Archive for the ‘Business planning’ Category

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.

 

 

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Product led organizations build categories. By Peter Zaballos

March 6, 2018

Part four: Product has the obligation to set the tempo of transformation 

Every business needs to have a laser focus on the needs of their customers. Look no further than Amazon, who has a legendary, systemic, DNA around customers. Literally their customer obsession.

A few years ago I had an opportunity to speak with an Amazon exec about the business he was running and the priorities he had in building it. This business was a direct competitor to a business of Apple’s, and I noticed the Amazon exec was using both an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. I asked him, “why are you using products from your competitors, effectively helping fund them?” – his answer was disarmingly reflexive and sincere. He simply stated “why would it serve my customers better for me to use products that made me less effective at doing my job?”

MountEverest

What does this have to do with product led organizations?

Bringing a category to life and Amazon have the same customer focus.

I wrote earlier about when you’re building a category it’s important to not listen to your customers – don’t let them dominate your near term product priorities. You owe your customers the maniacal focus on your bold vision, and bringing that to life over time, not attending to their long list of improvements in their limited field of view.

Which means product will have complicated relationship with sales and customer success. Sales and customer success are faced daily with enormous input and demands about the here and now. And they should focus maniacally on how to win today’s prospect sale and ensure today’s customers get the value they were promised. But the product team needs to be super careful to include only the most critical few of those customer and prospect needs in the roadmap. The category is the high order bit here.

Your category gets built by bringing tomorrow’s promise to life. I’ve seen companies falter and stall when they take their eye off the category defining focus and shift it to the priorities of their sales teams or their customer success teams. Worse, if the next 90 days of your backlog is the only commitment to your roadmap, you’re never going to build a category. You need to have appropriate commitments to what needs to get done three, six, nine, and 12 months from now.

The product leadership needs to behave like the CEO of their product. That means to operate with a strategic purpose and context. Sure, they need to hear the near term need from sales and customer success, but like a CEO, they’re measured on their ability to perform today but also ensure the company realizes its potential. This is so wonderfully captured in Ben Horowitz’ now legendary 20+ year old essay, Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager. If you haven’t read this. Do so. Now.

Focusing on the bold future can introduce some awkward dynamics to organizations not used to thinking with a category mindset. In a product-led organization, sales and customer success are going to feel pressure to keep up. They’re going to have to become capable and fluent in understanding the trends and priorities that make the bold product vision important. They will need to fully internalize why the category is strategic and important and be able to explain it to their prospects and customers.

In sales or customer success led organizations, the opposite occurs. The product team will need to simplify and reduce the vision and explain the plan using the terms of today. No matter how well you do this, you’ll never build a category. You’ll just hit a forecast. For a while.

I’ve heard some executives at tech companies use the excuse that “we can’t let the salespeople know about the roadmap, because then they won’t sell what we have today.” If that really is true, then that’s the tell-tale sign that the company in question is not a category builder. Because category builders have salespeople who are experienced and savvy enough to sell what you have today, and who can also convey the compelling nature of what is coming. And why buying today’s product puts that customer on a more compelling and secure future.

No one less than Steve Jobs understood this with his typical clarity. Observing that the difference between technology companies that function as sales organizations versus technology companies that function as product companies is that the sales-led organizations will revert to today’s product. They’re not wired to think about or develop big, bold new products.

Companies like Salesforce have mastered “product-led” organizational behavior. Just watch one of Marc Benioff’s keynotes and you’ll see him talking about capabilities that likely won’t be real for years, but speaking to them as if they’re here now. Their salespeople know how to straddle these two realities. They know that you’re going to be better off getting on the platform now and be better off over the years as the promises get delivered.

Product-led organizations build categories, and categories are the product of a bold vision that the marketing organization communicates and aligns the company around, and a product strategy that brings the category vision to life. And that’s good for your customers. Give them something they can’t envision. It’s never been a better time to be a technology company CMO.

