Category Archives: Leadership

The Two Dimensions of Startup Performance

When it comes to evaluating a startup’s performance, I think there are two key, orthogonal questions that need to be examined:

  1. Is the company delivering growth?
  2. Is management in control of your business?

Growth is the primary driver of value creation in a software startup.  I’m not going to quantify what is good vs. bad growth here – it’s a function of too many other variables (e.g., state of market, stage of startup).  For a seed stage company 100% growth (e.g., from $200K to $400K in ARR) is not particularly good, whereas 40% growth off $150M is quite strong.  So, the first question is — given the company’s size and situation — is it delivering good growth?

The second question is whether management is in control of the business.  I evaluate that in two ways:  how often does the company miss its quarterly operating plan targets and how often does the company miss its early-quarter (e.g., week 3) forecast for sales, expenses, and cash burn?

You can combine these two dimensions into a quadrant.

startup perf quadrant

Let’s take a look at companies in each of these quadrants, describe the situation they’re in, and offer some thoughts on what to do.

Moribund Startups
Companies that are moribund are literally on death’s door because they are not creating value through growth and, worse yet, not even in control of their business.  They make annual plans that are too aggressive and continually miss the targets set within them.  Worse yet, they also miss quarterly forecasts, forecasting sales of 100 units in week 3, 80 units in week 12, and delivering sales of only 50 units when the quarter is done.  This erodes the board’s faith in management’s execution and makes it impossible for the company to manage expenses and cash.  Remember Sequoia founder Don Valentine’s famous quote:

“All companies go out of business for the same reason.  They run out of money.” — Don Valentine, Sequoia Capital

While there may be many reasons why a moribund company is not growing, the first priority needs to getting back in control of the business:  setting realistic annual operating plans, achieving them, and having reliable early-quarter (e.g., week 3) forecasts for sales, expense, and cash burn.  I think in their desperation to grow too many moribund startups fail to realize that getting back in control should be done before trying to rejuvenate growth and thus die doing neither.

Put differently, if you’re going to end up delivering sub-par growth, at least forecast it realistically so you will still be in control of your business and thus in a far better position to either turnaround operations or pivot to a better strategic place.  Without control you have nothing, which is what your business will soon be worth if you don’t regain it.

Stuck Startups
Stuck companies face a different set of problems.  The good news is that they are in control of the business:  they make and hit their plans, they come in at or above their forecasts.  Thus, they can manage their business without the risk of suddenly running out of cash.  The bad news is that they’re not delivering sufficient growth and ergo not creating value for the shareholders (e.g., investors, founders, and employees).  Stuck companies need to figure out, quickly, why they’re not growing and how to re-ignite growth.

Possible reasons for stalled growth include:

  • Lack of product-market fit. The company has never established that it solves a problem in the market that people are willing to pay (an amount compatible with your business model) to solve. You may have built something that nobody wants at all, or something that people are not simply willing to pay for.  This situation might call for a “pivot” to an adjacent market.
  • Poor sales & marketing (S&M) execution. While plenty of startups have weak S&M organizations, a lot of deeper problems get blamed by startup boards on S&M.  Why?  Because most boards/investors want to believe that S&M is to blame for company performance problems because S&M issues are easier to fix than the alternatives:  just fire the VP of Sales and/or Marketing and try again.  After all, which would you rather be told by doctor?  That your low-grade fever and weakness is due to the flu or leukemia?  The risk is that through willful misdiagnosis you keep churning S&M executives without fixing (or even focusing on) a deeper underlying problem. [1]
  • Weak competitive positioning. Through some combination of your product and product marketing, customers routinely short-list you as a contender, but buy from someone else.  Think: “we seem to be everyone’s favorite second choice.”  This can be driven by anything from poor product marketing to genuine product shortcomings to purely corporate factors (e.g., such as believing you have a fine product, but that your company will not be a winner in the market).

