Category Archives: Management

The Red Badge of Courage: Helping Overachievers to Manage and Process Failure

When I lived in France for five years I was often asked to compare it to Silicon Valley in an attempt to explain why — in the land of Descartes, Fourier, and Laplace, in a country where the nation’s top university (École Polytechnique) is a military engineering school that wraps together MIT and West Point, in a place that naturally reveres engineers and scientists, why was there not a stronger tech startup ecosystem?

My decade-plus-old answer is here: Is Silicon Valley Reproducible? [1]

My answer to the question was “no” and the very first reason I listed was “cultural attitudes towards failure.” In France (at least at that time) failure was a death sentence. In Silicon Valley, I wrote, failure was a red badge of courage, a medal of valor on one’s resume for service in the startup wars, and a reference to the eponymous classic written by Stephen Crane.

In this post, I want to explore two different aspects of the red badge of courage. First, from a career development perspective, how one should manage the presence of such badges on your resume. And second, from an emotional perspective, how thinking of startup failure as a red badge of courage can help startup founders and employers process what was happened.

Managing Failure: Avoiding Too Many Consecutive Red Badges

In Silicon Valley you’ll often hear adages like “failure is a better teacher than success,” but don’t be too quick to believe everything you hear. While failure is certainly not a scarlet letter in Silicon Valley, companies nevertheless hire for a track record of success. In the scores of C-level position specifications that I’ve read and collected over the years, I cannot recall a single one that ever listed any sort of failure as required experience.

We talk as if we love all-weather sailors, but when it comes to actually hiring people — which often requires building consensus around one candidate in a pool [2] — we seem to prefer the fair-weather ones. Back in the day, we’d all love a candidate who went from Stanford to Oracle to Siebel to Salesforce [3].

But, switching metaphors, I sometimes think Silicon Valley is like a diving competition that forgot the degree of difficulty rating. Hand a CEO $100M, 70% growth company — and the right to burn $10M to $15M per quarter — and it will likely go public in a few years, scoring the company a perfect 10 — for executing a swan dive, degree of difficulty 1.2.

Now, as an investor, I’ll put money into such swan dives whenever I can. But, as an operator, remember that the charmed life of riding in (or even driving) such a bus doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the shocks of the regular world.

Consider ServiceMax who, roughly speaking, was left at the altar by Salesforce with a product built on the Salesforce platform and business plan most thought predicated on an acquisition by Salesforce. That team survived that devastating shock and later sold the company for $900M. That’s a reverse 4½ somersault in pike position, degree of difficulty 4.8. Those folks are my heroes.

So, in my estimation, if Silicon Valley believes that failure is a better teacher than success, I’d say that it wants you to have been educated long ago — and certainly not in your most recent job. That means we need to look at startup failure as a branding issue and the simple rule is don’t get too many red badges in a row on your LinkedIn or CV.

Using Grateful Dead concert notation, if your CV looks like Berkeley –> Salesforce –> failure –> Looker, then you’re fine. You’ve got one red badge of courage that you can successful argue was a character-building experience. However, if it looks like Berkeley –> Salesforce –> failure –> failure –> failure, then you’ve got a major positioning problem. You’ve accidentally re-positioned yourself from being the “Berkeley, Salesforce” person to the “failed startup person.” [4]

How many consecutive red badges is too many? I’d say three for sure, maybe even two. A lot of it depends on timing [5].

Practically, it means that after one failed startup, you should reduce your risk tolerance by upping the quality bar on your next gig. After two failed startups, you should probably go cleanse and re-brand yourself via duty at a large successful vendor. After a year or two, you’ll be re-positioned as a Brand-X person and in a much better position to again take some career risk in the startup world [6].

Processing Failure: Internalizing the Red Badge Metaphor

This second part of this post deals with the emotional side of startup failure, which I’m going to define quite broadly as materially failing to obtain your goals in creating or working at a startup. Failure can range from laying off the entire staff and selling the furniture to getting an exit that doesn’t clear the preference stack [7] to simply getting a highly disappointing result after putting 10 years into building your company [8]. Failure, like success, takes many forms.

But failures also have several common elements:

  • Shock and disappointment. Despite knowing that 90% of startups fail, people are invariably shocked when it happens to them. Remember, startup founders and employees are often overachievers who’ve never experienced a material setback before [9].
  • Anger and conflict. In failed startups there are often core conflicts about which products to build, markets to target, when to take financing, and whether to accept buy-out offers.
  • Economic loss. Sometimes personal savings are lost along with the seed and early-round investors’ money. With companies that fail-slow (as opposed to failing-fast), opportunity cost becomes a significant woe [10].

For the people involved in one — particular the founders and C-level executives — a failed startup feels Janis Joplin singing:

Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. And take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby! Oh, oh, break it! Break another little bit of my heart now Darling yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

I was reminded of this the other day when I had a coffee with a founder who, after more than four years, had just laid of his entire team and sold the furniture the week before.

