May 122011



This is another gem that I picked up years ago from my boss at MovieFone — the “Great Employment Office In The Sky.”  It’s a simple but powerful concept:

  • the organization is grappling with a difficult employee situation, and
  • the likely path is that the employee needs to leave the organization either immediately or sometime in the future, and
  • it’s impossible for the organization to figure out how to get from A to B for whatever reason, then
  • the employee resigns of his or her own accord, or
  • the employee does something that leaves the organization no choice but to terminate him or her immediately with no gray area

This has come up time and again over the years for us, and it’s an incredible relief every time it happens.  I hate admitting that.  We try to be swift (and fair) in dealing with tough employee situations.  But the reality is that it’s quite difficult.  The easiest termination situation I have ever had as a manager — ironically the first one I ever did almost 15 years ago — was still hard, because (a) we’re all human, (b) difficult conversations are difficult, and (c) even the most clear-cut situations usually have some element of fuzziness or doubt lurking in the background.

I don’t know why the GEOITS happens.  It probably has a lot to do with employees being perceptive and also recognizing that things aren’t going well.  I am not sure I have a settled or consistent view of karma and larger forces at work in the workplace.  But I’m glad there is a GEOITS at work at least once in a while!

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.

Jan 122011

5 Ways to Spot Trends That Will Make You (and Your Business) More Successful

5 Ways to Spot Trends That Will Make You (and Your Business) More Successful

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. Ken has been covering email for a long time and is one of the smartest journalists I know in this space. My column, which I share with my colleagues Jack Sinclair and George Bilbrey, covers 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 this week’s version, which I think my OnlyOnce readers will enjoy.

Last week I published my annual “Unpredictions” for 2011. This tradition grew out of the fact that I hate doing predictions and my marketing team loves them. So we compromise by predicting what won’t happen.

But the truth is that the annual prediction ritual – while trite – is really just trend-spotting. And trend-spotting is an important skill for entrepreneurs. Fortunately it’s a skill that can be acquired, at least it can with enough deliberate practice (another skill I talk about here).

Here are five habits you should consider cultivating if being a better trend spotter is in your career roadmap.

Read voraciously. I read about 50 books every year.  About half of them are business books, and I also mix in a bit of fiction, humor, American history, architecture and urban planning, and evolutionary biology.  I keep up with more than 50 blogs and I read all the trade publications that cover email.  I also read the Wall Street Journal and The Economist regularly.  What you read is a little less important than just reading a lot, and diversely.

Use social media (wisely). Julia Child once said that the key to success in life was having great parents. My advice to you is quite a bit simpler:  make friends with smart people. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others have given us a window into the world unlike any other. Status updates, tweets, and – maybe most important of all – links shared by your network of friends and colleagues gives you a sense of what people are talking about, thinking about and working on. And you can’t just lurk.  You actually have to be “in” to get something “out.”

Follow the money. Pay attention to where money gets invested and spent. This includes keeping an eye on venture capital, private equity, and the public markets, as well as where clients (mostly IT and marketing departments) are spending their dollars and what kinds of people they are hiring. Money flows toward ideas that people think will succeed. A pattern of investments in particular areas will give you clues to what might be the big ideas over the next five to 10 years.

Get out of the office: I think it’s hugely important for anyone in business, and especially entrepreneurs, to spend time in the world to get fresh perspectives. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but our head of product management, Mike Mills, frequently refers to the NIHITO principle – Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office.  Now that’s not entirely true – running a company means needing to spend a huge amount of time with people and on people issues, but last year I traveled nearly 160,000 miles around the world meeting with prospect, clients, partners and industry luminaries. You don’t have to be a road warrior to get this one right – you can attend events in your local area, develop a local network of people you can meet with regularly – but you do have to get out there.

Take a break. While you need information to understand trends, you can quickly get overloaded with too much data.  Trend spotting is, in many ways, about pattern recognition. And that is often easier to do when your mind is relaxed.  Ever notice that you have moments of true epiphany in the shower or while running? Give yourself time every week to unplug and let your mind recharge. As Steven Covey says, “sharpen that saw”!

