Mar 082018

You Don’t Know How to Drive a Car Because You Know How to Read a Map

I was having breakfast with the CEO of another SaaS company the other day, as I often do to network.  He was telling me about his experience working with his company’s new Private Equity owner.

There are always a mix of pros and cons that come with any particular shareholder, Board member, or owners, of course.  In his case, my fellow CEO was bemoaning the 29-year old associate who acted like a know-it-all in every Board meeting.  Lots of CEOs have been there.  There’s a lot of value you can get from an associate or VP-level person at an investor who is the Master of the Spreadsheet and who has access to a lot of data about your company.  And there is certainly a lot of value to be gained from investors with large portfolios of similar companies who can identify learnings from experience you haven’t had as a CEO and help you apply that experience thoughtfully to your company in any given situation.  In The Value and Limitations of Pattern Matching, I quoted my father-in-law, who noted once that When you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses. But you never know when it might be a zebra.  I am still a firm believer that it’s the “thoughtful application” that matters as much as recognizing the pattern.

But this breakfast conversation led me to another conclusion, which is less about pattern matching and more about the pattern matcher.  And that is:

You don’t know how to drive a car because you know how to read a map

Being a Master of the Spreadsheet is a great starting point to coming up with ideas and insights for a business.  Quantitative analysis can tell you a lot of things, including a lot of things that you wouldn’t be able to get on instinct or experience alone, like slow, subtle changes in customer behavior, customer-level profitability, the impact of pricing changes, or compound effects of salary or benefit changes on a cost structure over time.  Think of quantitative analysis a bit like a road map.  It can show you the shortest distance and combination of roads and turns to get from Point A to Point B.

But quantitative analysis stops there.  It is not the same as actually getting yourself from Point A to Point B.  Driving a car in and of itself is a skill that requires a lot of learning and practice.  And it certainly doesn’t forecast traffic or road hazards that require a last minute detour.  Being right about what roads to take is a lot less important than actually getting yourself to the destination safely and in a timely manner.  The value of having experienced executives operating a business is those things – the actual driving of the car.  The knowing of the customers or the employees.  The skill of managing change and emotions.

At the end of the day, there’s value in both ends of the spectrum – the reading of the map and the driving of the car.  As long as the two sides agree that there’s value to both tasks and that the two sides bring different expertise to the table, there’s a great partnership to be struck.  But too often these days I hear about investors who think that reading the map is all that needs to happen for a company to be successful.  Until someone comes up with the self-driving car of management, this metaphor should hold!

Feb 222018

No One Will Ever Thank You for Keeping Prices Low

I was in a Board meeting last week (not Return Path’s), when one of my fellow directors came out with this gem:  “No one will ever thank us for keeping our prices low.”

When I first heard this, as is the case with most great quotes, I was drawn to its wit and simplicity.

But then I started thinking – is it true?  My mind first went to retail.  Having a reputation as being a low-cost provider can be in and of itself effective marketing – if that reputation is strong enough and your selection is wide enough, at least in retail-oriented industries, customers may consistently buy from you even if you’re not ALWAYS the low-cost provider.  Wal-Mart and Amazon prove this one out every day.  That’s the economic equivalent of customers thanking you for keeping your prices low.  Or pick an even more extreme example – gas stations, where there’s even more limited brand loyalty and even more product commoditization.  There’s really no reason to buy gas from a station who charges more than a couple pennies more per gallon than its neighbor.  No, thank you.

But in a B2B environment with smaller numbers of customers and smaller numbers of SKUs, this comment makes a lot more sense.  IT or Marketing departments don’t exactly go to the grocery store twice a week to buy data or software solutions!  I’m a big believer in the diminishing differences between the B2C and B2B universes, but this area may be one where the difference is still sharp.

Low prices might lure prospects to your doorstep, but they’re not going to keep buying your product if it’s not of sufficiently high quality.  Buyers measure quality in different ways, but here are three frameworks to think about as you contemplate the quality of your solutions relative to their prices:

  • Is the quality of your product “above the bar”? Meaning, does it work well enough to get the job done that customers are hiring you to do?  If not, you do not have a sustainable business.  If so, see the next two questions
  • Is the value of your product strong enough relative to the price you charge? Value-based pricing is increasingly difficult in an era of hyper competition, but if you can offer tailored enough solutions by vertical or of course by client, you can really optimize your pricing model
  • Is your price/value equation strong enough relative to the price/value equation of a competing solution? Sometimes a “just barely good enough” solution can beat out a superior solution as long as it’s a LOT cheaper and the job the client needs done isn’t mission critical

The final thought vector in this equation is friction.  Go back to the consumer examples above – your switching cost to buy gas at Station A one week and Station B the next week is zero.  But in a B2B environment, there’s always at least some friction around switching products.  Friction could be implementation cost, time, execution risk.  It could be employee or customer training.  It could be integration with other systems or workflows.  It could even be desire to maintain a halo effect from doing business with you.  The more friction you have with your product, the easier it is to maintain higher pricing.

