Category Archives: Startups

Why I'm Advising Kelda

A few months ago I signed up to be an advisor to Kelda, and I thought I’d do a quick post to talk about the company and why I decided to sign up.

What is Kelda?

Kelda provides developer sandboxes in a customer’s cloud within their Kubernetes cluster. Why does this matter?

  • The world is moving to cloud computing at a rapid place.
  • Cloud computing is moving away from virtual machines as the unit of abstraction and towards containers, microservices, and serverless architectures.
  • The exact technologies that make microservices powerful in production environments have made the development experience worse.

In short, nobody was thinking much about developers when they started migrating to these new architectures.

Think for a minute about being a developer building a microservices-based application. Then think about testing it. Your code has dependencies on scores or hundreds of microservices which in turn have dependencies on other microservices. Any or all of these microservices are themselves changing over time. How you are you supposed to find a stable test-bed on which to test your code?

Unlike production environments, run by DevOps teams with a sophisticated CI/CD platform, development environments are often primitive by comparison. Tools for collecting dependencies are not robust. Developers often have to test on their own laptops, running all the required microservices locally, which elongates test cycles because of slow performance. Moreover, debugging is potentially complicated by non-deterministic interactions among microservices.

Kelda solves all that by effectively spinning up a private, stable, server-based Kubernetes cluster where developers can test their code. If that sounds pretty practical, well it is. If that sounds pedestrian, remember that one of VMware’s top early use-case was … stable test environments for QA teams across different version of operating systems, middleware, and databases. Pragmatic solutions often generalize way beyond their initial landing point.

For more technical information on Kelda, here’s a link where you can download their white paper. And here’s an excerpt that sums things up quite nicely:

Why Did I Sign Up to Advise Kelda?

There are always many reasons behind such a decision, so in no particular order:

  • The awesome founder, Ethan Jackson, who put his Berkeley computer science PhD on the back burner in order create the company. I like that this isn’t his first corporate rodeo (he worked at Nicira –> VMware) for 5 years. I also like the burn-the-ships level of commitment.
  • The practical logic behind the product idea. Remember the famous William Gibson quote: “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” When you’re working at the cutting edge, the next step looks kind of obvious. So while this looks very high-tech to me, it looks pretty obvious to Ethan and, in my humble opinion, a lot of people have been very successful doing the next pretty-obvious thing (e.g., from PeopleSoft building apps atop Oracle to NetSuite taking financials to the cloud to Palo Alto Networks doing application-based firewalls).
  • The trends driving the company. Kelda is dead center of the movement to containers and microservices-based architectures in the cloud. The technology elite can use all these technologies today. Kelda makes them more accessible to the typical corporate development shop.

Should SDRs Report to Sales or Marketing?

Slowly and steadily, over the past decade, the industry has evolved from a mentality of “all salesreps must do everything” – including some percent of their time prospecting — to one of specialization.  We, with the help of books like Predictable Revenue, have collectively decided that in-bound lead processing is different from outbound lead prospecting is different from low-end, velocity sales is different from high-end, enterprise sales.

Despite the old-school, almost-character-building emphasis on prospecting, we have collectively realized that having our top hunters dialing for dollars and digging through inbound leads isn’t, well, the best use of their time.

Industrialization typically involves specialization and the industrialization of once purely artisanal software sales has been no exception.  As part of this specialization the sales development representative (SDR) role has risen to prominence.  In this post, we’ll do a quick review of what SDRs typically do and discuss the relative merits of having them report into sales vs. marketing.

“Everyone under 25 in San Francisco is an SDR.” – Anonymous startup CEO

SDRs Bridge the Two Departments

SDRs typically form the bridge between sales and marketing.  A typical SDR job is take inbound leads from marketing, perform some basic BANT-style [1] qualification on them, and then pass them to sales if indicated. While SDRs typically have activity quotas (e.g., 50 calls/day) they should be primarily measured on the number of opportunities they create per week. In enterprise software, typically that quota is 2-3 oppties/week. 

