Archive for the ‘meaningful failure’ Category

PART THREE: WHERE’S MY DAMN PÂTÉ?

April 13, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

As the visibly angry man stormed across the break room holding an empty plastic container, I heard him bellow “where’s my damn pâté? Who the hell ate my pâté?”

It was the summer of 1985. I had arrived at this potential LSI Logic customer, Ardent Computer, minutes earlier and was walking with their head of engineering to a conference room to discuss the custom semiconductors they were interested in building.

What Al Michaels so desperately craved

And that man in search of his pâté? It was none other than Al Michaels: a silicon valley legend who had founded Convergent Technologies, a pioneer of multiprocessor computers. 

And his ego — I realized just then — was as large as his reputation.

The head of engineering and I went to the conference room and he described the basic system architecture of the multiprocessor supercomputer and high performance graphics subsystem they wanted to build. They needed custom semiconductors to build the vector processors needed for the graphics subsystem. And there was a sense of urgency here.

You see, Al and his founders had this idea at almost the same time Bill Poduska decided to build a similar supercomputer in Boston. Bill was also a legend in computing, having founded Prime Computer and Apollo Computer. Al and Bill were effectively racing to market, believing the first one to deliver on their promised performance would get the majority of the huge potential.

But that was pretty much 10am on any random Tuesday back in the mid-to-late 80s in silicon valley. 

The advent of rapidly customizable semiconductors had unleashed a tidal wave of innovation and startups, all rushing to market. With everyone predicting their product would be the big winner and they’d deliver thousands and thousands of products, even millions, to their customers.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, all these companies forecasting huge volume were a blessing and a curse for a semiconductor company. There is a finite amount of capacity in a semiconductor fab, and more than one chip company went under by making poor choices about who to allocate that fixed capacity to. Allocate it to a company that failed in the market and your fab would be empty and your company would have no revenue. Allocate it to a company that succeeded and you’d have that fab running 24/7 shipping crates of completed product.

The ’90s would not be kind to Stardent

So while the head of engineering was explaining the nature of the chips they needed built, the sales rep and I had been trained to ask a lot of questions to understand their readiness – where were they on staffing, how complete was the system design, what other dependencies did they have on getting to production, who their investors were.

Our sales reps were bringing multi-million dollar deals to us almost every day. Or rather, “potential” multi-million dollar deals. Part of my job running marketing for Northern California was trying to assess these deals and then sorting out which ones looked the most likely to succeed.

But in reality, it was like I was floating in a fast moving stream and all I was doing was trying not to drown. Too often I would follow the path of a deal rather than affect the path. I was young. I was still finding my voice and experience base. So more often than not I would let momentum dictate the path of a deal

Eventually all deals would flow into a review with all the other marketing managers, the head of sales, the Bill O’Meara (CMO) and at times our Wilf Corrigan (CEO). Frequently my counterpart in sales would make the case for the opportunities in my region – these were their customers, and their literal paychecks on the line.

Ultimately it would fall to Bill and Wilf to make the harder calls. A lot of the less difficult ones my peers and I would work through with Brian Connors and Perry Constantine who headed up sales.

But when I look at my role honestly, I did not do a lot of the advocating, and instead worked furiously to help support the path the deals were already flowing in.

Just as Al Michaels and Bill Poduska were competing to get to market first, I was competing with my colleague, Rick Rasmussen who was responsible for product marketing for the east coast at LSI. Stellar Computer was his potential customer. And we both were likely to need the same allocation of fab capacity. 

One of the many reasons I loved the culture at LSI Logic was that we were fierce competitors – in the market. But inside the company there was none of that fierce competitiveness across departments or within departments. We all knew what we were trying to do, and it was to create a blockbuster category and the company that dominated it. 

So while Rick and I were competing fiercely for this fab capacity, there was zero animosity between us. In fact, Rick and I were good friends, Rick was the guy I worked with at Fairchild who got recruited to LSI Logic, and it was Rick who recommended they bring me over from Fairchild. [Rick and I would work together at C-Cube Microsystems later in the the 1990s]

But make no mistake, we each knew fab capacity would be tight and we wanted our respective customer to be first in line.

Once I had enough information, I put together a proposed set of pricing for the chips Ardent needed. Our proposals had two components

  • The fee to produce the prototypes. This included time in our design center, support from our applications engineers to help with any design issues, the time to run the simulations on our IBM mainframe, the cost of developing the metalization layer mask set for production, and finally, a small wafer set run through production.
  • The per-unit price of the completed chips in volume production. We would ask the prospective customer what their forecasted volume ranges would be – and these typically spanned 2-3 years, and then price the chips accordingly.

We pioneered the category of these custom semiconductors and were acknowledged as the market leader, and we had competitors who were nipping at our heels quite aggressively. I had surmised from my conversations with the folks at Ardent that we were the favored supplier.

But LSI had this weird pricing schizophrenia. We tended to come in with a proposal that presumed that as the pioneer and leader, we could charge a premium. And we would generally submit pricing proposals with a pretty hefty premium. The customer would get the proposal and be shocked at how expensive it was. So they would head straight to our competitors and come back with a set of pricing from them that was 50% of what we had proposed.

And what would we do? We’d drop our prices 50% to take the deal. I was in my mid 20s and I just didn’t know any better to question this. Knowing what I know now, this was a stupid self-inflicted wound and the today “me” would have stopped the process and asked a lot of questions about whether we really thought this was a fair price, did this price represent our brand and values? But 26 year-old me was all wrapped up in the headiness of crafting deals like this and working with everyone to bring them home.. 

I think the origin of our approach to pricing was\ simply hubris. We invented the category. We absolutely knew we were hands-down the best. So I think our corporate ego demanded that we price with a hefty premium. But that same corporate ego was a ruthless competitor and we hated losing business.

It was a stupid move because those customers would react to our suddenly cheaper proposal with a wary eye. “What was that first proposal then? If I had gone with that I would have been paying twice what I am now, and you wouldn’t have told me?”

And that’s what happened at Ardent. My followup meeting with the head of engineering was awkward. He said that Al Michaels was incensed at how we had dropped the price and had no intention of giving us the order. The head of engineering was super frustrated and upset. He and I had gotten to know each other well and spent a lot of time together. He really didn’t want this order to go to our competitor, but our whole pricing process had created a huge mess for him.

And remember, Ardent was competing with Stellar to get to market first. Changing to the competitor chip supplier was going to cost Ardent time. And it was going to make the life of this head of engineering miserable.

He and I both wanted this deal to go to LSI. So I asked if it would help if Bill O’Meara came over and met with Al Michaels. At a minimum this would let Al tell Bill exactly what he thought of our pricing practices. And maybe it would help salvage the deal.

So the meeting got set. I drove over there with Bill and our sales rep along with the rep’s manager. We went into Ardent’s board room and got as settled as we could given the awkwardness of the circumstances. The Ardent team trickled in. About ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, Al Michaels came in.

I can’t remember who spoke first, but the head of engineering and I each took turns explaining how hard we all had worked to get this proposal together, how much we respected the other’s time and attention.

