Category Archives: Leadership

Preview of My SaaStr Europa Talk: The Top 5 Scale-Up Mistakes

I’ll be speaking next month in Barcelona on the first day of SaaStr Europa, held at the International Convention Center on June 7th and 8th.   My presentation is scheduled at 11:25AM on June 7th and entitled The Top 5 Scale-Up Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.  While I usually speak at SaaStr, this is my first SaaStr Europa, and I’ll be making the trip over in my capacity as an EIR at Balderton Capital.

For those concerned about Covid, know that SaaStr Europa, like its Silicon Valley namesake, is a primarily outdoor and open air conference.  I spoke at SaaStr Annual in Silicon Valley last September and between the required entry testing and the outdoor venue felt about as safe as one could in these times.  Earlier this year, the folks at SaaStr moved the Europa venue from London to Barcelona to enable this primarily outdoor format.

After historically focusing a lot of my SaaStr content on the start-up phase (e.g., PMF, MVP), this year I thought I’d move to scale-up, and specifically the things that can go wrong as you scale a company from $10M to $100M in ARR.  Even if your company is still below $10M, I think you’ll enjoy the presentation because it will provide you with a preview of what lies ahead and hopefully help you avoid common mistakes as you enter the scale-up stage.  (If nothing else, the rants on repeatability and technical debt will be worth the price of admission!)

Without excessively scooping myself, here’s a taste of what we’ll talk about in the presentation:

  • Premature go-to-market acceleration.  Stepping on the gas too hard, too early and wasting millions of dollars because you thought (and/or wanted to believe) you had a repeatable sales model when you didn’t.  This is, by far, the top scale-up mistake.  Making it costs not only time and money, but takes a heavy toll on morale and culture.
  • Putting, or more often, keeping, people in the wrong roles.  Everybody knows that the people who helped you build the company from $0 to $10M aren’t necessarily the best people to lead it from $10 to $100M, but what do you do about that?  How do you combine loyalists and veterans going forward?  What do you do with loyalists who are past their sell-by date in their current role?
  • Losing focus.  At one startup I ran, I felt like the board thought their job was to distract me — and they were pretty good at it.  What do you do when the board, like an overbearing parent, is burying you in ideas and directive feedback?  And that’s not mention all the other distraction factors from the market, customers, and the organization itself.  How does one stay focused?  And on what?
  • Messing up international (USA) expansion.  This is a European conference so I’ll focus on the mistakes that I see European companies make as they expand into the USA.  Combining my Business Objects experience with my Nuxeo and Scoro board experience with both Balderton and non-Balderton advising, I’m getting pretty deep on this subject, so I’m writing a series on it for the Balderton Build blog.  This material will echo that content.
  • Accumulating debilitating technical debt.  “I wear the chain I forged in life,” said Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol and so it is with your product.  Every shortcut, every mistake, every bad design decision, every redundant piece of code, every poor architectural choice, every hack accumulates to the point where, if ignored, it can paralyze your product development.  Pick your metaphor — Marley’s chains, barnacles on a ship, a house of cards, or Fibber McGee’s closet — but ignore this at your peril.  It takes 10-12 years to get to an IPO and that’s just about the right amount of time to paralyze yourself with technical debt.  What can you do to avoid having a product crisis as you approach your biggest milestone?

For those in attendance, we will have an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session after the presentation.  I’ll post my slides and the official SaaStr video after the conference.

This should be fun.  I hope to see you there!

An Epitaph for Intrapreneurship

About twenty years ago, before I ran two startups as CEO and served as product-line general manager, I went through an intrapreneurship phase, where I was convinced that big companies should try to act like startups.  It was a fairly popular concept at the time.

Heck, we even decided to try the idea at Business Objects, launching a new analytical applications division called Ithena, with a mission to build CRM analytical applications on top of our platform.  We made a lot of mistakes with Ithena, which was the beginning of the end of my infatuation with the concept:

  • We staffed it with the wrong people.  Instead of hiring experts in CRM, we staffed it largely with experts in BI platforms.  Applications businesses are first and foremost about domain expertise.
  • They built the wrong thing.  Lacking CRM knowledge, they invested in building platform extensions that would be useful if one day you wanted to build a CRM analytical app.  From a procrastination viewpoint, it felt like a middle school dance.  Later, in Ithena’s wreckage, I found one of the prouder moments of my marketing career  — when I simply repositioned the product to what it was (versus what we wanted it to be), sales took off.
  • We blew the model.  They were both too close and too far.  They were in the same building, staffed largely with former parent-company employees, and they kept stock options in both the parent the spin-out.  It didn’t end up a new, different company.  It ended up a cool kids area within the existing one.
  • We created channel conflict with ourselves.  Exacerbated by the the thinness of the app, customers had trouble telling the app from the platform.  We’d have platform salesreps saying “just build the app yourself” and apps salesreps saying that you couldn’t.
  • They didn’t act like entrepreneurs.  They ran the place like big-company, process-oriented people, not scrappy entrepreneurs fighting for food to get through the week.  Favorite example:  they had hired a full-time director of salesops before they had any customers.  Great from an MBO achievement perspective (“check”).  But a full-time employee without any orders to book or sales to analyze?  Say what you will, but that would never happen at a startup.

