Aug 262009

What if There’s No Reason to Eat the Dog Food?

What if There’s No Reason to Eat the Dog Food?

There’s an expression in software about producing a product and market testing it — “seeing if the dogs will eat the dog food.”  I’ve heard it mangled many times around the employees of a software company using the software their own company produces as “seeing if the dogs will eat their own dog food.”  This is always true in consumer software and service companies. 

Employees are often the best users, the power users, and the source of the best feedback to the organization about the product and competition.  We certainly saw this phenomenon in spades at MovieFone, where I used to work before starting Return Path.  There was no more of a power user to be found than Andrew, the CEO, and there was a frenzy every Thursday and Friday as employees called into 777-FILM to buy their own tickets for the upcoming weekend.

But what if there’s no reason to eat your own dog food?  What if your software company develops a specific business application that only one or two people inside your company even care about?  Our services are a great example.  One or two people in Marketing, maybe one or two people in Technology, are users.  When I think about some of the web applications we as a company use, the same must be true of their companies as well.

If this is the case with your company, how do you make sure you get that same level of raw feedback from passionate users inside the four walls of your office, and not just from user groups, which are ok but have some inherent problems in terms of their objectivity and representation. 

I’m not sure I have a good answer to this – it’s more of a question to my readers than a prescription.  I’ll happily reblog the best responses!

Filed under: Email


Mar 162007

Staying Power

Staying Power

I interview a lot of people.  We are hiring a ton at Return Path, and I am still able to interview all finalists for jobs, and frequently I interview multiple candidates if it’s a senior role.  I probably interviewed 60 people last year and will do at least that many this year.  I used to be surprised when a resume had an average job tenure of 2 years on it — now, the job market is so fluid that I am surprised when I see a resume that only has one or two employers listed.

But even the dynamic of long-term employment, as rare as it is, has changed.  My good friend Christine, who was a pal in college and then worked with me at MovieFone for several years before I left to start Return Path, just announced that she’s finally leaving AOL — after almost 11 years.  Now that’s staying power.  But most likely the reason she was able to stay at MovieFone/AOL for over a decade is that she didn’t have one single job, and she didn’t even work her way up a single management chain in a single department.  She had positions in marketing, business development, finance, operations, planning, strategy.  Most were in the entertainment field, so they did have that common thread, and some evolved from others, but the roles themselves had very different dynamics, skills required, spans of control, and bosses.

That’s the new reality of long-term employment with knowledge workers.  If you want to keep the best people engaged and happy, you have to constantly let them grow, learn, and try new things out or run the risk that some other company will step in with a shiny new job for them to sink their teeth into.  Congratulations, Christine, on such a great run at AOL — it’s certainly my goal here to keep our best people for a decade or more!

Filed under: Uncategorized

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Dec 012006

I’m Embarrassed for My Profession

I’m Embarrassed for My Profession

File this under the heading of “just when you think you’ve seen it all” — I am a marketing services person and typically applaud ingenuity and buzz-generating things wherever I see them.  But even I was a bit surprised last night at dinner when I went to use the restroom to find a new form of advertising — the custom urinal cake.

Urinal1Urinal2Universal is promoting its new film, Let’s Go to Prison, in this somewhat unorthodox manner.  It did have my rapt attention for, say, 30-60 seconds, which is more time than I usually give ads.  And perhaps I paid more attention to it than I would have had it been a wall-mounted eye-level ad above the urinal.

I know from my MovieFone days (and ironically, I was at a MovieFone alumni happy hour last night just before this restroom odyssey) that studios will try anything, but honestly, do you want your customers literally pissing on your brand?  What’s next, print ads on toilet paper?  Hopefully at least the fulfillment company would come up with a sure-bet non-bleeding ink.

And as my colleague Tami said when I mentioned this to her today, how exactly are they planning on tracking the effectiveness of these ads?  It’s not like you can measure the click-stream.  🙂

Filed under: Business


Dec 222005

New Media Deal – a comment

New Media Deal – a comment

A user calling him or herself “graciouswings” (who left a bogus email address with his/her comment, so I couldn’t email him/her) made a lengthy comment to my New Media Deal posting (posting here, comment at the bottom or here).

The meat of the comment was:

“advertising doesn’t bug us if it’s not too intrusive and if there’s something in it for us as consumers.” This is simply not true. This notion is based on unfair playing grounds. People don’t like seeing commercials before movies. People _are_ bugged by having to create an account at every website they visit, whether it’s to post a comment, purchase a song, ask a question of tech support, read the news, or get their local weather info — agreeing to the privacy statement by the by. People don’t read the privacy statements. People aren’t given a choice, other than to simply not use the service. People have no choice but to watch those ads in the theater — in spite of having paid a day’s salary for their family to watch the movie — because, if they didn’t, they’d have to be late and get bad seats in the theater. And if you think that not using services or receiving diminished services is a choice, you’re lying to yourself. It’s discrimination.

I’m struggling to come up with a definition of discrimination that fits graciouswings’ argument, since discrimination means “treatment based on class or category rather than individual merit; or partiality or prejudice.”  All consumers are treated equally with respect to advertising, as far as I can tell.

And although it’s only one data point, I do have an interesting anedcote that gets of the core of this argument.  When I was running marketing for MovieFone (777-FILM) back in the 1990s, we ran a survey of our own customers and asked them which they would prefer:  continuing to use the MovieFone service with its 20-second uninterruptible movie advertisement at the beginning of every call; or have MovieFone become an ad-free service on a 900-number at a cost of $0.25 per call to the caller.  The results were *overwhelming* that consumers would rather listen to the ad than pay a quarter for the convenience of the service.  And this isn’t an ad that consumers could skip or flip past like a print ad.  I suspect if we ran a poll asking people if they’d rather pay $3.00 for a copy of the New York Times or pay $1.00 and have a bunch of ads in it, they’d respond the same way.

