Tag Archives: communications

Good CEO Habits: Proactively Update Your Board at the End of Every Quarter

I am surprised by how many startup CEOs leave the board hanging at the end of the quarter.  As a CEO my rule of thumb was that if a board member ever asked me about the quarter then I’d failed in being sufficiently proactive in communications.  In tight quarters I’d send a revised forecast about a week before the end of the quarter — hoping to pre-empt a lot of “how’s it going” pings.

And every quarter I would send an update within 24 hours of the quarter-end.  In fact, if we’d effectively closed-out all material opportunities before quarter-end, I’d send it out before the quarter was technically even over.

Why should you do this?

  • It’s a good habit.  Nobody wants to wait 3 weeks until the post-quarter board meeting to know what happened.
  • It shows discipline.  I think boards like disciplined CEOs (and CFOs) who run companies where the trains run on time.
  • It pre-empts one-of emails and phone calls.  It’s probably less work, not more, to send a quick standard end-of-quarter update that includes what you do know (e.g., bookings) but not what you don’t (e.g., expenses because accounting hasn’t closed the quarter yet).

What form should this update take?  I’d start with the board sales forecast template that I’ve already written about here.  (And I’d change Forecast to Actual and drop the Best Case and Pipeline Analysis.)


Since cash is oxygen at a start-up, I’d add a line about forecast cash flows, making sure they know the numbers are preliminary, with final numbers to follow at the upcoming board meeting.  I might add a little color on the quarter as well.

Here’s an example of a good end-of-quarter board update.

Dear Board,

Just a quick note to give you an update on the quarter at GreatCo.  We beat new ARR plan by $200K (landing at $1,700K vs. plan of $1,500K) and grew new ARR YoY by 42%.  We came in slightly under on churn ARR, landing at $175K vs. a plan of $200K.  The result is we ended the quarter $225K ahead of plan on ending ARR at $11,546K, with YoY growth of 58%.

Cash burn from operations is preliminarily forecast to be $240K ahead of plan at $2,250K and ending cash is just about at-plan of $10,125K (we were a little behind in 1Q and 2Q has caught us back up).

We had some great competitive wins against BadCo and WorseCo — I’m particularly happy to report that we won the Alpha Systems deal (that we discussed in detail at the last meeting) against BadCo for $275K.  Sarah will tell us how we turned that one around at the upcoming board meeting.

Finally, I did want to point out — given the concerns about sales hiring — that we ended the quarter with 12 quota-carrying reps (QCRs), only 1 behind plan. Sarah and Marty did a great job helping us catch almost all the way back up to plan.  That said, we’re still having trouble hiring machine-learning engineers and are nearly 5 heads behind plan to-date.  Ron and Marty will update the board on our plans to fix that at the meeting.

Overall, we feel great about the quarter and I look forward to seeing everyone in a few weeks.  Thanks, as always, for your support.

[Table with Numbers]


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Talking Competition: Methinks Thou Doth Protest Too Much.

From time to time marketers and executives need to talk about the competition with those outside the company, including analysts, partners, and prospective investors.  In this post, we’ll cover my 4 rules for this type of communication.

Be Consistent. 
The biggest mistake people make is inconsistency, often because they’re trying to downplay a certain competitor.   Example:

“Oh, TechMo.  No, we never see them.  They’re like nowhere.  And you know their technology is really non-scaleable because it runs out of address space in the Java virtual machine.  And their list-based engine doesn’t scale because it didn’t scale when the same three founders, Mo, Larry, and Curly, did their last startup which used primarily the same idea.  And while I know they’re up to 150 employees, they must be in trouble because in the past 6 months they’ve lost their VP of Sales, Jon Smith, and their VP of Product Management, Paula Sands, and that new appexchange-like thing they launched last week, with 37 solutions, well it’s a not real either because 15 of the 37 solutions aren’t even built by partners, and they’re more prototypes than applications, and — another thing — I heard that TechMo World last week in Vegas had only 400 attendees and customers didn’t react well to the announcement they made about vertical strategy.  Yes, TechMo’s nobody to us.  We hardly ever see them.”

— Would-Be Dismissive Product Marketer.

What’s the one thing the listener is thinking on hearing all this?

“Holy Cow, these guys are tracking TechMo’s every move.  They sure know a lot about somebody they supposedly never see.”

Or, in other words, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  (Hamlet.)

Don’t be this person.  Stay credible.  Be consistent.  If you’re going to be dismissive of someone, dismiss them.  But don’t try to dismiss them, then bleed fear and guilt all over the audience.  Line up your words, your attitude, and your behavior.

Cede, But Cede Carefully.
Some people say never cede anything at all, but I think that’s dangerous, particularly when dealing with sophisticated audiences like industry analysts, prospective investors, or channel partners (who work in the field every day).

I think ceding builds your credibility, but you need to be careful and precise in so doing so.  To take an old example, from BusinessObjects days:

  • Bad/sloppy:  Brio is doing pretty well.
  • Good/careful:  Brio is doing pretty well — in the USA, with companies where the end-users have a strong voice in the process, and they prioritize UI over security and administration.

It’s called positioning for a reason.  You’re supposed to be able to say what you do well, what your competitors do well, and what the difference is.  If you just go on singing “anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you,” then you’re not going to build much credibility with your audience.

