Posts from management

Leadership Has A Price

We’ve been watching the ESPN series The Last Dance along with something like 6mm other fans who are watching it right now. It is a reminder of how dominant Michael Jordan was in the 90s and what a special player he was.

I woke up thinking about the last three minutes of episode 7 which dropped last night.

Michael is asked if his intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a
“nice guy.”

He gets pretty emotional and says “Winning has a price and leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled, I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. I earned that right.” … “Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. I would not take anything less.” … “One thing about Michael Jordan is that he never asked anyone to do anything that he didn’t do.”

It’s a great piece of television and captures the essence of the man, how competitive he is, and how emotional he is about it all.

It also captures the burden of leadership and what is required to get everyone to commit to each other and be the best that they can be. Leadership is not being liked. Leadership is being respected and followed.

And the last three minutes of episode 7 capture that so well.

#management

Growth

One of the great joys of the work I do is I get to watch the leaders of our portfolio companies grow over time.

I’ve had a number of moments over the last few months where I got off a call or a meeting and thought to myself “wow, she’s a new person.”

Growing as a leader takes time, mistakes, failure, feedback, and a lot of work. You don’t magically show up as the CEO and you are good to go. It’s not like that at all. The authority to make the final call doesn’t mean that you are good at it and that people will line up behind your decisions.

It is a process and like all processes, it requires time and patience. But for those who are committed to personal growth, there is a path.

Two syndromes I see quite frequently are “deer in the headlights” and “I’ve got this.” They are both tell tale signs of a leader who isn’t there yet.

Deer in the headlights is pretty obvious to everyone. The leader just doesn’t seem steady and solid. You can see it in their eyes. I like to provide a leader with deer in the headlights syndrome a lot of support, advice, and constructive feedback. I have seen people go from deers in a headlight to strong decisive leaders in less than a year. It helps to have a gauntlet or two to have to run through. The greater the challenges the deer in the headlight faces, the more quickly they can emerge as a strong leader.

“I’ve got this” is more problematic. The leader acts like they know what they are doing, but they don’t. And everyone around them knows it except them. I like to provide a leader with “I’ve got this” syndrome with a lot of tough love but that is usually not enough. The answer to “I’ve got this” is usually failure of some sort, often a very significant one. The key is to be there for the failing leader in that moment and help them get through the failure and come out of it with self awareness and a desire to address the issues that have gotten in the way.

These are just two of the immature leader syndromes, but they are two very common ones I have seen.

I believe that most people have the capacity to be leaders if they want that for themselves. I also believe that leadership is a skill that you never stop learning. And I believe that it requires self awareness, courage, and deep empathy.

Sitting at a table and watching a skilled leader work is quite a sight to see. And watching someone grow into that person is one of the great joys of my work.

#entrepreneurship#life lessons#management

Event Driven Growth

I realize that most businesses are suffering greatly in this pandemic. Many have been shut completely.

But there are some that are experiencing the opposite situation. They have a growth spurt as a result of this moment. Businesses in food delivery, e-commerce, online education, telehealth, remote work, and cloud infrastructure are examples of such situations.

I’ve seen event driven growth spurts over the years. A plane lands in the Hudson and everyone heads to Twitter to see it. A competitor is shut down and everyone shows up on your door. Crypto gets hot and everyone wants in on the action. That sort of thing.

And I’ve been talking to leaders who are experiencing this and wondering how to model out what happens when and if things return to normal.

Each situation is different but a framework I like is to take your pre-event baseline, your event driven peak, and assume you will give up half of the delta when things return to normal and that will be your new baseline.

That won’t be right of course. It’s a model. You can revise as real data comes in.

But what it suggests is that not all of your new customers will stick around. But some will. And you will have a new and higher baseline. That has been true of almost every event driven growth spurt I have seen in my career.

#entrepreneurship#life lessons#management

Marketing During A Crisis

One of the most fascinating things I’ve been watching is how the 80 something USV portfolio companies are adjusting their marketing strategies during this pandemic.

It is all over the map, based on the unique situations of each and every company, with some pulling back on marketing, some accelerating it, and some keeping it more or less the same. Even the ones who are not changing marketing spend are changing their marketing mix a lot.

Digital/performance marketing, whether online or on TV (where there is a lot of targeted performance inventory now – talk to our portfolio company Simulmedia if you want to see for yourself) is really showing its stuff in this downturn as it is responsive to changing demand. Keywords/search is a great example of that. If there are fewer people searching for what you are selling, there is less spend. There are many digital/performance channels that work similarly.

Marketing costs have come down dramatically in some channels and companies are taking advantage of that to grow their customer bases and market share. But some channels have gone the other way with increased marketing costs. If you are selling something that everyone wants right now, it may cost you more to reach customers right now.

Making sense of all of this is not easy but important. You may have big opportunities that you are missing. Or you may have big problems you aren’t seeing.

Which is why I’m going to tune into this webinar by my friend David Steinberg and his friend John Sculley on Thursday at noon eastern. Full disclosure, USV is an investor in Zeta Global where David Steinberg is the CEO. I’m curious to hear about how their customers are operating in this environment and what is working and what is not.

