Jun 292004

You Heard it Here First

Today, we are announcing the big news that my company, Return Path, has acquired NetCreations, Inc. Since there ought to be some small perk for subscribing to a CEO’s ramblings on a blog or via RSS, I thought I’d give everyone here the heads up before the news hits the wire tomorrow. (I am fully aware that this is also an excuse for a rare bit of self-promotion, so my apologies in advance.)

We are very excited about this move. It puts, under one roof, a great client base and an unparalleled collection of advanced, ROI-generating email services: customer acquisition, customer retention, delivery assurance, and quick turnaround market research.

Most marketers and publishers we talk to say the two hardest things to execute in email are building their customer database and getting their email into the inbox (not blocked and filtered). Now, we can help them with both, and more. We are very excited to join forces with NetCreations to create an email powerhouse in New York and Colorado…and a big welcome to Mike Mayor and his team to Return Path.

Filed under: Email

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Jun 292004

Starbucks, Starbucks, Everywhere

A while ago, Fred Wilson wrote a posting about the incredible ubiquity Starbucks has achieved in recent years. I wrote a comment at the time, but I never know who actually reads blog comments other than the author.

The comment was:

Talk about ubiquity…my wife and I were just travelling in Asia and saw many Starbucks there, which was not a surprise. The one that WAS a surprise, however, which completely blew me away, was the Starbucks located in the middle of the Forbidden City/Imperial Palace in Beijing, the 600+ year old home of China’s emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. To be fair, it was tastefully done (no big green awning), and if it weren’t in its particular location, some other refreshment stand would be in its place, but still, I couldn’t help but feel like the conspicuous American in the crowd as I walked past it.

Anyway, now that Mariquita and I have finished our vacation web site, here’s the image of the implausible Starbucks Forbidden City location, in all its glory (even without the big green awning).

If you want to be tortured by a full complement of China and Japan pictures and the accompanying travelog, feel free. From the Wall to temples to big Buddhas to a well-chronicled sashimi dinner, it’s all here.

Filed under: Travel

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Jun 232004

It’s Official – There’s a Blog About Everything

Well, not everything yet, but that day is getting closer.

Jack, my VP Finance and an avid blog reader (but not yet publisher) pointed me to Beyond Bullets, a relatively new blog about Powerpoint written by Cliff Atkinson, described in his bio as “a leading authority on Powerpoint and organizational communications.” Who knew such an expert existed?

The blog is pretty good and worth reading for people who regularly design and give stand-up presentations and are tired of the same old, same old Powerpoint templates. I read through most of the postings so far, and while some are a little esoteric, many of the tips are great. Most are either about the actual software and things you can do with it or presentation design and organization. I’ve always thought I was good at Powerpoint, but I don’t hold a candle to Cliff.

After reading Brad’s post this morning on The Torturous World of Powerpoint, I can’t help but wonder if he’d be less tortured if more people knew how to design and give good presentations.

Jun 202004

Doing Well by Doing Good

I went to an amazing event this weekend. One of my close friends, Raj Vinnakota, started an education foundation about 7 years ago in Washington, D.C., called the SEED Foundation. The foundation’s first venture is the nation’s first urban public charter boarding school, located in the Anacostia section of town and dedicated to providing a college prep environment for kids who otherwise might not even finish high school in the inner city of D.C. The school has had a tremendous amount of national recognition, from Oprah, to Time, to Good Morning America, to Newsweek.

The school has now been up and running for six years, starting with a group of seventh graders back in 1998, and this Saturday, that first class graduated. Impressively, all 21 seniors are going to college, including some going to Princeton, Georgetown, and Penn. Alma Powell spoke at commencement. The event was one of the most moving things I’ve ever attended. The kids and their families were all so proud, and justifiably so.

Raj and I have followed fairly similar paths since meeting in college. Almost 100% of the same activities at Princeton, same first job after college at Mercer Management Consulting, lots of friends in common, similar family backgrounds. The only thing we have in common from the last 5 years, though, is that we’ve raised the same amount of money as leaders of our respective organizations — me for the for-profit Return Path, Raj for SEED.

Attending the SEED graduation gave me a twinge of guilt that I’m not doing something quite as overtly good for society, but it has an inspirational effect on me in two ways. First, it gave me hope for mankind’s future that people as talented as Raj are doing overt good for the less fortunate every single day. Second, it gave me lots of encouragement to build a successful company so that both the company, and I personally, can give back to society over time in other ways, both with money and with time.

