Aug 262010

Style, or Substance?

Style, or Substance?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who sits on a couple of Boards, as do I (besides Return Path’s).  We ended up in a conversation about some challenges one of his Boards is having with their CEO, and the question to some extent boiled down to this:  a Board is responsible for hiring/firing the CEO and for being the guardians of shareholder value, but what does a Board do when it doesn’t like the CEO’s style?

There are lots of different kinds of CEOs and corporate cultures.  Some are command-and-control, others are more open, flat, and transparent.  I like to think I and Return Path are the latter, and of course my bias is that that kind of culture leads to a more successful company.  But I’ve worked in environments that are the former, and, while less fun and more stressful, they can also produce very successful outcomes for shareholders and for employees as well.

So what do you do as a Board member if you don’t like the way a CEO operates, even if the company is doing well?  I find myself very conflicted on the topic, and I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with it myself as an outside Board member.  I certainly wouldn’t want to work in an organization again that had what I consider to be a negative, pace-setting environment, but is it the Board’s role to shape the culture of a company?  Here are some specific questions, which probably fall on a spectrum:

Is it grounds for removal if you think the company could be doing better with a different style leader at the helm?  Probably not.

Is it fair to expect a leader to change his or her style just because the Board doesn’t like it?  Less certain, but also probably not.

Is it fair to give a warning or threaten removal if the CEO’s style begins to impact performance, say, by driving out key employees or stifling innovation?  Probably.

Is it fair to give feedback and coaching?  Absolutely.

This is one of those very situation-specific topics, but probably a good one for others to weigh in on.  I do come back to the question of whether it is part of a Board’s role to shape the culture of a company.  Is that just style…or is it substance?

Aug 202010

Feature Request, Part II

Feature Request, Part II

In Part I, I asked for time zone alerts on cell phones for off-hours and a mechanism for alerting people when they’re replying-to-all when they were bcc’d.

Today, I ask for an iPhone (and I suppose Android) app:  turn a photo of a whiteboard into a Word or PPT document!

Aug 172010

Investment in the Email Ecosystem

Investment in the Email Ecosystem

Last week, my colleague George Bilbrey posted about how (turns out – shocking!) email still isn’t dead yet.

Not only is he right, but the whole premise of defending email from the attackers who call it “legacy” or “uninteresting” is backwards.  The inbox is getting more and more interesting these days, not less.  At Return Path, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of startup activitiy and investment (these two things can go together but don’t have to) in in front end of email in the past couple years.  I’d point to three sub-trends of this theme of “the inbox getting more interesting.”

First, major ISPs and mailbox operators are starting to experiment with more interesting applications inside their inboxes.  As the postmaster of one of the major ISPs said to me recently, “we’ve spent years stripping functionality out of email in the name of security – now that we have security more under control, we would like to start adding functionality back in.”  Google’s recent announcement about allowing third-party developers to access your email with your permission is one example, as is their well-documented experiment with NetFlix’s branded favicon showing up in the inbox starting a few months back.  And Hotmail’s most recent release, which has been well covered online (including this article which George wrote in Mediapost a couple months ago) also includes some trials of web-like functionality in the inbox, as well as other easy ways for users to view and experience their inboxes other than the age-old “last message in on top” method.  Yahoo has done a couple things along these lines as well of late, and one can assume they have other things in the works as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised if many ISPs roll out a variety of enhanced functionality over the next couple of years, although these systems can take a lot of time to change.  Although some of these changes present challenges for marketers and publishers, these are generally major plusses for end users as well as the companies who send them email – email is probably the only Internet application people spend tons of time in that’s missing most state of the art web functionality.

Second, although Google Wave got a lot of publicity about reinventing the inbox experience before Google shut it down a couple weeks ago, there are probably a dozen startups that are working on richer inboxes as well, either through plug-ins or what I’d call a “web email client overlay” – you can still use your Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail, or other address (your own domain, or a POP or IMAP account), but read the mail through one of these new clients.  Regardless of the technology, these companies are all trying, with different angles here or there, to make the inbox experience more interesting, relevant, productive, and in many cases, tied into your “social graph” and/or third-party web content.

The two big ones here in terms of active user base are Xobni, an Outlook plugin that matches social graph to inbox and produces a lot of interesting stats for its users; and Xoopit, which recently got acquired by Yahoo and wraps content indexing and discovery into its mail client.

