Posts from management

Face To Face

As we all prepare for the fall back to school/back to work season, I thought I’d touch on a topic that has been top of mind for me for the last six months.

The covid pandemic taught many of us that we can be productive and our companies can succeed in a fully remote work environment. But just because you can does not mean you should.

In the venture capital business, this has meant making investments in teams we don’t meet face to face. For founders, this has meant raising rounds from their offices instead of getting on planes.

As the pandemic has eased and offices have gradually reopened over the last year, we are meeting more founders face to face. But we have not gone back to a world where we meet every team we back in person. I don’t think we will ever go fully back to that world.

But even if the way we work has changed permanently, it does not mean that it has changed for the better. I believe that all change has positive and negative impacts. We can meet more founders than we used to. And founders can meet more investors. That is good. But matches are now being made over video and that is not always great.

We know that humans are better to each other in person. We know that in-person interaction is more meaningful, we are more present, and we connect in more fundamental ways.

So I believe that we must work in the coming years to get out of our offices (or homes) and see each other in person more often.

That means we should run fundraising processes that include meeting in person. We can do the initial screens (on both sides) over zoom, but the final selection process should include face-to-face meetings whenever possible. And board meetings should be done in person at least a few times a year. And those in-person meetings should include some social time in addition to business.

For companies, this means hiring should include a face-to-face meeting. Teams should meet in person regularly. Going to the office should be a regular occurrence for those that live near one.

It is time to get back to the office, at least some of the time. It will make for better business. And I also think it will make us happier at work.

#entrepreneurship#management#VC & Technology

Remote, Hybrid, or In-Person?

We have been watching our portfolio of ~130 technology companies wrestle with this decision for the last two and a half years. Brought on by the covid pandemic and the work from home moment that it created, there has been a sea change in the way that technology companies organize themselves to get work done.

Ben Horowitz observed this in a piece last week where he described A16Z’s decision to embrace a hybrid model that he called “HQ in the Cloud.”

It turns out that running a technology company remotely works pretty darned well. It’s not perfect, but mitigating the cultural issues associated with remote work turns out to be easier than mitigating the employee satisfaction issues associated with forcing everyone into the office 5 days/week. 

https://a16z.com/2022/07/21/a16z-is-moving-to-the-cloud/

Most people are happier having a lot of flexibility around where they work. We have seen that people who are raising families have benefitted from the flexibility of working closer to where their families are and the ability to be somewhere quickly. But that is only one example of why flexibility around where you work is so powerful. Many job functions require, or at least benefit from, the ability to concentrate without interruption or distraction. A quiet home office is vastly better than a busy open workspace for that kind of work.

And then there is the commute. I am writing this on a commuter train heading into NYC. For a time in my life, I took a train like this into the city every morning at 6am and got back on it to go home at 6pm. It was almost an hour each way, so I spent almost two hours a day, five days a week, commuting. This can be a productive time, particularly if you are commuting on mass transit like I am right now, but many people don’t have convenient mass transit options in their lives and must drive to and from work, often in traffic. Eliminating the need to commute to the office might be the single best reason that people are happier having a lot of flexibility around where they work.

The numbers are telling. As of this spring, only 38% of NYC office workers were in their office on a given day based on this survey by the Partnership For NYC (a leading business group in NYC). The numbers are similar in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Some cities around the US have much higher numbers but I have not seen any city higher than 70% on this score.

The Partnership concluded that remote work is here to stay:

Remote work is here to stay, with 78% of employers indicating a hybrid office model will be their predominant post-pandemic policy, up from just 6% pre-pandemic.

https://pfnyc.org/research/return-to-office-survey-results-may-2022/

But I want to return to Ben’s quote and talk about the cultural issues. I don’t believe we (the tech sector broadly) have done a good job of “mitigating the cultural issues with remote work.” I think a lot of the challenging morale and retention situations in our portfolio and across the tech sector suggest the opposite is true.

Here is the quandry we face:

People are happier with flexibility around where they work.

Companies, teams, and organizations are happier when people are working together.

Aren’t companies just collections of people? Yes. But groups of happier people are less happy together when they don’t get the face time that makes group dynamics easier.

We all know that people are nicer to each other in person. Email and slack and zoom don’t bring out the best in people. Having a meal together does.

So what should we do about this quandry?

I don’t think the answer is restricting flexibility around where people work. That feels like table stakes now for knowledge workers. I think the answer is figuring out how to get people back together more frequently in ways they want to convene in person.

There are many ways to do this and we have seen some good ones.

