Posts Tagged ‘resiliency’

Finding the chicken killers – part two

March 2, 2009

I got a lot of positive feedback and comments on Finding the Chicken Killers, where I explained what the concept of a chicken-killer was but stopped short of providing an example of one.  Let me tell you about someone who was on my marketing team at Vivo.

[This is a longer post than usual; I hope you find it worth it!]

Ann-Marie was responsible for our online marketing, our website marketing, and our demos at Vivo.  She grew up in a large Italian-American family outside Boston; while she was polite and well spoken, she had a nice independent streak.

The situation was this.  We were now 18 months into the turn-around of the company, marketing our internet video product VivoActive.  We’d become the market leader, but internet video was still small compared to internet audio, and RealNetworks was the big gorilla out there.  Oh, and Microsoft was trying to muscle into the market; they’d recently licensed Real’s product and were giving it away for free (but not really marketing it).  How’s that for being neighborly?

We’d aligned ourselves with Microsoft and could create internet video in their format.  VivoActive together with Microsoft’s server made a complete solution, and we had their marketing and sales teams promoting it to their customers. The plan of course was to get Microsoft to buy us.

The bad news was we were running out of cash (we had about six months left), and we needed to sell the company – remember, we were on a Series D financing.  There was no appetite for a Series E.

So, the CEO, my BusDev director, and I got on a plane and went to Redmond to try and move/force the conversation along, but all we got was a tepid commitment to consider an investment.

We came back from that meeting frustrated and depressed.  The three of us were in our conference room, trying to figure out what to do.  It was almost as if a literal light bulb went off when one of us said “Companies buy their enemies to take them off the market… who are we an enemy of?”

RealNetworks.

Holy cow.  RealNetworks.  Were so aligned with Microsoft; we could be a big threat to RealNetworks.  We had at best an arms-length relationship with them (meaning relations were generally frosty).  How could we get them to feel threatened, really threatened, very quickly?

So, I suggested “What if we let all the RealNetworks customers know they could replace the server they bought from Real with the free one from Microsoft?  All they’d need to do is pay us $500 for VivoActive.”  Hmmm… replace your $50,000 RealServer with a $500 alternative.  That sounded workable.

But how to pull this off?  We needed to quickly find out who was using RealServers and then somehow contact enough of them to make this a credible threat.  I got my team together, and Ann-Marie was the first one to come up with an idea.  “We can use Wired’s HotBot search engine to find web pages with the .ram file the RealServer embeds on pages with the media file, and then find out who the company is that owns those pages.  We can look up who the exec team is at the company and send an email offer to them.”  Great idea, but a lot of work.  She agreed to take the lead on pulling this all together.

Working backward from our cash-out date, we’d need to get this done within the next few weeks.  Otherwise, we’d run out of money in the middle of the negotiations.

Ann-Marie showed up at the next war-room meeting and said she’d gone through the process a few times; it was working, but it was going real slowly.  I suggested she have our receptionist, Amy, help her out.  Away she went.

The next day Ann-Marie came back, deflated.  She and Amy had only been able to build a database of about 50 customers.  This was going to take too long.  More brainstorming.  Ann-Marie offered to see if some of the developers could be pulled off their projects to lend a hand.

The next day everyone was looking haggard and tired.  Ann-Marie showed up, looking worse than any of us. “I was up most of last night.  I realized we’re never going to get this done on time, even with the developers.”

What?

Then she said “But I realized we could do this differently.  I wrote an automated script that queried HotBot and wrote the results into a log file, and then I wrote a script to filter out the domain name of the page where the content was hosted.  I wrote another script to take that domain and query the “whois” database, and found out who the system administrator of the site was, and then put the email address and wrote it into another log file.”  The system administrator was a long way from the guy who paid for the RealServer, but it was close enough.

“It’s working really well; I’m up to about 700 names so far, and should be up to about 2,000 by tomorrow.”

