Posts from January 2012

Understanding Twitter

Twitter is one of the most misunderstood companies I've ever worked with. When you are in the inside, or close to the inside, and you see what people write, it makes you shake your head.

Yesterday Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, was interviewed by Peter Kafka on stage at the D: Dive Into Media conference. Here's a 13 minute edit of that interview that I watched this morning. I think Dick does a great job of addressing much of the misinformation that has been written about Twitter this past few weeks.

I've worked with Dick since he was the co-founder and CEO of our former portfolio company Feedburner. I worked closely with Ev Williams to convince Dick to join Twitter and I am incredibly happy and also quite proud to see how good of a job he is doing running Twitter.

The Management Team – Guest Post From JLM

Next up on our guest posts on the subject of The Management Team is AVC community regular JLM. For those that don't know, JLM runs a public company and before that built and sold a large real estate operation. He's also written one of the best guest posts ever on AVC. With that intro, here's what JLM has to say on the topic. I love the way he ends the post.

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Congratulations, you have built a prototype.  Got it to work.  Debugged it.  Even sold a few copies.  Have some real customers.  Now you are ready to scale up and make some real money.

 

You have crossed that Rubicon from having an idea to having a product and customers.  Now you have to build an organization, a real company, to manage the entire process.  Or your fledging little company has to evolve from crawl to walk to run.

 

You may look yourself in the mirror and say — “Well, I know a lot about my product, even its market and competitors but what the heck do I really know about building a company?”  Can I do this?

 

The simple and truthful answer is “Yes, you can!”  If you don’t think so, here are some tips to take you from the garage to the executive suite.

 

Bad news — your generation did not invent sex.  It does not have to invent the crafting of companies either.  Someone else has also done this before.

 

Create a clever and insightful graphical representation of the business model which will become your company.

  1. Identify who the customers are and why they will pay money for your product.  This is the revenue side of the model.

  2. Identify the elements which must be incorporated into your product to create it.  This is the expense side of the model.

  3. Identify all the management functions which are necessary to transform the ingredients into the product and to educate the customers and to make the sale and to manage the money.

  4. Identify the competitive forces that are lurking in the darkness wanting to destroy you — the ones that are real and the imaginary ones.

Make a drawing of all of this on a single very large piece of paper and then marvel at what you have done.  Do it about ten times until you have perfected it.  It keeps getting better each time.

 

This is the company you will have to create.  The one that can operate this business model.  The one which can deliver your product to the marketplace and make a buck in the process.

 

Make an organization chart which shows each of the functions that are necessary to operate the business model.

  1. Make it a functional chart and don’t worry that it turns out very close to what every company ever created looks like.  That is good.  Remember, you did not invent sex.

  2. Identify the functions which are “essential” and those which are “nice to have”.

  3. Now identify what you can afford and what you can stretch to afford and those which are simply out of reach for the time being.

You have now identified your immediate, short term and long term organizational imperatives.

Take the business model and the organization chart and color code it to identify your own personal strengths and weaknesses.  If you have a co-founder, put his up there also.  Now you have identified those elements of leadership and management that you can provide and those you will have to hire from the outside.  Be tough on yourselves; don’t undertake a task you hate just for the ego enrichment of it all.

 

Be prepared to hire people who are fabulous in their fields.  Hire a Chief Financial Officer you cannot possibly afford and tell him he is the “financial conscience of the company”.  Meet with him weekly and never miss a meeting.

 

Now take the business model and the color coded organization chart and create a schedule of how you will build the organization.  Which functions will be added first and why?  The business model will tell you what and the color coded organization chart will tell you who and the schedule will tell you when.

 

That is really all there is to it but you will want to consider the following considerations:

  1. It will not be perfect out of the chute.  You will do some stuff that does not work.  Just re-engage and do it over.  It’s going to be OK.  Really punish yourself — just kidding.  Learn to laugh at yourself.

  2. Understand that everything in life is iterative.  You do something.  Get better at it.  Get better at it some more and one day you laugh to remember how naïve you were when you started.  Ever learn to ski or snowboard?

  3. Do the formulaic and fundamental stuff and get it done but only do what you really believe.

Vision, Mission & Values

  1. Vision — big dreams and little dreams all cost the same, so go with the big ones so that if you only accomplish fifty percent, it will still make your Momma proud.

  2. Mission — simple, direct and jettison every extra word.  The mission of the Infantry — “Find ‘em. Fix ‘em.  Kill ‘em.”

  3. Values — sweat this one because you will have to live this one.  If you are going to take risks and run with the bulls, this is where you let everyone know.  Don’t be afraid to say that “frugal” is a value.  I like frugal.