 

Category creation – Why a messaging pivot is frequently essential. By Peter Zaballos

February 19, 2018

Part Three: The fallacy of “Everything is working, we just need to tell the story better”

So your CEO has articulated a bold vision of what is possible for your customers. Fundamentally different from what they have today. A change so dramatic they can’t imagine it. But you can.

This all got written down. And these words matter. A lot. They didn’t come easily or quickly. At the beginning they were directional, not precise. Intensive scrutiny and many iterations produced the exact set of words that describe the change you envision, and the category you’re creating.

Now you shift your focus to putting those words into action. And those words will inform and bring to life the go-to-market orchestration that will position you as the leader, the creator of this new category. They will inform the demand generation, the events, the company communications and training, and most important, the experiences customers have when they use your product. Let’s call this your category story.

The category story is the collection of words and visualizations that tell the market, your customers and prospects, and critically your employees about your role in bringing the bold future to reality. It’s the core creative idea that fuels any of the forms of the media you will deploy.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral

The story can and should live in lots of people’s hands. It’s what gets amplified through marketing. Evangelized through events and workshops. It fuel’s the virtuous circle of adoption. It informs every step of the buyer’s journey. It creates the triggering events that makes someone open to switching from what they’re using now, to the future you inspire them to join.

The reality is that a lot of companies formalize their category vision after they’ve shipped their product. After they’ve sold it. After they’ve figured out how to create demand.

When I was a venture capitalist, I lost track of the number of Series B and Series C financings I was pitched where the CEO would sheepishly admit that they’d “shipped their demo.” It worked well enough to get traction and funding. And that part of the next financing was to finish and fix what had gotten them started.

So a lot of companies need to make this pivot to build their category while running their existing business. With demand gen working. Salespeople selling. Customers using the product. Going back to what I wrote in Part One, category creation is for the bold and means you’ll need to make some pretty scary choices to leave the familiar past behind to realize the category’s potential.

It’s crucial that you amplify the category value proposition. Not the tactical value prop that got you here. The chief warning sign that’s you’re falling into that trap is believing…

“Everything is working we just need to tell the story better.” 

But that’s the wrong story. The old story is made up of well thought through campaigns and tactics, but without the purpose of creating your category dominance. The old story may produce near term success, but it sure won’t build your category.

This is the “make or break” juncture for the business. You can certainly amplify the tactics that got you to where you are today. Increase the paid search budget targeting potential buyers of today’s tactics. Scrape for more organic visitors by tuning the search performance of your pages to the value prop of today. Train your salesforce to sell what got you to where you are today.

You’ll just dig the hole you’re in a lot deeper. You’ll acquire customers and partners who aren’t aligned to your category vision. Who won’t evangelize it’s potential for you. Whose product and service feedback will be a distraction from your category progress.

So when I’m asked by executives and CEOs about how to scale their growing business and how build awareness of the role their solution plays in the market, I always go back to “what is your category and how is that aligned with your growth campaigns?”

This is where the CMO’s marketing organization needs to carry the responsibility to transform words into bold actions. If you start from anything else, you’re applying bandaids to a wound that won’t heal, and will instead get worse. And more bandaids won’t fix that.

With category alignment you can build kickass marketing campaigns. Your events will bring your ecosystem together and send them off evangelizing your value. Your paid search and your organic search will be aligned and fill your demand gen funnel.  The C-suite at your prospects will see the value in standardizing on your solution.

That’s the kind of foundation durable leadership can be built. Category leadership.

Category creation and the value of not listening to your customers. By Peter Zaballos

February 15, 2018

Part Two: Your vision is strategic, your customers’ vision is tactical

In my earlier post on category creation, I touched on how critically category creation depends on a bold strategic vision owned by the CEO. And that vision gets taken to market through a product that delivers a fundamentally different experience and value to customers from what they have today.

This is hard because your customers live in the world of today. With the product you have right now. That’s what your salespeople sell, and your customer success teams support.

But creating a category is about delivering something so much better than “today.” Ambitious, bold companies learn to live with and take advantage of the ambiguity separating today from the bold future you see possible.

Spot Mini opening door

And given the role the product strategy plays in creating a category, a disproportionate responsibility falls on the product and marketing teams. As a result, there are some subtle but critical factors a CMO needs to take into account.