As companies get bigger they tend to separate SDRs into two groups:

  • Inbound SDRs, those who only process in-bound leads, and
  • Outbound SDRs, those who primarily do targeted outreach over the phone or email

Being an SDR is a hard job.  Typical SDR challenges include:

  • Adhering to service-level agreements for all leads (i.e., touches with timeframes)
  • Contacting prospects in an increasingly spam-hostile, call-hostile environment
  • Figuring out which leads to work on the hardest (e.g., which merit homework to customize the message and which don’t)
  • Remembering that their job is to sell meetings and not product [2]
  • Supporting multiple salespeople with often conflicting priorities [3]
  • Managing the conflict between supporting salespeople and executing the process
  • Getting salespeople to show-up at the hand-off meeting [4]
  • Avoiding burnout in a high-pressure environment

To Which Department Should SDRs Report:  Sales or Marketing?

Historically, SDRs reported to sales.  That’s probably because sales first decided to fund SDR teams as a way getting inbound lead management out of the hands of salespeople [5].  Doing so would:

  • Enable the company to consistently respond in a timely manner to all inquiries
  • Free up sales to spend more time on selling
  • Avoid the problem of individual reps not processing new leads once they are “full up” on opportunities [6]

The problem is that most enterprise software sales VPs are not particularly process-oriented [7], because they grew up in a pre-industrialized era of sales [8].  In fact, nothing drives me crazier than an old-school, artisanal, deal-person CRO insisting on owning the SDR organization despite the total inability to manage it.  They rationalize:  “Oh, I can hire someone process-oriented to manage it.”  And I think:  “but what can that person learn from you [9] about how to manage it?”  And the answer is nothing.  Your desire to own it is either pure ego or simply a ploy to enrich your resume.

I’ll say again because it drives me crazy:  do not be the VP of Sales who insists on owning the SDR organization in the annual planning meeting but then shows zero interest in it for the rest of the year.  You’re not helping anyone!

As mentioned in a footnote in a prior post, I greatly prefer SDRs reporting to marketing versus sales.  Why?

  • Marketing leadgen and nurture people are metrics- and process-oriented animals, naturally suited to manage a process-oriented department.
  • It provides a simple, clear conceptual model:  marketing is the opportunity creation factory and sales is the opportunity closing machine.

In short, marketing’s job is to make opportunities.  Sales’ job is to close them.

# # #

Notes

[1] BANT = budget, authority, need, time-frame.

[2] Most early- and mid-stage startups put SDRs in their regular sales training sessions which I think does them a disservice.  Normal sales training is about selling products/solutions.  SDRs “sell” meetings.  They should not attempt to build business value or differentiation. Training them to do so tempts them to do – even when it is not their job.

[3] A typical QCR:SDR ratio is 3-4:1, though I’ve seen as low as 1:1 and as high as 6:1

[4] Believe it or not, this sometimes happens (typically when your reps are already carrying a lot of oppties).  Few things reflect worse on the company than a last-minute rescheduling of the meet-your-salesperson call. You don’t get a second chance to make a firm impression.

[5] Although most early models had wide bypass rules  – e.g.,  “leads with VP title at this list of key accounts will get passed directly to reps for qualification” – reflecting a lack of trust in marketing beyond dropping leaflets from airplanes.

[6] That problem could still exist at hand-off (i.e., opportunity creation) time but at least we have combed through the leads to find the good ones, and reports can easily identify overloaded reps.

[7] While they may be process-oriented when it comes to the sales process for a deal moving across stages during a quarter, that is not quite the same thing as a velocity mentality driven by daily or weekly goals with tracking metrics.  If you will, there’s process-oriented and Process-Oriented.

[8] One simple test:  if your sales org doesn’t have monthly cadence (e.g., goals, forecasts) then your sales VP is probably not capital P process-oriented.

[9] On the theory you should always build organizations where people can learn from their managers.

A Historical Perspective on Why SAL and SQL Appear to be Defined Backwards

Most startups today use some variation on the now fairly standard terms SAL (sales accepted lead) and SQL (sales qualified lead).  Below see the classic [1] lead funnel model from marketing bellwether Sirius Decisions that defines this.

