Posts from 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.

Priorities

It is planning season when management teams work to develop the roadmap for the coming year.

The truth is that it is hard to do more than two or three big things at a time, no matter how large you are.

So it is important to put all of the things that the business needs or wants to do on the table and have a vigorous debate about them and then pick a few priorities to focus on.

Saying no to things that you really want to do is the telltale sign of a good planning process. Saying yes to too many things is the telltale sign of a poor planning process.

What makes this process particularly hard is that there are often a few things that the business has to do and there is no way to delay them. These must do efforts can often crowd out the should do projects and that leads to a lack of forward progress.

The lens through which I evaluate plans is as follows. First there should be a few well defined priorities. I like two or three but four can work. Five starts to be a problem. At least one and possibly two should be must do things the existing business requires and cannot be put off. And there should be at least one big new effort that will move the business forward.

Planning is so important. When you get the plan right, execution becomes so much easier. I have found that poor execution is most often a function of poor planning and trying to do too much without clear priorities. Even the strongest operators struggle in a situation like that.

What You Do Is Who You Are

This past summer I read a proof of Ben Horowitz’s new book, What You Do Is Who You Are, and I even blogged about it here without naming the book.

What You Do is about culture, how you make it, how you keep it, and how the big decisions you make and how you explain them set the culture in your organization.

To explain this Ben tells the story of four different cultures that were set by strong leaders:

– the leader of the only successful slave revolt, Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture

– the Samurai, who ruled Japan for seven hundred years and shaped modern Japanese culture

– Genghis Khan, who built the world’s largest empire

– Shaka Senghor, a man convicted of murder who ran the most formidable prison gang in the yard and ultimately transformed prison culture.

https://www.amazon.com/What-You-Do-Who-Are/dp/0062871331/

These stories really make it clear how you set and keep your culture. You will come away from this book with a clear understanding of how your actions will set the culture in your company.

I read Ben’s interview with Connie Loizos and I like what he said here about why he wrote the book:

First, it was the thing that I had the most difficult time with as a CEO. People would say, ‘Ben, pay attention to culture, it really is the key.’ But when you were like, ‘Okay, great, how do i do that?’ it was like, ‘Um, maybe you should have a meeting about it.’ Nobody could convey: what it was, how you dealt with it, how you designed it. So I felt like I was missing a piece of my own education.
Also, when I look at the work I do now, it’s the most important thing. What I say to people at the firm is that nobody 10 or 20 or 30 years from now is going to remember what deals we’ve won or lost or what the returns were on this or that. You’re going to remember what it felt like to work here and to do business with us and what kind of imprint we put on the world. And that’s our culture. That’s our behavior. We can’t have any drift from that. And I think that’s true for every company.

So if you leading your company and you are thinking “ok, great, how do I do that?”, then go get this book and read it. I think you will come away with a much better understanding of what culture is all about.

Principles Over Profit

I was pleased to see NBA Commissioner Adam Silver say this with respect to the controversy over Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the protest movement in Hong Kong:

The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say. We simply could not operate that way.

The NBA faces the potential of a backlash in China that could impact the league’s business interests there.

That could reduce the profits of the league and players and owners.

But the NBA is putting principles over profits here and that is a good thing.

We have faced this issue a number of times over the years at USV and we have tried to do the same.

We have also been on boards of companies that have faced this issue over the years and we have advocated for this approach.

It is not an easy choice. Companies have employees to pay, families to feed, and customers to serve. And principles are not always shared by everyone and the lines are not always clear

But one thing is for sure. The search for profits can lead a founder, a CEO, a team, a Board, and a Company to forget their principles and that is never a good thing.

Why Positive Cashflow Matters

Venture backed companies have a strange relationship to positive cashflow. Because they have financial backers who can and do finance losses, they tend to operate in the red for a long time.

In the early days it makes sense to burn cash. If you do not have revenues, you can’t generate cash. And if you can’t grow your revenues without investing out ahead of income, then you also need to be able to operate in the red.

But I have often felt that this muscle memory of investing for growth at the expense of profits can become, and does become, a habit that is hard to break.

If you have positive cashflow, you can control the timing and terms of your capital raises.

If you have positive cashflow, you can buy back your stock if any comes into the market at prices that you and your Board feels is below fair value.

If you have positive cashflow, you can borrow against it to purchase other companies or finance capital requirements.

If you have positive cash flow you can offer cash incentive compensation in lieu of ever more expensive equity compensation.

I could go on, but I suspect you get the point. Positive cash flow puts you on control versus the capital markets.

And that is a very valauble position to be in and one that a number of high flying tech companies probably wish they were in right now.

Scaling In Lower Cost Locations

This is a topic I’ve written about a bunch over the years. I feel like it is becoming more urgent every day.

Last week I heard some shocking numbers about salary levels for certain kinds of engineers in the bay area. I checked them out with a few of our bay area portfolio companies and they were more or less corroborated.

The tight technical labor markets in the bay area, NYC, and a number of other regions in the US are making it hard to scale software businesses without burning massive amounts of cash.

