Category Archives: Management

How Startup CEOs Should Think About the Coronavirus

I just reached out to the CEOs I work with with on this topic and figured I should also do a quick post to speak to the CEOs who follow Kellblog as well.

The primary purpose of this post is to remind busy startup CEOs that an important part of your job is to be out ahead of things. Usually that means customer needs, market trends, and competitors. I’d argue it also includes potential epidemics, such as the one threatened by COVID-19.

Nobody wants to work for a CEO who’s panicking. But nobody wants to work for a CEO without a plan, either. You owe it to your employees, customers, and (yes) shareholders to start thinking about the impact of the Coronavirus on your business. That starts with your first action item: having a conversation about it at your next weekly e-staff meeting, if you’ve not done so already.

My thinking is based largely on this Scientific American article about what individuals should do to prepare for an eventual outbreak. On the theory that most startup employees are relatively young and healthy, the reality appears to be that the lives you save may not be your own — but instead those of the sick, elderly, weak, or otherwise vulnerable around you [1].

The driving principle behind the article is the best thing people can do to slow the spread of a virus is to stay away from each other for a few weeks. That’s not easy for a business to do, but at least in software we rarely rely on physical supply chains so we have one less major factor to consider in our planning.

So, with that warm up, let’s jump into a list of things you should consider:

  • Researching how other companies are responding to help inform your own response. Call a few of the CEOs or Chief People Officers in your portfolio peer group. Or go online and read documents like Coinbase’s four-tier response framework [2].
  • Sending an all-hands note letting people know you’re on top of this, perhaps with some links to practical, authoritative information.
  • Issuing a friendly reminder on the basics of preventative personal hygiene such as hand-washing, face-touching, etc. Basic as they are, they appear the number one tool in the fight.
  • Letting people know that elbow bumps are becoming the new handshake, though this is surprisingly not without controversy [3].
  • Sending a strong message telling people not be a hero and stay home when they’re sick. Startups are full of people who give it their all, so it’s not uncommon for folks who are not feeling well to come into the office for that big presentation or meeting [4].
  • Placing restrictions on travel, including not only guidelines for travel to affected areas but also guidelines for what you should do if you have recently traveled to one [5].
  • Taking the pressure off live attendance. Tell employees they don’t have to come into the office if they don’t want to or don’t need to. Heck, you might even see a spike in productivity as a result.
  • Changing the format of regular, periodic meetings. Most startups have some form of quarterly business review (QBR), typically a live two- or three-day meeting. Now is a great time not only to try it as a videoconference but to re-invent it while you’re at it [6] [7].
  • Encouraging customers and prospects to do videoconferences, particularly if they are uncomfortable with a live meeting. While salespeople love live meetings (and so do I), a videoconference is far superior to no meeting at all. We need to keep deals moving through the pipeline, so if someone suggests delaying a few weeks, I’d counter with a videoconference every time. For both the customer’s business and our own, the show must go on.
  • And, while some folks will probably trash me for saying this, if you have a natural, non-contrived marketing angle that can keep your business moving, don’t be afraid to gently say it [8]. Examples: (1) it’s more important now than ever to have real-time supply chain information, (2) in times like these business analytics have never been more important, (3) we all have an obligation to our employees, customers, and shareholders to keep business moving ahead.

Additional Resources

Let me end by providing links to some other excellent thoughts on this and related subjects:

# # #

[1] Thus, there’s an argument that it’s not only your duty as CEO, but your civic duty, to think about this.

[2] Which I personally think is a bit heavy but nevertheless quite useful to read.

[3] See here for a contrarian viewpoint on elbow bumps.

[4] Yes, it appears that infected people who are asymptomatic can also communicate the virus so this may not solve as much as we hope, but it’s certainly a start.

[5] Coinbase’s framework dives pretty deep here.

[6] There’s a reason Zoom stock was up 6% yesterday in a market down 5%.

[7] On the theory that you should almost certainly get a better result if you re-invent the agenda based on the format, rather than simply video-conferencing the existing meeting and format. Something about paving cow paths comes to mind.

[8] And how you say it makes all the difference. I can think of genuine, sincere, intelligent ways to do so and I can think of absolutely stone-handed ways of doing so as well. If you’re considering this, bounce the idea off lots people within your company and with your family and friends for a sniff test.

What To Do When Someone Says You’re Not Listening

In work life from time to time you may be accused of not listening. It may not be fair. You may not like it. But you’d be shocked how many people completely flub their reaction when the boss, a coworker, or a customer says, “you’re not listening.”

Here’s my three-part formula for what to do when someone says you’re not listening.

