Apr 212011



I came to an interesting conclusion about Return Path recently.  We’re building our business backwards, at least according to what I have observed over time as the natural course of events for a startup.  Here are a few examples of what I mean by that.

Most companies build organically for years…then start acquiring others.  We’ve done it backwards.  In the first 9 years of our company’s life, we acquired 8 other businesses (SmartBounce, Veripost, Re-Route, NetCreations, Assurance Systems, GasPedal Consulting, Bonded Sender, Habeas).  Since then, we’ve acquired none.  There are a bunch of reasons why we front loaded M&A:  we were working hard to morph our business model to achieve maximum success during the first internet downturn, we knew how to do it, there was a lot of availability on the sell side at good prices.  And the main reason we’re not doing a lot of it now is that there’s not much else to consolidate in our space, though we’re always on the lookout for interesting adjacencies.

Most companies tighten up their HR policies over time as they get larger.  We’ve gotten looser.  For example, about a year and a half ago, we abolished our vacation policy and now have an “open” system where people are encouraged to take as much as they can take while still getting their jobs done.  Or another example is an internal award system we have that I wrote about years ago here.  When we launched this system, it had all kinds of rules associated with it — who could give to whom, and how often.  Now those rules have faded to black.  I’d guess that most of this “loosening up” over time is a vote of confidence and trust in our team after years of demonstrated success.

Most companies start by investing heavily in product, then focus on investing in sales and marketing.  Here we haven’t exactly gotten it backwards, but we’re not far off.  Two years ago, one of our major company-wide initiatives/priorities was “Product First.”  This year, we decided that the top priority would be “Product Still First.”  The larger we’ve gotten, the more emphasis we’ve placed on product development in terms of resource allocation and visibility.  That doesn’t mean we’re not investing in marketing or the growth our sales team — we are — but our mentality has definitely shifted to make sure we continue to innovate our product set at a rapid clip while still making sure existing products and systems are not only stable but also improving incrementally quickly enough.

I don’t know if there’s a single generalizable root cause as to why we’ve built the company backwards, or if that’s even a fair statement overall.  It might be a sign that my leadership team is maturing, or more likely that we didn’t know what we were doing 11-12 years ago when we got started — but it’s an interesting observation.  I’m not even sure whether to say it’s been good or bad for us, though we’re certainly happy with where we are as a company and what our prospects look like for the foreseeable future.

But it does lead me to wonder what else we should have done years ago that we’re about to get around to!

Dec 062008

Next One is the Big One, a.k.a. Nine is Fine

Next One is the Big One, a.k.a. Nine is Fine

Today, Return Path turns nine years old. 

What an exciting year we’ve had, too.  As I mentioned a couple months back, we completely reorganized the company this year, marking a major transition and a new stage in the life of the business.  We acquired our largest competitor, Habeas, consolidating our space and further establishing ourselves as the leader in email deliverability and whitelisting.  We marched right past our 1,000th client milestone and now are well on our way to our 1,500th.

Thanks again to our fantastic team and our great group of investors and Board members for another fun and exciting year.  Nine is fine…and now the march to The Big 1-0 begins.

Oct 302008

Charting A New Path: Focus is Our Friend

Charting A New Path:  Focus is Our Friend

When Return Path turned six years old a few years ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog (OnlyOnce) titled You Can’t Tell What the Living Room Looks Like from the Front Porch. The essence of the post is that flexibility is a key success factor in starting and growing a business, and sometimes the business turns out different than what you thought when you wrote that business plan. At the time, I was commenting on how different Return Path turned out – operating five businesses – than we did when we started the original ECOA business in 1999.

