Jun 182014

Democracy in Action

I went to our local high school gym last night to vote for a smallish ($12mm) school bond issue as well as another proposition I didn’t quite understand about paying for fire alarms in the schools. As is always the case in New York, I was somewhere between amused and appalled that the voting machines are pre-war vintage (possibly Civil, definitely WWI).

But this election was a new experience for me. When I finished voting, I ran into a friend of ours who is on the school board, and he suggested I stick around because the polls were closing, and I’d get to hear the results.

This picture is how the results were tabulated. A woman with a whiteboard yelled across the gym to each of three other volunteers, who yelled back the numbers from each of the three machines. Hand tabulation in 2014. I’m glad the vote wasn’t close!

Voting

Why exactly are we not all voting on the internet by now?

Mar 262014

Book Short: Internet Fiction

Book Short:  Internet Fiction

It’s been a long time since I read Tom Evslin’s Hackoff.com, which Tom called a “blook” since he released it serially as a blog, then when it was all done, as a bound book.  Mariquita and I read it together and loved every minute of it.  One post I wrote about it at the time was entitled Like Fingernails on a Chalkboard.

The essence of that post was “I liked it, but the truth of the parts of the Internet bubble that I lived through were painful to read,” applies to two “new” works of Internet fiction that I just plowed through this week, as well.

Uncommon Stock

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

The Circle

While not quite as new, The Circle  has been on my list since it came out a few months back and since Brad’s enticing review of it noted that:

The Circle  was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony”… We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

So here’s the scoop on this book.  Picture Google, Twitter, Facebook, and a few other companies all rolled up into a single company.  Then picture everything that could go wrong with that company in terms of how it measures things, dominates information flow, and promotes social transparency in the name of a new world order.  This is Internet dystopia at its best – and it’s not more than a couple steps removed from where we are.  So fiction…but hardly science fiction.

The Circle  is a lot longer than Uncommon Stock and quite different, but both are enticing reads if you’re up for some internet fiction.

 

Oct 032013

Who Controls the Future of Technology?

Who Controls the Future of Technology?

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today, then got to my inbox to find both it and its opposite forwarded to me by Brad.

The Journal says that the consumerization of technology wins out in the end, and that:

In the past, CIOs and their staff had a reputation for being snarky, geeky guys who were always looking for ways to tell employees what they couldn’t do. Now, at the most progressive companies, the tech department’s main job isn’t to say no. Instead, it’s to find a way to let employees safely run any device or program they like. The thinking goes like this: Employees are most productive when they’re allowed to work with the tools that make them happy.

The Times says that it’s all about the CIO when talking about Oracle:

Oracle needs global exposure, and Mr. Hurd needs people who will testify to other big buyers on his behalf…Oracle became big in its 36 years thanks to one of the strongest sales cultures in technology. You can find so many of its former sales executives throughout the industry that sometimes is seems like the Valley’s finishing school for deals. And whatever the business, sales still is all about relationships.

So which is right?  It’s hard to imagine that the sentiment in the Journal piece doesn’t win out in the end or at least that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yes, there are still big enterprise software and hardware deals all over the place, and there probably always will be.  But even the biggest and most complex applications like databases are subject to disruption from below, freemium business models, and open source products.  Courting users, not just people who control budgets (perhaps both), is what a contemporary enterprise software salesforce has to focus on.

Filed under: Business, Technology

Mar 142013

Luck Matters (and You Can Only Make Some of It)

Luck Matters ( and You Can Only Make Some of It)

There was a great article recently in the Financial Times that’s worth reading here.  (Warning – you might have to complete a free registration in order to read this article.)  The premise is that most outliers, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, achieve their super status at least partly through luck.  And once that status is achieved, the good things just pile on from there.  This concept is as much Gladwell’s as that term is.

I always say that “you can make your own luck.”  And to some extent, that’s true.  Hard work and persistence and creativity can eventually open up doors on their own, no question about it.  While this article doesn’t say there are limitations to that axiom, it does note that hard work, persistence, and creativity PLUS some good luck is the more likely path to being #1 in your field.

Think about it this way – why is the most gifted golfer of the last 15 years someone who grew up in Southern California with a father who loved golf, and not, say, someone from the sub-Saharan region of Africa?  The latter person might have the equivalent amount of raw talent as Tiger Woods, maybe even more grit and determination.  But he’s probably never even heard of golf.

So what’s the lesson here for business leaders?  First, count your blessings.  You’re probably where you are for a bunch of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with you.  Second, look for other people to work with you who are lucky as well.  I read somewhere once that Tony Hsieh of Zappos asks every person he interviews if he or she is a lucky person – and that question pulls a lot of weight for him.  Finally, put your head down and work hard.  While this point is 100% valid, the thing is…you can’t do anything about it anyway, so you might as well push as hard as you can to do the best you can with what you’ve got!

