Posts from management

Enjoying The Struggle

The NY Times has a great longish piece on David Letterman today.

This quote got my attention:

Maybe life is the hard way, I don’t know. When the show was great, it was never as enjoyable as the misery of the show being bad. Is that human nature?

Building companies includes a lot of “misery of the show being bad” as David Letterman puts it.

And I really love the idea that you can enjoy that struggle.

Obviously you want the “show” to be great, but his point is that greatness is fleeting and you have to go through a lot of bad shows to get to some good ones and you’d better figure out how to enjoy that struggle, as he and his team did.

Good advice for all of us who hang out in startup land.

Relaunching At Age Fourteen

Our portfolio company Meetup was launched in June of 2002. We invested five years later, in 2007, when the company was already profitable and was approaching double digit revenues. Nine years later they are 3x the size when we invested in revenues, meetups, and more. But the founder and leaders of Meetup feel like they are just beginning to scratch the surface of their mission which is to get people out of the house and into the real world doing things they enjoy with other like minded people.

This video, which they created as part of their re-launch this week, shows the range of things people use Meetup to do with others:

Many people associate Meetup with night time events where people with name tags on them walk around and introduce themselves to others. Those sorts of things happen on Meetup for sure. But the more common uses are runners using Meetup to schedule group runs, moms using Meetup to hang out with other moms, and, apparently, jugglers using Meetup to juggle together.

So Meetup is relaunching the Company this week, fourteen and a quarter years after its initial launch. This means a new logo (the name badge is gone), new mobile apps that use deep learning to understand what you want to do and encourage you to do more of it, a new team (with women leaders in both product and engineering) with lots of new engineers and data scientists, and a sharper focus on marketing.

If you want to see what the new Meetup is all about, download the new app (iOS and Android) and check it out. Maybe you will find yourself juggling in the park this weekend. I sure hope so.

Team and Strategy

I’ve been in board meeting blitz since the summer ended. Many of the companies I work with are well past the startup phase and are well into or even past the growth/scaling phase. And the thought that keeps occurring to me as I go from board meeting to board meeting is the key to success when you are past the startup/product market fit stage comes down to two things, team and strategy.

You have to get the strategy right and you have to have a team that can execute it without your day to day involvement. The CEOs that I work with that are struggling are usually running into issues with their team and/or their strategy. And the CEOs that I work with that are doing great generally have gotten the strategy set and have built a strong executive team underneath them.

This sounds so simple. But it is not.

Most of the companies I work with didn’t really start out with a strategy. They started out with an idea that turned into a great product that found a fit with a market. And they jumped on that and used it to build a company. Most of them wake up at some point and realize that a single product in a single market is not a strategy and they need to come up with a plan to get a lot bigger and build a sustainable and defensible business. I like to think that this is one place where a good investor group can help. If we are doing our job, we push our portfolio companies to work on their long term strategy and refine it to the point where it makes sense and is executable. But an investor group cannot give a company a strategy. It has to come from the founder/CEO and a small group of senior leaders. The smaller the group that is working on strategy, the better. Strategy is not something that can be done by committee.

The second thing, building an executive team that can execute the plan without day to day involvement of the CEO, is even harder. Most of the companies I work with go through a lot of hiring mistakes on the way to building this team. Some hire too junior. Some hire too senior. Some hire bad cultural fits. Some hire people that are nothing but cultural fit. And an investor or investor group can help with this but I believe that founders/CEOs need to learn how to do this themselves and make these mistakes. The best thing an investor group can do is to help a founder/CEO to understand when they have the wrong person in the job. Or help them understand that more quickly.

These are both areas where experience is huge. The CEOs I work with who have done the job multiple times get these two things right much more quickly. But even they can take a year or two to get these right. First time CEOs often take three or four years to get these things right. But sticking with founders who are first time CEOs through this process is usually worth it because they have a connection to the initial vision and mission that a hired CEO has a hard time replicating. There is not a good rule of thumb on this issue (who should run the company). Facts and circumstances on the ground will generally determine how that should go.

My final point on this is that once you have the strategy and team locked down, you should step back and let the machine do its thing. I like to say that CEOs should do only three things; recruit and retain the team, build and evolve the long term strategy and communicate it effectively and broadly in the organization and externally, and make sure the company doesn’t run out of money. When those are the only things you are doing, you are doing the job right. Very few CEOs get to focus on only these three things all of the time. Things break and you have to fix them. But when the machine is working and you can step back and watch it hum, it is a thing of beauty.

Being A Shock Absorber

I saw this tweet yesterday:

It really resonates with me.

Companies go through lots of “shocks” over the years. I have seen Boards react in different ways. Sometimes they freak out and make things worse. Other times they are the calming force and voice of reason.

It is that latter behavior that the Company needs in that moment. Everyone is already freaking out. Amplifying that, as Roelof calls it, is not in the least bit helpful. Their is plenty of time for post-mortem analysis and learning from the situation. That can wait.

Companies need support and help during times of crises. Boards are uniquely positioned to provide that. The ones who can actually do that are incredibly helpful.

The Spillover Effect

The New York Times has a piece today about how bay area tech companies are giving the Phoenix Arizona economy a boost.

I think this is a trend we are just seeing the start of.

A big theme of board meetings I’ve been in over the past year is the crazy high cost of talent in the big tech centers (SF, NYC, LA, Boston, Seattle) and the need to grow headcount in lower cost locations.

This could mean outside of the US in places like Eastern Europe, Asia, India, but for the most part the discussions I have been in have centered on cities in the US where there is a good well educated work force, an increasing number of technically skilled workers, and a much lower cost of living. That could be Phoenix, or it could be Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and a host of other really good places to live in the US.

