One of our favorite VC firms to work with is True Ventures. I’ve made many investments over the years with both Jon Callaghan and Tony Conrad, and I love being a co-investor with them.
Recently, Tony told me a great Jon Callaghan quote.
“Money Doesn’t Solve Problems. People Solve Problems.”
I’ve learned this lesson 7,345,123 times.
Every successful company I’ve been involved in had a least one near-death experience. Most of the successful companies I’ve been involved with have had at least one stall period, where growth slowed dramatically for some time. Lots of successful companies I’ve been involved in were tight on cash for extended periods. Some successful companies I’ve been involved in looked like they were doing well if you looked at their top line revenue and growth numbers, but were a disaster below the surface.
Note that I repeated “successful companies I’ve been involved in” for each sentence. Each of these companies that I’m referring to ultimately were successful. I’m separating them from companies I was involved in that failed.
In all of these cases, Jon’s statement is correct. The solution was not to throw money at the company and hope things at the company got better. Instead, the successful companies had a functional leadership team and board that was able to figure out the problems and solve them. While the issues often included some members of the leadership team (including occasionally the CEO), in each case, it required focusing on what wasn’t working, where the problems were, and taking aggressive and decisive action to address them.
Assuming the people addressing the issues were the right people, and the extended team (management and board) focused on the correct problems, and then the team gave each other enough time to see whether or not what they were doing addressed the issues, more often than not things ended up in a happy place. While sometimes the issues were intractable, or the dynamics between the people were ineffective, most of the time the focus on people solving the problems resulted in spending less money.
I have a corollary to Jon’s statement which is: “When things break or stall, slow down your spending.” The momentum of growth often results in expense growth regardless of what is happening in the rest of the business. A lot of this expense growth is headcount but also includes a substantial (and often surprisingly large) mix of variable and discretionary spending. While cutting headcount can be part of the approach, taking a hard look at all expenses, eliminating what is unnecessary or ineffective, and communicating clearly with everyone in the company, can often have an immediate and dramatic impact.
It’s scary to tell everyone in the company exactly what is going on when you are in distress. We recently had a long thread on our CEO list titled Surfacing runway: yes or no? It was brilliant and full of great examples, but one, from a company that had stalled but then went on to be extremely successful, stood out to me. The CEO of that company said that during their stall period:
We shared with all employees both income statement and balance sheet (including cash position) to make clear that we needed to better control our expenses so that we could control our own destiny re runway (it was also in context of decelerating growth rate – our rule of 40 was in the teens). We slowed hiring considerably and created programs called “Save to Reinvest” to drive home a sense of fiscal discipline. We showed the company at each monthly All Hands how the financials were changing from our collective activities.
The solution here was people. Not money. Like it usually is.
I used to be chronically late to everything, both personal and professional. In my twenties, before cell phones, I was one of those people that others referred to as having “Brad time” which did not correlate with the actual time in the world. My calendar and schedule was a rough sketch, not even a guide.
My lack of attention to time finally imploded on me around age 35 when Amy said she’d had enough on multiple dimensions of our life. The foundational issue for us was that my actions didn’t match my words, and by being late all the time, I wasn’t honoring my priorities (which I would regularly say was Amy over everything else …) If you ever get us together at a meal and want to hear some epic “Brad was late” stories, ask her about the Postrio dinner of 2000.
Since then, I’ve gotten a lot better at being on-time. I’m not a “five minutes early to everything” person, but I’m rarely more than a few minutes late to anything. I’m very scheduled throughout the week, so it’s often hard to transition between the thing that ends at 2:30 and then be on time to the thing that starts at 2:30 and get it exactly right each time. And, throughout the day, when I end up going until 2:35 for whatever reason, the 2:30 call then goes a little long, and everything backs up a little so that I’m 15 minutes late for the last meeting of the day. And now I know to always say “I’m sorry for being late” whenever I’m late.
Over the years I’ve tried many different approaches to
Today, I use a different approach. I try manage the clock better during a meeting when I’m in charge, and prompt others when I’m not. That works a little, but it’s annoying.