Dec 122012

A New VC Ready to Go!

A New VC Ready to Go!

One of the interesting things about being in business for 13 years (as of last week!) at Return Path is that we have been around longer than two of our Venture Capital funds.  Fortunately for us, Fred led an investment in the company with his new fund, Union Square Ventures, even though his initial investment was via his first fund, Flatiron Partners.  And even though Brad hasn’t invested out of his new fund, Foundry Group, he remains a really active member of our group as a Board Advisory through his Mobius Venture Capital investment.

Although our third and largest VC shareholder, Sutter Hill Ventures, is very much still in business, our Board member Greg Sands just announced today that he has left Sutter and started his own firm, Costanoa Venture Capital, sponsored in part by Sutter.  The firm was able to buy portions of some of Greg’s portfolio companies from Sutter as part of its founding capital commitment, so Return Path is now part of both funds, and Greg, like Fred, will continue to serve as a director for us and manage both firms’ stakes in Return Path.

The descriptions of the firm in Greg’s first blog post are great – and they point to companies like Return Path being in his sweet spot:  cloud-based services solving real world problems for businesses, Applied Big Data, consumer interfaces and distribution strategies for Enterprise companies.

I give Greg a lot of credit for going out on his own with a strong vision, something that’s unusual in the VC world.  We’re proud to be part of his new portfolio, and I’m sure he’ll be incredibly successful.  Like Fred and Brad and their new firms, Greg understands the value of being able to write smaller initial checks and back them up over time, he is a disciplined investor, and he is a fantastic Board member and mentor.

Dec 062012

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Tony Hsieh’s story, Delivering Happiness (book, Kindle), is more than just the story of his life or the story of Zappos. It’s a great window into the soul of a very successful company and one that in many ways has become a model for great culture and a great customer service model.  It’s a relatively quick and breezy read, and it contains a handful of legendary anecdotes from Zappos’ history to demonstrate those two things — culture and customer service — in action.

As Hsieh himself says in the book, you can’t copy this stuff and believe it will work in your company’s environment as it does in Zappos’.  You have to come up with these things on your own, or better yet, you have to create an environment where the company develops its own culture and operating system along the broad lines you lay out.  I think Return Path has many similarities with Zappos in how we seek out WOW experiences and in our Core Values, as well as the evolutionary path we took to get to those places.  But as much as I enjoyed reading about a like-minded company, I also recognized the specific things that were different and had a good visceral understanding as to WHY the differences exist.

It is the rare company that gets to $1 billion in revenue ever – let alone within a decade.  For that reason alone, this is a worthwhile read.  But if you are a student of organizational culture and believe in the power of values-driven organizations, this is good affirmation and full of good examples.  And if you’re a doubter of the power of those things, this might just convince you to think twice about that!

May 242012

Book Short: Internet True Crime

Book Short:  Internet True Crime

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet, by Joseph Menn (book, kindle) was a bit of a disappointment.  I was really hoping for more of an explanation of how the “business” of Internet crime works — what the economics are like, what the landscape/scope/sectors are like, who the players are.

What I got was a bit of a true crime novel, the story of Barrett Lyon and Andy Crocker, who are respectively a geek and a cop, and their very specific stories of tracking down a handful of internet criminals around a handful of technical tactics (DDOS attacks and botnets).  It wasn’t bad, the stories were ok and occasionally entertaining, but it was very narrow.

It felt to me like there is a much more interesting story to tell around criminals who USE the Internet to commit crimes as opposed to people attacking the infrastructure.  Has anyone ever run across a book like that?

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.

May 102011

Blogiversary, Part VII

Blogiversary, Part VII

Today marks the seventh anniversary of OnlyOnce.  I haven’t marked the date with a post in three years, but here was my last such post (with links to prior posts in it).  In sum up until now, my reasons for blogging have been written up as:

  • “Thinking” (writing short posts helps me crystallize my thinking)
  • “Employees” (one of our senior people once called reading OnlyOnce “getting a peek inside Matt’s head)
  • My book reviews help me crystallize my takeaways from books and serve as a bit of a personal reference library
  • I like writing and don’t get to do it often

After seven years, though, I’m going to add another important point of value for me for writing OnlyOnce:  now, at 672 posts (including 27 that are scheduled but not yet posted – easy a record for me), this blog now serves as a repository for me of my own lessons learned, best practices, anecdotes, and aphorisms.  Thanks to Lijit, it’s easy for me and others to search.  Thanks to the new WordPress format and design by my friends at Slice of Lime, the categories and tagging make it much easier to navigate.

