Jul 252004

The Good, The Board, and The Ugly

Fred, Brad, and Jerry have done a bunch of postings recently, and threaten to do more, sharing the VC perspective on many aspects of startups and entrepreneurship. I thought it might be interesting to share the entrepreneur’s perspective on the same subjects. I’ll try to cross-post and keep pace, but I’m already a couple behind, and I can’t crank out postings as fast as these guys can! (For reference, Fred and Brad are on my board, and Jerry as Fred’s partner is an advisor to my company, Return Path.)

Topic 1: Boards of Directors. All three have many good points. Brad says that boards come in three flavors (working, reporting, and lame duck), and that small companies need working boards which include other entrepreneurs in the industry as well as management and investors. He also advises to take good care of directors and not let them get bored. Fred calls the good ones engaged boards (interactive, candid, engaged, passionate, and involved) and says that while you can have a good company without an engaged board and even with a bored bored on occasion, to have a great business you need an engaged board. Finally, Jerry says that you should pick your board carefully and build it with some diversity like you would a management team and to avoid people who will yes you.

I basically agree with all of these points, and would add the following four thoughts for entrepreneurs:

1. Building a board can be one of a CEO’s greatest trump cards. Without being even a little bit disingenuous, you can use the “I’m the CEO and would like to talk to you about a potential board seat with my company” as an entree to meet face to face with some of the most interesting, senior, brand-name people in your industry (turns out, flattery will occasionally get you somewhere). Use this card wisely and sparingly, and always be prepared to follow up on your meetings, but take full advantage of it as a way to network. You never know what opportunities you’ll uncover along the way.

2. Don’t think of managing your Board as a burden. Communicate early and often to your Board members and make sure all big conversations and debates are pre-wired in one-to-one conversations before Board meetings, and that debates are framed and researched properly in advance of meetings. Nail the basics (reporting, financial reviews, well-crafted and easy-to-read materials sent out several days before the meeting), so you can focus the valuable meeting time on strategy, not on the minutiae.

3. Figure out how to work differently with investor directors and outside directors. VCs who sit on your board have very different interests, time availability, and things to contribute than outside directors, especially non-retired industry executives. Not all directors are created equally, and you don’t have to behave as if they are.

4. Sit on a board yourself. There’s nothing like a real-live counterpoint to make you take a step back and think about how to build and run an effective board. Find something — another startup, a nonprofit, your high school or college alumni association — to join as a board member. Watch and learn.

All that said, the most important thing I’ve found in running a board is following Brad, Jerry, and Fred’s collective wisdom about fostering an engaged/working board. Definitely don’t let them get bored on you!

Jul 222004

The Rumors of Email’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I’d like to think that Mark Twain would wholeheartedly approve of me paraphrasing his famous quote for this purpose, but I’m getting a little tired of all these reports about how email is dead. The latest one comes in the form of an op-ed in Computerworld this week. This will be a longer post than usual — my apologies in advance.

The writer talks about how email will die soon because there are too many issues with viruses, spam, IT management costs, and employment practices. The writer says email is close to having a bigger downside than upside, and that email will go the way of the typewriter or the floppy disk drive.

I say that this is a writer who has a bad IT department or a bad email service, a stunning lack of faith in technology’s ability to overcome adversity, and perhaps a misunderstanding of basic economic productivity.

Email is alive and well, as far as I can tell:

- Consumer email adoption is huge and rising. Every time I see one of those market research surveys from Pew or NFO, email activity and adoption is on the rise. It’s the number one Internet-based activity, with nearly 100% of people using it and a huge percentage of those people addicted to it.

- Email business usage is now mission critical for most employees. Enough said, for this audience, anyway. Economic productivity gains from email usage are outpacing the costs of having email system administrators and spam filters by orders of magnitude. For a quick flashback, compare the time spent firing off an email to 5 members of your staff, cc’ing your boss, and bcc’ing two of your other colleagues to the analog analog of making phone calls, holding meetings, or dictating/longhanding a memo, typing it with carbon paper or even using a photocopier, then physically distributing it.

