Apr 282009

Vertical (Dis)Integration

Vertical (Dis)Integration

A couple years ago, Dave Morgan wrote one of the best thought pieces on the future of the newspaper business in his Mediapost column.  Essentially his observation was that newspapers are an outdated vertical integration, and that to survive, smart papers would disaggregate into 5 separate companies and run each one as a separate business, taking on a new life unshackled from the newspaper:  local ad sales (they could own that franchise for the Yelps and Yodles of the world), local content (who better to syndicate local content?), local distribution (no other companies drop something on every doorstep every day), printing (still a business that requires scale), and digital.  It’s just a brilliant idea.

And it’s a shame none of them followed his advice, since they’re all going out of business now.

What occurred to me this week as I’m soaking in the goodness that is my new Amazon Kindle is that while newspapers may need to disaggregate to stay alive, Amazon is slowly amassing a strategy of very clever vertical integration that could well fuel its growth for decades to come.

The Kindle is brilliant vertical integration — it’s the device, the distribution, and the retail model all in one.  And if Amazon is smart, eventually once they have enough market share, they’ll just start doing deals directly with authors and cut out the publishing industry altogether and own the content as well.  They can hit both the long tail (with publishing and distribution costs approaching zero, the risk associated with signing a new untested writer for a revenue share deal are nil) as well as the head (cool place to release your newest book if you’re, say, Steven King).  And at that point, they’ll have a model that should produce an enormous amount of profit for them.

It’s interesting to look at these two situations in parallel — the transition of old media to new media, with one set of losers and a winner, where winning strategies are polar opposites.

Filed under: Business, Email


Apr 222009

Book Short: Wither the Team

Book Short:  Wither the Team

I keep expecting one of his books to be repetitive or boring, but Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team held my interest all the way through, as did his others.  It builds nicely on the last one I read, Death by Meeting (post, link).

I’d say that over the 9 1/2 years we’ve been in business at Return Path, we’ve systematically improved the quality of our management team.  Sometimes that’s because we’ve added or changed people, but mostly it’s because we’ve been deliberate about improving the way in which we work together.  This particular book has a nice framework for spotting troubles on a team, and it both reassured me that we have done a nice job stamping out at least three of the dysfunctions in the model and fired me up that we still have some work to do to completely stamp out the final two (we’ve identified them and made progress, but we’re not quite there yet.

The dysfunctions make much more sense in context, but they are (in descending order of importance):

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict (everyone plays politically nice)
  • Lack of commitment (decisions don’t stick)
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results (individual ego vs. team success)

For those who are wondering, the two we’re still working on at the exec team level here are conflict and commitment.  And the two are related.  If you don’t produce engaged discussion about an issue and allow everyone to air their opinions, they will invariably be less bought into a decision (especially one they don’t agree with).  But we’re getting there and will continue to work aggressively on it until we’ve rooted it out.

There’s one other interesting takeaway from the book that’s not part of the framework directly, which is that an executive has to be first and foremost a member of his/her team of peers, not the head of his/her department.  That’s how successful teams get built.  AND (this is key) this must trickle down in the organization as well.  Everyone who manages a team of group heads or managers needs to make those people function well as a team first, then as managers of their own groups second.

At any rate, another quick gem of a book.  I’m kind of sorry there’s only one left in the series.

So far the series includes:

I have one or two more to go, which I’ll tackle in due course and am looking forward to.

Apr 142009

The Catcher Hypothesis

The Catcher Hypothesis

Here’s an interesting nugget I just picked up from Harvard Business Review’s March issue in an article entitled “Making Mobility Matter,” by Richard Guzzo and Haig Nalbantian.

Of the 30 teams in Major League baseball, 12 of the managers are former catchers.  A normal distribution would be 2 or 3.  Sounds like a case of a Gladwellian Outlier, doesn’t it?  The authors explain their theory here…that catchers face their teammates, that they are closest to the competition, that they have to keep track of a lot of things at once, be psychiatrists to flailing pitchers, etc.  Essentially that the kind of person who is a successful catcher has all the qualities of a successful manager.

What’s the learning for business?  Part of having a strategic orientation towards the people in the business is making sure that you’re creating development paths for people, which is both good for them and good for the organization to train future leaders.  Another part is making sure great people don’t get bored — especially in tough economic times when organizations aren’t growing, new roles aren’t opening up, and promotions and even lateral moves are harder to come by.

Back to the Catcher Hypothesis.  A good strategic people plan, whether or not you have a head of HR to develop it (if you don’t, it’s your job!), will identify “training ground” positions within your organization.  The larger we get, the more of these we try to carve out.  Sometimes it’s pulling people out of their current roles (fully or partially) and putting them in charge of a high-profile short-term, cross-functional project.  We have a couple more formal roles at the entry level, one in account management and one in application support, so we can start growing our own talent and reduce reliance on more expensive outside hires.  Another we are developing now is basically a “mini-GM” role, which should develop a whole future generation of leaders as the company grows from ~200 people to hopefully a much larger group down the road.

Who plays Catcher in your organization?

Apr 082009

Book Short: Loving the Strengths Movement More Than the Book

Book Short:  Loving the Strengths Movement More Than the Book

I’m a big believer in the so-called Strengths Movement — that we would all be better served by playing to our strengths than agonizing over fixing our weaknesses. I think it’s true both in professional and personal settings.

