Why Are You Here?

It’s a question that should be expressly discussed and understood by leadership team members in a startup, particularly amongst the founders.  It was the first agenda item at my first leadership meeting at BlackLocus and it ended up setting the tone for the rest of the day.  From that 15 minute discussion, I feel like I know my team members more deeply and can now focus on helping them achieve their aspirations.

Why is this question so important for me to understand in an early stage company?  Because I’m getting ready to go to battle with this handful of individuals and I must understand the level of motivation, commitment, passion and what drives someone to participate in the inherent ambiguous, stressful and all-consuming experience that a startup demands.

I’ve participated in a handful of these discussions in the past and they go one of two ways.  The abysmally useless way is when you go around the room and everyone says something to the effect of “I just want to build a great company” or “I love startups”.  The refreshingly transparent way is when you create a safe environment for full disclosure of both ego and monetary goals.  It’s perfectly OK to say, “I want to make a shitload of money by building a valuable company”.  In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was my turn.  Its about creating a culture of transparency, honesty and mutual respect from the get-go.

A week later, I still remember precisely what each of my colleagues want to achieve from this experience.   One of the most honest and interesting aspirations I’ve ever heard came out of this session.  One person wanted to build a successful enough legacy to be invited to give a University commencement speech.  Not only is that honest, but its so cool and inspiring that I want to help them achieve it.

Love What You Do

In the words of Steve Jobs a great quote sent to me yesterday by my new partner Rodrigo:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.  If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.  Don’t settle.  As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.  And, like any great relationship, it just gets better as the years roll on.”

The world, not just the tech world, lost a true visionary and inspiring leader yesterday.  Just think about the past 10 years and the positive impact Apple’s products have had on most of our lives – Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.  How many of you found out about Job’s passing on one of his devices?  I did.

Even if Jobs has not been iconic for you personally, I highly recommend taking 15 minutes to view his Stanford commencement speech from 2005 imbedded below.  One of the best, most direct “experience life” speeches, not just about enjoying your work but truly enjoying life – and poignant given his passing.

Where’s Your Operating Plan?

Every business needs a 12-month operating plan, even startups at the earliest stages.  The only major difference between a startup Operating Plan (OpPlan) and a mature OpPlan is that the startup OpPlan will inevitably be wrong.  Then why do it?  Because it represents a stake in the ground, your living metrics, targets and milestones so that when targets are either missed or exceeded, it forces an internal review of “why” and then “how” to make adjustments to keep the business performance on track.  I’m going to focus here on the importance of OpPlans for early stage businesses.

First, what is an OpPlan for an early stage or emerging business?  Probably the most common mistake I see is equating the OpPlan to the 3-5 year financial projections spreadsheet that every startup creates to raise money.  While these projections are incredibly useful and contain many of the assumptions that go into the OpPlan, the OpPlan requires an extraction of key assumptions in written form that is easily communicated to everyone in the organization and certain external stakeholders (investors, Board).  Specifically, the 12-month OpPlan contains the following – think of it as an outline for a powerpoint presentation to share with employees:

