Mar 312011

Should You Have a Board?

Should You Have a Board?

As I mentioned last week, Fred’s post from a few months ago about an M&A Case study involving WhatCounts had a couple of provocative thoughts in it from CEO David Geller.  The second one I wanted to address is whether or not you should have take on institutional investors and have a Board.  As David said in the post:

Fewer outsiders dictating (or strongly suggesting) direction means that you will be able to pursue your goals more closely and with less friction

Although I have a lot of respect for David, I disagree with the notion that outsiders around the Board table is inherently bad for a business, or at least that the friction from insights or suggestions provided by those outsiders is problematic.

While that certainly CAN be the case, it can also be the case that outside views and suggestions and healthy debate, as long as incentives are aligned, people are smart, and founders manage the discussion well, can be enormously productive for a business.  I recognize that I’ve been very lucky that the Board members we’ve had at Return Path over the years have not been dogmatic or combative or dumb, but I do think selection and management of Board members is something very much in a CEO’s control.

But beyond the issue of who sets the agenda, Boards create an atmosphere of accountability for an organization, which drives performance (and many other positive qualities) from the top down in a business.  Budgeting and planning, reporting on performance, organizing and articulating thoughts and strategy – all these things are crisper when there’s someone to whom a CEO is answering.

As a telling case in points, I’ve known two CEOs over the years in the direct marketing field who have more or less owned their companies but insisted on having Boards.  While I’m not sure if those Boards had the ultimate power to remove the owner as CEO (which is the case in a venture-dominated Board and of course an important distinction), I do know that having a Board served them and their organizations quite well.  The fact that they didn’t have to have “real Boards” but chose to anyway – and ran spectacular businesses – is a good controlled case study for me in the value of this discipline.

Mar 242011

Size of Pie, a.k.a. What Type of Entrepreneur Are You?

Size of Pie, a.k.a. What Type of Entrepreneur Are You?

Mmmm…pie.  A post that Fred had up a few weeks ago about an M&A Case study involving WhatCounts, a company in the email space that I’ve known and had a lot of respect for for years, got me thinking about two different topics.  The first is thinking about types of entrepreneurs.  I’ve always said there were two types:  serial entrepreneurs who are great at starting companies but less great at scaling them, and entrepreneurs who are often part of a group of founders but who go on to continue to run the business for the long-haul.

CEO David Geller’s quote that gets to the heart of this in Fred’s post was:

…a bigger piece of a smaller pie, at some point, is the same as a smaller piece of a much larger pie.  And, donʼt let anyone tell you that baking a bigger pie isnʼt a whole lot more difficult.

Although David is talking about taking in outside capital and founder dilution in pursuit of larger business growth and objectives, he is also getting to the same point about entrepreneur type.  Scaling an organization beyond proof of concept, happy few customers, and profitable to be a $50-100mm business (and beyond) requires a whole different skill set than starting something from scratch and turning an idea into reality.

And in a sense, David is right.  Baking a larger pie can be a whole lot more difficult for some entrepreneurs if they are more of the serial entrepreneur type, or at least it can be far less interesting and fulfilling if what gets you out of bed in the morning is creating new things.  But for other entrepreneurs who are more of the “run the business” variety, getting out of the creation phase and into the scaling phase is more interesting and maybe even less difficult.  Even though businesses are never de-risked and a larger business with more employees just means there are more chips on the proverbial table, baking a larger pie and tending to the things that come with it – people issues, innovating within a platform, solving customer problems – can be less daunting than creation for some entrepreneurs.  (Return Path is in its twelfth year – can you guess which kind I am?)

So David’s right in terms of his core point about founder equity value and how large a slice of how large a pie the founder ends up with.  But whether baking a larger pie is easier or harder is less about an inherent difficulty in pie-making and more about the type of entrepreneur involved.

I’ll cover my second reaction to Fred/David’s post next week.


Mar 172011

Connecting with Other CEOs

Connecting with Other CEOs

CEOs get introduced to each other regularly.  Sometimes it’s through VCs or other investors, sometimes it’s through other CEOs, sometimes it’s because the two companies are already partners.  I try hard to meet personally or at least on the phone with other CEOs every time I get a chance, sometimes because there’s business to be done between Return Path and the other company; but always because I come away from every interaction I have with another CEO with some learnings to apply to myself and the company.