Al cut in and said – in the same tone and volume he had expressed astonishment his pâté was missing – “These platitudes are nauseating. We’re here because you’ve wasted our time, which we don’t have a lot of. We worked with you for the past few months on this deal, and you show up with pricing that was so high it was insulting. And then you have the nerve to come back and cut your price in half – only because we got a competitor to give us a reasonable price. How can we possibly trust you? I’ve checked around and we’re not the only company you’ve pulled this on. But the real crime here is our wasted time.”

The room went silent.

Then Bill spoke up. 

A bit about Bill. He was one of the four co-founders of LSI Logic and he was not a silicon valley wunderkind. He got started late in his technology career. Bill was a graduate of West Point. The license plate on his car was USMA59. He had learned to lead, he had learned how to earn the respect of his troops. How to motivate and inspire. He was whip-smart and had an equally sharp sense of humor. If you looked up “inspirational leader” in the dictionary, there would be Bill’s photo.

And as you might expect from someone who had been responsible for other people’s lives, he had a disarming ability to connect with people. When you were speaking with Bill it felt like you were the most important person in the world to him right then. Well, because it was true. He was a phenomenal leader.

And as I shared with my Gucci Luggage experience, he had an unshakable sense of ethics. He took full responsibility for his mistakes, and in this case, the mistakes of someone in his organization – me.

He began with “you are right to be outraged and to question whether you can trust us. It was wrong for us to give you such a high priced first proposal and I take full responsibility for how we got here. We were full of ourselves, overconfident and we clearly have to clean up our act. You have my commitment that whether we win this business back or not, we will do the work we need to in order to not repeat this with you or anyone.”

“But I can tell you one reason we priced the way we did is because we also know that we are the best at building custom semiconductors. We invented this category. We have the most reliable technology and process. And we realize your time is precious. What you can count on with us is that once you commit that design to silicon, it will work. And we can scale your production. You can count on that. I’m sorry we broke your trust, but I can assure you we can get you to market faster than anyone.”

Acknowledging our mistake and owning it created an aperture that enabled another twenty minutes of conversation between Bill and Al. The meeting ended and Al said they would have a decision within the next 24 hours.

I believe this meeting was a turning point for LSI Logic. We did examine our proposal process and amended our pricing – not to meet our competitors – to be more competitive with our first proposal.

What Bill didn’t say? What role I had had in the proposal or the role the sales rep and sales manager had had in the proposal. He took complete responsibility. And I believe he did this for a simple reason. If we won this business the salesperson and I were going to have to show up at Ardent frequently. He preserved our relationships.

The story of Silicon Valley

And while the semiconductor project moved forward, Ardent’s overall product development struggled for reasons not related to our semiconductors. They battled getting the cost of the system down, and as a reset their system design ran into some serious delays.

It turns out so did Stellar’s. In their race to market both companies ran into similar system design challenges. And they were burning cash at a furious rate.

The companies combined forces and changed their name to Stardent (a horribly clunky name, but one that could be logically explained). And they, like so many other promising startups went out of business in the 1990s, a victim of being too expensive for the performance they delivered.

I learned a lot from this experience. I learned about leadership and personal relationships that would eventually show up when I was an executive.

Bill O’Meara’s owning up to when he or the company was wrong, owning when he screwed up made a deep impression on me. In a lot of respects he passed along to me his definition of “ accountability” he learned as an Army commander – something that I would never personally know. And as important he imprinted on me his ability to accept personal responsibility for a mistake someone in his organization might have made. 

More than once as an executive I have had to say “I screwed up” or “I made a mistake” – whether I personally made the mistake or someone in my organization did. As the leader of that organization it doesn’t matter who made the mistake. Ultimately the mistake is mine.

Years and years after hearing “Where’s my damn pâté” the Ardent fiasco informed my behavior when I was CMO of SPS Commerce. One of the super, super talented product managers on my team was about to introduce a fundamental redesign of our core product – a product tied to 80% of our revenue. The stakes were incredibly high. We were a public company and this product launch had to go very smoothly.

The week of the launch, I pulled the product manager aside and told her “This is your product, you’ve put 18 months into leading and orchestrating the redesign and have done a fabulous job. This week as you’re on stage launching this to the company and all our customers, I’m not going be anywhere visible. This is your product and your time in the limelight. But if anything happens, if anything goes wrong for whatever reason, I will be out front and be very visible. So go out there and soak it all in, and do that knowing I have your back the whole time.”

And because she was so damn good at her job, that whole week no one saw me.

Cookbooks as companions of life

January 4, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

The home I grew up in was somewhat of a cooking wasteland. My mother, in spite of her good intentions and efforts, was plainly speaking a horrible cook. Multitasking did not come easily to her, and neither of my parents had strong organizational skills. The concept of a pantry was new to me as an adult. In the home I grew up in we very much operated with a “just-in-time” food inventory approach. We had one of everything, and when we ran out of something, you went to the store to get another. And meals were simply functional. A time to eat. Not a whole lot of conversation: just focus on the food and be done. And we rarely went to restaurants, and when did it was generally for simple and quick meals.

I write this not to condemn my parents. They did the best they could with the tools they had at the time. But it did cause me to approach cooking differently. And things started to change when I got to college in Berkeley. My friends were from all over, mostly California, but from all sorts of backgrounds. I went with these friends to restaurants — all sorts, because well, it was Berkeley. It was there that I had — for the first time —- sushi, Chinese, Thai and Indian food, pizza not from national chains, French and Italian food, all sorts. We cooked a little bit but mostly this expanded horizon came through restaurants. Although I do remember going to Chinatown in San Francisco with my fraternity brothers, Eric and Chris, one weekend and buying 50 pounds of shark steaks and lugging this big plastic bag back to our fraternity house and grilling those up for a summer get together.

It was as I made my way through life working as a young adult in Silicon Valley after college that I was able to more intentionally follow my nose into the kitchen. Where the range and quality of food exploded. When I was at LSI Logic we would head over to an incredible burrito shop in Mountain View where they would grill the meat right in front of you, assemble the burrito and slather it with salsas so hot you’d be sweating for the next 20 minutes. This was the mid-80s, and the food trucks that are so abundant now just didn’t exist.

It was with my first roommate out of college, Bryan, a colleague at LSI Logic responsible for managing our European business, that I made my first serious kitchen commitment. Bryan would head off to Europe for three weeks or a month, and come back with stories about food he’d eaten and recipes and ingredient lists I had never heard of. He would make these incredible dishes and I would try to recreate them. As they say in the tech world, the bit flipped for me in that apartment we shared in Redwood City. 

The first cookbook I purchased, in 1984

That’s where I started to really learn to cook. The first book I bought was “The 60 Minute Gourmet” by Pierre Franey. I got it because other recently minted adults like me used it, and I liked the approachable context. It wasn’t until I met the woman who would later become my wife that my interest — and aptitude — in cooking really took off. When I met Kristine she was a manager at one of the more prominent restaurants in Boston; as she describes, she’s “had had every job in a restaurant.” Her cooking skills were incredibly solid. So for our first Christmas together, when we were friends and not yet dating, I pulled out that book and made us Steak au Poivre. It says a lot that by then I was feeling confident in my skills to take this on at such a pivotal juncture in our relationship. And it says a lot about Kristine that she clearly enjoyed me taking the lead on the meal without getting too involved in the production.