At the same time, we see a growing number of our portfolio companies succeeding with scaling engineering/technical teams in secondary labor markets in the US, as well as going outside of the US to build engineering locations.

I feel that the ability to spin up and then successfully operate remote engineering locations is a skill that technology companies need to develop earlier in their development than used to be the case.

It seems to me that once you get to 100-200 people (or 50+ engineers), you should be thinking about this. The most important thing is not where you put your first remote location. The most important thing is learning how to do this successfully. Because once you can do it in one location, you most likely can do it successfully in multiple locations.

This post explains how Stripe (a USV portfolio company) started with remote engineering hubs in Seattle, Dublin, and Singapore, and then evolved into a structure that supports remote workers anywhere.

The move from a centralized engineering structure to a decentralized one is a process and takes time to get right. And so I think it is best to start building those capabilities long before they become necessary.

Risk Tolerance

Startup companies go through a number of phases as they mature from an idea, to a small team, to a growing team, to a small company, to a big company.

And along this journey, the leadership team you need changes. You need little to no leadership structure when you have a small team, you need some sort of leadership structure when your team is growing, you absolutely need a leadership team when you become a “company”, and the leadership team becomes incredibly important when you become a big company.

In the last week, I’ve had several conversations with CEOs in our portfolio who are leveling up their leadership teams and are recruiting executives from larger organizations.

I’ve counseled them to make sure that they hire executives who have a lot of risk tolerance.

High growth companies that emerge from a startup situation tend to be volatile. They have a lot of turnover in their organization, they have moments when the cash balances get low, they sometimes face existential risks.

If you have executives that you need to spend a lot of time comforting and solidifying, that’s not good. Ideally your leadership team is your steadying force and if you are steadying them, then your setup is suboptimal.

It is always tempting to bring in people who have operated at a scale well beyond where you are. And I am not saying you should not do that. You should. But just make sure they can handle the heat in the kitchen because it’s gonna get hot sometimes.

Striking The Right Balance

I was talking recently to a friend who advises a lot of boards. I asked him his view on boards overall.

He said that he saw two styles, both of which he found problematic.

The first style is the “rubber stamp board” that does whatever the CEO asks of them.

The second style is the “meddling board” that acts like it is running the business.

He told me he sees very few boards that manage to strike the right balance.

I sit on a lot of boards and have been doing so for thirty years now. I have been on rubber stamp boards and I have been on meddling boards. And I agree that both are problematic.

What I have learned over the years from those not great experiences is that boards must respect the line between governance and management and never cross it. But they also must govern. They must push back on things that don’t make sense and they must exercise the authority that has been vested in them by the shareholders.

This need to strike the right balance exists in many other contexts in our lives. It is the essence of good parenting. It is the essence of good management.

To a large extent boards reflect the CEOs that report to them. Strong willed successful CEOs can often construct rubber stamp boards because that is what they want. And weak ineffective CEOs find themselves with meddling boards who are trying to manage the poorly managed company from above.

Neither of these situations is good. The weak and ineffective CEO should be replaced by the board instead of trying to manage from above.

And the strong willed CEO must have checks and balances placed on them, no matter how well they are doing.

A great board chair can be transformative for a board. They can stop the meddling and force the necessary management changes. And they can stand up to a strong willed CEO and build the trust and respect that can lead to a well functioning board.

This is why I do not believe that CEOs should chair their boards. They should find someone who has a lot of board experience, knows how to strike the right balance, and vest in them the authority to lead the board to the right place.

I have been on boards that do strike the right balance and are chaired properly. It is a pleasure to work on these boards and a well functioning board is a thing of beauty. Every CEO should want one.

Employee Equity: How Much?

I wrote a blog post about this topic in November 2010 that has become one of the most searched on and referenced AVC posts of all time. The numbers in that blog post are long out of date and so I now have a popup on it warning people not to use those numbers. However, the methodology in that blog post remains sound and is used by many startup companies.

Yesterday, Matt Cooper, the CEO of our portfolio company Skillshare, published a very detailed blog post on how Skillshare uses that methodology in their employee equity program.

He includes updated multipliers for the NYC startup market in that post, which is something many readers have been asking me for over the last few years.

The reality is that these multipliers differ from market to market. They are highest in the Bay Area, high in NYC/LA/Boston, and lower in other parts of the US and in Europe, and even lower in other parts of the world. And, like all markets, they change over time. So it is hard to maintain a valid set of multipliers and I have given up on doing that. A startup could be created to maintain those numbers, or an established company like Carta, which has access to the raw data, could do it.

But even with the vagaries of what multipliers to use, the methodology that I laid out in my initial blog post on the topic is best practice in my view and anyone who is struggling to figure out how much equity to be offering employees would be well served by reading Matt’s post.

Video Of The Week: CEO AMA

AMA stands for “Ask Me Anything.” I have noticed a trend of CEOs doing these AMAs for their customers and broader stakeholder communities.

A good example of a CEO who is doing this is Brian Armstrong, CEO of our portfolio company Coinbase.

Brian has been doing this for several months. You can see all of them on their YouTube channel.

Here is the one he did with LJ Brock, Coinbase’s Chief People Officer, yesterday.