Around the table, jaws were bouncing off the floor.  Ann-Marie hadn’t just killed the chicken, she’d plucked it, dressed it, and had it in the oven, roasting.

We got cracking. It was like a commando movie.  We quickly established a launch date for the emails.  Everyone had their task and took off.  I finished off the copy and reviewed the design of the email.  My busdev director made 1000% certain we had the license agreement in place.

Two days later, we were ready to go.  We briefed the CEO and the rest of the exec team on the plan.  Ann-Marie wrote a script (her new core competency) to send the emails out at midnight.

The next morning we came in, eager to see the results.  By mid-morning we had lots and lots of irate emails from system administrators and, as a result of the system administrators forwarding them, a good portion of similar emails from business execs at companies who were loyal to Real.  Irate was good.  Especially when many of the forwarded emails also copied the account manager at Real or even Rob Glaser, Real’s hyper competive CEO.

Lots of tension; everyone ate their lunches at their desks.  A little after 1pm, our CEO came walking down the hallway, a huge, huge grin on his face.

“Rob Glaser just called.  They want to talk about buying us.  I’m heading out to Seattle, tonight.”

I kid you not, it unfolded that cleanly.  A little over twelve hours after sending those emails.

By the time the acquisition was complete, our CEO was neck deep in chickens, killed.  But Ann-Marie was the one who so matter-of-factly and so fearlessly got that first chicken out of the way, and made it all possible.

Bad news should travel faster than good news

February 11, 2009

I love this phrase. It was a core principle of Rob Glaser’s at RealNetworks, and I think I must say it to myself or repeat it to someone nearly every day. It’s simple, true, and universal. It applies to work, life, relationships, everywhere.  It’s a core principle that cements the relationship with my partners.

I also love noticing how other people have internalized this principle. The CEO of one of my companies is an incredibly experienced and pragmatic executive who articulates the essence of this phrase another way: that bad news and good news are just different types of data, and just data.  You can’t make good, sound decisions with only half the data. In fact, you will consistently make poor decisions with half the data.

She creates a culture on her teams of “no cost to sharing bad news, and the more rapidly the better”. There’s a second-order benefit too. By treating bad news as data, you build trust within the team, and you shift the focus off the news, and onto what can be done, and how should the team or person respond.  This is easy to say, and really, really hard to put into action.

It also helps you appreciate good news more lucidly. When an executive only tells me what’s working well, the great forecast, the customer wins, part of my mind spins up, wondering “what’s he/she not telling me, because nothing ever goes well all the time.” It gradually deafens my ability to listen to the good news.

Conversely, when someone walks me through what’s gone wrong or what he/she is struggling with, when we get to the good news, I listen so much more closely, because it’s so much more credible. It also tells me a lot about the executive. I know I’m having a real conversation, that I’m not being sold to. 

But this isn’t just about work, it’s about life.  For example, putting into action with your children follows a similar trajectory.  Once my children entered school, and report cards started coming home, we applied the same approach the CEO at my company has with her team.  My children have been told that “this is just a collection of data that will help you and us understand where you need to apply your attention in the next grading period” and “Let’s not focus on the grade itself, but on whether you and we feel you’re working to your potential”. 

My two oldest are in 10th and 8th grade now, where grades matter a lot, and not surprisingly these two children respond quite differently to reviewing “the data”.  The oldest has found it easier to respond matter-of-factly while her younger brother has been less comfortable engaging in a discussion.  There are some likely “birth order” effects going on here, but those aside, he’s struggled to not be defensive…and it’s not about raw intelligence; both of them are at or near the tops of their classes.

So, last month when reviewing the interim grade reports, my son’s math grade had really taken a tumble, it was clear that he was struggling.  But he so didn’t want to examine why.  He wanted to focus on the courses where he was doing well, and pushed back in ways only a 14 year-old can do about applying some objective scrutiny on the basis of his math grade.  But, I guess he listened more than I realized.

