Posts from management

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.

Don’t Kick The Can Down The Road

I’ve been using this term a lot lately – “don’t kick the can down the road”. There is always a desire to push the hard decisions out. I find myself urging entrepreneurs and CEOs to make that hard call today and take the poison and move on. It’s hard for leaders to make this choice largely because of fear of the other things that will come along with that hard decision.

Bill Gurley, who I find myself agreeing with as much or more than anyone else in the VC business, has a fantastic post up about the danger of the “structured financings” that are increasingly common in the later stage VC market today. In it, he says:

Many Unicorn founders and CEOs have never experienced a difficult fundraising environment — they have only known success. Also, they have a strong belief that any sign of weakness (such as a down round) will have a catastrophic impact on their culture, hiring process, and ability to retain employees. Their own ego is also a factor – will a down round signal weakness?  It might be hard to imagine the level of fear and anxiety that can creep into a formerly confident mind in a transitional moment like this.

This is so true. I have sat in and on countless meetings and phone calls with leaders who are afraid that the whole thing that they just spent three, four, five years (or more) building will come crashing down because they take a down round. I have been through dozens of down rounds in my career. At least thirty and maybe fifty if I really took the time to count them all. They are no different than a public company’s stock price taking a big hit. It is painful to be sure. Some people will leave but they are either weak in the knees or were half way out the door anyway. But I have never seen a down round destroy a company. And I have seen many down rounds save a company.

Another place where leaders tend to want to kick the can down the road is with talented but difficult employees. They cannot bring themselves to remove the person who is providing a ton of individual contribution but is also poisoning the culture. A founder of one of our portfolio companies once told our entire USV CEO group the following story. I am not saying who because I don’t want to expose him to any issues.

We had an engineer who was the most talented and productive engineer on our entire team. But he was also incredibly difficult to work with and everyone disliked him. We couldn’t let him go because we were fearful of creating a “hole” in our organization. Finally, the complaints got so loud that we were sure we were going to start losing people over him. So we did what we were afraid to do and let him go. And we did just fine without him. The morale of the story is you are better having a hole in your organization than an asshole.

Man I just love that one. It is so true and everyone who hears it shakes their head and chuckles and groans at the same time.

There are certainly many more examples of where leaders take the easy way out and defer a difficult decision because of fear of the consequences. My message to all of you out there is “don’t do that”. Kicking the can down the road is more harmful than helpful. Take the pain today and fix your issues and deal with the consequences. You will be better off for it and so will your company.

Community Moderation

The Verge has an incredible post up about “content moderation.”

I have always felt that the hardest part of running an Internet business was insuring the trust and safety of the users and I am thrilled to see some light being shone on this part of the business.

There is always so much talk about the product and engineering parts of the business and so little about the extremely difficult work that goes into policing the product. And yet when you look at churn, so much of it in a scale Internet business is a result of users running out of patience with spam, trolling, and worse. This comment by Dick Costolo from the piece is telling:

“We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day, We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.” 

Well as the post points out, that is not so simple. And, of course, there are free speech issues too. I constantly hear people criticizing Twitter for blocking users.

But trolling, as bad as it is, is not the worst part of this work.

A trust and safety team has to deal with the most awful kinds of people and actions imaginable. I often suggest that everyone should sit in a trust and safety organization for a week. Then a lot of the conversations we have about free speech, privacy, and the like would get a lot more nuanced. There are bad people out there doing bad stuff.

Sadly, as I have seen again and again, startups don’t understand how challenging these problems are going to be until some sort of situation forces them to react. Then they throw people at the problem but never their precious “engineering resources.” When trust and safety, fraud, compliance, and moderation teams start getting their own engineering resources, something that often takes years to happen, then you know the company is finally acknowledging the importance and seriousness of the work.

The people profiled in this Verge story are heroes in my book. They do hard work, are not paid as much as they should be, and they are working in incredibly difficult and dangerous (for their mental health) situations. It is high time we start acknowledging them and their work and investing in it.

Path Forward

Our portfolio company Return Path built a “returnship” program a few years ago to help stay at home moms and other men and women who have left the work force to take care of children, sick parents, etc figure out how to get back into the workforce. This program, which involves a 20 week paid internship and a bunch of training in new tools and technologies, has been incredibly successful at Return Path where they have run several cohorts and hired many of the interns into full time positions.