I find this particularly challenging on calls that are an hour long with multiple people. Or, in three hour-ish board meetings with a lot of people. I don’t control the agenda in those meetings, so clock management is up to someone else. And, most people are painfully bad at it.
There are a few tips for anyone who wants to do this well.
Next, front end load the meetings. Do the stuff you need everyone on the call or at the meeting for up front. Some things need you to build into them, but don’t leave them “for the end” – build deliberately to each deeper discussion or decision you want to have. Leaving the critical discussions and decisions for the end of the meeting is a guaranteed way not to get to them.
Send out materials well in advance (at least 48 hours) and assume everyone can read. If they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours, and they’ll get the hint pretty quickly. Instead of going page by page through your materials, or using the materials as a crutch to “review” things, summarize they key points and focus on discussion and debate, rather than review.
Finally, build in buffer. Almost everyone needs to go to the bathroom during a three hour meeting. At the minimum, it’s good to stand up and stretch your body. All video conferencing systems, no matter how good, continue to have weird friction at the beginning of the meeting, so have a front-end start buffer, rather than anxiety around the inevitable five minute delay. And, when the meeting goes off the rails and you get ten minutes behind because someone (e.g. me) can’t shut up about something and your time enforcer was daydreaming about Dali paintings, use the buffer to catch back up.
This is a problem that has been persistent in my life for over 30 years. If you have magic tricks that have worked for you, I’m all ears.
A lot of people are predicting that 2018 was the peak and the beginning of a
I’m not a predictor so I have no idea. I try not to pay attention to the macro (as I’ve said many times), but I do think it is important to have a frame of reference about it.
My frame of reference has a few components.
First, it’s going to be incredibly noisy out here on planet Earth. The year 2018, especially in the United States, was full of endless, chaotic noise that carried very little signal. It was either noise for noise’s sake (and page views), or misdirection (like in the movie Swordfish).
This isn’t just politics. It’s everything. And it’s going to get noisier. So, the search for signal gets harder, more complicated, and more important.
Next, the indicators are trailing, not leading. By the time people are prognosticating on the direction of things, the prices of crypto, interest rates, IPOs, the stock market, P/E multiples, and everything else, it’s too late – you have already missed the moment you are probably searching for. So, put all this stuff in the noise category. This is really difficult, especially given our natural human tendency to try to anticipate and react to things in order to win (or believe we are winning.)
The core of my frame of reference is that I’m playing a very long game. At 53, I’ve already been through a lot of downturns – both large and small ones. Some of the big ones impacted the things I was involved in directly (like the collapse of the Internet bubble) and were incredibly brutal to my world. Others, like the global financial crisis, were adjacent to my world. I didn’t even notice many others. But, in all cases, the downturn ended. And, with the benefit of hindsight, there were huge opportunities even in the downturn.
Ultimately, we all die. I’m currently reading Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul (I’m on January 31st – I read it in the bathroom.) One thing is clear when reading between the lines – the downturn doesn’t care about us.
In the world of entrepreneurship, there are endless things to do. Tasks, to do lists, new initiatives, new projects, and P1s. Leaders spend a lot of time planning, especially in the context of “we have to grow more, do more, and get bigger.”
Lately, I’ve been suggesting to a few of the CEOs who I work with to make a “2019 Won’t Do List.” While this is a high-level list of things not to do, it can be on multiple dimensions.
I like to start with things that often are optional, but consume a lot of time and energy. Examples would be “an acquisition” or “a financing” or “an IPO.” Let’s take “acquisition” as an example. Assume you are a fast growing company with plenty of financial resources. Maybe you’ve made some acquisitions in the past. But, you haven’t thought about it specifically, so it’s a reactive or opportunistic move. It’s very freeing to decide “this year we aren’t making any acquisitions and we aren’t going to be distracted by the motion around an acquisition.” The nice thing about being a CEO, especially of a company in a strong position, is that you can change your mind. But by declaring what you won’t do up front for some time, it makes the decision one where you have to actively change your mind about what you won’t do.
Then, I like to roll into metrics that create a floor on how the business will operate. For example, “We won’t have a month of negative EBITDA.” Or, “well never have negative cash flow of more than $500,000.” Or, we won’t hire anyone new, other than replacing attrition, until after we have revenue of $X / person.” These are different than what your goals are, where the goals look like “We are going to grow 10% month over month” or “We will adhere to the rule of 40 for a healthy SaaS company.”