A few days later, he walks up to me and says “I’ve got a big math test coming up, and I think I need help with some of this, I just don’t get it.”  We spent the next two nights working together going through the finer points of the standard, point-slope, and slope-intercept formulas with him. 

It was a lot of work, but the transformation was palpable.  He seemed to have turned this corner and saw/felt the benefit of not judging the data, but using it.  By the time we were done, he was confident and relaxed for his test, and he did just fine, better than he expected.

Then again, of course he did, he got to look at all the data.

Anticipation and resiliency

February 3, 2009

Big and unexpected changes are frequently less “unexpected” than we would like to admit sometimes, whether they occur in our personal lives or in our professional lives.  Sure, there are true shocks whose probability of occurring are so slim that they’re hard to anticipate, but much more often, the times when you have to confront an unpleasant change is something you knew was coming.

Henry Blodgett wrote a sober and ego-free article about why market bubbles happen, and will continue to happen.  A key point he makes is that bubbles happen naturally, for factors that in the long run will never be fully predicted or avoided, even though they may be anticipated.   He quotes investor Jeremy Grantham who sums it up well.  “We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term.”  The anticipation referred to here is anticipation of a bubble bursting, and the fear of the loss that will result. 

I love Henry Blodgett 2.0 (his role Merrill Lynch analyst was version 1.0).  He’s honest and humble, in a “serious scar tissue” kind of way.  I found his article refreshing because he was so direct about knowing the housing bubble was there, but that awareness provoked only a messy and clumsy understanding about what he should personally do about it that was best made sense of only with hindsight.  But by anticipating it he was able to see beyond the here and now, to the more pleasant and hopeful medium term, regardless of his near term decision making or consequences.

Early in 2008 we were advising our companies to expect a very hostile fundraising and operating environment in the second half of the year.  All we knew was something bad was coming, didn’t know the magnitude of the shock or the timing, just that it was coming.  What did we do differently?  Well, a lot, and nothing. 

Our companies applied a lot of scrutiny on expenses and revenue, for sure.  But they also continued to sell aggressively and keep product development schedules tight. 

So when October happened?  That was beyond bleak, but the companies in our portfolio methodically revised 2009 plans, optimized around a different set of variables (cash conservation, getting to profitability), and they addressed the very unpleasant tasks of expense and headcount reductions.  The entrepreneurs I was meeting with who were incubating new companies or raising money? They had a tough time of it, but by November, they were back, also with revised plans, showing how they could envision success even with so much less of everything to count on in their plans and assumptions.

Anticipation of an unpleasant outcome didn’t inhibit the responses of those of us in the startup community, anticipation enhanced the response.  It helped sharpen the focus more firmly on the fear of not succeeding, and fostered the resiliency we all need so very badly now, and enabled us to see beyond the near term. 

Over the holidays I confronted an earth-shattering shift in my personal life, and an unpleasant one I’d anticipated for many months.  What did I do?  Well, I focused myself on how to work through this, and to understand that the medium and long term are where to apply my focus.  Did the anticipation affect me or my response?  I think it did, I think it helped me move more quickly to focus on where success could be found beyond the near term. 

I find life in the world of startups fascinating and inspiring, where productively making use of anticipating an unpleasant outcome, having it serve as a means to provoke adaptability, provide a “stretchiness” to your thinking and ability to respond all comes so naturally.  We’re in a world where resiliency will matter a lot, and where for the foreseeable future there will be much to anticipate, a lot of it unpleasant.  But in the medium term there is much inspiration and excitement to be found, and resilience will help speed us from here to there.

[the holidays and ensuring rapid start to the year took me off line, blog-wise, so I am glad to get this first post off for the year, and look forward to resuming the active pace of November and December.  Thanks to all of you for your patience!].

