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 a 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.

Unseen Entrepreneurs

September 12, 2019

Why are some innovators so easily overlooked?

By Peter Zaballos

I want to tell you about a serial entrepreneur I know in the small town I used to live in.

When my wife and I moved the family to Wisconsin in 2001, the state was “trending” — its economy was fairly strong and it was attracting entrepreneurs who were finding like-minded folks interested in bringing new ideas to life away from the intensity of the coasts. (This changed during the recession, and Wisconsin, at least, hasn’t really recovered.)

Image result for wisconsin

The region in general is one where there is not a lot of risk taking. For good reason — if you’re a farmer you control so little of what might make your season successful, you can’t count on abundance every year. Taking risks is hard, and being bold even harder. When I was a venture capitalist looking at investments in the Midwest and as an executive at a technology firm in the Midwest I ran into the same thing — a very complicated relationship with being bold.

That entrepreneur I know there, while born and bred in Wisconsin, seems to have the same high tolerance of risk that I do. And, like me, when they see a problem or opportunity they have a viable solution for, they can’t not do it — they simply just can’t let it go.

Let me give you an example. In our college town of about 14,000 residents — only about 8,000 are full-time residents (the rest are students living in rentals who generally leave over the summer) — a small farmer’s market in a parking lot of a hardware store on the edge of town brings a dozen or so produce, honey, and other vendors together with the people who want those things on Saturday mornings. People drive in, pick up what they need, chat with a vendor or two, maybe stop into the hardware store, and leave.

It totally works in terms of a marketplace, but it misses a bigger opportunity — creating a space that could bring the community together and foster business, cultural and social growth.

The entrepreneur I know was a founding board member of a downtown revitalization organization that was frequently asked by community members to bring the market downtown, where there are parks and greenspaces designed for public events and businesses that could use the added foot traffic. Multiple times the group reached out to the Saturday market — once going as far as scouting locations with them — but the Saturday market always ultimately declined to move downtown.

Everyone saw this as a problem with just one solution: get the Saturday market to move downtown. When the City Council asked the downtown group to try, once more, to establish a downtown market, the entrepreneur went outside of the box and proposed adding a second weekly market instead.

They were met with “Why do that, when we already have a farmer’s market?” and “Are you going to be able to get enough vendors or enough visitors and customers?” and “Isn’t it too late to start a market this year?” The entrepreneur didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but they were willing to try anyway. So they proposed 1) a team of key stakeholders, including vendors from the Saturday market, to plan the market, and 2) that the new market be a pop-up, a proof of concept, to make people feel less anxious about the risk.

This is where their world and my technology startup world have a high degree of alignment. Starting a tech company is one long slog through “won’t big company X just kill you?” or “that’s not going to get to scale” — in both of our cases you create something by focusing on the very small number of reasons why it will succeed while ignoring the substantially larger number of reasons why it will fail.

The entrepreneur led a team through the process of researching the market, engaging key constituents such as city officials and understanding their concerns so they could be addressed, deciding what kind of market they wanted to be (Grower only? Arts and crafts? Dog-friendly? Live music? Food carts? More about the quantity of options or the quality of options?) and then, finally, deciding when and where it would happen. Subgroups focused on critical operations needed to make the market happen: working with the city streets division and the police to ensure public safety and needed infrastructure like trash pick up and caution cones; attracting vendors mid-season (to reduce perceived hurdles for risk-intolerant vendors, the entrepreneur had the key insight of waiving vendor fees for the first year); and getting the word out to the community, among others.

With clarity of vision and a well-thought-through plan, the team launched Whitewater City Market on July 21, 2015. The planned layout was for eight vendors: 17 showed up. By week five, 45 vendors were coming, and the community was showing up in droves.

The entrepreneur and their team worked furiously to keep up: collecting stats, taking surveys, meeting every week to assess what went well, what didn’t, and adjusting accordingly. And with clear consistent communication and a continuous process improvement approach — the market came to feature local craft beer and kombucha and moved from its initial location to one that provides more shade, among other improvements — the number of weekly vendors grew to 60 (after swelling to 90, a number unsustainable for the size of the town), and the visitor count routinely exceeded 1,000. 