- Spam filters are getting better by the day. While there is still a cat-and-mouse game going on between spammers and spam filters that will always result in a certain amount of false positives (good email that gets filtered) or false negatives (spam that sneaks into your inbox anyway), how many heavy email users can honestly say that their actual inbox spam problem is worse now than it was a year ago? The false positive and false negative problems will be largely solved in one way or another within 24 months. They won’t be completely solved despite Bill Gates’ optimistic prognostications, but they’ll be well under control to the point of being inconsequential.

- People are signing up for email newsletters and marketing at astonishing rates. If email was on the way out, this is the single metric you’d expect to be falling as a precursor to the crash. Well, guess what? This metric is on the rise! My company alone is getting almost 80,000 people each day to sign up for our various email-related services. Many companies who sell direct to consumers online are generating upwards of 25% of their revenue via email. Those are not exactly the signs of a sick medium.

- The email industry will not allow itself go the way of the typewriter (by the way, you will note, there was never really a “typewriter industry” the way that email has turned into its own sector). There are simply too many companies, with too much at stake, with too much capital to invest and too much reward to be gained, to permit obsolesence.

For those of you who know that my company Return Path is in the email business, you may say that my comments are self-serving, and I suppose that’s true. I’m always open to a disruptive technology, but changing human behavior is much more difficult than replacing floppy disks with DVDs or hard drives, and at this point, email as a viable communication medium is much less about the technology than about human behavior. It takes a “super disruptive” technology to make that fundamental a change.

Perhaps the writer of that op-ed should think about another technology with much grizzlier characteristics that would be sure to put it on the verge of extinction. The technology is dirty. It’s smelly. It’s terrible for the environment. Some say it’s imperling the future of the planet. All it tries to do is a simple thing, but it can cost people who live at the U.S. median income level as much as 15% of their net income every year (all headier issues than those created by email). We all generally refer to that technology as the automobile. Does anyone think that the cars is going away soon?

As for the comparison of the typewriter to email, I’ll quote Twain again: “History doesn’t repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes.”

Filed under: Email

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Jul 212004

A New Blog About Wine

When a group of us had dinner back in May, Brad posted that it was remarkable that 4 of the 6 people had blogs. Then Amy started a blog, making it 5 of 6. Today, Mariquita and her friend Sharon launched their blog about wine, making it a clean sweep.

There is almost a complete dearth of blog information and commentary about wine. You can tell — the URL she was able to get on Typepad was wine.blogs.com! When Mariquita and I went looking into other wine blogs a couple months ago, all we found were one or two somewhat lame ones, one not updated since February, one not updated since April, none with interesting information that helps average people learn more about how to buy, pair, and enjoy wine.

I think this will be a fun single-topic blog. Enjoy the first posting, and welcome to the blog world, Mariquita and Sharon!

Filed under: Weblogs

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Jul 202004

Grandma Goes Broadband

I’ve always thought my grandmother was a remarkable person. At age 92 (sorry to publish it, Gma), she is pretty hip — drives a Lexus, plays a mean game of bridge, carries a cell phone, and until recently, used WebTV.

She was getting tired of the slow connection via dial-up, so Mariquita and I gave her an old laptop we had and installed a cable modem (I have to commend Cablevision of Westchester/Optimum Online on a very smooth and easy installation process), so now she’s the world’s newest computer user. Those of us who work with computers every day take some of the basics for granted, but if you’ve never used Windows or a mouse before, this stuff is not easy to learn.

But I’m proud to say that Grandma Hazel, after three short days, is using Outlook, used Return Path to announce her change of email address to her address book, set up 1-click on Amazon and bought a couple books, read my blog, and even subscribed to receive email alerts when I post.

After 5 years of WebTV, I think she’s in for a real treat with how fast the web can be and how much there is to explore out there. And if anyone can figure out how to use this stuff, it’s her. Welcome to the web and to blogs, Gma!

Jul 142004

Present AND Accounted For

There was a great essay in the New York Times yesterday about multitasking. The gist of the article is that multitasking, when taken to an extreme, is unproductive at best and in the case of driving, quite dangerous.