I have noticed two unrelated things over the years about my interactions with other CEOs who are in our industry, and therefore with whom I spend time more than once, that I find interesting:

First, the personality of the organization frequently (though not always) mirrors the personality of the CEO.  When the other CEO is responsive and easy to schedule a meeting with, it turns out the organization is pretty easy to work with as well.  When the other CEO is unresponsive to email or phone calls, or is inconsistent with communication patterns — one communication through LinkedIn, another via email, another via Twitter — people at Return Path who also work deeper within the other organization have experienced similar work styles.  I guess tone setting does happen from the C-suite!

Second, even when there is alignment of temperament per my above point, there is frequently a disconnect between CEOs and their teams when it comes to getting a deal done.  The number of times I’ve had a solid meeting of the minds with another CEO on a deal between our two companies, only to have it fall apart once the two teams start working through details is well north of 50% of the cases.  Why is this?  Maybe sometimes it’s unfortunately calculated, and the CEO is being polite to me but doesn’t really have any intent of moving forward.  In other cases, it’s a natural disconnect — CEOs have a unique view of their company and its long term strategy, and sometimes the people on their teams have different personal, vested interests that might conflict with a broader direction.  But in many cases, I think it’s also because some CEOs are weak at follow-up, and even if they give their team high-level direction on something don’t always check in to see how progress is or is not being made.  I know I’ve been guilty of this from time to time as well, so please don’t take this post to be self-righteous on this important point. Those of us who run organizations have a lot on our plates, and sometimes things fall between the cracks.  The best way to make sure this last point doesn’t happen is to really ensure the meeting of the minds exists — and for the two CEOs to hold each other accountable for progress on the relationship up and down the stack.

I will close this post by noting that most of the best relationships we as a company have are ones where the other CEO and I get along well personally and professionally, and where we let our teams work through the relationship details but where we hold them and each other accountable for results.

Mar 142011

Guest Post: Staying Innovative as Your Business Grows (Part One)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve recently started writing a column for The Magill Report, the new venture by Ken Magill, previously of Direct magazine and even more previously DMNews. I share the column with my colleagues Jack Sinclair and George Bilbrey and we cover how to approach the business of email marketing, thoughts on the future of email and other digital technologies, and more general articles on company-building in the online industry – all from the perspective of an entrepreneur. Below is a re-post of George’s column from this week, which I think my OnlyOnce readers will enjoy.

Guest Post: Staying Innovative as Your Business Grows (Part One)

By George Bilbrey

As part of The Magill Report’s Online Entrepreneur column, I’d like to share some of Return Path’s learning about how to stay innovative as you grow. In Part One, I’m going to cover some of the organizational techniques we’ve been employing to stay innovative. In Part Two, I’ll talk about some of the practices we’re using in our product management and development teams.

When we were starting our deliverability business at Return Path, staying innovative was relatively easy. With a total of four people (two employees, two consultants) involved in selling, servicing, building and maintaining product, the environment was very conducive to innovation:

• Every employee had good conversations with customers every day—We could see the shortcoming of our tools and got great, direct feedback from our clients.

• Every employee was involved in every other function in a very detailed way—This gave everyone a strong intuition as to what was feasible. We all knew if the feature or function that the client was asking for was within the realm of the possible.

• We were very, very focused on creating customers and revenue—We were a startup. If we drove revenue above costs, we got to take home a salary. Every conversation and decision we made came down to finding out what would make the service (more) saleable. It was stressful, but productively stressful and fun.

We were lucky enough to come up with good concept and the deliverability services market was born. Our business grew rapidly from those two full-time employees to where we are today with about 250 employees in eight countries supporting more than 2,000 customers.
Growing our business has been one of the most challenging and fun things I’ve ever had the chance to take part in. However, growth does have some negative impacts on innovation if you don’t manage it right:

• Supporting the “core” comes at the expense of the new—As you grow, you’ll find that more and more of your time is spent on taking care of the core business. Keeping the servers running, training new employees, recruiting and other internal activities start to take up more and more of your time as the business grows. Clients ask for features that are simple linear extensions of your current capabilities. You don’t have time to focus on the new stuff.

• Staying focused gets harder as the business get more intricate—As your business grows, it will become more complex. You’ll build custom code for certain clients. You’ll need to support your stuff in multiple languages. You find that you have to support channel partners as well as direct customers (or vice versa). All this takes away from the time you spend on “the new” as well.

