Apr 302008

You Have to Shoot to Score

You Have to Shoot to Score

Fred’s recent post called From Messes to Successes left me thinking about the reasons why successful companies often have rough patches along the road to their ultimate success — the times Fred refers to when he says “they’re a mess.”   First, his premise is right.  Good companies are often a mess.  Probably more than most outside Board members (even good VC ones) even realize!  And while his explanation as to why this occurs, which is that the company focuses exclusively on the product to the exclusion of infrastructure, scaling, and planning issues, may be right some of the time, let me offer an alternative explanation.

I always tell people internally that You Have to Shoot to Score.  If you don’t take risks, you’re not a truly entrepreneurial company.  And for companies to move from start-up to high-growth and sustain that growth over time, they have to continually be taking risks.  50+% growth only lasts so many years without it.  Trying new things.  Developing new products or permutations of products.  Making acquisitions.  Making an out-of-the-box hire.  Entering a new market.  Morphing a pricing model or service delivery model.  You get the idea.

It’s inevitable that some of these risks won’t pay off.  They don’t all have to.  Only about 1 in 3 does.  (Sounds kind of like a VC’s portfolio, doesn’t it?)  But the other 2 can often leave you with a mess that has to be cleaned up.  People need to be reassigned.  Some may need to be let go.  Products need to be decommissioned.  Sometimes it takes longer than others to emerge from a clean-up period, but Fred’s right that when the company does emerge, it’s usually stronger for having gone through the experience.

Apr 292008

Wither the News? (Plus a Bonus Book Short)

Wither the News? (Plus a Bonus Book Short)

It’s unusual that I blog about a book before I’ve actually finished it, but this one is too timely to pass up given today’s news about newspapers.  The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen, at least the first 1/2 of it, is a pretty intense rant about how the Internet’s trend towards democratizing media and content production has a double dirty underbelly:

poor quality — “an endless digital forest of mediocrity,”

no checks and balances — “mainstream journalists and newspapers have the organization, financial muscle, and and credibility to gain access to sources and report the truth…professional journalists can go to jail for telling the truth” (or, I’d add, for libel)

So what’s today’s news about newspapers?  Another massive circulation drop — 3.6% in the last six months.  Newspaper readership across the country is at its lowest level since 1946, when the population was only 141 million, or less than half what it is today.  The digital revolution is well underway.  Print newspapers are declining asymptotically to zero.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m an Internet guy, and I love the democratization of media for many reasons.  I also think it will ultimately force old media companies to be more efficient as individual institutions and as an industry in order to survive (not to mention more environmentally friendly).  But Keen has good thoughts about quality and quantity that are interesting counterpoints to the revolution.  I hope at least some newspapers survive, change their models and their cost structures, and start competing on content quality.  The thought that everyone in the world will get their news ONLY from citizen journalists is scary.

I’m curious to see how the rest of the book turns out.  I’ll reblog if it’s radically different from the themes expressed here.

Update (having finished the book now): Keen puts the mud in curmudgeon. He doesn’t appear to have a good word to say about the Internet, and he allows his very good points about journalistic integrity and content quality and our ability to discern the truth to get washed up in a rant against online gambling, porn, and piracy. Even some of his rant points are valid, but saying, for example, that Craigslist is problematic to society because it only employs 22 people and is hugely profitable while destroying jobs and revenue at newspapers just comes across as missing some critical thinking and basically just pissing in the wind. His final section on Solutions is less blustry and has a couple good examples and points to offer, but it’s a case of too little, too late for my liking.

Apr 292008

Executive and Closed Sessions

Executive and Closed Sessions

Brad has a good post up about what he calls “closed sessions” in Board meetings — time at the end of the meeting reserved for a conversation with Board members ONLY, no other observers or non-Board management.  While we differ in terminology, I agree completely with the sentiment and with his logic.

We call the part of the meeting that Brad describes the Executive Session.  We’ve always done them.  And the Board and I find it incredibly useful, and a good practice, even if there are no contentious or puzzling issues during a meeting.  Not that our Board holds back much, but the Executive Session is a good time for us to connect 100% freely about management issues as well as elements of business strategy and performance that might be better hashed out without others present.

We also have an additional part of the meeting at the very end which we call the Closed Session.  This part of the meeting has NO MANAGEMENT in it, even me, although I’m Chairman of the Board.  This time allows the other directors an even greater degree of freedom to discuss the business or my performance without worrying about saying something in front of me — and without hearing my opinion.

Both sessions are incredibly valuable parts of high functioning Boards.

Apr 282008

Drawing the Line

Drawing the LineWe are having a bit of a debate at the moment internally around our Sender Score deliverability business about how to handle clients who are in businesses that are, shall we say, not exactly as pure as the driven snow.  As a company that provides software and services to businesses without a vertical focus, we are often approached by all sorts of companies wanting our services where we don’t love what they do.  Examples include:

Adult content or products

Our challenges are along three dimensions, each of which is a little different.  But common threads run through all three dimensions. 