Every new employee hears the values part of the company from you and only you.  Wear a suit and a crisp white shirt and a tie and tie shoes.  Do it in the first five minutes of their employment.  They will never forget that.  Don’t discuss them, tell them.  Difference between a tattoo and magic marker.

  1. Job descriptions — don’t hold out for a Pulitzer but put some thought into it.

  2. Copy the absolute best exemplars you can find out there.  They are out there.  Be a copy cat.  Read Drucker.

  3. Make all your decisions about equity upfront and don’t be afraid to say that you have to “earn” it.  Understand that equity is an element of compensation and sometimes it is not even in the top three.  

A good comp plan includes: 

  1.     Salary;
  2.     Benefits;
  3.     Short term incentives (measurable performance based bonus);
  4.     Long term incentives (equity); and,
  5.     Something special (work from Colorado two weeks per year).
    1. Develop a philosophy of management.  Write it down.  Try it out on some folks whose wisdom you admire.  Put it to work.  Live it.

    2. Get a mentor, a rabbi, a gray haired eminence who is willing to work with you.  Golfers get swing coaches but great swing coaches work on the golfer’s head as much as his back swing.  Get a professional coach.

    3. Do not be surprised that everyone in the company does not share your passion.  That is the curse of being an entrepreneur — you see and care about things other people don’t even know exist.  I would rather be a Captain of a rowboat than the second in command on the QE II.

    4. Do not make changes, conduct experiments.  Nobody can resist an experiment.  Experiments that work well have a thousand fathers and mothers.  It becomes their idea.

    5. Brainstorm at least once a month.  Honest to God, uninterrupted brainstorming.  There are no bad ideas.

    6. Learn to critique yourself.  Learn to talk yourself down off the ledge.  Be thoughtful.  Take the lowest echelon of the company to lunch once a month.  And then talk to them.  Listen to them.  Make one change they came up with and you will become a legend.

    7. In any organization, you rarely receive power.  You take power.  You wield power.  The most powerful people will things to be done they don’t order them to be done.  That is real power.

    Ooops, I see the hook.  So I must go.  Good luck.  Remember — you can do it.

    3D Movies

    I've been to a bunch of 3D movies now. It seems to be all the rage in the movie theaters these days. I have to say that I am not a fan. I have yet to go to a 3D movie where I didn't want to take the glasses off and watch in 2D. That doesn't work, but I sure wish it did. And I've been to the films that people say are the best of the 3D medium (Avatar, Hugo). So it's not that I haven't been to the right films. I just don't think 3D improves the experience in any meaningful way.

    What's worse is that 3D films cost more to see in the theaters than 2D films so you get a worse experience for more money. And judging by trailers I've seen in the theaters recently, it seems that Holywood is using 3D as an excuse to reissue some old favorites with a 3D facelift. 

    I feel like 3D is a gimmick. One the other hand the new HD display technologies like OLED and quad-HD are getting us to crisper and higher definition displays that produce some of the same effects of 3D without the gimmicky stuff.

    I'm hoping 3D will turn out to be a fad and that wearing glasses in the theater (and god forbid at home) will be something we look back on in ten years and say "did we really do that?"

    Search vs Social

    I was at a meeting yesterday regarding the ongoing online piracy discussion and the conversation turned to search as a source of traffic to sites with pirated content. I stopped the conversation and noted that search isn't what it used to be and pointed out that many websites get more traffic from social than search.

    Here at AVC, it is no contest. Here's the top ten traffic sources to AVC in the past thirty days:

    AVC traffic sources

    Google/organic is search. Direct and feedburner are regular visitors. Everything else (Stumbleupon, Twitter (t.co), Hacker News (news.ycombinator), Techmeme, google/referral, Facebook, and Linkedin are social. So if we break the top ten into three categories, direct is about half of the top ten's traffic, social is 40%, and search is 10%.

    This blog isn't normal in a few ways. The fact that Twitter generates 13x Facebook in traffic is one example of that. And the very high level of direct/regular readers is probably a bit unusual too.

    I'm curious if anyone is aware of a broader study of traffic sources on the Internet and how search and social compare these days. I suspect that they are neck and neck across the entire Internet or possibly that social has surpassed search. But I have not seen that data and I'd love to.

    Feature Friday: Techmeme

    Yesterday Techmeme launched a redesign. I like it. Nicely done Gabe.

    I thought I'd use this news as a jumping off point to talk about my favorite feature on Techmeme. When a news event happens, I like to see various pundits' take on it without having to click thru and read every post.

