Posts from management

USV Manager Bootcamp

Our USV Portfolio Network Team built a new offering last year called the USV Manager Bootcamp.

The idea is to offer management training classes to our portfolio companies that are too small to be able to offer those classes themselves.

Last week was the sixth bootcamp and the self reported results are pretty impressive:

As I tweeted out last week, this is something other VC firms can do as well. It’s a perfect example of something that works for a portfolio of companies.

If you want to learn more about how this works, our Portfolio Network Team wrote a blog post about it last week.

Board Feedback

Something I am a huge fan of is Board Feedback. I’ve written about this a lot here at AVC and I am writing about it again today. Because it is important and not done regularly in my experience.

A founder/CEO and their team spend a lot of time preparing for a meeting, and then they give the meeting their all, and often the Board leaves and nothing is really said about it.

That sucks. For everyone, but most of all for the CEO.

Here is what I try to do and mostly do. I sometimes mess this up but not often.

After the meeting ends, at least one director, ideally the Chairman if there is one who is not the CEO, or the lead director, or the director who is there in person, should lead an executive session without the CEO and get feedback from all of the directors and observers and then they should sit down with the CEO and provide that feedback in an honest and open way.

The sooner you do this the better. No CEO should ever be wondering how the Board Meeting went, what people are thinking, and how they are doing.

And yet that is often the case. That is malpractice. It is wrong. It should not happen.

Some Thoughts On Checking References

We do a lot of referencing in our business. We certainly ask around about a team before investing in them. But we do even more referencing post investment when we help the founders and management of our portfolio companies build a team. Investors often have access to references that founders and management don’t. So we can add a lot of value to the hiring process by reaching out to our network and asking about people.

The thing I have learned in thirty plus years of making reference calls is to pay attention to how things are said more than what is said. And pay particular attention to what is not said.

I have also learned to call people instead of sending emails. Most people don’t want to put negative things in writing, but will do so on the phone, particularly with someone they trust.

It is also helpful to talk to people with knowledge of a situation but not handcuffed by it. For example, a CEO may not feel comfortable saying something negative about someone they transitioned out of their company, but a co-worker might be. Or a close friend of a co-worker might be.

I don’t mean to suggest that references are all about finding out the negatives. You should also seek to hear what someone’s strengths are. Most people are good at some things and not so good at other things. Getting a sense of strengths and weaknesses and making sure the person is a good fit for the role is what referencing a person is all about.

But I do believe strongly in hearing the negatives when hiring someone. If you can’t find anything negative about someone, that is a red flag to me. Often negatives in one situation can be positives in another.

If someone says to me, “they were great when the company was small but got lost as the company scaled” that means that person is great at the very early stages of a company’s development. And that is often the most valuable time in a company’s life. Finding people who can operate in that environment is not easy. So I like hearing that about people. I know where to orient them.

I am not a fan of calling the references on someone’s list unless I know those people well. What I do instead is figure out who I know well that knows the person or knows someone who does. And then I reach out and call them. It’s more work but it yields much better results.

I am also a believer in having a group of people do the referencing. Getting multiple angles of attack on a situation is valuable and multiple people will have a much bigger network of close relationships to leverage.

I am not a fan of referencing by checklist questions. I have been on the other end of calls where the person is reading from a list of questions. That strikes me as an odd way to do a reference check. I think a conversation where you can dig into the meat of the issue in a natural way works a lot better. At least it does for me.

Finally, I think you should wait until you have a good sense of the person and are seriously considering them for the role before doing the references. The more information you have about the person and their potential fit for the role, the better your calls can be. But you don’t want to wait too long. If there is a big red flag on a candidate, you want to know that before you spend too much of your time and their time on the hiring process.

Referencing is an art more than a science. Getting people on your team and around you (on your board, your advisors, your investor group) who are good at it can be super helpful. And don’t forget to reach out and use them in your hiring process. It can make a huge difference.

Return On Hard Decisions

I spent much of yesterday going through board decks and other year-end reports.

It was an incredibly gratifying experience after a hard year.

I spearheaded quite a few restructurings this year. A lot of people lost their jobs as a result of those efforts.

It was a year of hard decisions and hard conversations.

But as I sat in my office and read through the reports and decks, what came across loud and clear was that we had made a bunch of right decisions.

A lot of companies that were wandering in the wilderness are now headed in clear and exciting directions.

I continue to feel badly for the people who lost their jobs or quit their jobs in the wake of these restructurings. I realize that many of them had a hard year too and I am sorry for that.

But I feel great for the companies who have been revitalized and for the people who are working in them with a jump in their step and a feeling of optimism and purpose.

This time last year I had a bad feeling in my gut and was having trouble sleeping. I knew what I had to do and dreaded doing it.

Right now, I have a good feeling in my gut and am sleeping like a baby.

That is a nice return on hard decisions.

The Top Of The Funnel

Whether you have a e-commerce business, a SAAS business, a media business, a marketplace business, or some other business model, you are going to start thinking about customer acquisition at some point.

And there are a lot of options out there for acquiring customers; direct sales, indirect sales, channel, search engine marketing, social media, email, display, etc, etc.

But the best option, if you can pull it off, is to own an organic customer acquisition channel that is large and that sustains itself.

At USV, we have investments in a bunch of companies that have very large organic and sustainable top of the funnel customer flows. Many of these companies use a number of customer acquisition techniques, but they start with the organic channel and optimize it with their product development efforts.