I probably get one question a week from a fellow CEO or prospective entrepreneur or employee that, instead of typing out an answer or setting up a meeting, I can actually just send a link as a starting point.  Sometimes there are follow-up questions, sometimes there aren’t.  But the blog is proving to be a very efficient form of documentation.

Apr 262011

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

As I mentioned in a previous post, I write 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. I recently posted George’s column on Staying Innovative as Your Business Grows (Part One). Below is a re-post of George’s second part of that column from this week, which I think my OnlyOnce readers will enjoy.

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

By George Bilbrey
Last month, as part of the Online Entrepreneur column, I shared some of Return Path’s organizational techniques we use to stay innovative as we grow. In this article, I’ll talk about the process we’re using in our product management-and-development teams to stay innovative.

The Innovation Process at Return Path
As we grew bigger, we decided to formalize our process for bringing new products to market. In our early days we brought a lot of new products to market with less formal process but also with more limited resources. We did well innovating one product at a time without that kind of process largely because we had a group of experienced team members. As the team grew, we knew we had to be more systematic about how we innovated to get less experienced product managers and developers up to speed and having an impact quickly.

We had a few key objectives when designing the process:

We wanted to fail fast – We had a lot of new product ideas that seemed like good ones. We wanted a process that allowed us to quickly determine which ideas were actually good.

We wanted to get substantial customer feedback into the process early – We’d always involved clients in new product decisions, but generally only at the “concept” phase. So we’d ask something like “Would you like it if we could do this thing for you?” which often elicited a “Sure, sounds cool.” And then we’d go off and build it. We wanted a process that instead would let us get feedback on features, function, service levels and pricing as we were going so we could modify and adjust what we were building based on that iterative feedback.

We wanted to make sure we could sell what we could build before we spent a lot of time building it – We’d had a few “build it and they will come” projects in the past where the customers didn’t come. This is where the ongoing feedback was crucial.

The Process
We stole a lot of our process from some of the leading thinkers in the “Lean Startup” space – particularly Gary Blanks’ Four Steps to the Epiphany and Randy Komisar’s Getting to Plan B. The still-evolving process we developed has four stages:

Stage 1: Confirm Need

Key Elements

• Understand economic value and size of problem through intense client Interaction
• Briefly define the size of opportunity and rough feasibility estimate – maybe with basic mockups
• Key Question: Is the need valid? If yes, go on. If no, abandon project or re-work the value proposition.

Stage 2: Develop Concept

Key Elements

• Create a high fidelity prototype of product and have clients review both concept and pricing model
• Where applicable, use data analysis to test feasibility of product concept
• Draft a more detailed estimate of effort and attractiveness, basically a business model
• Key Question: Is the concept Valid? If yes, go on. If no, abandon project.

Stage 3: Pilot

Key Elements

• Build “minimum viable product” and sell (or free beta test with agreed to post beta price) with intense client interaction and feedback
• Develop a marketing and sales approach
• Develop a support approach
• Update the business model with incremental investment requirements
• Preparation of data for case studies
• Key Question: Is project feasible? If yes, go on. If no, abandon project or go back to an earlier stage and re-work the concept.

Stage 4: Full Development and Launch

Key Elements

• Take client feedback from Pilot and apply to General Availability product
• Create support tools required
• Create sales collateral, white papers, lead generation programs, case studies and PR plan.
• Train internal teams to sell and service.
• Update business model with incremental investment required
• Go forth and prosper

There are a several things to note about this process that we’ve found to be particularly useful:

A high fidelity prototype is the key to getting great customer feedback – You get more quality feedback when you show them something that looks like the envisioned end product than talking to them about the concept. Our prototypes are not functional (they don’t pull from the databases that sit behind them) but are very realistic HTML mockups of most products.

Selling the minimum viable product (MVP) is where the rubber meets the road – We have learned the most about salability and support requirements of new products by building an MVP product and trying to sell it.

Test “What must be true?” during the “Develop Concept” and “Pilot Phases” – When you start developing a new product, you need to know the high risk things that must be true (e.g., if you’re planning to sell through a channel, the channel must be willing and able to sell). We make a list of those things that must be true and track those in weekly team meetings.

This is a very cross functional process and should have a dedicated team – This kind of work cannot be done off the side of your desk. The team needs to be focused just on the new product.

While not without bumps, our team has found this process very successful in allowing us to stay nimble even as we become a much larger organization. As I mentioned in Part 1, our goal is really to leverage the strengths of a big company while not losing the many advantages of smaller, more flexible organizations.

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