• Creating “productive stress” becomes difficult—At the point our business became profitable, life became a lot better. There was less worry and we could invest in cool new innovative things. However, it’s hard to drive the same urgency that we had when we were a start-up.

Of course, a bigger profitable company has advantages, too. For one, there are the profits. They come in awfully handy in funding new initiatives. And while they can remove the “productive” stress that comes from needing revenue to keep a venture going, they can also remove the distracting stress of needing revenue to keep a venture going. Second is the ability to capitalize on a well-known brand—the result of many years of marketing, PR, and thought leadership within the industry. Third, we have access to a much broader array of clients now, which I’ll explain the importance of in a minute. Finally, back-end support and process—an accounting team that gets the invoices out, an HR team that helps make strategic hires—makes the folks engaged in product development more productive.

So what have we done to leverage these strengths while also combating the forces of inertia? We’ve done a lot of different things, but the major focus has been, well, focus. For the two to three key initiatives that we think are fundamental to growing our business, we’ve built a “company inside the company” to focus on the project at hand. A good example of this is our recent Domain Assurance product, our first product to address phishing and spoofing. Initially, we tried to run the project by assigning a few developers and part of a product manager’s time with some part-time support from a sales person. It didn’t work. We weren’t able to move forward quickly enough and some of our folks were getting fried.

Our answer was to create a dedicated team inside our business that focused entirely on the phishing/spoofing product space. The key components of the “company inside the company” were:

• Fully dedicated, cross-functional resources—Our team represented very much the kinds of folks you’d find in an early stage company: development, system administration, sales and marketing. This team worked as a team, not as individuals. Many of these resources were fully dedicated to this new initiative.
• Deadline-driven productive stress—When we launch new products, they go through four discrete stages (I’ll explain this in more detail in my next column). We set some pretty tight deadlines on the later stages.

• Customer involvement, early and often—The team involved customers in building our new product from the very beginning. From continuously reviewing early wireframes, prototypes and then beta versions of the product, we got a lot of client and prospective client feedback throughout the process.

We’re still working on the exact right formula for our “company inside a company” approach, but our experience to date has shown us that the investment is worth it.

Mar 102011

The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?

The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?

UPDATE:  This week’s Economist (March 17) has a great special report on the future of the state that you can download here, entitled”Taming Leviathan:  The state almost everywhere is big, inefficient and broke. It needn’t be,” which has many rich examples, from California to China, and espouses a bunch of these ideas.

I usually try to keep politics away from this blog, but sometimes I can’t help myself.  I’m so disgusted with the dysfunction in Washington (and Albany…and Sacramento…and…) these days, that I’ve spent more spare cycles than usual thinking about the symptoms, their root causes, and potential solutions.  A typical entrepreneur’s approach, I guess.  So here’s my initial cut at a few solutions.

I’m sure it’s incomplete, and it’s possibly overly simplistic.  While I think it’s a pretty pragmatic and non-partisan approach, I’m guessing people will have visceral political opinions about it.  Here are five things I’d like to see that I think will start us on the road to repair:

  • Nonpartisan redistricting: All districts at all levels of government should be drawn by nonpartisan commissions.  There is no reason to create “safe” seats and uncompetitive elections that drive candidates to extreme positions in order to win primaries.  All of that is undemocratic.  I hope California’s proposition that creates this kind of solution works and is copied.
  • Public finance of campaigns: This will have to come with a constitutional amendment limiting free speech when it comes to political campaigns, but we should be prepared as a society to limit freedom in that one narrow way in order to remove money from politics.  This topic just keeps coming up, from both the left and the right (think about the examples of Wall Street donations impacting financial reform on one side and public sector union political contributions impacting negotiations with states and cities on the other).
  • Presidential line-item veto: Its constitutionality may be in question, but this would give the President a more granular form of one check-and-balance he already has and could greatly help reduce wasteful spending as well as simplify legislation (more on that in a minute).
  • Auto-expiration of tax/spend bills: I found the debate over the expiration or extension of the “Bush tax cuts” to be enlightening.  Maybe some class of tax/spend bills — those over a certain dollar figure, those that create entitlements, though that involve government subsidies to industry — should be forced to be renewed every 5 or 10 years instead of being “evergreen” so that the debate can reoccur in light of changes in circumstance.  How many other things are “on the books” in ways that don’t make sense in today’s world?
  • Simplicity of legislation: The health care reform bill was 1,990 pages long according to the pdf I just downloaded, and few if any in Congress actually read the whole thing.  They even admitted it AT THE TIME.  Is this a smart way to govern?  Whether voluntarily or via constitutional amendment, Congress should consider only passing single-issue bills and maybe even limiting the size of any given piece of legislation to something that at least THEY THEMSELVES ARE ABLE TO READ.

