Category Archives: Venture Capital

Don’t Let Product Management Turn Into “The Roadmap Guys”

At many enterprise software companies product management (PM) ends up defaulting into a role that I can’t stand:  The Roadmap Guys*.

Like a restaurant with one item on the menu, the company defaults into ordering one thing from product management:  a roadmap pitch.

  • “The VP of PM is in Boston and Providence this week, can she visit some customers and do a few roadmap presentations?”
  • “Hey, there’s a local user group in NY this week; can PM do a roadmap pitch?”
  • “There’s a big customer in the executive briefing center today; can the PM do a roadmap?”
  • “As part of our sales cycle with prospect X, we’d love to get PM in to discuss the roadmap.”
  • “We’ve got a SAS day with Gartner next week, can PM come in a present the roadmap?”

You hear it all the time.  And I hate it.  Why?

From a sales perspective, roadmap presentations are the anti-sales pitch:  a well organized presentation of all the things your products don’t do.  Great, let’s spend lots of time talking about that.

From a competitive perspective, you’re broadcasting your plans.  If you’re presenting roadmap to every prospect who comes through the briefing center and at every local user group meeting, your competition is going to learn your roadmap, and fast.  Then they can copy it and/or blunt it.

But what irks me the most is what happens from a product management perspective:  you turn PM into “the talking guys” instead of “the listening guys.”  Given enough time, PM starts to view itself as the folks who show up and pitch roadmaps.

But that’s not their job.

PM should be the listening folks, not the talking folks.  Just like sales, PM should remember the adage:  we have two ears and one mouth; use them in proportion.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we changed the five previous bullets as follows?

  • “The VP of PM is in Boston and Providence this week, can she visit some customers and observe how people actually use the product?”
  • “Hey, there’s a local user group in NY this week; can PM break off a small focus group to ask customers about how they use the product?”
  • “There’s a big customer in the executive briefing center today; can PM come in and interview them about their impressions on evaluating the product?”
  • “As part of our sales cycle with prospect X, we’d love to get PM in to discuss what specifically they are trying to accomplish and how the product can do that?”
  • “We’ve got a SAS day with Gartner next week, can PM come in and hear from Gartner about what they’re seeing in the market and in their interactions with customers?”

So every time you hear the word “roadmap” in the same sentence as “product management,” stop, pause, and think of a better way to use the PM team.  Sure, there are certainly times when a roadmap presentation is in order.  But don’t default to it.  Keep your PM team listening instead of talking.

# # #

* I’m using “guys” here in a gender-neutral sense like “folks.”

Kellblog (Dave Kellogg) Featured on the Official SaaStr Podcast

Just a quick post to highlight the fact that last week I was the featured guest on Episode 142 of the Official SaaStr  podcast produced by the SaaStr organization run by Jason Lemkin and interviewed by a delightful young Englishman named Harry Stebbings (who also runs his own podcast entitled The Twenty Minute VC).

In the 31-minute episode — which Harry very nicely says was “probably one of his favorite interviews to record” — we cover a wide range of my favorite topics, including:

    • How I got introduced to SaaS, including my experience as an early customer of Salesforce in about 2003.
    • Challenges in scaling a software business, learned at BusinessObjects as we scaled from $30M to $1B in revenues, as well as at MarkLogic and Host Analytics.
    • My favorite SaaS metric.  If you had to pick one, I’d pick LTV/CAC.
    • Why simple churn is the best way to value the annuity of a SaaS business.
    • The loose coupling of customer satisfaction and renewal rates.
    • Why SaaS companies need to “chew gum and walk at the same time” when it comes to driving the mix of new and renewal business.
    • User-based vs. usage-based pricing in SaaS and how the latter can backfire in disincenting usage of the application.
    • My thoughts on bookings vs. ARR as a SaaS metric.  (Bookings is generally seen as a four-letter word!)
    • Why SaaS companies should make “the leaky bucket” the first four lines of their financial presentation.
    • Why I think it’s a win/win when a SaaS company gives a multi-year prepaid discount that’s less than its churn rate.
    • Why I view non-prepaid, multi-year deals as basically equivalent to renewals (just collected by finance/legal instead of customer success.)
    • Why it’s OK to “double compensate” sales and customer success on renewals and incidental upsells, and why it’s OK to pay sales on non-incidental upsells to existing customers (don’t put your farmer against someone else’s hunter).
    • Why you can’t analyze churn by analyzing churn and why you should have a rigorous taxonomy of churn.
    • My responses to Harry’s “quick fire” round questions.