So my conclusion is that high prices are rarely going to chase someone away in a B2B, low client count/low SKU/moderate friction environment.  And that means my fellow director was spot-on:  no one will ever thank you for keeping your prices low.  All in, this comment was a great reminder for any B2B organization about how to think strategically about pricing.

Jan 182018

Book Short – Another Must-Read by Lencioni

Book Short – Another Must-Read by Lencioni

The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues (hardcover,kindle is Patrick Lencioni’s latest and greatest.  It’s not my favorite of his, which is still The Advantage (post,buy ), but it’s pretty good and well worth a read.  It builds on his model for accountability in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (post,buy)and brings it back to “how can you spot or develop and a good team player?”

The central thesis of the book is that great team players have three attributes – hungry, humble, and people-smart.  While I can’t disagree with those three things, as with all consultants’ frameworks, I sound two cautionary notes:  (1) they aren’t the absolute truth, just a truth, and (2) different organizations and different cultures sometimes thrive with different recipes.  That said, certainly for my company, this framework rings true, if not the only truth.

Some great nuggets from the book:

-The basketball coach who says he loves kids who want to come to practice and work as hard as they can at practice to avoid losing
-The concept of Addition by Addition and Addition by Subtraction in the same book – both are real and true.  The notion that three people can get more done than four if the fourth is a problem is VERY REAL
-When you’re desperate for people, you do stupid things – you bring people on who can get the job done but shouldn’t be in your environment.  I don’t know a single CEO who hasn’t made this mistake, even knowing sometimes that they’re in the process of making it

The framing of the “edge” people – people who have two of the three virtues, but not the third, is quite good:

-Hungry and Humble but not People-Smart – The Accidental Mess Maker
-Humble and People-Smart, but not Hungry – The Lovable Slacker
-Hungry and People-Smart, but not Humble – The Skillful Politician

In my experience, and Lencioni may say this in the book, too (I can’t remember and can’t find it), none of these is great…but the last one is by far the most problematic for a culture that values teamwork and collaboration.

Anyway, I realize this is a long summary for a short book, but it’s worth buying and reading and having on your (real or virtual) shelf.  In addition to the story, there are some REALLY GOOD interview guides/questions and team surveys in the back of the book.

Dec 012017

Knowing When to Ask for Help in Your Startup

I had a great networking meeting yesterday along with Tami Forman, the CEO of our non-profit affiliate Path Forward, and Joanne Wilson, my board co-chair.  It was a meeting that Joanne set up that the three of us had been talking about for over a year.  Joanne made a great comment as we were debriefing in the elevator after the meeting that is the foundation of this post.  Tami and I shaped her comment into this metaphor:

Finding wood to help start a fire is different from pouring gasoline on a fire

As an entrepreneur, you need to constantly be asking for help and networking.  Those meetings will shape your business in ways that you can never predict.  They’ll shape your thinking, add ideas to the mix, kill bad ideas, and connect you to others who can help you in your journey.

But you need to have a good sense of who to meet with, and when, along the way.  Some people, you can only meet once, unless they become core to your business, so you have to choose carefully when to fire that one bullet.  Others will meet with you regularly and are happy to see longitudinal progress.  Regardless, being clear on your ask is critical, and then backing up from that to figure out whether this is the one bullet you can fire with someone or whether it’s one ask of many will help you figure out if you should push for that networking meeting or not.


Because asking someone to help you find wood to start a fire (the early stages of your business) is different from pouring gasoline on an existing fire (once you’re up and running).  If you’re in the super early stages of your business and looking for product-market fit, you won’t want to meet with people who aren’t conceptual thinkers, who aren’t deep in your space, or who might only see you once.  Maybe they can help you brainstorm, but you’ll find better partners for that.  They might be able to provide concrete help or introductions, but you’re probably not ready for those yet.  It’s a waste of time.  You need wood to start your fire, and people like this aren’t helpful scouring the forest floor with you to find it.

