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!

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.

Jul 142011

Retail, No Longer

Retail, No Longer

I’ve evolved my operating system as a CEO many times over the years as our business at Return Path has changed and as the company has scaled up.  I’ve changed my meeting routines, I’ve delegated more things, and I’ve gotten less in the details of the business.

But there’s one specific thing where I’ve remained very “retail,” or on the front lines, and that is the interview process.  I still interview every new hire, usually on the phone or Skype and in most cases only for 15-30 minutes, and then I also do an in-person 15-30 minute check-in when someone is around the 90-day mark as an employee.  For me, these have both been great mechanisms for collecting data about the organization, for making a personal impression on the culture, and for continuing to get to know all employees, at least a little bit.

But the system is starting to break as we scale.  Last year, we hired 82 people.  In the first six months of this year, we hired 80 more.  My calendar is groaning under the strain — and I assume, though they’ve never uttered a complaint about it, that my assistant and our recruiters feel like they’re playing a game of Sudoku with invisible ink trying to make it all work.

So today I changed the policy.  I’ll still do interviews and 90-day check-ins for all manager hires, but otherwise I’m delegating it to my staff.  We all feel that it’s critical for executives to stay as close as possible to the front lines, so we’ll share in the responsibilities.

It’s definitely a bittersweet moment.  It’s great that we’re big and growing fast, and it’s important for us to evolve.  But I will miss the personal connections with everyone, and I’ll have to work harder just to remember names as I walk through the hallways, particularly of our Colorado office, which has the majority of our staff but which I only visit 6-8 times/year.

Dec 032010

Selling a Line of Business

Selling a Line of Business

It’s been a couple of years since Return Path decided to focus on our deliverability business by divesting and spinning out our other legacy businesses. That link tells some of the story, and the rest is that subsequently, Authentic Response divested part of the Postmaster Direct business to Q Interactive.  Those three transactions, plus a number of experiences over the years on the buy side of similar transactions (Bonded Sender, Habeas, NetCreations), plus my learnings from talking to a number of other CEOs who have done similar things over the years, form the basis of this post.  The Authentic Response spin-out was also partially chronicled by Inc. Magazine in this article earlier this year.

It’s an important topic — as entrepreneurs build businesses, they frequently end up creating new revenue opportunities and go off on productive tangents.  Those new lines of business might or might not take off; but sometimes they can take off and still, down the road, end up being non-core to the overall mission of the company and therefore candidates for divestiture.  Even if they are good businesses, the overall enterprise might benefit from the focus or cash provided by a sale.  Look at the example of Occipital building the Red Laser app, then selling it to eBay to finance the rest of their business.

Here are some of the signs of a successful divestiture:

  • Business is truly non-core or relies on starkly different competencies for success (e.g., one is B2B, the other is B2C)
  • Business is growing rapidly and requires assistance to scale properly (either technology, or sales)
  • Business has its own culture and operations and “a life of its own”

Conversely, here are some of the reasons why a divestitures of a business unit might stall or fail:

  • Lack of a very compelling story as to why you’re selling the business unit
  • Stand-alone financials of the unit are too hard for the buyer to determine with confidence
  • Operations of the unit too tethered to the mothership
  • There is some problem with the leadership of the unit (there is no stand-alone leader, the leader isn’t involved in the divestiture, the leader isn’t squarely behind the divestiture)
  • Business performance weakens during the process

I have a couple points of advice to entrepreneurs in this situation.  The first is to clarify for yourself up front:  are you selling a true line of business, or are you selling assets?  If you are selling assets, you need to clearly define what they are, and what they aren’t, and you need to make sure all legal details (contracts, IP, etc.) are buttoned up before the process starts.

If you are selling a true line of business, beware that buyers will not be interested in doing any hard work, or if they feel like they have to do hard work, the price they pay for the business will reflect that in the form of a steep, steep discount.  The financials must be understandable and credible on a stand-alone basis.  The business must be completely separated from the core already.  The business must have its own management team, completely aligned with the decision to sell.

You also have to be extremely cognizant of the human aspects of what you’re doing.  Every culture is different, and I’m not advocating one style over another, but selling or spinning out a business is very different than selling a company.  There’s going to be a big difference in reactions, perceptions, hopes, and fears between the people in the core who are staying, and the people in the business unit that’s going.  Having a heightened awareness of those differences and factoring them into your communications plan is critical to success, as a poorly managed effort can end up harming both sides.

In terms of valuation expectations, don’t expect to get any credit for synergies.  You have to present them and sell them, and they may make the different between getting a deal done and not, but they will most likely not impact the price you get for the divestiture.

Finally, remember that buyers understand your psychology as well.  They know you’re selling the business for a reason (you need to raise cash, you’re concerned about its future performance, it’s become a distraction or has the potential to suck scarce resources out of your core, etc.).  They will completely understand the costs you carry, whether financial, opportunity, or mental, in continuing to own the business.  And they will factor that into the price they’re willing to offer.  Of course, as with all deals, the best thing you can do to maximize price is have multiple interested parties bidding on the deal!

Aug 262010

Style, or Substance?

Style, or Substance?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who sits on a couple of Boards, as do I (besides Return Path’s).  We ended up in a conversation about some challenges one of his Boards is having with their CEO, and the question to some extent boiled down to this:  a Board is responsible for hiring/firing the CEO and for being the guardians of shareholder value, but what does a Board do when it doesn’t like the CEO’s style?

There are lots of different kinds of CEOs and corporate cultures.  Some are command-and-control, others are more open, flat, and transparent.  I like to think I and Return Path are the latter, and of course my bias is that that kind of culture leads to a more successful company.  But I’ve worked in environments that are the former, and, while less fun and more stressful, they can also produce very successful outcomes for shareholders and for employees as well.

So what do you do as a Board member if you don’t like the way a CEO operates, even if the company is doing well?  I find myself very conflicted on the topic, and I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with it myself as an outside Board member.  I certainly wouldn’t want to work in an organization again that had what I consider to be a negative, pace-setting environment, but is it the Board’s role to shape the culture of a company?  Here are some specific questions, which probably fall on a spectrum:

Is it grounds for removal if you think the company could be doing better with a different style leader at the helm?  Probably not.

Is it fair to expect a leader to change his or her style just because the Board doesn’t like it?  Less certain, but also probably not.

Is it fair to give a warning or threaten removal if the CEO’s style begins to impact performance, say, by driving out key employees or stifling innovation?  Probably.

Is it fair to give feedback and coaching?  Absolutely.

This is one of those very situation-specific topics, but probably a good one for others to weigh in on.  I do come back to the question of whether it is part of a Board’s role to shape the culture of a company.  Is that just style…or is it substance?

css.php