Feb 252009

New Email Blogger Extraordinaire

New Email Blogger Extraordinaire

My good friend and co-founder George Bilbrey, Return Path’s President, is now blogging. His blog, Monkey Mind Labs, is aptly named in part after Return Path’s long-standing but little-known corporate mascot.

His first few posts are up.  My guess is that his blog will be a bit like mine in that it will cover topics about email marketing as well as entrepreneurship, but I can almost promise that George will be both wittier and more insightful than I.  At least, that’s what he tells me.

Take a look!  Subscribe. Enjoy.

Feb 242009

More Useful Than I Thought

More Useful Than I Thought

I’ve had a Twitter account for a couple years but only started using it in earnest in the last couple of weeks.  And while it is to some extent yet another distraction and flow of information, it’s proving to be much more useful than I thought.  Here are some nuggets from literally less than a week of heavy usage:

– Nice quick exchanges with three existing customers who I otherwise wouldn’t talk to

– Already have over 200 followers, at least 50% just in the last few days

– One set of direct messages, and we turned a skeptic into a free trial provided that the client work with us on an important but difficult case study we’ve been meaning to generate for a while

– One quick @reply later, and I turned someone asking about our services into a live sales call with a local sales team member in London and a positive public tweet back about us

– An exchange with a customer who left us for the competition (partially – he’s still on Sender Score Certified) and said something snarky about us on Twitter yielded a positive tweet and this comment: 

Thanks going out of your way to better understand your customers. That in and of itself means a lot.

– Serendipity – I was on the west coast, noted it, and a friend there pinged me to see if I had time to get together (I didn’t this trip, but that would have been a nice bonus)

– Set up my blog to notify of any new post via Twitter using twitterfeed.com…set up Facebook to pick up my tweets as status updates using the Facebook Twitter app.  The result is that my traffic is WAY up on the blog

I’m sold.  Now I just need to figure out how to be interesting and brief at the same time.

Filed under: Email, Technology


Feb 162009

The Evils of Patent Litigation

The Evils of Patent Litigation

There have been a lot of posts over the years on the blogs I read about patents and how they are problematic.  I know Brad has done a bunch, including this one. I wrote one once about a dumb patent issued in the email space, which is here. 

And of course no listing of great patent posts would be complete without a nod to my colleague Whitney McNamara, who I believe coined the term "ass patent" starting with this post.  In fact, Whit has a whole category of posts on his blog about ass patents.  

But one of the most thoughtful, accurate, and proscriptive ones I've read is what Fred wrote a couple days ago.

And I should know.  We are the company that he refers to who spent about half a million dollars successfully defending ourselves (for now – who knows what appeals might bring) against a baseless suit by a patent troll.  For the record, we did try to settle and were presented with a multi-million dollar option only.  I have been advised by our lawyer not to write about this case because there are elements of it that are still pending, but I don't care.  I'm irritated enough about it that I want to get this out there while it's still fresh in my mind.  And I'm not going to use names here or say anything I wouldn't say publicly in any other forum.

I've thought about this problem a lot for the last several years, as you might imagine.  Fred's two patent reforms — that plaintiffs who lose a suit have to pay defendant legal fees, and that patents should have a "use it or lose it" clause like trademarks — would totally do the job. 

I'm a fan of the "losing plaintiff pays" clause, but one challenge is that it would discourage a certain percentage of legitimate suits and claims, particularly from small inventors, out of fear that high-priced defense counsel will not only win on some technicality BUT will then cost a disproportionate amount of money since the risk is completely transferred to the other side.  This is probably a challenge that's worth living with, but it has the potential to be a "lesser of two evils" solution.

I love the "use it or lose it" one in particular, because it would not just force companies to use the invention, but it would also more clearly articulate what the patent is.  In many cases with business process patents, it's too unclear what the patent actually covers and whether or not other inventions are in conflict with it.  Too much is left up to wording interpretations.  That would not be the case if the invention was actually in use!

Here's another problem with the system that I think requires a third simple solution.  I'll call it The BigCo problem, and it happened to us in our case.  The BigCo problem is that the same troll who sued us also sued two other companies, one of them a Fortune 100 technology company, concurrently and similarly baselessly over the same patents.  But here was the problem:  the troll suing us wouldn't consider a modest settlement with us, even knowing that our resources were limited, because doing so would make it harder for them to pursue their case against BigCo and get a Big Settlement.

So here's my proposed third simple solution:  a defendant-initiated settlement should be confidential and not influence the outcome of related pending litigation.  Why should little guys have to suck up costs because BigCo has deep pockets?

I hope last year's ruling around business process patents (creating a more narrow definition of what is patentable) helps with patent trolls, one of the real scourges of the Internet — possibly even a new member of the Internet Axis of Evil — but it won't solve the problem the way Fred's two suggestions will.