Throughout my cooking journey she has been kind and supportive, encouraging me to take a stronger and stronger role in the kitchen as we built our lives together. The first dish where I followed my nose in the kitchen was making pizza. Soon after we married, I started making pizza every week. I’ve continued to do so for almost three decades. At first I used store-bought pizza dough and made sauce from jars of marinara sauce I would embellish. I soon made the same realization many home cooks do — making something from scratch is simply better and not a whole lot of extra work. So I soon had a family recipe for pizza dough and pizza sauce that worked wonderfully.

Let’s follow this pizza thread a bit further. We had four kids in five years. The first night we brought our oldest home from the hospital, I made us a pizza. Pizza night became a big deal in our house. And as our children grew older, pizza night became a reason to invite their friends over. There were many, many evenings when there might be eight or ten kids in the basement, and I would go down there, take orders, and then turn the kitchen (which in the farmhouse we renovated, was properly huge) into a full-blown home pizzaria, with Kristine often serving as sous-chef preparing the toppings.

Along the way we collected cookbooks: to learn the basics, to explore new cuisines, and increasingly to inform where we travelled and what we did on those travels.

And it’s only with hindsight that you look up from one of those cookbooks and realize just how they have become these documents of life. They mark meaningful moments and become part of you. Cookbooks can be an incredibly emotional record.

Like Proust’s madeleine, when you open them up certain cookbooks can provoke a flood of warm memories — of the journey you took to master (or not) a particular recipe, of the meals it produced, of the people you shared those meals with. 

There are three cookbooks that quickly come to mind that have had a deep and meaningful impact on me, our family, and our friends.

Note the $20 price

The first is Volume Two of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” This is one of my favorite and most cherished cookbooks. I found it in the used bookstore at the Milwaukee airport. (The single most awesome aspect of Milwaukee is that they have a used book store in their airport! We have almost missed more flights than I can remember because we were lost in the shelves there.) I paid $20 for it (it still has that price tag on it).

I learned so much through this book. First and foremost is that Julia Child’s recipes are bulletproof. If you follow her clear and lucid instructions, the dish will turn out. Every. Time. She’s amazing. And through Volume Two I discovered her paté recipe, which I make to this day. I recently made two batches and gifted mini loaves as holiday presents to our friends. And then there’s the braised rabbit: oh my, that dish is so yummy, and it always makes a complete mess of the stove top. 

And finally Potatoes Anna, which is fairly labor-intensive: you have to slice a pound or more of potatoes into evenly sized slices, then dry each slice with paper towels, then layer the slices in a circular pattern in a cast iron skillet all the while drizzling them with clarified butter. It’s a lot of work, but when you bake them and turn that skillet over onto a platter, the resulting round loaf of golden-crusted potato goodness is wonderful.

When I read Julia Child’s autobiography, I learned that in the baking section of Volume Two – which her husband Paul did most of the recipe crafting as he was the baker in the family – it instructs you to use a slab of asbestos for a baking stone. The book was published just weeks before the FDA announced a ban on asbestos, and Julia was horrified. She had her publisher rush to pull the remaining copies of Volume 2 from the shelves and amended it to instruct you to use a terra cotta tile. I literally set her autobiography down and ran to the kitchen, pulled our copy and looked up the baguette recipe. And there it was, the instruction to use an asbestos tile. I bought a first edition. In a used bookstore. In the Milwaukee airport. For $20.

Instructions to “cut 1 inch shorter and narrower” – the hazard of asbestos is what happens when the fibers become airborne. Yikes!

Acquiring that cookbook coincided with us moving into the circa 1860s farmhouse we renovated in Wisconsin. Meals for us are social events that bring our family and friends together. Yes the food is important, but the real reason we share a meal is the conversation we share the meal over. It’s where we talk, catch up, check in. It’s where the puns fly, and laughter is abundant and overflowing. My parents would come and stay with us in that house for weeks and sometimes months, and it is the meals we shared that helped our children develop deep relationships with their grandparents, and vice versa.

The recipe is rock solid, notes to save some effort

Our copy of Volume Two is properly stained, dogeared, and annotated. Like all the cookbooks that became staples of our kitchen library.

Next, “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” by Patricia Wells, was given to us by my wife’s dear friend, Heidi, who lost a battle to cancer in 2007 and is dearly missed. That book is wonderful because Wells shares recipes for food that you’ll find in the restaurants in Paris that everyday Parisians frequent. That book informed many of our dinners at home and helped us discover a little bistro in Paris that Kristine and I went to more times than I can remember, and where we had my 60th birthday dinner with our four children and three of my closest friends — Erika, Amy, and Duane — a surprise I discovered as we made our way to the table.

The guide also pointed us to Balzar — a restaurant that is so damn Parisian. Small tables inches apart with starched white table cloths. It’s where I had two infamous escargot incidents. 

The first was in 2000 or so. Kristine and I were there together, elbow to elbow with the other diners. Across from and to the right of me was a gentleman wearing an exquisite white shirt with a bright green tie. I ordered escargots to start with, and the odd thing about that dish is that the tool you are given to hold the snail shell while you pry the meat out is counterintuitive. You squeeze the tool to open its jaws and then release the tool to clamp down on the shell.

As I struggled to get the meat out of the shell, I increased my pressure on the tool, causing the shell to slip right as I pried on the meat with the little fork they give you. A jet of hot butter, parsley and garlic shot out of the shell across our table and over to the next, creating a stream of green that left my plate and went all the way up the sleeve of that gentleman across from me.

My French was still a bit rough then. I was mortified and unsure of what to do. So I did nothing. I kept my gaze fixated on either my food or Kristine across from me. At one point in my peripheral vision I saw that gentleman glance at his sleeve, then follow the stream of green back over to me. I was mortified but did not meet his eye. He decided to not say anything. To this day I am as embarrassed as I am astounded that nothing came of this.

Fast-forward to my 60th birthday week in Paris in 2018 with our family and friends. Kristine and I went back to Balzar with our son Jameson and his friend Mitch, who was visiting from Barcelona, and as we were enjoying our meals at the table next to us was a mother with her adult daughter. The mother ordered escargots. And as she was prying the meat from the shell, a stream of green shot across the table and landed on my blazer. I burst out laughing. As she apologized profusely she puzzled over my reaction. My French had fairly improved, I was able to explain to her that I’d done the same thing to another diner in that very same restaurant almost 20 years earlier. I assured her it was karma coming home to roost. Eventually she seemed to enjoy the irony as much as I did.

Most recently, “Night+Market,” which Kristine got me a year or two ago, has become a staple. Like Volume Two, it has bulletproof recipes and is a delight to simply read to gain perspective on Thai food, ingredients and the role food and drink have in Thai culture. It has been responsible for many of us in the family making Pad Thai a mainstay of our cooking. 

Awesome pad thai, dangerous roasted chili pepper flakes

I love the care this book takes with recipes for the basic ingredients of Thai cooking. There’s an awesome appendix with recipes for stir-fry sauce, everyday curry paste, and roasted crushed thai chili peppers. That latter ingredient has also been responsible for near life-threatening levels of capsaicin fumes as I roasted Thai chili peppers in a hot wok. (Worth it.)

What sent me down this rabbit hole of cookbooks to write this? Well, the BBC naturally. 

In their series on cooking, “The Food Chain” there was a wonderful segment on the role cookbooks play in the lives of people, and they featured two women whose cookbook collections are legendary. In both cases these women describe how their cherished cookbooks are repositories and records of memories: the food splotches, the notes — all of that have meaning. And how simply buying a replacement book cannot replace those memories and records.

