religiously focused on developing, managing, and motivating their teams; and that we’re doing a good job of communicating our mission, our values, and why each person’s job is important to the cause. This one’s the hardest of the three to get right, but it’s worth the effort.
Certainly, I don’t respond to each of my “bosses” every day as I would a direct supervisor, but in the long haul, I have to balance out the needs and interests of all three constituencies in order to have the organization be successful.
And here I am. In the middle of that “once.” Fred Wilson wrote a great posting by that title on his blog, and it has stuck with me. When I decided to start a blog, it was the first thing that came to mind as a main theme for the blog, so there you go. Only Once it is.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing a blog. Part of it is fascination with the newest corner of the Internet and its related areas like RSS (clicking on that link will get you the RSS feed of this blog). Part of it is to try out the medium and see how it might work for the hundreds of marketers and publishers who are my company’s clients. I suppose part of it is to generate some interest in my company, Return Path, which in my extremely biased opinion is one of the most interesting companies in the email services business.
My one hesitation about starting a blog is that the other part of me feels like blogs are a bit narcissistic, and I can’t imagine who on earth would want to read whatever it is that pops into my head. But I’ll give it a try and promise not to go overboard on the extraneous postings.
So, I will probably post periodically about experiences of an entrepreneur, of the one time I’ll ever be a first-time CEO. But I may also post on other things periodically that match my interests: book reviews, travelogs, Princeton, great wines, maybe even the occasional political commentary to prove to my predominantly New York friends that (a) not all Republicans are bad, and (b) not all Jewish New Yorkers are Democrats.
So, here we go…enjoy!
Yes, that’s me. I’m in an ice pocket inside a glacier on Antarctica, the most interesting place Mariquita and I have ever been, and I think the most interesting place on earth. We were there last winter with a great tour company called Adventure Network and had the trip of a lifetime.
And yes, the picture does have something to do with the theme of the blog, You’re Only a First Time CEO Once.