Stuck companies need to figure out, with as much honesty as possible with themselves, their customers, and their prospects, why they are stuck and then take appropriate steps to fix the underlying causes.  In my opinion, the hard part isn’t the fixes – they’re pretty obvious once you admit the problems.  The hard part is getting to the unpleasant truth of why the company is stuck in the first place. [2]

Unbridled Startups
Like Phaeton driving his father’s chariot [3], the unbridled startup is growing fast, but out of control, and thus risks getting too close to the Sun and burning up or simply smashing into the ground.  Unbridled startups typically are delivering big growth numbers – but often those big numbers are below the even bigger numbers in their aggressive annual operating plan.  The execs dismiss the plan as irrelevant and tell the board to look at growth and market share.  The board looks at the cash burn, noting that the management team — despite delivering amazing growth — is often still under plan on sales and over plan on expenses, generating cash burn that’s much larger than planned.

If the growth stops, these companies burn up, because they are addicted to high cash burn and can suddenly find themselves in the position of not being able to raise money.  So to keep the perpetual motion machine going, they’ll do almost anything to keep growing.  That might include:

  • Raising money on an unattainable plan
  • Raising money on undesirable terms [4] that hurt earlier investors and potentially really hurt the common stock
  • Spending heavily on customer acquisition and potentially hiding that in other areas (e.g., big professional services losses)

Remember that once the Halo is lost, it’s virtually impossible to get back so companies and executives will do almost anything to keep it going.  In some cases, they end up crossing lines that get the business in potentially serious trouble.  [5]

Unbridled companies need to bring in “adult supervision,” but fear doing so because they worry that the professional managers they’ll bring in from larger companies may kill the growth, driven by the company’s aggressive, entrepreneurial founders.  Thus, the board ends up in something of a waiting game:  how long do we bet on the founding/early team to keep driving crazy growth – even if it’s unbridled – before we bring in more seasoned and professional managers?  The smart part about this is realizing the odds of replacing the early team without hurting growth are low, so sometimes waiting really is the best strategy.  In this case, the board is thinking, “OK let’s give this [crazy] CEO one more year” but poised to terminate him/her if growth slows.

The transition can be successfully pulled off – it’s just hard and risky.  I’d argue MongoDB did this well in 2014.  But I’d argue that Anaplan did it not-so-well in 2016, with a fairly painful transition after parting ways with a very growth-oriented CEO, leaving the top job open for nearly 9 months [6].

So, the real question for unbridled companies is when to bridle them and how to do so without killing the golden goose of growth.

Star Startups
There’s not much to say about star startups other than if you’re working at one, don’t quit.  They’re hard to find.  They’re great places to learn.  And it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re working at a star.  I remember when I joined Business Objects.  The company had just gone public the prior year [7], so I had the chance to really dig into their situation by reading the S-1.  “This place is perfect,” I thought, “20-something consecutive quarters of profitable growth, something like only $4M in VC raised, market share leadership, a fundamental patented technology, and a great team — I’m critical as heck and I can’t find a single thing wrong with this place.  This is going to be my first job at a perfect company.”

That’s when I learned that while Business Objects was indeed a star, it was far from a perfect company.  It’s where I learned that there are no perfect companies.  There are always problems.  The difference between great and average companies is not that great companies have fewer problems:  it’s that great companies get what matters right.  Which then begs the question:  what matters?

(Which is an excellent topic for any startup strategy offsite.)

# # #

Notes
[1] One trick I use is to assume that, by default, we’re average in all regards.  If we’re hiring the same profiles, using the same comp plans, setting the same quotas, doing the same onboarding, providing the same kit, then we really should be average:  it’s the most likely outcome.  Then, I look for evidence to find areas where we might be above or below.  This is quite different from a vigilante board deciding “we have a bad sales organization” because of a few misses (or a personal style mismatch) and wanting to immediately replace the VP of sales.  I try to slow the mob by pointing out all the ways in which we are normal and then ask for evidence of areas where we are not.  This helps reduce the chance of firing a perfectly good VP of sales when the underlying problem is product, pricing, or competition.

[2] And that’s why they make high-priced consultants – a shameless plug for my new Dave Kellogg Consulting business.

[3] See Ovid’s version, the one I was raised on.

[4] For example, multiple liquidation preferences.

