Category Archives: Communications

Write Actionable Emails! (aka, If You’re Going to Make a Proposal, Make One)

As CEO of a company, I can’t tell you the number of times, I get emails like this:

Dave,

I know our policy is that we don’t pay both the salesreps their high-rate commissions on low-profit, one-of items, but we ended up doing a $50K/year pass-along storage fee for Acme, because they are managing a huge amount of data.  Because it recurs we’re considering it ARR at the corporate level.  The rep is OK because he is being paid well on the rest of the $500K deal, but I worry that the sales managers and sales consultants who also get paid on new ARR bookings won’t get 100% of their payout if we don’t pay them on this – can we please do that?

Thanks/Kelly

I find this email a non-actionable, incomplete proposal better suited for a philosophy class than a business discussion.  The mail does ask for approval, so you might think it’s actionable – but is it really?  What’s missing?  Three things.

  • A complete, concrete proposal: taking everything into account – all groups, any existing relevant policies, and any relevant precedent — what do you want to do?  Suppose the SDRs are also paid on total bookings, have you simply overlooked them and will be back asking for more once you’ve figured that out or are you saying you don’t want to pay them like the sales managers and SCs?
  • Numbers: what’s it going to cost the company?  First principles are fine, but you must translate them into recommended actions and identified costs.  I don’t mind back-of-the-envelope calculations, but I do need to be sure you’ve included everything in your analysis.  If the issue is complex or expensive, then I’d want a well thought-out and clearly documented spreadsheet cost analysis.  I get the qualitative arguments, but if you are just giving me passion and philosophy with no idea of what it’s going to cost, then I have no way of answering.
  • One or more alternatives:  if I don’t want to approve your primary proposal, do you have a preferred backup?  What is your plan B and what would it cost the company and why do you prefer plan A to it?
  • Bonus: a proposal to change existing polices so this situation won’t be ambiguous in the future and require another escalation.

So, let’s re-craft this email into something I’d rather receive:

Dave,

Per our policy we didn’t payout the salesrep on the $50K of ARR we took as a pass-along storage fee on the Acme account.  That’s OK with the rep because such one-of items are clearly excluded in our compensation plan terms and conditions [link to document], but I’ve discovered that the SC and manager compensation plans lack the same exclusionary language.  Ergo, this time, I recommend that we payout the SCs and the managers on this $50K of ARR (total cost $2.5K as it pushes some folks into accelerators).  Additionally, I intend to immediately update and re-issue the T&C document for sales management and SC comp plans.  Can I get your approval on this proposal?

By the way, if you’re opposed to this, can we please just go and payout the SCs (total cost $1.0K) as I believe it’s more important to them than the managers.  Either way, these are small numbers so let’s get this behind us quickly and move onto more important items.

Thanks/Kelly

Ah.  I feel better already.

The proposer is referring to our existing policies – even providing me with links to them – applying them, noticing problems with them, and making a concrete proposal for what to do about it, along with a backup.  Kelly’s telling me correct costs – e.g., not forgetting the impact of accelerators – for approving the proposal.  And even correcting our policies so this situation won’t ever again require an escalation.

Speaking of India: Five Lessons on India-Based Product Development

One of the interesting new challenges I faced when I joined Host Analytics about 5 years ago was working with an offshore development team in India.  Host was originally co-founded in both the US and India, so literally from inception we had employees in both places.  While this has proven to be a huge advantage for us in the market, I learned a few important lessons along the way that I thought I’d share in this post.

Lesson 1:  Read Speaking of India.

When I lived abroad in France for 5 years (which I’ve written a bit about, here), my team discovered a book, French or Foe, that we gave to every new expat when they arrived.  The book explained many important basics of language and culture that we referred to frequently as we tried to make sense of our day-to-day experiences.

Consequently, the first thing I did in approaching India was to search for a book to help me.  I found a great one, Speaking of India, which is all about communications (and how they go wrong) between people from US and Indian work cultures.

For example, see this excerpt which demonstrates “the Indian no” (i.e., the absence of saying yes) in action.

MARIAN: I’m fine, thanks. I was wondering, Kumar, what you would think if we decided to move up the date for the systems test?

KUMAR: Move it up?

MARIAN: Just by a week, at the most.

KUMAR: I see. Do you think it’s possible?

MARIAN: Should be. But what do you think?

KUMAR: Me? I guess you don’t see any problems?