    Techmeme has always done this better than any other news service. Let's take this news that Twitter can now comply with local censorship laws and takedown notices without taking down a tweet globally (good news in my mind).

    It looks like this in Techmeme:

    Techmeme regular

    But if you click on the down arrow on the left of the news item, you get a "blown out" version of the news story which looks like this:

    Techmeme opened up
    Granted that these are only headlines and they can't and don't give you a full sense of the take that each of these writers has on the news. But a quick scan of the tone and tenor of the headlines will tell you quite a bit. And when you've got 30 seconds to take a quick look at what's going on in the tech world, that's worth a lot.

    I use this feature often. At least once a day. Many times way more than that.

    For tech news, I've tried pretty much everything new that comes along, and for the past four or five years now, nothing beats the duo of Techmeme and Hacker News for me. Each has its benefits and together, you can get a great sense of what is going on in tech in real-time all the time. Thanks Gabe and Paul for building these services and maintaining them.

    Blog Polls

    Blog polling widgets have been around a long time. I've tried out a few of them on AVC over the years. And polling has never taken off as a major form of engagement on blogs (as has commenting, liking, tweeting). I'm curious why that is so.

    I met with a young man named Max Yoder yesterday who has built yet another polling widget. He calls it Quipol. I figured I'd give it a test run with the AVC community. And let's get right to it with the question of the day:


    Let me know what you think of Quipol and blog polling widgets in general in the comments.

    Textbook Cases

    I read something today that I wish I had written. So I am going to cross post it. This post comes from Noah Millman and it is about the lame textbook thing that Apple launched recently. With that intro, I'll shut up and let you read Noah. The original post is here. If anyone knows how to reach Noah, I'd like to email him and tell him how much I liked his post.

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    I see that Steve Sailer and Matt Yglesias are both wondering why Apple’s iPad textbook initiative is so lame. Sailer wonders why Apple isn’t exploiting the interactive possibilities of the tablet to make textbooks much more effective. Yglesias wonders why Apple (or the Gates Foundation) don’t just give textbooks away for free, and thereby both increase the appeal of the tablet and reduce costs to hard-pressed school districts.

    The answer is: Apple is a big company, and the Gates Foundation is a huge philanthropy. Large institutions are not the places to turn to, generally, for disruptive innovations.

    Apple has no reason to go head-t0-head with textbook publishers, any more than it has any reason for going head-to-head with music labels or book publishers. It’s a much sounder business strategy for Apple to coopt these complementary businesses and make them dependent on Apple. Which is precisely the strategy that Apple has pursued.

    The Gates Foundation is a somewhat more complicated story. In their case, I’d say the complementary relationship is between the foundation and the foundation’s clients – and their clients are education reformers, not education professionals. Simply giving textbooks away for free would upset an incumbent that the reformers are not particularly targeting, and would not put in place any structure for the creation of new textbooks. And incubating new products really is beyond the scope of what the foundation does.

    Within the world of regular public school education, educational professionals have distinctly limited ability to express any kind of preferences – and the Bush-era education reforms have reduced this scope even further. The target market for textbook publishers is the politicians who set the curriculum for the nation’s largest school systems where that curriculum is set statewide: California and Texas. It matters very little what an individual teacher in Houston or Oakland wants or needs – or thinks their students need.

    If you want to see disruptive change in the textbook market, then, you’d need to identify both a potential supplier of the product with no stake in propitiating the incumbents, and a buyer of the product for whom the product solves a problem.

    My suspicion is that your best bet would be to have the supplier and the purchaser be, in some sense, the same entity. And I can think of two parts of the educational landscape where that situation might obtain: the KIPP network of high-performing charter schools and the home-schooling movement.

    KIPP has the advantage of having a centralized structure and access to funding to implement a strategy. They already create their own curricula. Creating their own textbooks would be the logical next step. If the educational advantages Sailer sees as the potential in tablet-based study really exist, KIPP – which is already very data-driven in its approach to education – would be ideally placed to realize them. Similarly, if the cost advantages exist – initially, reduced spending on textbooks; over the longer term, reduced spending on teachers, as highly interactive tablets made it possible to stretch teachers over larger groups of students – KIPP actually has the incentive to realize these as well. One downside might be that KIPP would have an incentive to retain intellectual property in anything they created – but if it was successful, it would probably spur other charter networks to respond, and the smaller networks would be well-advised to work together rather than independently, simply for reasons of scale, and therefore to do something more open-sourced.