You can listen to the podcast via iTunes, here.  Enjoy!

 

Simple Rules to Make It Easier To Build Your Startup’s Board Deck

As someone who has assembled many startup board decks over the years, I thought I’d offer some advice to executives who contribute slides to board decks that should make it easier for the point-person to assemble, improve the deck’s appearance, and avoid any painful and/or embarrassing mistakes in the process.  Marketing folks, who both build a lot of presentations and live in PowerPoint, tend to get these basics right.  Everybody else, in my experience, not so much.

  • You are your metrics.  Remember the old quote that’s often misattributed to Peter Drucker, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  I prefer its corollary, “if you’re not measuring it, you’re not managing it.”  And, in turn, its corollary, “if you’re not presenting it at a board meeting, then you don’t care about it.”  Remember, the metrics you choose to present — and perhaps more importantly those you choose not to present — say a lot about you and what you think is important.  Put real thought into selecting them.
  • Take the time to write a short letter.   Remember the again often-misattributed quote from Blaise Pascal:  “if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”  It’s your board — take the time to include as few slides (and as few numbers per slide) as are needed to tell the story.  But no fewer.  Don’t make the classic mistake of just grabbing your ops review slides and pasting them into your board deck.  Don’t make the deck assembler have to decide which slides, from a pile you provided, should be in the deck.
  • Provide context for numbers.  Repeat after me:  the board is not afraid of numbers.  So don’t be afraid to present them.  Don’t drown them — be selective in which metrics you show.  But when you choose to show a metric, provide context so board members can analyze it.  That means providing trailing nine quarters of history, sequential and YoY growth rates, and % of plan attainment.  Thus, each metric translates to 12 numbers, so pick your metrics carefully.
  • Use the right design template.  Assembly is much easier if everyone is using the same corporate slide template, ideally a confidential version of it that includes good security footers (e.g., Company Confidential and Proprietary, Internal Use Only).
  • Learn how to use slide layouts.  Don’t be the guy putting text boxes onto blank slides when you should be using the Title+Content layout.  One great part about using layouts is re-applying them to make sure you, or a prior author, hasn’t changed anything.
  • Don’t hack the layout.  If your layout doesn’t include a subtitle, don’t use one.  It just makes it harder to reformat things downstream.  Plus, too many folks are lazy and make a sequence of slides with the same title, only varying the subtitle.  Bad habit.  Integrate the two and make varying titles.  Less is more.
  • Don’t put numbers into embedded tables.  The easiest way to get math errors in your board slides if to either cut/paste or re-type numbers into embedded Word tables.  Use embedded worksheets for numbers and ideally do live total calculations to ensure all the numbers are right.
  • Be careful as heck with embedded worksheets.  That said, note that Office has a terrible habit of taking the whole workbook along for the ride when you paste a table as an embedded object.  Don’t be the person who pastes in a table of payroll by department, accidentally including everyone’s salary on an adjacent tab, and then mailing that not only to the board, but also the whole executive team.
  • Paste charts as images.  The major upside here is you eliminate problems related to the prior point, the downside if you give zero power to the deck-assembler to fix things at 2 AM.  The best practice is to ship your slides with charts pasted as images and attach a separate Excel file as the source.  That way, you both reduce risk and give the assembler the power to change things if needed.
  • No more than one table of numbers per slide.  While board members love numbers, don’t mentally overload them with too many concepts on a single slide.
  • Use a standard capitalization convention.  I Recommend Title Case for Slide Titles.  I recommend sentence case for slide body copy.  It’s a pain in the neck to fix this if everyone is doing something different.
  • Use a standard convention for notes and sources.  I use * and ** and put the notes (which are often data sources) in 8-point type right above my confidentiality footer.  It doesn’t matter where you do it; what matters is that everyone puts them in the same place.
  • Don’t use slide notes.  In reality, you have two choices here — either always distribute your board slides in PDF or never use slide notes.  Any middle ground is very dangerous — imagine copying a slide from someone else’s deck that has embarrassing commentary in a slide note that you don’t notice, but a board member does.  Ouch.
  • Type text directly on objects.  Don’t create a separate text box and then put it atop on object; make the text and the object one.

