Today, Return Path launched three new products and reframed its business as “email intelligence.” Matt Blumberg, Return Path’s CEO has an excellent post up titled Email Intelligence and the new Return Path.
Return Path is an extraordinary company that I’m proud to have been involved with for the past 12 years. At our board meeting last week, Matt gave me and Fred Wilson our 12 year anniversary gift – a pair of red Return Path-branded Adidas sneakers. I still vividly remember the phone call Fred and I had where we cut a deal to merge two nascent companies – Veripost and Return Path – in what became Return Path. We cut a deal in 10 minutes – I offered up a 50/50 merger and Fred suggested he wanted a little more since Return Path had raised 3x the money Veripost had. I responded with “how about 55/45” and Fred said “it’s a deal.”
Twelve years later Return Path is company with over 300 people, major offices in New York, Boulder, and the Bay Area, and other offices around the world. It has created and leads an entirely new category we call Email Intelligence. In 2008, after plenty of forward progress as well as some twists and turns, we finished divesting several older lines of business and focused the company entirely on a new category we created called “Email Deliverability.” As we grew, we expanded the definition to the point where the word “deliverability” only covered a subset of what we did, hence the creation of the category of “Email Intelligence.”
Matt says it extremely well in his post:
“Our solution to these problems is email intelligence. Email intelligence is the combination of data from across the email ecosystem, analytics that make it accessible and manageable, and insight that makes it actionable. Marketers need all of these to understand their email performance beyond deliverability. They need it to benchmark themselves against competitors, to gain a complete understanding of their subscribers’ experience, and to accurately track and report the full impact of their email programs.”
I’ve been investing in and around email since my first email-related investment in 1994 in a company very creatively named “Email Publishing” which was the very first email service provider. Since then I’ve had a number of investments in email companies including Critical Path, Postini, and SendGrid. I’m psyched with the success and leadership of Return Path to date, love working with everyone at Return Path, and look forward to continuing the journey as we work to ensure that inboxes contain only messages that users want.
I love this time of year. I get up at 5am, catch up on email (holy shit – is it already 6:37?), write a blog post, go for a run, and then have a completely jam packed day full of working with amazing people. Some days are awesome, some days have crushing challenges, all of them are stimulating.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve run incredibly hot from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. The boundaries seem to be the holidays and the bookends are Amy’s birthday (9/14) and my birthday (12/1). We often find ourselves in New York around Amy’s birthday and in some exotic warm beach place (like Mexico) on mine. Between the two is complete and total chaos, which is delicious when I give myself up to it rather than fight it.
Here are a few of the things going on this fall.
As my dad likes to say, “if you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.” I’m enjoying the edge this semester.
If you happen to talk to Kelly along the way, tell her thanks for putting up with me. Or send her flowers. Or chocolate.
Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.
My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.
I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path. And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation. All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts: Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.
But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members. I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others. Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.
Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:
My interview/vetting process for Board members:
I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member. Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:
Disclaimer – I run a private company. While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary. And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture. That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!
I can’t remember when Angela Baldonero joined Return Path, but she’s been there for as long as I can remember. I invested in Return Path eleven years ago at the very beginning of its life. Today it is a profitable, 250 person company that is growing quickly, dominates its market segment, and is an awesome place to work. Angela has been a big part of both hiring many of the people and orchestrating the culture of the company so I very much value her point of view on interviewing. I hope you do also.
Everything is data. The candidate’s responsiveness during the interview process, how the candidate treats the admin staff, and the candidate’s ability to communicate is data. Are you interviewing someone for a tech leadership role who doesn’t have a skype account? Data point. Do you fly a candidate out for interviews who then nickels and dimes you on expenses? Data point. Does your candidate send a thank you note? Data point. Is it well written and specific or a lame generic note? Data point.
Give the candidate feedback and see what she does with it. People are wiggy about feedback. Someone who is self-aware and mature will take it in and own it, then makes sense of how she had that impact. An immature person will get defensive or refute it.
Never sacrifice your culture. Highly qualified yet bad attitude hires wreak havoc with your culture, suck up a ton of management bandwidth and ultimately don’t get anything done. It doesn’t matter if the candidate has cured cancer or invented Jell-o. An asshole is an asshole. Fiercely protect your culture.
People can’t help but be themselves. The interview process is flawed. People are “acting” in order to get a job. You want to know how this person really is to see if they’re a good fit at your company. Interviews take time and people can only fake it for so long. If they’re “putting on a show” in the interview process, that will eventually be revealed.
Give you candidate something to do. This creates a bit of productive stress and shows you what they’re made of. For example, ask a sales person to do a presentation. We’ve axed many sales people because they fell apart during the presentation.