One great thing about working as an independent board member and consultant is that you get to work with lots of companies. In doing this, I’ve noticed that while virtually everyone uses the terminology SQL and SAL, that some people define SQL before SAL and others define SAL before SQL.

Why’s that?  I think the terminology was poorly chosen and is confusing.  After all, what sounds like it comes first:  sales accepting a lead or sales qualifying a lead?  A lot of folks would say, “well you need to accept it before you can qualify it.”  But others would say “you need to qualify it before you can accept it.”  And therein lies the problem.

The correct answer, as seen above, is that SAL comes before SQL.  I have a simple way of remembering this:  A comes before Q in the alphabet, and SAL comes before SQL in the funnel. Until I came up with that I was perpetually confused.

More importantly, I think I also have a way of explaining it.  Start by remembering two things:

  • This model was defined at a time when sales development reps (SDRs) generally reported to sales, not marketing [2].
  • This model was defined from the point of view of marketing.

Thus, sales accepting the lead didn’t mean a quota-carrying rep (QCR) accepted the lead – it meant an SDR, who works in the sales department, accepted the lead.  So it’s sales accepting the lead in the sense that the sales department accepted it.  Think: we, marketing, passed it to sales.

After the SDR worked on the lead, if they decided to pass it to a QCR, the QCR would do an initial qualification call, and then the QCR would decide whether to accept it.  So it’s a sales qualified lead, in the sense that a salesperson has qualified it and decided to accept it as an opportunity.

Think: accepted by an SDR, qualified by a salesrep.

Personally, I prefer avoid the semantic swamp and just say “stage 1 opportunity” and “stage 2 opportunity” in order to keep things simple and clear.

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Notes

[1] This model has since been replaced with a newer demand unit waterfall model that nevertheless still uses the term SQL but seems to abandon SAL.

[2] I greatly prefer SDRs reporting to marketing for two reasons:  [a] unless you are running a pure velocity sales model, your sales leadership is more likely to deal-people than process-people – and running the SDRs is a process-oriented job and [b] it eliminates a potential crack in the funnel by passing leads to sales “too early”.  When SDRs report to marketing, you have a clean conceptual model:  marketing is the opportunity creation factory and sales is the opportunity closing factory.

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.”

The Most Important Chart for Managing the Pipeline: The Opportunity Histogram

In my last post, I made the case that the simplest, most intuitive metric for understanding whether you have too much, too little, or just the right amount of pipeline is opportunities/salesrep, calculated for both the current-quarter and the all-quarters pipeline.

This post builds upon the prior one by examining potential (and usually inevitable) problems with pipeline distribution.  If the problem uncovered by the first post was that “ARR hides weak opportunity count,” the problem uncovered by this post is that “averages hide uneven distributions.”

In reality, the pipeline is almost never evenly distributed:

  • Despite the salesops team’s best effort to create equal territories at the start of the year, opportunities invariably end up unevenly distributed across them.
  • If you view marketing as dropping leads from airplanes, the odds that those leads fall evenly over your territories is zero.  In some cases, marketing can control where leads land (e.g., a local CFO event in Chicago), but in most cases they cannot.
  • Tenured salesreps (who have had more time to develop their territories) usually have more opportunities than junior ones.
  • Warm territories tend to have more opportunities than cold ones [1].
  • High-activity salesreps [2] tend to have more opportunities than their more average-activity counterparts.

The result is that even my favorite pipeline metric, opportunities/salesrep, can be misleading because it’s a mathematical average and a single average can be produced by very different distributions.  So, much as I generally prefer tables of numbers to charts, here’s a case where we’re going to need a chart to get a look at the distribution.

Here’s an example:

oppty histo

Let’s say this company thinks its salesreps need 7 this-quarter and 16 all-quarters opportunities in order to be successful.  The averages here, shown by the blue and orange dotted lines respectively, say they’re in great shape — the average this-quarter opportunities/salesrep is 7.1 and the average all-quarters is 16.6.

But behind that lies a terrible distribution:  only 4 salesreps (reps 2, 7, 10, and 13) have more than 7 opportunities in the current quarter.  The other 11 are all starving to various degrees with 5 reps having 4 or fewer opportunities.