During the meeting I realized that there are three things people fresh from failed startups should focus on when pursuing their next opportunity:

  • You need to convince yourself that it was positive learning experience that earned you a red badge of courage. If you don’t believe it, no one else will — and that’s going to make pursuing a new opportunity more difficult. People will try to figure out if you’re “broken” from the experience. Convincing them you’re not broken starts out with convincing you. (Don’t be, by the way. Startups are hard. Cut yourself some slack.)

  • You need to suppress your natural desire to tell the story. I’m sure it’s a great story, full of drama and conflict, but does telling it help you one iota in pursuing a new opportunity? No. After leaving MarkLogic — which was a strong operational success but without an investor exit — I was so bad at this that one time a VC stopped me during a CEO interview and said, “wow, this is an amazing story, let me get two of my partners to hear it and can you start over?” While I’m sure they enjoyed the colorful tale, I can assure you that the process didn’t result in a dynamite CEO offer. Tell your story this way: “I [founded | worked at] a startup for [X] years and [shut it | sold it] when [thing happened] and we realized it wasn’t going to work. It was a great experience and I learned a lot.” And then you move on. The longer you talk about it, the worse it’s going to go.

  • You need to convince prospective employers that, despite the experience, you can still fit in a round hole. If you were VP of product management (PM) before starting your company, was a founder/CEO for two years, and are now pursuing a VP of PM role, the company is going to wonder about two things: (1) as per the above, are you broken as a result of the experience and (2) can you successfully go back into a VP of PM role. You’ll need to convince them that PM has always been your passion, that you can easily go back and do it again, and in fact, that you’re quite looking forward to it. Only once that’s been accomplished, you can try to convince them that you can do PM even better than before as a result of the experience. While your natural tendency will probably be to make this argument, remember that it is wholly irrelevant if the company doesn’t believe you can return to the role. So make sure you’ve won the first argument before even entertaining the second.

# # #

Notes

[1] A lot has presumably changed since then and while I sit on the board of a French startup (Nuxeo), I no longer feel qualified, nor is the purpose of this essay, to explore the state of tech entrepreneurship in France.

[2] And ergo presumably reduces risk-taking in the process.

[3] And not without good reason. They’ve probably learned a lot of best practices, a lot about scaling, and have built out a strong network of talented coworkers.

[4] Think of how people at a prospective employer might describe you in discussing the candidates. (“Did you prefer the Stanford/Tableau woman; the CMU/Salesforce man; or the poor dude who did all those failed startups?”)

[5] Ten years of impressive growth at Salesforce followed by two one-year failures looks quite different than three years at Salesforce followed by two three-year failures. One common question about failures is: why did you stay so long?

[6] And see higher quality opportunities as a result.

[7] Meaning investors get back all or part of what they are entitled to, but there is nothing leftover for founders and employees.

[8] And, by extrapolation, expected that they never world.

[9] For example, selling the company for $30M, and getting a small payout via an executive staff carve-out.

[10] Think: “with my PhD in AI/ML, I could have worked at Facebook for $1M per year for the past six years, so in addition to the money I’ve lost this thing has cost me $6M in foregone opportunity.”

Whose Company Is It Anyway? Differences between Founders and Hired CEOs.

Over the years I’ve noticed how different CEOs take different degrees of ownership and accountability when it comes to the board of directors.  For example, once, after a long debate where the board unanimously approved a budget contingent on reducing proposed R&D spending from $12M to $10M, I overhead the founder/CEO telling the head of R&D to “spend $12M anyway” literally as we walked out of the meeting [1].  That would be one extreme.

On the other, I’ve seen too-many CEOs treat the board as their boss, seemingly unwilling to truly lead the company, or perhaps hoping to earn a get out of jail free card if good execution of a chosen plan nevertheless fails.

This all relates to a core Kellblog theme of ownership — who owns what — that I’ve explored in some of my most popular posts:

Let’s now apply the same kind of thinking to the job of the CEO.  Startup CEOs generally fall into one of two categories and the category is likely to predict how they will approach the ownership issue.

Founder CEOs:  It’s My Company

Founders think it’s their company, well, because it is.  Whether they currently own more than 80% or less than 5% of the stock, whether they currently even work there anymore or not, it’s their company and always will be.  CEOs will come and go along a startup’s journey, but there is only one founder [2].  The founder started the company and made a big cultural imprint on it.  Nothing can take that away.

However, as soon as a founder/CEO raises venture capital (VC) they have decided to take investing partners along on the journey.  The best VC investors view their relationship with the founder as a partnership:  it’s the founder’s company, we are investing to partner with the founder, and our primary job is to advise and support the founder so as to help maximize the outcome.

However, VC investors are material shareholders, typically negotiate the contractual right to sit on the board of directors, and have certain governance and fiduciary duties as a part of sitting on the board.  (Those fiduciary duties, by the way, get complicated fast as VC board members also have fiduciary duties to their funds as well [3].)