  1. Statement of Vision, Mission and Strategy.  At the highest level, these should be really clear and posted on a few walls in the office.  How can you know what to do today if you don’t know where you are going and why?
  2. Core 12-month Objectives.  This should be 5 or fewer major objectives for the business that, if achieved, will define success over the next 12 months, at least based on what you know now.  They ought to be completely consistent with point #1 above.  These are not activities or tasks but rather major objectives (ie, “Achieve 5% market share in our category”).  They don’t describe the “how”, just the “what” and since there’s only 5, key stakeholders (Board, investors) should view the achievement of these objectives as a highly successful month/quarter/year.
  3. Key Initiatives and Priorities.  For the current quarter and in order to meet the Objectives, what are the key Priorities and Initiatives that the team will focus on?  We are now breaking down the Objectives in #2 into a manageable set of Initiatives, answering the “how”.  This list becomes the ultimate arbiter when resource conflicts arise (and they will).  Completion of these Initiatives should absolutely result in performance against the Key Metrics (discussed below).  These corporate Key Initiatives then drive more detailed plans within each functional area – Sales and Product priorities drive the product roadmap, which in turn helps to prioritize the Technology, Analytics, Support and Marketing/PR initiatives.
  4. Key Metrics, Target Values and Accountability.  For each Objective in #2, what must be measured (Metric) and what are the Target Values for each Metric that ensure the Objectives are met?  And who is responsible for achieving each Target Value?  Important to track Metrics monthly, understand why there are variances and, most important, take decisive action to address under-performance.  Examples of corporate metrics might be # customers, average revenue per customer, visitor conversion to sale %, hire 10 people, etc.  Ultimately, each functional area (sales, tech, marketing, support) will have their own set of Metrics and Targets that roll up into achieving the overall corporate Targets.
  5. Financial Projections / Budget.  To include Revenue and Expense targets and assumptions.  There are really two methods for determining Revenue projections – “Top Down” and “Bottoms Up” – and I think its important to have a view into both because they often tell different stories.  Top Down approaches begin with understanding the potential market size, assuming some penetration or market share to determine Revenue growth.  Bottoms Up, on the other hand, starts with understanding the sales cycle, product development complexity and available capital to determine a more “reasonable” picture of Revenue scale.   Another way to think about it – Top Down shows “what’s possible” in a world of few constraints and Bottoms Up is more in line with “what’s achievable” being more realistic about resource constraints.  But having a view into both allows for some analysis to answer the question “What additional resources would it require (money, people, technology) to scale the business faster?”

Finally, I highly recommend creating a “One Sheet OpPlan”, a 2-sided but one page document that has Key Initiatives and Priorities for the current period (quarterly) on the front and Key Metrics and Target Values on the back.  This document gets distributed to ALL employees so everyone is fully informed and aligned on what drives success and, more importantly, how individual efforts tie directly or indirectly to certain Objectives that drive that success.

This important process and document really forms the basis for instilling a Performance Based Culture within the organization by tying individual performance and compensation to company Objectives.

Detractors may say that this is all too much structure and process for a startup where you are simply trying to get the product right and achieve some customer traction.  I would agree that putting too much effort into planning when you are a team of 2 or 3 is probably not the highest and best use of time.  However, while the need for this level of thought into the business may vary, certainly by the time you are taking external capital into the business its important that everyone is aligned on where the business is going and what defines success in the near term, even if success is defined by “get 2 paying customers”.  Even an objective this simple requires sales, a product, technology reliability and scale, support, design, analytics, etc. such that each department has a list a mile long of things they can’t get accomplished due to resource constraints.  A well constructed OpPlan helps to coordinate priorities across departments and keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Are You Working in a Performance Based Culture?

Or in a culture that rewards based on popularity or some other subjective measures?

I’ve had several vastly different experiences in organizations that preached “we are building a Performance Based Culture (PBC)” and generally I don’t think there’s any confusion or lack of understanding about what it is.  The problem, and where I’ve seen it break down, is a poor execution by 1) not putting in place the key ingredients to enable employees to truly understand how their actions will be measured and rewarded and 2) inconsistent and subjective evaluations by leadership.  This last point is the cultural kiss of death for having employees believe that true performance will be rewarded.  Just because you are told you work in a PBC by a C-level executive doesn’t mean you do.  So for startups, why is an explicit transition and focus on building a real PBC important?

Most successful startups go through a few phases of growth that inevitably leads to varying degrees of erosion of the talent level as the team grows, particularly if the team grows quickly and can’t hire staff fast enough.  At the early stages, the right way to hire is to be ruthless about hiring only the best – test everyone extensively in specific skills, intellect, skills flexibility and cultural fit.  Individual performance metrics are less important as everyone is hunkered down to build the product and achieve product/market fit.  And, everyone on the team in the early days has to be a star, their work is too important and is seen and experienced daily by everyone else.  An explicit focus on PBC is not necessary, it simply already exists.  However, over time the organization passes through two important phases that require changes in leadership both of the business and of people.