Then, I like to end by pushing the CEO to define personal Won’t Dos. These can be behavioral or functional. Most people are comfortable with the functional ones, but struggle to identify the behavioral ones. I like the struggle around this – it almost always generates fascinating conversations that are highly personal.
An example of something from my Won’t Do list is “take on another book project.” I have several that I’m working on and I’m happy about them, but once I’m finished with them, I’m not going to do any more non-fiction for a while. I have a desire to write some near-term science fiction and see if I’m any good at it. Since I want to finish the projects I have and know that I have poor impulse control around says “sure – I’ll work on that book project,” by putting this on my Won’t Do list for 2019, I say no to everything.
A personal example on my Won’t Do list is “buy another big thing other than art” (e.g., house, car). I’ve got enough. Amy and I talked about this around my birthday (she was looking into getting me a new car) and I didn’t want one. I suggested that we buy a half dozen Subarus and park them in front of my friend Dave’s house (Dave hates Subarus) and call them an “art installation” instead. As I thought through this, I realized I don’t want something new like this for a while. In contrast, I exempted art because when I thought about it, I wanted to buy some additional art this year (especially sculpture.)
What’s on your Won’t Do list for 2019?
One of my favorite Bezo-isms is “Disagree and Commit.” I’ve seen it in articles a handful of times recently as the adulation around Amazon and Bezos’ management reaches a fever pitch.
Notwithstanding the disappointing forecast for Q418, Amazon’s recent operating performance has been spectacular. But, more interesting is that it has been “spectacular at scale” and across a very large and complex business.
While Revenue Growth YOY has been strong,
the real story has been YOY growth in Operating Income.
Those are beautiful numbers. It’s clear that in the past few years the company has turned on the profit machine.
For many years, Amazon (and Bezos) trumpeted their focus on revenue growth. The mantra was “we are reinvesting all of our profits in growth.” This is the same thing most startups say (and most VCs push for) as growth compounds rapidly if you can keep the growth percentage (yup – it’s simple math.) This has been particularly true for B2B SaaS companies, not withstanding the notion of the Rule of 40 for a Healthy SaaS Company.
While growth in revenue is still important, Amazon’s ability to generate this kind of growth on its operating income is a reminder that turning on the profit switch at some point does matter, if only to show how much leverage your operating model has (me thinks Tesla did that in Q318 for the same reason). The AWS numbers are remarkable to me – their YOY growth is 46% and their operating income is about 30%. That’s well above the rule of 40.
I would have loved to be in the meetings during the shift from “grow at all costs” to “keep growing fast, but flip the operating income switch.” There were many moments in time over the past 15+ years where I’m sure this came up. But clearly the focus on this changed in the last few years, and the results are now front and center.
I don’t hold any Amazon stock directly, nor do I play the stock market, but the financials in public companies have a myriad of lessons buried in them for private companies that are scaling. That said, the management lessons buried underneath the numbers are even more important. “Disagree and commit” seems to be working well these days for Amazon.
Complexify is such a delicious, underused word. I’ve been using it a lot lately, hopefully with great effect on people who are on the receiving end.
CEOs and founders struggle with this all the time (as do I). They are executing on a strategy and a plan. A new idea or opportunity comes up. It’s interesting and/or exciting. Energy gets spent against it. Momentum appears. While some people on the team raise issues, suddenly the idea/opportunity starts taking on a life of its own. Things get more complex.
Eventually, there’s a reset. The core of what is going on is good – there’s just a bunch of complicated crap happening that is distracting everyone and undermining the goodness in the business. So, the CEO and the leadership team go on a mission to simplify things. This takes a while, usually involves killing some projects, and often results in some people leaving the company. These aren’t big restructuring exercises but rather focused simplification exercises. The end result is often a much stronger business, with more focus, faster growth, and better economics, especially EBITDA.
This happens regularly in the best companies that are scaling. In my view, it’s a key part of the job of a CEO who is working “on the company” a majority of her time, rather than simply working “in the company.” It’s particularly powerful when a company starts to see its growth rate decline (it’s still growing, but at a slower pace than before) or a company is spending too much money relative to its growth rate.
