Nov 222011

B+ for Effort?

B+ for Effort?

Effort is important in life.  If Woody Allen is right, and 80% of success in life is just showing up, then perhaps 89% is in showing up AND putting in good effort.  But there is no A for Effort in a fast-paced work environment.  The best you can get without demonstrating results is a B+.

The converse is also true, that the best you can get with good results AND without good effort is a B+.

Now, a B+ isn’t a bad grade either way.  But it’s not the best grade.  In continuing with this series of our 13 core values at Return Path, the next one I’ll cover is:

We believe that results and effort are both critical components of execution

We’ve always espoused the general philosophy that HOW you get something done is quite important.  For example, if the effort is poor and you get to the right place, maybe you got lucky.  Or even worse, maybe you wasted a lot of time to get there.  Or if you burned your colleagues or clients in the process of getting to the right place, a positive short-term result can have negative long-term consequences.

But when all is said and done, even with the most supportive culture that values effort and learning a lot (more on that in the next post in this series), results speak very loudly. Customers don’t give you a lot of credit for trying hard if you’re not effectively delivering product or solving their problems.  And investors ultimately demand results.

Our “talent development” framework at Return Path – the thing that we use to measure employee performance, reflects this dual view of execution:

The X axis is clearly labeled “Performance,” meaning results, and the Y axis is labeled “Potential – RP Expectations,” which basically means effort and fit with the culture at Return Path.  We plot out employees on the basis of their quantitative scores coming out of their performance reviews on this grid every year.  Which box any given employee falls in has a lot to do with how that employee is managed and coached in the coming months.  We’re always trying to move people up and to the right!

The definitions of the different boxes in this framework are telling and speak to the subject of this post.  To be an A player here, you have to excel in both effort and results – that’s our definition of successful execution.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  We’re getting to the end of this series…only two more to go.

Nov 172011

Remembering J.D.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in 12 years as Return Path’s CEO. I hope it never has an equal.

One of our long-time employees, J.D. Falk, passed away last night after a year-long struggle with cancer. J.D., which most people don’t know was short for Jesse David, was only 37 years old. Although I cannot claim to be a close friend of J.D.’s, I have known him fairly well in the industry going back about eight years, and he has been a trusted member of our team here for the last four+ years.

J.D. did great work for us at Return Path, but my admiration for him goes beyond that. I admire him first for his willingness to work for the common good as much as, or even more than, his own good. J.D.’s tireless pro-bono work with anti-abuse non-profits MAAWG, CAUCE, and the IETF complemented the work he did here for a salary. And although he had a very positive and enduring impact on us at Return Path in terms of how we run our business and think about the delicate balance between email senders and receivers, he had an even bigger, broader impact through his standards work, papers, and tireless work on event programming and committee chairmanship. He did all that work not for money, not for thanks, but because it was, he felt, the right thing to do.

I also admire J.D. tremendously for his extremely principled, but thoughtfully considered, approach to life. His principles around internet users are well known and very “Cluetrain.” And yet, in a world increasingly filled with people whose opinions are intransigent, he was always open-minded and willing to engage in productive dialog with people who had different points of view than his own, sometimes changing his own thoughts and actions as a result of those conversations. That quality is all-too-rare in today’s society.

J.D.’s wife Hope told me a great story that sums up the fiber of J.D.’s being earlier this week. Just last weekend, from his hospital bed, J.D. realized that he and Hope had concert tickets they would be unable to use because of his illness, so he wanted to give them to friends. However, the tickets were only in electronic form on J.D.’s work laptop. Hope said, “J.D., just give me your password, and I’ll go home and print them out so we can give them away.” His response? “I can’t give you my password – that’s against company policy, but bring the laptop here to the hospital, and I can log in myself and forward you the tickets.”

Today is a sad day for me and for all 300 of us at Return Path as we lose a friend and colleague for the first time in our company’s history. And of course today is a sad day for the anti-abuse community that J.D. has been such an integral part of for his entire career. But more than that, today is a sad day for the internet and for the billions of humans that use it – sadder in some ways because they don’t even know that one of the people integrally involved in keeping it safe for them has left us.

I will post again as soon as I can with details of the memorial service for J.D. as well as details of where to make some kind of donation or contribution in his honor. I will post again as soon as I can with details of the memorial service for J.D. as well as details of where to make some kind of donation or contribution in his honor. In the meantime, I encourage J.D.’s many friends and colleagues around the world to post their memories to this memorial site.