Recently Return Path started helping other tech companies start these returnship programs. They found that these companies had similar success with it.

So this week Return Path spun out the team, the systems, and the curriculum into a new non-profit called Path Forward. The Gotham Gal, who has written a lot about the challenges women face in getting back into careers they temporarily left, will be joining the Board and helping them grow this new effort. She wrote a bit about it on her blog yesterday. And Fortune has a great piece on Path Forward too.

This topic has been near and dear to our family for a long time. Our daughter Emily wrote her college thesis, Life Sequencing: A Viable Solution To Work-Life Conflict For High-Achieving Women, on this topic and her work has further encouraged us to work on this issue.

If you have a company in NY, CA, or CO (they are starting in those three states) that would like to start doing returnships, go to Path Forward and fill out this form. If you are ready to restart your career after taking time off, go to Path Forward and complete this form.

And if you think this is awesome and want to support Path Forward financially, go to Crowdrise and hit the big donate button.

Onboard Your Board

Many companies have onboarding programs for new employees where they familiarize the new employee with the business, team, culture, etc before they start working. But I have never come across a company (or institution for that matter) that does this for their board. I am sure it happens, but I have never encountered it.

I am working with a company right now that is putting a “board onboarding” program in place. It makes so much sense. How can you expect your board to give you the best advice and understand the business if you don’t help them do that?

So when you put someone new on your board, ask that person to spend a day or two at your company. Set up “one on ones” with your entire senior team, have them attend an all hands, have them sit in on the weekly management meeting, and spend some quality time with them (dinner?) during this process. That will help your new board members immensely. They will be “up to speed” on the business from the very first board meeting instead of having to spend a year or more figuring things out.

Managing a board is hard. It takes time and lots of communication. But you can make all of that a bit easier if you start off on the right foot.

Parental Leave

I am on the board of Etsy, which is now a public company, so I don’t blog about it much anymore. But I’ve been involved in a discussion at Etsy over the past few months that is both important and raises challenging issues. It is the subject of parental leave. Who should be entitled to parental leave and how much leave should be given?

Etsy announced to its employees today that it is making several fundamental changes to its parental leave policy. The new policy is:

Etsy employees will be eligible for 26 weeks of fully paid leave in the two years after they become a parent through birth or adoption, regardless of their gender, country of residence or family circumstance.

Etsy is not alone in making these changes. Other big tech companies like Facebook have made similar changes to their paternal leave policy. And so some of this is reacting to the competitive market for talent, particularly female talent. But our discussion at Etsy actually focused on other issues.

Etsy is a marketplace where creative entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, can create a more fulfilling and flexible way to support their families. An important goal of this policy change was to align the internal company values with the marketplace values.

Etsy is a global company with significant operations in countries with parental leave regulations that are more generous than what exists in the US. It was an important goal of Etsy to align its parental leave policies across the entire organization.

But most importantly, as Etsy’s CEO Chad Dickerson said to the company when he announced this change, “The well-being of employees & their families is not just good for people, it’s good for business.”

I fully support Etsy’s parental leave policy and am proud that Etsy is at the forefront of a movement in the tech industry for more family friendly employee policies.

However, I am not suggesting that all startups or all USV backed startups should do the same. It is easier to do this sort of thing when you have a workforce in the thousands or tens of thousands than when you have a team of four people working from a co-working space. Each company needs to decide when and how they can consider such a parental leave policy. But for those that have the scale to consider this approach, I am strongly in favor of it and share Chad’s belief that what is good for employees and their families is good for business.

Collaborating On A List

Every business has this situation, some many times a day.

Over the weekend, our team at USV was discussing an event we are putting together and people we might invite. One of us started the thread and suggested a dozen or so names. Replies started going back and forth with new suggestions. Many great ideas came out quickly via email. Then we decided to put all the names into a google sheet, which was obviously the thing to do to memorialize the suggestions and comments.

But then the discussion stopped. No new names were generated. The discussion ended.

Google sheets does generate an email when a change is made to a sheet, but it is not conversational the way a group email thread or a Slack channel is.

