Jan 272005

The Rumors of Email’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, Part III

The Rumors of Email’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, Part III

Now it’s Groove Chairman Ray Ozzie saying that email is toast, since his kids use IM as their preferred channel, relegating email to something to be avoided since it’s only from parents or teachers.

Um, ok.  What about bosses and clients and colleagues?  You may not want to hear from them, either (especially that pesky boss), but I’m still struggling with the argument that because kids aren’t addicted to the medium, it will surely die.  Kids eventually grow up and do things differently than they did when they were kids.  Perhaps email is one of those things you have to grow into when life isn’t (regretfully) just about chatting with your friends?

Filed under: Email

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Jan 272005

VC Wisdom du Jour

VC Wisdom du Jour

Two good ones today:

1. Brad on what makes a great Board meeting (hint: it’s not going through the materials you send out ahead of time).

2. Jeff Nolan/Dispatches on 10 questions to ask a VC.  Remember, when you’re raising money, you must do active due diligence on your prospective investors, not just the other way around.  These questions are a good guide.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Jan 252005

Everyone’s a Direct Marketer, Part I

Everyone’s a Direct Marketer, Part I

I had breakfast a few weeks back with John Greco, the new CEO of the Direct Marketing Assocation, and was telling him why I felt it was essential that interactive marketing be included in the DMA’s mainstream mission and not regarded as separate.  The substance of my argument was that the Internet has turned every company into a direct marketer, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, and whether they care to act like one or not.  I was happy that John agreed with me!

I’m going to write a three-part posting on this topic.  First topic:  Why is this happening?

1. The mechanics are now ubiquitous.  Every company’s web site, every keyword to drive a customer to the site, every link to a customer service rep, every email that goes out to a customer list — they’re all direct marketing mechanics that pre-Internet, only specific categories of companies like catalogers or fundraisers employed to drive business.  Now, every company has or does these things as a cost of being in business.

2. Mass marketing is no longer quite so mass.  Audiences are becoming fragmented across hundreds of TV channels and millions of web sites.  I heard a great speech the other day by Strauss Zelnick, one of Return Path’s investors and the consummate media executive, which crystallized this point for me with the following example:  20 years ago, a mass marketer could reach 80% of American women by running a commercial on ABC, NBC, and CBS at the same time at certain times of the day.  In order to achieve that same reach today, a marketer would have to advertise on 120 channels (and I’d add, thousands of web sites).  This fragmentation means that marketers have to get increasingly microtargeted and innovative in order to reach customers and prospects.

3. The balance of power has shifted to consumers.  Don’t like that ad?  Use TiVo to skip it.  Hate popups?  Install Google’s toolbar to block them.  A company you’ve never heard of is emailing you?  Report them as a spammer to your ISP.  Hate phone calls from telemarketers?  Sign up for the Do Not Call List.  Permission is here to stay, and companies that “get it” will win the day with massive databases of customers who have requested to be marketed to via email or other channels.  But all of that’s direct and not very reliant on the mass advertising machinery that propelled companies and products to greatness in the past.

Next up in the series:  Why is this new to some companies, and what lessons can companies who are new at it learn from traditional direct marketers?

Jan 212005

Ratcheting Up Is Hard To Do (or Boiling the Frog, Part II)

Ratcheting Up Is Hard To Do (or Boiling the Frog, Part II)

I’ve had to ratchet down business several times over the years at Return Path.  Times were tough, revenues weren’t coming as fast as promised, my investors and I were growing weary, the dot com crash, etc. etc.  We had layoffs, consolidated jobs, cut salaries multiple times, made people wear 8 hats to get the job done.  It’s an awful process to go through.

In the last year or so, business has finally started going much better.  We’ve been fortunate in many ways that we’re still around, with products that work really well, with a good customer base, and with good and patient investors and employees, as the business climate has improved.  We’ve grown from 22 people (at our low point) up to almost 75.  But what that has meant for our organization is that we’ve had to quickly "ratchet back up," adding people, adding new functions that were previously one of many hats worn by a single person, operating at a different level.  While ratcheting down is a nightmare, it turns out that quickly ratcheting back up is in many ways just as hard on the organization.

Some examples:

- IT (internal email and servers) has been run by a part-time resource and "off the side of the desk" of our product development engineering department.  Now it is almost completely broken, and it turned out we hired a very talented IT manager, probably about three months too late.

- Staffing up is particularly tough without a dedicated HR function and with a legacy of missed budgets.  HR has been done off the side of the desk of me and my executive assistant, and we can’t keep pace any more with all the recruiting, hiring, training, and development planning.  Now that we feel like we need and can afford more staff, we need to hire an HR manager to handle it all, but we need someone in place and trained today, not three months from now.

- A 22 person company can function brilliantly as a network of Individual Contributors who loosely coordinate with each other.  But now what we need at 75 is a a few hardcore Managers that can build systems and processes so that the whole machine runs smoothly.  We don’t necessarily have those people in-house, and if we bring them in from the outside, I’m left wondering if the Individual Contributors will feel like their years of hard work aren’t appreciated if there’s a new layer of management surrounding them.

I hope we never have to ratchet down again…but part of the reason why now is that I never want to have to ratchet back up, either!