However, those people can be fantastic to meet with once you have product-market fit and are deep in the revenue cycle.  You have clear demonstration of value, customer success stories, you know what works and what doesn’t and why.  You can have short, crisp asks that are easy for the person to follow-up on.  They will be willing to lend your their name and their network.  You have a fire, they have a cup of spare gasoline, and you can get them to pour that cup on your fire.

The judgment call around this isn’t easy.  Entrepreneurial zeal makes it abnormally comfortable to call on any stranger at any time and ask for help.  But developing this sense is critical to optimizing your extended network in the early years.

Nov 162017

Deals are not done until they are done

We were excited to close the sale of our Consumer Insights business last week to Edison, as I blogged about last week on the Return Path blog.  But it brought back to mind the great Yogi Berra quote that “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

We’ve done lots of deals over our 18 year existence.  Something like 12 or 13 acquisitions and 5 spin-offs or divestitures.  And a very large number of equity and debt financings.

We’ve also had four deals that didn’t get done.  One was an acquisition we were going to make that we pulled away from during due diligence because we found some things in due diligence that proved our acquisition thesis incorrect.  We pulled the plug on that one relatively early.  I’m sure it was painful for the target company, but the timing was mid-process, and that is what due diligence is for.  One was a financing that we had pretty much ready to go right around the time the markets melted down in late 2008.

But the other two were deals that fell apart when they were literally at the goal line – all legal work done, Boards either approved or lined up to approve, press releases written.  One was an acquisition we were planning to make, and the other was a divestiture.  Both were horrible experiences.  No one likes being left at the altar.  The feeling in the moment is terrible, but the clean-up afterwards is tough, too.  As one of my board members said at the time of one of these two incidents – “what do you do with all the guests and the food?”

What I learned from these two experiences, and they were very different from each other and also a while back now, is a few things:

  • If you’re pulling out of a deal, give the bad news as early as possible, but absolutely give the news.  We actually had one of the “fall apart at the goal line” deals where the other party literally didn’t show up for the closing and never returned a phone call after that.  Amateur hour at its worst
  • When you’re giving the bad news, do it as directly as possible – and offer as much constructive feedback as possible.  Life is long, and there’s no reason to completely burn a relationship if you don’t have to
  • Use the due diligence and documentation period to regularly pull up and ask if things are still on track.  It’s easy in the heat and rapid pace of a deal to lose sight of the original thesis, economic justification, or some internal commitments.  The time to remember those is not at the finish line
  • Sellers should consider asking for a breakup fee in some situations.  This is tough and of course cuts both ways – I wouldn’t want to agree to one as a buyer.  But if you get into a process that’s likely to cause damage to your company if it doesn’t go through by virtue of the process itself, it’s a reasonable ask

But mostly, my general rule now is to be skeptical right up until the very last minute.

Because deals are not done until they are done.

Nov 022017

How Venture Capital Firms Work, for Entrepreneurs and Startups

A couple of months ago, I was doing an internal lunch & learn for senior managers, and the topic came up as to “how do our VC firms work?”  In the spirit of deeply understanding our customers’ businesses in order to better serve them, I thought the same would be true of our investors and Board members – that educating our team on the inner workings and economics of our investors would lead to greater empathy of one of our other key stakeholders.

So with no small amount of help from my long-time investor and director Brad Feld and his colleague Jason Mendelson, whose book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist I contributed to in a very small way by writing a series of sidebars called “The Entrepreneur’s Perspective” (that process led to my writing Startup CEO), I pulled together this presentation available on Slideshare entitled How Venture Capital Firms Work and Why You Should Care.

I redacted our cap table and pictures of our VCs, but otherwise, feel free to use it with your own management team, or even your whole company.

Oct 052017

When in Doubt, Apply a Framework (but be sure to keep them fresh!)

I’ve always been a big believer in the consistent application frameworks for business thinking and decision-making.  Frameworks are just a great starting point to spark conversation and organize thinking, especially when you’re faced with a new situation.  Last year, I read Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, and he had this great line that reminded me of the power of frameworks and that it extends far beyond business decision-making:

When you put your value set together with your analysis of how the Machine works and your understanding of how it is affecting people and culture in different contexts, you have a worldview that you can then apply to all kinds of situations to produce your opinions. Just as a data scientist needs an algorithm to cut through all the unstructured data and all the noise to see the relevant patterns, an opinion writer needs a worldview to create heat and light. 

