Feb 232012

Just Say No

Just Say No

An OnlyOnce reader submitted this story to me a couple months ago:

Went to a small, high-end restaurant last night. There were ~10 people there when our party of 9 arrived. Another group of 10 arrived soon after – amusingly, the chef declined to allow them to be seated. I asked him why afterwards – he turned down at least $1,000 worth of business. (like 30% of what he could have made that night).

His answer : Our quality would have suffered, and then they would have walked away thinking less of us.

Wow. What a revolutionary idea. Turning down money in light of maintaining your reputation and quality of service.

I’ve had this experience before — have you?  It’s a phenomenal statement, full of courage, and also common sense.  But how often do we entrepreneurs practice it as oppose to just saying “more more more” when presented with revenue opportunities?  This is particularly difficult in the early stages of a business’ life, when customer dollars are harder to come by.  But probably worth doing 9 times out of 10.

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Feb 162012

Book Short: Steve Jobs and Lessons for CEOs and Founders

Book Short:  Steve Jobs and Lessons for CEOs and Founders

First, if you work in the internet, grew up during the rise of the PC, or are an avid consumer of Apple products, read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs (book, kindle).  It’s long but well worth it.

I know much has been written about the subject and the book, so I won’t be long or formal, but here are the things that struck me from my perspective as a founder and CEO, many taken from specific passages from the book:

  • In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important.  Man is that ever true.  I’ve come up with some ideas over the years at Return Path, but hardly a majority or even a plurality of them.  But I think of myself as innovative because I’ve led the organization to execute them.  I also think innovation has as much to do with how work gets done as it does what work gets done.
  • There were some upsides to Jobs’s demanding and wounding behavior. People who were not crushed ended up being stronger. They did better work, out of both fear and an eagerness to please.  I guess that’s an upside.  But only in a dysfunctional sort of way.
  • When one reporter asked him immediately afterward why the (NeXT) machine was going to be so late, Jobs replied, “It’s not late. It’s five years ahead of its time.”  Amen to that.  Sometimes product deadlines are artificial and silly.  There’s another great related quote (I forget where it’s from) that goes something like “The future is here…it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”  New releases can be about delivering the future for the first time…or about distributing it more broadly.
  • People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”  Amen.  See Powerpointless.
  • The mark of an innovative company is not only that it comes up with new ideas first, but also that it knows how to leapfrog when it finds itself behind.  This is critical.  You can’t always be first in everything.  But ultimately, if you’re a good company, you can figure out how to recover when you’re not first.  Exhibit A:  Microsoft.
  • In order to institutionalize the lessons that he and his team were learning, Jobs started an in-house center called Apple University. He hired Joel Podolny, who was dean of the Yale School of Management, to compile a series of case studies analyzing important decisions the company had made, including the switch to the Intel microprocessor and the decision to open the Apple Stores. Top executives spent time teaching the cases to new employees, so that the Apple style of decision making would be embedded in the culture.  This is one of the most emotionally intelligent things Jobs did, if you just read his actions in the book and know nothing else.  Love the style or hate it – teaching it to the company reinforces a strong and consistent culture.
  • Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.  There’s always a tension between listening TO customers and innovating FOR them.  Great companies have to do both, and know when to do which.
  • What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how—because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.  This is perhaps one of the best explanations I’ve ever heard of how creativity can be applied to non-creative (e.g., most business) jobs.  I love this.

My board member Scott Weiss wrote a great post about the book as well and drew his own CEO lessons from it – also worth a read here.

Appropos of that, both Scott and I found out about Steve Jobs’ death at a Return Path Board dinner.  Fred broke the news when he saw it on his phone, and we had a moment of silence.  It was about as good a group as you can expect to be with upon hearing the news that an industry pioneer and icon has left us.  Here’s to you, Steve.  You may or may not have been a management role model, but your pursuit of perfection worked out well for your customers, and most important, you certainly had as much of an impact on society as just about anyone in business (or maybe all walks of life) that I can think of.

Feb 092012

The Best Laid Plans, Part IV

The Best Laid Plans, IV

I have had a bunch of good comments from readers about the three posts in this series about creating strategic plans (input phase, analysis phase, output phase).  Many of them are leading me to write a fourth post in the series, one about how to make sure the result of the plan isn’t shelfware, but flawless execution.