[5] I seem to have a knack to end up competing with companies who do – e.g., Oracle back in the late 1980s did some pretty dubious stuff but survived its comeuppance with $200M in financing from Nippon Steel (which was a lot of money, back in the day), MicroStrategy in 2000 got itself into trouble with reports of inflated earnings and had to pay nearly $100M in settlements (along with other constraints), Fast Search and Transfer managed to get acquired by Microsoft for $1.2B in the middle of an accounting scandal (and were even referred to by some as the “Enron of Norway”) and after its $11B acquisition by HP, Autonomy was charged with allegations of fraud, some of which are still being litigated.

[6] Yes, you can argue it’s been a successful IPO since then, so the transition didn’t hurt things and perhaps eventually had to happen.  But I’m also pretty sure if you asked the insiders, they would have preferred that the transition went down differently and more smoothly.

[7] I was employee number 266 and the company was already public.  My, how times were different back then.

The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing

One day back at MarkLogic, we invited our local congresswoman, Jackie Speier, to visit our offices.  Regardless of what you may think of her politics, she’s an impressive person with an fascinating background including, for those with long memories, that she was the congressional aide shot five times and left for dead on the runway in Guyana when Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown.  I was looking forward to meeting her.

She arrived — early of course — with a few handlers.  We exchanged the usual greetings and took a few pictures.  Then, she said, “would you mind if I went around and met a few people before the presentation?”  “No, no — not at all,” I said.  Leaving the handlers behind, off she went into the sea of cubicles.

Affordable Care Act

What I saw next blew me away.

Cube by cube she proceeded, “Hi, I’m Jackie — what’s your name?”  “Great, what do you do here?”  “Oh, I see [from the picture on your desk] you have a son, what’s his name?’  “How old is he?”  “Oh, [insert something in common here].”  More chatter.  A few laughs.  “Are there any questions I can answer for you today?”

There are extroverted people.  There are gregarious people.  There are charismatic people.  And then there are politicians.  She was the best room-worker I had ever seen in my life and she did it as effortlessly as she did naturally.

“This,” I thought, ” is why you’re not a politician, Dave. You have no skills.”

But leading the troops is a key part of the job of a startup CEO.  While such glad-handing often comes naturally to sales-oriented CEOs, it usually does not for more product-oriented ones.  A sales-oriented CEO is typically an extrovert; a product-oriented one an introvert.  So what’s a poor introvert to do?

First, Run A Normal Communications Program
All CEOs should run some sort of baseline company communications program.  This could look something like:

  • Bi-annual kickoffs where the company is brought together to hear about progress, learn about new initiatives, and recognize achievement.  Think:  educate, decorate, inebriate.
  • Post-quarter all hands calls/meetings after the off-quarters to discuss company performance, progress on quarterly goals, and go-forward priorities.
  • Topical all-hands emails and follow-up live calls/meeting to announce breaking news and provide commentary.
  • Separate and/or built-in “town hall” sessions with open employee Q&A to the CEO and the exec team.

This is baseline.  If you’re not doing this and you’re over about 20 people you need to start doing aspects of it.  If you’re over 150-200 people you should be doing all of this and quite possibly more.

For most CEOs — even the introverts — this isn’t hard.  It’s structured.  There are presentations.  Most of the questions in Q&A can be anticipated, if not solicited in advance.

Management by Walking Around
Let’s say you’ve set up such a program and are getting good feedback on it.  But nevertheless you’re still getting feedback like:

“You’re in your office and in meetings too much.  People want to see more of you.  The answer isn’t more all hands meetings.  Those are fine.  But people want to see you in a more informal and/or 1-1 way.  I know, you need to do more MBWA — management by walking around.  You’ll be great at it!”

“No, I won’t,” thinks the highly self-aware introvert CEO, imaging a nightmare that goes something like this:

CEO:  “Hey, Bro-dy!” [Struggling to choose between Bro and Buddy.]
Employee:  “Did you just call me grody?  What the –“
CEO:  “No, Buddy, no,  I called you Bro, Pal.”
CEO:  “So, how’s my Buddy doing?”  [Slaps his back.]
Employee:  “Ow!  I just had shoulder surgery.”
CEO:  “Whoops, sorry about that.”
Employee:  “No problem.”
CEO:  [Notices wedding picture on desk.]  “Hey, how’s that lovely wife?”
Employee:  “We split up three months ago.”
CEO:  [Thinking: “I bet this never happens to Jackie Speier, I bet this never happens to … “]

Sure, the CEO thinks, let’s try some more MBWA.  Or maybe not.