In Startup CEO, I wrote about a bunch of different frameworks we have used over the years at Return Path, from vetting new business ideas to selecting a type of capital and investor for a capital raise.  I blogged about a new one that I learned from my dad a few months ago on delegation.  One of my favorite business authors, Geoffrey Moore, has developed more frameworks than I can count and remember about product and product-market fit.

But all frameworks can go stale over time, and they can also get bogged down and confused with pattern recognition, which has limitations.  To that end, Friedman also addressed this point:

But to keep that worldview fresh and relevant…you have to be constantly reporting and learning—more so today than ever. Anyone who falls back on tried-and-true formulae or dogmatisms in a world changing this fast is asking for trouble. Indeed, as the world becomes more interdependent and complex, it becomes more vital than ever to widen your aperture and to synthesize more perspectives.

Again, although Friedman talks about this in relation to journalism, the same can be applied to business.  Take even the most basic framework, the infamous BCG “Growth/Share Matrix” that compares Market Growth and Market Share and divides your businesses into Dogs, Cash Cows, Question Marks, and Stars.  Digital Marketing has disrupted some of the core economics of firms, so there are a number of businesses that you might previously have said were in the Dog quadrant but due to improved economics of customer acquisition can either be moved into Cash Cow or at least Question Mark.  Or maybe the 2×2 isn’t absolute any more, and it now needs to be a 2×3.

The business world is dynamic, and frameworks, ever important, need to keep pace as well.

Sep 212017

Book Shorts: Summer Reading

I read a ton of books.  I usually blog about business books, at least the good ones.  I almost never blog about fiction or non-business/non-fiction books, but I had a good “what did you read this summer” conversation the other night with my CEO Forum, so I thought I’d post super quick snippets about my summer reading list, none of which was business-related.

If you have kids, don’t read Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B:  Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy unless you’re prepared to cry or at least be choked up.  A lot.  It is a tough story to read, even if you already know the story.  But it does have a number of VERY good themes and thoughts about what creates resilience (spoiler alert – my favorite key to resilience is having hope) that are wonderful for personal as well as professional lives.

Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters, is a member of a genre I love – alternative historical fiction.  This book is set in contemporary America – except that its version of America never had a Civil War and therefore still has four slave states.  It’s a solid caper in its own right, but it’s a chillingly realistic portrayal of what slavery and slave states would be like today and what America would be like with them.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, is the story of Appalachia and white working class Americans as told by someone who “escaped” from there and became a marine, then a Yale-educated lawyer.  It explains a lot about the struggles of millions of Americans that are easy for so many of us to ignore or have a cartoonish view of.  It explains, indirectly, a lot about the 2016 presidential election.

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, was like a cross between Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise and Levitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics.  It’s full of interesting factoids derived from internet data.  Probably the most interesting thing about it is how even the most basic data (common search terms) are proving to be great grist for the big data mill.

P.J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? was a lot like the rest of P.J. O’Rourke’s books, but this time his crusty sarcasm is pointed at the last election in a compilation of articles written at various points during the campaign and after.  It didn’t feel to me as funny as his older books.  But that could also be because the subject was so depressing.  The final chapter was much less funny and much more insightful, not that it provides us with a roadmap out of the mess we’re in.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Harari, is a bit of a rambling history of our species.  It was a good read and lots of interesting nuggets about biology, evolution, and history, though it had a tendency to meander a bit.  It reminded me a bit of various Richard Dawkins books (I blogged a list of them and one related business topic here), so if you’re into that genre, this wouldn’t be bad to pick up…although it’s probably higher level and less scientific than Dawkins if that’s what you’re used to.

Finally, I finished up the fourth book in the massive Robert Caro quadrilogy biography of Lyndon Johnson (full series here).  I have written a couple times over the years about my long-term reading project on American presidential biographies, probably now in its 12th or 13th year.  I’m working my way forward from George Washington, and I usually read a couple on each president, as well as occasional other related books along the way.  I’ve probably read well over 100 meaty tomes as part of this journey, but none as meaty as what must have been 3000+ pages on LBJ.  The good news:  What a fascinating read.  LBJ was probably (with the possible exception of Jefferson) the most complex character to ever hold the office.  Also, I’d say that both Volumes 3 and 4 stand alone as interesting books on their own – Volume 3 as a braoder history of the Senate and Civil Rights; Volume 4 as a slice of time around Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s assumption of power.  The bad news:  I got to the end of Vol 4 and realized that there’s a Vol 5 that isn’t even published yet.