Just like we are seeing tech seep into the strategic plans of big Fortune 1000 companies, we are seeing tech seep into the economic development plans of cities around the US (and around the world). Tech is where the growth opportunities are right now.

A good example of how this works is Google’s decision to build a big office in NYC in the early part of the last decade and build (and buy) engineering teams in that office. Google is now a major employer in NYC and the massive organization they have built has now spilled over into the broader tech sector in NYC. My partner Albert calls Google’s NYC office “the gift that Google gave NYC.”

We will see that story play out across many cities in the US (and outside of the US) in the next five to ten years. It is simply too expensive for most companies to house all of their employees in the bay area or NYC. And so they will stop doing that and go elsewhere for talent. That’s a very healthy and positive dynamic for everyone, including the big tech centers that are increasingly getting too expensive to live in for many tech employees.

The Rise Of Women Leaders

Although we are not where we need to be, it feels to me that we are entering a period where women will be increasingly the choice for leading our companies and our countries.

The rise of Theresa May in the UK is the latest high profile example of a woman being selected to occupy an important leadership position.

In the US, Hillary Clinton is currently the odds-on favorite to win the Presidency.

Imagine the power of the imagery of Angela Merkel, Teresa May, and Hillary Clinton meeting at an important event. That picture will tell a thousand words about the rise of women leaders.

In the tech business, women have rarely been in top leadership positions. But that too is changing. Women hold the CEO positions at IBM, Oracle, HP, Yahoo, and a number of other leading tech companies.

In the largest companies I work with, women hold many of the top leadership positions and these women are extremely talented executives and are likely to end up running companies someday soon.

So from where I sit, I feel we are on the cusp of a new era for women.

None of this changes the specific challenges that exist for women, the conflicts between family and work that are still more acute for women than men, the societal biases that still exist, and the muscle memory that will take time to unwind.

But as a husband and father of three amazing women leaders, it’s a great feeling to see the promised land emerging over the horizon. I am quite confident we will see real gender equality in the workplace in my lifetime.

Vacation Policy

I saw a discussion among our USV portfolio CEOs yesterday in one of the many communication channels we offer our portfolio companies.  The question was about vacation policy.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that most of our portfolio companies offer unlimited vacation to their employees and that there is almost no abuse of this policy acros our portfolio companies.

Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, linked to a post he wrote about his company’s Open Vacation policy a few years ago. It sums this topic up nicely.

When You Have Concerns

I hear this said all the time – “when you have concerns about an employee, it almost always means you will need to make a change.” I hear execs lament that they tend to wait too long to admit that they made a hiring mistake and act on it. I hear them wish they trusted their gut more. And it is not always a hiring mistake. It is often a case of someone doing great in a role or an organization at at time and then failing as the org or the culture changes around them. In this latter scenario, loyalty and appreciation for contributions made loom large.

And yet that conflicts with the idea that you can grow and develop talent and you can coach people to evolve and change.

A friend of mine told me yesterday that “you have to pay attention to the key moments” when you are evaluating an employee that you have questions about. She suggested that concerns always exist and it is not true that when you have concerns, it almost always leads to making a change. And she said that culture matters a lot and can’t be sacrificed when making these calls.

I don’t do a lot of hiring and firing personally, only at the highest levels. But I do observe executives in our portfolio companies struggling with these decisions and have gone back and forth on how to advise them in these situations. I tend to like action, decisiveness, and a willingness to make a mistake over inaction, pondering, and a desire to get everything right. And so I generally coach executives to make a call and move on when they have concerns.

But the conversation with my friend yesterday gave me pause. I wonder if my advice to make a call and move on is always the right advice. I am curious how the AVC community thinks about these things. Because these are the things that matter most of all in building, managing, and leading a business.

The Maternal Instinct

It’s Mothers Day, a time to celebrate motherhood and moms. I woke up thinking about the maternal instinct and it’s effect on business.

I was talking to a friend last night about the challenges of working on troubled or failed investments. We were debating whether it is even worth the time to try and save a troubled investment versus moving on and focusing on a new one. This is the endless debate in venture capital. It can be applied to managing people as well. Should you work to develop a talented employee who is struggling or just move on and find someone new for the role?

As we were debating the point on whether to fight for a troubled investment or just move on, the Gotham Gal walked by. And I turned to my friend and said “she never gives up on any of her investments and she has 10x the number that I do.” I’ve cautioned her many times that she can’t fix every company, every CEO, every business plan. But she just keeps trying. It’s why I love her so much.

There is something about the maternal instinct. It’s a powerful thing. It is about protecting and caring for someone or something. It is innate in women and they do bring it with them into the world of business. This is one of many reasons why gender diversity in a team is important. Men and women bring different perspectives and instincts to a situation. Debating it out and finding common ground can be quite valuable.

Surely there is a limit to the maternal instinct in business. You can’t make every hire work. You can’t make every project work. You can’t make every investment work. That’s what I frequently tell the Gotham Gal. But that doesn’t stop her from trying. And I understand why.

Happy Mothers Day to all the moms out there. You care for us and we love you for it.

The New Boss

I got an email from a friend who is starting a CEO job. He said to me “I’d love any thoughts or advice you have as a new CEO joining a company.”

I have reached out to a number of CEOs I know who have taken over companies recently and am compiling a list of suggestions.

But given the number of great CEOs in the AVC community, I would be remiss if I didn’t pose this question to all of you as well.

What are the one or two pieces of advice you would give a friend who is taking over as CEO of a new company?

I suspect this is going to be a great comment thread.