So the thoughts of the stories shared above all flooded me as I listened to these two women describe in their own way how their cookbooks had informed and enriched their lives, just like our cookbooks have done for us.

To bring this back to where I started, I may have grown up in a home where cooking lacked a central role, but it turns out, because of our own ethos on cooking, we passed on to our children a love of cooking and the role food plays in life, relationships, and being together. They all know how to make pizza from scratch — first one and then another took over the weekly pizza-making job when I worked remotely — and make it themselves with regularity today. 

In fact, one year when our middle son, Benjamin, was away at college in New York and a storm came through and knocked out power for the campus, he happened to be living in an on-campus apartment that had a gas stove. And weeks before while on a video call with him, he expressed a desire to make pizza there. So while on the phone we ordered the equipment and the ingredients and had it shipped to him. A case of San Marzano tomatoes, 50 pounds of flour: you know, a normal amount. Let’s just say Benjamin was well prepared, and quite popular, when he had the only functioning kitchen on campus and was making pizza after pizza when the power was out that weekend.

We never really sat our kids down and said “here’s how you make ____.” They have all become confident and comfortable in their kitchens mostly from being an observer and being a part of making the meals we shared when they were growing up. It is incredibly gratifying to hear, like I did yesterday, one of our children let me know he would be late to our online gaming and to hear his two siblings respond with “No worries! We need to make curry!”

And in this world of COVID, perhaps it’s the absence of these family meals that I miss the most. Our family loves to be together, and being together for us is often about sharing a meal. And while group Discord video calls bring us together to be seen and to talk, these do not replace the hours of casual conversations among us about what we should have at that meal, and the preparation of that meal together. And the sharing of that meal together.

With me mostly retired and Kristine still working full time I am the one making most of the meals, and the one benefit of this COVID landscape is that we are eating at home better than we ever have. Every week we’re trying something new as well as going back to an old standby. We’re eating more plants and beans, and making more things from scratch. It really helps that we live literally a block away from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, so pretty much any ingredient we need or want to try is at our fingertips.

Cookbooks indeed are a record of memories, and I am glad my COVID memories are being memorialized in the cookbooks and recipe binder we have here. I’m even more looking forward to the memories yet to be recorded — when we can all share meals together again. 

Black Lives Matter

June 23, 2020

A post from the DiamanteScholars.com blog

By Peter Zaballos

Seattle protest organized by Black Lives Matter, June 3, 2020

[This post originally appeared on the Diamante Scholars Blog and was published there on June 11, 2020]

When we founded the Diamante Scholars a year ago, one of the core tenets of the program is that it “helps high school students with overlooked and unseen potential find a path to higher education and career success.”

Overlooked. Unseen potential.

What has happened in this country over the past ten days is all about overlooked, unseen potential. It’s about systemic racial discrimination. It’s about the fact that the United States is a fundamentally racist nation that (hopefully) is about to admit that and do something about it.

Achieving equality begins and ends with understanding what life is like for someone other than yourself. My wife and I attended the George Floyd protest at Westlake Center in Seattle on Saturday, May 30. And we saw people of all colors there. Peaceful. Families. And we also saw agitators — like a white guy carrying a baseball bat. Who brings a baseball bat to a peaceful rally? We all know where that rally went. But those peaceful people of all colors were not the instigators of the violence or the looting.

We also attended a protest rally outside the Seattle Courthouse on Wednesday, June 3 that was put on by Seattle Black Lives Matter. Again, people of all colors were there. And one of the speakers, who I believe was Ebony Miranda, made a point of thanking all of us for being there. They also reminded us that when it comes to defining the issues that matter, Black people are the ones who define what matters to them. They are the ones living with racist oppression every day because of their skin color.

I cannot know what it feels like to be Black – I’m a white male and have lived my life with privilege. Every step of the way. For years my black friends have told me about what it is like to be them. To be highly educated and highly successful and to still endure the constant judgment and discrimination that comes just from the color of their skin. One of my friends years ago educated me about DWB traffic violations – Driving While Black. About how often he is pulled over in his car simply for being Black and driving a nice car.

But it’s not just this one friend. This past week a close friend, Dave Cotter, who is Black — and a successful technology executive — wrote a heart wrenching blog post about what it is like to be him. About being pulled over in his own neighborhood and in the surrounding neighborhoods and being asked “is this your car?” and “why are you here?” He’s even been pulled over driving his ski boat, and asked if that was his.

For those of us who aren’t Black this moment is all about listening. It’s all about empathy and understanding. And all about empowering, about hope, about opportunity for action.

And about how the direction we need to head is clear. 

Why am I writing this on the Diamante Scholars blog? Because we are committed to helping students find their paths and realize their potential. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion and many of the many other factors that make us human and unique. Because we are committed to seeing our students for exactly who they are: people with dreams, people with futures ahead of them, people who deserve to be seen for their talents and actions.

While racial injustice and racial discrimination are not new, what does seem to be new is the broad acknowledgement that enough is enough, and it is time to do something about it. And what is getting done is messy. It is certainly unfortunate that violence and looting have happened, but it’s a fundamental tragedy that Blacks have been systematically oppressed for 400+ years. And we have to change this.

On August 28, 1963 Rep. John Lewis gave a searing speech at the “March on Washington” and his words are just as urgent and relevant today as they were then. Which is tragic in its own right, but this passage seems to be fit once again for what we are seeing across our nation:

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient.  We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”

We are committed to seeing our students for exactly who they are: people with dreams, people with futures ahead of them, people who deserve to be defined by their deeds and actions. And who deserve to be free. We strive to empower our scholars to use their voices, to be advocates of racial justice. And their voices are here for us to listen to them, and for us to learn from them as well.

Here is how Kristine and I are personally supporting change where we live, in Seattle. 

We support the brave protesters who are literally putting their lives on the line to stand up for justice by helping them with bail as they get arrested. 

We support the Black-owned businesses that are critical employers and fixtures in our community.

We support local politicians who can take on the structural change that is so urgently needed

Finally and most important, we are listening and learning:

  • And most importantly, we spend time with our Black and brown friends, to clearly understand how different the paths they take through are from ours.

We found some of the above resources from the 2020Protests.com website, which also lists protest resources for people in California.

Do what others doubt. Help end racial injustice.

Tiny acts of aggression

February 10, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

I’ve written a fair amount about equality in the workplace and the need to understand and empathize with people who are not in positions of power and authority – here, here, here, here, here, and here. Empathizing is critical to how we will get gender and racially balanced leadership teams and workforces.

And when you happen to be in a position of power and authority – like white males – you simply do not see or experience the headwinds, aggression, obstacles, and outright discrimination that the people in the minority do.

I’ve been blogging since 2008, and in that time the comments I have gotten on my blogs have fallen into two categories: Generally complimentary, and machine-driven manufactured comments meant to drive some SEO agenda (I think). I approve every human generated comment, and trash or mark as spam every machine-generated comment.

Over the weekend I got this comment on this blog post I published:

I am one to be transparent and run to the controversy, not away from it. So of course I approved it. It is so over-the-top, and so out of character.

In almost twelve years of blogging I am experiencing the first troll. Perhaps this is a badge of honor. I’ve finally arrived. But to me it highlights the difference between what me – a white male – experiences online, and what women and minorities do.