If everyone on the e-staff follows these tips you’ll end up with a better board deck and it will take whoever assembles it — often the CEO at smaller companies — far less time to do so.

The SaaS Rule of 40

After the SaaSacre of early 2016, investors generally backed off a growth-at-all-costs mindset and started to value SaaS companies using an “appropriate” balance of growth and profitability.  The question then became, what’s appropriate?  The answer was:  the rule of 40 [1].

What’s the rule of 40?  Growth rate + profit should be greater than or equal to 40%.

There are a number of options for deciding what to use to represent growth (e.g., ARR) and profit (e.g., EBITDA, operating margin). For public companies it usually translates to revenue growth rate and free cash flow margin.

It’s important to understand that such “rules” are not black and white.  As we’ll see in a minute, lots of companies deviate from the rule of 40.  The right way to think about these rules of thumb is as predictors.  Back in the day, what best predicted the value of a SaaS company?  Revenue growth — without regard for margin.  (In fact, often inversely correlated to margin.)  When that started to break down, people started looking for a better independent variable.  The answer to that search was the rule of 40 score.

Let’s examine a few charts courtesy of the folks at Pacific Crest and as presented at the recent, stellar Zuora CFO Forum, a CFO gathering run alongside their Subscribed conference.

rule-of-40

This scatter chart plots the two drivers of the rule of 40 score against each other, colors each dot with the company’s rule of 40 score, and adds a line that indicates the rule of 40 boundary.  42% of public SaaS companies, and 77% of public SaaS market cap, is above the rule of 40 line.

As a quick demonstration of the exception-to-every-rule principle, Tintri recently went public off 45% growth with -81% operating margins, [2] reflecting a rule of 40 score of -36%, and a placement that would be off the chart (in the underneath sense) even if corrected for non-cash expenses.

For those interested in company valuations, the more interesting chart is this one.

rule of 40 valuation.PNG

This chart plots rule of 40 score on the X axis, valuation multiple on the Y axis, and produces a pretty good regression line the shows the relationship between the two.  In short, the rule of 40 alone explains nearly 50% of SaaS company valuation.  I believe that outliers fall into one of two categories:

  • Companies in a strategic situation that explains the premium or discount relative to the model — e.g., the premium for Cloudera’s strong market position in the Hadoop space.
  • Companies whose valuations go non-linear at the high end due to scarcity — e.g., Veeva.

Executives and employees at startups should understand [3] the rule of 40 as it explains the general tendency of SaaS companies to focus on a balance of growth and profitability as opposed to a growth at all costs strategy that was more popular several years back.  Ignore the rule of 40 at your peril.

Notes

[1] While the Rule of 40 concept preceded the SaaSacre, I do believe that the SaaSacre was the wake-up call that made more investors and companies pay attention to.

[2] Using operating margin here somewhat lazily as I don’t want to go find unlevered free cash flow margin, but I don’t think it materially changes the point.

[3] Other good rule of 40 posts are available from:  Tomasz Tungaz, Sundeep Peechu, and Jeff Epstein and Josh Harder.

A Look at the Tintri S-1

Every now and then I take a dive into an S-1 to see what clears the current, ever-changing bar for going public.  After a somewhat rocky IPO process, Tintri went public June 30 after cutting the IPO offering price and has traded flat thus far since then.

Let’s read an excerpt from this Business Insider story before taking a look at the numbers.

Before going public, Tintri had raised $260 million from venture investors and was valued at $800 million.

With the performance of this IPO, the company is now valued at about about $231 million, based on $7.50 a share and its roughly 31 million outstanding shares, (if the IPO’s bankers don’t buy their optional, additional roughly 1.3 million shares.)

In other words, this IPO killed a good $570 million of the company’s value.

In other words, Tintri looks like a “down-round IPO” (or an “IPO of last resort“) — something that frankly almost never happened before the recent mid/late stage private valuation bubble of the past 4 years.