  1. Rapid scale in employees.  For hyper-growth companies at roughly 20-25 employees (and urgently going to 50 or more), it becomes impossible for the “entire team” to interview every candidate and hiring velocity becomes a gating factor to progress.  Thus compromises tend to be made, B & C level talent sneaks in and because the company is growing so fast, its requires a heroic effort to instill a culture of “firing fast” for mediocre performance.  The result, you end up with some “hangers-on” employees that are not horrible at what they do, but they certainly are not leaders and innovators that will propel the company forward.
  2. Different skills required to scale the business – particularly on the leadership team.  In the best run organizations, this is the time that a more disciplined approach to managing the business takes hold – putting processes in place, tracking and reporting on metrics that drive success, and explicitly preaching and building a Performance Based Culture (PBC) for evaluating and rewarding employees.
So what’s the big deal, seems easy enough right?  I think much of it IS easy – determining organizational goals, defining the desired behaviors, creating individual goals – takes work but not an overwhelming challenge.  The hard part is constantly communicating and coaching employees, supporting their achievement of individual goals, eliminating fear and making reward, hiring and firing decisions that are absolutely consistent with the preaching and the promise, decisions must be objective.  Leadership can’t on the one hand preach rewards and advancement based on objective performance and then exhibit subjective, special treatment or “inner circle” mentality based on a popularity contest.  Everyone will see it, eyes will roll and faith in any sort of real PBC will be lost.
Bottom line, if you are a leader in a startup that is growing rapidly and in need of a more explicit focus on performance management, here’s an oversimplified formula that’s worked for me:
  1. Be clear about what drives success for the business, then create a handful of metrics, measure them, share them, post them – make sure everyone has clarity if we do x, then we achieve y.
  2. With success metrics clear, ensure everyone has actionable individual goals that tie directly to the organizational metrics.  This can be tricky for non-executives.  Every individual goal should roll up into the organizational metrics, directly or indirectly (Some goals should reinforce desired behaviors, not just quantified metrics).
  3. Provide frequent feedback, encourage dialogue and make course corrections.  This should be an ongoing topic of discussion every week as part of a broader check in with direct reports, especially in the early days of implementation.
  4. Be timely.  Don’t let half the quarter expire before individual goals are in place.  It shows a lack of commitment.  How can evaluations be objective if goals are undefined for half the period?
  5. And most important, lead by example, evaluate your staff objectively.  No inner circles, no boys/girls club, no rewarding big talkers, no overly subjective evaluations.  Even with the best intentions this can go awry simply because you may not have a full view of your employee’s performance if they work closely with others.  Important to actively seek out performance feedback from those with the best understanding of performance.  Put in the effort to get it right, you may be fooled by a lack of information on someone’s performance, but everyone else in the organization won’t be.

Are You Pulling the Wool Over The Eyes of Your Employees?

Fair warning, this will be a bit of a rant.  There was a story that emerged late last week about how Skype had provisions in their employee stock option agreements that basically rendered stock options worthless for employees.  It spawned a lot of discussion in the media and among bloggers over the weekend, but there were two articles I ran across that gave competing views into the situation:  An employee-centric view and a company “why they did it” view.  Take a moment to get educated.

I’m not going to get mired into the detail of specific employee incidents discussed in these articles.  Rather, I’m focusing on the philosophy of implementing an egregious stock option agreement that provides little to no compensation and ownership value to employees.  And more specifically, doing so when the tech industry norms are vastly different.

In a nutshell, here’s the situation.  Skype’s employee option agreement has a very unusual clause that enables the company to buy back an employee’s options if the employee leaves the company voluntarily or involuntarily.  The buying back of unvested shares upon termination is a standard option agreement clause for most tech companies.  What makes this clause unusual, and reprehensible in my view, is that it just doesn’t cover unvested options, but also vested options.  And here’s the evil kicker – the company has the right to buy back vested shares at the original grant price, not the fair market value that employees presumably contributed to achieving.

There are two problems with this type of agreement that I cannot be convinced are fair and equitable components of tech industry compensation:  1) The company has a right to buy back vested shares upon termination and 2) the Company can buy back vested shares at the original grant price.  This second point is the one that I believe essentially tells employees “Here’s an option grant but if you don’t stay with the company until it sells, regardless of how much value you create, we can terminate the grant.  Oh, and we can fire you before the company sells to ensure the grant is worthless.”