This is significant in a city of 8,000 full-time residents. Imagine creating — out of thin air — a forum that brings more than 10% of a community together. Every week. 52 weeks a year. Because, by popular demand, the market runs year-round, moving inside a local library on Saturday mornings November through April where about 20 vendors offer eggs and kombucha and bread and winter vegetables and aquaponically grown greens and the like. The market is sustainable, generates income for vendors and its parent organization, and supports two part-time paid internships.

And there are numerous unseen benefits to the market. In recent years the community lost its local grocery store, so the need for locally produced food is even more critical. The market offers “incubator” spots free of charge to new vendors for up to three markets so they can test whether there’s a market for what they have. Because there are two markets in town — the other one continues to happily plug along — having two places to sell his produce helped at least one farmer stay in business and on their farm.

And the large number of customers make for fast innovation: the market’s honey vendor went from testing home-brewed kombucha with customers to bringing it to the market, launching Komboocho Brewing, selling it at multiple markets and finally commercially canning and bottling it and making it available in retail locations in less than two years.

The Whitewater City Market is also the only place I know where you can get your axe sharpened while enjoying a wood-fired pizza.

Truly a success story, and one of many I can tell you about this person. Before I introduce the entrepreneur, tell me — who did you imagine them to be? 

If you pictured a man, you wouldn’t be alone. The image most people tend to have when you say “entrepreneur” is generally about mostly men building high technology companies. Lots of growth. Computer science nerds. Engineering chops. 

What if I told you that entrepreneur was my wife, Kristine?

I wrote earlier about the painful lessons Kristine and I learned when we decided she would leave her career to care for our children and I would focus on my career. It did my career well — I’ve spent it entirely in high growth technology startups and as a venture capitalist. Hers, not so much. So, over the years she’s thrown her excess capacity into side projects that combine her strategic ability to see viable solutions to an unmet need and and her dogged focus on process and communication to actually get the job done.

The more I witnessed the success and trajectory of the Whitewater City Market, the more it became apparent that I was, in fact, married to an incredible entrepreneur. Starting a city market was exactly about seeing a need no one else has seen — or, if they had the idea, was unwilling or unable to see through to fruition. Because, in life as as in tech startups — ideas are cheap; it’s execution that matters. 

And the skill and insight to do this is the same whether you run a tech startup or a nonprofit. The need to deeply believe in the value of your solution in the face of — best case, aggressive indifference, but more often disbelief or opposition — is exactly the same. And the need for funding, to be constantly fundraising and making due with what your financing will support — also exactly the same. 

Don’t believe me? Let’s see what key challenges both for-profit and nonprofit leaders face:

  • Identifying a truly unmet need. That’s easy to say. Maybe it’s better framed as “seeing the potential for a solution when no one else does.” It’s the same whether you are building a software-defined anything or bringing a community together.
  • Assembling a leadership team. Whether you’re a venture-backed startup or a community market manager, finding competent leaders who can scale what you’re doing is hard. And essential. 
  • Leading. Leading with a capital “L” is essential to any business breaking new ground. This is so much more than leading employees and volunteers. It’s about orchestrating buy-in from all the people and entities that have an influence on your idea. Investors, partners, government entities, neighbors, and even competitors — they all need to see the potential and follow.
  • Communicating a vision. This is inextricably linked to leading. But in a nonprofit you are leading people whose compensation is not financial. Communicating a vision to inspire volunteers is sure a lot harder than doing it for folks you are paying to listen to you.
  • Orchestrating change. I mentioned before, in both for-profit and nonprofit startups the biggest execution challenge a CEO will face is orchestrating the massive change this new opportunity is going to require. It requires focusing the one reason you will succeed and ignoring the tens or hundreds of reasons why you might fail. 
  • Persisting despite setbacks. Another key quality of leading is pushing yourself and your team over the hurdles and regrouping and persisting when you hit a wall — and you will. Managing setbacks and outright failure is one of the most difficult and most vital aspects of leadership. 