Let’s look at some numbers.

tintri p+l

Of note:

  • $125M in FY2017 revenue.  (They have scale, but this is not a SaaS company so the revenue is mostly non-recurring, making it easier to get to grow quickly and making the revenue is worth less because only the support/maintenance component of it renews each year.)
  • 45% YoY total revenue growth.  (On the low side, especially given that they have a traditional license/maintenance model and recognize revenue on shipment.)
  • 65% gross margins  (Low, but they do seem to sell flash memory hardware as part of their storage solutions.)
  • 87% of revenue spent on S&M (High, again particularly for a non-SaaS company.)
  • 43% of revenue spent on R&D  (High, but usually seen as a good thing if you view the R&D money as well spent.)
  • -81% operating margins (Low, particularly for a non-SaaS company.)
  • -$70.4M in cashflow from operating activities in 2017 ($17M average quarterly cash burn from operations)
  • Incremental S&M / incremental product revenue = 73%, so they’re buying $1 worth of incremental (YoY) revenue for an incremental 73 cents in S&M.  Expensive but better than some.

Overall, my impression is of an on-premises (and to a lesser extent, hardware) company in SaaS clothing — i.e., Tintri’s metrics look like a SaaS company, but they aren’t so they should look better.  SaaS company metrics typically look worse than traditional software companies for two reasons:  (1) revenue growth is depressed by the need to amortize revenue over the course of the subscription and (2) subscriptions companies are willing to spend more on S&M to acquire a customer because of the recurring nature of a subscription.

Concretely, if you compare two 100-unit customers, the SaaS customer is worth twice the license/maintenance customer over 5 years.

saas compare

Moreover, even if Tintri were a SaaS company, it is quite out of compliance with the Rule of 40, that says growth rate + operating margin >= 40%.  In Tintri’s case, we get -35%, 45% growth plus -81% operating margin, so they’re 75 points off the rule.

Other Notes

  • 1250+ customers
  • 21 of the Fortune 100
  • 527 employees as of 1/31/17
  • CEO 2017 cash compensation $525K
  • CFO 2017 cash compensation $330K
  • Issued special retention stock grants in May 2017 that vest in the two years following an IPO
  • Did option repricing in May 2017 to $2.28/share down from weighted average exercise price of $4.05.
  • $260M in capital raised prior to IPO
  • Loans to CFO and CEO to exercise stock options at 1.6% to 1.9% interest in 2013
  • NEA 22.7% ownership prior to opening
  • Lightspeed 14.5% ownership
  • Insight Venture Partners 20.2% ownership
  • Silver Lake 20.4% ownership
  • CEO 3.8% ownership
  • CFO 0.7% ownership
  • $48.9M in long-term debt
  • $13.8M in 2017 stock-based compensation expense

Overall, and see my disclaimers, but this is one that I’ll be passing on.

 

The Strategy Compiler: How To Avoid the “Great” Strategy You Couldn’t Execute

Few phrases bother me more than this one:

“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy.  We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”

Huh.  Wait minute.  If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy.  Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources.  But it wasn’t a great strategy for you.  Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy.  QED.

I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back.  Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.”  Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning.  In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.

But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.

It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap.  Why?

  • A lack of focus.
  • A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.

Focus:  Think Small to Grow Big

Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.

BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base.  Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students.  Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books.  Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation.  ServiceNow on IT ticket management.  This list goes on and on.

Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people.  The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)

The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.

So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus.  They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much.  The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time.  Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League.  Then go Universities in general.  Then go everyone.

Former big company executives often compound the problem.  They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.

A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution

The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler.  Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.

  • Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy.  The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years.  (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)

 

  • First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets.  Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them.  The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.

 

  • Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals.  The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board.  It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.

 

  • Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent.  Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans?  If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”).  The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.

 

  • Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan.  (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)

 

If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective.  Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.

If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:

Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy  It Had No Chance of Executing

How To Get Your Startup a Halo

How would you like your startup to win deals not only when you win a customer evaluation, but when you tie — and even sometimes when you lose?

That sounds great.  But is it even possible?  Amazingly, yes — but you need have a halo effect working to your advantage.  What is a halo effect?  Per Wikipedia,

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties

There’s a great, must-read book (The Halo Effect) on the how this and eight other related effects apply in business.  The book is primarily about how the business community makes incorrect attributions about “best practices” in culture, leadership, values, and process that are subsequent to — but were not necessarily drivers of — past performance.

