Jul 262018

Sometimes a Good Loss is Better than a Bad Win

I just said this to a fellow little league coach, and it’s certainly true for baseball.  I’ve coached games with sloppy and/or blowout wins in the past.  You take the W and move on, but it’s hard to say “good game” at the end of it and feel like you played a good game.  And I’ve coached games where we played our hearts out and made amazing plays on offense and defense…and just came up short by a run.  You are sad about the L, but at least you left it all out on the field.

Is that statement true in business?

What’s an example of a “bad” win?  Let’s say you close a piece of business with a new client…but you did it by telling the client some things that aren’t true about your competition.  Your win might not be sustainable, and you’ve put your reputation at risk.  Or what about a case where you release a new feature, but you know you’ve taken some shortcuts to launch it on time that will cause downstream support problems?  Or you negotiate the highest possible valuation from a new lead investor, only to discover that new lead investor, now on your Board, expects you to triple it in four years and is way out of alignment with the rest of your cap table.

On the other side, what’s an example of a “good” loss?  We’ve lost accounts before where the loss was painful, but it taught us something absolutely critical that we needed to fix about our product or service model.  Or same goes for getting a “pass” from a desirable investor in a financing round but at least understanding why and getting a key to fixing something problematic about your business model or management team.

What it comes down to is that both examples – little league and business – have humans at the center.  And while most humans do value winning and success, they are also intrinsically motivated by other things like happiness, growth, and truth.  So yes, even in business, sometimes a good loss is better than a bad win.

Jul 032018

Response to the Journal

(This post is running concurrently on the Return Path blog.)

It is now widely understood that the Internet runs on data. I first blogged about this in 2004—14 years ago!— here.  People have come to expect a robust—and free!—online experience. Whether it’s a shopping app or a social media platform like Instagram, these free experiences provide a valuable service. And like most businesses, the companies that provide these experiences need to make money somehow. Consumers are coming to understand and appreciate that the real cost of a “free” internet lies in advertising and data collection.

Today, the Wall Street Journal ran an article exploring the data privacy practices of Google and some of the third party developers who utilize their G Suite ecosystem. Return Path was among the companies mentioned in this article. We worked closely with the journalist on this piece and shared a great deal of information about the inner workings of Return Path, because we feel it’s important to be completely transparent when it comes to matters of privacy.  Unfortunately, the reporter was extremely and somewhat carelessly selective in terms of what information he chose to use from us — as well as listing a number of vague sources who claimed to be “in the know” about the inner workings of Return Path. We know that he reached out to dozens of former employees via LinkedIn, for example, many of whom haven’t worked here in years.

While the article does not uncover any wrongdoings on our part (in fact, it does mention that we have first-party relationships with and consent from our consumers), it does raise a larger privacy and security concern against Google for allowing developer access to Gmail’s API to create email apps. The article goes on to explain that computers scan this data, and in some rare cases, the data is reviewed by actual people. The article mentions a specific incident at Return Path where approximately 8,000 emails were manually reviewed for classification. As anyone who knows anything about software knows, humans program software – artificial intelligence comes directly from human intelligence.  Any time our engineers or data scientists personally review emails in our panel (which again, is completely consistent with our policies), we take great care to limit who has access to the data, supervise all access to the data, deploying a Virtual Safety Room, where data cannot leave this VSR and all data is destroyed after the work is completed.

I want to reaffirm that Return Path is absolutely committed to data security and consumer data privacy. Since our founding in 1999, we’ve kept consumer choice, permission, and transparency at the center of our business. To this end, we go above and beyond what’s legally required and take abundant care to make sure that:

  1. Our privacy policy is prominently displayed and written in plain English;
  2. The user must actively agree to its terms (no pre-checked boxes); and
  3. A summary of its main points is shown to every user at signup without the need to click a link

While a privacy expert quoted in the article (and someone we’ve known and respected for years) says that he believes consumers would want to know that humans, not only computers, might have access to data, we understand that unfortunately, most consumers don’t pay attention to privacy policies and statements, which is precisely why we developed succinct and plain-English “just-in-time” policies years before GDPR required them. When filling out a form people may not think about the impact that providing the information will have at a later date. Just-in-time notices work by appearing on the individual’s screen at the point where they input personal data, providing a brief message explaining how the information they are about to provide will be used, for example:

 

It’s disappointing to say the least that the reporter called this a “dirty secret.”  It looks pretty much the opposite of a secret to me.

In addition to our own policies and practices, Return Path is deeply involved in ongoing industry work related to privacy. We lead many of these efforts, and maintain long-term trusted relationships with numerous privacy associations. Our business runs on data, and keeping that data secure is our top priority.

Further, I want to address the scare tactics employed by this journalist, and many others, in addressing the topics of data collection, data security, and who has access to data. It’s common these days to see articles that highlight the dangers that can accompany everyday online activities like downloading an app or browsing a retail website. And while consumers certainly have a responsibility to protect themselves through education, it’s also important to understand the importance of data sharing, open ecosystems, and third party developers.  And more than that, it’s important to draw distinctions between companies who have direct relationships with and consent from consumers and ones who do not.