Now, there have been several arguments, although sparse compared to the criticism, in defense of Skype’s treatment of options in their agreement:

  1. Employees should read any agreement before they sign it.  This is a load of crap.  Employees other than the most senior leadership have ZERO ability to negotiate terms in a “standard” company agreement and thus the vast majority of employees have likely never had a lawyer review employment related agreements (confidentiality, non-solicitation, etc.).   The fundamental issue here is not whether an employee should negotiate a better agreement, but rather philosophically how does the company want to incentivize and reward employees, particularly when the industry standard is so different creating a misleading view of how a standard option agreement behaves.  In a world where there is such a deviation from the norm, the company has an obligation to ensure employees fully understand how deviating agreements work.
  2. Skype’s investors are Private Equity and not Venture Capital.  Huh?  What does this have to do with the fundamental notion that employees, not investors, are the primary asset that creates value in ANY company, regardless of who the investors are.  Early stage, later stage, turnaround, it doesn’t matter.  This point does not negate the company’s responsibility to provide clarity to employees about how compensation-related agreements work.
  3. If an employee voluntarily leaves, then they don’t deserve to keep any options.  Again, this is just not the right thing to do.  By way of example, let’s say I joined my company and was granted 40,000 shares vesting over a 4 year period and at a grant or strike price of $0.10, representing the Fair Market Value of the shares at that time.  After two years, the company has made progress and raises capital at a per share price of $0.50.  So, there’s been $.40 of value created during my time at the company.  Now I decide to leave.  Since I worked for two years, I will have vested in 20,000 shares and presumably I’ve contributed in creating that value – if I haven’t, then the company should have fired me a long time ago.  But they didn’t.  The value of my 20,000 vested shares is now $8,000 (20,000 x $0.40 per share).  Under the Skype option plan, the company essentially has the right to terminate all options, so I leave with no stock, despite the fact that I’ve vested in half my position.  Poof, no options!  My belief, and the belief of most companies, is that the employee should have the right to purchase vested options at the original grant price upon leaving the company.  So I pay the company $2,000 and they issue me a stock certificate for 20,000 shares that I take with me.   Again, this is a philosophical debate – I believe in making all employees owners and rewarding people for contributing to increasing corporate value.  Just because someone decides to leave for personal, professional, health or any other reason doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to capture the value increase.

What’s the bottom line?  As a leader in your organization, what value do you place on people, transparency and sharing value creation with those most responsible for creating that value?  Companies have a responsibility for transparency and integrity towards employees.  Create and enforce whatever agreements you like, but be overtly educational about it, particularly in instances where your policies deviate substantially from standard industry practice.  This is where Skype failed in my view.

Don’t Hate Me Cause I’m a Business Guy

I recently read a fantastic post by Jacob Quist entitled “Why Engineers Distrust Business People” that provided a unique perspective on what I never fully understood, but was always aware, to be a common tension between deeply technical folks and those of us who are far more competent in non-technical arenas such as business operations, business development, sales or marketing.  In Jacob’s post, he believes the foundation of this distrust is due to the fact that historically engineers have been directed at the highest levels of the organization by business people and it only takes a few bad experiences to perpetuate a stereotype.  This is certainly a 2-way street, there are plenty of bad engineers and technical leadership out there, but typically its the business side of the house that directs the organization.  At least historically.  Jacob is right, its all about providing mutual value which leads to mutual respect.  Now with so many new startups founded by engineers, there’s a burst of independence from these bad experiences, creating a challenge for even the most effective, accomplished business entrepreneurs to find “co-founder” opportunities unless they bring the idea or concept to the table.

As a “business guy” who’s worked closely with engineers in startups for over 10 years, I’ve consciously made efforts to complement, not contribute to (read: get in the way of), the technical aspects of the business while treating the technical/engineering function equally if not more important than anything that drives the success of the organization.  Most recently I’ve tried to take it one step further, a step that I rarely see other business folks embrace – ensuring technology leadership has an equal seat at the table at the highest levels of strategy and product development and enabling the technical staff, the engineers, to contribute to product development in the form of a “safe challenge” dialogue with the product team.  This view has evolved over time for me as I’ve been exposed to increasing levels of strategic talent in the technical individuals I’ve worked with.  Experienced engineers often have incredible design and product sensibilities because they are the closest to the end product.  While they may not create the original design or spec, they are problem solvers in implementation, constantly iterating to find the best solutions.  And they usually understand a product’s complexity better than anyone, which HAS to be considered in any strategic product discussion.