MARIAN: Not really. My people can be ready at this end if your people can be up to speed by then.

KUMAR: I see.

Kumar is basically screaming no here while Marian might very well be hearing yes.

These kinds of misunderstandings are common and if you teach yourself listen appropriately then you can actually hear what is, or in this case, is not being said.

You’ll learn this — and much more — in the Speaking of India.  And you can learn some unique Indian-English words/expressions (e.g., a fresher) as well.

Lesson 2:  Show Up.

It’s hard to get to India.  From San Francisco, it’s 16 hours to Dubai and then 3.5 to Hyderabad (or 14 hours to Hong Kong and then 6 hours to Hyderabad). It takes me a full week to get about 3.5 days of actual work time there.  And let’s not even talk about the 12.5 to 13.5 hour time difference.

But that’s the point.  Because it’s hard, too many people don’t do it, preferring conference calls at odd hours over noisy telephone lines.  If you are serious about your India development center and the people in it, then you need your top executives to show up — at least a few times per year — to get to really know the people and the work environment.

I go three to four times per year with a agenda that typically looks like:

  • A large number of 1-1 meetings
  • Attendance at a few regular group/team meetings
  • A few special, topical meetings
  • An all-hands meeting at the end where I report back on what I’ve learned
  • A few dinner / drinks meetings along the way

Remember the old Woody Allen quote, 80% of success is showing up.  It’s a great rule to follow when thinking of your India development team.

Lesson 3:  Think of Product Management as a Giraffe.

I first came up with the giraffe analogy when I was at Business Objects in Paris.  While our development team (the body) was in France, we needed to have our eyes and ears in the US market if we wanted to be globally competitive.  Hence, product management needed to be the long neck that connected the two.

Concretely, this means you need to staff product managers in both locations, typically putting a greater number of more specialized product managers (PMs) in the USA and a lesser number of more generalized PMs in India. This means your PM investment might be higher than it would be with a co-located model, but it’s worth it.

Some people believe you should call the US-based staff product managers and the India-based staff product owners (POs), but I prefer to call them all product managers.  The reality is the job will inherently be different as a function of location — the USA PMs more customer-facing and the India PMs more engineering-facing — but in the end they are all product managers in my view.

Lesson 4:  Do Real Work.

The fact that we build our core SaaS offering in Hyderabad is a big attraction for talent.  Too many companies use India to do only lower-value work (e.g., porting, localization) which sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy of getting lower-quality talent.  We have found that when you do real work in India — core, critical stuff — that you will have a much easier time attracting talent to do it.

Lesson 5:  Do More Than Development.

Finally, we’ve increasingly been leveraging our footprint to do additional work — such as customer support, customer success, professional services, and even some marketing — which helps transform the environment from purely a “development center” to a generalized satellite office.   This is great because it provides developers and product managers with more direct access to the business — because people in other customer-facing functions are working right across the hall.   Practically, this helps with 24×7 operations (e.g., techops, customer support) as well, where we can provide customers with round-the-clock monitoring and services without having to ask too many people to work the graveyard shift.

I hope you’ve learned something from my journey.  Please feel free to share lessons from yours.

Dear Marketing: Stop Putting the Template Ahead of the Story

I’ve always thought that if marketers wrote newspapers, the famous New York Times headline of August 8, 1974 would have looked like this:

nixon1

Instead of how it actually looked, which was:

pinsdaddy-richard-nixon-resigned-as-us-president-40-years-ago-this-week

What’s the difference?  While both of the above presentations are structured, the newspaper doesn’t let the template get in the way of story.  The newspaper works within the template to tell the story.

I think because marketing departments are so often split between “design people” and “content people,” that (1) templates get over-weighted relative to content and (2) content people get so busy adhering to the template that they forget to tell the story.

Here’s a real, anonymized example:

agf1What’s wrong here?

  • There is a lot of wasted vertical space at the top:  all large font, bolded template items with generous line spacing.
  • The topic section gets lost among the other template items.  Visually, author is as important as topic.
  • There is no storytelling.  There is effectively no headline — “Latest Release of Badguy Product” takes no point-of-view and doesn’t create an angle for a story.
  • The metadata is not reader-first, preferring to remind Charles of his title over providing information on how to contact him.

But there is one, much more serious problem with this:  the claim / rebuttal structure of the document lets the competitor, not the company, control the narrative.