At USV, we have two days a week where we meet together and as a group with founders (Mondays and Thursdays) and those days tend to be much more popular to be in the office. We don’t require people to come to the office on those days, but we do see that most people opt into coming in those days. We also make sure to order a great lunch on Mondays and Thursdays. We could and probably should add an after-work happy hour and/or sports teams/leagues to make those days even more attractive to the team. The basic idea is to make coming to the office an attractive option a few days a week.

One USV portfolio CEO suggested a great idea in a CEO zoom we organized on this topic a year or so ago. He said that he wanted his teams to come together for a week at the start of a project and again for a week at the end of a project. He wanted them to be together to kick it off and again to ship it. I think that’s a great idea and have been encouraging the teams that I work with to do that.

Our portfolio companies used to do exec team offsites a few times a year. A few of them are now doing them monthly. That makes sense to me. I can’t imagine an effective exec team that isn’t in person together at least once a month. And yet so many of the exec teams I have exposure to are not spending nearly enough time together right now and have not for the last few years. This same thought can be extrapolated to any team in any company.

Those are just some examples of things that can be done and should be done to get people working together again in an age of remote work that is not going to end. I am sure there are many other great techniques and if you lead a company and/or an HR team, you should be collecting and using as many of them as you can right now.

At USV, we feel pretty strongly that getting people back to working together in person is important to the success of our portfolio companies and the broader tech sector. So we recently opened our new office in NYC that is designed to host individuals and teams from our portfolio and the broader tech ecosystem that need somewhere nice to work together. Think WeWork meets SohoHouse meets VC firm. We are still working out the kinks this summer and plan to open it up more broadly in the fall. Stay tuned for more on that here and elsewhere.

All change has good and bad downstream effects. The broad-based adoption of remote work in the tech sector (and beyond) is allowing people to balance work and home life in ways that are extremely beneficial to them. But team morale and the broader cultural needs of companies have suffered and we need to recognize that and address it. We can’t accept that as the new norm. It is unacceptable the way it is right now. A hybrid model that provides continued flexibility while creating a lot more face time is the long-term answer and we must keep innovating until we find the right balance.

#employment#enterprise#management#VC & Technology

A Return To Fundamentals

I wrote a fair bit last year about the disconnect between how companies were being valued and the fundamentals of those businesses. It seemed to me that many companies, from the founders, to the leadership teams, and the rank and file employees got more focused on raising capital and valuations than the basics of a business (people, product, customers, revenues, profits, etc).

That is starting to shift. I can feel it. With the public markets bringing high flyers back to reality, you can now buy the best companies out there at multiples of earnings and profits that make some sense in a historical context. And we are seeing reports that many mutual funds and hedge funds are leaving the private markets because the values in the public markets are so compelling. All of this is healthy.

Vitalik Buterin, the founder of the Ethereum project, said this at ETH Denver this past week.

The winters are the time when a lot of those applications fall away and you can see which projects are actually long-term sustainable, like both in their models and in their teams and their people

Vitalik was talking about a “crypto winter” but the basic point is more broadly applicable.

Business models need to be sustainable. Teams need to stick together and ship things. The fundamentals need to be in place for a business to succeed. All the money in the world at eye-popping valuations won’t do that for you.

I have no idea if we are in for another crypto winter. I have no idea if the stock market will continue to go down. I have no idea if the slump in the public markets will seep into the private markets. All of those questions are above my pay grade.

What I do know is that the businesses that focus on the fundamentals will succeed in any market, up or down. And I do feel that there is more of that going on in 2022 than we saw in 2020 and 2021 and that’s a very good thing.

#entrepreneurship#management#VC & Technology

NFPs

Early in my career, I was taught that any team member was replaceable and that as long as you had sufficient time to find a suitable replacement, you would be fine. I have operated on that basis since then, imparted that wisdom to the founders and teams that I work with, and have always advocated for that approach to management.

But I have learned that on any team there are always a few members who are extremely difficult to replace. While most team members are “fungible”, there are always a few “non-fungible people” and retaining these NFPs can be incredibly important to the long-term success of the business.

The first, and most important, NFP is the founder. The person who originally conceived of the opportunity, recruited the first few team members, scoped (and often built) the first product, brings immense value to the business, mostly around long-term vision, setting the culture and values, and knowing when something is “off.” Retaining the founder’s interest in and involvement with the business is critical. There are times when the founder is bringing more difficulty to the business than value and they should depart. But those situations are to be avoided if possible because of how important a founder is to the business.

NFPs are usually individual contributors, not managers. The management function is much easier to replace than a uniquely skilled individual. A common mistake that I and others have made is to promote an NFP into management when they are much happier not managing people. A classic role for an NFP is the CTO of the business. In this role, the person sets the overall technology direction of the business, makes the hardest technical decisions, builds technology themselves, but does not manage the engineering function. In many companies, the CTO has no direct reports.