Most of the time, in my experience, VCs run in advice/support mode, but if a company starts to have continual performance problems, is considering a new financing, or evaluating potential exit opportunities (e.g., M&A), founders can get a quick (and sometimes stark) reminder of the “second hat” that their VCs wear.

While it’s always spiritually the founder’s company, it’s only really and totally the founder’s company if they’ve never raised money [4].  Thankfully, most founder/CEOs don’t need to be reminded of that.  However, some do [5].

Hired CEOs:  It’s the Board’s Company vs. It’s My Company to Run

You become a hired CEO primarily through one path — climbing the corporate ladder at a large tech company [5a], reaching the GM or CXO level, and then deciding to branch out.  While virtually all hired CEOs have been large-tech CXOs or GMs, not all large-tech CXOs or GMs are wired to be successful as CEOs in the more frenetic world of startups.

Regardless of whether they should take the plunge, the problem that CEOs sometimes face is fighting against decades of training in climbing the corporate ladder.  Ladder-climbing wires you with three key priorities [6]:

  • Always make the boss look good
  • Never surprise the boss
  • Build strong relationships with influential peers

The problem?  When you’re CEO of a startup there is no boss and there are no peers.  Yes, there is a board of directors but the board/CEO relationship is not the same as the manager/employee relationship with which corporate execs are so familiar.

Yes, boards provide strategic and financial input, support, guidance, help with recruiting, and occasionally help with sales, but boards don’t run companies.  CEOs do.  And to repeat one of my favorite CEO quotes from Sequoia founder Don Valentine:  “I am 100% behind my CEOs up until the day I fire them” [7].

The challenge for hired CEOs is for them to understand:  it’s not my company in the sense that I founded it, but it is my company to run.  It’s not the board’s company to run and the board is not my manager.  The board is my board, and it’s not at all the same relationship as manager/employee.
Because this is somewhat conceptual, let’s provide an example to make this concrete.

“It’s My Company” Thinking “It’s the Board’s Company” Thinking
Based on what is happening in the market and our models we think it’s best to shoot for growth of X% and EBITDA margin of Y% How much do you want us to grow next year and at what EBITDA margin?
We believe we need to focus on a vertical and we think Pharma is the best choice. We were thinking that maybe we could focus more on a vertical, what do you folks think?
We think we should hold off doing channels until we’ve debugged the sales model. You told us to do channels so we signed up 17 partners but no one is actually selling anything.  Maybe it wasn’t a great idea.
Pattern:  we think we should do X and here’s why.  Please challenge it. Pattern:  we are here to do what you want, so what do you want us to do?  

CEOs need to remember that:

  • The management team spends 50-60 hours/week working at the company.  The board might spend that same amount of time in a year [8].  The team is much, much closer to the business and in the best position to evaluate options.
  • Even if they don’t always sound that way, the board wants the CEO to lead.  The scariest thing a new CEO can say is “it looks like you guys had a bad quarter” [9]. The second scariest thing is “looks like we had a bad quarter, what do you want us to do about it?”  Instead, they want to hear, “we had a bad quarter and here’s our plan to get things back on track.  Please give us frank feedback on that plan because we want the best plan possible and we want it to work [10].”
  • The CEO’s job is not to execute the board’s plan.  The CEO’s job is to work with the team to create the plan, get board approval of it, and then execute.  If the plan doesn’t work, the CEO doesn’t get to say “but you approved it, so you can’t fire me.” The job was to both make and execute the plan.

Finally, there are certain risk factors that can increase the chance a hired CEO will adopt the wrong type of thinking:

  • PE-backed firms.  In most venture-backed firms, a hired CEO will find a board consisting of several different venture capital partners, each with their own opinion.  Even though most venture boards do end up with an Alpha member [11], it’s still hard for the CEO to get confused and think of the Alpha member as the boss.  In a PE-backed firm, however, the board may consist of a single investing partner from the one firm who owns the company, perhaps accompanied by a few more junior staff.  In this case, it’s fairly easy for the CEO to revert to CXO-mode and treat that board member as “the boss” as opposed to “the board.”  While PE firms are more active managers who often come with playbooks and best practices consultants, they still want the CEO to be the CEO and not the EVP of Company.
  • First-time CEOs.  Veteran CEOs have more time to learn and understand the board/CEO relationship.  First-timers, fresh from climbing the corporate ladder, sometimes have trouble with the adjustment.

If you’re in either of the above categories or both, it’s important to ask yourself, and most probably your board, about what kind of relationship is desired.  Most of the time, in my estimation, they hired a CEO because they wanted a CEO and the more leadership you take, the more you think “my company” and not “board’s company,” the better off everyone will be.

Finally, you may also want to read this post about the board/CEO relationship which includes another of my favorite passages, on what I call the Direction Paradox.