    The home schooling movement, by contrast, has no access to funding nor any decision-making structure – but it has the advantage of having a much larger network of individuals potentially capable of committing resources to the project. One could imagine a Wikipedia-style process of textbook creation, where hundreds of thousands of home-schooling moms and dads donate a small portion of the time they already spend on teaching their kids to producing or editing material for the virtual textbooks they all use. You would, of course, need some kind of central structure to handle the programming – but even much of this could be relatively decentralized once the essential framework was in place.

    Working either through the charter movement or the home schooling movement would enable a tablet textbook project to start small, yield immediate returns to participants, and scale easily, while largely ignoring the interests of incumbent institutions. And it wouldn’t require the sponsorship of an Apple or a Gates Foundation. Working through the regular public school system, which would certainly require some kind of megadollar sponsorship, would start big, would have to coopt the interests of incumbent institutions, and would make it difficult to impossible to actually yield quick returns to the most important participants: the teachers and students in the classroom. Which, unfortunately, has been the fate of all too many big-think reform proposals for the regular public schools. Much more sensible to build something in more natural laboratories for innovation, and then figure out how to “port” an already proven solution to the regular system.

    The Green Button

    Green buttonThis past Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of being on the judges panel at the NYC Cleanweb Hackathon at NYU ITP. There were thirteen hacks presented to the judges. Of them, probably half had incorporated the "green button" for getting your utility data into their app.

    The Green Button is an initiative promoted by Aneesh Chopra, the CTO of the United States. In a speech last fall, he challenged the utility industry to come up with a simple way to allow consumers to access their utility data. Last week, three big California utilities announced they had made the Green Button available on their websites.

    And by sunday, the green button was in a half a dozen web and mobile apps that had been created over the weekend. This is the kind of innovation that gets me excited. The Green Button is like OAuth for energy data. It is a simple standard that the utlities can implement on one side and web/mobile deveopers can implement on the other side. And the result is a ton of information sharing about energy consumption and in all liklihood energy savings that result from more informed consumers.

    The Green Button follows on the success of the Blue Button, a similar initiative that allows veterans to get at their medical data.

    I'm a big fan of simplicity and open standards to unleash a lot of innovation. APIs and open data aren't always simple concepts for end users. Green Buttons and Blue Buttons are pretty simple concepts that most consumers will understand. I'm hoping we soon see Yellow Buttons, Red Buttons, Purple Buttons, and Orange Buttons too.

    Let's get behind these open data initiatives. Let's build them into our apps. And let's pressure our hospitals, utilities, and other institutions to support them. I'm going to reach out to ConEd, the utility in NYC, and find out when they are going to add Green Button support to their consumers data. I hope it is soon.

    The Management Team – Guest Post From Matt Blumberg

    Now that I've completed three posts on The Management Team over the last three MBA Mondays, it's time for four or five guest posts on this topic. The first one is from Matt Blumberg, CEO of our portfolio company Return Path. I've been on Matt's board for over a decade and I've watched him develop into one of the finest managers I've had the pleasure to work with. Here are Matt's thoughts on this topic.

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    When Return Path reached 100 employees a few years back, I had a dinner with my Board one night at which they basically told me, “Management teams never scale intact as you grow the business.  Someone always breaks.”  I’m sure they were right based on their own experience; I, of course, took this as a challenge.  And ever since then, my senior management team and I have become obsessed with scaling ourselves as managers.  So far, so good.  We are over 300 employees now and rapidly headed to 400 in the coming year, and the core senior management team is still in place and doing well.  Below are five reasons why that’s the case.

    1.       We appreciate the criticality of excellent management and recognize that it is a completely different skill set from everything else we have learned in our careers.  This is like Step 1 in a typical “12-step program.”  First, admit you have a problem.  If you put together (a) management is important, (b) management is a different skill set, and (c) you might not be great at it, with the standard (d) you are an overachiever who likes to excel in everything, then you are setting the stage for yourself to learn and work hard at improving at management as a practice, which is the next item on the list.

    2.       We consistently work at improving our management skills.  We have a strong culture of 360 feedback, development plans, coaching, and post mortems on major incidents, both as individuals and as a senior team.  Most of us have engaged on and off over the years with an executive coach, for the most part Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting.  In fact, the team holds each other accountable for individual performance against our development plans at our quarterly offsites.  But learning on the inside is only part of the process.  

    3.       We learn from the successes and failures of others whenever possible.  My team regularly engages as individuals in rigorous external benchmarking to understand how peers at other companies – preferably ones either like us or larger – operate.  We methodically pick benchmarking candidates.  We ask for their time and get on their calendars.  We share knowledge and best practices back with them.  We pay this forward to smaller companies when they ask us for help.  And we incorporate the relevant learnings back into our own day to day work.