Find Your Way
The problem here is simple — it’s a classic, in this case “reverse,” delegation mistake.  The well-intentioned feedback-giver isn’t just telling you what needs to be done (i.e., help people get to know you better through more individualized interaction),  they’re telling you how to do it (i.e., management by walking around).  So the solution is simple:  listen to the what and find your own way of how.  If you’re not a natural grip-and-grin type, them MBWA isn’t going to work for you.  What might?  Here are some ideas:

  • Every Friday morning do three, half-hour 1-1s with employees across the organization.  This will play to your introvert strength in 1-1 meetings and and your desire to have substantial, not superficial, interactions with people.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll get to know 156 people/year this year.
  • Management by sitting in the way (MBSITW).  Pick a busy spot — e.g., the coffee room or the cafeteria — and camp out there for a few hours every week.  Work on your laptop when no one’s around but when someone walks in, say hi, and engage in a 1-1 chat.
  • Small-group town hall Q&A sessions.  Attend one department’s group meeting and do a one-hour town hall Q&A.  It’s not quite 1-1, but it’s definitionally a smaller forum which will provide more intimacy.
  • Thursday lunches.  Every Thursday have lunch with 3-4 people chosen at semi-random so as to help you build relationships across the organisation.

So, the next time someone tells you that you need to do more MBWA, thank them for input, and then go find your way of solving the underlying problem.

What It Takes to Make a Great SaaS Company

I’ve been making a few presentations lately, so I thought I’d share the slides to this deck which I presented earlier this week at the All Hands meeting of a high-growth SaaS company as part of their external speaker series.

This one’s kind of a romp — it starts with some background on Kellblog (in response to some specific up-front questions they had), takes a brief look back at the “good old days” of on-premises software, introduces my leaky bucket concept of a SaaS company, and then discusses why I need to know only two things to value your SaaS company:  the water level of your bucket and how fast it’s increasing.

It kind of runs backwards building into the conclusion that a great SaaS company needs four things.

  1. An efficient sales model.  SaaS companies effectively buy customers, so you need to figure out how to do it efficiently.
  2. A customer-centric culture.  Once you’ve acquired a customer your whole culture should be focused on keeping them.  (It’s usually far cheaper than finding a new one to back-fill.)
  3. A product that gets the job done.  I like Clayton Christensen’s notion that customers “hire products to do jobs for them.”  Do yours?  How can you do it better?
  4. A vision that leaves the competition one step behind.  Done correctly, the competition is chasing your current reality while you’re out marketing the next level of vision.

Here are the slides:

Video of my SaaStr 2019 Presentation: The Five Questions Startup CEOs Worry About

A few days ago, Jason Lemkin from SaaStr sent me a link to the video of my SaaStr Annual 2019 conference presentation, The Five Questions Startup CEOs Worry About. Those questions, by the way, are:

  1. When do I next raise money?
  2. Do I have the right team?
  3. How can I better manage the board?
  4. To what extent should I worry about competition?
  5. Are we focused enough?

Below is the video of the thirty-minute presentation.  The slides are available on Slideshare.

As mentioned in the presentation, I love to know what’s resonating out there, so if you ever have a moment where you think –“Hey, I just used something from Dave’s presentation!” — please let me know via Twitter or email.

Let’s Take the Cult out of Silicon Valley Culture

I am big believer in strong corporate cultures.  Culture can be used to set powerful norms.  Culture can bind people in an organization to a common set of values bigger than their quarterly objectives and key results (OKRs).  Culture helps attracts the right people to your organization – and can drive out the wrong ones when they get swarmed with corporate antibodies for showing the wrong values and behaviors.

Culture, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, is what happens when no one is watching.