Here are a few examples:

Codecademy – Codecademy offers a number of subscription learning services to people who want to learn to code. But because it has been offering free curriculum for learning to code for six years now, it was the first organic result I got this morning when I typed “learn to code” into Google:

Quizlet – Quizlet offers over 200mm study sets on the web and mobile to people who want to study and master something. No matter what you want to learn, you can find a study set on Quizlet to learn it. Quizlet is the “Wikipedia of studying” and because these study sets are free on the web and mobile, they have a huge organic flow of new users every month. Quizlet offers two subscription offerings to students and one to teachers and this organic flow is the primary customer acquisition channel for these offerings.

SoundCloud – SoundCloud is the first place most musicians go to post their music on the Internet. There are upwards of 200mm tracks on SoundCloud, the vast majority of which are free for anyone to listen to. This content is a huge attraction for listeners on web and mobile. SoundCloud has three subscription offerings, two for listeners and one for creators. The organic channel is the primary acquisition mechanism for these subscription offerings.

Kickstarter – When a project creator launches a Kickstarter project, they share it with as many people as they can through email, social, blogging, etc. This brings millions of backers to Kickstarter every month. Most of those backers arrive to consider backing a specific project and move on. But enough of them stick around to see what else is going on that Kickstarter has been able to build a large and sustainable business without any need for paid marketing channels.

Etsy – Etsy is now a public company and is no longer a USV portfolio company but I am the Chairman and remain actively involved with Etsy. Etsy is similar to Kickstarter in that sellers who have shops on Etsy are actively promoting their shops through various channels. Most of the buyers who arrive on Etsy that way purchase from the seller who brought them but some stay and shop from other sellers too. Etsy explained in it’s IPO filing that the vast majority of it’s traffic was organic. That is slowly changing but in Etsy’s early years, all of the traffic was organic.

I could keep going but I think you get the point. One of the things I look for in an investment is a free and sustainable flow of customers. This big top of the funnel may not be the only way a management team will choose to build their business but it makes a great foundation to build on and the LTV/CAC is infinite.

Swinging For The Fences

A number of our portfolio companies use scoring systems to prioritize projects on their roadmaps. I like this one called RICE (reach, impact, confidence, effort). There are similar versions of this out there. The important thing about these systems is that you need to include probability of success in your analysis. Just looking at effort and impact isn’t enough.

But one thing I’ve seen about these scoring systems is that they can lead your team to do lots of low and medium impact things that have a very high probability of working.

I generally would like to see our portfolio companies taking at least one or two big swings a year. These are high impact, often high effort, and often low confidence. They don’t score that well as a result.

But if you aren’t going for it with at least some of your resources, you can get mired in a rut of small wins and that can be a problem for your growth trajectory, morale, and overall business mojo.

So while I like it when our portfolio companies use scoring systems, I generally suggest they add a requirement to take at least one big swing a year. Over the course of several years, they will get at least one of these right and it can make a huge impact on the business.

Resource Constraints

Most of the companies I work with tell me that they are resource constrained and do not have enough capital and engineers to do everything they want to do.

I tell them that is a blessing not a curse.

They look at me like I am crazy and rationalize it as me being an investor and not an operator.

I will plead guilty to both (being crazy and being an investor) but I am extremely confident that being resource constrained is a blessing in the hands of a great operator.

I have seen companies do amazing things with no money and tiny teams.

I have seen companies do absolutely nothing with all the money in the world and hundreds of engineers.

This experience, built up over thirty plus years in tech and startups, has convinced me that resources are never the limiting factor to doing great things.

The limiting factors are;

  1. having great management that can make the right decisions and drive exection
  2. knowing what to do and what not to do
  3. playing your game and not someone else’s

Resources, measured in available capital and headcount, often make #2 and #3 more challenging.

Organizations start to feel that they can do more than they can and should.

They start looking around enviously and counting the size of the fundraises and engineering teams of their competitors.

They stop knowing who they are. And that is death.

I believe that excess capital makes companies weak and unfocused.

I believe limited capital makes companies strong and focused.

And I don’t believe capital has ever helped a company win a market. Many have tried that approach and it always ends badly.

So I encourage all of you entrepreneurs out there to embrace being resource constrained and learn to love operating with less.

It will serve you well.

How To Hire Executives

Brian Armstrong, founder and CEO of our portfolio company Coinbase, writes a regular blog in which he talks about a bunch of things; Coinbase, things he has learned, the crypto market, and a bunch more. If you don’t follow Brian, you might want to.

Last week he laid out the entire process he uses to hire executives and it’s a really great post.

Here is the outline of the process:

  • Speak to subject matter experts [1–2 weeks]
  • Choose the hiring committee [1–2 days]
  • Draft the mission/outcomes/competencies (MOC) document [1–2 weeks]
  • Source candidates [2 weeks]
  • Build the relationship [1 month]
  • Evaluate candidates [1 month]
  • Close them [1 month]

If you plan to hire executives or are already doing it and would like to see how another CEO does it, I would suggest you go read Brian’s post.

One thing Brian leaves out, likely not intentionally, is the role of board members and investors in this process.

I have seen board members and investors play a valuable and highly engaged role in the “hiring committee” and most certainly in the closing process. I have done this for Brian a number of times and so have Micky Malka, Chris Dixon and Barry Schuler. We are very fortunate to have a great management team and Board at Coinbase and that makes a big difference in running an executive hiring process.

I have been an investor in Coinbase and have worked with Brian for almost five years now. I have watched him grow and develop as a CEO. He takes that very seriously and it shows. Putting down things like your hiring process is a great way to pass on to others what you have learned and get feedback too.

 

Video Of The Week: Purpose, Mission, Strategy

Last month my colleague Nick Grossman gave a really great talk at The Next Web in Amsterdam. In it, he talks about the importance of purpose, mission, and strategy and how to connect them in your company. And he shares a lot of great examples from our portfolio in his talk.