First, do a 12+ month product plan.
Creating a category involves envisioning a future your customers can’t see. But you can. So fundamentally you are creating a product strategy – a framework that extends from today into the not so distant future.

This means, if you’re using Agile, you look out 12-18 months and understand what are the core capabilities you’ll need to figure out and master. How many of those require foundations to be built now? Work back from those to your field of view 6-12 months from now, and the deliverables will be clearer. More specific. The dev and product teams will have a clearer sense of what is straightforward, understood and what is hard, unknown.

Now look at the 3-6 month timeframe. Here you should have a pretty clear sense of scope and difficulty. The iteration in thinking between 3-6 month windows and 7-12 month windows will likely reveal some dependencies and challenges.

Finally, you can think through what the next six sprints need to look like. Here you’re going to be fairly specific about use cases, personas, and technical scoping.

Every two weeks get everyone together and review where you are on the journey. Both with what has shipped, and what customers are telling you. Customer feedback is essential to checking your assumptions on the 3-6 and 7-12 month release plans. This is super important, and plays into the next two sections below.

If you don’t think Agile works this way you’re wrong. Here’s an awesome podcast from Command Line Heroes laying out Agile and why it’s suited for what I describe above. Agile isn’t about two week fields of view. It’s about rigor and discipline about what you’re doing every two weeks, and how you’re doing it. To have working software validate assumptions, or invalidate them.

Second, don’t listen to your customers
Does this contradict what I just said above? No. Your customers are helping you validate assumptions about your vision. What you don’t want to listen to is their long list of things they wish were better with the product you have right now. Category creation is about bringing something fundamentally different to market.

Customers want what they can see in front of them to be better notdifferent. They see what is sitting right in front of them. That’s what your sales people sold them. That’s what your customer success teams support.

When building a category around a bold vision of what’s possible, the sure sign you are losing your way is to devote most of your time into making your existing product better. And if you listen only to that or let customers drive more than 10-20% of your backlog or dev capacity making the product better, well then you’re not building a category.

Worse, driving your product priorities around “better” means you’re ensuring you will be competitively vulnerable. Then you’re really just building a business around your competitors. Because they too can listen to customers about today. About chasing better, not delivering different. If you focus on better, you’re building an product line that is structurally vulnerable to competitors. You’re solving for now. Not the future.

Third, test your roadmap
With the majority of your roadmap devoted to bringing your category to life, you can now devote your customer engagement to testing your category assumptions. Which also means testing whether or not your vision for what is possible is truly compelling.

Testing your roadmap with customers is a way to make sure your 3-12+ month release plan has integrity. It can confirm or question the validity of your core platform and functionality assumptions. It’s about being inherently curious. Being a voracious learner, and where being an optimist and not a cynic finds a comfortable home.

So that means being super hard core about why your roadmap, working all the way back to the next sprint, is creating and testing the building blocks of the future. The different. You may be shipping a “better” feature that customers care about today, but is there a way to build that “better” improvement in such a way that it also helps inform your progress towards “different?”

At every step along the way. From today’s standup to next year’s category-defining product launch has to be threaded through “am I staying focused on different?”

Go into this not being burdened with what you see today, and instead be driven by an optimism of what’s possible.

Your category vision should invigorate you, your team, and your company every single day. Your category vision should invigorate your customers and entice your prospects. Your product strategy brings all of that to life.

That’s the real role of being a CMO. Ensuring your very talented product and dev teams have struck the right balance around delivering on the strategic vision of different and not getting distracted with today’s noise of better.

My User Manual

October 12, 2013

A little over a year ago I started a new job, and a big component of my role was to help the company bring a lot of scale to their marketing, and bring a higher tempo and user focus to the company’s product development. This meant taking three groups of already high performing teams, and leading them into territories unfamiliar to them, while also helping them develop skills and capabilities new to many.