I am a serious car fanatic, and one of my favorite publications focused on car nuts like me is Jalopnik – the writing is super high quality, and they intentionally focus on writing with diverse viewpoints. Their writers and editors are comprised of men, women and minorities. Intentionally.

So it came as no surprise that Jalopnick exposed the horrifying difference in treatment that their male writers and editors experience from their female editors and writers do. Horrifying.

You don’t need to look far or wide to see how prevalent this imbalanced treatment is. Just follow an independent woman on twitter and you’ll see the different paths men and women encounter online. Here’s one. Susan Fowler. From yesterday.

Follow @susanthesquark

Yes, I’ve got a troll on my blog. Yes he/she said nasty things. It’s easy for me to let this blow by – I am secure in the knowledge I am none of what trash is being thrown at me – but women get 100x this. Every day. It’s not so easy to let that volume of crap blow by you.

So, go listen to the ‘Not To Be Sexist, But’ podcast by Dave Obuchowsky. Please.

Follow Susan Fowler. Even better, buy her book. Please.

Understand the world these women navigate.

And as my wife would remind me, the difference between me and this troll is that tomorrow morning they will wake up as a troll. 

So, “CML” thanks for reminding me. Reminding me that tiny acts of aggression directed to me are just that. Tiny. And are nothing compared to what women (and minorities) deal with. Every day. 

And CML, good morning to you!

Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell

January 23, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

Why we donated to Diablo Valley College instead of MIT

I listen to a lot of podcasts. It’s one of the reasons why living in the heart of Seattle is so awesome — I walk a lot every day, and that gives me plenty of opportunity to get lost in a good story.

For the past five or so years, when I could see retirement on the horizon, my thoughts shifted to the crazy career path I had and of course the schools I had attended. I got my MBA at MIT, and they do an outstanding job of alumni relationship development. It’s amazing how easy they make it to stay in touch with classmates. I love this because I started some incredibly wonderful friendships there, and MIT has helped me maintain and strengthen those relationships.

And the MIT Foundation does an equally skilled job pursuing alumni to make donations and to help the school. Over a period of a few years, a talented member of their development office pursued me about a modest donation. These were real, substantive conversations. Honest and transparent.

My wife and I were beginning to start thinking about not if, but when, and how much.

But about two years ago I was binge-listening to Malcolm Gladwell‘s Revisionist History podcast. And his three-part series on the state of philanthropy in higher education really got my attention. The series nets out to this: Any name-brand private university is awash in money. Especially the top-tier private universities. Like MIT. Any contribution we could make just won’t move the needle for a student there.

But in his episode My Little Hundred Million, he made the point that making a contribution to the lesser-known institutions is where you can make a real and significant impact on the lives of the students that attend them. And it was like a thunderclap in my head.

It was then that I realized the school that literally made my career possible, where I was able to first see and feel my potential, was a junior college in northern California: Diablo Valley College (DVC) in Pleasant Hill.

I went to DVC from high school because I was, as Scott Galloway terms it, unremarkable. My high school grades and test scores were horrible. And at DVC I discovered math and engineering and honed my writing. I transferred to UC Berkeley, which put me into my first high-technology job and the career path it produced.

Diablo Valley College, Main Quad

So I called DVC. In an instant it became clear this is where our contribution would have an impact, where we could work closely with the educators and the staff to create a program that could really help people get a leg up.  These students are people who are uncertain of the future — so uncertain that four-year college is not an option. Ground zero of a career that might not happen due to lack of opportunity and frankly, lack of belief in their own abilities.

When I thought about my career, I could so clearly see that it had nothing to do with what my major was or the schools I went to, because I never worked in a job in my major or got a job as a result of the people I met at UC Berkeley or MIT. The path I took had everything to do with being curious, learning how to learn, and solving problems. Not grades or individual classes or test scores.

More important, my path was formed from building real relationships with the people I worked with. Literally every job I got after leaving Cal was the result of knowing someone who knew someone who was looking for a person with my experience and talent. To me the real lesson of careers is that their foundation is formed on the relationships you make along the way. 

So we crafted the program at DVC around four tenets that I can see with the benefit of hindsight were the principles that formed my career:

  • Problem solving skills and collaboration capabilities are the true foundation of future success
  • Careers are profoundly shaped on the strength of the personal relationships you form along the way
  • Curiosity and learning capacity are more important to your career than your coursework or even your major
  • And, critically, career potential is not reflected in test scores or grades

My wife and I have spent the past year working closely with the team at DVC helping create this program focused on high school students who have the potential to go to college but may have been told they aren’t college material or whose grades or test scores make college seem unlikely. The program shapes students’ problem solving and collaboration skills and provides them the support they need to find a path either to transfer to a four-year college and or to a professional role — or both. 

The program welcomes its first cohort in February 2020.

And we’ve named the program Diamante Scholars. Diamante is the Spanish term for diamonds; the program’s aim is to help find the diamonds-in-the-rough who are out in high schools. The overlooked, the unseen. And we chose the Spanish term, diamante, as a way to also honor the Spanish immigrant heritage of my family.

So, thank you, Malcolm Gladwell. If I hadn’t listened to your podcast, I never would have headed down the path that led to the Diamante Scholar program. And I am so looking forward to seeing where these scholars will take themselves.

What I’ve Learned Over a Career

September 19, 2019

By Peter Zaballos

Reflections Upon Retiring

I have officially “stopped working,” which is a way of avoiding saying I have retired. I’m still active on two technology company boards. Still very much on a number of near-vertical learning curves.

But leaving my professional role has caused me to look back. And looking back, it’s easy to see and feel what was meaningful — and what wasn’t — in 30+ years of building high-growth technology companies. Let’s start with what wasn’t.

What wasn’t meaningful were the financial and business milestones I had a hand in achieving,  because business metrics are outcomes — of strategy, execution, and culture — but they aren’t the end in themselves. They’re the means to an end. I helped three companies change the very shape of computing, and only one of these companies — LSI Logic — had the winning trifecta of brilliant strategy, incredible execution, and a culture of compassion and performance. C-Cube Microsystems and RealNetworks failed miserably on culture.

And along the way I met some incredible, incredible people. People with staggering intellect and, most importantly, people with huge hearts and abundant generosity. But I also met a lot of people with none of those qualities. And who seemed to become quite successful as well. That was puzzling and frustrating.

And the long hours I put into my different roles? Not a lot of meaning there. As a matter of fact, the further into my career I got, and the higher I rose in the executive ranks, the more jaded I became at the devotion to long hours. 

I wish I could have told this to my younger self, especially when my wife and I were in the thick of raising four children born over a span of five years. A few years ago, when I was at SPS Commerce, I heard a sales rep tell a group of people they had cut their honeymoon short by two days, at the insistence of their manager, to attend a meeting. As I sat there I thought — with the benefit of hindsight — that no meeting would be worth cutting your honeymoon short.

[And it told me about the real culture at that company. Not the one written down. More on this topic further down.]

And on a related note, I also grew weary of the need to always being “hard core” about competing, about winning, almost for winning’s sake, of what in the end were ephemeral competitions.

