Oct 302008

Charting A New Path: Focus is Our Friend

Charting A New Path:  Focus is Our Friend

When Return Path turned six years old a few years ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog (OnlyOnce) titled You Can’t Tell What the Living Room Looks Like from the Front Porch. The essence of the post is that flexibility is a key success factor in starting and growing a business, and sometimes the business turns out different than what you thought when you wrote that business plan. At the time, I was commenting on how different Return Path turned out – operating five businesses – than we did when we started the original ECOA business in 1999.

Today, the message rings more true than ever. On the heels of our recent announcement that we have acquired our largest competitor in the deliverability space, Habeas, we announced a series of moves internally that chart a very new path forward for the company. We are:

  • selling our ECOA business to FreshAddress, Inc., our long-time esteemed competitor in the email list hygiene and updating business;
  • spinning out our Authentic Response market research business and our Postmaster Direct lead generation, list rental, and online media brokerage business into a new company called Authentic Response; and
  • combining our Strategic Solutions consulting business in with the consulting portion of our Sender Score deliverability and whitelisting business to form a new, powerful global professional services team inside of Return Path

The title of this post says it all. Focus is Our Friend. Return Path and Authentic Response will be able to concentrate on their respective businesses, with more focus and resources to get the job done in the high quality, innovative way each has become known for.

Look for each business to come out with more exciting announcements in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to execute more swiftly as independent, focused companies. We wish our new partner – FreshAddress – well with the ECOA businesses that they’ve acquired from us. It’s hard to let go of one’s original business. I will have to blog about that separately sometime soon. We want to thank our dedicated clients and employees for their once and future contributions as we chart this new path forward.

You never do know what the living room looks like from the front porch.


Oct 222008

Managing in a Downturn

Managing in a Downturn

I spoke at a NextNY event last night along with several others, including fellow entrepreneur David Kidder from Clickable and angel investor Roger Enhrenberg about this fine topic (Roger wrote a great post on it here) and thought I’d share a few of the key points made by all of us for anyone trying to figure out what to do tactically now that Sequoia has told us to be afraid, very afraid.

Hope is Not a Strategy:  Your business is not immune. It will do what everyone else’s will. Struggle to hit its numbers. Struggle to collect bills. Lose customers. There is no reason to hope you’ll be different.

Get Into the Jet Stream:  Develop your core revenue streams — and make sure they’re really your revenue, not just skimming tertiary revenue out of the ecosystem.  Investors will look to see how sustainable your model is with more scrutiny than ever.

It’s a Long Road to Recovery:  I don’t care what people say. There is no true “v-shaped” bounceback from a true downturn. Plan for a long (4-8 quarter) time to return to normalcy.

Budget Early and Often:  Things change rapidly in this kind of environment. Make sure you reforecast, especially cash flows and cash, monthly when you close the books.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow:
  If you have a real business, you need to be it for the long haul. Keep pursuing opportunities. Keep investing in the future. Don’t pare back your vision and ambitions. Just make more conservative investments, insist on shorter payback windows, and adjust expectations about timeframes.

Leadership Counts:
  Your people are nervous. They’re concerned about their own bank accounts. Their jobs. Be even more present, more transparent, and more communicative. And set the right tone on expenses with your own decisions. The troops need to know that you care about them — and that the big boss has a steady hand on the wheel.

Oct 212008

What is the News, These Days?

What is the News, These Days?

I’ve about had it with the news about the financial mess these days. It’s not the news about what’s happening that bugs me — that’s at least mildly useful. It’s the pundits’ explanation of what’s driving the news that’s driving me nuts.

It’s hard to see how these headlines and lead sentences are even remotely accurate. It’s not as if all global traders and investors operate on a common set of guidelines, or even have access to all the same information at the same time. Yet we are now told day in, day out, that the market is doing well “because the government finally approved the bailout.” Or the market is doing poorly “because investors are worried the bailout isn’t enough” (yes, same reason).

And this is a gem from Friday: “Oil prices jumped above $72 a barrel Friday in Asia from a 14-month low as investors bet fears that a severe global recession will devastate crude demand may be overblown.” So this headline, to be clear if you study it, is saying that yesterday’s fears which drove the market down — we’re now afraid we were wrong. Yeesh.

Filed under: Current Affairs

Oct 182008

Book Short: The Anti-Level-5 Leader

Book Short: The Anti-Level-5 Leader

The Five Temptations of a CEO, another short leadership fable in a series by Patrick Lencioni, wasn’t as meaningful to me as the last one I read, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive (post, link), but it wasn’t bad and was also a quick read.

The book to me was the 30 minute version of all the Level-5 Leadership stuff that Collins wrote about in Good to Great and Built to Last. All that said, it was a good quick read and a reminder of what not to do. The temptations are things that most CEOs I’ve ever known (present company very much included) have at least succumbed to at one point or another in their career. That said, you as a CEO should quit or be fired if you have them in earnest, so hopefully if you do have them, you recognize it and have them in diminishing quantities with experience, and hopefully not all at once:

– The temptation to be concerned about his or her image above company results

– The temptation to want to be popular with his or her direct reports above holding them accountable for results

– The temptation to ensure that decisions are correct, even if that means not making a decision on limited information when one is needed

– The temptation to find harmony on one’s staff rather than have productive conflict, discussion, and debate

– The temptation to avoid vulnerability and trust in one’s staff

I’m still going to read the others in Lencioni’s series as well. They may not be the best business books ever written, but they’re solid B/B+s, and they’re short and simple, which few business books are and all should be!