While they may not be top of mind, open ecosystems that allow for third-party innovation are an essential part of how the internet functions. Big players like Facebook and Google provide core platforms, but without APIs and independent developers, innovation and usability would be limited to big companies with significant market power and budgets—to the detriment of consumers. Think about it—would Facebook have become as wildly popular without the in-app phenomenon that was Farmville? Probably, but you get the point: third party applications add a new level of value and usefulness that a platform alone can’t provide.

Consumers often fall into the trap of believing that the solution to all of their online worries is to deny access to their data. But the reality is that, if they take steps like opting out of online tracking, the quality of their online experience will deteriorate dramatically. Rather than being served relevant ads and content that relates to their browsing behaviors and online preferences, they’ll see random ads from the highest bidder. Unfortunately some companies take personalization to an extreme, but an online experience devoid of personalization would feel oddly generic to the average consumer.

There’s been a lot of attention in the media lately—and rightfully so—about privacy policies and data privacy practices, specifically as they relate to data collection and access by third parties. The new GDPR regulations in the EU have driven much of this discussion, as has the potential misuse of private information about millions of Facebook users.

One of Return Path’s core values is transparency, including how we collect, access and use data.  Our situation and relationship with consumers is different from those of other companies. If anyone has additional questions, please reach out.

Filed under: Business, Technology

Jun 282018

Feedback Overload and Confusion – a Guide for Commenting on Employee Surveys

We run a massive employee survey every year or so called The Loop, which is powered by Culture Amp.  We are big fans of Culture Amp, as they provide not only a great survey tool but benchmarks of relevant peer companies so our results can be placed in external context as well as internal context.

The survey is anonymous and only really rolled up to large employee groups (big teams, departments, offices, etc.), and we take the results very seriously.  Every year we run it, we create an Organization Development Plan out of the results that steers a lot of the work of our Leadership team and People team for the coming year.

I just read every single comment that employees took the time to write out in addition to their checkbox or rating responses.  This year, that amounted to over 1,200 verbatim comments.  I am struggling to process all of them, for a bunch of reasons you’d expect.  Next year we may give employees some examples of comments that are hard to process so they understand what it’s like to read all of them…and we may reduce the number of places where employees can make comments so we try to get only the most important (and more detailed) comments from people to keep the volume a little more manageable.

But I thought it might be useful to give some general advice to people who write comments on anonymous surveys.  Your company may have every good intention of following up on every last comment in an employee survey (we do!), but it’s difficult to do so when:

  • The comment is not actionable.  For example, “The best thing about working at Return Path is…’I can afford to live nearby.'”  That doesn’t do much for us!
  • The comment is too vague.  For example, “I’m not the engineer I was a year ago” – we have no idea what that means.  Is it a plus or a minus?  What is behind it?
  • The comment is likely to be in conflict with other comments and doesn’t give enough detail to help resolve conflicts.  40 positive comments about the lunch program in an office and 40 negative comments about the lunch program in the same office kind of get washed out, but “Lunches are good, but please have more gluten-free options” is super helpful.
  • The comment lacks context.  When the answer to the question “What would be the one thing we could do right away to make RP a better place to work?” is “Investing in some systems,” that doesn’t give us a starting point for a next step.
  • The commenter disqualifies him or herself.  Things like “Take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt…I’m just an engineer and have no real idea of what I’m doing” that punctuate a comment are challenging to process.
  • The commenter forgets that the comments are anonymous.  “I have serious problems with my manager and often think of leaving the company” is a total bummer to hear, but there’s not a lot we can do with it.  I hope with something like this that you are also having a discussion with someone on the People team or your manager’s manager!

We’re doing everything employees would expect us to do – reading the ratings and comments, looking at trends over time, breaking them down by office and department, and creating a solid Organizational Development Plan that we’ll present publicly and follow up on…but hopefully this is useful for our company and others in the future as a guide to more actionable commenting in employee surveys.

Apr 192018

There’s a word or two missing from the English language

In my personal life, I have acquaintances, I have friends, and I have good/close friends.

In my work life, I have colleagues – the professional equivalent of acquaintances.

But what comes after that professionally?  We spend over half our waking life at work.  Of course we are going to build important relationships.  Some of them will cross over to personal and become legitimate “friends” or “good friends.” I always feel some sense of honor when a colleague introduces me to someone as a true friend.

But for those that don’t cross that chasm – for those who are truly just professional relationships but ones with increasing closeness – what are we supposed to call them?

I guess in a pinch we could call the next level up “work friends,” although that sounds odd and a bit impersonal.  But what about the level after that?  What is a “work good friend” or even a “good work friend”?  Those sound even weirder.  And yet, “work good friends” abound!  I can probably think of 5 or 10 “work friends” or “work good friends” for every true friend or good friend in the workplace.

Has anyone found a good word or phrase for this yet?

 

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.

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.

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!