But when I think back to what was meaningful, it really came down to this: being in a position of power and authority to create the conditions where the people that worked for me could do their best work and discover their best selves. To set the tone, to shape the culture. To be able to actively work to achieve equality in the departments I led. And to be a voice on an exec team pushing for equality across the companies I worked at.

Equality created lasting effects for the people on my teams, and is the polar opposite of a business metric. The people on my teams were able to achieve and exceed business metrics/targets because they could be valued for their contributions. 

The first time I noticed inequity in a specific case was when I was at RealNetworks in 1999 — having joined through their acquisition of Vivo Software — and I inherited a department to run. The first homework I gave myself was to look at compensation across my teams, by role and by gender. I discovered one woman was paid substantially less than her male counterparts. 

It took almost a year of fighting process and bureaucracy to “true-up” this woman’s compensation. And it started me doing a similar analysis in every leadership role I had after that. But that was super tactical, from ground level looking skyward.

I think the first time I realized the impact I could have on equality and culture from the top down was when I wrote my first user manual when I was an exec at SPS Commerce. This simple document simply outlined what I expected of myself, my peers, and the people on my teams. 

Feel free to check out my User Manual

It was the act of writing this document where it dawned on me that not only did I have the ability to set a tone of equality in the orgs I led, but that I had an obligation to my teams and to myself to do so. I was literally kind of giddy over the next few months.

The flip side is that it was sobering to realize how much opportunity I took for granted as a man that women had to work for, fight for, or just resign themselves to never having. And I discovered this because once it became clear for my teams that our values and culture were real, the results were shocking:

  • That the  woman on my team (quote is above, sent to me and her manager) thanked me for making her feel comfortable and empowered to take time off to attend her kindergartner’s graduation.
  • I have had a woman tell me I was the first executive to tell her that taking care of her health in her very stressful role is more important than her job.
  • I have had a male boss ask me, every single time a woman on my team was pregnant, “Do you think she’s going to come back after maternity leave?” He never once asked me that question about any of the men on my team whose wives were pregnant.
  • On the day when we finally (after weeks and months of proposing this) had “equality” on the exec staff agenda, I had our male CEO open the discussion with “Well, I assume if we had an all-female leadership team that would be sexist.”
  • I have seen women on my teams treated like servants by men who were their peers — asked to literally get coffee for the men or rebook their hotels with better rooms when they were traveling as a group.

I have also seen people make amazing contributions and incredible achievements in their roles, when provided the conditions to be their best.

  • I witnessed a shy, unsure of-herself customer service rep make the huge leap into product management and then, over a period of 18 months, turn into a bad-ass, decisive, confident product manager responsible for more than half the company’s revenue.
  • I witnessed a woman who had previously sold cell phones at a Verizon store become a master of marketing and digital demand gen and, as a result, was headhunted to be a marketing executive at another high-growth technology company today.
  • I had the good fortune to hire two phenomenally talented product designers, one in his first role designing software. And by giving these people the freedom to follow their creative instincts, create a culture of design excellence that produced truly delighted users of their products.
  • I witnessed a two-member team apply record-breaking amounts of curiosity to become masters at digital marketing through constant reinvention and data-driven refinement. 
  • I hired a brilliant person from a shoe company into his first full role in marketing. He left a year later to go back to the shoe industry and has so far reinvented two blockbuster, multi-billion dollar international footwear brands.
  • My partners at Frazier Technology Ventures – Len Jordan, Scott Darling, Paul Bialek, and Gary Gigot – discovered that when we stripped away our egos we could have direct, blunt conversations about decisions we were making. This set the standard for me valuing the lack of ego as a chief hiring criteria.

What have I regretted? Well, I mentioned above, working long hours in the end just took time away from my family, and I really can’t point to a meaningful source of business satisfaction that makes up for that. Other regrets:

  • That I did not listen to that little voice inside me when I had to fire people — or ask them to leave — because they were not performing or were not able or willing to live up to the expectations for conduct I had for them. That little voice said to go the extra mile, to fight with HR and in some cases the CEO, to get these people a package that would let them leave gracefully.
  • That I did not listen to that little voice inside me and instead followed the advice of others in letting people go with the bare legal minimum in notice, disclosure, and dialogue. I expect those people left my departments feeling they were not treated with the respect they deserved, and earned, through trying as hard as they could.
  • That I did not put my own job at risk more often pushing for more equality as a company, pushing the CEO and leadership team to take a more difficult but right path. This is where hindsight really stings — when I can see I was right but was afraid or buckled under pressure.

What else I’ve learned along the way:

  • Your brand – personally and as a business – is built on how well you say “no.” You say no 10 time more than you say yes. Doing a good job saying no means you are creating 10 times as many positive word-of-mouth evangelists. It also means you keep your focus on empathy and humility.
  • And since you say no much more than you say yes, you’ll spend time with people who you won’t say yes to. Learn to give more than you take when you do this. Help them some other way. Introduce them to someone else who can help. Offer wisdom and experience.
  • Treating people well on the way out the door is as important as it is rare. Being generous to people you fire, who decide to leave to advance their career, or who are just not a good fit matters. A lot. It is shocking how rarely I have been supported by HR leaders and CEOs on this topic.
  • How a company treats the behavior of their salespeople and developers defines the culture, not the “values” that are written down. I have seen sales people lie (to customers, to me, to other employees) but suffer no consequences because they “deliver.” Same for developers. That corrodes the culture and causes the high-value talent to leave.
  • How a company handles equality defines the culture, again regardless of what “values” are written down. It takes real bravery to foster equality in a culture. It is always easier to let fear cause a company to tolerate harassment. We need more bold, brave leaders. We absolutely need more women leaders. And leaders of color. And leaders from other cultures.

So at the end of this phase of my professional life, I would say that what mattered, what was meaningful, what was important was creating conditions for people to be their best selves. And that how you treat people matters, enormously.

What’s next for me? I’m on the board of two tech companies in Boston and am for sure going to continue stay on steep learning curves there. 

And my wife and I are launching the Diamante Scholars program at Diablo Valley College (the community college I attended)  to help under-performing, high-potential students find their path (more on that in an upcoming blog post). 

I’m attending community college myself to learn Spanish. 

And I am learning to drive race cars

But most of all, I am going to keep learning to be better. At everything I do and am. If I learned anything from 30+ years building high-growth tech companies, it’s that you can always be better. You can always learn.

Looking through the turn

June 24, 2019

By Peter Zaballos

I recently started learning to drive a race car, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. 

With the encouragement and support of my wife and all four children, I began taking high-performance driving classes at one of the best driving schools in the country, in Kent, Washington. And I wanted to share what I am learning there, because I’ve discovered that driving a car fast on a race course is a lot like making your way through a career or through life.

When you’re driving a race car, one of the first skills you learn is to “look through the turn.” It’s the habit of having your eyes focused on where you want the car to go, not where it is right now. And it’s super pragmatic. 

When you’re driving a car at high speed, whatever is in front of you is coming at you so fast that if a correction is needed, that correction needed to take place seconds earlier. You literally can’t fix the problem at that point. When your eyes are focused on what’s directly in front of you, it’s called “driving from the hood of the car.” Best case, you’re going to exit that turn slowly, poorly positioned for the next turn. Worst case — you’re going to drive off the track.

So you’re instructed to split your field of view, with the majority of your vision focused far down the road and only your peripheral vision tracking the close-up things. Sometimes that turn ends over your shoulder, so you go into the turn literally looking out the side window while the car is barreling forward through the turn.