So to all of you startup engineers out there, especially those who are founders and assuming you need a business partner (and you do, subject of a future post!), what should you look for in your “business partner”?

  • Demonstrable success in starting, building and scaling a startup.  These are 3 distinct phases of a company’s early growth that require different skills and perspective, and you need someone that has success in all three.
  • Philosophically aligned on the role of technology.  Ask the tough questions about the qualities of a great CTO, the role of the engineers and how strategic decisions are made for the organization.
  • The business co-founder does not have to be the CEO.  This is a great ego-check moment.  There should at least be a dialogue and healthy debate, never a default assumption.  And discussing how roles will evolve as the company grows is equally important.
  • Find an overall athlete (COO or Head of Ops)  instead of a functional expert.  This is probably the most controversial point that many will disagree with.  Many founders want to solve their most immediate need (more sales, marketing to acquire customers) and thus seek to find deep experience in a single skill as the first or second key leader.  I would contend that in a startup, there are a dozen areas that need leadership now to properly set the company up for success and that if every other attribute on this list is met, the “right” business partner can fill any immediate functional need sufficiently in the interim.  Another important point – acquiring and building out a talented, cohesive and high performing leadership team is difficult and a skill that should be historically demonstrated by your partner.
  • Ability to immediately contribute.  Leadership recruiting, product strategy, fund raising, sales, business development, marketing – the seasoned business lead can successfully step into most of these roles initially as the other functional leaders are recruited.
  • Test for worst case scenario.  When all hell breaks loose and it looks like the business is going to crater, how will your partner deal with it?   Do you share common philosophies on hiring, spending, tough decision processes?  This is difficult to predict, but you have to talk about worst case, because in a startup, worst case is most likely case!

What other qualities should you look for in your “business” partner?

Why Most Startups Need a “Business Guy”

I read an intriguing blog post titled “What the Hell Does a “Business Guy” Do? by serial entrepreneur Rob Walling.  The basic premise of his post is that the only compelling reason a “technical founder” should bring on a “business founder” (BF) as a partner is if that BF has “successful marketing experience”.  While I agree that marketing, specifically customer acquisition, is probably the most important and difficult problem to solve in a startup’s early days, I believe there are other important aspects of both building a team and a foundation for scaling the business that technical founders (in my experience) don’t always possess.

Of course I’m biased, because I represent the BF that Rob discusses.  Having been on the ground floor of 3 startups as the lead business and operations person, there are a few consistent areas of value that I’ve seen critical to early stage success, in addition to the marketing/customer acquisition skills Rob mentioned.

I would define these areas of value in the context of what I believe a BF profile must look like.  In my opinion, a credible BF needs to have demonstrated operational success in a startup environment, from early product development through financing, rapid growth and scale, including:

  • has been through multiple early product fails and iterations
  • has a high tolerance for ambiguity, chaos and daily priority changes
  • can contribute immediately in at least one critical business functional role at the outset – Marketing or Biz Dev ideally
  • has navigated a financing from external investors
  • has built a cohesive, uber-talented team that are the best at what they do AND that share similar culture sensibilities and work ethic (this is hard to do)
  • has successfully acquired and scaled customers, partners and revenue
  • has established metrics for tracking business success and a way to reliably measure and adjust
  • has battle scars, fail stories and an ability to articulate why the same fails won’t happen again.

So, this BF is not just a strategist or marketer, but a true partner to the entrepreneur who has a unique ability to take the entrepreneur’s vision and build a real business out of it.  The importance of this experience should not be underestimated.  True visionary entrepreneurs typically have an “anything’s possible” belief system and won’t be deterred.  Balancing that perspective with someone who can implement and tolerate that kind of ambiguity and chaos is paramount.

If the technical co-founder has experience in all these areas, then yes, I agree with Rob that partnering with a non-technical founder may just represent unnecessary equity dilution, but I’d venture there are lot’s of new businesses being created right now by super-developers without these important experiences under their belts.

Some might argue that all of these skills don’t have to be wrapped up in one person and that they don’t have to all be present at the earliest stages of a company’s development.  It ultimately comes down to the skills and experiences of the original founder, but having a BF partner who has been through the “business building” process successfully can ensure the correct sequencing of process, people and technology and let the entrepreneur focus on high value creation – strategy, product and funding.

What do you think?

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