Posts from management

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.

The Heretic

I am reading a friend’s book which is still in proofs and so I’m not going to talk about it yet.

But there is one part of the book that really rang true for me and that is when he talks about certain kinds of problematic employees, particularly one he calls The Heretic.

This kind of employee, and we have all seen this up close, is negative about the Company and disses the management, coworkers, the board, the strategy, the workplace, and everything else under the sun. But for some reason the heretic prefers to stay and be miserable than to move on and find another place to work that is more to their liking.

My friend states in his book that you have to part ways with heretics in your company, regardless of how talented they are, how connected they are, and even if they are protected in some way. You have to find a way out of the heretic mess.

I agree with this advice and I have seen this play out in many ways. The worst way is to let this behavior go on unchecked. As painful as parting can be, and it can be incredibly painful depending on the circumstances, letting this behavior stand is worse.

Sick Day

I woke up sick this morning and could not fly to Toronto where I was planning to do a session at Collision with Matt Glotzbach, CEO of our portfolio company Quizlet.

I sent some emails to let people know I could not make it and went back to bed and slept for another few hours and I feel a bit better.

I do this to myself a few times a year when life gets hectic. The good news is that Memorial Day Weekend is upon us and that means some much needed R&R.

Speaking of Matt Glotzbach, here is a video that Matt and Quizlet’s founder Andrew Sutherland did three years ago to introduce Matt to the Quizlet community. It does a great job of showcasing Matt’s personality and strengths (and Andrew’s too).

Followership

In evaluating leaders, at the top of a company, or in the ranks of company leadership, an important quality that I look for is followership. Specifically, will the team line up behind this person?

Of course, leaders have to have other qualities. They need to have domain expertise if they are leading a specific function, they need to understand the needs of the business and the sector that it is operating in, and many other things too.

But what I have learned is that followership is super important. If the team doesn’t line up behind a leader, it is extremely hard for them to be effective.

For internal promotions, it is relatively easy to see followership and promote people who have it. You can also help people develop the management skills (listening, communicating, etc) that lead to strong followership.

When hiring someone from the outside, determining if they will have followership is harder. You can reference for this quality. But to some extent followership is a function of the culture of the organization. Someone who had strong followership in one kind of organization may not find it in another one.

It can take a leader some time to develop followership, particularly if they are hired from the outside. The team will need some time to figure out this new person, how they operate, and how they feel about them. But if a new leader has not developed the followership they need to lead the organization, or a part of the organization, within six to nine months after joining, then it is likely that a change will need to be made.

When developing your own organization and internal leaders, you should be very specific about followership and the need to develop it on your team. You should help mentor and coach younger managers on how to develop it and you should move quickly on leaders who don’t have it and won’t develop it on their teams.

It is always so impressive to me to see what leaders with strong followership can accomplish, when everyone is lined up behind them and delivering on what they ask of the organization. That is what I would wish for every organization, but sadly many don’t have it and they underperform as a result.

The Heartbeat (Continued)

I wrote a post last year called The Heartbeat in which I advocated for a cadence and a rhythm in an organization.

I was reminded of that in this exchange on Twitter over the last 24 hours:

Many of USV’s portfolio companies use an OKR process to create this rhythm in their teams. What I have learned from watching these companies and listening to how the teams talk about the OKR process is that to some extent it is “form over substance” in that the process is ultimately more important than the specific objectives and key results that flow through the process.

I am not saying that teams shouldn’t be thoughtful in setting objectives and committed to hitting them. They should.

But I am saying that the regular setting of objectives (quarterly is a time frame most companies use) and the weekly or bi-weekly reporting against them is the most valuable thing that comes from the process. It sets the heartbeat and keeps it. And that is so valuable.

Many VC firms, including USV, use a weekly team meeting, often on Mondays, to align the group, report on the week that has past, and focus on the week to come. That weekly cadence allows us to be responsive to entrepreneurs, come to relatively quick decisions as a group, and stay in sync.

Public companies report on a quarterly basis. That rhythm sets up a cadence of setting expectations (guidance) and reporting on results (earnings reports). It is not entirely different from the OKR process in a few important ways. It creates a cadence that is super valuable for execution and performance.

I am a fan of all of these processes. They set a cadence and rhythm for an organization and force decision making and provide for timely execution.

The best companies master this and working in those organizations is fun and rewarding. Setting objectives and meeting them on a regular basis is a virtuous system that brings out the best in people and teams.