The Direction Paradox
While discussions, challenges, advice, and questioning are always good, when boards give operational direction (i.e., “you should do X”) they risk creating a paradox for the CEO.  It’s easy when the CEO agrees with the direction and in that case the direction could have been offered as advice and still would have been heeded.
It gets hard when the CEO disagrees with the direction:

Case 1:  If the CEO follows the direction (and is correct that it was wrong), he or she will be fired for poor results.
Case 2:  If the CEO fails to follow the direction, his or her political capital account will be instantly debited (regardless of whether eventually proven right) and he or she will eventually be fired for non-alignment as the process repeats itself over time.

In case 1, the CEO will be surprised at his termination hearing.  “But, but, but … I did what you told me to do!”  “But no,” the board will reply.  “You are the CEO.  Your job is to deliver results and do what you think is right.”  And they’ll be correct in saying that.

Once caught in the paradox, weak CEOs die confused on the first hill and strong ones die frustrated on the second.

See the post for advice on how to prevent the Direction Paradox from starting.

# # # 

Notes
[1] And clearly within earshot of the directors

[2] To simplify the writing, I’ll say “one founder” meaning “one founder or equivalent” (i.e., a set of co-founders).  To the extent that this post is really about the CEO role, then it does flip back to one person, again — i.e., that co-founder (if any) who decided to take the CEO role.  This post isn’t about non-CEO co-founders, but instead about [co-]founder CEOs.

[3] See this 27-page classic (PDF) by Wilson Soncini, The Venture Capital Board Member’s Survival Guide:  Handling Conflicts While Wearing Two Hats.  It’s a must-read if you want to understand these issues.

[4] Increasingly, experienced founders (and/or those sitting on a hot enough hand) are able to raise venture capital and maintain near-total control.  Mechanisms include: a separate class of founder stock with 10x+ voting rights; control of a majority of the board seats; or protective provisions on the founder stock, such as the right to block a financing or sale of the company.  Even in such cases, however, a high-control founder still has fiduciary duties to the other shareholders.

[5] I believe incubators (and the like), by removing a lot of hard work and risk in starting a company, can inadvertently produce what I call “faux founders” who — when it comes to the business side of the company — act more like first-time hired CEOs than typical founders.  Don’t get me wrong, plenty of fine founder/CEOs come out of incubators, but I nevertheless believe that incubators increase the odds of creating a founder/CEO who can feel more like a CTO or CPO than a CEO.  That’s not to say the company won’t be successful either with that original founder or a replacement; it is to say, in my experience, that incubator founders can be different from their non-incubated counterparts.

[5a] And even better, helping to make it large while so doing.

[6] Like it or not, it’s not a bad three-part formula for climbing the corporate ladder.  And the “don’t surprise” rule still applies to boards as it does to managers.

[7] Note that any idea that the CEO might quit doesn’t seem to exist in his (or most VC’s) mind.  That’s because it’s incomprehensible because it’s a career mistake that may well make the person unemployable as CEO in a future VC-backed startup.  Who, after all, wants to hire the Captain of the Costa Concordia?  See this post, Startups CEOs and the Three Doors, for more.

[8] 6 board meetings at 4 hours = 24 hours, one hour prep per board meeting = 6 hours, 2 hours x 4 committee meetings = 8 hours, 2 hours/month on keeping up with news, updates, monthly reports = 24 hours.  Total of 62 hours/year for a committee member, less if not.  Time can vary widely and may be much higher if the board member is providing ad hoc support and/or ad hoc projects.

[9] Oh no!  The new CEO doesn’t even yet consider himself one of us!

[10] Because it’s not about ego or authorship, it’s about the best results.

[11] Often, but not always, the person who led the Series A investment.

Kellblog’s Greatest Hits 2016-2019 per the Appealie SaaS Awards

I’ll be speaking at the APPEALIE 2019 SaaS Conference and Awards in San Francisco on September 25th and I noticed that in their promotions the folks at APPEALIE had assembled their own Kellblog’s Greatest Hits album from 2016 to 2019, complete with its own cover art.

appealie

When I looked at the posts they picked, I thought they did a good job of identifying the best material, so I thought I’d share their list here.  They also called me “a GOAT software blogger” and after playing around with acronyms for about half an hour — maybe Groove, OpenView, AngelVC, Tunguz? — my younger son swung by and said, “they called you a GOAT?  Cool.  It means greatest of all time.”  Cool, indeed.  Thanks.