Gist matches social graph data and third-party content like feeds and blogs into something that’s a hybrid of plugin and stand-alone web application.  That sounds a little like Threadsy, although that’s still in closed beta, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going to surface out of it.  There’s also Zenbe and Kwaga, and Xiant, which focus on creating a more productive inbox experience for power users.

Furthermore, services like OtherInbox and Boxbe aim to help users cut through the clutter of their inboxes and simultaneously create a more effective means for marketers to reach customers (say what you will about that concept, but at least it has a clear revenue model, which some of the other services listed above don’t have).

Finally, a number of services are popping up which give marketers and publishers easy-to-use advanced tools to improve their conversion or add other enhanced functionality to email.  For example, RPost, a company we announced a partnership with a couple months back, provides legal proof of delivery for email with some cool underlying technology.  LiveClicker (also a Return Path partner) provides hosted analytics-enabled email video in lightweight and easy-to-use ways that work in the majority of inboxes.

Sympact (another Return Path partner) dynamically renders content in an email based on factors like time of day and geolocation – so the same email, in the same inbox, will render, for example, Friday’s showtimes for New York when I open it in my office on Friday afternoon but Saturday’s showtimes for San Francisco after I fly out west for the weekend.  And a Belgian company called 8Seconds (you guessed it, another Return Path partner) does on-the-fly multivariate testing of email content in a way that blows away traditional A/B methods.  While these tools require some basic things to be in place to work optimally, like having images on by default or links working, they don’t by and large require special deals with ISPs to make the services function.

While these tools are aimed at marketers, they will also make end users’ email experiences much better by improving relevance or by adding value in other ways.

Some of this makes me wonder whether there’s a trend that will lead to disaggregation of the value chain in consumer email – splitting the front end (what consumers see) from the back end (who runs the mail server).  But that’s probably another topic for another day.  In the meantime, I’ll say three cheers for innovation in the email space.  It’s long overdue and will greatly enrich the environment in the coming years as these services gain adoption.

Aug 092010

The Value (and Limitations) of Benchmarking

The Value (and Limitations) of Benchmarking

I think I am starting to drive my team nuts a little bit. I have suggested, prodded, and executed a ton of external benchmarking projects this year, all of which have different leaders inside Return Path doing both systematic and ad hoc phone calls and meetings with peer companies and aspirational peer companies to understand how we compare to them in terms of specific metrics, practices, and structures.  It’s some combination of the former management consultant in me rearing its head, and me just trying to make sure that we stay ahead of the curve as we rapidly scale our business this year.

Why go through an exercise like this?  One answer is that you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.  If a non-competitive comparable company has solved a problem or done some good creative thinking, then I say “plagiarize with pride,” especially if you’re sharing your best practices with them.  The reality of scaling a business is that things change when you go from 50 to 100 people, or 150 to 300, or 300 to 1,000 — and unless you and your entire executive team have “been there, done that” at all levels, or unless you are constantly replacing execs, there’s not exactly an instruction manual for the work you have to do.

But a second, equally valuable answer, is that benchmarking can uncover both problems and opportunities that you didn’t know you had, or at least validate theories about problems and opportunities that you suspect you have.  Learning that comparable companies convert 50% better on their marketing funnel than you do, or that they systematically raise prices 5-7% per year regardless of new feature introduction (I’m just making these examples up) can help you steer the ship in ways you might not have thought you needed to.

What are the limitations of benchmarking?  As our CTO Andy said to me the other day, sometimes no one else has the answer, either.  We do run into this regularly – for example, a tough technical problem where literally no one else does it well like disaster recovery.  Or in how to solve channel conflict problems or streamline commission plans.

Also, sometimes you find out that you are actually best in class at a particular function.  In those cases, while one could just chalk up the exercise to a waste of time, I still think there is learning to be had from studying others.  And if there are a couple other companies who are also best in class, I always encourage group brainstorming among the top peers about how to push the envelope further and be even better.  This can even take the form of a regular peer group meeting/forum.

On the whole, I find benchmarking a good management practice and in particular a good use of time.  But like everything, it’s situational, and you have to understand what you’re looking for when you start your questioning.  You also have to be prepared to find nothing – and go back to your own drawing board.  Good entrepreneurs have to be great at both inventing and, as I noted above, plagiarizing with pride.