It’s pretty much the same challenges — the difference is in how we reward success (or not). But despite the similarities, I have seen the bias against non-profit street cred first-hand when my wife and I go someplace and meet people, frequently other folks from the tech industry. When they ask what I do and I explain, there’s this instant acceptance and validation. And all I usually say is something like “I ran marketing at a cloud computing company.” And truly, all my companies have ever done is solve a fairly technical problem that, unless you’re in DevOps or are a CTO, you won’t understand or appreciate. But I get instant credibility and interest.

When Kristine explains what she does, the conversation path is short and awkward, and she is generally received with what amounts to “well isn’t that nice, you’re helping people.” I have seen the eyes glaze over, and I have rarely heard anyone ask a follow-up question. It really annoys me, because that rigid mindset is the kind of mindset that prevents seeing an incredibly successful serial entrepreneur at the top of her game.

I say “serial” entrepreneur, because the market is just one of the side gigs she manages on top of her day job in marketing and communications at the university in town. She’s not unlike Marc Beniof, who saw the potential for software-as-a-service and faced a full decade of “smarter” people telling him his idea would never work. (That idea was SalesForce.com.) Originally I’d compared her to Elon Musk, who started and runs multiple companies, but but both my wife and my daughter pointed out that he is rather creepy in terms of his relationships with women. 

What’s the tie-in with Beniof and Musk? In the same way people wonder how Elon Musk can run three companies at once, the people in our community (and I) wonder how Kristine can run all three of the businesses she is the founder and CEO of (more on the other two in another blog post) in addition to her day job at UW-Whitewater. She does it because she can’t not do it and she puts in the hours to make it happen. Just like all the entrepreneurs I know.

So why am I writing this? It’s hard not to acknowledge that this is most certainly a love letter to my wife. But it’s also a letter of admiration to an inspirational entrepreneur from a guy who spent 30+ years building technology startups and lamenting that people starting and running “nonprofit” businesses are not seen as peers to people running for-profit businesses. And when I say “people” — I really mean women as well as people from diverse backgrounds.

Kristine isn’t just “behaving entrepreneurially” but is in fact a kick-ass serial entrepreneur. Maybe you have one in your community. You should tell them that.

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.

Unthinking Power and Authority

September 4, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

This past week my wife and I moved our youngest of four children to college – totally fun and a momentous occasion for the three of us, and the family as a whole. And it was an awkward, even painful learning moment for me in how easy it is for men to assume positional authority and ignore better input from women.

Image result for not being listened to

In this case, we were moving our son into a college outside New York, and wisely chose to fly there instead of doing the 14+ hour drive (which we have done one too many times with one of his older brothers and older sister). We landed at JFK and I picked up a rental car and headed to campus. I grew up in California and am definitely a product of that state’s car culture – I don’t mind driving at all, I kind of like it. And having spent 10 years living in Boston, I also have gotten completely comfortable in driving amidst the aggressive chaos that is northeast urban auto jostling.

I now travel with a phone case that plugs into the dashboard, so am good about getting our coordinates in Google and letting that take the load of getting us from starting point to destination. Early on Google had a disclaimer on their directions that said something like “do a reality check before following these instructions” and that is precisely where I ran afoul of getting us from where we started to where we needed to go.

My wife on the other hand is confidently old school. When we travel the first thing she grabs is a printed map. She is as awesome at orienting herself with a map as she is adept at using it to explore and get to the destination. We’ve taken some wonderful vacations where her annotated and highlighted paper map of where we went and what we explored is such a rich record of time well spent.

What made this drop off at college different from the other three is that my wife and son had been to the campus earlier in the year and spent a fair amount of time exploring it and getting to know it. And there was me with Google and at the wheel of the car striving to get us to where we needed to go from Google’s perspective. And that’s where the humbling learning moment for me started to take its slow motion trajectory.

As we got closer to the campus I was following Google and my wife was following her experience and astute sense of memory and direction. As we got to the campus I was trying to find what Google was telling me to look for, and my wife was telling me what she knew from experience and her sense of direction. I effectively ignored her until it was too late. And I can try and explain why “ignore” was not really ignore, but this is where it doesn’t matter what I feel or think, but what she does, because she is on the receiving end.

