May 292009

You've Never Seen a Girl Like This

You've Never Seen a Girl Like This

I played hookey last night and went to a concert in San Diego — The Laura Roppe band was playing.  Laura is one of my oldest and dearest friends — we met in second grade and then went to junior high and high school together.  The title of this post is the title of her first album and its first song.  It's also true of Laura — she's one remarkable person.  Her web site is here. If you like country rock and female singer-songwriter music (think of Shania Twain or Norah Jones as comparables, although Laura is more versatile than both), and if you like discovering new up and coming artists, listen to the samples on her site, buy her album, or find her on iTunes.

I can't possibly do justice to Laura's story, which she tells very nicely on her web site here.  But the short of it is that she is in the middle of a dramatic personal transformation from brilliant lawyer to self made rock star, all while being a great mom and wife and just finishing up an exhausting 6-month successful fight against cancer.  Hopefully that's enough of a teaser to get you to at least give her music a sample!

I've been listening to her music on my ipod for months now, but especially after seeing her perform live last night, I have no doubt that she will be on an international tour within the next 12 months.  She is already getting great buzz and radio play in the US as well as Western Europe, and she's been nominated for a bunch of music awards.

I've never done a music recommendation post before in 5 years of blogging, and I may never do one again.  But Laura's story and music are just tremendous, and her lyrics are just plain fun.

Filed under: Music

May 292009

First day at Techstars: Where do you start?

First day at Techstars:  Where do you start?

I’m a new mentor this year at Techstars, a program in its third or fourth year in Boulder (and this year also in Boston for the first time) that provides a couple dozen companies with seed capital, advice and mentorship, and summer “incubation” services in a really well conceived for-profit venture started by David Cohen in Colorado.

Yesterday was my first day up there with my colleague George Bilbrey, and we met with three different companies, two of which we will tag team mentor through the summer.  I won’t get into who they are at the moment, mostly because I’m not sure what the confidentiality issues are offhand, but I’ll make the first of a series of posts here about observations I make from doing this work.

Yesterday’s thought was:  Where do you start?

It was so interesting to meet with in some cases pretty raw companies.  They weren’t exactly “a guy with an idea,” but for the most part they were <5 person teams with a working code base and some theories about who would buy the product. 

So where do you start on the question of business planning.  Do you dive into the deep end of details?  (What should we charge?  How do I get my first 5 beta customers?  What about this new feature?)  Or do you wade into the shallow end of methodical planning?  (Who is our target market?  What problem are we solving?  How much is it worth to the prospect?  What will it cost us to produce, sell, and support the product?)  We heard both of those approaches yesterday across the three companies. 

My conclusion isn’t that there’s a single correct answer.  For most mortals, it’s probably the case that while it’s good to have a product and an inspiration behind it, there’s a long road between that and a successful company that requires careful articulation of the basics and a good grip on potential economics before incremental investments of time or money. 

But there are the occasional companies whose ideas are so perfectly timed for such a large market or user base that some of the method can be ditched up front in the name of getting to market (think Twitter or eBay) — provided that the company circles back to those basics down the road in order to grow smartly over time.

Anyway, it was a thought-provoking day and great to see new entrepreneurs and ideas take root.  George and I have a series of six sessions set up with these companies as well as the full Techstars Demo Day in early August.  I’ll try to blog some thoughts after each session.

May 272009

Book Short: Entrepreneurs in Government

Book Short:  Entrepreneurs in Government

Leadership and Innovation:  Entrepreneurs in Government, edited by a professor I had at Princeton, Jim Doig, is an interesting series of mini-biographies of second- and third-tier government officials, mostly from the 1930s through the 1970s.  The book’s thesis is that some of the most interesting movers and shakers in the public arena (not elected officials) have a lot of the same core skills as private sector entrepreneurs.

The thesis is borne out by the book, and the examples are interesting, if for no other reason than they are about a series of highly influential people you’ve probably never heard of.  The guy who ran the Port Authority of New York for 30 years.  The guy who built the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines.  The head of NASA who put a man on the moon.

The biggest gap I identified between the success of these individuals and business entrepreneurs is the need for cultivation of direct relationships with congressional leaders, true in almost all cases.  I’m not sure there’s a proper analog — shareholders, maybe — but that’s clearly a skill that is required for the heads of agencies to succeed with their political patrons.

It’s an interesting read overall, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur who is considering a future career change into government.

May 182009

A Network of Teams, Not an Integrated System

A Network of Teams, Not an Integrated System

We were in and out of the hospital a lot back in March/April for the last few weeks with one of our kids (she’s ok now).  One of us was with her 24 hours a day for the 10-11 days she was hospitalized, with lots of down time, which gave me lots of time to observe health care in action.  While she ultimately got very good care at a very good hospital, it was incredibly clear to me that the hospital functioned as a network of teams, not as an integrated system.

