Nov 092010

Why I Love My Board

Why I Love My Board, Part II

I’ve written a few things about my Board of Directors over the years, some of which I note below.  Part I of this series isn’t particularly useful, though there’s an entertaining link in it to a video of Fred that’s worth looking at if you know or follow him.

Today, we are happy to announce that we are adding a new independent director, Scott Petry, the founder of Postini and now a senior email product leader at Google (read the official press release [here]).  Scott’s a fantastic addition to our already strong Board, and the process of recruiting and adding him has made me reflect a bit on my Board and its strengths and weaknesses, so I thought I’d share a couple of those thoughts here.

I think Return Path has cultivated a very high functioning Board over the years, and I feel very fortunate to have the group that we have.  Here are the top five things I think make our Board special, in no particular order.

  1. We have great individuals on the Board.  Each of our individual Board members — Fred Wilson, Greg Sands, Scott Weiss, Scott Petry, and Brad Feld (now officially an observer), (in addition to me) — could anchor a super strong Board in his own right and have all served on multiple Boards of related companies.  And not only do these guys know their stuff…they do their homework.  They all come to every meeting very well prepared.
  2. The individual Board members are different but have different experiences and personalities that complement each other nicely.  Among the three VCs on the Board, two have operating experience, one as a founder and one in product management.  Among the two industry CEOs, one has more of a business development focus, and the other has deep technical expertise.  Some directors are excitable and a bit knee-jerk, others are more reflective; some are aggressive and others are more conservative; some have extremely colorful metaphors, others are a bit more steeped in traditional pattern recognition.
  3. We have built a great team dynamic that encourages productive conflict.  I assume a lot of rooms full of great directors of different types are so ego-laden that people just talk over each other.  Our group, for whatever reason, doesn’t function that way.  We are engaged and in each others’ faces during meetings, no one is afraid to voice an opinion, and we listen to each other.  Some of this may be the way we spend time together outside of Board rooms, which I wrote about in The Social Aspects of Running a Board. Some is about just making sure to have fun, which I wrote about in The Good, The Board, and The Ugly (Part I, Part II, Part III), I talk about other aspects of running a good Board, including making sure to have fun – that post includes an entertaining picture of now-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and a few of his friends from his FeedBurner days.
  4. We are deliberate about connecting the Board and the Executive team, and the rest of the company.  We encourage every director to have a direct relationship with every one of my direct reports.  They connect both during and outside of meetings, and they have gotten to know each other well over the years.  This is much more helpful to us than a more traditional “hourglass” structure where all connections go through the CEO.
  5. We run great meetings.  We send out a single, well-organized document several days before the meeting.  Board members do their homework.  We focus on current and future issues more than reporting on historical numbers, and we no longer do any presentations — it’s all discussion (I also wrote about a lot of this here in PowerPointLess).

Welcome to the Return Path family, Scott P – we are delighted to have you on board our Board!

Nov 022010

Playing Offense vs. Playing Defense

Playing Offense vs. Playing Defense

I hate playing defense in business.  It doesn’t happen all the time.  But being behind a competitor in terms of feature development, scrambling to do custom work for a large client, or doing an acquisition because you’re getting blocked out of an emerging space – whatever it is, it just feels rotten when it comes up.  It’s someone else dictating your strategy, tactics, and resource allocation; their agenda, not yours.  It’s a scramble.  And when the work is done, it’s hard to feel great about it, even if it’s required and well done.  That said, sometimes you don’t have a choice and have to play defense.

Playing offense, of course, is what it’s all about.  Your terms, your timetable, your innovation or opportunity creation, your smile knowing you’re leading the industry and making others course correct or play catch-up.

This topic of playing defense has come up a few times lately, both at Return Path and at other companies I advise, and my conclusion (other than that “sometimes you just have to bite the bullet”) is that the best thing you can do when you’re behind is to turn a situation from defense into a combination of defense and offense and change the game a little bit.  Here are a few examples:

  • You’re about to lose a big customer unless you develop a bunch of custom features ASAP –> use that work as prototype to a broader deployment of the new features across your product set.  Example:  Rumor has it that Groupware was started as a series of custom projects Lotus was doing for one of its big installations of Notes
  • Your competitor introduces new sub-features that are of the “arms race” nature (more, more, more!) –> instead of working to get to parity, add new functionality that changes the value proposition of the whole feature set.  Example:  Google Docs doesn’t need to match Microsoft Office feature for feature, as its value proposition is about the cloud
  • Your accounting software blows up.  Ugh.  What a pain to have to redo internal system like that – a total time sink.  Use the opportunity to shift from a new version of the same old school installed package you used to run, with dedicated hardware, database, and support costs to a new, sleek, lightweight on-demand package that saves you time and money in the long run

I guess the old adage is true:  The best defense IS, in fact, a good offense.

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