Thanks to my COO and business partner Jack Sinclair for his help with this posting.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Jan 172005

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part III

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part III

My original posting singing the praises of VOIP and Vonage in particular (for those of you who haven’t tried Voice-Over-IP, it’s still working great and unbeliebaly cheaper than traditional phone service) was met with a criticism by my colleague Tom Bartel, who said Vonage in particular didn’t allow him to keep his particular phone number.  This is something that varies carrier by carrier, area code by area code.

So Tom tried an alternative service in Colorado called Lingo.  So far, he seems to be having the same positive experience that we are in NYC.

Filed under: Email

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Jan 132005

Email Marketing 101

Email Marketing 101

We just published a book!  Sign me Up! A marketer’s guide to creating email newsletters that build relationships and boost sales is now available on Amazon.com.  The book is authored by me and my Return Path colleagues Mike Mayor, Tami Forman, and Stephanie Miller.  What’s it about?

- At its core, the book is a very practical how-to guide.  Any company — large or small — can have a great email newsletter program.  They’re easy, they’re cheap, and when done well, they’re incredibly effective.

- This book helps you navigate the basics of how to get there, covering everything from building a great list, to content and design, to making sure the emails reach your customers’ inboxes and don’t get blocked or filtered.

- Our central philosophy about email marketing, which permeates the advice in the book, is covered in my earlier New Media Deal posting (which is reproduced in part in the book’s Preface) — that customers will sign up for your email marketing in droves if you provide them a proper value exchange for the ability to mail them.

- I’d encourage you to buy the book anyway, but in case you need an extra incentive, we are also donating 10% of book sales to Accelerated Cure, a research organization dedicated to finding a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, in honor of our friend and colleague Sophie Miller.

More postings to come about the process of writing, publishing, and marketing a book in 2005 — boy was the experience we had different than it would have been 10 years ago.

Jan 122005

Everyone's a Marketer, Part III

Everyone’s a Marketer, Part III

Along the lines of my "Everyone’s a Marketer" series of postings, Seth Godin put a finer point on it today.  If Everyone’s a Marketer, then you can easily make the case that the CEO is the CMO.

Filed under: Business

Jan 122005

Who Wants to Get Hit by a Bus, Anyway?

Who Wants to Get Hit by a Bus, Anyway?

Fred had an accurate if somewhat morbid posting today about succession planning, one of the many higher-order HR tasks that small entrepreneurial companies are particularly bad at.  He’s completely right — for one example in our industry, you only have to look back about 9 months or so to Phil Goldman’s shocking death to see the impact it had on Mailblocks.  I’ll have to post on succession planning in a startup in more detail sometime soon.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Jan 092005

Boiling the Frog

Boiling the Frog

We boiled the frog recently at Return Path. 

What the heck does this mean?  There was an old story, I’ve since been told apocryphal, we told a lot back when I was a management consultant trying to work on change management projects.  It was basically that:

If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap right back out.  But if you put a frog in a pot of water on the stove and then heat it up to boiling, you’ll boil the frog because it never quite realized that it’s being cooked until its muscles and brain are slightly too cooked to jump out.

How have we boiled the frog?  Two ways recently.  First, we let a staffing problem sneak up on us.  We were short one person in a critical area (accounting and business operations), and we had decided to try to go without the extra person for a month or two for cost-savings reasons.  Then, another person in that group unexpectedly left.  Then, another person in that group got seriously sick and was out for several weeks.  The result?  We were down three people in an area very quickly, without a proper pipeline of candidates coming in the door for any of the open positions.  So for a period of time, we can’t get the things done out of that group we want to get done, despite the heroic efforts of the remaining people in the group.

Second, we have had an Exchange server problem that has been plaguing one of our three offices for six months now (no, the irony of an email company having internal email problems isn’t lost on us).  In retrospect, the first time we had a big problem with it, we should have dropped everything, brought in an outside consultant, and done a rapid-fire infrastructure upgrade/replacement.  But we were truly boiled here — we kept thinking we’d fixed the problem, the situation kept deteriorating slowly enough to the point where the productivity of this one office was seriously compromised for a few weeks.  Happily, I can report this weekend that our IT team is cuting over to our new environment — "the promised land," as they call it.

How do you stop yourself from getting boiled?  I think you have to:

1. Recognize when you’re in a pot of water.  What areas of your company are so mission critical that they’re always at risk?  Have you done everything you can do to eliminate single points of failure? 

2. Recognize when someone turns on the burner.  Do you know the early-warning signs for all of these areas?  Can you really live without an extra person or two in that department?  Is it ok if that server doesn’t work quite right?

3. Recognize when you care about the frog.  You can’t solve all problems, all of the time.  Figuring out which ones need to be solved urgently vs. eventually vs. never is one of the most important roles a decision-maker in a company can make.

Jan 092005

Rejected by the Body

Rejected by the Body

My most recent posting ("Sometimes, There Is No Lesson To Be Learned") about a strange hiring incident at Return Path has so far generated 5 comments — a whopper for my blog.  You can read them here if you want.  They’re a little bit all over the map, but they did remind me of something I frequently tell senior people who I am interviewing to join the company:

Hiring a new senior person into an organization is like doing an organ transplant.  Sometimes, the body just rejects the organ, but at least you find out pretty quickly.

At least we found out relative quickly with this one, although it was more like the organ rejecting the body!

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

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