Six months (or twelve months) later the simplification effort is complete. The company is performing much better. EBITDA has dramatically improved (or the negative EBITDA has gotten a lot smaller.) Growth is happening in an economically justified way. The product is improving faster. Customers are happier. Everyone around the team is enthusiastic.
And then a new idea or opportunity appears. Energy starts being spent against it. Momentum appears. You get where this is going.
I call this complexifying, a word I rarely see in the entrepreneurship literature. Maybe it’ll start creeping in now. All I know is that I’m using it a lot these days.
What do these numbers mean to you?
At a recent offsite, during our conversation about evolving our communication patterns (which I refer to, in my head, as “the Matrix”), Ryan said “16-49-81.” Everyone stared at him and I responded “4-squared, 7-squared, 9-squared.” Then, everyone nodded their heads but were probably thinking “these guys are numerology goofballs.”
But then Ryan said, “Metcalfe’s Law” and everyone immediately understood.
When we were just four partners, our communication matrix was 16. We added three new partners and it became 49. We recently added a General Counsel to our team and consciously included our CFO in the communication matrix, so now it’s 81.
81 is a lot different than 16. Our communication matrix is highly optimized (and something we are extremely focused on as a key attribute of what we do), but Ryan was pointing out that we needed to make sure we were paying attention to make sure we kept it clearly optimized at nine people, rather than just four.
We describe our communication and decision-making process as continuous. It happens in real time, on multiple channels, between all of us. We have very specific ways of reacting to new data which can flip quickly to a yes or no decision, rather than storing things up and making a collective decision at the end with summarized information. We have no intermediaries in our process – the seven partners are the ones interacting, with our GC and CFO now in the information flow.
There are days where it feels extremely noisy and others that are strangely quiet. This is different than a decade ago when it felt noisy all the time. I find the difference fascinating as I get used to the new surface area around the matrix.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on team dynamics. For a sense of how we think about them at Foundry Group, read Lindel’s great recent post Working at Threshold.
During a recent board call, there was a particularly challenging segment of the discussion. Afterward, I was frustrated because I felt like I was having an argument with another board member about something, but operating with different data. When I reflected on it, I realized that it wasn’t the data, but our respective frames of reference.
I was coming at the issue with an optimistic posture. She was coming at the issue with a pessimistic posture. The other board members on the call just listened, so while the data was the same, went ended up discussing it from opposite perspectives.
In general, this is a good thing. When the biases are known in advance, or explicitly stated, different starting postures can generate better critical thinking. But you have to know your bias as well as the other biases in the room. And, it has to be ok to come at things from different perspectives.
In this case, we weren’t explicit about it. I expect the other person knew that I was coming at things from an optimistic perspective (including the notion of “ok – we have an issue, but I’m optimistic that we can solve it) since that’s my nature. However, it’s possible that her pessimism about the situation overwhelmed her view of my position, and my frustration with her pessimistic viewpoint caused me to forget that this is her nature. If either of us had paused during the conversation and acknowledged our bias, or if someone else on the call had made the observation that we were simply talking past each other, that might have resulted in a more productive and fruitful discussion.
We talk a lot about this inside Foundry Group. Each of the seven of us comes from a different frame of reference on many issues. We have different biases, some deep-seated. We react differently to stimuli and behavior of others. We carry our own stresses in different ways. But, we know each other extremely well. By knowing that, and embracing it, we have more robust and honest discussions that we think lead to better decisions.
Ultimately, it’s not important to feel like you have to win each point, but rather simply be heard. As part of this, you have to also listen. Through this process, especially if you do the work to understand the posture of the other person, you should be able to modify and evolve your position based on the data you are hearing.
I wish I had a do-over on the board call that started this post with this rant in my mind.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve invested in many startups that sell products to large enterprises. Many of these companies end up either creating or helping to create a new category. As the startups (or the category) become visible, they inevitably attract the attention of industry analysts, who write reports on the categories and the startups as part of the industry analysts’ business.