Dimension 1:  Our deliverability technology platform.   Our basic technology is used by mailers of all shapes and sizes to preview their campaigns, monitor their deliverability, and analyze their reputation metrics.  It doesn’t deploy campaigns.  Do we care who the users are?

Dimension 2:  Our full service deliverability practice that comes with consulting and high-touch account management.  This service offering has an additional layer of complexity in that our employees work closely with accounts and their web sites.  We already allow employees to opt-out of accounts where they find the work objectionable.  But is that enough?

Dimension 3:  Our whitelist, Sender Score Certified. This one is even trickier.  On the one hand, our program has fairly clear, published standards.  We do a thorough qualitative check of the client’s web site and email program to make sure, among other things, that the program is opt-in.  We monitor the client’s quantitative reputation metrics in real-time to make sure its complaint rate is low, signifying that its customers like (or at least don’t mind) receiving its email.  On the other hand, this program is supposed to signify the best of the best for email marketing and newsletters, which is why it’s used by so many ISPs and filters as their standard for defining “good mail.”  And yet on a third hand (perhaps there’s some sort of herbal remedy that can help me with that problem), for many ISPs, our program is their only whitelist, so clients who are above board, even if in a grey industry, may have no other option.

So is it our place to legislate morality, or should we just focus on what’s legal and what’s not legal?  How much accountability do clients bear for content that shows up in their emails from advertisers?  For example, and I’m making this up, what do we do if a men’s health magazine that’s a client has links in its email newsletters that are placed by an affiliate network that click through to a pornography site?  What if the pornography in question is legal in one country but not another?  How much time and energy should we spend vetting clients before we take them on?  Or monitoring them around these issues once they’re a client?  Does it matter which product they’re using?

I’d love feedback from the outside world (or the inside world) on how we should think about and handle these issues.

Filed under: Business, Email, Return Path

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Apr 122008

Poor Systems Integration Just Makes It Worse

Poor Systems Integration Just Makes It Worse

I attended  a day of classes at Harvard Business School in 1992 as a college senior.  I distinctly remember a case study on how poor systems integration was impacting companies’ ability to get a whole view of their customers and thus provide high service levels.  In fact, the case study I remember was about American Airlines and how one system showed that a customer’s flights had been delayed or canceled, while another system showed a customer’s travel patterns and was able to tell when the customer had defected to another airline, and a third system sent out rewards and notices to customers.

That was 16 years ago.

I received an email from American Airlines today about this past week’s service debacles around additional airplane inspections.  It was a good email, until I read this line:

If in your travels you were among the many who have been personally affected, I sincerely regret the inconvenience you have experienced.

Um, hello?  McFly?  Shouldn’t you know whether or not I was “personally affected” by your cancellations?  You haven’t figured out how to tie those disparate systems together in the last 16 years?

American’s not alone, by any stretch of the imagination.  I see the same problem all over the place — banks, telco, retail.  I just find it amazing that large companies with huge IT budgets and decades to work with can’t figure out how to tie systems together to understand what’s going on with their customers.  Still.

Filed under: Business


Apr 072008

No Recession at Return Path

No Recession at Return Path

I know, I know.  I shouldn’t jinx us.  But we’re growing like mad at the moment, so much so that we have well almost 50 open positions now across all divisions of the company.  If you want to come join one of the fastest growing, most innovative, and just plain coolest places to work in the industry, we’d love to talk to you.

What’s driving the growth? 

  • All our operating units have open positions.  Sender Score (deliverability/whitelisting) has the most openings and is growing explosively.  But Authentic Response (market research) and Postmaster (lead generation) both have openings as well
  • Geographic expansion.  We have a bunch of openings in Europe as well as in the U.S.  Other parts of the world…stay tuned for later in the year (or let us know now that you are interested once we get to your corner of the globe)
  • The power of email.  Parts of the economy may be a bit choppy now, but online marketing, and email in particular, are going strong.  Clients are finding the e-channels to be more and more effective and efficient ways of driving sales and customer loyalty

Visit the careers page at our web site to have a look — all the new jobs probably aren’t posted yet, but many are, and the rest are on the way shortly.  This is a fun and exciting and rewarding place to work.  Trust me.  I’m completely unbiased.  No, really.  Come join the team, or refer others!

Filed under: Email, Return Path

Apr 012008

What's the Response Rate on This Campaign?

What’s the Response Rate on This Campaign?

This is a doosie.  I will hide names to protect the guilty, but I just received my third form letter in the last five years from the CEO of one of the big public companies in the direct marketing space inviting me to sell Return Path to him.  It was delivered via FedEx with some of the company’s marketing materials and public financial reporting. 

All I will note is the ironic list of ways that this letter does not conform to direct marketing best practices:

  • It’s not personal
  • It’s only theoretically relevant
  • Behavioral targeting would catch that similar mailings in the past haven’t generated a response
  • Treating solicitation of a CEO about M&A like it’s a pre-approved credit card offer isn’t exactly congruent with the message of "come join the team"

Oh and of course this one, in this day and age of consumer choice:

  • I can’t unsubscribe from future similar mailings


Filed under: Business