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.

Why?

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.

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 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!

Jun 292017

Delegating Decision-Making

My dad (one of my main CEO/entrepreneur role models) and I team-teach a business school class in entrepreneurial leadership every year at USD where a friend of his is the professor.  Sometimes I go in person, usually I just do it by video.  We did this a few weeks ago, and my dad talked through a decision-making framework that I’d never heard him mention before.

I sketched it out and really like it and am already using it internally, so I thought I would share it here as well:

To walk through it, delegating decision-making to someone on your team can be as simple as understanding where a decision falls along two different spectrums.  On the vertical axis is “How familiar is the person with this type of decision?” – meaning, has the person seen and made this kind of decision before?  This could be something like firing an employee, signing a contract, negotiating a vendor agreement.  On the horizontal axis is “What are the consequences of getting the decision wrong?” – which is really self explanatory…how big a deal is this?

The primary, upper right quadrant of “The person has made this decision before, and it’s not a huge deal” is an easy one – delegate the decision-making authority.  The two middle quadrants of “big deal, but familiar with the decision” and “never seen this before, but not a big deal” are ripe for the old adage of ask forgiveness later, not permission first, meaning it’s ok to delegate decision-making authority, but hold the person accountable for letting you know about decisions like that so you can be on the lookout for potential required clean-up.

But what I love most is the way my dad framed the final quadrant (lower left here), which is “high stakes decision, never seen this situation before.”  It can be tempting for a senior manager or CEO to just take this quadrant over and remove decision-making authority from a team member.  But it’s also a perfect teaching/coaching moment.  So the rule of thumb for this quadrant is “make the decision with me, but please come to me with a proposal on it.”

And that’s why my dad is such a great business mentor!

Jun 122017

Why You Won’t See Us Trash Talk Our Competition

We’ve been in business at Return Path for almost 18 years now.  We’ve seen a number of competitors come and go across a bunch of different related businesses that we’ve been in.  One of the things I’ve noticed and never quite understood is that many of our competitors expend a lot of time and energy publicly trash talking us in the market.  Sometimes this takes the form of calling us or our products out by name in a presentation at a conference; other times it takes the form of a blog post; other times it’s just in sales calls.  It’s weird.  You don’t see that all that often in other industries, even when people take aim at market leaders.

During the normal course of business, one of sales reps might engage in selling against specific competitors — often times, they have to when asked specific questions by specific prospects — but one thing you’ll never see us do is publicly trash talk a single competitor by name as a company.  I’m sure there are a couple people at Return Path who would like us to have “sharper elbows” when it comes to this, but it’s just not who we are.  Our culture is definitely one that values kindness and a softer approach.  But good business sense also tells me that it’s just not smart for four reasons:

  • We’re very focused and disciplined in our outbound communications — and there’s only so much air time you get as a company in your industry, even among your customers — on thought leadership, on showcasing the value of our data and our solutions, and on doing anything we can do to make our customers more successful.  Pieces like my colleague Dennis Dayman’s recent blog post on the evolution of the data-driven economy, or my colleague Guy Hanson’s amazingly accurate prediction of the UK’s “unpredictable” election results both represent the kind of writing that we think is productive to promote our company
  • We’re fiercely protective of our brand (both our employer brand and our market-facing brand), and we’ve built a brand based on trust, reputation, longevity, and being helpful, in a business that depends on reputation and trust as its lifeblood — as I think about all the data we handle for clients and strategic partners, and all the trust mailbox providers place in us around our Certification program.  Clients and partners will only place trust in — and will ultimately only associate themselves with — good people.  To quote my long time friend and Board member Fred Wilson (who himself is quoting a long time friend and former colleague Bliss McCrum), if you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas.  If we suddenly turned into the kind of company that talked trash about competition, I bet we’d find that we had diminished our brand and our reputation among the people who matter most to us.  Our simple messaging and positioning showcases our people, our expertise, and our detailed knowledge of how email marketing works, with a collective 2,000 years of industry experience across our team
  • Trash talking your competition can unwittingly expose your own weaknesses.  Think about Donald Trump’s memorable line from one of the debates against Hillary Clinton – “I’m not the puppet, you’re the puppet” – when talking about Russia.  That hasn’t turned out so well for him.  It’s actually a routine tactic of Trump, beyond that one example.  Accuse someone else of something to focus attention away from your own issues or weaknesses.  Don’t like the fact that your inauguration crowd was demonstrably smaller than your predecessor’s?  Just lie about it, and accuse the media of creating Fake News while you’re at it.  Disappointed that you lost the popular vote?  Accuse the other side of harvesting millions of illegal votes, even though it doesn’t matter since you won the electoral college!  Think about all these examples, regardless of your politics.  All of them draw attention to Trump’s weaknesses, even as he’s lashing out at others (and even if you think he’s right).  We don’t need to lash out at others because we have so much confidence in our company, our products, and our services.  We are an innovative, happy, stable, profitable, and growing vendor in our space, and that’s where our attention goes
  • Publicly trash talking your competition just gives your competition extra air time.  As PT Barnum famously said, “You can say anything you want about me, just make sure you spell my name right!”