The analogy I will use here is as spot-on as it is uncomfortable. If a woman feels she has been harassed, it really doesn’t matter what the harasser feels or how they interpret the circumstances. The sole “owner” of that perspective is the one on the receiving end.

But what ended up happening was a fairly tense exchange that shut us both down in the moment. Her lingering frustration later caused her to have to speak up and effectively justify why she should have been listened to and considered. And me trying to justify my behavior around being focused on getting to the “destination.” – which in hindsight is ridiculous.

From her perspective she was put in the position of (a) having better information and (b) having her better information ignored and dismissed. Sound familiar women?

But at the time I had both position (I was the driver) and authority (google maps) – and we were conditioned that when we drove places it was my position and authority that made the final decisions. Nothing malicious here, but over time, it put me in the position of being the decider. And in this case, I sure was deciding. And my wife was sure feeling not listened to or considered.

At the time neither of us realized any of this. We both just shut down and simmered. Until we found the right parking lot, and our attention conveniently shifted to this wonderful day and our son’s new adventure at college. We avoided the fact that if I had been listening to her we would have been where we were supposed to be sooner, with less stress, and more focus on our son’s first day at college – which for she, me, and him was such a wonderful, wonderful moment to savor.

It wasn’t until much later that night, after we had flown back home and were on our way (with me driving) from the airport to our house. It was then my wife brought up the whole experience. And it was through the process of unpacking the issue that we both reached a point where we able to focus on how each of us felt, which is where the real conversation happened.

We talked about how we became conditioned to me being the driver over time and that there were a few ways to address this. One might be her driving more when we are together, especially when she knows the terrain more. Which is a good alternative, but to me feels a bit “brute force.” Switching the position and the authority. To me the real solution is creating the conditions where I listened to hear and she could feel heard. That’s the harder solution.

I take women’s equality seriously. Yet here I was, repeating a pattern of male behavior and causing my wife to repeat a pattern of feeling ignored or dismissed. It was pretty easy to respond so unthinkingly – isn’t that the opposite of thoughtfully?

And it made me consider how hard it is to create the conditions where these kind of conversations can take place. In most workplaces women don’t get that safe place to share their thoughts like this and be vulnerable. They just learn to deal with being dismissed and not heard. We have to be able to do better than this.

Because in those moments, the focus needs to be on how to get to the destination as efficiently as we can – whether a marketing campaign or an algorithm – and savor the moment of why we are all together, working on a common goal.

 

Being Mansplained To And The Opportunities That Are Missed

July 25, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

I’ve certainly been aware of mansplaining and am generally sensitive to it. But I have seen it happen less than I have had women remark on it. And they remark on it with a sincerity and authenticity that is breathtaking.

It was on a recent business trip when I experienced this myself, first hand. I was traveling with a woman who is on one of my teams, and we were visiting some of our sales regions to review our marketing plans and priorities to get feedback and engagement. One of those invaluable investments of time that ensure we develop campaigns that are relevant and have impact.

And before I go further, the story I am about to tell involves really talented, experienced, and caring people – we have an awesome culture and that’s one of the many reasons I love being here. But that is also the point. Even with talented people in a great culture, this can happen.

That’s certainly one way to approach this

At the first meeting we had a handful of sales reps in the room, and before I’d even gotten to the overview of our plans one of the reps spent literally ten minutes explaining how demand generation worked. Ten minutes.

How his prior company did it. The concept of a buyer’s journey. The need to ensure you have marketing plans directed all the way through from the top of the funnel to the sale.

Some of his pronouncements were on target — many interpretations of how marketing gets done from the vantage point of a sales rep. I sat there and every so often responded with “that’s certainly one way to approach this.”

But it was ten minutes. Of him explaining to me what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. And I’m really good at marketing. A two-time CMO. The first CMO at my current company. But he explained it all to me.

When the meeting ended, my female colleague and I shared a laugh about it all. To me, it felt like a single occurrence.

No way, really? Is that how you do that?

