Aug 262009

What if There’s No Reason to Eat the Dog Food?

What if There’s No Reason to Eat the Dog Food?

There’s an expression in software about producing a product and market testing it — “seeing if the dogs will eat the dog food.”  I’ve heard it mangled many times around the employees of a software company using the software their own company produces as “seeing if the dogs will eat their own dog food.”  This is always true in consumer software and service companies. 

Employees are often the best users, the power users, and the source of the best feedback to the organization about the product and competition.  We certainly saw this phenomenon in spades at MovieFone, where I used to work before starting Return Path.  There was no more of a power user to be found than Andrew, the CEO, and there was a frenzy every Thursday and Friday as employees called into 777-FILM to buy their own tickets for the upcoming weekend.

But what if there’s no reason to eat your own dog food?  What if your software company develops a specific business application that only one or two people inside your company even care about?  Our services are a great example.  One or two people in Marketing, maybe one or two people in Technology, are users.  When I think about some of the web applications we as a company use, the same must be true of their companies as well.

If this is the case with your company, how do you make sure you get that same level of raw feedback from passionate users inside the four walls of your office, and not just from user groups, which are ok but have some inherent problems in terms of their objectivity and representation. 

I’m not sure I have a good answer to this – it’s more of a question to my readers than a prescription.  I’ll happily reblog the best responses!

Filed under: Email

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Aug 192009

Good Meeting Behavior

Good Meeting Behavior

I've been in meetings with large groups of people at big companies where they're all on laptops the whole meeting, no one makes any eye contact with the speaker/facilitator, and it's hard to get a pulse out of the group as a result.

I almost entirely stopped bringing laptops and smartphones into business meetings a few years back.  There's nothing I find more irritating than when other people are using them when it's my meeting.  Even if they're taking notes, I never know if they're really taking notes or sneaking a peek at email.  And in my experience, people who are on laptops and phones in meetings, whatever they're doing on those devices and however good they are at multi-tasking, aren't paying as close attention to the meeting as the other people in the room. 

What I do instead is take notes on paper and spend 2 minutes after the meeting handling whatever data entry I need to handle on my computer.

I was very excited to see Brad's post about how he is now going to take paper notes in Board meetings rather than use his smartphone and be tempted to check email (and otherwise be distracted).  Everyone should do this for every meeting.  Board meetings are important examples, but they're not alone.  It's just good meeting behavior.  If you have other things to do, step out of the meeting and do them.

Filed under: Business

Aug 162009

Stuck In Legal, Responses

Stuck In Legal, Responses

Well, I certainly struck a nerve with my Stuck In Legal rant/post last week.  As of now, there are 32 comments on the blog — my typical post generates 0-1 — and I've picked up between 50 and 75 new followers on Twitter, probably mostly because Fred tweeted about the post. 

Most of the comments on the blog were cheering me on; a couple were from lawyers, one well reasoned and another just a counter rant against stupid business people that had one or two good points buried in it.  You can certainly click through the link above if you want to read them.

But two comments didn't get put on the blog, which I thought I'd post here.  Keep the good thoughts coming on this topic.  It's an important one.

First, Jonathan Ezor (a professor of law and technology) posted his response — not a rebuttal — on the Business Week blog here.  He makes some very good points about how both sides, businessperson and counsel, can work better together to eliminate a bunch of the hassles I noted in my original post.

Second, Joe Stanganelli, a lawyer, emailed me the following, which was too long for my Intense Debate comment software to handle:

In defense of my profession…

EXPLANATIONS:

•Why companies' legal departments or outside counsel aren't directed to be as efficient in doing their work as their other departments

How exactly do you mean?  I'm not sure this is true.  Given the average amount of hours our profession works as it is, we *have* to be efficient.

I can tell you, however, that a huge pet peeve of us lawyers is when our clients essentially say (typically when they’re being billed hourly), "Gee, I want an answer to this very complex legal question that will require a lot of research because no statutes or case laws are directly on point, but don't spend a lot of time on it."