Raj tells me that, now that he’s proven the model, he’s going to have a second school up and running by 2006, with more to come after that. All I can say is, good luck, and let me know how I can help!

Jun 202004

Good Question – How's the Blog Working Out So Far?

My dad, one of the smartest people I know, asked me a good question last week. “How’s the blog working out so far?”

My answer was generally “I’m not sure,” but as I thought about it more, I saw “good” coming from four different categories, in order of importance to me:

Thinking: One of the best things publishing a blog has done has been to force me to spend a few minutes here and there thinking about issues I encounter in a more structured way and crystallizing my point of view on them. Invaluable, but mostly for me.

Employees: A number of my employees read it, although I’m not exactly sure who since RSS is anonymous. I know this is helpful in that some of the folks in the company who I don’t speak with every day can hear more directly some of the things I’m thinking about instead of getting a filtered view from normal communication channels.

Technology: One of the main reasons I started the blog was to get more experience with blog/alert/publishing/RSS tools as I try to learn more about new technologies related to my company. This has paid off for me well so far (the technology has a long way to go!).

Business development: I have met two or three other companies who may be potential partners for Return Path through this. I also believe that the postings on industry-related topics have been helpful for both business development and PR purposes.

I promised my Dad I’d do a posting on this sometime soon…so happy Father’s Day, Pops! (I also got him a real present, don’t worry.)

Filed under: Email, Weblogs

Jun 162004

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Fred Wilson has a great posting today about how as a VC, it’s important to tell CEOs the truth when you don’t fund them so they can learn from the experience. As someone who’s been dinged by his share of VC’s (although not yet by Fred), I completely agree. He drew a great comparison to a conversation he had with a woman on an airplane about telling someone she didn’t want to go on a second date with him.

I’ve always felt that as a manager, firing someone is a lot like breaking up with a significant other. As the song says, Breaking Up is Hard to Do! This is particularly true when the person is either a long-time employee or is someone you have to lay-off, where the termination is not his or her fault.

When I think back to the first time I ever had to fire a person while I was at MovieFone, I remember it as one of the most horrific experiences of my life. Not to be glib about it, but I think it was harder on me than it was on her (and it was a lay-up – she was being fired for cause!).

Anyway, for an empathetic person, it is hard to look people in the eye and tell them they don’t have a job any more, whatever the reason. And I also think that people are generally well-served, even if they don’t think about it that way at the time, if they can understand why they’re being let go so they can continue to constructively develop their careers going forward and seek out jobs for which they might be a better fit.

Of course, in a non-layoff situation, someone being terminated should know why they’re being fired because a good manager would have coached them and given them appropriate warnings and conversations along the way, but that’s the subject of another posting.

Filed under: Leadership

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Jun 152004

FTC on Email – Missing the Point

Today, the FTC very shrewdly punted on the issue of the proposed “Do Not Email” list implementation, saying that authentication systems need to be put in place before such a list can be considered. This buys the world more time to work on more effective, market-driven solutions to the spam and false positive problems.

I read a few interesting posts on this today, including one from Jeff Nolan which nicely captured Chuck Schumer’s elegant combination of demagoguery and idiocy about this issue; and one from Anne Mitchell pointing out that they’re about six months late with their conclusion. Feels about right for the federal government.

What’s interesting to me is that all of the comments by and about the FTC and the proposed “Do Not Email” list focus on the wrong thing: they say that the problem with the list is that spammers would abuse it by hacking into it and stealing all the email addresses. Ok, I’ll admit, that’s one theoretical problem, but it’s not THE problem.

The structural problem with a national “Do Not Email” list is that responsible emailers, non-spammers, don’t need to use it since they get appropriate permission from their customers before sending them email…and spammers won’t bother using it since they don’t give a hoot anyway and will find a way around the list as they do everything else. In the end, the creation of such a list would do nothing to stop spam, but it would certainly create a lot of confusion for legitimate marketers and their customers around opting in and opting out. It would also, notably unlike the fairly successful national “Do Not Call” list, not do anything to reduce the volume of spam, which will create disappointment and anger among consumers (and hello, Senator Schumer, backfire on its political sponsors).

Those aren’t bigger problems than spam to be sure, but why should we implement a solution to the problem that doesn’t work at all and that causes its own ancillary problems along the way?