You can find NFPs in any part of the company. They are not limited to technical functions. You can have an NFP in customer service, finance, legal, marketing, really anywhere. The key is to identify them and recognize them, reward them, compensate them, and retain them.

More and more companies are moving to compensation models where critical individual contributors can make as much, or more, than their manager or any manager. This has long been common in sales where commission models create such opportunities and where there are often NFPs, but I am seeing more and more companies recognize that simply compensating people on the basis of their management level is incorrect and leads to their best people moving into management, underperforming in that role, and departing.

NFPs are pretty rare. Most people are easily replaceable given sufficient time to do a proper search. But there are always a few people who are not replaceable. Identifying them and retaining them should be a key goal of the management of the business.

#management

The Pull Forward

I saw two charts last week that showed the same thing:

This chart was in the deck I shared here last week called Consumer Trends 2022. It shows that after a big lift in 2020 and a bit of a lull in 2021, the e-commerce trendline is back to its old baseline.

This is our portfolio company DuckDuckGo‘s search traffic curve, available here, on a ten-day moving average. You can see after a huge move up in late 2020, it had a pullback in early 2021 and has now gotten back on its normal growth curve.

Both of these are examples of what is called “the pull forward”, an event or a series of events that draws a large and unsustainable boost of new users. It is often followed by a lull where growth is flat or even down for a while, but then the normal growth pattern resumes.

We have seen curves like this throughout our portfolio this year as the pandemic and other factors (in DuckDuckGo’s case the presidential election also played a big part) have whipsawed growth curves. It feels great when things are growing faster than ever. It feels bad when things are flat or down.

My suspicion is a lot of these odd-looking curves are going to resume their normal shapes in 2022 when things gradually start to normalize.

The last two years have been a challenge to manage through. There have been endless curveballs coming our way. Boom and bust. It is important to see things for what they are and not get too up or down in times like this.

#management

Founder Led Companies

I remember about fifteen years ago, a well-known VC said to me “you need to sell a company within a few years of the founder leaving. Companies can’t sustain their innovation after a founder leaves.” I told that VC that my experience has been different on that measure and that I did not agree.

I have seen leadership teams take over great businesses from founders and get them to the next level. Etsy, where I am Chair of the Board and a large shareholder, is a great example of that. There are many others in my career as well.

However, there is a special something that founders provide companies. I’ve heard it called “moral leadership.” I’ve heard it called “the soul of the business.” I’ve heard it called “long-term thinking.”

This podcast with Brian Armstrong, founder and CEO of Coinbase, another public company where I am on the Board and a large shareholder, is a good example of that.

If you are into crypto or a Coinbase shareholder, you might want to watch the entire one hour and forty minutes of this video.

But if you want to see what I am talking about with founder-led businesses, there are a few conversations in this podcast I would direct you to. They are:

  • 25:48 The Drive and Vision
  • 29:36 The Future of Coinbase
  • 47:30 Public Goods & Decentralization
  • 51:39 Eating All the Banks
  • 1:32:12 Maturing and Growing

#crypto#entrepreneurship#management

Office Utilization

I saw a statistic from one of our larger portfolio companies yesterday. They have had their offices around the world open for some time now with office usage optional. They are seeing office utilization rates of around “20-30%.” They are also seeing “flexibility” as the number one issue in recruiting new talent.

That was interesting to me because we are seeing a much higher office utilization at USV. We kept our offices open for much of the last 18 months and encouraged a return to the office once we were all vaccinated in early April. On most days, we see about half of our team coming into the office. I think that number was higher in the spring and will be higher in the fall. We also see friends in the VC business and startup world working at our office from time to time and that has been fantastic.

We have also seen that office utilization is much higher for our team members that live in NYC vs the suburbs, which is not surprising. This chart says it all:

We surveyed our portfolio companies last month on the topic of their work environment plans. We got 56 responses which is a tad under 50% of our active portfolio so this data could be off a bit. But it is interesting. Pre-pandemic, 75% of these respondents were fully “in office” with most of the rest using some sort of hybrid model. Very few were fully remote. Now the distribution looks like this:

That is a dramatic change from the pre-pandemic norm. I am sure that there will be some movement back to the office when we get to a new normal, whatever and whenever that is, but no matter what, tech companies have moved away from the “fully in-person” model and that will mean very different office utilization models.

We also asked our portfolio companies about “seat to employee” ratios and got these responses:

For those companies that will continue to have an office, it looks like the average seat to employee ratio nets out around 65%. And that is for the 75% of the respondents that plan to have some sort of office.