#management

Tech Jobs For All Who Want Them

The tech sector is the fastest growing sector of the economy in NYC and around the US and around the world. The tech sector offers high paying jobs and a growing number of them.

But, as we all know, the tech sector lacks the gender and racial diversity that would allow everyone to benefit from this growing sector of the economy. Most of the studies that have looked at the lack of diversity point to a skills gap standing in the way.

So last year Tech:NYC (where I am co-chair) and a few large employers (Google, Verizon, Bloomberg LP) and the Robin Hood Learning and Technology Fund commissioned a study of the skills training programs in NYC to see where there are gaps and what must be done to close them so that tech jobs are available to everyone in NYC who wants one.

This report was done by the Center for an Urban Future and was released yesterday. You can read it here.

What the report reveals is that NYC has a rich and expanding ecosystem of tech skills training opportunities, including K-12 and adult education. But, as we all know, the quality is uneven and so are the outcomes.

The report makes twelve recommendations which are detailed here. They are:

1. Make a significant new public investment in expanding and improving New York City’s tech education and training ecosystem. 

2. Set clear and ambitious goals to greatly expand the pipeline of New Yorkers into technology careers. 

3. Prioritize long-term investments in K–12 computing education. 

4. Scale up tech training with a focus on programs that develop in-depth, career-ready skills. 

5. Build the pipeline of educators and facilitators serving both K–12 and career readiness efforts. 

6. Close the geographic gaps in tech education and skills-building programs. 

7. New York City’s tech sector should play a larger role in developing, recruiting, and retaining diverse talent. 

8. Increase access to tech apprenticeships and paid STEM internships through industry partnerships, CS4All, and the city’s current Summer Youth Employment Program. 

9. Expand efforts to market STEM programs to underrepresented students and their families. 

10. Develop and fund links from the numerous computer literacy and basic digital skills-building programs to the in-depth programs that can lead to employment. 

11. Expand the number of bridge programs to provide crucial new on-ramps to further tech education and training for New Yorkers with fundamental skills needs. 

12. Develop major new supports for the non-tuition costs of adult workforce training. 

I participated on the advisory board of this study and support all of these recommendations. Elected officials and policy makers in NYC (and really everywhere) should read and heed these recommendations.

The tech sector faces many headwinds in society right now for a host of reasons. Not all of them can be solved by an employee base that mirrors the planet. But many of them can be and we need to work to get there.

I want to thank the Center For An Urban Future, Tech:NYC, Robin Hood Learning and Technology Fund, Google, Verizon, and Bloomberg LP for giving us a roadmap on how to get there.

#economics#employment#enterprise#entrepreneurship#hacking education#hacking government#management#NYC#policy#Politics

Stack Today, Stack Tomorrow

Our portfolio company Stack Overflow (which I like to call Stack) is an Internet Treasure. My friend Mark Pincus introduced me to the concept of an Internet Treasure many years ago and I am a fan of the notion.

In my view, an Internet Treasure is a service on the Internet that is wide open, gets better when more people use it, and solves a need that many/all of us have. Wikipedia is an Internet Treasure. Quizlet is an Internet Treasure. Reddit is an Internet Treasure. And Stack is an Internet Treasure. There are many more out there but you get the idea.

Stack has a new leader and his name is Prashanth Chandrasekar. Prashanth wrote a “State of the Company” post yesterday on the Stack blog and I would like to highlight a few sections from it.

First, this is what an Internet Treasure looks like by the numbers:

Across Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network, we saw around 10 billion page views from 100+ million unique visitors over the course of 2019.

In 2019, Stack Overflow added over 2.8 million answers and 2.6 million new questions, with over 1.7 million new users joining the community. There are now over 18 million questions and 27 million answers on Stack Overflow, and over 150,000 people sign up for a Stack Overflow account each month, 12 years after we started.

Every day, users answer thousands of questions on topics like cloud technology, container orchestration, and machine learning. There is an ever growing trove of knowledge on Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure.

Our community members and volunteer moderators handled almost two million flags to keep inaccurate, abusive, unwelcoming, or inappropriate content off the site and in line with our updated Code of Conduct.

Hundreds of thousands of engineers leveraged the power of Stack Overflow for Teams to better collaborate and ship products faster.

Over 40,000 jobs were posted on Stack Overflow Jobs in 2019. We now have over 1,000,000 searchable profiles of developers who are interested in being contacted about a job on Stack Overflow Talent.

Almost a million developers found new and useful tools after seeing a company advertise on one of our sites. 

New leaders don’t want to sit still. They arrive, take measure of the people and the business, and then make big plans.

And this is how Prashanth is thinking about the future of Stack:

1/ Continue to invest in the community, insure that the Code Of Conduct evolves to mantain the trust and safety of the community, and broaden the number of developers who fully engage in a the community.

2/ Continue improve and invest in Stack Overflow For Teams which allows organizations to use the same tool for internal knowledge sharing as they use for external knowledge sharing

3/ Expand the Advertising and Talent offerings to offer developers easy access to new tools and new career opportunities.