I’ve long believed that in business, as in any activity relying in part on interpersonal relationships, it’s important to be fully present when talking to other people. This is especially true in one-on-one conversations, but true even in larger meetings. The article talks about the clicking you hear when you’re talking to someone on the phone and he or she is typing in the background. And we’ve all been in meetings where someone picks up a Blackberry to reply to a presumably non-urgent email. How annoying! Better to step out of the meeting if the email is that important…or tell the person who called you that you don’t have time to talk now.

Even forgetting the annoying part, how can you possibly connect with another person when you’re reading or writing at the same time? How can you make a point or read their body language? How can you convey to the rest of the room that you’re taking the subject seriously?

Like most of us these days, I too am addicted to multitasking, repsonding to emails, answering cell phones, and the like. The only way I’ve been able to make sure I focus on the meeting at hand is to turn off the phone, leave the Blackberry or laptop in another room, bring nothing other than a piece of paper and pen to the meeting. Sure, I have to go back and enter a couple things on my computer in my to-do list afterwards instead of in real time, but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. If I’m on the phone, I turn away from my desk or put my headset on and walk around the office to remove other temptations.

I don’t think all multitasking is bad…in fact there are lots of times where it makes great sense and is productive. But the principle of Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well applies here in spades — having a conversation with another person, or being fully present and accounted for in a meeting, are usually worth doing well!

Filed under: Leadership

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Jul 112004

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

I’ve always thought that the ability to stare down adversity in business — or turning lemons into lemonade, as a former boss of mine used to say — is a critical part of being a mature professional. We had a prime example of this a couple weeks ago at Return Path.

We had scheduled a webinar on email deliverability, a critical topic for our market, and the moment of the webinar had come, with over 100 clients and prospects on the line for the audio and web conference. There was a major technical glitch with our provider, Webex (no link for you, Webex), and after 5 or 10 minutes, we had to cancel the webinar — telling all 100 members of our target audience that we were sorry, we’d have to reschedule. What a nightmare! Even worse, Webex displayed atrocious customer service to us, not apologizing for the problem, blaming it on us (as if somehow it was our fault that half the people on the line couldn’t hear anything), and not offering us any compensation for the situation.

As you can imagine, our marketing guru Jennifer Wilson was devastated. But instead of sulking, she turned the situation on its head. She rescheduled the event for three weeks out with a different provider who was technically competent and a pleasure to work with, Raindance, and sent every person who’d been on our aborted webinar a gift certificate to Starbucks so they could enjoy a snack on our dime during the rescheduled event. Not only did we have full attendance at the rescheduled event, but Jennifer received dozens of emails from clients sympathizing with her, commending her on her attitude, and of course thanking her for the free latte.

It’s hard to do, and you hate to have to do it, but successfully turning lemons into lemonade is one of the most satisfying feelings in business!

People rarely comment on this blog (or most non-political blogs, I’ve noticed), so feel free to share your best lemons-to-lemonade story with me in a comment, and I promise I’ll post the best couple of them pronto!

Filed under: Leadership

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Jul 072004

Taylor Made for this Blog

I haven’t done a book review yet on this blog because I haven’t found a very relevant one. I will do more as I go here — I’ve actually read a few pretty useful business books lately — but there’s no better book to kick off a new category of postings here than the one I just finished: The MouseDriver Chronicles: The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs.

The book details how two freshly-minted Wharton MBAs skipped the dot com and investment banking job offers to start a two-person company that produced the MouseDriver (a computer mouse shaped like a the head of a golf club) back in 1999-2000. It’s a great, quick read and really captures the spirit of much of what I’m trying to do with this blog, which is talk about first-time CEO issues, or company leadership/management issues in general.

Although it’s not about an internet business, the book also has an interesting side story, which is the powerful impact that email had on the MouseDriver business, with an email newsletter the entrepreneurs started that developed great readership and ultimately some viral marketing. Sort of like a blog, circa 1999.

Thanks to Stephanie Miller at Return Path for giving me the book!

