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

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 232016

A Path Forward in California!

A Path Forward in California!

Back in March I was proud to announce the launch of Path Forward, a nonprofit on a mission to get people back to work after they’ve taken time off to care for a loved one.  I’m even more thrilled today to announce the launch of a Path Forward program in California with six top tech companies — Go Daddy, Demandbase, CloudFlare, Coursera, Instacart and Zendesk. They are all accepting applications now for October start dates. Click on the links above to see all their opportunities.

As a CEO I know how hard it is to find great talent. The Center for Talent Innovation estimates that nearly 30% of college-educated women have taken away from their careers to serve as caregivers to children or aging family members. They have also found that while 90% of them try to return to work, only 40% are able to land full-time jobs. As an industry, we simply can’t afford to lose thousands of talented women who become frustrated by attempts to restart their professional careers.

Please join me in supporting this organization in fulfilling its mission. If you know people in California who might be looking for opportunities to restart their careers, send them to Your Path Forward in California where they can access all the job postings for the fall program.

And if you think Path Forward would be a great program for your company, email the fine folks at hello@pathforward.org to learn more.

Aug 062015

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project:  a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford  is a logical intellectual successor and regularly quotes Eli Goldratt’s seminal work The Goal and its good but less known sequel It’s Not Luck.

The more business books I read, the more I appreciate the novel or fable format. Most business books are a bit boring and way too long to make a single point. The Phoenix Project is a novel, though unlike Goldratt’s books (and even Lencioni’s), it takes it easy on the cheesy and personal side stories. It just uses storytelling techniques to make its points and give color and examples for more memorable learning.

If your organization still does software development through a waterfall process or has separate and distinct development, QA, and IT/Operations teams, I’d say you should run, not walk, to get this book. But even if you are agile, lean, and practice continuous deployment, it’s still a good read as it provides reminders of what the world used to be like and what the manufacturing-rooted theories are behind these “new” techniques in software development.

I am so glad our technology team at Return Path, led by my colleagues Andy Sautins and David Sieh, had the wisdom to be early adopters of agile and lean processes, continuous deployment many years ago, and now dockers. Our DevOps process is pretty well grooved, and while I’m sure there are always things to be done to improve it…it’s almost never a source of panic or friction internally the way more traditional shops function (like the one in the book). I can’t imagine operating a business any other way.

Thanks to my long time friend and Board member Greg Sands of Costanoa Venture Capital for suggesting this excellent read.

Jun 182014

Democracy in Action

I went to our local high school gym last night to vote for a smallish ($12mm) school bond issue as well as another proposition I didn’t quite understand about paying for fire alarms in the schools. As is always the case in New York, I was somewhere between amused and appalled that the voting machines are pre-war vintage (possibly Civil, definitely WWI).

But this election was a new experience for me. When I finished voting, I ran into a friend of ours who is on the school board, and he suggested I stick around because the polls were closing, and I’d get to hear the results.

This picture is how the results were tabulated. A woman with a whiteboard yelled across the gym to each of three other volunteers, who yelled back the numbers from each of the three machines. Hand tabulation in 2014. I’m glad the vote wasn’t close!

Voting

Why exactly are we not all voting on the internet by now?

Mar 262014

Book Short: Internet Fiction

Book Short:  Internet Fiction

It’s been a long time since I read Tom Evslin’s Hackoff.com, which Tom called a “blook” since he released it serially as a blog, then when it was all done, as a bound book.  Mariquita and I read it together and loved every minute of it.  One post I wrote about it at the time was entitled Like Fingernails on a Chalkboard.

The essence of that post was “I liked it, but the truth of the parts of the Internet bubble that I lived through were painful to read,” applies to two “new” works of Internet fiction that I just plowed through this week, as well.

Uncommon Stock

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

The Circle

While not quite as new, The Circle  has been on my list since it came out a few months back and since Brad’s enticing review of it noted that:

The Circle  was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony”… We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

So here’s the scoop on this book.  Picture Google, Twitter, Facebook, and a few other companies all rolled up into a single company.  Then picture everything that could go wrong with that company in terms of how it measures things, dominates information flow, and promotes social transparency in the name of a new world order.  This is Internet dystopia at its best – and it’s not more than a couple steps removed from where we are.  So fiction…but hardly science fiction.

The Circle  is a lot longer than Uncommon Stock and quite different, but both are enticing reads if you’re up for some internet fiction.

 

Oct 032013

Who Controls the Future of Technology?

Who Controls the Future of Technology?

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today, then got to my inbox to find both it and its opposite forwarded to me by Brad.

The Journal says that the consumerization of technology wins out in the end, and that:

In the past, CIOs and their staff had a reputation for being snarky, geeky guys who were always looking for ways to tell employees what they couldn’t do. Now, at the most progressive companies, the tech department’s main job isn’t to say no. Instead, it’s to find a way to let employees safely run any device or program they like. The thinking goes like this: Employees are most productive when they’re allowed to work with the tools that make them happy.