For example, political affiliations aside, consider current events between Trump and Comey.  Like him or not, Trump knows how to control a narrative.  With the claim / rebuttal format, our competitive bulletin would read something like this if adapted to the Trump vs. Comey situation.

Competitive Update:  Team Comey
Trump says:

  • Comey is a coward
  • Comey is a leaker
  • Comey is a liar

But, don’t worry, our competitive team says: 

  • Comey isn’t really a coward, but it is interesting that he released the information through a colleague at Columbia Law School
  • Comey isn’t really a leaker because not all White House conversations can be presumed confidential and logically speaking you can either leak or lie, but you can’t both at the same time.

Great.  What are we talking about?  Whether Comey is a leaker, liar, or coward.  Who’s controlling the narrative?  Not us.

Here’s a better way to approach this document where you rework the header and metadata, add a story to the title, recharacterize each piece of the announcement on first reference (rather than saying it once “their way” and then challenging it), and then providing some broader perspective about what’s happening at the company and how it relates to the Fall17 release.

agf2

This is a very common problem in marketing.  It comes from a lack of storytelling and fill-in-the-template approach to the creation of marketing deliverables.  Avoid it by always remembering to put the story ahead of the template.

Just likes blogs and newspapers do.

Blocking the End Run: Eleven Words to Reduce Politics in Your Organization

People are people.  Sometimes they’re conflict averse and just not comfortable saying certain things to their peers.  Sometimes they don’t like them and are actively trying to undermine them. Sometimes they’re in a completely functional relationship, but have been too darn busy to talk.

So when this happens, how do you — as a manager — respond?  What should you do?

“Hey Dave, I wanted to say that Sarah’s folks really messed up on the Acme call this morning.  They weren’t ready with the proposal and were completely not in line with my sales team.”

Do you pile on?

“Again?  Sarah’s folks are out of control, I’m going to go blast her.”  (The “Young Dave” response.)

Do you investigate?

“You know my friend Marcy always said there are three sides to every story:  yours, mine, and what actually happened.  So let me give Sarah a call and look into this.”

Do you defend?

“Well, that doesn’t sound like Sarah.  Her team’s usually buttoned up.”

In the first case, you’re going off half-cocked without sufficient information which, while emotionally satisfying in the short-term, often leads to a mess followed by several apologies in the mid-term.  In the second case, you’re being manipulated into investigating something when perhaps you were planning a better use of your time that day.  In the third case, you’re going off half-cocked again, but in the other direction.

In all three cases, you’re getting sucked into politics.  Politics?  Is it really politics?  Well, how do you think Sarah is going to feel in when you show up asking a dozen questions about the Acme call?  She’ll certainly consider it politics and, among other things, there’s about a 98% chance that she will say:

“Gosh, I wish Bill came and talked to me first.”

At which point, if you’re like me, you’re going to say:

“No, no, no.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t worry, this isn’t political.  It’s not like Bill was avoiding you on this one.  He just happened to be talking to me about another issue and he brought this up at the end.  It’s not political, no.”

But can you be sure?  Maybe it just did pop into Bill’s mind during the last minute of the other call.  Or maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the reason Bill called you was a masterfully political pretext.  Can you know the difference?

So what do you say to Bill when he drops the comment about Sarah’s team into your call?  The eleven words that reduce politics in any organization:

“What did Sarah say when you talked to her about this?”

[Mike Drop.]

# # #

(Props to Martin Cooke for teaching me the eleven words.)

Unicorn Tears, Beyond Ultimate, and the Silicon Valley Hype Mentality,

Back in the day we working on a press release and I was a CMO.

Me:  “Somebody, get Randy (the PR director) in here.”

Me:  “Randy, what is this press release calling our new offering the ultimate in business intelligence?”

Randy:  “Yes and the problem is?”

Me:  “The problem is it’s not the ultimate, it’s better than ultimate, it’s beyond ultimate … there must be a word for that … I don’t know, maybe penultimate.”

Randy:  “Chief,” he said sheepishly after waiting a minute, “penultimate means one less than ultimate.  Ultimate means ultimate.  There is no word for one more than ultimate.”

Me:  “Oh.  Well, God damn it, go make one up.”

It was at that moment that I realized I’d been fully sucked into the Silicon Valley hype machine.  Just as unique means unique and requires no modifier like “amazingly,” so does ultimate means ultimate.