But never forget the first four letters of culture spell “cult” and too often, in Silicon Valley at least, corporate cultures become corporate cults:

For many Silicon Valley companies, culture is a point of pride and is meticulously captured in long slide presentations, such as the Netflix or HubSpot culture decks. [2]

When culture turns to cult in Silicon Valley, it’s often arguably benevolent – a strong leader espousing a visionary worldview combined with positive incentives for employees to spend as much time as possible with each other and/or at work.  The company provideth all:  free transportation, interesting work, fun recreation, great food, social events, perhaps (indirectly) even a significant other.  So why not spend all your time with the company? [3]

But sometimes Silicon Valley cults are not benevolent – Theranos being the best recent example.  Continuing to work in such environments, prioritizing the needs of the cult over common sense and business ethics can do lasting damage to your personal relationships, to your health,  and to your career.

cultsI first started studying corporate cults when Business Objects was competing with MicroStrategy back in the 1990s.  I found this book, Corporate Cults:  The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization, and had a few conversations with its author, Dave Arnott.

The first thing I learned from Dave was that, if you’re competing against a cult, that you should not attack it.  Attacking it, per Dave, only makes the cult stronger as the attack drives member together to defend the cult.

Consider some of the following similarities between cults and startups:

  • Charismatic leadership. Startups are often led by charismatic people, passionate about their beliefs and persuasive that the company is on a broader mission. [4]
  • Isolation from friends and family. This happens naturally at startups with long work hours, but is often exacerbated by the culture committee’s active social and events calendar.
  • Homogeneous recruiting. MicroStrategy supposedly preferred recruiting in its early days not just out of MIT, but out of one specific fraternity.  Many startups recruit similar people, all from the top programs across the country.
  • Hazing and rites of passage. Many startups have rigorous bootcamps where only the best get through.  Trilogy’s three-month bootcamp was the intense I’ve heard of.
  • Elitism.  Once recruited and having passed bootcamp, members are reminded of how much better they are than anybody else.  For example, HubSpot loved to tell recruits (based on specious logic) that it was harder to get into HubSpot than Harvard.
  • Specialized vocabulary.  At HubSpot, you’re not an employee, but a “HubSpotter.”  You don’t delight your customers, you give them “delightion.”  No one ever “quits” or is “fired,” former employees “graduate.”  How pleasant.
  • Demands for absolute loyalty.  Theranos did this frequently: “if anyone here believes you are not working on the best things humans have ever built, of if you’re cynical, you should leave.”
  • Excommunication of former members.  Former employees are more “dead to us” than “working somewhere else.”  Theranos was particular brutal in this regard, not only frowning on continuing relationships with former employees but subjecting them to constant surveillance and stunning legal harassment.

I’m not saying long work hours, free lunch, and and ping pong tables are bad.  I am saying that many Silicon Valley cultures border on cults.  Leaders should pay attention to this and try to avoid falling into common cult patterns, for example, by ensuring diverse recruiting programs, by building on-boarding programs that are more training than brainwashing, and by creating a culture that values dissenting opinions.  [5]

Employees should keep an eye out for lines getting crossed.  As they say with authoritarian leadership, it’s a boiled-frog problem — it happens slowly, you don’t notice any changes, and then wake up one day in an authoritarian regime.  Don’t let that happen to you, waking up one day to discover that you’re working at a malevolent corporate cult.

# # #

Notes

[1] Hint:  if everything is too secret, if management is routinely caught lying to customers and investors, if anyone who challenges management is summarily fired, and if you hear things like “if you don’t believe [our new product] is the most important thing humanity has ever built, you should quit now” – then you should probably go find a new job.

[2] Which nevertheless didn’t stop HubSpot from getting a good mocking in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble.

[3] Some would certainly argue that even this is unhealthy.  Dave Arnott would argue there should be a line between “who are we” and “what we do.”  Even benevolent cults somewhat dissolve this line.

[4]  Which was so marvelously parodied in HBO’s Silicon Valley in a minute-long montage of founders pledging “to make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms” or “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.”

[5] Which is particularly important in a culture led by a strong leader.

 

 

Slides from My SaaStr Annual 2019 Presentation (5 Questions CEOs Struggle With)

Thanks to everyone who attended my session today at the amazing — and huge — SaaStr Annual 2019 conference in San Jose.  In this post, I’ll share the slides from my presentation, Five Questions SaaS CEOs Wrestle With (and some thoughts on how to answer them).

The folks at SaaStr recorded the session, so at some point a video of it will be available (but that probably won’t be for a while).  When it is up, I will also post it to Kellblog.

