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.

Apr 212011

Backwards

Backwards

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!

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