Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Preparation for a long offsite

July 23, 2009

I’ll be hiking the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California next month, which is something I’ve wanted to do my entire adult life.  The Sierras and backpacking really took root with me in high school, where a core group my friends went every summer, and continued through college and a few years beyond before losing the thread to careers and starting families.

Three years ago we restarted these annual trips, and about then I realized how much I enjoy being up in the mountains, away from all forms of electronic communication, as a way to get some perspective and some balance.

So this year I leave on August 4, and my friends and I will start down the John Muir Trail, five days later they’ll leave the trail at Red’s Meadow, and I’ll resupply there and continue on, on my own.  I’ll finish near Mt. Whitney, two weeks and 170 miles later.

And I’ve been doing a lot of reading to prepare for the trip.  Mostly trail guides, even a book on the geology of the Sierras (ensuring I will be the most boring person at the next cocktail party I go to).  But one that’s proven particularly helpful is a book called High Sierra by Phil Arnot, and it’s been great at providing detail on side trips I can make along the way.

300+ pages of detailed route descriptions, elevation changes, permit locations…in short a bunch of data and information about as “touchy feely” as the phone book.  It even has a section on “Hiking Solo” with a set of very pragmatic preparation guidelines regarding safety.   But then it went in a direction I didn’t expect, with the following passage:

“So, in a way the wilderness experience may be catalytic in bringing us to face, really face, the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves:  Am I really living the life I want to live?  Am I fulfilled in my work?  Are my relationships based on sharing and intimacy or are they primarily obligatory?  What do I really want to do with my life?”

Well, for those of us who love backpacking and being in the mountains, that set of questions told me the author truly knows his subject.  For me, these are the questions my mind gets drawn to when my “job” for the day is to traverse six or eight miles (or more) of trail at 10,000 feet, and what separates you from the beginning and end of the hike is a lot of time to walk and think.

Take the “fulfilled in my work” question.  That one’s easy.  I love my job as a venture capitalist.  I love that it requires that you think hard about strategy and equally hard about operations and execution.  You’re on a constant learning curve looking at new businesses and needing to quickly get to their essence to make a funding decision.  And when you find a business you want to fund, you get to go deep with it, for years, to help it (hopefully) succeed and grow.

But that’s the “work” part of this, and what makes my job truly fulfilling is who I work with.  Through equal parts self-selection and deliberate effort, my partners and I have created the kind of transparent, friction-free, trust-based working relationship that up until this point I had only read about.

The fact that we had all worked together before getting into this business helped, but over the past five years we’ve had to make our way through uncomfortable, difficult conversations that required egos to be set aside, and personalities to be parsed from the logic and data.  Everybody talks about this, it’s the first time I’ve experienced it first-hand.

That’s great, but actually making money in this business is getting incredibly hard.  The whole industry is in a state of transition and transformation.  Fred Wilson has done a good job explaining this, but in short, it’s taking longer to get companies sold, the IPO market is dead, and the median valuations at sale have been declining for years.  In order to generate the returns institutional investors need, you’ve got to as a firm perform well above median.

It’s daunting.  We’re doing well as VCs, but looking at the whole industry it gives you pause.  This business will be getting smaller before it gets larger, and as I’ve written in an earlier post, the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place in industries who are in a state of transition.  And this is an industry in transition.

But that’s where the exciting part of this job is.  Transitions create no shortage of opportunity, and challenge.  I’m grateful I have the chance to put some more thought into this, during my long offsite.

Between now and when I “go off the grid” on the 4th, I’ll be posting on some related topics.

Why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong

December 9, 2008

Startup companies begin life with operating plans – the spreadsheets that outline how revenue will be generated and expenses will be allocated. But in the end it’s all a very well calculated guess. So much is unknown.

A phrase I use a lot when I meet with startup companies is “the only thing we know for certain about your plan is that the numbers in it are wrong”.   It’s a disarming statement, it generally sets everyone at ease.  How could you possibly know what your revenue will be in month 33, when you haven’t even shipped your first product?

And it’s true, in a good way. It’s not the values in the cells that are important, but the set of assumptions and principles that underpin the numbers in the cells that are. I mentioned this in my first post. It sounds and is obvious.

Why bother with the plan? Some CEOs I meet take this path, and use their operating plan as a “check off the box” deliverable on the way to getting funded. But if you go there I think you blow right by critical insight about your business. You need that plan, even when you are far off it, to help you understand which assumptions are still valid, and which may need to change.

An example of an assumptions is “we’ll have larger companies distribute our product for us, and each company will deliver 50,000 end users to us”. That’s important to remember, especially if after six months, they’re only delivering 5,000 users.  It’s even more important to understand if this is just a factor of how long it takes to ramp demand (in which case that assumption needs scrutiny) or of it’s because that’s all the demand these companies can produce for you (ditto).

Your plan is a tool that has a limited useful life, at some point your business (and assumptions) change so much you need to pull out (or rather create) a new one. The right tool, for the right circumstances matters, a lot.

If the right tool is critical, the right mindset produces it. Successfully running a startup requires a resilient open mind and cultivating a sense of intellectually curiosity. You need to want to understand the “why” and “how” the numbers in the cells fail to match reality.

So, examining the failure of your plan, and finding the meaning in the failure, enables you to construct new, more valid assumptions, so you can discard the old plan and create a new one. This can be harder than you think, the plan you have now is was slaved over, polished, and is so “done”. But this new plan has a clearly defined lineage connecting it to the old one, and is the new “right tool” for your business.

Missing your plan is different. Plan “failure” is fundamentally different from missing your plan. Missing your plan comes from poor execution, poor discipline and poor vigilance about understanding why you’re not performing to your plan.  It’s still failure, but failure where no meaning has been examined or made use of.  It’s where you end up using the wrong tool, and not understanding, or even knowing, why you need a new one.

Missing your plan is like trying real hard to use that shovel that worked so well to dig the foundation of a house you’re building to hammer the nails into the framing. Sure it might work, for a while, but over time it’s just not going to do the job you need done. Missing your plan is insisting that you just hit the nails harder and faster with the shovel, and not realizing you hold the wrong tool to begin with.

This is why one of my partners coined the phrase “teams that miss plans generally continue to miss plans”. It’s because they don’t realize its their tool that’s wrong, not their intentions or efforts.

The best CEOs I work with are wonderfully disciplined about creating and appropriately discarding their plans. They measure their performance relative to their plan, and they’re vigilant about clearly delineating the key assumptions supporting the plan. When they’ve measured enough to know the assumptions are no longer valid, they revise their plan, and gladly leave that old plan behind. It becomes all about their new plan, and new tool.