The Times says that it’s all about the CIO when talking about Oracle:

Oracle needs global exposure, and Mr. Hurd needs people who will testify to other big buyers on his behalf…Oracle became big in its 36 years thanks to one of the strongest sales cultures in technology. You can find so many of its former sales executives throughout the industry that sometimes is seems like the Valley’s finishing school for deals. And whatever the business, sales still is all about relationships.

So which is right?  It’s hard to imagine that the sentiment in the Journal piece doesn’t win out in the end or at least that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yes, there are still big enterprise software and hardware deals all over the place, and there probably always will be.  But even the biggest and most complex applications like databases are subject to disruption from below, freemium business models, and open source products.  Courting users, not just people who control budgets (perhaps both), is what a contemporary enterprise software salesforce has to focus on.

Filed under: Business, Technology

Mar 142013

Luck Matters (and You Can Only Make Some of It)

Luck Matters ( and You Can Only Make Some of It)

There was a great article recently in the Financial Times that’s worth reading here.  (Warning – you might have to complete a free registration in order to read this article.)  The premise is that most outliers, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, achieve their super status at least partly through luck.  And once that status is achieved, the good things just pile on from there.  This concept is as much Gladwell’s as that term is.

I always say that “you can make your own luck.”  And to some extent, that’s true.  Hard work and persistence and creativity can eventually open up doors on their own, no question about it.  While this article doesn’t say there are limitations to that axiom, it does note that hard work, persistence, and creativity PLUS some good luck is the more likely path to being #1 in your field.

Think about it this way – why is the most gifted golfer of the last 15 years someone who grew up in Southern California with a father who loved golf, and not, say, someone from the sub-Saharan region of Africa?  The latter person might have the equivalent amount of raw talent as Tiger Woods, maybe even more grit and determination.  But he’s probably never even heard of golf.

So what’s the lesson here for business leaders?  First, count your blessings.  You’re probably where you are for a bunch of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with you.  Second, look for other people to work with you who are lucky as well.  I read somewhere once that Tony Hsieh of Zappos asks every person he interviews if he or she is a lucky person – and that question pulls a lot of weight for him.  Finally, put your head down and work hard.  While this point is 100% valid, the thing is…you can’t do anything about it anyway, so you might as well push as hard as you can to do the best you can with what you’ve got!

Dec 122012

A New VC Ready to Go!

A New VC Ready to Go!

One of the interesting things about being in business for 13 years (as of last week!) at Return Path is that we have been around longer than two of our Venture Capital funds.  Fortunately for us, Fred led an investment in the company with his new fund, Union Square Ventures, even though his initial investment was via his first fund, Flatiron Partners.  And even though Brad hasn’t invested out of his new fund, Foundry Group, he remains a really active member of our group as a Board Advisory through his Mobius Venture Capital investment.

Although our third and largest VC shareholder, Sutter Hill Ventures, is very much still in business, our Board member Greg Sands just announced today that he has left Sutter and started his own firm, Costanoa Venture Capital, sponsored in part by Sutter.  The firm was able to buy portions of some of Greg’s portfolio companies from Sutter as part of its founding capital commitment, so Return Path is now part of both funds, and Greg, like Fred, will continue to serve as a director for us and manage both firms’ stakes in Return Path.

The descriptions of the firm in Greg’s first blog post are great – and they point to companies like Return Path being in his sweet spot:  cloud-based services solving real world problems for businesses, Applied Big Data, consumer interfaces and distribution strategies for Enterprise companies.

I give Greg a lot of credit for going out on his own with a strong vision, something that’s unusual in the VC world.  We’re proud to be part of his new portfolio, and I’m sure he’ll be incredibly successful.  Like Fred and Brad and their new firms, Greg understands the value of being able to write smaller initial checks and back them up over time, he is a disciplined investor, and he is a fantastic Board member and mentor.

Dec 062012

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Tony Hsieh’s story, Delivering Happiness (book, Kindle), is more than just the story of his life or the story of Zappos. It’s a great window into the soul of a very successful company and one that in many ways has become a model for great culture and a great customer service model.  It’s a relatively quick and breezy read, and it contains a handful of legendary anecdotes from Zappos’ history to demonstrate those two things — culture and customer service — in action.

As Hsieh himself says in the book, you can’t copy this stuff and believe it will work in your company’s environment as it does in Zappos’.  You have to come up with these things on your own, or better yet, you have to create an environment where the company develops its own culture and operating system along the broad lines you lay out.  I think Return Path has many similarities with Zappos in how we seek out WOW experiences and in our Core Values, as well as the evolutionary path we took to get to those places.  But as much as I enjoyed reading about a like-minded company, I also recognized the specific things that were different and had a good visceral understanding as to WHY the differences exist.

It is the rare company that gets to $1 billion in revenue ever – let alone within a decade.  For that reason alone, this is a worthwhile read.  But if you are a student of organizational culture and believe in the power of values-driven organizations, this is good affirmation and full of good examples.  And if you’re a doubter of the power of those things, this might just convince you to think twice about that!