I know two great soundbites that summarize the phenomenon of pseudo-science in business:

  • All great companies have buildings.” Which comes from the (partly discredited) Good To Great that begins with the observation that in their study cohort of top-performing companies that all of them had buildings — and thus that simply looking for commonalities among top-performing companies was not enough; you’d have to look for distinguishing factors between top and average performers.
  • “If Marc Benioff carried a rabbit’s foot, would you?”  Which comes from a this Kellblog post where I make the point that blindly copying the habits of successful people will not replicate their outcome and, with a little help from Theodore Levitt, that while successful practitioners are intimately familiar with their own beliefs and behaviors, that they are almost definitionally ignorant of which ones helped, hindered, or were irrelevant to their own success.

Now that’s all good stuff and if you stop reading right here, you’ll hopefully avoid falling for pseudo-science in business.  That’s important.  But it misses an even bigger point.

Has your company ever won (or lost) a deal because of:

  • Perceived momentum?
  • Analyst placement on a quadrant or other market map?
  • Perceived market leadership?
  • Word of mouth as the “everyone’s using it” or “next thing” choice?
  • Perceived hotness?
  • Vibe at your events or online?
  • A certain feeling or je ne sais quoi that you were more (or less) preferred?
  • Perceived vision?

If yes, you’re seeing halo effects at work.

Halo effects are real.  Halo effects are human nature.  Halo effects are cognitive biases that tip the scales in your favor.  So the smart entrepreneur should be thinking:  how do I get one for my company?  (And the smart customer, how can I avoid being over-influenced by them?  See bottom of post.)

In Silicon Valley, a number of factors drive the creation of halo effects around a company.  Some of these are more controllable than others.  But overall, you should be thinking about how you can best combine these factors into an advantage.

  • Lineage, typically in the form of previous success at a hot company (e.g., Reid Hoffman of PayPal into LinkedIn, Dave Duffield of PeopleSoft into Workday).  The implication here (and a key part of halo effects) is that past success will lead to future success, as it sometimes does.  This one’s hard to control, but ceteris paribus, co-founding (even somewhat ex post facto) a company with an established entrepreneur will definitely help in many ways, including halo effects.
  • Investors, in one of many forms:  (1) VC’s with a strong brand name (e.g., Andreessen Horowitz), (2) specific well known venture capitalists (e.g., Doug Leone), (3) well known individual investors (e.g., Peter Thiel), and to a somewhat lesser extent (4) visible and/or famous angels (e.g., Ashton Kutcher). The implication here is obvious, that the investor’s past success is an indication of your future success.  There’s no doubt that strong investors help build halo effects indirectly through reputation; in cases they can do so directly as well via staff marketing partners designed to promote portfolio companies.
  • Investment.  In recent years, simply raising a huge amount of money has been enough to build a significant halo effect around a company, the implication being that “if they can raise that much money, then there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere.” Think Domo’s $690M or Palantir’s $2.1B.   The media loves these “go big or go home” stories and both media and customers seem to overlook the increased risk associated with staggering burn rates, the waste that having too much capital can lead to, the possibility that the investors represent “dumb money,” and the simple fact that “at scale” these businesses are supposed to be profitable.  Nevertheless, if you have the stomach, the story, and the connections to raise a dumbfounding amount of capital, it can definitely build a halo around your company.  For now, at least.
  • Valuation.  Even as the age of the unicorn starts to wane, it’s undeniable that in recent years, valuation has been a key tool to generate halos around a company.  In days of yore, valuation was a private matter, but as companies discovered they could generate hype around valuation, they started to disclose it, and thus the unicorn phenomenon was born.  As unicorn status became increasingly de rigeur, things got upside-down and companies started trading bad terms (e.g., multiple liquidation preferences, redemption rights) in order to get $1B+ (unicorn) post-money valuations.  That multiplying the price of a preferred share with superior rights by a share count that includes the number of lesser preferred and common shares is a fallacious way to arrive at a company valuation didn’t matter.  While I think valuation as a hype driver may lose some luster as many unicorns are revealed as horses in party hats (e.g., down-round IPOs), it can still be a useful tool.  Just be careful about what you trade to get it.  Don’t sell $100M worth of preferred with a ratcheted 2 moving to 3x liquidation preference — but what if someone would buy just $5M worth on those terms.  Yes, that’s a total hack, but so is the whole idea of multiplying a preferred share price times the number of common shares.  And it’s far less harmful to the company and the common stock.  Find your own middle ground / peace on this issue.
  • Growth and vision.  You’d think that industry watchers would look at a strategy and independently evaluate its merits in terms of driving future growth.  But that’s not how it works.  A key part of halo effects is misattribution of practices and performance.  So if you’ve performed poorly and have an awesome strategy, it will overlooked — and conversely.  Sadly, go-forward strategy is almost always viewed through the lens of past performance, even if that performance were driven by a different strategy or affected positively or negatively by execution issues unrelated to strategy.  A great story isn’t enough if you want to generate a vision halo effect.  You’re going to need to talk about growth numbers to prove it.  (That this leads to a pattern of private companies reporting inflated or misleading numbers is sadly no surprise.)  But don’t show up expecting to wow folks with vision. Ultimately, you’ll need to wow them with growth — which then provokes interest in vision.
  • Network.  Some companies do a nice and often quiet job of cultivating friends of the company who are thought leaders in their areas.  Many do this through inviting specific people to invest as angels.  Some do this simply through communications.  For example, one day I received an email update from Vik Singh clearly written for friends of Infer. I wasn’t sure how I got on the list, but found the company interesting and over time I got to know Vik (who is quite impressive) and ended up, well, a friend of Infer.  Some do this through advisory boards, both formal and informal.  For example, I did a little bit of advising for Tableau early on and later discovered a number of folks in my network who’d done the same thing.  The company benefitted by getting broad input on various topics and each of us felt like we were friends of Tableau.  While sort of thing doesn’t generate the same mainstream media buzz as a $1B valuation, it is a smart influencer strategy that can generate fans and buzz among the cognoscenti who, in theory at least, are opinion leaders in their chosen areas.