In some sense definitionally, there were two types of people in the audience:

  • CEOs, who hopefully received some fresh perspective on these age-old, never-quite-put-to-bed questions.
  • Those who work for them, who hopefully received some insights into the mind of the CEO that will help make you more valuable team members and help you advance your career.

As mentioned, please send me feedback if you have examples where something in the presentation resonated with you, you applied it in some way, and it made a positive impact on your working life.  I’d love to hear it.

Here are the slides from the presentation.

SaaStr 2019 Presentation Preview: Five Questions SaaS CEO Wrestle With

I’m super excited for the upcoming SaaStr Annual 2019 conference in San Jose from February 5th through the 7th at the San Jose Convention Center.  I hope to see you there — particularly for my session from 10:00 AM to 10:30 AM on Tuesday, February 5th.  Last year they ended up repeating my session but that won’t be possible this year as I’m flying to Europe for a board meeting later in the week — so if you want to see it live, please come by at 10:00 AM on Tuesday!

saastr 2019

I’d quibble with the subtitle, “Lessons from Host Analytics,” because it’s actually more, “Lessons From a Lifetime of Doing This Stuff,” and examples will certainly include but also span well beyond Host Analytics.  In fact, I think one thing that’s reasonably unique about my background is that I have 10+ years’ tenure in two different, key roles within an enterprise software company:

  • CEO of two startups, combined for over ten years (MarkLogic, Host Analytics).
  • CMO of two startups, combined for over ten years (BusinessObjects, Versant).

I’ve also been an independent director on the board of 4 enterprise software startups, two of which have already had outstanding exits.  And I just sold a SaaS startup in an interesting process during which I learned a ton.  So we’ve got a lot of experience to draw upon.

SaaS startup CEO is hard job.  It’s a lonely job, something people don’t typically understand until they do it.  It’s an odd job — for what might be the first time in your career you have no boss, per se, just a committee.  You’re responsible for the life and death of the company.  Scores or hundreds of people depend on you to make payroll.  You need to raise capital, likely in the tens of millions of dollars — but these days increasingly in the hundreds — to build your business.

You’re driving your company into an uncertain future and, if you’re good, you’re trying to define that future your way in the mind of the market.  You’re trying to build an executive team that not only will get the job done today, but that can also scale with you for the next few years.  You’re trying to systematize the realization of a vision, breaking it down into the right parts in the right order to ensure market victory.  And, while you’re trying to do all that, you need to keep a board happy that may have interests divergent from your own and those of the company.  Finally, it’s an accelerating treadmill of a job – the better you do, the more is expected of you.

Wait!  Why do we do this again?  Because it’s also a fantastic job.  You get to:

  • Define and realize a vision for a market space.
  • Evangelize new and better ways of doing things.
  • Compete to win key customers, channels, and partners.
  • Work alongside incredibly talented and accomplished people.
  • Serve the most leading and progressive customers in the market.
  • Manage a growing organization, building ideally not just a company but a culture that reflects your core values.
  • Leverage that growth internationally, exploring and learning about the planet and the business cultures across it.

Basically, you get to play strategic N-dimensional wizard chess against some of the finest minds in the business.  Let’s face it.  It’s cool.  Despite the weight that comes with the job, any SaaS startup CEO should feel privileged every day about the job that they “get to” do.

But there are certain nagging questions that hound any SaaS startup CEO.  Questions that never quite get answered and put to bed.  Ones that need to asked and re-asked.  Those are the 5 questions we’ll discuss in my talk.  And here they are:

  1. When do I next raise money?
  2. Do I have the right team?
  3. How can I better manage the board?
  4. To what extent should I worry about competitors?
  5. Are we focused enough?

Each one is a question that can cost you the company, the market, or your job.  They’re all hard.  In my estimation, number 4 is the trickiest and most subtle.  There’s even a bonus question 6 – “are we winning?” — that is perhaps the most important of them all.

I look forward to speaking with you and hope you can attend the session.  If you have any advance questions to stimulate my thinking while preparing for the session, please do send them along via email, DM, or comment.

You don’t need to be a CEO to benefit from this session.  There are lots of lessons for everyone involving in creating and running a startup.  (If nothing else, you might get some insight to how your CEO might think about you and your team.)

I hope to see you there.