Here’s the APPEALIE Kellblog’s Greatest Hits 2016-2019 list:

 

Kellblog's Greatest Hits 2016-2019 per the Appealie SaaS Awards

I’ll be speaking at the APPEALIE 2019 SaaS Conference and Awards in San Francisco on September 25th and I noticed that in their promotions the folks at APPEALIE had assembled their own Kellblog’s Greatest Hits album from 2016 to 2019, complete with its own cover art.
appealie
When I looked at the posts they picked, I thought they did a good job of identifying the best material, so I thought I’d share their list here.  They also called me “a GOAT software blogger” and after playing around with acronyms for about half an hour — maybe Groove, OpenView, AngelVC, Tunguz? — my younger son swung by and said, “they called you a GOAT?  Cool.  It means greatest of all time.”  Cool, indeed.  Thanks.
Here’s the APPEALIE Kellblog’s Greatest Hits 2016-2019 list:

 

My Appearance on the Private Equity Funcast

Who else but my old friend Jim Milbery, a founding partner at ParkerGale, could come up with a podcast called the Private Equity Funcast, complete with its own jingle and with a Thunderbirds-inspired opening?

Jim and I worked together at Ingres back in the — well “pre-Chernobyl” as Jim likes to put it.   When we met, he was a pre-sales engineer and I was a technical support rep.  We’ve each spent over 25 years in enterprise software, in mixed roles that involve both technology and sales & marketing (S&M).  Jim went on to write a great book, Making the Technical Sale.  I went on to create Kellblog.  He’s spent most of his recent career in private equity (PE) land; I’ve spent most of mine in venture capital (VC) land.

With a little more time on my hands these days, I had the chance to re-connect with Jim so when I was in Chicago recently we sat down at ParkerGale’s “intergalactic headquarters” for a pretty broad-ranging conversation about a recent blog post I wrote (Things to Avoid in Selecting an Executive Job at a Startup) along with a lot of banter about the differences between PE-land and VC-land.

Unlike most podcasts, which tend to be either lectures or interviews, this was a real conversation and a fun one. While I’m not sure I like the misparsing potential of their chosen title, Things To Avoid in Selecting an Executive Job with Dave Kellogg, I’ll assume the best.  Topics we covered during the fifty-minute conversation:

  • The pros and cons of CEOs who want to get the band back together.
  • Pros and cons of hiring people who have only worked at big, successful companies and/or who have only sailed in fair weather.
  • The downsides of joining a company that immediately needs to raise money.
  • How CMOs should avoid the tendency to measure their importance by the size of their budget.
  • Should companies hire those who “stretch down” or those who “punch above their weight”?
  • The importance of key internal customer relationships (e.g., the number-one cause of death for the CMO is the CRO) and how that should affect the order of your hires when building a team.
  • Feature-addicted founders and product managers (PMs), technical debt, and the importance of “Trust Releases.”
  • Pivoting vs. “traveling” when it comes to startup strategy.
  • The concept of Bowling Alleys within Bowling Alleys, which we both seem to have invented in parallel.  (Freaky.)
  • The difference between knocking down adjacent markets (i.e., “bowling pins”) and pivots.
  • Corporate amnesia as companies grow and surprisingly fail at things they used to know how to do (e.g., they forget how to launch new products).
  • My concept of reps opening new markets with only a telephone, a machete, and a low quota.
  • My pet peeve #7: salespeople who say it’s impossible to sell into an industry where the founders managed already to land 3-5 customers.
  • The difference between, in Geoffrey Moore terms, gorillas and chimps.
  • How there are riches in the niches when it comes market focus.
  • How feature differentiation can end up a painful axe battle between vendors.
  • Thoughts on working for first-time, non-founder CEOs in both the PE and VC context.
  • The difference between approval and accountability, both in formulating and executing the plan.

Here are some other episodes of the Private Equity Funcast that I found interesting:

So my two favorite podcasts are now The Twenty Minute VC on the venture side and The Private Equity Funcast on the PE side.  Check them both out!

Thanks for having me on the show, Jim, and it was a pleasure speaking with you.

Things to Avoid in Selecting an Executive-Level Job at a Software Startup

This is a sister post to my recent one, Career Decisions:  What to Look For in a Software Startup.  That piece is all about what to look for when considering taking a job at a software startup.  This piece is kind of the opposite:  what to look out for when considering an executive job at a software startup.

This post isn’t simply the inverse of the other and I didn’t approach writing it that way.   Instead, I started blank slate, thinking what are the warning signs that would make me think twice before taking an executive-level job at a software startup.

Before jumping into the list, let me remind you that no startup is perfect and that unless your name is Frank Slootman that you are unlikely to get a C-level offer from a startup that has all eight of the things I say to look for and none of the eight I say to avoid.  The rest of us, to varying degrees, all need to make intelligent trade-offs in facing what is effectively a Groucho Marx problem [1] in our career management.

That said, here’s my list of things to avoid in selecting an executive-level job at a startup:

1. Working for TBH, i.e., working for a boss who is to-be-hired. For example, if a company’s board is leading the search for a new CMO while the CEO slot is also open, the CMO would be working for TBH.  Don’t do this.  You have no idea who the new CEO will be, if you will like them, and whether their first act will be to fire you.  Ignore any promises that “you will be part of the process” in hiring the new boss; you may well find yourself interviewing them as you notice an offer letter sticking out of their backpack, suddenly realizing that you’re the interviewee, not the interviewer.  Read my post on this topic if you’re not convinced.