UPDATE:  Great comment from Mike Masnick: 

another very very very useful solution to the problems you face would be (finally) allowing an "independent invention" defense to patents. The problem is that almost no patent infringement lawsuits are actually due to someone "copying" someone else's product or patent. The vast majority are due to "independent invention." I think two things should happen: 1. If sued, and you can show an independent invention defense the case is over. And… 2. If you can show that independent invention defense and it works, the patent itself should be invalidated. This is because patents are only supposed to be granted for inventions that are new and non-obvious to those skilled in the art. If those skilled in the art are coming up with the same concept independently, I'd say it fails the non-obvious to those skilled in the art scenario. Do that and much of the patent problem goes away, while still "protecting" the scenario where some company just flat out copies an invention.

Filed under: Business

Feb 132009

Book Short: Hire Great

Book Short: Hire Great

It’s certainly not hiring season for most of America The World The Universe, but we are still making some limited hires here at Return Path, and I thought – what better time to retool our interviewing and hiring process than in a relatively slow period?

So I just read Who: The A Method for Hiring, by Geoff Smart and Randy Street.  It’s a bit of a sequel, or I guess more of a successor book, to the best book I’ve ever read about hiring and interviewing, Topgrading, by Geoff Smart and his father Brad (post, link to buy).  This one wasn’t bad, and it was much shorter and crisper.

I’m not sure I believe the oft-quoted stat that a bad hire costs a company $1.5mm.  Maybe sometimes (say, if the person embezzles $1.4mm), but certainly the point that bad hires are a nightmare for an organization in any number of ways is well taken.   The book does a good job of explaining the linkage from strategy and execution straight to recruiting, with good examples and tips for how to create the linkage.  That alone makes it a worthwhile read.

The method they describe may seem like common sense, but I bet 95 out of 100 companies don’t come close.  We are very good and quite deliberate about the hiring process and have a good success average, but even we have a lot of room to improve.  The book is divided into four main sections:

  • Scorecard: creating job descriptions that are linked to company strategy and that are outcome and competency based, not task based
  • Sourcing: going beyond internal and external recruiters to make your entire company a talent seeker and magnet
  • Selection: the meat of the book – good detail on how to conduct lots of different kinds of interviews, from screening to topgrading (a must) to focused to reference
  • Sell:  how to reel ‘em in once they’re on the line (for us anyway, the least useful section as we rarely lose a candidate once we have an offer out)

One of the most poignant examples in the book centered around hiring someone who had been fired from his previous job.  The hiring method in the book uncovered it (that’s hard enough to do sometimes) but then dug deep enough to understand the context and reasons why, and, matching up what they then knew about the candidate to their required competencies and outcomes for the job, decided the firing wasn’t a show-stopper and went ahead and made the hire.

I’d think of these two books the way I think about the Covey books.  If you have never read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you could just get away with reading Stephen Covey’s newer book, The 8th Habit:  From Effectiveness to Greatness, though the original is much richer.

Feb 122009

Less is More

Less is More

I have a challenge for the email marketing community in 2009. Let’s make this the Year of “Less is More.”

Marketers are turning to email more and more in this down economy. There’s no question about that. My great fear is that just means they’re sending more and more and more emails out without being smart about their programs. That will have positive short term effects and drive revenues, but long term it will have a negative long term impact on inboxes everywhere. And these same marketers will find their short term positive results turning into poor deliverability faster than you can say “complaint rate spike.”

I heard a wonderful case study this week from Chip House at ExactTarget at the EEC Conference. One of his clients, a non-profit, took the bold and yet painful step of permissioning an opt-out list. Yikes. That word sends shivers down the spine of marketers everywhere. What are you saying? You want me to reduce the size of my prime asset? The results of a campaign done before and after the permission pass are very telling and should be a lesson to all of us. The list shrank from 34,000 to 4,500. Bounce rate decreased from 9% to under 1%. Spam complaints went from 27 to 0 (ZERO). Open rate spiked from 25% to 53%. Click-through from 7% to 22%. And clicks? 509 before the permissioning, 510 after. This client generated the same results, with better metrics along the way, by sending out 87% LESS EMAIL. Why? Because they only sent it to people who cared to receive it.

This is a great time for email. But marketers will kill the channel by just dumping more and more and more volume into it. Let’s all make Less Is More our mantra for the year together. Is everyone in? Repeat after me…Less Is More! Less Is More!

Filed under: Email, Marketing

Feb 112009

Please, Let There Be Another Explanation

Please, Let There Be Another Explanation

One of the things I was most excited about with an Obama presidency was that it finally seemed as if we had a real leader in the hot seat.  Someone who might actually be able to run an effective government instead of a bureaucracy paralyzed by partisanship.  I still have this hope.

