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!

Jul 272017

Normal People, Doing Wonderful Things

 

All three of our kids were at sleep-away camp for the past month, which was a first for us.  A great, but weird, first!  Our time “off” was bracketed by the absolutely amazing story of Come From Away.  One of the first nights after the kids left, we saw the show on Broadway (Broadway show web site here, Wikipedia entry about the musical and story synopsis here).  Then the last night before they came home, we saw Tom Brokaw’s ~45 minute documentary, entitled Operation Yellow Ribbon, which you can get to here or below.

Come From Away is an amazing edge story to 9/11 that I’d never heard of before.  It’s hard to believe there’s a 9/11 story that is this positive, funny, and incredibly heart-warming that isn’t better known.  But thanks to the show, it is starting to be.  It’s the story of the small town Gander in Newfoundland to which a large number of US-bound flights were diverted after the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  It’s the story of how a town of 9,000 people warmly absorbed over 7,000 stranded and upset passengers for 4-5 days before North American air traffic was flowing again following the attacks.

We were both on the edge of our seats for the entire 2 hour (with no intermission) show and were incredibly choked up the whole time…and had a hard time talking for a few minutes after.  I’m sure for us, some of that is wrapped up in personal connection to 9/11, as our apartment was only 7 blocks north of the World Trade Center with a clear, 35th floor view of the site, and all that came with that.  We didn’t lose anyone close to us in the attacks, but we knew dozens of second degree people lost; I had worked in one of the smaller World Trade Center buildings for a couple years earlier in my career; our neighborhood felt a bit like a military zone for a few weeks after the attacks; and we saw and smelled the smoke emanating from the site through Christmas of that year.

After seeing the show, we researched it a bit and found out just how close to real the portrayal was.  So we watched the documentary.  I always have a great association with Brokaw’s voice as the calm voice of objective but empathic journalism.  He does such a great job of, to paraphrase him from the documentary, showing the juxtaposition of humanity at its darkest moment and its opposite.

Both the show and the documentary are worth watching, and I’m not sure the order of the two matters.  But whatever order you take them in, put both on your list, even if you weren’t a New Yorker on 9/11.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Jul 132017

The Gift of Feedback, Part V

I’ve posted a lot over the years about feedback in all forms, but in particular how much I benefit from my 360 reviews and any form of “upward” feedback.  I’ve also posted about running a 360 process for/with your Board, modeled on Bill Campbell’s formula from Intuit.

I have a lot of institutional investors in our cap table at Return Path.  I was struck this week by two emails that landed in my inbox literally adjacent to each other.  One was from one of our institutional investors, sharing guidelines and timetables for doing CEO reviews across its portfolio.  The other was from one of our other institutional investors, and it invited me to participate in a feedback process to evaluate how well our investor performs for us as a Board member and strategic advisor.  It even had the Net Promoter Score question of would I recommend this investor to another entrepreneur!

The juxtaposition gave me a minute to reflect on the fact that over the 18 years of Return Path’s life, I’ve been asked to participate in feedback processes for Board members a few times, but not often.  Then I went to the thought that all of my reviews over the years have been self-initiated as well.  Just as it can be easy for a CEO to skip his or her review even when the rest of the company is going through a review cycle, it can be easy for investors to never even think about getting a review unless they get one internally at their firms.  I suspect many CEOs are reviewed by their Board, if not formally, then informally at every quarterly Board meeting.

It’s unfortunately a rare best practice for a venture capitalist or any other institutional investor to ask for CEO feedback.  I bet the ones who ask for it are probably the best ones in the first place, even though they probably still benefit from the feedback.  But regardless, it is good to set the tone for a portfolio that feedback is a gift, in all directions.

Filed under: Uncategorized

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 152017

Don’t Confuse Sucking Down with Servant Leadership

I love the concept of Servant Leadership.  From the source, the definition is:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

This is a very broad societal definition, but it’s fairly easy to apply to a more narrow corporate, or even startup environment.  Are you as a CEO oriented primarily towards your people, or towards other stakeholders like customers or shareholders?  By the way, trying to do right by all three stakeholders is NOT a problem in a world of being oriented towards one.  It’s just a philosophy around which comes first, and why.  Our People First philosophy at Return Path is fair clear that at the end of the day, all three stakeholders win IF you do right by employees, so they do the best possible work for customers, so you build a healthy and profitable and growing business.

CEOs who practice Servant Leadership aren’t necessarily focused on power dynamics, or on helping those least privileged in society (at least not as part of their job)…but they are focused on making sure that their employees most important needs are met — both in the moment, as in making sure employees are empowered and not blocked or bottlenecked, and over the long haul, as in making sure employees have opportunities to learn, grow, advance their careers, make an impact, and have the ability to live a well balanced life.

I was in a meeting a couple weeks back with another leader and a few people on his team.  He *seemed* to practice Servant Leadership the way he was speaking to his team members.  But he wasn’t, really.  He was doing something I refer to as Sucking Down.  He was telling them things they clearly wanted to hear.  He was lavishing praise on them for minor accomplishments.  He was smiling and saying yes, when what he really meant was no.  He was practicing the art of Sucking Up, only to people on his team, not to a boss.  I got a sense that something wasn’t right during the meeting, and then post meeting, he actually fessed up to me — even bragged about it — that he was being disingenuous to get what he wanted out of his people.

There’s a clear difference between Servant Leadership and Sucking Down in the long run.  The danger comes in the moment.  Just as managers need to build good detection skills to sniff out evidence of someone on their team Sucking Up, employees need to be able to understand that clear difference in their managers’ behavior as they think about how to manage their careers, and even where to work.

Filed under: Uncategorized

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.