Two days later we met with the entire sales team for the region. And as I was reviewing our plans for marketing, there was an active discussion and then a series of mini lectures on how to do our marketing well, which culminated with a discussion of competitive analysis and a sales rep reminding me “don’t reference our competitors directly in our marketing.”

At this point I lost patience and — in front of everyone — replied “no way, really? Is that how you do that?”

When the meeting wrapped up, I pulled my colleague aside and asked her “is this what mansplaining feels like, is that what happens to you?” And she rolled her eyes and said “yes, all the time.”

So when I saw the awesome tweet featuring an “Am I mansplaining” flowchart from Kim Goodwin I felt like I understood this a bit better.

Men, study that flowchart. Commit it to memory.

The opportunities missed

But what really happened in my exchanged with these talented salespeople here was a series of missed opportunities. By leading with explaining and not questions, it both annoyed me and focused my attention on being explained to, and not on exploring what we could all be doing together to ensure our marketing had the greatest impact possible.

It would have been awesome if these conversations had started with “can you tell me about how you’re going to approach marketing?” instead of “this is how we did it at my last company.”

And when you consider that what happened to me were isolated instances on this trip and that it happens to women systemically – the greater issue is how much opportunity is unexplored when men talk over women, when men lead by explaining and not by asking questions.

We lose all lose as a culture by letting mansplaining persist, but women bear the professional and personal consequences of confronting it every day, of having their ideas ignored or talked over.

As I have posted before, men just glide through life feeling little if any of what women feel every day — encountering obstacles, biases, and mansplaining and being talked over.

On this business trip, I visited this landscape but so easily could return to my male-centric journey through my career. Women are not so fortunate. Men can help here. When you have that urge to explain, ask a question.

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.

 

Why video games are awesome preparation for life, and careers. By Peter Zaballos

March 23, 2018

And why adults get video games wrong

Recently, my world has been totally rocked with the multi-player game “7 Days to Die” which is a zombie apocalypse game that my children and I play together, even when scattered across the country. Sunday at 7 is our time, and we generally play with me in one city, each of our kids in other cities, and some of their friends in other cities as well.

7DTD is a game where every seven nights (in game) a zombie horde attacks, and the rhythm of the game is to spend your time between hordes preparing. It’s all about cooperating, and dividing up the work – where the work can be scavenging supplies, making building materials and tools, crafting weapons and ammunition. And developing a plan to defend ourselves. We all log on, and setup a group phone call, and there’s a constant stream of updates, suggestions, and help.

Here’s the base we’ve created. My main skill is converting rocks and sand into concrete. You can see how we put that to use. BTW, this base was shredded later that night (horde night). We survived, but the base took tremendous damage. Which caused us to assess what had gone right, wrong, and what our next defense setup would need to look like. We figure out what’s working, what’s not, and adapt. This is what I do at work every day. Except for the zombie horde. At work it’s competitors.

7DTD base

It’s an easy way to spend five hours without even realizing it. And it is a rock solid environment to hone the kinds of skills any of us needs to get through life, and succeed in our careers.

But every week it’s the same focus. We develop a plan to build defenses, a plan for how we’ll cooperate and support each other because we all have different skills and resources. And like all plans, they become obsolete the moment the zombie horde arrives. Here we are at night, my avatar’s name is RaceCondition (inside computing joke there) and the view is from one of my son’s avatar. We’re all so relaxed because since hordes swarm every seven days, and it’s day 58, we can more easily gather like this at night (in this shot we’re at an abandoned city looting).

7DTD crew

But before going on, let me tell you about how my children (and their friends) and I got here.

It may be that our family is unique, but I really doubt it. Our kids grew up playing video games. Freddi Fish was a big hit when they were little. They played them on the desktop computer we had way back then.

But even then the play had a strong social component to it, since we had four kids in five years, there was lots of group play involved. Two or three of our kids would be crowded around the monitor watching the other play, and there’d be banter throughout the game.

When the subject of getting a video game console came up, my wife and I proceeded cautiously. We’d “heard” so many scary stories about them. About how people’s kids would disappear for hours/days/weeks into a basement TV room and waste away there, living this solitary existence staring into a screen.