Fred Wilson had an excellent post up this morning titled Social Media’s Secret Weapon – Email. I completely agree that email is the key communications channel for social media and have written about this before in posts like 100% Click Through Rate, Email – The Original Social Graph and Email Is Still The Best Login.
I’ve been investing in email related stuff for over 15 years going back to Email Publishing, my very first Boulder-based investment which I believe was the very first email service provider (ESP) and was acquired by MessageMedia which was then bought by Doubleclick. Fred and I are both investors in Return Path which he calls out in his post as the category creator and market leader in email deliverability. I love Return Path as a company and am incredibly proud of what they’ve done as a business.
My partners and I have continued to invest aggressively in what we believe is social media’s secret weapon which we refer to as the comm channel in a hat tip to the TV show 24. In Fred’s post, the comm channel is email. Our investment here is in SendGrid, a company that came out of TechStars Boulder 2009 and is one of the white hot companies in Boulder. They directly address the problem Fred describes which every software developer knows is a pain in the ass, uninteresting, hard to do well, but needs to be done right. Every web app sends transactional email – rather than build all the code yourself, just let SendGrid to it. They are now doing it for over 24,000 companies, sending out over 60 million transactional emails a day, and just sent their 10 billionth transactional email.
But email isn’t the only comm channel. Everyone that uses apps on a mobile phone is likely experiencing push notifications as an increasingly important as a form of engagement. While mobile phones used to only really work effectively with SMS, you now have SMS, email, and push notifications. So we invested in Urban Airship who does for push notifications what SendGrid does for email. Like SendGrid, they are growing like crazy, are in use by over 10,000 customers and have sent over 3 billion push notifications.
My message to all web developers – if you are serious about what you are doing, focus on your app. Don’t waste precious development time on all the activities around the app. You likely no longer sit around with a screwdriver setting up a server in a datacenter – instead you are using a cloud provider like Rackspace or Amazon. Don’t spent your time coding up an email notification infrastructure – use SendGrid. And if you are a mobile developer, don’t waste your time writing a bunch of code for push notifications – use Urban Airship.
Most importantly, don’t ignore the thing that will actually make your web app get adoption and retention – comm channels!
My long time friend Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, wrote a blog post today titled A New Kind of Partnership for Return Path. In it he talks about his recognition, as Return Path has grown (they are now around 250 people), of the gender imbalance in the software engineering team (women are around 15% of total engineering team.. He knew about NCWIT from my role as chairman and Matt and his team decided to join the NCWIT Workforce Alliance to engage in helping address this issue.
Matt and his team then did something that blew me away. They provided the sponsorship of the first-ever NCWIT/Return Path Student Seed Fund. This will program will provide seed funding to groups of technical women at universities across the US to advance the goals of women in computing. There are so many things about this that are exciting to me, including the focus on students, seed funding, and the linkage to NCWIT’s overall goal.
We’ve got a huge NCWIT announcement coming in a few days that Return Path is also involved in as one of the founding members. I’ll post more about it, why it’s so important to me, who’s involved, and what you can do to engage – probably over the weekend.
Return Path – thank you!
A week ago I had just gotten home after a month in Homer, Alaska. I was totally chilled out – I worked plenty in July but had very little physical human interaction with anyone other than Amy. I’m sitting here in my Boulder condo today thinking about the entrepreneurial tour de force that was the last six days. I think I interacted with more different people each day than I did cumulatively over the previous 30 days in Homer.
The Boulder New Tech Meetup double header (Tuesday and Wednesday) started things off. The second Boulder Open Angel Forum delivered. Then we had TechStars Demo Day which was amazing, followed by an Open House at Jive Software (they acquired TechStars Boulder 2007 company Filtrbox last year and are growing like crazy), a Return Path board dinner at Black Cat, and the the TechStars Afterparty at the Draft House. Friday saw a Return Path board meeting and lunch with the folks at Return Path followed by TEDxBoulder on Saturday. Oh, and in between I had piles of “regular work.”
There were numerous blog posts and tweets from the week, but my favorite post about an event from the week is up on the True Ventures web site titled On The Road With TechStars Boulder. In addition to all the locals, there were a huge number of folks from out of town who participated in the various events and I smiled a big smile when I read the post.
Last night during the TEDxBoulder intermission break, I had a few quiet moments to myself as I wandered around the grounds of the Boulder Chautauqua. I was filled with a deep satisfaction about the amazingness of the people of Boulder. While there are lots of other great places in the world, I am most at home here. And it’s good to be back home.