Speaking of “amazing,” during my tenure at Salesforce, I used to count the number of amazing’s Marc Benioff would say during a speech.  You’d run out of fingers in minutes.  But somehow it worked.  He was a great — no, amazing — speaker and I never got tired of listening to him.

This is Silicon Valley.   The land where one of my competitors can still peddle a cock-and-bull story about how he, as an immigrant limo driver with $26 (and a master’s in computer science), sold a company (where he was neither founder nor CEO), worked as (a member in the office of the) CTO at SAP, and is growing stunningly — no, amazingly — fast (despite a rumored recent down-round and rough layoffs).  Fact-checking, smact-checking.  If it’s a Man Bites Dog story, people will eat it up.  Blog it, hit publish, and move onto the next one.

Maybe I should pitch the equivalent story about me:

Lifeguard and Self-Taught Programmer Who Arrived in California with Only $30, a Red Bandana, and a Box of Bootlegged Grateful Dead Tapes Becomes CEO of Host Analytics

“Dude, I was guarding by the pool one day and this wicked thunderstorm hit and, flash, like totally suddenly I realized the world needed cloud-based, enterprise planning, budgeting, modeling, consolidation, and analytics.”

And we could discuss how I “hacked” on paper tape back in high school:  “the greatest part about hacking on paper tape was you could roll bones with it when you were done and literally, like, smoke your program.”

It would be a roughly equivalent story.  I’m sure they’d eat it up.

Silicon Valley is a place, after all, where we can create a metaphor for something that doesn’t exist — a unicorn  — and then discover 133 of them.

Is our reaction “bad metaphor?”  No, of course not.  It’s “wow, we’re special, we’ve got 133 things that don’t exist.”

Unicorns (generally defined as startups with a $1B+ valuation) are mostly of a result of three things:

  • The cost and hassle of being a public company, post Sox.  Why go public if you don’t have to?
  • The ability to raise formerly IPO-sized rounds (e.g., $100M) in the private markets.
  • A general bubble in late-stage financing where valuations are high enough to create the IPO-as-down-round phenomena

As the late-stage financing bubble appears to be near popping, you increasingly hear new terms for unicorns.  For example, Good Technology, a “onceacorn,” sold earlier this month for $400M.  Since I love words, I’ve been tracking these new terms closely with some amusement:  formercorns, “just horses with birthday hats on,” usta-corns, dying unicorns, and unicorpses.

So, hopefully, as the financing fuel that’s stoking the fire starts to die down, the hype bubble will go with it.  Until then, enjoy this tweet, which captures the spirit of Silicon Valley today just perfectly:

vape

Stop Making the #1 Mistake in Presentations

Ever hear this story?

VP of Sales:  “Hey, how did the sales training on the new presentation go?”

VP of Marketing:  “OK, well, you know, pretty good.”

VP of Sales:  “Why are you hemming and hawing?”

VP of Marketing:  “Well, I could tell they didn’t love it.”

VP of Sales:  “Do you know why?  I do.  They told me it was a great looking set of slides, but it felt more like an analyst pitch than a customer presentation.”

What’s gone wrong here?
It’s simple.  Marketing made the #1 mistake that managers of all ilks make when it comes to creating presentations:  they start with what they have — instead of starting with what’s needed.

What does that mean?
Marketing probably just came back from a few days of analyst briefings and when they needed to make a revision to sales presentation, they re-used a bunch of the slides from the analyst deck.  Those slides, created for analysts, talked about company strategy, positioning, and messaging.  Customer slides need to talk capabilities, benefits, and customer testimonials.

The slides, never designed to be used with customers, are thrown into a deck, and marketing feels great and super-efficient because they’ve re-used materials and presumably even increased message consistency in the process.  #wow

But it’s a #fail.  They broke the first rule of presentations:  it’s all about the audience.

Know thy audience
Presentations are all about the audience.  The first step in creating any presentation should be asking:  who I am speaking to and what do I want to tell them.