What we got wrong about video games is how incredibly social they are. And how much the games foster problem solving and collaboration.

We started slowly, with a Nintendo Wii. And it was fun. Mostly family fun. And soon the topic of an Xbox surfaced. Their friends had them, and over time we reluctantly agreed. There we some conditions, the biggest was that the kids would need to pay for it themselves, along with the games they wanted. So they saved, and did.

What ended up happening totally surprised us. This was full-on social pandemonium. There’d be upwards of a dozen kids at time in our basement – some playing – but most watching the others play. And the conversations, laughter, and screams of delight that grew and grew as the games progressed could be heard throughout the house.

We also witnessed our kids spending so many hours playing with all their friends and spending those hours talking…about the game, about life, about anything and everything. And there’s a growing amount of research showing video game play does create better career skills.

Which is why I was so touched when our youngest child, four years ago, suggested I learn to play Halo. He was patient, it took me literally almost a year before I didn’t feel completely incompetent. But we played through Halo 2, then Halo Reach (as far as our children are concerned, the franchise effectively stopped there). Eventually I would even get invited down when all the other friends were there and play with them, and hold my own.

I went on from that to play through Portal, Portal 2, and Bioshock Infinite. All three of these are phenomenal problem solving games with awesome story lines. Portal 2 is worth playing just to experience Stephen Merchant as the voice and personality of Wheatley – likely the single best voice performance in a video game, ever..

The more I observed how our kids played these games with their friends the more it looked like the environment I like to foster on my teams at work: goal-focused, team-oriented, sharing data to make better decisions. The more it looked like the environment I strive to live up to in my User Manual.

So of the many good decisions my wife and I made as parents, one was being open minded about video games, and trusting our children to make good decisions about how to embrace video games. We learned a lot as a family there, that has helped prepare our children for career success.

International Women’s Day – and why it is essential. By Peter Zaballos

March 16, 2018

Here’s my belated post commemorating this important day

Last week week we celebrated an important and urgent topic. Treating women equally. International Women’s Day. Treating women equally to men is the goal, and I’ve written about what I think that looks like.

But every day we see what it doesn’t look like. And this is easy for me to write, because I’m a man, and I don’t see and feel the many ways women have it harder to make it through their days.  I saw something recently, last week, that reminded me of the importance of this topic, and why we have work to do to achieve equality.

I ran right into that last Friday. I was listening to a new podcast about legendary business rivalries. The podcast is called Business Wars (I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to inadvertently send them traffic). During an episode on the Nike/Adidas rivalry there was a sponsor ad for Plated – one of the many meal delivery services.

The host of this podcast is a man. And this is how he described Plated’s offering:

“I was so impressed by the quality of the delivery, and my wife was blown away by the step-by-step instructions, the whole family was knocked out by the flavor…”

I had to skip back 30 seconds to listen to it again. Did I really just here this male remark at how his wife, and only his wife, was surprised by how easy this meal was to prepare? Isn’t that one of the gender stereotypes we’re trying to remove from daily life? The wife in the kitchen, the husband standing by?

I dashed off an email to Plated (the only address I could find was their customer support contact – help@plated.com) and to the podcast’s publisher, Wondery via their PR firm (jon@RLMPR.com also the only email address I could find). Here’s what I sent (could have edited it better, but I was pissed off and impatient):

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 10.36.22 AMAnd guess what? I got a machine generated auto-reply from Plated, and nothing from Jon Lindsay Phillips, who is the Executive Director of RLM Public Relations, listed as the media relations contact for Wondery. It’s been a week now.

I held off on writing this post until now to give either Plated or Wondery a chance to respond. Hoping to hear them acknowledge the mistake and vow to fix it. That was disappointing.

I’m no longer subscribing to Wondery’s podcasts and I have no interest in supporting companies like Plated who promote gender stereotypes.

The surprising thing is I had been pointed to Business Wars by Reid Hoffman’s “Masters of Scale” podcast, which is outstanding. And Reid Hoffman is someone who is a strident supporter of women’s equality. My next stop is to drop him a line. As an avid listener of his podcast, I expect to hear back pretty quickly.