At USV, we are taking a contrarian approach to the office. We plan to build a new office that can seat 100% of our employees and we want to be able to host board meetings and other events frequently. We are also looking at other ways to invite the broader “community” to work and be at USV regularly.

But that does not mean we will expect our employees to be at the office every day. We understand that those with long commutes and children or parents at home need more flexibility and we have seen that providing that flexibility builds loyalty and commitment. So we will continue to support that way of working.

Startups and high-growth companies seem to have embraced fully or partially remote models for the most part in an attempt to attract and retain talent and leverage the increased productivity that comes from eliminating long and painful commute times.

But that doesn’t mean an office isn’t a good thing from time to time. It may be that organizations that support startups and high-growth companies, like USV, can step into the mix and be part of that answer. That is an interesting idea to me and one that USV is looking at right now.

#Current Affairs#management#VC & Technology

Sticking With The Plan

Managing a business is about having a plan, sticking with it, and not panicking or looking for hail mary passes. There are no silver bullets or shortcuts to success in life. You need to have a five to ten-year plan and you need to stick with it and execute against it day after day, week after week, year after year.

I was reminded of this watching my NY Knicks navigate the off-season after making the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The Knicks front office stuck with the core of the team, kept all of their young talent, and upgraded significantly at point guard and small forward. They also do not have a guaranteed contract that extends beyond the 2022-2023 season.

I am sure it was tempting to think about accelerating the plan after a season that went better than anyone was expecting. I am sure that they thought about taking bigger risks and going for broke now. But I am glad they did not do that.

Instead, they rewarded players like Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel who were a big part of getting them into the playoffs with multi-year contracts, they got Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier as upgrades at point guard and small forward, and kept all of their youngsters.

That’s a model for how to think about building a business and a leadership team. It is much more likely that you can get a win with a five-year plan than a one-year plan. And you need to build your team over time, developing promising talent, and making smart upgrades when they are required.

There are times when you need to throw in the towel on the plan, blow things up, and execute a turnaround. That usually comes with new leadership at the top and a new five-year plan. But that should be rare and done only when it is clear that the current plan is not working.

When the current plan is working, even better than expected, it is best to stick with it, make incremental improvements here and there, and keep at it.

#management#Sports

Leaving Well

I have watched countless companies and leadership teams manage transitions over the years and I have come to believe that companies and leaders should do everything they can to promote “leaving well.”

What I mean by “leaving well” is a smooth transition of a leader out of a role/company. This typically means that a departing leader gives a company a heads up that they are planning to transition out, that news is shared broadly internally, allowing for a transparent process to find a new leader. A similar process is used to transition a leader out when a new one is needed.

For this to work, companies need to do their part to facilitate this process. This means reacting well to the news that an executive would like to move on. It can also include a financial incentive to stick around during a transition. A culture that embraces leaving well puts everyone in a better place during transitions.

There are certainly times when leaving well is not possible. If an executive is terminated for reasons that require an immediate departure, there is no way to execute a smooth transition.

It is also the case that an executive could get an offer that requires an immediate start date that they feel that they have to accept. This is exactly the kind of thing a tradition and culture of leaving well is designed to prevent. Generally speaking, it is preferable to run a process to find your next role versus accepting an offer that comes in unsolicited. If a company has a culture of leaving well, executives will feel that they have the option of running a process versus accepting an offer that comes at them.

It is best to set this culture up at the very beginning. Precedent is powerful. If people see that others have been treated well on the way out, they will be more comfortable being open and honest. If people see the opposite, then they will be more mercenary in their actions.

Cultures that allow for open honest transitions are better places to work and easier companies to manage. Nobody likes a fire drill. Sometimes you have no choice, but if your company has them all of the time, it is a tough place to be.

#life lessons#management

Startup CXO

On Monday, a copy of Startup CXO, my friend Matt Blumberg’s new book, arrived at the USV office. I picked it up to take a quick look and thought “this a heavy book!”

So I texted Matt, congratulated him on getting the book out, and then asked why it was so heavy. He replied “because it is 640 pages, there is a section on every C-level function in that book.”

That’s when I realized that Startup CXO is not really a book. It’s a “field manual” to scaling a leadership team and company. It is the kind of book you will keep by your desk and pull out from time to time to figure out how to approach an issue or to help one of your senior leaders figure out how to do that.

And in that context, it’s a very valuable resource for CEOs and leadership teams as they scale a company and find new challenges around every corner.

The book is now out in Kindle and Hardcover. I recommend the Hardcover so you can keep it handy and pull it out from time to time when you need a quick primer on something.

#Books#entrepreneurship#management