This is the kind of job that comes around in your career rarely. Tremendous, tremendous fun, and the best part is it’s only just beginning. We’re growing like crazy, and are about to enter that phase of the market where we have the right offering at the right time, and are about to see some pretty breathtaking expansion.

transparency

And I found myself explaining how I work, how I manage, and many of my core values as a manager, but also as a person. A lot.

So much of creating the opportunity for the rapid experimentation, fast failure, “iterate to excellence” team performance is based on how you work as a team, not what you work on as a team.

I mentioned this to my wife in a text message while on a train headed to work, and she pointed me to an interview with a CEO about his “user manual” – a one page document that lays out how anyone in the company can easily understand how to work with him. I LOVED it. A combination of approaches, philosophy, and personal values.

By the time I got off the train I had a complete draft of my User Manual. Check it out, I’m on v4.0

By the time I’d plugged in at the office I published it to  everyone on my teams via Chatter, as well as my counterparts on the exec team and a bunch of others I work with frequently.

Folks on my team appreciated the transparency, and it’s made it so much easier to engage with other teams and get to a place of trust and performance that much more quickly.

But the best part was for me. Any time you have to be intentional about something, and write it down, you learn something about yourself.

The Unfamiliar State of Funding a Startup

March 8, 2012

I work with a lot of startup companies, and am currently involved with three that share the same characteristics: pre-product, pre-revenue, and at the very beginning of fundraising. And I’m having the same conversation with all three. It goes like this:

  1. The cost of getting a company to scale and even to profitability has dropped dramatically in the past ten years.
  2. The nature of venture capital has shifted from an early stage focus to late stage or even growth equity investing.
  3. Angels and experienced high net worth folks have stepped in to fill the role VCs served for early stage investing.
  4. A viable fundraising strategy can default to a path that doesn’t assume VCs participate at all, or perhaps only towards the end.

Let me expand on each of these points.

COST OF GETTING TO SCALE – THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

There are a lot of factors at work here, to the benefit of entrepreneurs. The rise in cloud computing means that fixed infrastructure expense has largely been eliminated from the business plan, and this will only get better (Amazon just announced it’s 19th price decrease in six years). Virtual teams + Google Docs drive OPEX down even further unburdening you from lease costs.

The shift to “inbound marketing” – social media, blogs, SEO, viral – can drive large volumes of traffic at significantly lower costs (60% less or more) than traditional “outbound methods – and at higher conversion and retention rates. It takes a lot less of your marketing budget to reach and acquire users. With the shift to freemium and subscription business models you can also let your most active users decide for themselves to pay for your services through in-app messaging and offers – significantly reducing the cost of sales.

I call this the “Rise of the Machines” because metrics and machine-driven resources/methods do much of the heavy lifting at a fraction of the cost of human-intensive alternatives. Josh Kopleman surveyed his portfolio and found “…that companies today are 3 times more likely to get to $250K in revenue during an eighteen month period than they were six years ago. ”

VENTURE CAPITAL IS DEAD – LONG LIVE VENTURE CAPITAL

The money that VCs invest comes from “institutional investors” – pension funds, endowments, insurance companies – and these institutions allocate their investments across a wide range of “asset classes” to manage and diversify risk. They tend to make these allocations based on ten year return performance averages, and beginning in 2009 (as my partners and I found out with unfortunate timing) the ten year return for the VC asset class went negative.

That’s for tough the VC industry overall, but if you look at the top 20-25 firms, the ten year return is quite good. So what institutions did was stop putting money in general into the VC asset class, and only put money into the big, established firms. This caused fund sizes to swell (Accel’s most recent fund was $1.35B+ comprised of $475M “early stage” + $875M “growth equity” funds), which incents those firms to put larger and larger investments to work in each deal (to justify their partners’ time).

So at a macro level, investment into VC funds dried up for all but the top firms (reducing the total number of VC funds) and poured into the top firms, shifting their focus to larger investments in later stage firms.

ANGELS BECOME ANGELS ALMOST LITERALLY

At the same time early stage VCs moved out of the market, a wave of experienced tech executives who had made fortunes building internet companies became very active investors. They brought more than deep pockets, they brought valuable insight and experience and even better – intensive, engaged roles with the companies they funded.