Women have a hard enough time being treated fairly, without companies like Plated putting more obstacles in their way. Or rather, perpetuating obstacles that urgently need to be removed.

In the meantime, men and women can make dinner. And do. And men and women can support each other at home. And do.

Why marketing is a lot like software development. By Peter Zaballos

March 14, 2018

Four reasons why marketing is as important as code for tech companies.

We’re living in the golden age of marketing right now. The mechanics of marketing and its impact on the business have changed dramatically in the past three years. Put another way, when I hire marketing talent, anything anyone has done more than 3-5 years ago I literally don’t care about or evaluate.

In the past few years I’ve seen marketing shift its focus from providing air cover to sales teams to now being the group within the company that’s determining the messaging and tactics that salespeople can best put into action. The data tells everyone what’s effective, impactful. Fewer opinions, more facts.

SW DEV STRIP

There are four reasons for this:

First. Marketing is a quant business. Everything is instrumented – you know who is responding to which offers, who is engaging with what content, what paths they take. Over time you can correlate engagement to value, and use data to find where and how prospects find you, and what signals the right time to present them with an offer or a call to action. This is a quant-jock’s delight. And data analysts are the new “must-have” role on a marketing team.

In today’s marketing you also have the advantage of short feedback loops which lend themselves naturally to an Agile approach to campaign management. Deploy a campaign, use data to validate assumptions, refine the campaign, repeat. My last marketing team collaborated with our DevOps agile coach to embrace the sprint/retrospective approach, and the team held daily stand-ups to ensure they were cohesive and focused on the most valuable activities.

Second. Google, whether we like it or not, is enforcing quality. What this means is that Google’s ability to interpret page intent is staggering. You genuinely need to be developing content paths that answer the questions your audience has, and legitimately guide them to a solution. If your bounce rate, or worse, your conversion rate is too high or too low, you’ll get penalized. It’s fundamentally obsoleted the marketing tactics that came before this.

It’s as structural a change as containers have been to DevOps. It’s creating a situation where I don’t care what you did three years ago – the search marketing tactics that worked back then no longer work today. Yes, we’re all still focused on the customer journey, but Google’s ability to assess whether that’s a productive journey you’ve created is what changed. This is a good thing. The companies with clear and differentiated positioning and value propositions, who create high quality content paths will win.

If you’re in marketing and you haven’t embraced this new world of content and data-driven optimization, you can still find a job, it just won’t be an interesting one. Just like in software, if you aren’t a full stack developer, if you aren’t learning new languages every year, you can still find a job, somewhere. It just won’t be an interesting one.

Third. Developing an effective marketing presence requires a system architecture. The category definition, positioning, awareness development, the demand generation – requires an architecture. Your category definition and positioning are that architecture, and inform how you will take your solution to your prospects and customers. Like with building software, you need this architecture to build the services that create the go-to-market “product” – the combination of campaigns and tactics you’ll put into motion.

One of my favorite marketing books is not about marketing at all, or rather, on the surface it’s not about marketing.

Building Microservices

The book is Building Microservices and while its purpose is to help the reader understand this new-ish phase of modern software development, it also describes how organizations can function efficiently. How “loosely coupled, trusted” relationships between organizations can produce resilient, agile performance.

Agility is important. There’s an abundance of data that modern marketing teams have access to today, and scrutinizing this data, and adapting campaigns and tactics are a critical success factor. Add to that just how much the mechanics of marketing have changed in the past three years (due to a large part on the above second point), and you have a landscape that looks a lot like…software development. Containers didn’t exist five years ago at scale. Serverless computing? Same thing.

 

Finally, the impact of marketing takes time to create. Just like any significant software development.  Assuming you have your category defined and your positioning solid, it will take 6-12 months to get scale from your demand gen. That means you’ll be iterating and iterating, refining, optimizing conversion rates, a lot.

It’s never been a better time to be in marketing. It’s never been a better time to be a CMO. You and your CTO will have a lot in common. And it’s likely your CTO will get jealous at some point, with more and more technology, and data, flowing into marketing, CMO budgets might just become bigger than CTO budgets.