As somebody who started out pretty enthralled with intrapreneurship, I ended up pretty jaded on it.

I was talking to a vendor about these topics the other day, and all these memories came back.  So I did quick bit of Googling to find out what happened to that intrapreneurship wave.  The answer is not much.

Entrepreneurship crushes intrapreneurship in Google Trends.  Just for fun, I added SPACs to see their relatively popularity.

Here’s my brief epitaph for intrapreneurship.  It didn’t work because:

  • Intrapreneurs are basically entrepreneurs without commitment.  And commitment, that burn the ships attitude, is key part of willing a startup into success.
  • The entry barriers to entrepreneurship, particularly in technology, are low.  It’s not that hard (provided you can dodge Silicon Valley’s sexism, ageism, and other undesirable -isms) for someone in love with an idea to quit their job, raise capital, and start a company.
  • The intrapreneurial venture is unable to prioritize its needs over those of the parent.  “As long as you’re living in my house, you’ll do things my way,” might work for parenting (and it doesn’t) but it definitely does not work for startup businesses.
  • With entrepreneurship one “yes” enables an idea, with intrapreneurship, one “no” can kill it.  What’s more, the sheer inertia in moving a decision through the hierarchy could kill an idea or cause a missed opportunity.
  • In terms of the ability to attract talent and raise capital, entrepreneurship beats intrapreneurship hands down.  Particularly today, where the IPO class of 2020 raised a mean of $350M prior to going public.

As one friend put it, it’s easy with intrapreneurship to end up with all the downsides of both models.  Better to be “all in” and redefine the new initiative into your corporate self image, or “all out” and spin it out as an independent entity.

I’m all for general mangers (GMs) acting as mini-CEOs, running products as a portfolio of businesses.  But that job, and it’s a hard one, is simply not the same as what entrepreneurs do in creating new ventures.  It’s not even close.

The intrapreneur is dead, long live the GM.

Unlearning as you Scale: Recording of my Costanoa Ventures 2020 Summit Presentation

Last month I presented Unlearning As You Scale at Costanoa Ventures 2020 Costanoa CEO UnSummit.  In response to several requests for a live recording of the presentation, I sat down this weekend and recorded the following.

Key topics discussed:

  • How to properly apply the popular Silicon Valley adage, “the folks who got you here aren’t the ones to take you to the next level.”
  • How to generalize that adage to not only people, but systems, processes, and strategies.
  • If and when required, how to hire next-level executives while avoiding common pitfalls.
  • How to critically think about success with your team.

 

An audio-only version of the presentation is here:

 

My original post on the event is here.

What Exactly Do You Mean by Anal? Thoughts on Leadership and Self-Awareness

I remember one time having an argument that went like this:

Dave:  I don’t think you’ve thought through the details on this one.

Joe:  I think there’s enough detail in there.

Dave:  No, there’s not.  There’s no underpinnings, there’s no rigor in the thought process.  Remember, David Ogilvy always said “good writing is slavery” and ergo you need to dive deep and —

Joe:  Oh, you can be so anal.

Dave:  I don’t think I’m being anal.  I’m just being rigorous.

Joe:  Yes, you are.

Dave:  Well, what exactly do you mean by anal?

I always try to listen to myself and once in a while I have a did-I-just-say-that moment.  Did I just say, “what exactly do you mean by anal?”  Oh shit, I did.  Isn’t that kind of the definition of being anal?  Oh shit, it is.  Heck Dave, you may as well just have replied:  what I really want to know is — is there a hyphen in anal-retentive?

The actual issue here is one of leadership:  being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, trying to avoid over-doing your strengths and working to compensate for your weaknesses.  It’s critical that all leaders focus on this because, by default, most folks will over-play to their strengths (to a fault, effectively turning them into weaknesses) and ignore their weaknesses.

It’s not hard to be self-aware when it comes to most strengths and weaknesses.  Most folks know, for example, if they’re great at public speaking and bad at financial analysis, or great at individual problem-solving but bad in groups.  Or high on IQ but low on EQ.  People usually know.

Sometimes we euphemize with ourselves.  For example, while others might say I’m:

  • Detail-oriented, I prefer “rigorous”
  • Blunt, I prefer “direct”
  • Contrarian, I prefer “critical-thinking”
  • And so on

But at least you’re circling the same pond.  You have awareness of the area –though you might soften how you think about it to protect the old ego, relative to how others might more bluntly, or should I say directly, describe it.

