Oct 272011

More Than 1/3 of Your Life

More Than 1/3 of Your Life

When I was a kid, so my parents tell me, I used to watch a lot of TV. For some reason, all those episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Dallas still have a place in my brain, right next to lyrics from 70s and 80s songs and movies. I also tend to remember TV commercials, which are even more useless (not that JR Ewing or Ferris Beuller had all that many valuable life lessons to impart).  Anyway, I remember some commercial for some local mattress company which started out with the booming voiceover, “You spend 1/3 of your life in bed — why not enjoy that time and be as comfortable as you can be?”

Well, we humans frequently spend MORE than 1/3 of our lives at work. Why shouldn’t we have that same philosophy about that time as the mattress salesman from 1970s professed for sleep?  Another one in my series of posts about Return Path’s 13 core values is this one:

We realize that people work to live, not live to work

There are probably a few other of our core values that I could write about with this same setup, but this one is probably the mother of them all.  I even wrote about it several years ago here.  Work is for most people the thing that finances the rest of their life — their hopes and dreams, their families’ well-being, their daily lives, and ultimately, their retirement. I think many people wouldn’t work, at least in most for-profit jobs as we know them, if they didn’t have to. And that’s where this value comes from.

How does this value play out?

First, we are respectful of people’s time in the daily thick of things.  We know that society has changed and that work and personal time bleed into each other much more regularly now than they used to.  As I’ve written about before in this series of posts, we have an “open” vacation policy that allows employees to take as much time off a they can, as long as they get their jobs done well. One of the real benefits of this, besides allowing for more or longer vacations, is that employees can take slices of time off, or can work from home, as life demands things of them like dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences, without having to count the hours or minutes.

Second, an important part of our management training is to make sure that managers get to know their people as people.  This doesn’t mean being buddies or pals, though that happens from time to time and is fine. Understanding everything that makes a person tick, from their hobbies, to their kids, to their pets or pet causes, really helps a manager more effectively manage an employee as well as develop them. And as Steven Covey says, it’s important to “sharpen the saw,” which a good manager can help an employee do ONLY if they are in tune to some extent at a personal or non-work level.

Finally, our sabbatical policy — beyond our fairly generous and flexible vacation policy — ensures that every handful of years, employees really can go off and enjoy life. We’ve had employees buy around-the-world plane tickets and show up at JFK with a backpack. We’ve had people take their families off for a month in an exotic tropical destination. We even had one employee spend a sabbatical in a coffee shop learning how to write code (names masked to protect the innocent).

The challenge with this value is that not everyone treats the flexibility and freedom with the same level of respect, and occasionally we do have to remind someone that flexibility and freedom don’t mean that work can be left undone or delayed.  We believe that by providing the flexibility, people will work even harder, and certainly more efficiently, to still go above and beyond in terms of high performance execution.

In my CEO fantasty world, I’d like to think that given the choice, most of our employees would still come to work at Return Path if they didn’t have to for financial reasons, but I’m not that naive. Hopefully by setting the tone that we understand people work to live and not vice versa, we are allowing people to enjoy life as much as possible, even in the 1/3+ of it that’s spent working.

Oct 202011

Outrunning the Bear

Outrunning the Bear

Did you ever hear the joke about outrunning the bear?  It goes something like this:

Two friends are in the woods, having a picnic.  They spot a bear running at them.  One friend gets up and starts running away from the bear.  The other friend opens his backpack, takes out his running shoes, changes out of his hiking boots, and starts stretching.

“Are you crazy?” the first friend shouts, looking over his shoulder as the bear closes in on his friend.  “You can’t outrun a bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” said the second friend.  “I only have to outrun you.”

Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in doing something absolutely well as opposed to relatively well.  We were in a situation once with a competitor where our mantra was to win all the available customers for a particular product.  Then we realized one day — we didn’t have to win all of the customers that minute, or even that year.  All we had to do was win every account that the competitor was going after to win the battle at hand.  Once the battle at hand was won, it was then time to go back and figure out how to win the war.

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Oct 132011

Beyond Policy

Beyond Policy

Policies are an important part of managing employees. Similarly, contracts are an important part of running the commercial side of the business.  But it’s impossible to legislate every potential down-the-road situation ahead of time. That’s why one of the 13 core values at Return Path is

We believe in doing the right thing

I’ll admit that more than most of our values, this one sounds like Motherhood and Apple pie. Who doesn’t want to do the right thing?  The reason this value is an important part of our culture is that when we are in a tough situation, we stop and ask ourselves the most basic, yet thought provoking question — what’s the right thing to do here?

  • When you fire an employee immediately before a major block of stock options vest, what’s the right thing to do?  Vest the options
  • When you have a client who for some reason can no longer use your product or service or legitimately can’t pay their bill, what’s the right thing to do?  Let them out of their agreement, or at least let them suspend their agreement, even if it’s a long term contract
  • When you make a payroll mistake and the employee doesn’t notice it but you discover it after the fact, what’s the right thing to do?  Let the employee know…and make them whole (the reverse is true of course as well, in cases where employees are the beneficiaries of an unnoticed payroll error – the right thing is to let the company know and make the company whole)
  • When you have a choice of a car service (price equal) that runs only hybrid cars or more luxurious gas guzzlers for your routine trips to the airport, what’s the right thing to do?  Go green, baby!
  • When you make a mistake and a client is adversely impacted but doesn’t notice it, what’s the right thing to do?  Fess up, quickly and thoroughly

I’m sure we don’t always get the tough calls right. That’s part of being a community of humans with emotions and faults. But we know that our reputation as a business goes well beyond following our policies and contracts and try to do the right thing as circumstances dictate.