2. The immediate need to raise money.  Particularly for a CEO job, this is a red flag.  The problem is that unless you are a tier 1 rockstar, investors are not going to want to back the company simply because you’ve arrived.  Most investors will want you to have about a year in the seat before considering investing.  If you’re immediately dispatched to Sand Hill Road in search of capital, you’ll be out pitching the company poorly instead of learning the business and making plans to improve it.  Moreover, to state the obvious, joining a company that immediately needs to raise money means joining a company that’s in the midst of running out of cash.  That means either the company gets lucky and does so (often via an inside round [2]) or it doesn’t and your first quarter on the job will be focused on layoffs and restructuring instead of growth.  Think:  “I love you guys; call me back once you’ve done the round.”

3. Key internal customer TBHs.  For example, the VP of Sales is the VP of Marketing’s key internal customer, so Marketing VPs should avoid taking jobs where the VP of Sales is not in place.  Why?  As your key internal customer, the VP of Sales has a lot of power in both assessing your performance and determining your continued employment [3], so you really want to know if you get along and see eye-to-eye before signing up for a new job.  Moreover, even if you are work-compatible, some Sales VPs like “travel with” their favorite VP of Marketing.  Think:  “Mary’s great.  I just want to work with Joe like I have done at my last two companies.”  Bye Mary.

4. Strategic “traveling” violations.  “Pivot” is one of my favorite startup euphemisms. While many great startups have indeed succeeded on their second try, after a strategic pivot [4], some startups seem to want to make the pivot into an annual event.  Let’s remember that pivots mean strategic failure and the virtual write-down of any VC that went into funding the failed strategy.  While pivots can save a troubled company from continuing to execute a doomed strategy, they’re not something you want to do at all, let alone on a periodic basis.  In basketball, you get called for traveling if you (a) take more than two steps without dribbling or (b) move an established pivot foot.  I call startups for traveling when they (a) do two or more strategic pivots or (b) pivot to a new strategy that has nothing to do with the old one [5] (i.e., moving both feet).

5.  Nth-place Vendors (for all N>=3).  Most high-tech markets have increasing returns effects because customers like to reduce risk by buying from market leaders.  In the early 2000s, these normal increasing returns effects were compounded by network effects [6] in many markets.  Today, machine learning is compounding increasing returns yet again [7].  In short, it sucks to be third in Silicon Valley, it always has, and it’s likely to suck more in the future than it does now.

Therefore avoid working at vendors who are not #1 or #2 in their category.  If you’re considering a #N vendor, then it should be part of it moving to a focus strategy to become #1 at a product or vertical segment.  Don’t get sold the idea that a mega-vendor is going to acquire #4 after being rebuffed by the market leaders or to get a better price.  Mega-vendors greatly prefer to acquire market leaders and recent history has shown they are more than willing to pay up to do so.  Tuck-ins and acqui-hires still happen, but typically for very early-stage companies and not at great valuations.

6. Sick cultures and/or dishonest leaders.  Silicon Valley companies often make a big deal about “culture” but too often they conflate culture with ping pong tables, free lunch, and company parties.  Culture, to me, is the often unwritten code [8] of what the company values and how business gets done.  Alternatively, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, culture is what happens when no one is watching.  While many Silicon Valley leaders — going all the way back to HP — are “true believers” trying to build not only unique products but also create unique places to work, there are unfortunately charlatans in our midst.  Some leaders are disingenuous, others dysfunctional, and a few downright dishonest.  If you sense cultural sickness during your interview process, back-checking references, or reading Glassdoor [9], then I’d say tread carefully.

7. Low post-money valuations.  You’ll hear this argument a lot with Nth-place companies:  “well, the good news is we only got an $80M post-money valuation on our last round of $20M, whereas we heard LeaderCo was valued at $240M — so if you come here you’ll start making money off $80M, not $240M.”  At one level, it’s persuasive, especially if you think LeaderCo and NthCo are similar in many respects — “it’s like buying shares at 2/3rds off,” you might think.  But that thinking basically assumes the venture capital market mispriced LeaderCo.  You might justify that position by thinking “valuations are crazy right now” but if LeaderCo got a crazy valuation why didn’t NthCo get one too, raising in the same market?  While some people will try to market low valuations as opportunities, I now see them as problems.

Think not:  wow, what a great arbitrage play.  Think instead:  (a) what don’t I know [10] such that the market priced NthCo at 1/3rd the price of LeaderCo, and (b) what effects that will have on future financing — i.e., it’s likely LeaderCo will continue to have better access to capital going forward.  (Remember, the IPO class of 2018 raised a median of around $300M.)