 

This is a bit like saying, “Look, don’t spend a lot of time on this transplant…I’ve got a meeting in an hour, and I’m trying to save money besides."

Also bear in mind that lawyers are not widget-makers or assembly line workers.  We aren’t even (usually) executive decision-makers.  We are in the knowledge and information industry.  We read, we think, and we write.  If you can provide us with some tips as to how to read, think, or write more efficiently, we would be delighted to hear them.

 

•Why companies insist on using their standard form of agreement if they're going to staff a legal department to review contracts anyway (this clearly wouldn't work if everyone in the world behaved this way)

The standard form of agreement has already (presumably) been determined by the company’s legal department to be the best form for the company's interests as part of the legal department’s careful legal analysis (i.e., the job they are paid to do).  Often, however, other companies, clients, etc. don’t use the standard form, or send their own form, or modify the standard form, or any number of other idiosyncrasies can happen with the execution of a contract.  All of these things have legal ramifications and have been the subject of past litigation.

 

•Why lawyers insist on answering questions with "because that's how all our contracts are" instead of applying their brains and logic to situations

(I'll try not to take too much offense at that last part.)

 

This generally happens because the answer “because that’s how all our contracts are” is a lot easier to say than to give the CEO a crash course in contract law.  It’s not fair, but it’s true.

A good lawyer, however, should at least be able to explain to boil it down to a few bullet points without being arrogant about it.

 

•Why business people seem to have no leverage with their legal departments, especially in larger companies, therefore surrendering the negotiation of business terms and the timing of relationship launches, technology usage, etc. to lawyers

This criticism is, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, a bit mind-blowing.  It’s not a matter of “leverage" at all.

Companies have legal departments as a preventative measure because they recognize that the best time to hire a lawyer is before you actually need one.  Most of law practice, in fact, is this “preventative law” and compliance work.  It saves the client (in this case, the company) time and money down the road by staving off lawsuits and liability.

These lawyers are in the business of protecting their clients from themselves – which the clients willingly pay them for because the clients (usually) recognize that they did not go to law school, pass the Bar Exam, and gain years of experiencing practicing law.

So when a company wants to launch a potentially harmful product via a distribution agreement that allows the distributor to get more money than he should because of a technicality, the legal department has to step in and tell the company, “YOU WILL GET SUED IF YOU DO THIS AND LOSE X AMOUNT OF DOLLARS!!!” or they aren’t doing their jobs.

A lawyer is a counselor – an advisor.  Any leader who totally disregards his advisors is not a good leader.

Again, this is not a matter of not having leverage with legal departments; it is a matter of not being able to change the law.

Please don’t shoot the messenger.

 

•Why in-house lawyers make the same dumb changes to wording and formatting that lawyers who bill by the hour make

The law is the law is the law; how the lawyer gets paid does not impact what the law is.  Those “dumb changes” are tried and true terminology that mean certain things in the courts and (usually) all the lawyers and judges know what they mean.  If the lawyers left it alone, your document or contract would potentially (perhaps even likely) mean something totally different.

 

Overall, please recognize that lawyers – at least in the legal department / “preventative law” context that you discuss – are in the risk management and compliance business.  They don’t make the law (at least, not the ones who work for you); they’re simply the guides who are navigating you – the layperson – through the legal system (one that took us years to understand).

After all, if you were blind, and you had a seeing-eye dog, would you get mad at the seeing-eye dog for not letting you cross the street when it’s a green light and a Mack truck is coming down the road?  Would you think that seeing-eye dogs were conspiring against you to not let you cross the street?

 

I will say this, though: Joshua Baer makes a great point.  A good lawyer should be able to provide you with a list of options, and explain (at least in a rudimentary fashion) the dollars-and-cents consequences of each one.  As J.P. Morgan said, “Well, I don't know as I want a lawyer to tell me what I cannot do. I hire him to tell how to do what I want to do.”