That’s it for summer reading…now back to school!

Filed under: Books, Uncategorized

Aug 312017

Agile Everywhere, Part II

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the Agile methodology on this blog. For those of you who are regular readers, you may remember a post I wrote about our Agile Everywhere initiative— where all Return Path teams were tasked with implementing agile practices. A little over a year later, I want to update you on our agile journey–where we are now and how we got there.  My colleague Cathy Hawley (our head of People) will write a more detailed series of guest posts  for those of you who want to get more details of our transformation process.

Before we started our Agile Everywhere initiative, only our product and engineering teams were using agile. The rest of the organization (a few hundred people!) weren’t at all familiar with agile practices. Despite this, there were a few things that helped accelerate our transformation:

  1. Strong executive buy-in
  2. A clear vision
  3. Agile-friendly company culture and values
  4. A passionate project team
  5. Resident agile experts

These 5 initial ingredients proved to be essential and enabled us to hit the ground running in Q1 2016. We started out by experimenting with non-technical pilot teams from all different offices, functions, and levels. After a couple months of experimentation, early qualitative results from pilot team members suggested that implementing agile principles was enhancing team communication and productivity. So we embarked on our next step, implementing agile practices across all non-technical teams at Return Path.

We are now 18 months into our transformation and the data shows us that the transformation is helping with our productivity:  we track a  metric that is comprised of many different measures of business performance that fall into 3 main themes–operating efficiency, planning effectiveness, and business success. So far we have already seen a 51% increase in the metric from Q4 2015 (before our Agile Everywhere initiative) to Q1 2017. We are emboldened by these promising results, but still have a lot of work to do to ensure that all teams at RP are taking full advantage of agile and reaping its benefits. Keep an eye out for Cathy Hawley’s posts for more information about our agile adventure, soon to be published the RP blog.

When the series is over, I’ll publish a summary with all the specific post links here as well.

Aug 102017

The Value and Limitations of Pattern Recognition

My father-in-law, who is a doctor by training but now a health care executive, was recently talking about an unusual medical condition that someone in the family was fighting.  He had a wonderful expression he said docs use from time to time:

When you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses. But you never know when it might be a zebra.

With experience (and presumably some mental wiring) comes the ability to recognize patterns.  It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen, no matter how smart you are, without the passage of time and seeing different scenarios play out in the wild.  It’s one of the big things that I’ve found that VC investors as Board members, and independent directors, bring to the Board room.  Good CEOs and senior executives will bring it to their jobs.  Good lawyers, doctors, and accountants will bring it to their professions.  If X, Y, and Z, then I am fairly certain of P, D, and Q.  Good pattern recognition allows you to make better decisions, short circuit lengthy processes, avoid mistakes, and much better understand risks.  The value of it is literally priceless.  Good pattern recognition in our business has accelerated all kinds of operational things and sparked game changing strategic thinking; it has also saved us over the years from making bad hires, making bad acquisitions, and executing poorly on everything from system implementations to process design.  Lack of pattern recognition has also cost us on a few things as well, where something seemed like a good idea but turned out not to be – but it was something no one around the Board table had any specific experience with.

But there’s a limitation, and even a downside to good pattern recognition as well.  And that is simple – pattern recognition of things in the past is not a guarantee that those same things will be true in the future.  Just because a big client’s legal or procurement team is negotiating something just like they did last time around doesn’t mean they want the same outcome this time around.  Just because you acquired a company in a new location and couldn’t manage the team remotely doesn’t mean you won’t be able to be successful doing that with another company.

The area where I worry the most about pattern recognition producing flawed results is in the area of hiring.  Unconscious bias is hard to fight, and stripping out markers that trigger unconscious bias is something everyone should try to do when interviewing/hiring – our People team is very focused on this and does a great job steering all of us around it.  But if you’re good at pattern recognition, it can cause a level of confidence that can trigger unconscious biases.  “The last person I hired out of XYZ company was terrible, so I’m inclined not to hire the next person who worked there.”  “Every time we promote someone from front-line sales into sales management, it doesn’t work out.”  You get the idea.

Because when you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses.  But you never know when it might be a zebra!