But some weaknesses are harder to self-assess.  For example, I’ve taken assessments that basically prove I’m low on flexibility.  But I never knew it.  In fact, I thought I was supremely flexible because I was capable of moving.  Think:  OK, we’ll move a bit in your direction.  You see, I’m flexible!  Voila, QED.  Bravo Chef!  I was, however, blind to the fact that one person’s mile is another’s inch.  When you’re inflexible you risk self-congratulation for a tidbit of demonstrated movement when the other party thinks you haven’t moved at all.

As another example, because communication is one of my strengths, I always thought I did better in groups, when in fact I do better with people one-to-one — which was a key strength of which I wasn’t even aware.  Some of these things are just hard to see.

My advice on this front is three-fold:

  • Be aware of your strengths and beware your natural tendency to overplay to them.  If one of your strengths has become a running joke (e.g., at one point one of my staff handed out “Captain Anal” pins), it could be time to think about it.
  • Be aware of your weaknesses and, while you can work on them if you want, use building a complementary team as your primary way to compensate.
  • Attend programs like LDP (managers, directors) or LAP (C-levels) to build a deep understanding of both.  These programs aren’t cheap, but they will give you self-awareness, in a kind of data-driven and ergo virtually undeniable way, that few other programs will.

(And can somebody please spell-check this thing to make sure there aren’t any errors.)

On the Perils of Taking Advice from Successful Business People

One of the hardest things about running a startup is you’re never sure who to listen to.

Your board members own big stakes in the company, but that doesn’t automatically align them with you.  Your late-stage investors want low multiples on big numbers.  Your early-stage investors want big multiples on small numbers.  And they have their own specific needs driven by their funds and their partnerships.  Your rank-and-file employees own relatively small stakes which, ceteris paribus, should make them want you to swing for the fences — but, in these days of decade-to-liquidity, you may have employees so jaded on equity compensation that they’d just like to keep their well-paying jobs.

Your executive team wants to hit their targets, earn their bonuses, and maybe some of them are deeply motivated by winning in the market, but maybe not.  With a 0.5% to 1% share, a $500M exit can mean a $2.5M to $5.0M pop.  Maybe some would prefer to take the early exit, upgrade the house in Menlo Park, and go do it again somewhere else, as opposed to riding it out for the long term.

The idea that giving everyone some equity is a good one, but as I wrote nearly ten years ago, it’s quaint to think that doing so aligns everyone.

So, if you can’t really look inside the company, what then?  Well, if you’re like many, you look outside.  You might read books, subscribe to blogs, or listen to podcasts.  You might seek out advisors or create an advisory board.

In all such cases, you’ll be taking advice from business people who have gone before you, have had anywhere from some to considerable success, and interested in sharing their learnings with others.  You know, people like me [1].

Look, I’m not going to argue that getting advice from successful people is a bad idea — it certainly seems preferable to the alternative — but I am going to point out a few caveats, most of which aren’t obvious in my estimation:

  • Successful people don’t actually know what made them successful.  They know what they did.  They know it worked.  They have hunches and beliefs.  Causality, not so much.  Some of them can be quick to forget that, so you shouldn’t be [2].  There was no control group.  If Marc Benioff carried a rabbit’s foot, would you?
  • Too many successful people are rinse/repeat [3].  I’m frankly surprised by how many successful people are chomping at the bit to do exactly what worked for them at their last company with total disregard for whether it applies to yours.  Beware these folks.  Interview question:  so could you tell me about a situation where you wouldn’t do that?  It’s not foolproof because most will catch the hint, so this is really something you need to listen for before asking.  Do they diagnose-then-prescribe or prescribe without diagnosing?
  • Their situation was likely different from yours.  In fact, in the land of disruption, as Kelly Wright points out in this podcast, it almost certainly was.  Are you creating a new category without competition?  Are you in an over-funded next-big-thing category?  Are you competing against a big company transitioning product lines?  Are you trying to get people to buy something they don’t believe they need or pick among alternatives when they know they do?  Are you disrupting technology, business model, or both?  Are you filling a need that is in the midst of being created the rise of another category?

Should you listen to these people?  I think yes [4].  But try to find ones who have seen both success and failure, seen success in many situations (not just one), and who are thoughtful about a company’s specific situation, and approach the advisory process and their own prior success with humility.

# # #

[1] While I’d characterize my own success as towards the left of that spectrum, I am advising and/or have advised over 20 startups, some of them stunningly successful.

[2] One of my favorite quotes of this ilk is from former Harvard marketing professor, Theodore LevittNothing in business is so remarkable as the conflicting variety of success formulas offered by its numerous practitioners and professors.  And if, in the case of practitioners they’re not exactly “formulas,” they are explanations of “how we did it” implying with firm control over any fleeting tendencies toward modesty that “that’s how you ought to do it.”  Practitioners filled with pride and money turn themselves into prescriptive philosophers, filled mostly with hot air.

[3] By the way, “I made $1B doing it this way” is one of the more difficult arguments you’re probably wise not to take on.

[4] “Duh.”