Before finishing the first part of this post, I need to provide a warning that halo effects are both powerful and addictive.  I seem to have a knack for competing against companies pursuing halo-driven strategies and the pattern I see typically runs like this.

  • Company starts getting some hype off good results.
  • Company starts saying increasingly aggressive things to build off the hype.
  • Analysts and press reward the hype with strong quadrant placements and great stories and blogs.
  • Company puts itself under increasing pressure to produce numbers that support the hype.

And then one of three things happens:

  1. The company continues delivering strong results and all is good, though the rhetoric and vision gets more unrelated to the business with each cycle.
  2. The company stops delivering results and is downgraded from hot-list to shit-list in the minds of the industry.
  3. The company cuts the cord with reality and starts inflating results in order to sustain the hype cycle and avoid outcome #2 above.  The vision inflates as aggressively as the numbers.

I have repeatedly had to compete against companies where claims/results were inflated to “prove” the value of bad/ordinary strategies to impress industry analysts to get strong quadrant positions to support broader claims of vision and leadership to drive more sales to inflate to even greater claimed results.  Surprisingly, I think this is usually done more in the name of ego than financial gain, but either way the story ends the same way — in terminations, lawsuits and, in one case, a jail sentence for the CEO.

Look, there are valid halo-driven strategies out there and I encourage you to try and use them to your company’s advantage — just be very careful you don’t end up addicted to halo heroin.  If you find yourself wanting to do almost anything to sustain the hype bubble, then you’ll know you’re addicted and headed for trouble.

The Customer View

Thus far, I’ve written this post entirely from the vendor viewpoint, but wanted to conclude by switching sides and offering customers some advice on how to think about halo effects in choosing vendors.   Customers should:

