Sep 302009

Wanted: Rock Star Marketer

Wanted: Rock Star Marketer

Return Path is hiring a VP Marketing. This is a new position – we haven’t had the job filled in a couple years like this, reporting directly to me. The job spec is here.

What it’s like to work here is pretty well captured here.

Why should you pass this on to a friend who is a good fit? Because you will help a friend find the best job he or she ever had! Oh and because we will pay you a nice referral fee if we hire your friend.

Why should you apply? That’s a longer answer:

1. We are inventive market leaders with a really unique business model, at a good scale, in a rapidly growing niche

2. We are reinventing our business in a way that is going to dramatically impact the entire email ecosystem in an extremely positive way for ISPs, filters, mailers, and end users alike

3. This position will be a hugely strategic role, managing a very strong marketing team as well as being an executive partner to the rest of the senior team around positioning and telling our story, both to all sides of the industry as well as potentially to Wall Street (someday, anyway)

4. As a growth stage company, we offer the best aspects of small company/startup life and larger company benefits

5. We have the best VC investors in the country, and we are also materially cash flow positive

6. We are a really fun place to work (just ask us!) If you are interested or know someone who is, you can comment here, or you can email me directly at matt at returnpath dot net. The details are in the spec, but we have a strong preference for someone in the Bay Area who has worked in email/messaging security.

Sep 292009

Closer to the Front Lines, Part II

Closer to the Front Lines, II

Last year, I wrote about our sabbatical policy and how I had spent six weeks filling in for George when he was out.  I just finished up filling in for Jack (our COO/CFO) while he was out on his.  Although for a variety of reasons I wasn’t as deeply engaged with Jack’s team as I was last year with George’s, I did find some great benefits to working more directly with them.

In addition to the ones I wrote about last year, another discovery, or rather, reminder, that I got this time around was that the bigger the company gets and the more specialized skill sets become, there are an increasing number of jobs that I couldn’t step in and do in a pinch.  I used to feel this way about all non-technical jobs in the early years of the company, but not so much any more. 

Anyway, it’s always a busy time doing two jobs, and probably both jobs suffer a bit in the short term.  But it’s a great experience overall for me as a leader.  Anita’s sabbatical will also hit in 2010 — is everyone ready for me to run sales for half a quarter?

Filed under: Return Path, Uncategorized

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Sep 242009

The Gift of Feedback, Part III

The Gift of Feedback, Part III

Last week, I posted about my new development plan.  I thought I’d also share a “team development plan” that we crafted this year for the entire Executive Committee at Return Path (basically me and my direct reports), coming out of all of our 360 live reviews taken as a whole.

  1.  Push each other harder and be continuous in our effort to provide the team and each of us feedback and further develop:  Improve ability to handle conflict as a group; Drive this work deeper into the organization; “Eyes/ears/mouth open;”  Explore how to better serve as role models to the rest of the organization, especially our direct reports/the next level of management; How do we get the Level II to function in the way that we do?
  2. Getting messaging out/improve our communications as a team to the rest of the organization
  3. Be more hawkish with underperformers:  Exert a discipline in dealing with problems; Making tough calls that don’t feel very good; Do we accept mediocrity?
  4. Take responsibility for everyone as a group
  5. Do we have a team of A+ players?  How do we recruit them as we get bigger?  Can we attract the best?  Or pay differently?  Revisit incentive comp plan if we don’t feel like it’s working as intended?
  6. At least 2x/year comprehensively evaluate next level management to assess bench strength
  7. Goal: to have this executive team be the outlier and be able to grow and each and as a team be able to manage a $100MM company

Thanks to our friend Marc Maltz at Triad Consulting as always for facilitating these great sessions and distilling the learnings down into bite-sized pieces for us!

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Sep 182009

How Deliverability is Like SEO and SEM for Email

How Deliverability is Like SEO and SEM for Email

I admit this is an imperfect analogy, and I’m sure many of my colleagues in the email industry are going to blanch at a comparison to search, but the reality is that email deliverability is still not well understood — and search engines are.  I hope that I can make a comparison here that will help you better understand what it really means to work on deliverability – they same way you understand what it means to work on search.

But before we get to that, let’s start with the language around deliverability which is still muddled.  I’d like to encourage everyone in the email industry to rally around more precise meanings.  Specifically I’d like propose that we start to use the term “inbox placement rate” or IPR, for short.  I think this better explains what marketers mean when they say “delivered” – because anywhere other than the inbox is not going to generate the kind of response that marketers need.  The problem with the term “delivered” is that it is usually used to mean “didn’t bounce.”  While that is a good metric to track, it does not tell you where the email lands.  Inbox placement rate, by contrast, is pretty straightforward: how much of the email you sent landed in the inbox of our customers and prospects?

Now let’s come back to how achieving a high inbox placement rate is like search.  If you run a web site, you certainly understand what SEO and SEM are, you care deeply about both, and you spend money on both to get them right.  Whether “organic” or “paid,” you want your site to show up as high as possible on the page at Google, Yahoo, Bing, whatever.  Both SEO and SEM drive success in your business, though in different ways.