I suggested that we write a script that allows us to have the conversation in Slack and new ideas are autopopulated to the Google sheet. We could also do that in email but Slack felt like the better option.

I’m curious if other folks out there have had this same experience and how they have solved it. You want to database the list in a tool like Google sheets, but doing that seems to shut down the conversation that flows in an experience like Slack or email. It seems like the two functions need to be merged in some way.

The Retrade

Brad Feld has a post up about The Retrade. This is when you have a handshake or a signed term sheet on a deal (M&A or Financing) and the person on the other side calls you up a day or two before closing and tells you why they are going to have to change the terms of the deal. Go read Brad’s post, it is a good one.

My view on retrades is that they are part of the way the investment and M&A business gets done. You should not get emotional about them. You should not walk away over them unless you have a better option. You should simply accept them as part of the way the game is played and deal with them as best you can. You can often negotiate a retrade. You won’t get back to where you were before the retrade but you can often do better than what is being suggested.

In a market when retrades are common (private equity or the down cycle of the venture business), you should always negotiate more of a premium than you need or desire in the initial signed term sheet or LOI. That way you are building in a cushion for the expected retrade. If you are playing a game, you need to know how the game is played and act accordingly.

The thing about retrades is it is a signal about the person or institution you are doing business with. Sometimes retrades happen for legitimate reasons. A typical one is the due diligence shines a bright light on a problem that was unkown at the time of the signing of the term sheet or LOI. That is the most common explanation for retrades. But sometimes it is legitimate and sometimes it is not. Understanding all of this and how it reflects on the “retrader” is important. Because the one thing you do want to avoid is getting into business with bad people. Retrading is a potential red flag that the person you are dealing with is not a good person, but it is not definitively so.

As always, I suggest doing references, and as many of them as you can, on people you are thinking about getting into business with. If you hear that the person is a serial retrader, then you know that’s what you are dealing with and you might want to think twice about getting into business with them. If you have heard nothing but good things about the person or firm, then I would take the retrade in stride, deal with it, close and get on with things.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

It sure feels like the long awaited headwinds have arrived and the tailwinds are behind us for now. A friend sent me this chart today.

You could create a similar chart out of many tech sectors right now but SaaS is as good of an indicator of what’s happening out there as any.

I welcome this new environment. You might think “of course you do, you can buy things less expensively” but I would remind you that USV has a portfolio of investments that are unrealized at this point and subject to a chart like that.

I think any benefits we might get from a better buying environment are negated by the impact on our current positions.

The real reason I welcome the tougher environment is that it will make all of us better. We will have to make better decisions.  The market won’t bail us out. We will have to earn our returns instead of being handed them.

And I’m not just talking about investors. I’m talking about everyone working in tech startups. The going is getting tougher. Time for the tough to get going.

Do You Want Better Board Meetings? Then Work The Phone

I was talking to the CEO of one of our portfolio companies last week. He was preparing for a board meeting that is coming up. He told me that he had scheduled calls with all of his board members and investors that attend his meetings and had completed most of them. He had gotten feedback on what they were thinking about his company, what they are excited about, what they are concerned about, things they want to discuss, etc. He said it had made a big difference in his preparation for the meeting.

I think it will also make a big difference in the meeting and make it a lot better. Soliciting your board member’s input on your agenda is important. But it is also really helpful to have these “one on ones” in advance of the meeting so you can update each board member on the things that they are concerned about. The board members will arrive at the meeting more prepared, they will be more comfortable, and they will also be able to help more. And the CEO will be highly attuned and attentive to the issues that matter most to the group.

This kind of preparation is time consuming. Who wants to work the phones in the SMS era? Nobody to be honest. But it pays huge dividends and I recommend it strongly.

You can keep the calls on the short side, 15-30mins each, and that means it is two to three hours of work for most board sizes and investor groups. I would recommend doing these calls one to two weeks before the meeting so you have time to collect all of the feedback and incorporate it into the agenda and the board materials. But don’t do it too far in advance because you also want your board members and other attendees to be “fresh” in terms of their understanding of what’s going on in the business.

If you have never done this, give it a try on your next meeting. I bet you will be pleased with how well it works. If you do this already, then keep doing it. Because it works.