Filed under: Email

Jun 132004

CEO, Party of Two

We spent the weekend in Hudson, New York, a charming, urban-renewing town about two hours north of the city. My cousins Michael & Marianne opened a wine store called Hudson Wine Merchants on the main drag in town, Warren Street (343 Warren St. to be exact, you should definitely check it out if you’re ever in Hudson).

The store opened for the first time Friday evening, and we had the first full day on Saturday. Mariquita and I, and some other friends of Michael & Marianne’s, helped do everything from stock the shelves, to clean the windows, to use the price tag gun (fun!), to work the register and the very fickle POS software, to watch my cousin’s daughter as she rode her tricycle through the store. It was fun but exhausting. It inspired a few different postings here, which I’ll work on in the coming days.

The first thought I had is that being CEO of a two-person company has a lot in common with being CEO of a 200-person company, or, I imagine, a 20,000-person company:

- You worry incessantly about keeping your customers happy and providing a great customer experience and the right product

- You have numbers running in the back of your head all the time. How much are you selling? At what margin? Are you making money?

- You work your ass off and frequently put business first in order to see it succeed

- You think about the little things, the big things, everything, 24 hours a day

Obviously, there are many differences between running a two-person company and running a much larger organization as well; of course, the biggest is managing, developing, and worrying about lots of employees’ welfare. But it struck me that there are more similarities than meet the eye.

Filed under: Leadership

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Jun 112004

Gmail – I Don’t Get It

I honestly don’t get all the buzz about Gmail, Google’s new email service. I took a look at it today to see what the the big deal was.

It’s got a few features which are marginally better than other webmail services, but not too many and not massively better. The free storage is not a big issue for most users, although it may cause a few power users to switch over. The most interesting feature in my mind is the ability to use Google Search on your own email file, which is very useful.

All in all, it’s a good product, but all these people talking about how 30mm people are going to switch over to it must be seeing something I don’t. My prediction (and I’ll happily and publicly acknowledge defeat if I am misreading this) is that they will get a few million new users initially, many for a second or third address as opposed to their primary address, and that many of them won’t stick with it to become active users over a longer period of time. After that, they’ll grow at the same rate, with the same type of characteristics, as Yahoo, Hotmail, and other webmail providers.

Email and email addresses, unlike search engines, are pretty sticky things.

Filed under: Email

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Jun 072004

Lessons from the Gipper

There’s been much coverage in the news of Saturday’s passing of President Ronald Reagan, but I will add a new wrinkle by trying to distill down what I know and remember of The Great Communicator’s leadership style into a few simple lessons of note for CEOs.

Lesson 1: Sunny optimism motivates the people you lead, but only when it’s balanced with hard-headed realism. Reagan’s message that tomorrow can be a better day than today was powerful and timely for the American psyche, but he didn’t just assume that because he said it, it would be true. He backed up his message with (a) an understanding that the American economy itself was in the doldrums in the late ’70s, and (b) policies designed to fix the economy. Whether you agree with those policies or not, you have to respect the fact that Reagan as a leader wasn’t just talk — he combined the talk with reality-based action. That’s super important when communicating key messages to a company of any size.

Lesson 2: Simplicity of messaging beats out measured intellectualism in broad-based communications. Reagan’s view of the 40-year-old Cold War when he took office was “we will win, and they will lose.” Much easier to rally around than messages of detente and containment (this quote came from an editorial by former Reagan staffer Peter Robinson in today’s Wall St. Journal). Similarly, the bigger and more diverse the group you’re talking to inside your company or in a speech or in the press, the more important it is to boil your key message down to something people can easily take away with them and repeat at home later to their spouse or friends.

Lesson 3: Nobody’s perfect, and you don’t have to be perfect either. He may have been, electorally, the most popular president of our generation, but Reagan certainly had his many and sometimes glaring faults. History will acknowledge his faults but overall judge him on his performance. It was noted (also in today’s Journal, I think) that Reagan got a lot of little things wrong, but in the end, he will be remembered because he got a few big things very, very right. Perfection is something that most mortals can’t achieve, certainly not in a high profile position like President or CEO of anything, whether a 10-person startup or a nation.

Love him or hate him, the man was one of the most prominent leaders of our time. I’m sure there are more lessons from Reagan’s legacy than these three for CEOs, but this is a start, anyway.

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