Don’t get me wrong.  Competition is healthy.  It makes businesses stronger and can serve as a good focal point for them to rally.  It can even be healthy sometimes to demonize a competitor *internally* to serve as that rallying cry.  But I am not a fan of doing that *externally.*  I think it makes you look weak and just gives your competitor free advertising.

May 182017

Being a CEO is Like Playing a Game of Hearts

Hearts was one of my favorite card games in college.  I remember staying up deep into the night regularly with my roommates playing it.  I recently taught our kids how to play and have been playing with them more regularly of late…and I was reminded how much I enjoy the game.  No metaphor or simile is perfect, and this one isn’t either, but it occurred to me the other night that being a CEO is a little bit like playing a game of Hearts.

First and foremost, you have to play the hand that you’re dealt.  No matter how proactive you want to be about running your own agenda, things happen around you — with your people, your customers, your competitors, and you have to figure out how to react to situations.

Second, you usually get to pass 3 cards to another player, but sometimes you have a “hold” hand.  Even within a situation you have to react to, sometimes you can mute the edges of it before you actually react (but occasionally, you can’t change the situation at all).  Consider the difference between a customer telling you they are about to churn (maybe you can still save them on price, terms, feature sets) vs. sending you a termination notice after they have signed with a competitor.

Next, when playing the hand, there are times when you want to get the lead so you can control the flow of the game, and there are times when you want to avoid getting the lead so you just hand out point cards to others.

Also in the course of the play of a hand, you want to keep close track of what the other players have and don’t have in their hands, particularly so you can avoid the Queen of Spades and so you can try hard to capture the Jack of Diamonds.  Day in and day out at work, you need understand as deeply as possible what your competitors and partners are up to…and you always want to have an eye on the biggest opportunity in front of the company — a new prospect you’re trying to win over, for example — and the biggest risk point you’re trying to avoid.

Finally, you have to recognize that any given hand is one out of many in a game, just like every day, or week, or quarter, is just one piece of your overall stewardship of your company over the long haul.  And of course the simple act of being an entrepreneur is in and of itself analogous to Shooting the Moon.  It’s almost impossible to do, and you have to both have the right cards AND play the hand extremely well.  But when you do, the reward is spectacular!

(That wasn’t too much of a stretch, was it?)

Apr 172017

A Two Week Vacation is More Than Twice As Good As a One Week Vacation

I’ve said this for years, but as I sit on the train commuting into work after a week off relaxing with my family for my Dad’s 75th birthday (or as he prefers to call it, the 46th anniversary of his 29th birthday), I feel particularly inclined to write it up!

I love my job, so I almost never mind going to work. But I also love being on vacation and traveling with my family and try to do as much of it as I can. Years ago before we had kids and became tethered to school and sports schedules, we used to take at least one full two week vacation, completely unplugged, at least once a year. I miss that!

The problem with any vacation longer than a couple days off (which is NOT a vacation) is that it can take several days to unwind, decompress from work and the small stresses of every day life, and unplug, meaning not checking email, reading blogs or the newspaper every morning, and not fidgeting every time you’re more than 10 feet away from your smartphone. Then on the other end of the trip, trying to triage email the day before you go back to work and generally gearing up for reentry into the fast lane also consume a bunch of cycles — and for me, I’ve never been able to sleep well the night before the first day of anything, so it means starting back with diminished relaxation even before walking through the office door.