4/ Build and expand the team so that the Company can be responsive to the needs of developers and move quickly to adapt as the developer ecosystem changes.

5/ Stay true to the mission of supporting the needs of developers and technical workers and help them succeed in their jobs and develop their careers.

I am excited to see Stack flourish under Prashanth’s new leadership. That’s what we should want for all of our Internet Treasures.

#management#Web/Tech

Grinding

It is tempting to search for the one magic move that will make everything better. A new VP of Sales. A new database layer in your tech stack. A new brand for your company. Moving everything to the cloud. More capital in the business.

But it is rarely one thing that a business needs to succeed. It is often a little bit of everything.

Back in the early days of Twitter, we could not keep the website and API up. We would hire advisors and they would recommend something new and we would try it and we would still go down. It was terribly frustrating and threatened the business.

During this period of instability, Twitter purchased a search engine called Summize. Summize was a small team of engineers, most of whom had come out of AOL.

After we cut the deal to acquire Summize, I asked Jack Dorsey, who was running Twitter at the time, how we planned to integrate the Summize team. He looked at me and said “we are not going to integrate them, they are going to integrate us.” And Jack made Greg Pass, Summize’s engineering leader, Twitter’s engineering leader.

It was interesting to watch Greg and the Summize team tackle the “fail whale.” Instead of searching for a magic solution, they instrumented the entire system and just started rebuilding every part that was about to break.

It was a slow and steady approach. It took time. But within six months (or thereabouts), we had a much more stable system. And after about a year of this approach, we had mostly said goodbye to the fail whale.

Grinding isn’t very satisfying. It is hard to stand up in front of everyone and say “we are going to fix things around here bit by bit with a lot of hard work.” Big flashy moves are an easier sell most of the time. But they don’t work nearly as well and are prone to complete and abject failure.

If given a choice between a flashy operator or a grinder, I will take a grinder every time. It is a much higher percentage bet. It requires faith and patience and the results are sometimes hard to see. But if you look at the results from grinding it out over a long enough time frame, you can see the power of that approach.

#entrepreneurship#life lessons#management

Cash Management In Startups

When I was in my mid-20s and had just gotten a job in venture capital, I read a piece on Alan Shugart, the larger than life founder of Seagate, one of the most successful disk drive companies. Alan was quoted as saying that “cash is more important than your mother.” That got my attention because mothers are really important.

Over the years, I have learned what Alan meant. Cash is everything in a startup. It is the fuel that keeps the car running. And startups fail largely because they run out of cash.

I was working with one of our portfolio companies yesterday on a cash forecasting model, a practice that I strongly recommend and appreciate greatly.

Forecasting cash is more art than science, particularly in a growing company where there are all sorts of unpredictable things (revenue, infrastructure costs, hiring pace, receivables, etc).

But like all practices, it is about the practice. You have to engage in cash forecasting, you have to engage in it regularly, you have to adapt to changing conditions on the ground, and you have to internalize the puts and takes and their impact on operations.

When a company gets mature in their business operations, has repeatable revenues, and has a strong balance sheet, you can run the business based on an annual plan or a semi-annual plan.

But early on in a company’s life, you are going to have to operate on an ever changing plan. If the revenues are coming in more slowly, you hire more slowly. If you want to wait another six months to raise more capital, you have to buy that time with changes to the operating model.

That is the back and forth between cash management/forecasting and operating. They go hand in hand.

It all starts with a cash forecasting model. It looks like a forward-looking profit and loss statement. But you do it on a cash basis. And you include balance sheet items like security deposits, equipment purchases, etc in it. Think of it as forecasting your checking account over the next year.

Once you have that, you need to engage in updating the model regularly and it is ideal to do that as a team, or at least with parts of the team, in the room. That makes it abundantly clear to everyone how operational decisions impact cash and runway.

I like a weekly cadence to this process and I like it to happen with the key senior leaders in the room. That may feel like wasting people’s time. But cash is more important than your mother in a startup, so managing it is never a waste of time.

#entrepreneurship#management

No Shenanigans

I was talking to a friend today about company values and how important they are but also how lame so many of them are.

I told him that some of my favorite company values come from our former portfolio company Twilio (which in the spirit of full disclosure I am still a large shareholder of).

Twilio’s founder and CEO Jeff Lawson gave a great talk on company values at USV a few years ago and explained how he approached them. This blog post (and audio post) is about a similar talk he gave at First Round.

Twilio’s company values are shown below:

My favorite of them is “No Shenanigans” which translates to “Be thoughtful. Always deal in an honest, direct, and transparent way.”

It is such a great value. It is memorable. It is broadly applicable. It is interpretable. And I can imagine team members running their decisions against it and getting a helpful result that guides them.

That is what company values are all about at the end of the day – helping people make decisions that everyone in the company will be proud of and supportive of.

Like most things that are incredibly valuable, values are not easy to get right, but they are worth investing a lot of time and energy in.

#entrepreneurship#management