Oct 102008

It's Not Having What You Want, It's Wanting What You've Got

It’s Not Having What You Want, It’s Wanting What You’ve Got

I’ve always thought that line (the title of this post) was one of Sheryl Crowe’s better lyrics. And there’s nothing like moving houses to bring it to life. We are pretty minimalist to begin with, or at least the size of our apartment had constrained our ability to be anything more. And we cleaned out and threw away a bunch of things before we moved. Now that we’re almost done unpacking, and we have several empty or nearly empty rooms in our much larger house, the lyric resonates.

I’m sure we’ll ultimately fill up those empty rooms, at least a little bit. That’s what everyone says happens when you expand into more space. But for the most part, we don’t NEED to. The furniture, toys, beds, and chairs that worked for us in one place SHOULD work for us in another. Happiness can’t come from forging forward on the volume of earthly possessions. It should really come from contentment when where you are in life. Anything else is icing on the cake.

That’s probably a good metaphor to think about the road ahead in business and the economy. It’s still not clear to me how much this current mess is going affect the general economy and spending across all sectors. Hopefully confidence returns to the financial markets, the credit crisis passes, and there’s not a general deep recession. But as my colleague Anita is so fond of saying, Hope is not a Strategy, so everyone needs to be bracing themselves for the worst right now.

And that means we all need to prepare for Not Having What We Want, but rather Wanting What We’ve Got. Businesses will continue to function and even grow if there’s a recession. But if there’s belt tightening to be done, it means that growth companies will have to shift paradigms a bit. They’ll be investing less in growth and in new things. They’ll be focusing more on profits. There will be less hiring. Promotions and raises and bonuses will be harder to come by (especially on Wall Street!).

None of this means we should stop forging ahead or reduce our ambitions. On the contrary – companies that can figure out how to achieve both growth AND profitability in tough times are the ones that win in the end. But it does mean that we’re in for a long road if we don’t all change our mindset and behaviors to match the times, as growth and profitability together looks quite different from growth at the expense of profitability.

Filed under: Current Affairs

Oct 022008

Just Ask a 5-Year Old

Just Ask a 5-Year Old

I heard this short but potent story recently. I can’t for the life of me remember who told it to me, so please forgive me if I’m not attributing this properly to you!

A man walks into a kindergarten classroom and stands in front of the class. “How many of you know how to dance?” he asks the kids. They all raise their hands up high into the air.

“How many of you know how to sing?” he queries. Hands shoot up again with a lot of background chatter.

“And how many of you know how to paint?” 100% hands up for a third time.

The same man now walks into a room full of adults at a conference. “How many of you know how to dance?” he asks. A few hands go up reluctantly, all of them female.

“How many of you know how to sing?” Again, a few stray hands go up from different corners of the crowd. Five percent at best.

“And how many of you know how to paint?” This time, literally not one hand goes up in the air.

So there you go. What makes us get de-skilled or dumber as we get older? Nothing at all! It’s just our expectations of ourselves that grow. The bar goes up for what it takes to count yourself as knowing how to do something with every passing year. Why is that? When we were 5 years old, all of us were about the same in terms of our capabilities. Singing, painting, dancing, tying shoes. But as we age, we find ourselves with peers who are world class specialists in different areas, and all of a sudden, our perception of self changes. Sing? Me? Are you kidding? Who do I look like, Sting?

I see this same phenomenon in business all of the time. The better people get at one thing, the worse they think they are at other things. It’s the rare person who wants to excel at multiple disciplines, and more important, isn’t afraid to try them. But we’ve seen lots of success over the years at this at Return Path. The account manager who becomes a product manager. The tech support guy who becomes a software developer. The sales rep who becomes an account manager.

I love these stories! My anecdotal evidence suggests that people who do take this kind of plunge end up just as successful in their new discipline, if not more so, because they have a wider range of skills, knowledge, and perspectives on their job. Or it could just be that the kind of people who WANT to do multiple types of jobs are inherently stronger employees. Not sure which is the cause and which is the effect.

It’s even more rare that managers allow their people the freedom to try to be great at new things. It’s all too easy for managers to pigeonhole people into the thing they know how to do, the thing they’re doing now, the thing they first did when they started at the company. “Person X doesn’t have the skills to do that job,” we hear from time to time.

I don’t buy that. Sure, people need to be developed. They need to interview well to transition into a completely new role. But having the belief that the talent you have in one area of the company can be transferable to other areas, as long as it comes with the right desire and attitude, is a key success factor in running a business in today’s world. The opposite is an environment where you’re unable to change or challenge the organization, where you lose great people who want to do new things or feel like they are being held back, and where you feel compelled to hire in from the outside to “shore up weaknesses.” That works sometimes, but it’s basically saying you’d rather take an unknown person and try him or her out at a role than a known strong performer from another part of the organization.

And who really wants to send that message?

Filed under: Leadership