Oct 112011

Productive Eavesdropping

Productive Eavesdropping

We’re in the midst of some pretty extensive renovations of our offices in New York at the moment.  For better or for worse, we’re doing this work without moving out.  We’ve basically crammed everyone into the back half of the office right now while the contractors are working on the front half.  When that’s done, we’ll all move into the newly-refinished front so they can do the same in the back.

One of the interesting side effects of this project is that I’m sharing my office with Anita Absey, our head of sales.  It’s the first time I’ve shared an office in quite a while, at least since the first year of the company’s life when we all sat in one big room together.  So the two of us are getting in a lot more time together than we usually do.  As much as we try to block out the sound coming from across the room, I’m sure there’s been plenty of inadvertent eavesdropping in both directions.

For my part, I’ve enjoyed it.  I have much more of a window into what Anita works on than I usually get.  I’m more in the flow of what’s happening with the sales organization.  I’m seeing what a strong manager she is, and I’ve picked up at least a couple of tips from her around her leadership style.  And we’ve had a lot of quick back-and-forth between things.  When we sat down to have our weekly check-in last week, it was half its normal length since we had already covered much of the topics in the daily flow of conversation.

I wonder if there’s a way to accomplish the same thing with others on my team…or with everyone on my team…without rearranging the office!

As for Anita, well, I suspect I’ll hear from her as to whether or not the arrangement is working for her shortly after I press “publish” on this post!

Oct 072011

Must-Read New Blog

Must-Read New Blog

I’ve talked about Why I Love My Board a few times in the past.  I was reminded at my quarterly Board meeting and dinner this week that it’s a great and unusually strong group, and we’re lucky to have them.  Fred and Brad have both been prolific bloggers for years,and I know many of you follow their blogs closely.  Think of that as getting a taste of the input and wisdom you’d get by having them on your Board.

In a very exciting development, one of my independent directors, Scott Weiss, has now started blogging on the Andreessen-Horowitz platform.  Scott is probably our most outspoken and colorful director (and that’s saying something).  Scott just joined Andreessen-Horowitz as a partner in their fund, so he now a VC, but his experience as an operator both at Hotmail in Internet 1.0 and then at Ironport have been incredibly valuable for me as an entrepreneur, and I expect most of his posts to focus on the entrepreneur’s perspective.

Two of Scott’s first three posts, Looking Bigger and Ridiculously Transparent, are perfect examples of the value I’ve gotten out of my six year relationship with Scott as a Board member.  If you want a taste of what it would be like to have him in your corner…subscribe to his blog!

Oct 052011

Building the Company vs. Building the Business

Building the Company vs. Building the Business

I was being interviewed recently for a book someone is writing on entrepreneurship, which focused on identifying the elements of my “playbook” for entrepreneurial success at Return Path.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a full playbook, though I’ve certainly documented pieces of it in this blog over the years.  One of the conversations we had in the interview was around the topic of building the company vs. building the business.

The classic entrepreneur builds the business — quite frankly, he or she probably just builds the product for a long time first, then the business.  In the course of the interview, I realized that I’ve spent at least as much energy over the years building the company concurrently with the product/business.  In fact, in many ways, I probably spent more time building the company in the early years than the business warranted given its size and stage.  This is probably related to my theme from a few months ago about building Return Path “Backwards.”

What do I mean by building the company as opposed to building the business?

  • Building the business means obsessing over things like product features, getting traction with early clients, competition, and generating buzz
  • Building the company means obsessing over things like HR policies, company values and culture, long-term strategy, and investor reporting

In the early years, I did some things that now seem crazy for a brand new, 25-person company, like designing a sabbatical policy that wouldn’t kick in until an employee’s 7th anniversary.  But I don’t regret doing them, and I don’t think they were wasted effort in the long run, even if they were a little wasted in the short run.  I think working on company-building early on paid benefits in two ways for us:

  1. They helped lay the groundwork for scaling – what we’re finding now as we are trying to rapidly scale up the business, and even over the last few years since we’ve been scaling at a moderate pace, is that we are doing so on a very solid foundation
  2. The company didn’t die when the product and business died – because we had built a good company, when our original ECOA business basically proved to be a loser back in 2002, it was a fairly obvious decision (on the part of both the management team and the venture syndicate) to keep the business going but pivot the business, more than once

Starting about four years ago, for the first time, I felt like we had a great business to match our great company.  Now that those two things are in sync, we are zooming forward at an amazing pace, and we’re doing it perhaps more gracefully than we would be doing it if we hadn’t focused on building the company along the way.

I’m not saying that there’s a right path or a wrong path here when you compare business building with company building, although as I wrote this post, my #2 conclusion above is a particularly poignant one, that without a strong company, we wouldn’t be here 12 years later.  Of course, you could always argue that if I’d spent more time building the business and less time building the company, we might have succeeded sooner.  In the end, a good CEO and management team must be concerned about getting both elements right if they want to build an enduring stand-alone company.

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