Filed under: Business, Leadership

Aug 122009

Stuck in Legal

Stuck in Legal

If I had a nickel for every time I heard from someone on our sales or business development team that a critical contract, to which both sides had agreed on the fundamental business terms, was "stuck in legal," I'd be rich.  Maybe not rich enough to pay all the world's legal bills, but that's a separate story.

I completely understand the need for contracts and lawyers to review them — and sometimes, they do have to be long and complex.  But here's what I don't understand:

  • Why companies' legal departments or outside counsel aren't directed to be as efficient in doing their work as their other departments
  • Why companies insist on using their standard form of agreement if they're going to staff a legal department to review contracts anyway (this clearly wouldn't work if everyone in the world behaved this way)
  • Why lawyers insist on answering questions with "because that's how all our contracts are" instead of applying their brains and logic to situations
  • Why business people seem to have no leverage with their legal departments, especially in larger companies, therefore surrendering the negotiation of business terms and the timing of relationship launches, technology usage, etc. to lawyers
  • Why in-house lawyers make the same dumb changes to wording and formatting that lawyers who bill by the hour make

I'm not generally a conspiracy theorist, but much of our encounters with outside lawyers leads me to believe that there's some oath that lawyers take to keep their profession vibrant by creating work for each other.  Someday, I'll write a similar post about procurement departments at big companies.  But it might be as simple as a global find-and-replace on this one!

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Filed under: Business, Leadership

Aug 072009

Techstars Roundup: Why I Mentor Other Entrepreneurs

Techstars Roundup:  Why I Mentor Other Entrepreneurs

Yesterday was Demo/Investor day at Techstars in Boulder, Colorado.  A lot of people have written about it – Fred, Brad, and a great piece by Don Dodge on TechCrunch listing out all the companies.  My colleague George and I co-mentored two of the companies, SendGrid and Mailana, and we really enjoyed working with Isaac and Pete, the two entrepreneurs.

I posted twice earlier this summer on the TechStars experience.  My first post on this, Where do you Start?, was about whether to be methodical in business planning for a startup or dive right into the details.  My second post, One Pitfall to Avoid, was about making sure you don’t create a whizzy solution looking for a problem, but that you start with a problem that needs solving.

Rather than rehash what others have written about yesterday — yes, it was great and fun and energizing — I thought I’d focus on why I spend time mentoring new entrepreneurs.  I did it this year at TechStars, but I’ve done this informally for probably a dozen different entrepreneurs over the years in the community in general. 

Anyway, there are four main reasons I spend time mentoring other entrepreneurs (in no particular order):

It sharpens the saw.  This is Stephen Covey’s language from both The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The 8th Habit:  From Effectiveness to Greatness, and it simply refers to an activity that puls you out of the day to day and refreshes your brain because it’s different.  Running, playing guitar, mentoring sessions with entrepreneurs — they all clear the head and are just plain fun.

I get good specific ideas for my own business.  I think I came away from every single meeting I had with either entrepreneur this year with at least one new “to do” for myself and my team at Return Path.  There’s nothing quite like seeing how another company or entrepreneur operates to spur on good thinking, and in this case, both teams we worked with were working in the email space, so they were very relevant to our day-to-day.

I crystallize my own thoughts and ideas.  Much like writing this blog, problem/solution sessions with other entrepreneurs forces me to take a cloud of ideas down to a simple sentence or paragraph. 

I learn a lot about my colleagues.  This is a specific case for this year because I co-mentored these companies with George, although I guess bits and pieces of it have come up over the years as I’ve roped other colleauges into other situations.  George and I brought different ideas and frames of reference to our sessions with SendGrid and Mailana, and it was fun for me and a good learning experience as well to see how George approached the same problems I did.  Call it a “peek inside George’s brain.”

Hopefully I will get invited back to TechStars again next year as a mentor – it was great fun, and I’m incredibly proud of Pete and Isaac and their teams with how well they presented their companies yesterday!

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