J.D. Falk

Filed under: Email, Return Path

Nov 102011

Protecting the Inbox

Protecting the Inbox

We only have one out of our 13 core values at Return Path that’s closely related to the content of our business. But as with the other values, it says a lot about who we are and how we approach the work that we do. That value is:

We believe inboxes should only contain messages that are relevant, trusted, and safe

We occupy a pretty unique space in the email universe – we serve senders and receiving networks, but aren’t directly in the mail stream and therefore don’t directly touch end users.  So much of our business, from our Certification or whitelisting business, to our new Domain Assurance anti-spoofing/anti-phishing business, revolves around building trust in our company that this core value is critical to our survival. If we ran afoul of this core value — and it comes up all the time — we’d be dead in the water.

Here’s how it comes up:  because our Certification program is the closest thing on the Internet to guaranteed universal email delivery, every spammer and grey mailer in the world wants to be on it. We don’t just SELL access to our whitelist. Even once a prospect has been converted to an under-contract client, they have to APPLY for Certification.

It’s not easy to GET Certified. You have to be a really, really good mailer. Not just a real entity. Not just a big spender. You have to send mail that is safe and secure and wanted by end users. We have a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to determine this, and the requirements for Certified status and therefore Inbox placement are carefully negotiated and regularly reviewed with our ISP partners. Once a client is Certified, it’s not easy to STAY Certified because we are monitoring all of those same standards in real time, 24×7. Clients who go out of bounds get immediately suspended from the program until they are back in bounds. Clients who go out of bounds enough, we just terminate from the program for good.

By the way, just because we won’t certify a particular client isn’t an indictment that they are a spammer. It just means that their email programs still need to be subject to all the state of the art filtering and security measures that our ISPs have in their arsenal.  And most of the time, it doesn’t mean that we won’t work with them to improve the quality of their mail programs so their messages are relevant, trusted, and safe.

But at the end of the day, we’d rather not take money from questionable clients than compromise the quality of our Certification program. That’s a hard decision to make sometimes.  I’ve had to call large clients who are poor mailers and fire them more than once, and I’ve had to take angry phone calls and threatened legal action from clients or prospects many times over the years.  But for us, respect for end users and inbox security are deeply baked into the culture.  It’s why we developed the Domain Assurance product and launched it earlier this year.  And that’s why it’s one of our core values.

Nov 032011

Learning to Embrace Sizzle

Learning to Embrace Sizzle

One phrase I’ve heard a lot over the years is about “Selling the sizzle, not the steak.”  It suggests that in the world of marketing or product design, there is a divergence between elements of substance and what I call bright shiny objects, and that sometimes it’s the bright shiny objects that really move the needle on customer adoption.

At Return Path, we have always been about the steak and NOT the sizzle.  We’re incredibly fact-based and solution-oriented as a culture.  In fact, I can think of a lot of examples where we have turned our nose up at the sizzle over the years because it doesn’t contribute to core product functionality or might be a little off-point in terms of messaging.  How could we possibly spend money (or worse – our precious development resources) on something that doesn’t solve client problems?

Well, it turns out that if you’re trying to actually sell your product to customers of all shapes and sizes, sizzle counts for a lot in the grand scheme of things.  There are two different kinds of sizzle in my mind, product and marketing — and we are thinking about them differently.

Investing in product sizzle (e.g., functionality that doesn’t actually do much for clients but which sells well, or which they ask for in the sales process) is quite frustrating since (a) it by definition doesn’t create a lot of value for clients, and (b) it comes at the expense of building functionality that DOES create a lot of value.  The way we’re getting our heads around this seemingly irrational construct is to just think of these investments as marketing investments, even though they’re being made in the form of engineering time.  I suppose we could even budget them as such.

Marketing sizzle is in some ways easier to wrap our heads around, and in some ways tougher.  It’s easier because, well, it doesn’t cost much to message sizzle — it’s just using marketing as a way of convincing customers to buy the whole solution, knowing the ROI may come from the steak even as the PO is coming from the sizzle.  But it’s tough for us as well not to position the ROI front and center.  As our Marketing Department gets bigger, better, and more seasoned, we are finding this easier to come by, and more rooted in rational thought or analysis.

In the last year or two, we have done a better job of learning to embrace sizzle, and I expect we’ll continue to do that as we get larger and place a greater emphasis on sales and marketing — part of my larger theme of how we’ve built the business backwards.  Don’t most companies start with ONLY sizzle (vaporware) and then add the steak?