Dec 132010

The UnEmployee

The UnEmployee

We have a few people who I think of an UnEmployees.  They are people who we have almost hired over the years (sometimes more than once), but never have, people who are in our industry and are friends of Return Path.  Sometimes they are clients or partners, sometimes they aren’t.  Sometimes they have a token stock option grant as advisors, sometimes they don’t.

In any case, these people have played an incredibly valuable role in our company’s development over the years.  They are extra “eyes and ears” for us that have often served up valuable information before any of our regular employees heard things.  They have made powerful connections for us with other companies in the industry.  They know us well enough to know our products and strategy and have given sound advice — unasked for, but always appreciated. They’re probably more valuable to us as UnEmployees than as employees!

Our UnEmployees aren’t industry luminaries or CEOs, and they’re not classic advisors or  Board members.  They never meet as a group, and there’s nothing really formal about the relationship.  I’m not sure if other people have had this experience with their companies’ ecosystems, but I’d recommend creating it if you don’t.

Aug 202010

Feature Request, Part II

Feature Request, Part II

In Part I, I asked for time zone alerts on cell phones for off-hours and a mechanism for alerting people when they’re replying-to-all when they were bcc’d.

Today, I ask for an iPhone (and I suppose Android) app:  turn a photo of a whiteboard into a Word or PPT document!

Feb 252010

New Blog of Note in the Direct Marketing World

New Blog of Note in the Direct Marketing World

Gene Raitt, Chairman of the DMA, has launched a new blog today called DM Unplugged.  It’s not an official DMA property.  Gene won’t be the only contributor — over time, other DMA board members (including me) and thought leaders in the direct and interactive marketing communities at large — will contribute as well.

This is one small, though notable, development in a series of things the DMA is working on as it transforms itself.  Look for some truly “unplugged” commentary on this blog about both things happening in the industry and transparent views into things happening at the DMA as well as invitations to contribute to the discussion on both.

Filed under: Marketing, Uncategorized


Sep 292009

Closer to the Front Lines, Part II

Closer to the Front Lines, II

Last year, I wrote about our sabbatical policy and how I had spent six weeks filling in for George when he was out.  I just finished up filling in for Jack (our COO/CFO) while he was out on his.  Although for a variety of reasons I wasn’t as deeply engaged with Jack’s team as I was last year with George’s, I did find some great benefits to working more directly with them.

In addition to the ones I wrote about last year, another discovery, or rather, reminder, that I got this time around was that the bigger the company gets and the more specialized skill sets become, there are an increasing number of jobs that I couldn’t step in and do in a pinch.  I used to feel this way about all non-technical jobs in the early years of the company, but not so much any more. 

Anyway, it’s always a busy time doing two jobs, and probably both jobs suffer a bit in the short term.  But it’s a great experience overall for me as a leader.  Anita’s sabbatical will also hit in 2010 — is everyone ready for me to run sales for half a quarter?

Filed under: Return Path, Uncategorized


Feb 252009

New Email Blogger Extraordinaire

New Email Blogger Extraordinaire

My good friend and co-founder George Bilbrey, Return Path’s President, is now blogging. His blog, Monkey Mind Labs, is aptly named in part after Return Path’s long-standing but little-known corporate mascot.

His first few posts are up.  My guess is that his blog will be a bit like mine in that it will cover topics about email marketing as well as entrepreneurship, but I can almost promise that George will be both wittier and more insightful than I.  At least, that’s what he tells me.

Take a look!  Subscribe. Enjoy.

Jul 272008

Most scenic airport. Ever.

Most scenic airport.  Ever.

Most scenic airport.  Ever.

If all business travel started or ended like this (Jackson Hole), the world would be a happier place, I’m certain.