There’s a bit of middleware that has to happen between the completion of the strategic plan and the work getting done, and that is an operating plan.  In my observation over the years, this is where most companies explode.  They have good ideas and capable workers, just no cohesive way to organize and contextualize the work.  There are lots of different formats operating plans can take, and a variety of acronyms to go with the formats, that I’ve heard over the years.  No one of these formats is “right,” but I’ll share the key process steps my own team and I went through just over the past few months to turn our strategic planning into action plans, synchronizing our activities across products and groups.

  • Theme:  we picked a theme for the year that generally held the bulk of the key work together – a bit of a rallying cry
  • Initiatives:  recognizing that lots of people do lots of routine work, we organized a series of a dozen “move the ball forward” projects into specific initiatives
  • Communication:  we unveiled the theme and the initiatives to ALL at our annual business meeting to get everyone’s head around the work to be done in the upcoming year
  • Plans:  each of the dozen initiative teams, and then also each team/department in the company (they’re different) worked together to produce a short (1-3 page) plan on a template we created, with a mission statement, a list of direct and indirect participants, important milestones and metrics
  • Synchronization:  the senior management team reviewed all the plans at the same time and had a meaningful discussion to synchronize the plans, making edits to both substance and timing
  • Scorecard:  we built our company scorecard for the year to reflect “green/yellow/red” grading on each initiative and visually display the most important 5-6 metrics across all initiatives
  • Ongoing reporting:  we will publish the scorecard and updated to each initiative plan quarterly to the whole company, when we update them for Board meetings

As I said, there’s no single recipe for success here, but this is a variant on what we’ve done consistently over the years at Return Path, and it seems to be working well for us.  I think that’s the end of this series, and judging from the comments I’ve received on the blog and via email, I’m glad this was useful to so many people.

Feb 022012

What Makes an Awesome Board Member

What Makes an Awesome Board Member

(This post was requested by my long-time Board member Brad Feld and is also running concurrently on his blog today)

I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path.  And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation.  All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts:  Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.

But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members.  I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others.  Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.

Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:

  • They are prepared and keep commitments.  They show up to all meetings.  They show up on time and don’t leave early.  They do their homework.  The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings
  • They speak their minds.  They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room.  They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think.  I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
  • They build independent relationships.  They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings.  They get to know inviduals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well.  None of this communication goes through you
  • They are resource rich.  I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice.  After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add.  Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis
  • They are strategically engaged but operationally distant.   This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful.  Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area.  But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like

My interview/vetting process for Board members:

  • Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member
  • Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high
  • Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists.  Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well
  • Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors
  • Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand.  Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting.  You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way
  • Have no fear of rejecting them.  Even if you like them.  Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor.  Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC).  This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company

I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member.  Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine (with only two inside jokes that I couldn’t resist putting up for the Board):

  • Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
  • Comes with an opinion
  • Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
  • Call out your blind spots
  • Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
  • Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team – Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative.  Then get out of our way
  • Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
  • Pattern matching:  they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching.  To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
  • Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
  • Colorful and unique metaphors

Disclaimer – I run a private company.  While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary.  And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture.  That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!

Feb 022012

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase and the Analysis Phase of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the final Output Phase, which goes something like this:

Vision articulation.  Get it right for yourself first.  You should be able to answer “where do we want to be in three years?” in 25 words or less.

Roadmap from today.  Make sure to lay out clearly what things need to happen to get from where you are today to where you want to be.  The sooner-in stuff needs to be much clearer than the further out stuff.

Resource Requirements.  Identify the things you will need to get there, and the timing of those needs – More people?  More marketing money?  A new partner?

Financials.  Lay them out at a high level on an annual basis, on a more detailed level for the upcoming year.

Packaging.  Create a compelling presentation (Powerpoint, Word, or in your case, maybe something more creative) that is crisp and inspiring.

Pre-selling.  Run through it – or a couple of the central elements of it – with one or two key people first to get their buy-in.

Selling.  Do your roadshow – hit all key constituents with the message in one way or another (could be different forms, depending on who).

The best thing to keep in mind is that there is no perfect process, and there’s never a “right answer” to strategy — at least not without the benefit of hindsight!

People have asked me what the time allocation and elapsed time should or can be for this process.  While again, there’s no right answer, I typically find that the process needs at least a full quarter to get right, sometimes longer depending on how many inputs you are tracking down and how hard they are to track down; how fanatical you are about the details of the end product; and whether this is a refresh of an existing strategy or something where you’re starting from a cleaner sheet of paper.  In terms of time allocation, if you are leading the process and doing a lot of the work yourself, I would expect to dedicate at least 25% of your time to it, maybe more in peak weeks.  It’s well worth the investment.

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