Meaningful Failure

November 27, 2008

In my world as a venture capitalist and a veteran of four fairly successful startup companies, I see and have experienced failure, a lot. My colleagues and I talk about it a great deal, in familiar ways and in ways that assign value to failure that occurred in a meaningful way. With the big ideas and within the teams that build companies around these ideas, modest success is simply not valued as highly as failure that occurs while attempting something bold, new, and ambitious.

Outside of my world, failure is spoken of in ways that make me think the people doing the talking view failure more superficially than we do. It’s a pause on the way to success, something you move on from. It’s as if failure is treated as a currency that gets spent on the way, but it’s a currency that’s been in circulation too long; it’s grimy, and you don’t really want to touch it if you can help it.

In the ”sky’s the limit” world of startup companies it’s all about being in a place where you’re brave enough to go do something new and bold and the only thing you are scared of is not succeeding. My colleagues and I frankly spent less time worrying about the failure side of our businesses than we do understanding what the obstacles to success are. We know failure is going to happen. In those early days of our companies, in fact, one of the few things we know is that the plan will end up being wrong, or at least that the numbers in all those cells will be. But understanding why they are wrong – examining, seeking the knowledge of where we failed – is how we find the path to success.

It’s not that we’re in love with our failures, but we do have meaningful relationships with them.

Meaningful failure. It’s not just where things didn’t work out. It’s failure that happened even when you were really, really motivated for and focused on success. It’s that confluence of ambition and reach, hard work and commitment, preparation and talent; where all of that comes together, and it’s still not enough.

It’s why most of us have an iPod while we also still use Windows computers; Apple sure failed to get the Mac mainstream, but learned from that when they entered the music and phone businesses.

But this is a really big failure. What about the failures we all experience in our jobs and personal lives that happen on a very human scale. You can have ambitions, you can place yourself in uncomfortable and vulnerable positions in order to achieve something of importance to you, and still you can fail. In fact, if you accept, even embrace failure, then about all you can control is how you respond to it when it happens, and what you take with you to as a result of it.

I like the analogy of failure being the lubricant in the engine. Without it, the engine stops. Without the meaning from the failures we create and encounter, the engine of success will stop. Or rather, when success happens it will be a lot smaller. Failure can tell you why what you hoped would happen didn’t but also why something like it, or better, can and will. If you’re not experiencing failure, then, perhaps you’re not hoping with enough ambition. Embracing it, anticipating it, being resiliently open minded, well, that’s just being a good steward of a high performing engine.

That’s why when I describe what it’s like to be in a high octane startup I refer to it being in a place where you remain calmly focused on the very few reasons why you will succeed and not on the seemingly thousands of reasons why you might fail. You’re striving for performance towards the big goal, not results of any specific setback along the way. It places you on the balls of your feet, not your heals. You know failure’s bound to happen, so lean into it.

It’s as simple as shifting your perspective to a “fear of not succeeding,” which is fundamentally, and in a very nuanced way so much different from a “fear of failing.” By focusing on what it takes to succeed, you can embrace the fact that there will and should be many junctures involving failure along the way. It’s the focus on success that enables you to get the big things done in life.

But embracing failure and extracting the data isn’t enough. You need a resilient, open mind to care for and make use of what you learn from your failures. Resiliency is important; it provokes a stretchiness and adaptability of your frame of reference and enables you to let go of that firmly held set of assumptions developed yesterday in order to embrace a better, more informed set today.

I like to think of my life as living in a continuous startup. At some point along the way, I realized that it’s at the moment of failure where the real meaning is, where you can figure out both what you are deep down inside and then how to be a different, more capable you the next time. That in order to be living a life of meaning and value, failure has to be not just acknowledged but embraced as the missing ingredient to success.

When you’re busy being focused on how you’ll succeed and failure occurs, it seems so much simpler to look at what just happened as fodder and information to take another run at finding out how to succeed the next time. It may be that the “next time” is the next iteration of the business you run at your company today or a totally different business at a totally different company. The constant, however, is standing at a juncture of success, open-minded learning, and meaningful failure and being ready to take the next step.