The all-quarters pipeline is somewhat healthier.  There are 8 reps above the target of 16, but nevertheless, certain reps are starving on both a this-quarter and all-quarters basis (reps 4, 11, 12, and 14) and have little chance at either short- or mid-term success.

Now that we can use this chart to highlight this problem, let’s examine the three ways to solve it.

  • Generate more opportunities, ideally in a super-targeted way to help the starving reps without further burying the loaded reps.  Sales loves to ask for this solution.  In practice, it’s hard to execute and inherently phase-lagged.
  • Reduce the number of reps.  If reps 4, 11, and 12 have been at the company for a long time and continuously struggled to hit their numbers, we can “Lord of the Flies” them, and reassign their opportunities to some of the surviving reps.  The problem here is that you’re reducing sales quota capacity — it’s a potentially good short-term fix that hurts long-term growth [3].
  • Reallocate opportunities from loaded reps to starving reps.  Sales management usually loathes this “Robin Hood” approach because there are few things more difficult than taking an opportunity from a sales rep.  (Think:  you can pry it from my cold dead fingers.)  This is a real problem because it is the best solution to the problem [4] — there is no way that reps 7 and 13 can actively service all their opportunities and the company is likely to be losing deals it could have won because of it [5].

You can download the spreadsheet for this post, here.

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Notes

[1] The distinction here is whether the territory has been continuously and actively covered (warm) vs. either totally uncovered or partially covered by another rep who did not actively manage it (cold).

[2] Yes, David C., if you’re reading this while doing a demo from the back seat of your car that someone else is driving on the NJ Turnpike, you are the archtype!

[3] It’s also a bad solution if they are proven salesreps simply caught in a pipeline crunch, perhaps after having had a blow-out result in the prior quarter.

[4] Other solutions include negotiating with the reps — e.g., “if you hand off these four opportunities I’ll uplift the commissions twenty percent and you’ll split it with salesrep I assign them to — 60% of something is a lot more than 100% of zero, which is what you’ll get if you can’t put enough time into the deal.”

[5] Better yet, in anticipation of the inevitable opportunity distribution problem, sales management can and should leave fallow (i.e., unmapped) territories, so they can do dynamic rebalancing as opportunities are created without enduring the painful “taking” of an opportunity from a salesrep who thinks they own it.

Do We Have Enough Pipeline? The One Simple Metric Many Folks Forget.

Pipeline is a frequently scrutinized SaaS company metric because it’s one of relatively few leading indicators in a SaaS business — i.e., indicators that don’t just tell us about the past but that help inform us about the future, providing important clues to our anticipated performance this quarter, next quarter, and the one after that.

Thus, pipeline gets examined a lot.  Boards and investors love to look at:

  • Aggregate pipeline for the year, and how it’s changing [1]
  • Pipeline coverage for the quarter and whether a company has the magical 3x coverage ratio that most require [2]
  • Pipeline with and without the high funnel (i.e., pipeline excluding stage 1 and stage 2 opportunities) [3]
  • Pipeline scrubbing and the process a company uses to keep its pipeline from getting inflated full of junk including, among other things, rolling hairballs.
  • Expected values of the pipeline that create triangulation forecasts, such as stage-weighted expected value or forecast-category-weighted expected value.

But how much pipeline is enough?

“I’ve got too much pipeline, I wish the company would stop sending so many opportunities my way”  — Things I Have Never Heard a Salesperson Say.

Some try to focus on building an annual pipeline.  I think that’s misguided.  Don’t focus on the long-term and hope the short-term takes care of itself; focus consistently on the short-term and long-term will automatically take care of itself.  I made this somewhat “surprised that it’s seen as contrarian” argument in I’ve Got a Crazy Idea:  How About We Focus on Next-Quarter’s Pipeline?

But somehow, amidst all the frenzy a very simple concept gets lost.  How many opportunities can a salesperson realistically handle at one time? 