  • Shut up
  • Active listen
  • Keep and use a mental ledger going forward

Shut Up, Immediately

If someone says you’re not listening the first thing to do is immediately begin the demonstration that you can. Acceptable responses:

  • “OK”
  • “I understand”
  • “Tell me more”

Unacceptable, yet nevertheless incredibly common, responses:

  • Keep talking, simply ignoring the comment. Recall the First Rule of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging.
  • Get defensive. “Of course, I’m listening to you.” “Most people tell me I’m a great listener.” “I pride myself on my listening skills.” Recall Kellblog’s Second Rule of Feedback: defensiveness kills communications.
  • Make pedantic distinctions between listening and hearing. “I’m listening to you, but perhaps I’m not hearing you.” “I’m hearing you just fine — my ears work perfectly — I just don’t agree with you.”

Active Listen

The second part of your listening demonstration is to use active listening. This boils down to showing that you’re listening and confirming understanding using these techniques:

  • Focus on the speaker. Look at him/her. Make eye contact. Don’t engage in any common distractions like looking at your phone or screen.
  • Take notes, even if you have an amazing memory and don’t need them. Taking notes shows that you are engaged and listening.
  • Don’t interrupt. If the speaker says something you disagree with, write it down. I put it in triangle I’ve pre-marked at the bottom of the page. Doing this gives you a third option other than conceding the point or interrupting to dispute it. I’m amazed by how infrequently I come back to these points that, in the heated moment, seemed worthy of interrupting someone.
  • Confirm back. “OK Charlie, I want to make sure I understood what you just said. I’m hearing that you [1] tried to set up the review meeting on Monday, [2] that everyone initially indicated they could come, and [3] that … Did I get that right?”

Keep and Use a Mental Ledger

The first two steps help eliminate basic communication problems. But say it’s deeper. You’re communicating just fine, you just happen to disagree with a lot of the feedback. Examples:

  • You disagree with almost every piece of directive feedback a board member gives you — and he gives you about ten pieces of it [1] every board meeting [2] [3].
  • You are a consultant and you disagree with most of the feedback your client gives you on a draft survey that you’re running.
  • You are a manager and you disagree with most of the messaging in a presentation one of your subordinates is creating.

These are not easy situations and nobody wants to lose on every point, so you need to step back and make a mental ledger of credits (I took your input) and debits (I did not), so you can both ensure you’re somewhat balanced and to get a big picture sense of the score. This will prepare for you for a “you never listen to anything I say” attack, because you have kept some tally of accepts and rejects.

“Well, in fact, I took about 40% of your ideas and rejected about 60% and while I know that might not feel good, it’s simply not true that ‘I never listen to anything you say.’ Now, let’s go discuss the important points on the merits.” [4]

You may think I’m reducing feedback to game theory, and I suppose I am. The three key points are:

  • People do keep some mental tally and it’s almost always biased, so why not actually keep some rough score to inform the conversation.
  • You must keep the power balance in mind when playing the feedback/input game. If you’re a consultant servicing a customer, you want the customer winning. If you’re a manager challenging a senior vice president, you should be hoping to score a few points.
  • More than anything it says choose your battles, keeping the power balance in mind when you do so.

The last point leads to a corollary I love: when you are in the position of inferior power you should never argue about small matters. Why? Because the mental tally is, in my opinion, unweighted, so the smart way to get what you want and let the person with superior power win, is to let them win on issue-count while you win on importance-weighting. Put differently, if it’s a small matter it definitionally isn’t that important, so so why take a mental debit to win? Concede, instead.

Finally, when responding to input, it’s always useful to start not with the numerical tally [5] but with a summary. “Well, Sarah, I agreed with your on these points and I disagreed with you on those.” That starts the conversation in a balanced place which should keep everyone most open for feedback.

# # #

[1] Directive feedback = “You guys should do X.”

[2] The best solution here, if relationship allows, is to ask the board member not to give directive feedback. However, that’s not always possible.

[3] I have a theory that board members should never give CEOs directive feedback. Here’s the proof. Case 1: the CEO wants to do the idea, in which case it will be done anyway. Case 2: the CEO doesn’t want to do the idea and does it only because they were so directed. Thus the only result from directive feedback is to make CEOs do ideas they don’t want to do, which is a terrible practice. QED.

[4] For spouses I recommend an entirely different methodology. Say, “you’re right.” Repeat as necessary.

[5] Which you can keep in your pocket for later if challenged.

The Red Badge of Courage: Managing and Processing Failure in Silicon Valley

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 employees 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 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:

 

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.