These things should do a lot to ease legislative gridlock, relieve bitter partisan rancor, and remove some of the silly parliamentary manoeuvrings that plague our government today.  Whether or not they can systematically deal with elected officials’ unwillingness to tackle hard problems and penchant for personal deal-making and runaway deficit spending is another question.

My personal belief is that country could stand some form of a new Constitutional Convention to critically review our society and its governance after almost 250 years.  I love our Constitution and think it was wisely laid out as the foundation for what has become one of the world’s greatest and most enduring nations…but that doesn’t mean that the Founders, who lived in a very, very different time, had perfect vision for all eternity.

Mar 092011

The Art of the Post-Mortem

The Art of the Post-Mortem

It has a bunch of names — the After-Action Review, the Critical Incident Review, the plain old Post-Mortem — but whatever you call it, it’s an absolute management best practice to follow when something has gone wrong. We just came out of one relating to last fall’s well document phishing attack, and boy was it productive and cathartic.

In this case, our general takeaway was that our response went reasonably well, but we could have been more prepared or done more up front to prevent it from happening in the first place.  We derived some fantastic learnings from the Post-Mortem, and true to our culture, it was full of finger-pointing at oneself, not at others, so it was not a contentious meeting.  Here are my best practices for Post-Mortems, for what it’s worth:

  • Timing:  the Post-Mortem should be held after the fire has stopped burning, by several weeks, so that members of the group have time to gather perspective on what happened…but not so far out that they forget what happened and why.  Set the stage for a Post-Mortem while in crisis (note publicly that you’ll do one) and encourage team members to record thoughts along the way for maximum impact
  • Length:  the Post-Mortem session has to be at least 90 minutes, maybe as much as 3 hours, to get everything out on the table
  • Agenda format:  ours includes the following sections…Common understanding of what happened and why…My role…What worked well…What could have been done better…What are my most important learnings
  • Participants:  err on the wide of including too many people.  Invite people who would learn from observing, even if they weren’t on the crisis response team
  • Use an outside facilitator:  a MUST.  Thanks to Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting, as always, for helping us facilitate this one and drive the agenda
  • Your role as leader:  set the tone by opening and closing the meeting and thanking the leaders of the response team.  Ask questions as needed, but be careful not to dominate the conversation
  • Publish notes:  we will publish our notes from this Post-Mortem not just to the team, but to the entire organization, with some kind of digestible executive summary and next actions

When done well, these kinds of meetings not only surface good learnings, they also help an organization maintain momentum on a project that is no longer in crisis mode, and therefore at risk of fading into the twilight before all its work is done.  Hopefully that happened for us today.

The origins of the Post-Mortem are with the military, who routinely use this kind of process to debrief people on the front lines.  But its management application is essential to any high performing, learning organization.

Mar 032011

Come Fly With Me

Come Fly With Me

I do a lot of travel for work.  That means I spend a lot of time on planes, some of which is “wasted” – or at least time that can’t be productive for work in the traditional sense of being connected, or in a lot of cases, of even reading.  One thing I’ve always appreciated in my career but have grown even more attached to of late is traveling with colleagues.  Any time I have an opportunity to do so, I jump on it.

First, I find that I get solid work time in with a colleague in transit.  A check-in meeting that isn’t rushed with a hard stop, interrupted by the phone or visitors, and in-person.

Second, I find that I get more “creative” work time in with a colleague on a flight, especially a long one.  Some of the time that isn’t in a structured meeting invariably turns to brainstorming or more idle work chatter.  Some great ideas have come out of flights I’ve taken in the past 11 years!

Finally, my colleague and I get more social time in than usual on a plane.  Social time is an incredibly important part of managing and developing personal connections with employees.  Time spent next to each other in the air, in an airport security line or lounge, in a rental car, “off hours” always lends itself to learning more about what’s going on in someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong – even when I travel with someone from Return Path, we each have some “quiet time” to read, work, sleep, and contemplate life.  But the work and work-related aspects of the experience are not to be ignored.