Today, the message rings more true than ever. On the heels of our recent announcement that we have acquired our largest competitor in the deliverability space, Habeas, we announced a series of moves internally that chart a very new path forward for the company. We are:

  • selling our ECOA business to FreshAddress, Inc., our long-time esteemed competitor in the email list hygiene and updating business;
  • spinning out our Authentic Response market research business and our Postmaster Direct lead generation, list rental, and online media brokerage business into a new company called Authentic Response; and
  • combining our Strategic Solutions consulting business in with the consulting portion of our Sender Score deliverability and whitelisting business to form a new, powerful global professional services team inside of Return Path

The title of this post says it all. Focus is Our Friend. Return Path and Authentic Response will be able to concentrate on their respective businesses, with more focus and resources to get the job done in the high quality, innovative way each has become known for.

Look for each business to come out with more exciting announcements in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to execute more swiftly as independent, focused companies. We wish our new partner – FreshAddress – well with the ECOA businesses that they’ve acquired from us. It’s hard to let go of one’s original business. I will have to blog about that separately sometime soon. We want to thank our dedicated clients and employees for their once and future contributions as we chart this new path forward.

You never do know what the living room looks like from the front porch.


Aug 122008

Opportunity Knocks

Opportunity Knocks

When our friends at Habeas announced that they were exploring a sale of the company a few months back, we were intrigued.  While fiercely competing in the marketplace does create some degree of tension or even mistrust between two companies, that activity also creates a lot of common ground for discussion about the market and the future.

So we are very excited today to announce that we are acquiring Habeas in a deal that is signed and should close within a couple weeks.  Cutting through all the PR platitudes, here’s what this deal really means for our stakeholders:

For everyone we work with, this deal means we have even more scale.  More scale is a good thing.  It means we can invest more in our future in everything from technical infrastructure, to product innovation, to globalization, to employee development.  It’s easy to be great when you’re a 25 person company.  It’s actually quite challenging when you’re a 50-100 person company.  It becomes easier again, though in different ways, when you are a 200 person company with more resources.

For ISPs and filters, more scale means more and better data products to help fine tune filtering algorithms and improve member experience.  It also means an even more streamlined way to reach masses of marketers and publishers. 

For sender clients, we can now offer expanded service levels and access to a broader “footprint” of ISPs and filters who subscribe to our services.  The consolidated company will be one step closer to providing a universal set of standards for measuring sender-focused email quality and reputation.  Some of the details still need to be worked out here, so look for more specific communication from your account representative in the coming weeks.  The one thing we do know at this point is that we will be maintaining both Sender Score Certified and the Habeas SafeList as separate and distinct whitelist programs indefinitely.  So for now, it’s business as usual.

For employees, combining the resources of the two companies means we will be in a better position to wow our clients.  A bigger employee base and a larger company also means more career opportunities for all. 

We have always been mindful that, even as the market leader, we have to earn “every dollar, every day” from our clients, and we have to constantly demonstrate to ISPs and filters that we are not just advocating for our sender clients but for them and their subscribers as well.  None of that changes with this deal.  We still have plenty of competition and are redoubling our efforts to lead the market with innovation and service levels, not just with size and scale.

Our friend Ken Magill wrote some unkind remarks about Habeas a while back.  At the time, as fierce competitors with Habeas, we probably agreed with him.  But as we’ve gotten to know Habeas better over the past few weeks, we realized what a great business the Habeas team has built in the last five years  — including: a strong customer base and partner network, innovative reputation technologies, complementary receiver and data partnerships and most importantly, an incredible team of people as fanatical about saving email as Return Path. For Return Path employees and clients, we get access to these new assets that now makes us an even stronger leader in this space.  And Habeas employees and clients now have expanded access to great resources and talent from Return Path.  But the big winners are the ISPs, filters, and email senders – they will l now have access to a more universal solution to deliverability and filtering accuracy.

So, to  Habeas’ employees, we say “Welcome to the Return Path family!”  We are delighted to have you and look forward to many years of success together.  As I said to my wife when we were in the middle of all the due diligence on the deal, “learning more about Habeas is a little bit like looking in one of those Fun House mirrors at a carnival – you see yourself, just looking slightly different.”  We will all have to work together to move to the common ground from the prior world of competing against each other, but the exciting future of the business and the industry will propel us there. 


Filed under: Business, Email, Human Resources