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.