Mar 152012

Canary in a Coal Mine

Canary in a Coal Mine

From Wiktionary:  An allusion to caged canaries mining workers would carry down into the tunnels with them. If dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaked into the mine-shaft, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners.

Perhaps not the best analogy in the world, but I had an observation recently as we took on a massive new client:  over the years, Return Path has had a handful of “bellwether” clients that I’ve jokingly referred to as the canaries in our proverbial coal mine.  In the really early days of the business, it was eBay.  When we first started working with Email Service Providers, it was the old DoubleClick.  A couple years ago, it was a giant social network.  Now, it’s a social commerce site.

These kinds of clients help us break new ground.  They stretch us and get us to do things we had either never done before, or things we didn’t even know we could do.  And they are canaries in the coal mine, not because either they or we die, but because they are the clients who have the most complex and high-volume email programs who run into problems months or years before the rest of the world does.  So we solve a given problem for them, and as painful as it might be at the time, we learn and iterate and then anticipate for the rest of our client base.

I’m not sure I have a lot of advice on how to handle these clients.  The relationship can be tricky.  The best thing I’ve found over the years is to let them know that they are stretching the organization, but that you are working hard for them and will hit certain deadlines or milestones.  There’s no reason to overpromise and underdeliver when you can do the reverse.  Then of course you do have to rally the troops internally and deliver.  And of course produce regular post-mortems to institutionalize learnings for the future.

Sep 122005

Reality Bites

Reality Bites

So Oracle is buying the $1.5 billion revenue Siebel for $5.85 billion, and eBay is buying the at most $60 million revenue Skype for $2.4 billion, which could grow to $4.1 billion if Skype hits some performance targets.  Huh.  Must be all those pesky customers, receivables, and assets bogging down Siebel’s books.

UPDATE:  Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick, one of the most insightful journalists covering technology, makes some sense of this in this week’s Fast Forward column.

Sep 092005

It’s Easy to Feel Like a Luddite These Days, Part II

It’s Easy to Feel Like a Luddite These Days, Part II

In Part I, I talked about tagging and podcasting and how I felt pretty lame for someone who considers himself to be somewhat of an early adopter for not understanding them.  So now, 10 weeks later, I understand tagging and have a del.icio.us account, although I don’t use it all that often (quite frankly, I don’t have tons of surfing time to discover cool new content).  And I’ve even figured out how to integrate del.icio.us with Feedburner and with Typepad.

I’m still out of luck with Podcasting, mainly because my iPod and computer setup at home makes it really difficult to add/sync, so I haven’t given that a shot yet.

But today I had another two breakthroughs — I switched from AOL Instant Messenger to Trillian for my IM client, and I started using Skype.  Trillian is pretty cool and of course free.  I’ve never used MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger seriously, so the value for me is less in the aggregation of all three clients, and more in tabbed chatting.  Just like Firefox, the client lets you have all your chat windows displayed as tabs in a single window, which is much simpler and cleaner.  But better than Firefox, you can detach a chat window if you want to see it separately.

Skype is really cool.  I understand why the company will be sold for a good price, although I still don’t understand either $3 billion as a price or eBay as a buyer.  For those of you who don’t know what it is, Skype is voice Instant Messenger on steroids.  The basic functionality (for free) is that you can ping someone computer to computer, and have a real time voice chat if you are both online and accept the connection via your computer’s microphone.  If you decline the connection, it saves a voicemail for you.  The extras, which I haven’t tried yet, include SkypeOut (you can dial a real phone number from your computer for $0.02/minute, anywhere in the world) and SkypeIn (you get a phone number to give people so they can call your computer from a phone).  The quality was pretty good — certainly as good as or better than many cell phone connections, if not up to land line or VOIP standards.  Permission and usage/volume controls will be an issue here long-term since this is much more intrusive than regular test-based IM, but when it works, it is a beautiful thing.

Now, just like the vendor mayhem in the blog/RSS world (Typepad, Feedburner, Feedblitz, etc.), we need to get Trillian to incorporate Skype into its client so there’s a truly universal chat application.

Jun 152005

Counter Cliche: Who’s The Dog in this Scenario?

Counter Cliche:  Who’s The Dog in this Scenario?

Fred’s VC cliche of the week is a good one — “If you lie down with dogs, you’ll come up with fleas.” His point is a good and simple one, that VCs shouldn’t take people risks in deals and shouldn’t try to back management teams they have serious concerns about (ethical or otherwise) in the hopes of trying to change the team or change management.

The obvious counter cliche is that entrepreneurs run that same risk in accepting capital from less-than-savory venture investors.  An ethically-challenged investor can wreak havoc on a young company, potentially tying the company up with peripheral legal problems or even damaging the company’s attempts at raising future rounds of capital.  So, VCs can be the dog in the scenario as well.

But I think there’s a broader counter cliche here, which is that one’s reputation in business is always tied, to some extent, to the company one keeps.  This applies to investors, and also to clients, vendors, and partners.  The appearance of a connection to an unsavory character, even if it’s just an appearance, and even if “unsavory” is in the grey area instead of black-and-white, is almost as problematic as a real connection.

Our business at Return Path is a good illustration of this principle, as is the case with many companies in email marketing, since email marketing has some very visible bad guys (spammers), good guys (think eBay and Expedia), and lots of companies that operate in shades of grey in between.  One of our lines of business, Delivery Assurance Solutions (email deliverability), is particularly critical in terms of us having a great reputation in the industry, since we work on behalf of email marketers to get their mail accepted (not blocked/filtered) at major ISPs.  No matter how you cut it, this business invariably involves making some judgment calls from time to time on who’s a “good guy” vs. a “bad guy” in the email marketing world.

We try to be as clear as possible with our prospects and clients about what kinds of behavior we wil or will not accept from clients, since our reputation in this business is everything to us.  We won’t, for example, help a client with ISP relations or monitoring tools if they don’t sign reps and warrantees in our contract about their email practices that go well beyond CAN-SPAM in terms of compliance with industry best practices.  We can’t accept clients into the Bonded Sender whitelist program unless they jump through all kinds of hoops with our third-party watchdog partner, TRUSTe.  And as painful as it is from a revenue perspective, we do fire clients periodically who we discover to be either not in compliance with their reps and warrantees to us, or who we discover to have a particularly poor reputation in the industry.  All of these things are designed to make sure we stay flea-free.

One area that’s particularly tricky for us is what to do with a “bad guy” who comes to us asking for help to become a “good guy.”  While it’s hard to be completely objective about this type of situation, we have an emerging policy around it.  We WILL work with clients who the world perceives as a “bad guy,” but only on a consulting basis to teach them email best practices and how to become a “good guy” (one of my Board members, Scott Weiss from IronPort Systems, calls this Return Path’s 12-step program).  If those clients take our advice and make meaningful and measurable changes to their email programs, we will continue to work with them and will slowly allow them to use our other services over time.  If those clients resist our advice or are too slow to change their ways, we will stop working with them immediately.

I guess the point of the counter cliche is that sometimes it’s hard to tell, as Sally told Harry in the movie, who is supposed to be the dog in a particular scenario.

Dec 012004

Now Selling Wit, Charm…Even Your Own Opinions

Now Selling Wit, Charm…Even Your Own Opinions

Full credit to Jonathan Schwartz from Sun for spotting this gem of an offer on eBay.  Come on, people.  Please.

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