Jul 062004

Negative Role Models

Old news by now, but John Kerry has selected John Edwards as his running mate for this fall’s presidential election. What I found particularly interesting was a line buried in one of the various news reports I read on the web this morning, which said that Kerry, still stinging from the fact that he heard the bad news that he was not to be Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 from the media and not from Gore himself, had kept this decision-making process deliberately private up until the very last moment to avoid making that same mistake and to spare the feelings of those he passed over for the job.

How many of us in business have learned things over the years from negative role models, as much as from positive role models? I actually wrote a comment in an upward review several years back that I learned a ton from observing my boss, but that much of what I was learning was what not to do!

I think negative role models can be an even more powerful influence on leaders than positive role models over time, although both are clearly important. My experience with this tracks this decision of Kerry’s pretty closely — in a particular instance where I apply something learned from a negative role model, I tend to overcompensate for what is usually, in hindsight, a smallish detail. At the end of the day, I feel much better about it myself, and although I generally think it makes a difference, sometimes that difference is lost on others in my organization who don’t have that same benchmark.

Anyway, I hope Gephardt, Vilsack, Richardson, and the other Democrats who were not selected by Kerry today feel good about the way the decision and communication went down — because I know how hard Kerry worked to make them feel good about it!

Jul 052004

American Entrepreneurs

Fred beat me to it. I wasn’t at a computer to post this yesterday on the actual 4th of July, so today will have to do. I’ve read lots of books on the American revolution and the founding fathers over the years. It’s absolutely my favorite historical period, probably because it appeals to the entrepreneur in me. Think about what our founding fathers accomplished:

- Articulated a compelling vision for a better future with home democratic rule and capitalist principles. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is really the ultimate tag line when you think about it.

- Raised strategic debt financing from, and built critical strategic alliances with France, the Netherlands, and Spain.

- Assembled a team of A players to lead the effort in Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and numerous others who haven’t been afforded the same level of historical stature.

- Built early prototypes to prove the model of democratic home rule in the form of most of the 13 colonial assemblies, the Committees of Correspondence, and the Articles of Confederation.

- Relentlessly executed their plans until they were successful, changing tactics several times over the years of 1774-1783 but never wavering from their commitment to the ultimate vision.

- Followed through on their commitments by establishing a new nation along the principles to which they publicly committed early on, and taking it to the next level with the Constitution and our current form of government in 1789.

And let’s not forget, these guys accomplished all of this at a time when it took several days to get a letter from Virginia to Boston on horseback and six weeks to get a message across the Atlantic on a sailboat. Can you imagine what Washington would have been able to accomplish if he could have IMd with Adams in Paris?

So happy 4th to all, with a big thanks to this country’s founding fathers for pulling off the greatest spin-off of all time.

Jul 022004

Not Perfect, But A Better Device

I am now a big fan of my new Treo 600. It’s not so new, I’ve had it for a couple of months, but I figured out a couple of things on it today that really throw it over the top in my book.

In general, it’s a very good convergence device. The combination of phone, Palm apps, and email is very well done. It needs a longer battery life, but it lasts for a full day with pretty heavy usage, which is acceptable. I love not carrying around both a phone and a blackberry any more.

The first thing that took it from being a good device to being a great one was our installation of the GoodLink Exchange server software. It is instantaneous, two-way wireless synch between the device and my Outlook profile. That means no docking, never being out of step with changes made to my profile in my office, and full access to all my Outlook folders, not just the inbox.

But what really made the difference for me was that I figured out how to rig the device to also be an MP3 player today. So now, on short business trips anyway, I am down to one device and one battery charger from three and three.

It’s a combination of Pocket-Tunes software on the device, an SD chip, which you can now get up to 1GB of storage (about 300 MP3 files), and an adaptor that connects my computer to the SD chip via USB to load the MP3 files. The sound quality is much better than I expected, although I do miss my ipod, and it plays both through headphones (you need an adaptor for that, too), and outloud using the phone’s speaker capabilities. So you have to do a little work to make it an MP3 player, but it’s worth it!

Now the only thing that has to happen is that Verizon needs to offer service on this device. T-Mobile’s coverage in NYC is awful.

Filed under: Email

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