  • Bad/sloppy:  Competitor X seems to have some traction in the market.
  • Good/careful:  Competitor X is appearing in high-end deals, has a “fake cloud” offering, and competes well against entrenched Oracle product Y.

Don’t give competitor X an ounce more than they deserve and don’t forget to point out their limitations along the way.  When it comes to credit, give it where due, but be stingy — don’t give a drop more.

This will build your credibility in being reasonably objective.  More important, it also forces you to build some positioning.  As long you are claiming universal superiority — that no one will believe — you’re letting yourself off the hook for doing your job, in building credible positioning.

Keep Your Facts Straight
Be sure of what you say.  It’s far better to say less and be correct than to add just one more point you’re not sure of and get quickly contradicted.  Why?  Because your credibility is now in question as are all your other assertions — even the correct ones.

If you’re sure about something, then say it.  If you’re not sure but think it’s probable then weasel-word it — “we’re hearing,” “I heard from customers that,” “you can see several reviews on Glassdoor where former employees say,” or simply “we think.”  But don’t assert something as fact unless you are sure it is and you’re ready to defend it.

Read the Audience to Avoid the Blindside Hit
I warn every marketer and product manager I know about the blindside hit.  When you’re doing a briefing with hardened industry analyst on a market they’ve covered for 20 years, you’re as vulnerable to a blindside hit as an NFL quarterback.

You make some assertions, and you’re feeling good.  But you stop paying attention to the audience.  You don’t notice the body language showing that they’re not buying it anymore.  You don’t read the warning signs.  You miss the building tension in their voice.   You don’t know that the vendor you’re attacking is the analyst’s favorite and they just had a big steak dinner at the roadshow they did last week in Cleveland.

And then you make one too many false claims and then like a safety on a blitz, the analyst sees a hole in the offensive line, accelerates through it, and hits you in the back at full speed.  BOOM.  You awake a few minutes later and discover you’re strapped to a stretcher with a neck collar on and the CMO and the analyst relations director are carrying you out of the meeting.

“Sorry, Brian got a little ahead of himself, there.  Bob will take it from here.”

quarterback blindside hit

Product marketer carried out of industry analyst briefing. Don’t let this be you.


I Don’t Want to Talk to You Anymore

One time, back in the day at Business Objects, we were all flying back from Paris to San Francisco, when the plane pulled ten feet back from the gate and then stopped.  The pilot announced that we were taking a delay of several hours.

Frustrated, one of our board members, a very polished, powerful, statuesque man immediately asked the flight attendant if he could get off the plane.  He wanted to take another flight and felt unfairly trapped.  She said no.  A polite dispute ensued.

As we, the management team, watched in awe of his calm-yet-firm argumentative style, a strange thing happened.

“I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” he said.  “I want to speak to the pilot.”

“But, but, but, what do you mean, you need  to talk to me, because uh, uh, uh”

“I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” he repeated.

For years, many of us on the executive team would joke about how one day our terminations might go down.

“But you don’t understand, the seminar attendance was low because there was a blizzard that closed the roads and shut down public transportation.”

“All I know is we failed to achieve our lead generation goal.”

“But it was a freak April snowstorm, …”

“I don’ t want to talk to you anymore.”

“But, but, … uh, uh”

“I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

The phrase developed a certain legend status to it.  I’d forgotten about it for years until one day at MarkLogic, I was supposed to meet with one my direct reports and I didn’t want to.  I wasn’t looking forward to it.  I didn’t want to talk to the person anymore.

And then a huge gut-check went off.  Wait a minute.  What does it mean when I don’t want to talk to the person who runs <function> at my company.  <Function> is an important part of the company.  I run the company.  I am hugely committed to the company’s success, which cannot happen without success in <function>.  How can this be?

In business we are generally taught to be logical and data-driven, which lines up very well with my natural style.  But this was emotional.  This was a feeling.  I didn’t want to talk with someone.  What did it mean?  Should I listen to the feeling or ignore it?  I didn’t know.

It got me to thinking about why I wouldn’t want to meet with someone.  Generically, why would I not want to speak to one of my direct reports?  I started to generate classes of people who I wouldn’t want to talk to.

  • People who don’t listen.  There’s no point in talking to someone who doesn’t listen.  It gets boring over time.
  • People who don’t follow through.  What good is agreeing to a plan and then have it not get executed?
  • People who can’t keep up.  When someone is over their head in a job, they can’t keep up with the conversation.  Who wants to talk to someone when you have to keep backing up and slowing down?
  • People who grinf–k you.  Who wants to talk to people who nod their head in agreement when you know they disagree?
  • People who can’t or won’t change.  How many times do you want to have the same conversation?
  • People who are negative.  A huge amount of business is identifying and solving problems, but it can always be done a positive constructive way.  Who wants to talk to Debby Downer every day?
  • People who are mean.  There’s a reason The No Asshole Rule is one of my favorite books, and it’s not just because I think the world of Bob Sutton.

Once I generated this list, I began to realize that the feeling was hugely important.  If I didn’t want to meet with one of my direct reports — if I didn’t want to talk to them anymore — it was no small sign.  It was a indicator of a potentially huge problem.

So now I listen to the feeling.  Because I now know that if I don’t want to talk to you anymore, then it’s sign that someone is in one of the above classes and that’s an issue we need to, well, talk about — whether I want to or not.