Apr 052012

Scaling Me

Scaling Me

Two things have come up over the last couple years for me that are frustrations for me as a CEO of a high growth company.  These are both people related — an area that’s always been the cornerstone of my leadership patterns.  That probably makes them even more frustrating.

Frustration 1:  Not knowing if I can completely trust the feedback I get from deep in the organization.  I’ve always relied on direct interactions with junior staff and personal observation and data collection in order to get a feel for what’s going on.  But a couple times lately, people had been admonishing me (for the first time) when I’ve relayed feedback with comments like, “of course you heard that — you’re the CEO.”

So now the paranoid Matt kicks in a bit.  Can I actually trust the feedback I’m getting?  I think I can.  I think I’m a good judge of character and am able to read between the lines and filter comments and input and responses to questions I ask.  But maybe this gets harder as the organization grows and as personal connections to me are necessarily fewer and farther between.

Frustration 2:  Needing to be increasingly careful with what I say and how I say it.  This comes up in two different ways.  First, I want to make sure that while I’m still providing as transparent leadership as I can, that I’m not saying something that’s going to freak out a more junior staff member because they’re missing context or might misinterpret what I’m saying.  Ok, this one I can manage.

But the tougher angle on this is having unintended impact on people.  Throwing out a casual idea in a conversation with someone in the company can easily lead to a chain reaction of “Matt said” and “I need to redo my goals” conversations that aren’t what I meant.  So I’ve done some work to formalize feedback and communication loops when I have skip-level check-ins, but it’s creating more process and thought overhead for me than I’m used to.

Nothing is bad here – just signs of a growing organization – but some definite changes in how I need to behave in order to keep being a strong and successful leader.

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.

Mar 242011

Size of Pie, a.k.a. What Type of Entrepreneur Are You?

Size of Pie, a.k.a. What Type of Entrepreneur Are You?

Mmmm…pie.  A post that Fred had up a few weeks ago about an M&A Case study involving WhatCounts, a company in the email space that I’ve known and had a lot of respect for for years, got me thinking about two different topics.  The first is thinking about types of entrepreneurs.  I’ve always said there were two types:  serial entrepreneurs who are great at starting companies but less great at scaling them, and entrepreneurs who are often part of a group of founders but who go on to continue to run the business for the long-haul.

CEO David Geller’s quote that gets to the heart of this in Fred’s post was:

…a bigger piece of a smaller pie, at some point, is the same as a smaller piece of a much larger pie.  And, donʼt let anyone tell you that baking a bigger pie isnʼt a whole lot more difficult.

Although David is talking about taking in outside capital and founder dilution in pursuit of larger business growth and objectives, he is also getting to the same point about entrepreneur type.  Scaling an organization beyond proof of concept, happy few customers, and profitable to be a $50-100mm business (and beyond) requires a whole different skill set than starting something from scratch and turning an idea into reality.

And in a sense, David is right.  Baking a larger pie can be a whole lot more difficult for some entrepreneurs if they are more of the serial entrepreneur type, or at least it can be far less interesting and fulfilling if what gets you out of bed in the morning is creating new things.  But for other entrepreneurs who are more of the “run the business” variety, getting out of the creation phase and into the scaling phase is more interesting and maybe even less difficult.  Even though businesses are never de-risked and a larger business with more employees just means there are more chips on the proverbial table, baking a larger pie and tending to the things that come with it – people issues, innovating within a platform, solving customer problems – can be less daunting than creation for some entrepreneurs.  (Return Path is in its twelfth year – can you guess which kind I am?)

So David’s right in terms of his core point about founder equity value and how large a slice of how large a pie the founder ends up with.  But whether baking a larger pie is easier or harder is less about an inherent difficulty in pie-making and more about the type of entrepreneur involved.

I’ll cover my second reaction to Fred/David’s post next week.

 

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