In olden days, the rule was if the market leader went public at a valuation of $1B, then number two was worth about $500M, and number three $250M (4x, 2x, 1x).  Today, with companies going public later, more access to capital, and stronger increasing returns effects, I think it’s more like $4.5B, $1.5B, and $300M respectively (15x, 5x, 1x).  Given that, and increasing returns, maybe a “crazy” early valuation gap isn’t so crazy after all.

8. First-time, non-founder CEOs.  First-time, founder CEOs are the norm these days and VCs do a good job of helping surround them with a strong executive team and good advisors to avoid common mistakes.  Personally, I believe that companies should be run by their founders as long as they can, and maybe then some.  But when a founder needs to replaced, you get a massive signal from the market in looking at who the company is able to attract to run it.  Back in the day, if you were Splunk, you could attract Godfrey Sullivan.  Today, if you’re Snowflake, you can attract Frank Slootman.

My worry about companies run by first-time, non-founder CEOs [11] is less about the difficulty for the first-timer in transitioning to the CEO job — which is indeed non-trivial — and more about the signaling value about who would, and more importantly, who wouldn’t, take the job.  Experienced CEOS are not in short supply, so if a company can’t attract one, I go back to what don’t I know / what can’t I see that the pool of experienced CEOs does?

That’s not to say it never works — we did a fine job building a nice business at MarkLogic under one first-time, non-founder CEO that I know [11].  It is to say that hiring a non-founder, first-time CEO should prompt some questions about who was picked and why.  Sometimes there are great answers to those questions.  Sometimes, things feel a bit incongruous.

# # #

Notes

[1] Marx often quipped that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that admitted him, the rough equivalent to saying that you wouldn’t take a C-level job at any startup that would offer you one.

[2] As one VC friend so tersely put it:  “our job isn’t to put more money into a company, it’s to get other people to put more in at valuations higher than the one we invested at.”  (This somehow reminds me of the  General Patton quote:  “the object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.”)

[3] The number one “cause of death” for the VP of Marketing is the VP of Sales.

[4] I particularly like when those pivots are emergent, i.e., when the company is trying one thing, spots that another one is working, and then doubles down on the second thing.

[5] In the sense that they moved an established pivot foot by changing, e.g., both the target customer and the target product.  Changing your strategy to sell a different app to the same buyer, or the same app to a different buyer feels much more like a pivot to me.

[6] Everyone wants to be on the social network that their friends are on, so the more your friends pick network A over B, the more newcomers want to pick network A.  Back when there was competition in consumer social networks, entire high schools went either Facebook or MySpace, but virtually none went both.

[7] Where machine learning (ML) is an important part of the value proposition, you have even stronger increasing returns effects because having more customers, which means having more data, which means having better models, which means producing superior results.

[8] In cases there may be a very public written code about company culture.  But, to the extent the written culture is not the one lived, it’s nothing more than public relations or a statement of aspiration.

[9] While Glassdoor has many limitations, including that reviewers are not verified and that most reviewers are recently-terminated job-seekers (because the requirement to look for a job is to write a review), I still use it in researching companies.  My favorite dysfunctional pattern is a litany of detailed, fact-filled, seemingly sincere negative reviews, followed by a modest number of summary, high-level, HR-buzzwordy positive reviews followed by someone saying “I can’t believe management is feeding positive reviews to people in order to up our ratings.”

[10] An economist friend once taught me that when economists studied established practices in any field, e.g.,  the need for a second-serve (as opposed to just hitting two first serves) in professional tennis, they start out assuming the practice is correct, i.e., that the professionals really do know what they’re doing, and then see if the statistics justify the practice.  One might apply the same philosophy to valuations.

[11] Yes, I was one at MarkLogic.  In terms of signaling value, I was at least CMO of $1B company before starting and while I’d not been a CEO before, I did bring an unusual amount of database domain expertise (i.e., Ingres, Versant) to the party.

Reacting to Feedback as CEO

The other day I saw this tweet from my friend Nick Mehta, CEO of GainSight, and it got me thinking.

feedback

It turns out that in addition to making fun music videos for company events, that Nick and I have another thing in common:  we both wrestle with finding the right balance in listening to feedback.  Since this is a topic I’ve pondered quite a bit over my 12+ years as a startup CEO, I thought I’d share those thoughts in this post.

First, you don’t get to be CEO of a startup by not caring.  You want your company to be great, you want your customers to be delighted, and you want your employees to be happy working at your company.  So I think most CEOs will have that same natural tendency towards immediate action that Nick mentions.

But CEOs who overreact both irritate employees (“so you’ve heard one side of this and it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind”) and, more dangerously, are easily manipulated.  If you find 3 people outside your office before a big meeting, each hoping to the last one to talk to you before it begins, then I’d view that as flashing yellow sign that you might be an overreactor.

On the flip side, there is some chance that the feedback is an outlier, and that reacting to it would be a mistake, particularly in terms of the opportunity cost of not having focused on something more generally important.