And it gets harder still because you really do need to keep track of close-up things coming at you. There is a point where you need to start the turn — called the “turn-in-point” — where you stop going straight down the track and you turn the wheel. You need to do your braking before this point because you can’t brake hard and turn at the same time (and you need to brake hard to get your speed down).

When you turn in, you need to arc the curve of your path to hit the part of the corner that will produce the largest radius turn you can trace — a larger radius means higher speed — so you are also tracking for that critical spot that ensures you are carrying the maximum speed through the turn. You need a telltale mark for this “apex” point.

Finally, as you exit the turn you need to aim for a spot that finishes that largest radius turn you initiated way back at the turn-in-point. This is called the “track-out” point.

And this is not just about that one turn you just negotiated. It’s about considering the entire track and all of its turns and how you think about what will produce the lowest overall time through the course. It could very well hurt your overall lap time to go through a particular turn super fast, because it could send you into the next turn poorly positioned.

At driving school, there’s a traffic cone conveniently placed at the turn-in, apex, and track-out points. But in racing — as in life, of course — there are no cones at these telltale points.

So for every turn on a track, you need to memorize some physical object — a visible patch of dirt, a tree on the horizon, even a porta-potty off to the side of the track — to help you know when to turn in, where the apex is, and where to end your turn. The chief instructor of the school, Don Kitch, has raced in the 24 Hours of LeMans, and said it took him and his two co-drivers a year to prepare for it. They took hundreds of photos so they would know the key telltales of every turn on the track.

Everything I just described about learning to drive a car on a racetrack is also true of navigating your career and living your life. Keep your vision fixed on the long term, but be intentional and precisely aware of the tell-tales along the way.

From a career perspective, every turn on the track is like each job or role you have. The goal is to decide when to take that job, how to maximize your “radius” through it so that you construct the most impactful and rewarding career, and when to “track out” for your next opportunity. 

It’s not about maximizing the results from any one role, but being very intentional about how your progression of roles link and make sense together. It’s why focusing just on compensation or a title for that next job may not, in fact, set you up for the role you really want, two or three career moves later.

So, on the track and in your career, look through the turn.

There is no “career path,” just a network of relationships

March 30, 2018

And how you get from one adventure to the next

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Business and Economics, on the subject of career paths. And the title of my talk was “There Is No Career Path.”

I wasn’t all that that creative. Steve Jobs made this point in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2011, six years before he died. His point was that a career path is only visible in hindsight. The “path” is produced by following your interests and talents. But I want to take that a step further.

My observation is that your career is a product of the relationships you develop along the way in your job along with following your interests and your talents. Notice I didn’t say college alumni networks. One of the points I made to the UWW students was I attended two of the top five universities in the world (Berkeley and MIT), and my alumni networks have produced zero jobs for me.

Networking

But the relationships I developed at LSI Logic, at C-Cube Microsystems, at RealNetworks, and as a venture capitalist at Frazier Technology Ventures have produced six incredible jobs, and have formed the foundation of my career.

When you unpack “relationships” there’s a lot to examine. For me, relationships are formed by establishing trust and credibility with the people you work with and for. And you do that by doing what you said you would do. By speaking your mind. By being honest. By acting with integrity. By being in a culture that aligns with your values.

Your network of relationships is fundamentally about about your personal brand.

That’s right, your personal brand is made up of the people you work with. How well you communicate to them. How well you support others. And that all involves . How you treat them. Those experiences, those memories persist. They’re your personal brand.

Finding the next adventure

And here I am, at another juncture where I am about to move to my next adventure. I left my role as CMO at SPS Commerce in early January, to return to Seattle. Family reasons draw us there, and I really wanted to get back to my roots – building category-creating technology companies.

And it’s this network of relationships that is guiding me. Which made me think of another set of conversations I’ve been having with folks I know – about how instrumental these relationships are to discovering your next adventure.

I’ve been employing the method that has propelled me to where I am now, and which I know will get me to where I want to be next. It involves four activities:

Hone your story – What this means is having clarity about what it is you want to do and what you’ve done to prepare you for this, and it’s being sober and humble about what you’re really good at. And finally, it’s about being compelling about why this next adventure is right for the role and for you – and for whoever it is you will work for.

“Your story” is what you say after you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, and there’s a pause. You then tell the story. Why you’re there with them, why there is context, and you paint a picture of your future that they might be able to help you with.

Lots of conversations – This is the foundation of the process. This is where you start speaking to lots of people who might be able to help sharpen your focus, sharpen your story (you’ll be telling that to them), and who might know someone else who you might meet. But fundamentally you are asking someone to spend time with you. To help you.

It’s awesome your contact will meet with you, so be considerate of their time. Thank them. And make sure you see if there’s anything you can do to help them. It will make you feel less bashful about asking for feedback, or to be connected to someone else.

Considerate networking – Expect and insist on “double opt-in introductions” – this means the person connecting you someone needs to check with that person to confirm they’re interested BEFORE making the introduction . Only after that person agrees to be introduced, then expect the introduction. This means there’s mutual interest in the conversation.

This also introduces an obligation to responsiveness on your part. That means as soon as you see that email connecting you to the other party, respond promptly – before the other party has to. Your contact is doing you a favor, so demonstrate grace by making it easy for them for them to find a time and place to meet. And while you’re at it, be considerate of the person who made the introduction. In your reply, move that person to the bcc line of the email. That way they will see that the connection has been made, but they are not burdened with seeing the 7+ email exchanges that went into finding a date and place to meet.

Let go of the outcome – This is the hardest part. The only part of this process you can control is your ability to meet with people, tell your story, and explore where this all takes you. What it won’t do is provide a linear path to an awesome next role for you. But enough of these sincere conversations, where you’ve been considerate and forthcoming, will produce a conversation, at some point, that will point to a person or a role, that is exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s that simple. I can tell you every one of the awesome opportunities I am exploring right now have followed these four steps. And it has had nothing to do with where I went to school.

And like with you career – there is no deterministic path you can see stretching forward. Just a network of relationships guiding you down the road.

 

Product led organizations build categories. By Peter Zaballos

March 6, 2018

Part Four: Product has the obligation to set the tempo of transformation 

Every business needs to have a laser focus on the needs of their customers. Look no further than Amazon, who has a legendary, systemic, DNA around customers. Literally their customer obsession.

A few years ago I had an opportunity to speak with an Amazon exec about the business he was running and the priorities he had in building it. This business was a direct competitor to a business of Apple’s, and I noticed the Amazon exec was using both an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. I asked him, “why are you using products from your competitors, effectively helping fund them?” – his answer was disarmingly reflexive and sincere. He simply stated “why would it serve my customers better for me to use products that made me less effective at doing my job?”

MountEverest

What does this have to do with product led organizations?

Bringing a category to life and Amazon have the same customer focus.

I wrote earlier about when you’re building a category it’s important to not listen to your customers – don’t let them dominate your near term product priorities. You owe your customers the maniacal focus on your bold vision, and bringing that to life over time, not attending to their long list of improvements in their limited field of view.

Which means product will have complicated relationship with sales and customer success. Sales and customer success are faced daily with enormous input and demands about the here and now. And they should focus maniacally on how to win today’s prospect sale and ensure today’s customers get the value they were promised. But the product team needs to be super careful to include only the most critical few of those customer and prospect needs in the roadmap. The category is the high order bit here.