 

 

Why User Activation Is Demand Gen. By Peter Zaballos

March 8, 2018

And why it’s super hard to measure

And it really is an essential component of demand gen. Essential.

Let me digress for just a bit.

Assume you’re zeroed-in on your category, your demand gen is solid and scaled, and now you’re creating a steady, growing stream of prospects to your sales team. And they’re closing them at a brisk pace.

As hard as all that was, now the real work begins. That solution to the problem you promised the prospect? It now needs to be delivered through the product experience. The very first time that new user signs on.

Saved DNA

I wrote about this in my blog post on conversion optimization of demand generation. That new customer found your product because of how it was marketed to them. The very first time a new customer experiences the product, it has to align with the value proposition your promised. So, how do you know if you’re delivering on that promise?

It’s super hard.

And it’s super important, because customer acquisition is pointless without retention. Jamie Quint explains this exceptionally well in a guest post on Andrew Chen’s blog, and goes further to highlight that retention is the core driver of virality. That means retention is a core driver of your…demand gen. Right. Full circle.

First of all, you need to look at each user in the context of a group of users called a “cohort” – usually this starts as the collection of users whose first experience with your product happened during the same timeframe (day or week typically). And you can see how the cohort segments into usage activity patterns – some will be super active, some moderately active, and some not active at all.

This can get you started, but doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. You really need to know two other “hard to define” metrics.

First – what constitutes a meaningful action for that user in their first session? That means you don’t just need to understand the core functionality of your product, but how that first time user is going to interact with that functionality to get something they consider valuable done. This is exactly where your product team and your marketing team should have a happy collision.

Didn’t your marketing start the acquisition process by trying to figure out what the exact words that prospect would use to describe their problem? At the very beginning of the customer journey? Well, now the product team needs to deliver the solution in the form of an experience, in terms that the converted prospect (now customer) will recognize as valuable. To them. Of course it’s not that simple (buyers may not be users, but buyers did buy solutions to problems your marketing team zeroed in on).

Second – how frequently will that customer be expected to use your product? You need to know this to establish the baseline of your entire measurement approach. Is it hourly? Daily? Weekly? You may think you know when you’re developing the product, but product design is focused on personas and assumptions about usage. Now you’ll need to check those assumptions through cohort-based analysis of real world people. Amplitude has a great blog post about figuring out how often people use your product.

And everything I just described is virtually impossible to measure with Google Analytics. That free tool is awesome for measuring website activity, but is architecturally incapable of measuring cohorts (believe me, my teams have tried, hard and GA is miserable at cohort analysis). There are some really exciting companies filling that void who have designed cohort-based tools specifically for behavioral product analysis. Amplitude is one – who offers a free versions that you can use to instrument your product and get plenty of data, and then of course have much more sophisticated capabilities you pay for.

Finally, retention is made up of “activating” a customer – making sure they have not just a successful first experience, but that they have a second successful experience and then ensuring long term customer “adoption.”

This is where Product owes an obligation to Customer Success to ensure that customers activate, and then the success team can drive long term adoption. So the product team should own understanding what value needs to be delivered in the first two uses of the product. This will take intensive focus on data, cohort behavior, and many, many iterations with the product design and dev teams. Customer Success should be a part of this process because they will need to take those two experiences and ensure they become hundreds or thousands, or more.

What’s worked well is to have a weekly meeting with Product, Product Design, Development, and Customer Success, where the product manager leads the analysis of usage, and the resulting product and resource development to ensure successful activation. You can think of this as a smooth handoff of customer accountability:

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 11.27.29 AM

In my last role the company had gotten to scale without any focus on product usage or product usage measurement. I was fortunate to have a whip-smart product manager who spent an entire year of these weekly meetings getting grounded in the basics, and bringing that cross functional team to have a clear and compelling understanding of what drove the first two experiences.

And bringing this back to where I started. Product activation is a critical step in your demand gen strategy. It’s why a lot of CMOs have responsibility for both product and marketing, and if not, it’s why CMOs need to have super tight and trusted relationships with their product colleague.