The books written by Marcus Buckingham that come out of Gallup’s extensive research into corporate America, First, Break All the Rules (about management) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (self-management) are both quite good.  Another book written by someone else off the same research corpus, 12: The Elements of Great Managing is ok, but not as good, as I wrote about here.

Buckingham’s newest, Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance, is fine and has some good points but is way too long, a little hokey, and has a lot of online companion material that is far more interesting sounding than it is actually useful.

The book does build nicely on Now, Discover Your Strengths by giving you inspiration and a framework for taking those signature themes from the prior book and translating them into action — stuff you actually do every day that plays to your strengths and draws out your weaknesses.  And that’s helpful.  Some of his suggestions for what you do with that information are ok but a bit common sense only and way too drawn out (“here’s how to talk to your boss…”).

To be fair, I am going to do some of the work that Buckingham recommended doing — so I guess that says something about the power of the book, or at least the movement underlying it.  But not the best read in the world.

Filed under: Books, Business


Apr 022009

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today)

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today)

The biggest problem with all the social networks, as far as I can tell, is that there’s no easy and obvious way for me to differentiate the people to whom I am connected either by type of person or by how closely connected we are.

I have about 400 on Facebook and 600 on LinkedIn.  And I’m still adding ones as new people get on the two networks for the first time.  While it seems to people in the industry here that “everyone is on Facebook,” it’s not true yet.  Facebook is making its way slowly (in Geoffrey Moore terms) through Main Street.  Main Street is a big place.

But not all friends are created equal.  There are some where I’m happy to read their status updates or get invited to their events.  There are some where I’m happy if they see pictures of me.  But there are others where neither of these is the case.  Why can’t I let only those friends who I tag as “summer camp” see pictures of me that are tagged as being from summer camp?  Why can’t I only get event invitations from “close friends”?  Wouldn’t LinkedIn be better if it only allowed second and third degree connections to come from “strong” connections instead of “weak” ones?

It’s also hard to not accept a connection from someone you know.  Here’s a great example.  A guy to whom I have a very tenuous business connection (but a real one) friends me on Facebook.  I ignore him.  He does it again.  I ignore him again.  And a third time.  Finally, he emails me with some quasi-legitimate business purpose and asks why I’m ignoring him — he sees that I’m active on Facebook, so I *must* be ignoring him.  Sigh.  I make up some feeble excuse and go accept his connection.  Next thing I know, I’m getting an invitation from this guy for “International Hug a Jew Day,” followed by an onslaught of messages from everyone else in his address book in some kind of reply-to-all functionality.  Now, I’m a Jew, and I don’t mind a hug now and then, but this crap, I could do without. 

I mentioned this problem to a friend the other day who told me the problem was me.  “You just have too many friends.  I reject everyone who connects to me unless they’re a really, super close friend.”  Ok, fine, I am a connector, but I don’t need a web site to help me stay connected to the 13 people I talk to on the phone or see in person.  The beauty of social networks is to enable some level of communication with a much broader universe — including on some occasions people I don’t know at all.  That communication, and the occasional serendipity that accompanies it, goes away if I keep my circle of friends narrow.  In fact, I do discriminate at some level in terms of who I accept connections from.  I don’t accept them from people I truly don’t know, which isn’t a small number.  It’s amazing how many people try to connect to me who I have never met or maybe who picked up my business card somewhere.

The tools to handle this today are crude and only around the edges.  I can ignore people or block them, but that means I never get to see what they’re up to (and vice versa).  That eliminates the serendipity factor as well.  Facebook has some functionality to let me “see more from some people and less from others” — but it’s hard to find, it’s unclear how it works, and it’s incredibly difficult to use.  Sure, I can “never accept event invitations from this person,” or hide someone’s updates on home page, but those tools are clunky and reactive.

When are the folks at LinkedIn and Facebook going to solve this?  Feels like tagging, basic behavioral analysis, and checkboxes at point of “friending” aren’t exactly bleeding edge technologies any more.

Filed under: Email, Technology


Apr 012009

Senders No More

Senders No More

February marked the official end of Return Path being in the email sending business, even a little bit. Of course we still have corporate email servers, and we still have basic retention email marketing programs for our customers and prospects (with explicit permission of course!), but after a 9 1/2 year run, we no longer have direct consumer email-based relationships.

As we announced last fall, we recently divested all of our businesses other than our deliverability and whitelisting business — Postmaster Direct (list rental), Authentic Response/MyView.com (surveys), and ECOA (change of address). Those were great businesses, but they increasingly diverged over the years from each other and from our core deliverability business, so it made sense for them to belong to different companies in the end.

Besides diverging from each other, being a bulk sender of email had both advantages and disadvantages for us as a company. On the one hand, it was good for us to see firsthand what some of the issues are that impact our clients. We were, in fact, our own clients, one business unit to another. But on the other hand, being a bulk sender carried a real business risk of compromising our position as a trusted intermediary between senders and receivers. It was always a fine line to walk, and while we never got in trouble for it, we were always concerned — to the point where for a long time we didn’t allow our other business units to apply for our whitelist, Sender Score Certified, even at “arm’s length.” At least we weren’t an ESP!

But now that risk is gone. We are senders no more. Be sure to read our CTO’s description of what it was like to send a transactional privacy policy notification to 20mm addresses, most of which hadn’t been mailed in months or years.