Filed under: Uncategorized

May 122008

Drawing the Line: Where We Come out

Drawing the Line:  Where We Come out

In the first post in this series, I laid out a dilemma we’ve had internally at Return Path in recent months: whether and how we accept clients who are in “grey” businesses like alcohol, pornography, and neutriceuticals, and whether that applies uniformly across all of our products (software vs. consulting vs. whitelist). In the second post, I reposted a summary of all the comments we received from readers. Now comes the fun part — the so what.

We had a good series of conversations internally on this issue that included some very spirited debate. Here’s where we come out.

First, we drew a distinction between three types of potentially “troublesome” clients: those whose businesses are illegal, or who advertise or sell illegal products; those whose businesses are involved in litigation around email, data, privacy, or security; and those whose businesses are in the grey area, or what we called in our discussions “morally hazardous.” In the end, we decided that for us, there’s no difference by type of product in terms of how we handle the situation. But each class of client has its own issues as well as enforcement mechanisms.

Let’s start with the easy one. Clients who break the law or whose businesses encourage others to do so have no place in our company. The challenge here is more on the edge cases — what about companies whose products or advertising are sometimes illegal (by geography or by age of target audience)? I will come back to that topic.

Next, we move on to those companies who are involved in email-related litigation. We added this category to our thinking because we view ourselves as advocates for end users, the champions of good, high quality email. Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to take on a client who is involved in email-related litigation is subjective. One example of a client we would take on is a very reputable company that has a single instance of a CAN-SPAM violation or investigation by the FTC. But there are other companies who are in much deeper. I will somewhat impolitely refer to them as “pissing in the pool.” As advocates for good email and as stewards of the email ecosystem, we can’t in good conscience allow some of these people to be clients, even of our software, if they have the potential to use the software for evil and not for good. Of course, once the litigation is finished we can re-assess, assuming the company was found to not have violated any laws.

Finally, the tough category, the “morally hazardous.” There certainly is something that resonates with us around one user’s comment that, to paraphrase, if you’re not comfortable telling everyone around the dinner table that you work for Client X, you shouldn’t work for Client X (or, Client XXX, as it were). But at the end of the day, legislating morality is impossible to get right for everyone, at every time. We think it’s not our business what kind of legal business our clients are in. In fact, we go so far as to say that as advocates for end users, our criteria around which clients to accept should be as objective as possible — that is to say, much more around their email reputation (how much do users like the content) than about some arbitrary judgment about what’s right and what’s wrong. We feel like as long as we maintain our policy of allowing employees to opt-out from working with clients or seeing clients’ content that makes them uncomfortable, we’re in as good shape here as we’re going to be.

Of course, that’s not to say we won’t, on a case-by-case basis, turn down a client because of their business. We aren’t a public utility. We have the right to walk away from a client for any reason (or, not to put too fine a point on it, no reason at all). But as a matter of policy we’ve decided to focus on email practices as a basis for who we work with and leave questions of morality of certain types of business aside.

As a final note, we clarified our policies for vetting and enforcing these standards. These do differ a bit by product. For our by-application whitelist, Sender Score Certified, we will continue to ask questions around the types of products and content that prospective clients include or link to in their emails. We will perform extra pre-client research on clients that check a number of boxes on the application that indicate they might be in a grey area or are involved in litigation. We will ask clients to self-certify their goodness. We will perform spot audits of these clients to make sure they stay in compliance with the things that are impossible to automatically monitor, even those tricky ones which are “sometimes legal.” And we will not be shy about terminating those who aren’t.

For our software and professional services, we have a “client vetting” document that asks some of those same questions, and against which we will research and audit as appropriate. For clients of our professional services, we require that sales/client services fill out this document 100% of the time for our standards and compliance team to review. For software clients, we leave it up to sales/client services management to flag the cases where there might be an issue and to run only those clients through the same vetting process.

I think that about wraps this topic up, at least for now. We do our best on this stuff, but it’s tricky, and I have no doubt that however we handle these situations, we will upset someone. I appreciate everyone’s input on this, and I welcome more by commenting below.

Filed under: Return Path, Uncategorized