The inbox is different and a far more fragmented place than search engines, but if you run an email program, you need to worry both about your “organic” inbox placement and your “paid” inbox placement.  If you are prone to loving acronyms you could call them OIP and PIP.

What’s the difference between the two?

With organic inbox placement, you are using technology and analytics to manage your email reputation, the underpinning of deliverability.  You are testing, tracking, and monitoring your outbound email.  Seeing where it lands – in the inbox, in the junk mail folder, or nowhere?  You are doing all this to optimize your inbox placement rate (IPR) — just as you work to optimize your page rank on search engines.  One of the ways you do this is by monitoring your email reputation (Sender Score) as a proxy for how likely you are to have your email filtered or blocked.  The more you manage all of these factors, the greater likelihood you will be placed in inboxes everywhere.

With paid inbox placement, you first have to qualify by having a strong email reputation.  Then you use payment to ensure inbox placement, and frequently other benefits like functioning images and links or access to rich media.  With this paid model, there’s no guarantee to inbox placement (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), just like there’s no guarantee that you’ll be in the #1 position via paid search if someone outbids you.  But by paying, you are radically increasing the odds of inbox placement as well as adding other benefits.  There is one critical difference from search here, which is that you need good organic inbox placement in order to gain access to PIP.  You can’t just pay to play.

Like SEO, some organic deliverability work can and must be done in-house, but frequently it’s better to outsource to companies like Return Path to save costs and time, and to gain specific expertise.  Like SEM, paid deliverability inherently means you are working with third parties like our Return Path Certification program

As I said, it’s an imperfect analogy, but hopefully can help you better understand the strategies and services that are available to help you make the most of every email you send.

Filed under: Email, Marketing

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Sep 162009

Another Only Once Moment, Sort Of

Another Only Once Moment, Sort Of

I’ve never handed over the reins of a company before (no, I’m not leaving, and we aren’t selling Return Path).  But I did the other day, for the first time.  As many people know, last year we reorganized the company to focus entirely on deliverability and whitelisting and spun out Authentic Response, a company in the online market research business, into a completely separate entity. 

Since then, I have been CEO of both companies.  Although Return Path has had more of my focus — Authentic Response had excellent day-to-day leadership under Co-Presidents Jeff Mattes and Rob Mattes — I’ve still been working in both businesses.

Today, we officially announced the hiring of my replacement, Jim Follett.  Jim was formerly CEO of Survey Sampling, a larger company in the online market research business, and has over 20 years of prior experience as a senior executive in market research and information services companies.  While we still share the office in New York and I will stay on as Chairman, the percentage of time I can now devote to Return Path is now 100% — the first time it’s ever been that way (for the deliverability business).

I didn’t start Authentic Response, and I’ve never been deep in the bones of the business the way I am Return Path.  Even so, I definitely experienced a range of emotions at our all-hands meeting where we introduced Jim to the company that I don’t regularly experience at the same time:  mainly a mix of pride in the work the team has done on my watch, excitement for the business, and sadness at not working quite as closely with the nearly 100 people in Authentic Response going forward.

I’m sure someday, I will hand over the reins to Return Path.  No time soon, but that day eventually comes for every entrepreneur.  If this was a preview, it will be an emotional day.

But for now, I’m mainly happy to welcome Jim to the family, and I’m excited for the entire Authentic Response business as it embarks on the next chapter in the company’s journey.

Sep 142009

The Gift of Feedback, Part II

  

The Gift of Feedback, Part II

I’ve written a few times over the years about our 360 feedback process at Return Path.  In Part I of this series in early 2008, I spelled out my development plan coming out of that year’s 360 live review process. I have my new plan now after this year’s process, and I thought I’d share it once again.  This year I have four items to work on:

  1. Continue to develop the executive team.  Manage the team more aggressively and intentionally.  Upgrade existing people, push hard on next-level team development, and critically evaluate the organization every 3-6 months to see if the execs are scaling well enough or if they need to replaced or augmented
  2. Formalize junior staff interaction.  Create more intentional feedback loops before/after meetings, including with the staff member if needed, and cultivate acceptance of transparency; get managers to do the same.  Be extra skeptical about the feedback I’m getting, realizing that I may not get an accurate or complete picture
  3. Foster deeper engagement across the entire organization.  Simplify/streamline company mission and balanced scorecard through a combination of deeper level maps/scorecards, maybe a higher level scorecard, and constant reinforcing communication.  Drive multi-year planning process to be fun, touching the entire company, and culminating in a renewed enthusiasm
  4. Disrupt early and often, the right way.  Introduce an element of productive disruption/creative destruction into the way I lead, noting item 2 around feedback loops

Thanks to everyone internally who contributed to this review.  I appreciate your time and input.  Onward!