The nurses were great.  Followed their routine practices and responded to doctors’ orders on cue.  Same with the nursing assistants.  Same with the docs.  Same with the phlebotomists and labs.  Same with the hospital support staff.  But the hand-offs from one team to the next, and from one shift to the next within a team, were seriously lacking.

What was wrong with this?  Nothing was optimized around the patient.  I mentioned this to my father-in-law, who is an HMO executive, and he noted that the concept of “patient-centric care” was a hot topic in managed care right now — but that it had also been a hot topic 10-15 years ago, to no apparent end (and not just in this one hospital that we were at).  Seems like customer relationship management became a persistent priority in the rest of the business world years ago.  Why hasn’t this stuck in health care?

This was a great exercise for me in thinking about the customer-centric view of a business.  We talk here at Return Path about “stapling yourself to a customer” to see what they see.  Every business should go through that exercise at some level regularly to make sure they’re functioning as an integrated system as far as the outside world is concerned.

May 112009

Five Years On

Five Years On

As of this past weekend, I’ve been blogging on OnlyOnce for five years.  My main reflection as I was thinking about it during this morning’s run is that blogging is different.  I started blogging to try out what was at the time the “new, new thing” (there were almost no CEO blogs at the time), just like I have tried out lots of other new technologies or web services from time to time over the years — from Skype to Facebook to Twitter to about 50 others.

You’ll never see a tweet from me about an anniversary of using Twitter.  Or any other comparable from that above list.  Blogging has ended up being fundamentally different.  It’s not just another expression of my status updates or another way to connect with friends and colleagues.  It’s become a core part of my business operating system, although I suppose that’s the case for many other tools as well. 

I think the main difference is that OnlyOnce has become a true form of creative expression for me.  It’s like (I imagine) writing a book or composing a piece of music. I’m not suggesting it’s high art, but I view it more as an ongoing project than most other online tools or sites I’ve tried out over the years.

Here’s to the next five years of it.

Filed under: Email

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May 042009

The Party's Over?

The Party's Over?

American party politics have had a few major realignments over the 220 years since we adopted our Constitution.  I took a class on this in school, but that was a long time ago, and I'll never remember all the details.  What I do remember is that they're somewhat chaotic.  And that they typically take several election cycles to take root.

I think we're in the middle of one now.  Arlen Specter's decision to become a Democrat is a particularly poignant example of it, though the fact that something like only 25% of the country now identifies with the Republican party is another.  With Specter, it's not that he changed his ideology — it's that his party changed its ideology.  Whether or not you view his switch as a cynical attempt to keep his job is irrelevant.  He has been a Republican for his whole public life of more than 40 years with a fairly consistent point of view and is a very popular public servant with his constituency at large, and now he believes he can't win a primary voted in mainly by party activists against Republican opponents. 

Something I read today – either the Journal or Politico – had a quote from a Republican hardliner that is further signifying the realignment:

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and welcome Mr. Specter's defection as an ideological cleansing. "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs."

That doesn't say much for the future of the GOP now, does it?  That said, I think prognostications of a permanent Democratic majority are unfounded. If I remember my history correctly, a realignment occurs when one party gets too powerful and too big — its opponents are the ones who realign as a check and balance.  Examples range from the Anti-Federalists becoming the original Republicans in the early 19th century, to the rise of the Whig and then Republican Party in the mid 19th century, to the Roosevelt era in the mid 20th century, to the Reagan Revolution in the late 20th century.  American politics are streaky.  Parties usually have a stranglehold on at least one branch of government for long periods of time, then a realignment shakes things up for a while, then control switches.  With the Whigs/Republicans, once they settled down with the election of Lincoln, for example, the party dominated the Presidency for 80 years, winning 6 consecutive presidential elections, 11 of 13, and 14 of 18 from Lincoln up through Franklin Roosevelt. 

I guess my point is that Republicans as we know them today may be doomed, but Democrats shouldn't spend too much time dancing on their grave.  Realignments won't take 20 years to kick in any more.  We move too quickly, information is too freely available, and public opinion is fickle.

What's the lesson here for a business?  It's all about competition.  Having a commanding market share is a great thing, but it's unusual for it to last.  Smaller competitors attack when you least expect it.  They attack in ways that you pooh-pooh based on your perspective of the world.  And they can often combine with other smaller players, whether through M&A or just alliances, in ways that challenge a leader's hegemony.  They redefine the market — or the market redefines them.

So be mindful of market realignment — whether you are CEO of the Democratic Party or CEO of, Inc.  Don't focus on what people have bought from you in the past, or why.  Focus on what they'll be buying in the future, and why.

Filed under: Current Affairs