  • Be aware of halo effects.  The first step in dealing with any problem is understanding it exists. While supposedly technical, rational, and left-brained, technology can be as arbitrary as apparel when it comes to fashion.  If you’re evaluating vendors with halos, realize that they exist for a reason and then go understand why.  Are those drivers relevant — e.g., buying HR from Dave Duffield seems a reasonable idea.  Or are they spurious —  e.g., does it really matter that one board member invested in Facebook?  Or are they actually negative — e.g., if the company has raised $300M how crazy is their burn rate, what risk does that put on the business, and how focused will they stay on you as a customer and your problem as a market?
  •  Stay focused on your problem.  I encourage anyone buying technology to write down their business problems and high-level technology requirements before reaching out to vendors.  Hyped vendors are skilled at “changing the playing field” and trained to turn their vision into your (new) requirements.  While there certainly are cases where vendors can point out valid new requirements, you should periodically step back and do a sanity check:  are you still focused on your problem or have you been incrementally moved to a different, or greatly expanded one.  Vision is nice, but you won’t be around solve tomorrow’s problems if you can’t solve today’s.
  • Understand that industry analysts are often followers, not leaders.  If a vendor is showing you analyst support for their strategy, you need to figure out if the analyst is endorsing the strategy because of the strategy’s merits or because of the vendor’s claimed prior performance.  The latter is the definition of a halo effect and in a world full of private startups where high-quality analysts are in short supply, it’s easy to find “research” that effectively says nothing more than “this vendor is a leader because they say they’re performing really well and/or they’ve raised a lot of money.” That doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already and isn’t actually an independent source of information.  They are often simply amplifiers of the hype you’re already hearing.
  • Enjoy the sizzle; buy the steak.  Hype king Domo paid Alec Baldwin to make some (pretty pathetic) would-be viral videos and had Billy Beane, Flo Rida, Ludacris, and Marshawn Lynch at their user conference.  As I often say, behind any “marketing genius” is an enormous marketing budget, and that’s all you’re seeing — venture capital being directly converted into hype.  Heck, let them buy you a ticket to the show and have a great time.  Just don’t buy the software because of it — or because of the ability to invest more money in hand-grooming a handful of big-name references.  Look to meet customers like you, who have spent what you want to spend, and see if they’re happy and successful.  Don’t get handled into meeting other customers only at pre-arranged meetings.  Walk the floor and talk to regular people.  Find out how many are there for the show, or because they’re actual successful users of the software.
  • Dive into detail on the proposed solution.  Hyped vendors will often try to gloss over solutions and sell you the hype (e.g., “of course we can solve your problem, we’ve got the most logos, Gartner says we’re the leader, there’s an app for that.”)  What you need is a vendor who will listen to your problem, discuss it with you intelligently, and provide realistic estimates on what it takes to solve it.  The more willing they are to do that, the better off you are.  The more they keep talking about the founder’s escape from communism, the pedigree of their investors, their recent press coverage, or the amount of capital they’ve raised, the more likely you are to end up high and dry.  People interested in solving your problem will want to talk about your problem.
  • Beware the second-worst outcome:  the backwater.  Because hyped vendors are actually serving Sand Hill Road and/or Wall Street more than their customers, they pitch broad visions and huge markets in order to sustain the halo.  For a customer, that can be disastrous because the vendor may view the customer’s problems as simply another lily pad to jump off on the path to success.  The second-worst outcome is when you buy a solution and then vendor takes your money and invests it in solving other problems.  As a customer, you don’t want to marry your vendor’s fling.  You want to marry their core.  For startups, the pattern is typically over-expansion into too many things, getting in trouble, and then retracting hard back into the core, abandoning customers of the new, broader initiatives.  The second-worst outcome is when you get this alignment wrong and end up in a backwater or formerly-strategic area of your supplier’s strategy.
  • Avoid the worst outcome:  no there there.  Once in awhile, there is no “there there” behind some very hyped companies despite great individual investors, great VCs, strategic alliances, and a previously experienced team.  Perhaps the technology vision doesn’t pan out, or the company switches strategies (“pivots”) too often.  Perhaps the company just got too focused on its hype and not on it customers.  But the worst outcome, while somewhat rare, is when a company doesn’t solve its advertised problem. They may have a great story, a sexy demo, and some smart people — but what they lack is a core of satisfied customers solving the problem the company talks about.  In EPM, with due respect and in my humble opinion, Tidemark fell into this category, prior to what it called a “growth investment” and what sure seemed to me like a (fire) sale, to Marlin Equity Partners.  Customers need to watch out for these no-there-there situations and the best way to do that is taking strong dose of caveat emptor with a nose for “if it sounds too good to be true, then it might well possibly be.”