May 012013

Return Path’s Newest Board Member: Jeff Epstein

Return Path’s Newest Board Member: Jeff Epstein

I’ve written before about how much I love my Board. Well, I’m pleased to announce I have a new reason to love it – today, I’m officially welcoming Jeff Epstein to the Return Path Board of Directors. He is joining an all-star cast that includes Greg Sands, Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Scott Weiss and Scott Petry.

I first met Jeff back in 2000 when, as CFO of DoubleClick, he and DoubleClick CEO Kevin Ryan agreed to invest in Return Path as our first institutional investor, along with Flatiron Partners.  He is one of the few people who have seen the company grow from its infancy to today.  Jeff has been a formal advisor to the company for more than a year, and he recently agreed to join as a director.

Jeff has all the qualities that make for an awesome board member and he’s already been an influential voice with uncommon insight and an impressive background that complements the rest of our board. As CFO of Oracle Jeff helped guide one of the world’s preeminent technology companies. He’s also served as CFO for large private and public companies including DoubleClick, King World Productions, and Neilsen’s Media Measurement and Information Group, and is a member of the boards of Priceline.com, Kaiser Permanente, Shutterstock, and the Management Board of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Jeff is currently a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners and a senior advisor at Oak Hill Capital.

Building and managing a board of directors is one of the key functions of a CEO, and the entire Return Path team benefits from a close relationship with great industry leaders. Jeff’s appointment is a perfect example. He’s steered successful organizations through many of the same decisions and challenges that we’re facing. He evaluates issues from multiple points of view – as a senior executive, as a board member, as an investor. And he’s not quiet. On our board, that’s essential. We’re a group of strong personalities—we challenge ideas, we analyze everything, and our views don’t always have to agree.

I’ve said that one secret to running an effective board is to ask for members’ opinions only when you want them. In Jeff’s case I definitely want them. So, on behalf of the board and the entire team at Return Path, Jeff, welcome!

Mar 152012

Canary in a Coal Mine

Canary in a Coal Mine

From Wiktionary:  An allusion to caged canaries mining workers would carry down into the tunnels with them. If dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaked into the mine-shaft, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners.

Perhaps not the best analogy in the world, but I had an observation recently as we took on a massive new client:  over the years, Return Path has had a handful of “bellwether” clients that I’ve jokingly referred to as the canaries in our proverbial coal mine.  In the really early days of the business, it was eBay.  When we first started working with Email Service Providers, it was the old DoubleClick.  A couple years ago, it was a giant social network.  Now, it’s a social commerce site.

These kinds of clients help us break new ground.  They stretch us and get us to do things we had either never done before, or things we didn’t even know we could do.  And they are canaries in the coal mine, not because either they or we die, but because they are the clients who have the most complex and high-volume email programs who run into problems months or years before the rest of the world does.  So we solve a given problem for them, and as painful as it might be at the time, we learn and iterate and then anticipate for the rest of our client base.

I’m not sure I have a lot of advice on how to handle these clients.  The relationship can be tricky.  The best thing I’ve found over the years is to let them know that they are stretching the organization, but that you are working hard for them and will hit certain deadlines or milestones.  There’s no reason to overpromise and underdeliver when you can do the reverse.  Then of course you do have to rally the troops internally and deliver.  And of course produce regular post-mortems to institutionalize learnings for the future.

Mar 192005

Email Deliverability Data

Email Deliverability Data

We just published our 2004 year-end email deliverability report.  Feel free to download the pdf, but I’ll summarize here.  First, this report is very different from the reports you see published by Email Service Providers like Digital Impact and DoubleClick, because (a) it measures deliverability across a broad cross-section of mailers, not just a single ESP’s clients, and (b) it is a true measure of deliverability — what made it to the inbox — as opposed to the way some ESPs measure and report on deliverability, which is usually just the percentage of email that didn’t bounce or get outright blocked as spam.

Headline number one:  the “false positive” problem (non-spam ending up in the junk mailbox) is getting worse, not better.  Here’s the trend:

Full year 2004:  22%
Second half 2003:  18.7%
First half 2003:   17%
Second half 2002:  15%

Headline number two:  mailers who work on the problem can have a huge impact on their deliverability.  Obviously, I’m biased to Return Path’s own solution for mailers, but I think you can extrapolate our data to the broader universe:  companies that work on understanding, measuring, and solving the root causes of weak deliverablility can raise their inbox rate dramatically in a short time — in our study, the average improvement was a decrease in false positives from 22% to about 9% over the first three months.  But we have a number of mailers who are now closer to the 2% false positive level on a regular basis.

Filed under: Email

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Dec 202004

The Gift of Insight

The Gift of Insight

Jonathan Schwartz has a great post entitled “Every Customer Visit is a Lesson.” It’s so true…if you want to give yourself a gift this holiday season, give yourself the gift of insight and spend some time in the market with a few of your top customers or prospects.  I’ve always found that to be one of the most valuable ways to shape the business, both strategically and operationally.

One of the most vivid memories I have to illustrate this concept is a meeting that I had with Crate and Barrel, a prospect, in the very early days of Return Path, back in 2000 or 2001.  I went in with my colleague Sophie Miller, and with a number of product sales specialists from our reseller, DoubleClick, for an all-day session with C&B’s online marketing team.  We collectively were pitching everything, possibly including the kitchen sink — ad serving through DART, buying online media through the DoubleClick Network, using Abacus to expand the reach of their catalog, sending email through DARTMail, renting email lists through DoubleClick’s email list business, oh yes, and using Return Path’s ECOA service to keep their email database clean.

The meeting was a mess, and as far as I can tell, it didn’t really lead to any meaningful business, either for us or for DoubleClick.  I learned two things in this call the hard way, but both were incredibly valuable lessons that continue to shape our business today.

First, we created massive confusion by bringing multiple sales people in to each present a specific product to the customer, rather than sending in one senior, consultative sales person to present a holistic digital marketing solution.  Picture yourself as the head of e-commerce for a major retailer, expecting an insightful day with the leading vendor in the space…then walking into the meeting and seeing that vendor’s SEVEN different sales people introducing themselves to each other!  It was a mess.  Since then, we have tried hard (and I think DoubleClick has as well) to run with a single sales force organized around the customer, not organized around our own products.

Second, we discovered that the original version of our flagship ECOA product (which was still in beta at the time) had a couple of flaws in the business model that were probably going to make it a non-starter in the retail/catalog vertical.  We also learned, happily, that the client loved the concept, but there were some details in the original product that had to be fixed if we were ever going to get traction with key customers in that key segment.  We fixed these problems and were able to successfully re-launch ECOA later that year, but more important, we now stay much closer to our customers as we develop new products and features so we make sure concepts are more firmly market tested before they head into development.

There are many more examples of this Gift of Insight, which I’ll share in future posts.  Happy Holidays!