But maybe consumers are different when it comes to the New Media Deal.  Maybe they would rather pay for services than get them for free in exchange for some of their personal data.  I suspect if that was the case, some entrepreneur (perhaps graciouswings) would make a fortune developing paid, ad-free versions of most major web services that would attract some meaningful portion of consumers under a different model.  But seems to me that the body of empirical evidence is proving otherwise.

Mar 042005

Counter Cliche: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Counter Cliche:  Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Fred had a great posting the other day about Analysis Paralysis.  And he’s right, a lot of the time.  But I’ve always thought that Newton’s third law of motion can be applied to cliches — that every cliche has an equal and opposite cliche (think “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” vs. “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder”).

The counter cliche to Analysis Paralysis is “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” — another great lesson taught to me by my old boss at MovieFone.  While startup businesses generally do need to move quickly and nimbly, there are times and places, particularly when negotiating something, where stopping or moving very slowly works to your advantage.  This can be true in any situation — hiring someone, working on a strategic partnership, acquiring a company or selling your own company, and yes, on occasion, even in closing business with a client.

Slowing down or stopping a negotiation helps you accomplish two critical things to achieving an optimal result:

1. It allows you to gain a little perspective on what you’re negotiating and consider other alternatives.  It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of a negotiation.  While that negotiating process can be addictive, you always want to make sure you really want what you’re going after and that you’ve taken every step you can to shore up your alternatives.

2. It lets you see how important the deal is to the other party.  If you change the pace of a negotiation, you can more easily see how the other party responds to that change of pace.  Do they fade away, or do they keep calling and pressing for forward movement?

There’s a time and a place for everything in a startup.  Sometimes it’s to run hard, but sometimes it’s to stand still.

Filed under: Leadership


Sep 152004

Change of Name?

Change of Name

Fellow CEO Greg Reinacker posted an open question on his blog about whether he should change the name of his company, NewsGator. This is a GREAT topic.

We struggled with it for years at MovieFone, because at some point, the Internet became a huge part of the business, and the name seemed antiquated. Plus, everyone knew us by the phone number, 777-FILM (or whatever number it happened to be in any given city). But it had 10 years of brand equity at that point behind it.

Return Path used to be called a really long time ago, and we changed the name to be less “dot com” three months after we got started (that’a story for another posting as well). People ask me all the time if I sitll think that Return Path is the best name possible for the company. I’m sure there’s a better one out there, but I am sure it’s going to be hard to convince me to change it. Why? Let’s start with these 3 reasons:

1. It’s close enough. We’re in the email business, in general, and Return Path is a good name for people in the industry to remember (it’s the first two words in every email header) for people in the industry, and it’s easy enough to say.

2. It has good equity.
Almost five years in, most of our customers and industry watchers know it. Of course, it’s not Coke and has limited equity in the grand scheme of things, but its equity relative to the size of our enterprise is meaningful. That’s the important part. There’s a reason GE is still called GE even though its primary business is financial services now.

3. I have no idea what business we’re going to be in three years from now. Ok that’s an overstatement. I’m pretty sure we’ll still be in email. But while there are perhaps more appropriate names for us today, in today’s dynamic technology market, the company might look very different down the road, and changing a name is painful enough that I wouldn’t do it without a MAJOR event underway like a dramatic change of focus for the company, or a massive acquisition.

That said, if I had happened to name the company CompuTyco or EmailEnron, I’d change it because the collateral damage or risk thereof. If my mom had named me Adolph, Osama, or Saddam, I’d also be headed down to the courthouse to switch to a new one. They’re not as evil as a bad dictator of course, but Gator has so much baggage — they changed their own name to Claria!

So Greg, change that name despite the challenges outlined above. You’re lucky in that t’s still early enough for you. Just make sure you pick a new name that’s flexible and extensible into other areas in case the business you have in three years isn’t the business you have today. And don’t bother with an expensive naming consultant (let me know if you want to hear about that nightmare). Just have a good, structured brainstorm with your team.

Jun 162004

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Fred Wilson has a great posting today about how as a VC, it’s important to tell CEOs the truth when you don’t fund them so they can learn from the experience. As someone who’s been dinged by his share of VC’s (although not yet by Fred), I completely agree. He drew a great comparison to a conversation he had with a woman on an airplane about telling someone she didn’t want to go on a second date with him.

I’ve always felt that as a manager, firing someone is a lot like breaking up with a significant other. As the song says, Breaking Up is Hard to Do! This is particularly true when the person is either a long-time employee or is someone you have to lay-off, where the termination is not his or her fault.

When I think back to the first time I ever had to fire a person while I was at MovieFone, I remember it as one of the most horrific experiences of my life. Not to be glib about it, but I think it was harder on me than it was on her (and it was a lay-up – she was being fired for cause!).

Anyway, for an empathetic person, it is hard to look people in the eye and tell them they don’t have a job any more, whatever the reason. And I also think that people are generally well-served, even if they don’t think about it that way at the time, if they can understand why they’re being let go so they can continue to constructively develop their careers going forward and seek out jobs for which they might be a better fit.

Of course, in a non-layoff situation, someone being terminated should know why they’re being fired because a good manager would have coached them and given them appropriate warnings and conversations along the way, but that’s the subject of another posting.

Filed under: Leadership