Engaging with analysts can result in significant investments of time, effort, and capital on the part of the startup. The choice is a complicated one since startups are often challenging the status quo and industry analysts, while well-intentioned, don’t necessarily have a full grasp of the underlying industry changes taking place until well past the point that changes – and resulting trends – become obvious.
One of our portfolio companies recently engaged with an industry analyst for the first time with a very disappointing outcome. In this case, the company has created and is leading a new category. As a result of growing their customer base quickly, they were invited to participate in an analyst evaluation. Having invested little in relationships with this specific industry analyst, the company was hesitant, but the study was directly relevant and the industry analyst conducting the evaluation was prestigious, so the company decided to participate.
Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the analyst conducting the review simply didn’t understand the problem being solved or why this company’s solution was so disruptive to the other vendors. The outcome was a deeply flawed report. In retrospect, the company would have been better off if they had never gotten involved.
While it’s easy to say “oops” and move on, this company will now have to deal with this report for a while in competitive situations. Rather than be pissed off about it, our feedback was to use this as a learning moment in the development of the company, figure out why this happened, and determine what could be done differently in the future.
Several of the issues were exogenous to the company, but one big one was under the startup’s control. And, in all cases, the startup should have been much more forceful about their perspective on each issue. The specific issues follow:
The terminology was loosely defined by the analyst. Big shifts in technology are often interpreted at first as evolutionary, not revolutionary. It was notable that several of the “leading” companies in the report introduced their products over a decade ago, well before the category being addressed in the report was even invented. As a result, the younger companies approaching the problem in a completely new way were ranked poorly because the analyst missed the real value to the customer.
The analyst didn’t behave like a customer. In this product category, most customers perform an in-depth analysis of vendor capabilities through a thorough review based on their customer’s buying criteria before deciding on the solution. This analyst didn’t feel like the study warranted a deep look and used vendor demos instead. This eliminated the opportunity for the analyst to understand the customer’s perspective and to compare and contrast the different solutions being evaluated. All decisions and scoring were left to vendor claims (also known as “marketing”) while operational aspects of the customer, and how the various products addressed them, were ignored.
The analyst went wide instead of deep. The magic of this company’s product and the new category they have helped pioneer is a result of focusing on a very specific, yet critically important aspect of a broader problem. The analyst either didn’t understand this or didn’t focus on it and included a wide range of product capabilities, many of them irrelevant to the problem being addressed, in the evaluation. As a result, the study favored broad tools that covered more surface area (mainly from very large, established technology vendors), but had less specific capabilities, especially in the new product category being addressed.
The company failed to fully engage the analyst. Since the company didn’t have a fee-based relationship with the industry analyst firm, there was no long-term relationship. To young companies, paying analyst fees can feel like extortion, but it’s an essential part of engaging with and helping the analysts to better understand your product and how it’s different, especially when you are leading the creation of a new category. In this case (as in many others), the established vendors of broad products had spent years shaping analyst opinions. Even though these broad products didn’t compete effectively in the new category, their relationship with the analyst, who in this case relied on marketing information rather than real product engagement, won the day.
If you sell a product to large enterprises, neglect analyst relations at your peril. I generally categorize this activity in the same bucket as PR, even though they are different functions and often driven by different leaders in the company. Don’t assume that the industry analysts are all-knowing. Instead, start early and feed them regularly or risk having large, established companies win at this game.
Recently, I was talking to a CEO of a company I’m on the board of. We were discussing a problem in the category of something new Is fucked up in my world every day
He gave me a great idea. He apparently plays a game with his young (I think around 10 years old) daughter. When they are sitting around in the evening, she occasionally says “Daddy, give me a CEO problem.” He does, she thinks about it a little, and then gives him a solution. He suggested to me that this often helps break him out of whatever thought rut he is in given how wacky and creative the answers typically are.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a daughter (or a son). While I have two golden retrievers and I’m a practitioner of rubber duck debugging, I don’t think this works as well as what my friend is doing. Oh – and I’m not a CEO, although the list of CEO problems that I’m exposed to is pretty long.
The next time you have a CEO problem (which will likely be in the next seven minutes if you are a CEO and awake), try to think about it through the lens of a 10-year-old and see if that gives you any new ideas.