So all in, that means the true part of a week-long, meaning 9-day vacation (including two weekends), is about 4-5 days.

That’s not bad. But I think you have all that same overhead associated with a two week vacation as well…so a two week vacation of 16 days leaves you with 11-12 days. Mathematically, if not psychically, more than twice as good as the standard one-weeker.

I’m inclined to start doing that once a year again, schedules be damned!

As a side note, two things I also used to do on vacation, even a one-weeker, that I am regretting not doing this time are (a) actually turning my work email account off my phone and leaving it off until the Monday morning after vacation so there’s no cheating on a couple minutes of email here or there, and (b) making sure my schedule is almost completely open that first Monday back to catch up. Next time, those two features will return prominently…along with that full second week off.

Oh, and if anyone says a Startup CEO can’t take a long unplugged vacation…I call bullshit. You may not be able to do it any two weeks of the year with no notice, but plan ahead, leave things in good order, leave someone in charge (or don’t, but be deliberate about that), and let them know where to call you in case the building burns down. It will be fine when you get back, and healthy for tour team to have a break from you as well.

Jan 282016

Ideas Matter Less Than Execution Which Matters Less Than Timing Which Matters Less Than Luck

Well, that’s a mouthful.  Let me break it down.

Ideas Matter Less Than Execution

Execution Matters Less Than Timing

Timing Matters Less Than Luck

There’s a persistent myth about entrepreneurs as heroes – the people with the brilliant ideas and Eureka moments that bring companies to life and create success.  I’ve never believed in that myth, or at least not in its universality, as I’ve always valued both ideation and execution in terms of business building.  But as I was thinking about that construct more the other day, it occurred to me that there’s actually a hierarchy of the two, and not just of the two, but of timing and luck as well.  The best businesses — the runaway successes — probably have all four of these things going, or at least three.  And in many cases, THE IDEA is the least important of the bunch.  Consider these examples:

Plaxo was launched a year or two before LinkedIn.

Friendster was launched a couple years before MySpace, which was launched before Facebook.  (You can go back even further and look at things like PlanetAll and Classmates.com).

Geocities predated blogging and Tumblr by more than a decade.

The Diamond Rio was launched three years before the first iPod.

Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Yahoo, and lots of other search engines and web crawlers were started well before Google.  Goto.com (Overture) did paid search before Google.

The ideas were all pretty similar.  In most cases, if not all, execution won out.  In the case of the iPod vs the Rio, it’s not that the world wasn’t ready for portable music – my Sony Walkman from the early 1980s is testament to that.  It’s that the combination of iTunes and the iPod, combined with Apple’s phenomenal design and packaging — all elements of execution — won the day.

The role that timing plays is also key.  Sometimes the world isn’t ready for a great technology yet, or it may be ready, but not for sustained growth and usage.  Friendster and MySpace vs. Facebook is the best example of this.  Facebook isn’t necessarily a better service, better marketed.  Friendster and MySpace were similarly viral in adoption at the beginning.  But the world was still in the Visionary or Early Adopter stage (in the language of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm).  By the time Facebook came around, the world was ready to mass adopt a social network.  Geocities, for example, was a big financial success at the time (Yahoo acquired the business for $5B – they “only” acquired Tumblr for $1B, give or take), but then it disappeared from the scene, where Tumblr seems much more durable.

The role of luck is harder to explain, or at least harder to separate from that of timing, and there’s a good argument that luck can be at the bottom of this particular chain, not the top (as in, luck is hard to separate from ideas).  Sometimes luck means avoiding bad luck, as in the story about Southwest Airlines — a great idea with promising early execution and good timing — narrowly avoiding a major crash during its first week of operations in 1967.  Sometimes luck means being in the right place at the right time, or making an accidental discovery, as in the case of the Princeton University professor, Edward Taylor, who discovered a powerful cancer treatment a bit accidentally while studying the pigments that produce the colors on the wings of butterflies for a completely unrelated purpose.

Don’t get me wrong.  Ideas are still important.  They are the spark that starts the fire.  And ideas can be partly created by the luck of being in the right place at the right time, so maybe this whole construct is more of a virtual circle than a hierarchy.  But entrepreneurs need to remember that a spark only gets you so far.  As the old saying goes, I’d rather be lucky than good!