But I also hope what we’re seeing around the stimulus bill is not what we’re in for the next four years.  What I’m seeing is a complete absence of leadership around the problem.  Seems to me, taking lessons from the corporate world, that Obama should have done two things that would have gotten the program passed in a bipartisan way much more quickly:

1. Build true consensus ahead of time and make the congressional leaders do the sales job in a bipartisan way.  It’s great that Obama went up to the Republican caucus to talk to them and get their point of view, but shouldn’t he have gathered the top 2-3 leaders of each party and each house of congress in his office (or in theirs) to whiteboard this whole thing out ahead of time, so that those people could be bought in and then go on to convince others?  Few successful major corporate initiatives are launched without a careful eye to how all major stakeholders will react so that the majority will be on board.

2. Link the plan to the election in an obvious way.  Obama can credibly claim that the election was a decisive call for change.  He can also credibly claim a small number of priority items that clearly emerged as points of change — reducing/eliminating our dependence on foreign oil, vastly expanded access to health care, reducing taxes on the middle class, and fixing the problem of the revolving door between lobbyists and government as the relevant ones here (there are others around foreign policy and the wars, of course).  Why isn’t the stimulus package pumping money in the economy to the specific ends that were articulated during the campaign, at least for 60-80% of the money, anyway? Seems to me like that’s the best way not just to sell the program to Congress and the American people, but to actually have it stand for something other than 535 people’s pet local projects.  Again, in corporate America, once everyone has agreed on a strategy and goals, it’s much easier to define a path forward around how to execute the details.

I hope something else is going on here — perhaps Obama just wants to make Congress look like a bunch of idiots, so they self destruct and ultimately yield more power to the White House — but my fear is that our new leader needs some lessons in leadership.

Filed under: Current Affairs, Leadership


Feb 092009

Desperately Seeking an Owner for "Other"

Desperately Seeking an Owner for “Other”

A couple weeks ago in Living with Less…For Good, I mentioned that we’re on a crusade against extraneous expenses at Return Path these days, as is pretty much the rest of the world.

After a close review of our most recent month’s financials, we have a new target:  “Other.”  A relatively inconspicuous line on the income statement, this line, which different companies call different things such as “Other G&A” and “General Office,” is inherently problematic NOT because it inherently encompasses a huge amount of expenses, although it might, but rather because it inherently doesn’t have an owner and rarely has a budget.

As we dug into the gory details of “Other” our accounting system (btw – we LOVE Intacct – great web-based application for better information flow and transparency), our Exec team came to this realization the other day.  It’s not that we buy too many pens, per se.  It’s that the absence of someone being in charge of that line item means that no one manages it to a budget – or even just manages it to some kind of reasonability test.  What we found in the details was that there are definitely more areas we can do better at managing expenses here.  No individual item is going to change our income statement profile, but little things do add up to big things in the end.

Whether it’s duplication of expenses, too much FedEx, forgotten recurring items, or the storage locker that we don’t even know what’s in any more, we’re spotting little ways to save money left and right.

For us going forward, we are going to put someone in charge of this line item, develop a budget, and without forcing big-company-like procurement policies on the rest of the organization, manage it down!

Filed under: Leadership, Return Path

Feb 042009



A small administrative note…I changed my Twitter name to mattblumberg from its more obscure predecessor.  Not sure I'll tweet a lot more, but I may give it a try.

Filed under: Email

Feb 022009

Book Short: The Joys of Slinging Hash

Book Short: The Joys of Slinging Hash

Patrick Lencioni’s The Three Signs of a Miserable Job is a good read, as were his last two books, The Five Temptations of a CEO (post, link), and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive (post, link).  They’re all super short, easy reads (four express train rides on Metro North got the job done), with a single simple message and great examples.  This one is probably my second favorite so far.

This book, which has a downright dreary title, is great.  It points to and proposes a solution to a problem I’ve thought about for a long time, which is how do you create meaning for people in their day to day work when they’re not doing something intrinsically meaningful like curing a disease or feeding the homeless.  His recipe for success is simple:

– Get people to articulate the relevance in their jobs…the meaning they derive out of their work…an understanding of the people whose lives are made better, even in small ways, by what they do every day

– Get people to measure what they do (duh, management 101), IN RELATION TO THE RELEVANCE learnings from the last point (ahh, that’s an interesting twist)

– Get to know your people as people

All of these are things you’d generally read in good books on management, but this book ties them together artfully, simply, and in a good story about a roadside pizza restaurant.  It also stands in stark contrast to the book I reviewed and panned a few days ago by Jerry Porras in that it is nothing but examples from non-celebrities, non-success stories — ordinary people doing ordinary jobs.

Brad has blogged glowingly about Death by Meeting, so I’ll probably make that my next Lencioni read next month, with two more to go after that.

Filed under: Books, Business, Leadership