    4.       We build the strongest possible second-level management bench we can to make sure we have a broad base of leadership and management in the company that complements our own skills.  A while back I wrote about the Peter Principle, Applied to Management that it’s quite easy to accumulate mediocre managers over the years because you feel like you have to promote your top performers into roles that are viewed as higher profile, are probably higher comp – and for which they may be completely unprepared and unsuited.  Angela Baldonero, my SVP People, and I have done a lot here to ensure that we are preparing people for management and leadership roles, and pushing them as much as we push ourselves.  We have developed and executed comprehensive Management Training and Leadership Development programs in conjunction with Mark Frein at Refinery Leadership Partners.  Make no mistake about it – this is a huge investment of time and money.  But it’s well worth it.  Training someone who knows your business well and knows his job well how to be a great manager is worth 100x the expense of the training relative to having an employee blow up and needing to replace them from the outside.

    5.       We are hawkish about hiring in from the outside.  Sometimes you have to bolster your team, or your second-level team.  Expanding companies require more executives and managers, even if everyone on the team is scaling well.  But there are significant perils with hiring in from the outside, which I’ve written about twice with the same metaphor (sometimes I forget what I have posted in the past) – Like an Organ Transplant and Rejected by the Body.  You get the idea.  Your culture is important.  Your people are important.  New managers at any level instantly become stewards of both.  If they are failing as managers, then they need to leave.  Now.

    I’m sure there are other things we do to scale ourselves as a management team – and more than that, I’m sure there are many things we could and should be doing but aren’t.  But so far, these things have been the mainstays of happily (they would agree) proving our Board wrong and remaining intact as a team as the business grows.

    The 15% Tax Rate

    So we learned last week that the Republican front runner Mitt Romney pays an effective Federal tax rate of about 15%. And guess what? So do the Gotham Gal and I.

    That's because the vast majority of Mitt Romney's income comes from capital gains on investments and the same is true of my family's income.

    There is a difference between Romney's capital gains and mine. I suspect that his capital gains are mainly real gains on investments he made with his own money. Mine are mostly capital gains our firm has made with other people's money. This is the carried interest capital gains discussion. I've been loud and clear that I don't agree with the current policy on carried interest taxation and I hope that the law is changed on carried interest. It will cost our family a lot of money in increased taxes but it is the right thing to do.

    But there is a bigger issue here and that is whether it is good policy for someone of Mitt Romney's or my wealth to pay a lower tax rate than the average hard working american citizen. The theory in taxing capital gains at a lower rate than ordinary income is that the wealth that was invested that produced the capital gains has already been taxed once when it was earned. And it is also believed that a lower tax rate on risky investments vs safe investments (like bank deposits) provides an incentive to make those kinds of investments. I've long been a fan of these arguments and have supported the idea of a lower capital gains tax rate.

    But I am bothered by the unfairness of the situation. When I get a big distribution from our funds, I always ask my accountants how much of the distribution I should set aside for federal, state, and local taxes. The answer is usually something like 28% (the difference between 28% and 15% is the state and local taxes). And then I often think of my two brothers who probably pay 40-50% of their income each year in federal, state, and local taxes. It just seems so unfair.

    And so lately I've been more and more attracted to the idea of a flat tax where everyone pays the same tax rate on income above a minimum amount. In this model, we would eliminate all tax deductions; for mortgages, charitable giving, for medical expenses, etc. There would be no difference in tax rates for ordinary income vs other forms of income (ie capital gains).

    If we did that maybe everyone could pay a 15% tax rate like Mitt Romney and our family does. We would have a fair tax system.

    I've heard a number of arguments over the years against a flat tax. One is that a flat tax is regressive meaning that it penalizes lower income earners by taxing them at the same rate as higher earners. But I think we are all coming to realize that the current system may be even more regressive since most wealthy people find ways to pay lower tax rates.

    Another argument against the flat tax is that eliminating deductions will cause massive disruption in markets and society. There will no longer be an incentive to own a home vs renting one. There will no longer be an incentive to make charitable deductions. The list goes on and on because our current tax system is chock full of such incentives. I think it would be good long term policy to eliminate all of these incentives and just let the markets work without tax incentives but clearly deductions would need to be phased out over a long time period to reduce the severity of the shocks that eliminating deductions would create.

    The President's "Bipartisan Commision On Deficit Reduction" made a lot of noise over a flat tax. And many of the current Republican presidential candidates are in favor of a flat tax. It seems like we may have reached a point in our political discussion where we can seriously consider a flat tax. I would be excited to see that happen.