Sep 092009

Scaling Frustrations

Scaling Frustrations

Two things have come up in spades lately for me that are frustrations for me as a CEO of a high growth company.  These are both people related — an area that's always been the cornerstone of my leadership patterns.  That probably makes them even more frustrating.

Frustration 1:  Worrying that I don't get completely candid feedback from deep in the organization.  I've always relied on direct interactions with junior staff and personal observation and data collection in order to get a feel for what's going on.  But a couple times lately, people had been warning me (for the first time) when I've relayed feedback with comments like, "Of course you heard that — you're the CEO.  People will tell you what they think you want to hear." 

So now the paranoid Matt kicks in a bit.  Can I actually trust the feedback I'm getting?  I think I can.  I always have.  I think I'm a good judge of character and am able to read between the lines and filter comments and input and responses to questions I ask.  But maybe this gets harder as the organization grows and as personal connections to me are necessarily fewer and farther between. I probably need to start recognizing that as the CEO, people may feel uncomfortable being totally open…and it is my job to figure out how to be sure people understand that I do want to hear their voices…unplugged and constructive.

Frustration 2:  Needing to be increasingly careful with what I say and how I say it.  This comes up in two different ways.  First, I want to make sure that while I'm still providing as transparent leadership as I can, that I'm not saying something that's going to freak out a more junior staff member because they're missing context or might misinterpret what I'm saying.  Ok, this one I can manage.

But the tougher angle on this is having unintended impact on people.  Throwing out a casual idea in a conversation with someone in the company can easily lead to a chain reaction of "Matt said" and "I need to redo my goals" conversations that aren't what I meant.  So I'm doing some work to formalize feedback and communication loops when I have skip-level check-ins, but it's creating more process and thought overhead for me than I'm used to.

Nothing is bad here – just signs of a growing organization – but some definite changes in how I need to behave in order to keep being a strong and successful leader.

Sep 032009

Ten Characteristics of Great Investors

Ten Characteristics of Great Investors

Fred had a great post today called Ten Characteristics of Great Companies.  This link includes the comments, which numbered over 70 when I last looked.  Great discussion overall, especially for Fred’s having come up with the list on a 15-minute subway ride.  Fred used to write a series of posts about VC Chiches, and I would periodically write a Counter-Chiche post from the entrepreneur’s perspective.  This post inspired me to do the same.

So I’ve taken 15 minutes here, pretended I’m on the subway, and here is my list of Ten Characteristics of Great Investors, in no particular order:

  1. Great investors know how to give strategic advice without being in the operating weeds of a company
  2. Great investors get to know whole management teams, not just CEOs — in fact, great investors become part of the extended management team of their portfolio companies
  3. Great investors invite you to do diligence on them by giving you a list of every CEO they’ve ever worked with and asking you to pick the ones you want to talk to
  4. Great investors ask great questions
  5. Great investors don’t publicly take credit for the success of their investments, even if they were major drivers of that success
  6. Great investors show up for meetings on time and don’t spend the meeting using their smartphone
  7. Great investors treat their portfolio companies’ money as if it were their own money when spending it on things like lawyers or travel
  8. Great investors look for connections to make between their portfolio companies or relevant people but have a strong relevance filter and don’t send junk
  9. Great investors never have a ready-made list of the ways they add value to companies — and they specifically never talk about the help they give in recruiting executives or making sales/bus dev introductions
  10. Great investors recognize when they have a conflict around a portfolio company and are clear to represent their separate points of view separately

I’m not sure I’ll be invited to present this anywhere, but there it is for discussion.

Sep 022009

Book Short: Go Where They Ain’t

Book Short:  Go Where They Ain’t

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne isn’t bad, but it could literally be summed up by the title of this post.  I think it’s probably a better book for people who aren’t already entrepreneurs.

That said, there are two chapters that I found pretty valuable.  One is called “Reconstruct Market Boundaries,” which is a great way of thinking about either starting a new business or innovating an existing one.  It’s a strategy that we’ve employed a few times over the years at both Return Path and Authentic Response.  It’s hard to do, but it expands the available territory you have to cover.  The classic Jack Welch/GE “we don’t just sell jet engines, we sell AND SERVICE jet engines” which expanded their addressable market 9x.

The other useful chapter was “Get the Strategic Sequence Right.”  The sequence of questions to answer, according to the authors, is:

  • Will buyers get enough utility out of it?
  • What’s the right price?
  • Can you cost it low enough to make good margin?
  • Are you dealing with adoption hurdles?

The reason I found this sequence so interesting is that I think many entrepreneurs mix the order up once they get past the first one.  It’s easy to start with market need and then quickly jump to adoption hurdles, cost things out, and go with a cost-plus pricing strategy.  The book documents nicely why this order is more productive.  In particular, pricing first, then costing second, is both more market-focused (what will people pay?) and more innovative (how can I think creatively to work within the constraint of that price point?).

The common theme that’s most interesting out of the book is that new frameworks for thought produce killer innovation.  That’s clearly something most entrepreneurs and innovators can hang their hat on.

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