Your category gets built by bringing tomorrow’s promise to life. I’ve seen companies falter and stall when they take their eye off the category defining focus and shift it to the priorities of their sales teams or their customer success teams. Worse, if the next 90 days of your backlog is the only commitment to your roadmap, you’re never going to build a category. You need to have appropriate commitments to what needs to get done three, six, nine, and 12 months from now.

The product leadership needs to behave like the CEO of their product. That means to operate with a strategic purpose and context. Sure, they need to hear the near term need from sales and customer success, but like a CEO, they’re measured on their ability to perform today but also ensure the company realizes its potential. This is so wonderfully captured in Ben Horowitz’ now legendary 20+ year old essay, Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager. If you haven’t read this. Do so. Now.

Focusing on the bold future can introduce some awkward dynamics to organizations not used to thinking with a category mindset. In a product-led organization, sales and customer success are going to feel pressure to keep up. They’re going to have to become capable and fluent in understanding the trends and priorities that make the bold product vision important. They will need to fully internalize why the category is strategic and important and be able to explain it to their prospects and customers.

In sales or customer success led organizations, the opposite occurs. The product team will need to simplify and reduce the vision and explain the plan using the terms of today. No matter how well you do this, you’ll never build a category. You’ll just hit a forecast. For a while.

I’ve heard some executives at tech companies use the excuse that “we can’t let the salespeople know about the roadmap, because then they won’t sell what we have today.” If that really is true, then that’s the tell-tale sign that the company in question is not a category builder. Because category builders have salespeople who are experienced and savvy enough to sell what you have today, and who can also convey the compelling nature of what is coming. And why buying today’s product puts that customer on a more compelling and secure future.

No one less than Steve Jobs understood this with his typical clarity. Observing that the difference between technology companies that function as sales organizations versus technology companies that function as product companies is that the sales-led organizations will revert to today’s product. They’re not wired to think about or develop big, bold new products.

Companies like Salesforce have mastered “product-led” organizational behavior. Just watch one of Marc Benioff’s keynotes and you’ll see him talking about capabilities that likely won’t be real for years, but speaking to them as if they’re here now. Their salespeople know how to straddle these two realities. They know that you’re going to be better off getting on the platform now and be better off over the years as the promises get delivered.

Product-led organizations build categories, and categories are the product of a bold vision that the marketing organization communicates and aligns the company around, and a product strategy that brings the category vision to life. And that’s good for your customers. Give them something they can’t envision. It’s never been a better time to be a technology company CMO.

Category creating – it’s as easy and hard as it looks. By Peter Zaballos

February 9, 2018

Part One: Bold vision is everything

I’ve been thinking about categories recently. A lot.

I’ve been fortunate to have been in three companies who had that bold vision, who could see that structural opportunity, and who zeroed in on the audience that was affected. At LSI Logic, we saw the opportunity to enable new categories of computing devices – personal computers and mobile devices. At C-Cube Microsystems we envisioned the impact that digital television and film could have on the broadcast and entertainment industries. And at RealNetworks it was as simple as enabling internet-delivered audio and video – developing the breakthroughs making Netflix and Spotify a reality.

Creating a category is easy to say and so hard to do. Or rather, it’s easy to see a company who has created a category and it sure looks obvious in hindsight. But in the early days, even in the middle phase, it’s nothing short of a free-for-all.

Table stakes are having a bold vision for what you think could be dramatically different for the customers you serve. Not better, but different. Not a little different. Fundamentally, earth shatteringly different. And with those words and the belief in them, you then need to have the audacity to live up to them.

The creators of categories dominate the market they create. Because they see a future their competitors don’t. Their competitors chase what the category creator makes visible. They will always be steps behind the category creator.

Creating a new category in the market begins and ends with aligning that bold vision for what’s possible with clarity of the mission of the company and more importantly, for the customers you serve. This is about getting precise about the words. The words matter.

But defining the category is more than words and sentences of a paragraph. And bringing a category vision to life is more than a marketing campaign. It is precisely where the company’s strategy and strategic intent are mobilized across the organization. Category creating is a holistic commitment of the business. It is the CEO’s personal obligation. If the CEO doesn’t personally own this ambition, no amount of over-functioning executives can make up for that. At some point the conversation gets shrill.

BRING THE CATEGORY TO LIFE

With the CEO owning the category vision, they don’t need to  develop the framework that will enable the company to take advantage of and define the category. That can be handled by a member of their team. It has to be someone senior enough in the organization to have visibility and perspective, and also be someone who can work across teams, across execs, and orchestrate engagement. This includes:

  • Identifying the people, processes, and products required to fulfill the category potential.
  • Specifying how you will get from today to that future potential. The solution you have today and what you will build in the future to address  the category problem
  • Identifying the ecosystem that will validate and accelerate the development of the category, and squeeze out your competitors

To bring a category to life depends on this strategic alignment first and foremost with the product strategy. The product needs to deliver this category promise to the users. Their experience validates the category potential, and literally brings it to life in the market. And this product alignment needs to be fully aligned with how these products are taken to market. The words that are literally used to attract prospects, engage them in learning more, and choosing the solution all have to map back to the category vision and definition.

In an age where essentially every sale is driven through some form of digital interaction, the good news is that search performance provides and awesome data-driven laboratory to ensure you get all of this right. You’ll know. The data will scream the results at you.

STEP UP AND LIVE YOUR AMBITION

This is where so many companies get scared. Especially once a company is in the midst of category creation. It’s easy to get frightened, chasing near term revenue and investments in the face of the riskier long term commitments that need to be made. Remember, you’re bringing to market something fundamentally different than what exists today. For the meek, that means there will be some pretty powerful forces pulling you back to…today. Today is familiar. It is safe.

Creating a category is lonely. Especially for the leadership of the company. The CEO and their team are the custodians of this vision, and for a long, long time, they may be the only true believers.That’s why it’s easy to get scared. Why it’s easy to back off. To retreat to the goals and tactics that produced the recent past, and not make the bolder choices to bet on the future.Bringing a category to life is a fully focused go-to-market campaign. Externally and Internally.

That internal part is key. Employees need to have clarity on what that different future will be and how to explain in an appropriate context, whey this journey is important. Customer Success needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Sales needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Everyone inside the company is on a mission. To fundamentally transform the lives of their customers.

INVIGORATE THE COMPANY

The day-to-day work of creating a category is the essential job of every employee. They need to be trained, to be fluent in, and have internalized the same understanding of the structural opportunity and the role the business has in realizing this opportunity.That’s why RealNetworks had a palpable intensity – every day – that employees were energized and motivated by.

It’s why my friend and RN colleague Dave Cotter remarked “I was probably young enough to believe it, but there really was a sense that we were fundamentally changing the world, and, actually, for a period of time we were.”Bringing a vision to life for customers and prospects goes hand in hand with bringing that vision to life for employees.

This is why the obligation for defining the category rests with the CEO, but how important it is that every employee is enlisted making the vision real to prospects and customers, every day.Category creation is not a board topic, it’s not an exec staff meeting topic.

It’s the CEO’s life mission. It’s internalized by every employee. It’s the lifeblood, the daily obsession, of everyone.