It’s not about you; it’s about them.  Which brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Frank Capra, director of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”  — Frank Capra

It’s not just about marketing
While I started with a marketing example, this isn’t just a marketing problem.  Here are some other favorite examples:

  • Making a board presentation from an operations review deck.  Yes, they both have a lot of data and analysis about the business, but the ops review deck is created for an audience of your peers, for people who want more detail and who are far closer to the daily operations of the business.  One great way to hang yourself in a board meeting is to paste a bunch of slides from your ops review deck “to save time.”
  • Making one sales presentation from another.  This might work if the two customers have a lot in common, but if they don’t it will be a disaster.  My favorite quote here comes for a story about an Atlanta-based salesrep who kept referencing Coca Cola to Delta Airlines.  “Stop telling us about Coke.  We are Delta.  We fly airplanes.”
  • Making a product introduction presentation from a product management presentation.  You instantly doom yourself to feature-itis.
  • Making a vision presentation from a sales presentation.  Sales presentations about motivating benefits and differentiation.  Vision presentations are about what’s wrong with the status quo and how to fix it.
  • Making a roadmap presentation from a product planning deck.  Not only will you forget to pad the dates, but you will likely end up turning your product vision into a laundry list.

I could go on and on.  But the key mistake here is simple.  Instead of starting blank-slate with what’s needed based upon the audience, you start with leftovers.  What you have lying around from a prior presentation or meeting.

The road to Hell
Don’t have the good intentions of maximizing re-use when you make presentation.  Instead focus on your message and your audience.  That means starting with what’s needed instead of starting with what you have.

What’s the trick?
Most people condemn themselves at the 5th second of the presentation-creation process by double-clicking on PowerPoint and then hitting “open.”

Don’t do that.  Never do that.

Instead hit “new” and “blank presentation.”

Then think about the audience.  Think about your message and start roughing out an outline to achieve your goals and the slide structure (often just titles) to do that.  Let it sit for a while.  And then do it again.  Put your early energy into the structure of the presentation, not the slides.

Then — once you have a clear outline for what you want to say and how you want to say it — and only then, should you go looking for existing slides that will help you say it.

Career Advice: Simplifiers Go Far, Complexifiers Get Stuck

“If you can’t explain it to a six year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  – Albert Einstein

There are two types of people in business:

  • Simplifiers:  who make complex things simple
  • Complexifiers:  who make simple things complex

Quick joke
Question:  What does a complexifier call a simplifier?
Answer:  “Boss.”

Somewhere, somehow, some people decided that in business you need to make everything complicated and speak using business jargon.

Well, that’s an interesting proposal and I’m not necessarily opposed to it, so let me run it up the flagpole so we can kick it around as a strawman.   Since I hear the idea has some traction in the field, let me reach out to the guys upstairs, and we’ll see if we have the bandwidth to go forward with this.  If the cost is North of $100K, I may have to backburner it, because we need to keep some dry powder pending the results of the strategy meeting — where I know we’re considering a pivot.  Right now, the long pole in the tent isn’t marketing but strategy so let’s keep lines open.  Kudos to the team for coming up with a such a great value proposition, but for now I’m afraid can’t lean in on this one.

That’s one way of hiding behind complexity: making yourself flat incomprehensible.  While that may impress your peers, your subordinates will mock you and your superiors will ask to speak to someone else.  As I argued in this post, when dealing with senior people you need to speak clearly and, above all, answer the question.  In most organizations, while jargon and doublespeak may be prevalent in middle management, they are nearly absent in the boardroom.

The other way of hiding behind complexity is not linguistic but conceptual:  always finding an upstream or bigger-picture issue that will block progress at the lower level.  Consider this statement:

I’d like to cut over to the new process, but we haven’t completed the training yet.

Is this, as it appears, a valid reason for not making progress on moving to the new process or is it passive resistance disguised as a reason.  For example, I don’t want to move to the new process so I keep “having trouble” scheduling the training.  Or is bona fide complexification?  If the training can be boiled down to one page that everyone can read in 5 minutes then just cut over.

Remember the old saw:

When you ask the time, some people will tell you how to build a watch.  Others will tell you how to build a Swiss Village.

My test for spotting complexifiers is look for the following pattern:

  • Slow progress on results
  • Blamed on everything being difficult or complicated
  • With a tendency to find artificial prerequisite activities that sound plausible, but on further examination aren’t.

Things are as complex as we want to make them. Most of the time complexity is an excuse for either not wanting to do something or not knowing how to do something.

My advice:  strive to make things simple.  Seek to understand them.  Struggle to find apt metaphors for them.  If you’re not burning real energy trying to simplify things for you audience, you are most like a complexifier.  If so, the next time you’re about to explain to someone why something take so long, is so complicated, or requires 5 steps to be completed before the start, ask yourself — do I really believe this or I am making it complicated because I either don’t want or don’t know how to do it.