Clearly, we want to avoid under-utilizing salespeople — the case when they are carrying too few opportunities.  But we also want to avoid them carrying too many — opportunities will fall through the cracks, prospect voice mails will go unreturned, and presentations and demos will either be hastily assembled or the team will request extensions to deadlines [4].

So what’s the magic metric to inform you if you have too little, too much, or just the right amount of pipeline?  Opportunities/salesrep — measured both this-quarter and for all-quarters.

What numbers define an acceptable range?

My first answer is to ask salesreps and sales managers before they know what you’re up to.  “Hey Sarah, out of curiosity, how many current-quarter opportunities do you think a salesrep can actually handle?”  Poll a bunch of your team and see what you get.

Next, here are some rough ranges that I’ve seen [5]:

  • Enterprise reps:  6 to 8 this-quarter and 12 to 15 all-quarters opportunities
  • Corporate reps:  10 to 12 this-quarter and 15 to 20 all-quarters opportunities

I’ve been in meetings where the CRO says “we have enough pipeline” only to discover that they are carrying only 2.5 current-quarter opportunities per salesrep [6].  I then ask two questions:  (1) what’s your close rate and (2) what’s your average sales price (ASP)?  If the CRO says 40% and $125K, I then conclude the average salesrep will win one (0.4 * 2.5 = 1), $125K deal in the quarter, about half a typical quota.  I then ask:  what do the salesreps carrying 2.5 current-quarter opportunities actually do all day?  You told me they could carry 8 opportunities and they’re carrying about a quarter of that?  Silence usually follows.

Conversely, I’ve been in meetings where the average enterprise salesrep is carrying close to 30 large, complex opportunities.  I think:  there’s no way the salesreps are adequately servicing all those deals.  In such situations, I have had SDRs crying in my office saying a prospect they handed off to sales weeks ago called them back, furious about the poor service they were getting [7].  I’ve had customers call me saying their salesrep canceled a live demo on five minutes’ notice via a chickenshit voicemail to their desk line after they’d assembled a room full of VIPs to see it [8].  Bad things happen when your salesreps are carrying too many opportunities.

If you’re in this situation, hire more reps.  Give deals to partners.  Move deals from enterprise to corporate sales.  But don’t let opportunities that cost the company between $2,000 and $8,000 to create just rot on the table.  As I reminded salesreps when I was a CEO:  they’re not your opportunities, they’re my opportunities — I paid for them.

Hopefully, I’ve made the case that going forward, while you should keep tracking pipeline on an ARR basis and looking at ARR conversion rates, you should add opportunity count and opportunity count / salesrep to your reports on the current-quarter and the all-quarters pipeline.  It’s the easiest and most intuitive way to understand the amount of your pipeline relative to your ability to process it.

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Notes

[1] With an eye to two rules of thumb:  [a] that annual starting pipeline often approximate’s this year’s annual sales and [b] that the YoY growth rate in the size of the pipeline predicts YoY growth rate in sales.

[2] Pipeline coverage = pipeline / plan.  So if you have 300 units of pipeline and a new ARR plan of 100 units, then you have 3.0x pipeline coverage.

[3] Though there’s a better way to solve this problem — rather than excluding early-stage opportunities that have been created with a placeholder value, simply create new opportunities with value of $0.  That way, there’s nothing to exclude and it creates a best-practice (at most companies) that sales can’t change that $0 to a value without socializing the value with the customer first.

[4] The High Crime of a company slowing down its own sales cycles!  Never forget the sales adage:  “time kills all deals.”

[5] You can do a rough check on these numbers using close rates and ASPs.  If your enterprise quota is $300K/quarter, your ASP $100K, and your close rate 33%, a salesrep will need 9 current-quarter opportunities to make their number.

[6] The anemic pipeline hidden, on an ARR basis, by (unrealistically) large deal sizes.

[7] And they actually first went to HR seeking advice about what to do, because they didn’t want “rat out” the offending salesrep.

[8] Invoking my foundational training in customer support, I listened actively, empathized, and offered to assign a new salesrep — the top rep in the company — to the account, if they’d give us one more chance.  That salesrep turned a deal that the soon-to-be-former salesrep was too busy to work on, into the deal of the quarter.

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.

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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.