Finding that balance in the middle is indeed the hard part.  On one hand, CEOs are action-oriented and if they hear something plausible, they want to immediately dispatch someone to fix it.  On the other, CEOs get lots of feedback and it’s a little too easy to create a platitude shield around yourself that rationalizes feedback before it gets through — e.g., salespeople are never happy with their comp plans, employees generally don’t like their bosses, and customers always want more for their services dollar.  If you gave me 30 minutes I think I could generate about ten platitudes that would screen out 90% of feedback.  And that’s not good either.

So what should you do to find this balance?  Here are some tips:

  • Listen to everyone, all the time.  Ask open-ended questions.  For example:  “how’s your experience been working here”, “what are we like to work with as a customer”,  or “what do you think we can do better.”  Rule 1 is you’re not listening if you’re talking, so speak little and listen a lot.  Try to set up meetings as listening or feedback sessions as opposed to the default that “our CEO wants to come in and talk to you.”  Reframe it:  “our CEO wants to come in and listen to you, hear about your project, etc.”  The more feedback you get the harder it is to overreact to any one piece.
  • Remember that people have good days and bad days so do not overreact to any one incident.  (If someone really unloads on you, listen politely, take notes, and set up a follow-up call in a week or two to check back in.)
  • Listen no matter what you’re hearing.  You might hear things that are factually wrong.  You might hear things you find offensive.  You might hear things you immediately want to explain.  Recognize these as defensive reactions (even if they are appropriate defensive reactions) and remember Rule 2:  defensiveness kills communications.  Shut up, let the other person keep talking, take notes about any points you want to clarify, and discuss them at the end of the conversation.
  • Ask the “dead moose” question.  Is there any issue so big and glaring that we’re afraid to talk about and it’s like a giant dead moose in the middle of the conference room table that we’re all ignoring as we converse?  This gives people permission to put the big, often obvious, but potentially dangerous issues on the table — and get the moose off it)
  • Remember that people sometimes have agendas that shape their feedback.  Not all feedback is “pure” or unbiased in the sense that it’s a neutral voice wanting what it perceives as best for the company.  Maybe a customer is in the middle of negotiating a big contract.  Maybe an employee is angry about having missed a promotion.  Maybe a manager is trying to reorganize a department.  There’s nothing wrong with having an agenda, but it helps to know what it is when processing feedback.  Ask:  is there any bigger picture item that’s shaping this feedback overall?
  • When it comes to employee incidents, remember there are three sides to every story:  yours, mine, and what actually happened.  If you react to the first person you hear, then you’ll be teeing up a race to your office after every dispute because (as with patents) the first one to the office wins.  When faced with interpersonal disputes, remember my friend Martin Cooke’s favorite question:  “so what did Joe say when you spoke to him about this?”  If they’ve not spoken yet, then send them off to do so.
  • Beware hearsay.  It’s not allowed in court, so perhaps it shouldn’t be allowed in your office.  I don’t want to spend time with Pete saying he heard Paula say something offensive to Joe.  Tell Joe to come see me.  Or go find Joe yourself.  But we’ve all played the telephone game and know what happens to messages as they told and re-told through layers of people.
  • Remember that “not reacting now” is not the same as “not reacting.”  This is very important because “not reacting now” is probably the right answer 90% of the time.  Write it down.  Think about it.  Schedule a meeting.  But resist — and I know it’s hard — any action-oriented tendency to “do something” right now.  Once you get a reputation for going off half-cocked it’s pretty hard to shake — and very easy to get manipulated.  Time is usually your friend.
  • Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.  Hearing the same story or opinion two to three times doesn’t automatically turn it into data.  Use surveys to gather data and use all your feedback conversations to guide topical questioning in those surveys.
  • Go get data.  You should already be running quarterly customer surveys and bi-annual or quarterly employee surveys.  Study the data in them.  Use what you’ve heard listening to people to drive special, topical lines of questioning within them.  Or, if indicated, do a special topic survey.  Once you’ve done the survey, call an optional Town Hall meeting to discuss the results.
  • Remember that 80% of an employee’s experience at your company is shaped by their manager (and, as a corollary that 80% of a customer’s experience is shaped by their account manager).  Ask specific questions about both in your surveys and when hot spots light up, go dig into them (i.e, why are so many of Joe’s employees rating him poorly on management).  Most companies are small enough that the digging can be done by live 1-1 meetings or phone calls.
  • View external data with a skeptical eye.  You can’t ignore the fact that product and company review sites exist.  All review sites have limitations — competitors can launch coordinated attacks to decrease your scores while HR can launch proactive programs to increase your scores.  My controversial advice for CEOs is to ignore these sites yourself and put your VP of Marketing in charge of product review sites and your VP of People on company review sites.  If you start to personally and immediately respond to these public posts, you are basically incenting employees to raise gripes in a public forum, as opposed to a private one such as your employee survey or coming to you directly.

Let me thank Nick for putting an important question on the table.  If you have other tips on how to answer it, please share them here.