And along the way, incubators emerged as mini-factories where angels could become involved with lots of companies and let the law of large numbers help them there. Overall, angels are investing 40% more than they were even a year ago – now over $700K per round, and there are concerns there’s a bubble happening with incubators. But the headlines are, angels have stepped into early stage investing at a scale and role traditionally reserved for VCs.

STARTUP FUNDRAISING HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER, AND WORSE

What this means for startups is you can get your business to scale with ten times less money that you needed 10-15 years ago. $3M – $5M. If you plan well and are well connected you can do this with individual investors who add a ton of value and will roll up their sleeves to help out. The real benefit is you can also find individuals who share the same expectations you have for the outcome of the business. A 5X return on $3M may be the right outcome for the business and for investors who define success as a financial return coupled with a durable business that solves a problem they care about.

It also means you can liberate yourself from having to map your business and outcome to the trajectory that many of the larger VC firms need their investments to align with – they need billion dollar exits to generate the billion dollar returns they committed to their institutional investors.

Don’t get me wrong here. VCs are an important and valuable catalyst to the technology sector and the economy – and many are out there doing what they’ve always done to identify the next great disruptive business. And for your business, a VC can be the exact right fit either at the beginning or once you’ve gotten to scale.

It’s just that now VCs are playing a different role than they have in the past, and for startups this means it’s a brand new, unfamiliar, day out there.

Back online

February 29, 2012

Well, that was a long hiatus. But for a lot of good reasons I needed the time away from this and feel ready and enthusiastic about resuming the exploration of technology and startups and how failure critically enables their success.

Next post to follow, and will be on the theme of how user acquisition costs and leverage have dramatically reduced the financing required to get a company to break-even (and to a seven figure user base), and how that’s reshaping not just early stage businesses, but mature enterprises.

Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience these past months.

Pete

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

December 15, 2009

Something I have just loved about being in the venture capital business is the people I’ve met, running businesses I did not fund.  And of those there are a few I found so relevant to my own interests, and with founders who had such passion and integrity, that I continued to meet with them well after saying “no.”  Trying to be a productive sounding board, making introductions, passing along knowledge or experience where it seemed helpful.

It’s always been such a pleasure to get the updates from these CEOs, they arrive when you least expect them and it’s exciting to see how things are developing, where the connection is no longer the possibility of financing, but a genuine interest in the business and a relationship with the CEO/team.

Dustin Hubbard of Paperspine is one of these.  His company offered a subscription service for books.  Physical books.  He  had the idea for his company after finishing a book, and having no room for it in his already jammed bedside table.  So, he planned and planned, left his job at Microsoft, started and ran Paperspine out of his garage.

Paperspine worked really well, and solved problems that people cared about.  It probably saved my family hundreds of dollars, just with my 16 year-old daughter, a voracious reader, and who routinely dropped tens of dollars at bookstores, only to read the books once.  She loved Paperspine.  She was on a five book out at once subscription at one point, and it enabled more massive reading without bankrupting her.

And while Dustin had gotten Paperspine off the ground with funding from friends and family, he couldn’t raise his next round of financing – in a market where raising money is almost impossible anyway.  But he applied himself to solving this problem with every ethical means imaginable.  Cut costs to get to break even, went back to work at Microsoft, tried to expand into ebook rentals.

Dustin and I spoke every 45-60 days, where he would walk me through his latest set of challenges, his ideas to address them, and we’d then spend the next hour testing his assumptions, plans, and brainstorm solutions.  But he always arrived prepared and ready to dive into a meaningful discussion, and sometimes I could help, other times I think he just valued the opportunity to have someone outside the company to run his thinking by.

But for many reasons, some within in his control, many outside it, he was unable to get his next round of financing.  And he seemed to be reaching the limit of how much this business was encroaching on his life, quality of life, and family.

So, last night I was truly saddened but not necessarily surprised to receive an email from Dustin, saying that he was closing the doors.  I can only imagine how hard this was for him, how heartbreaking.

And he closed off his dreams for Paperspine with the kind of grace and thoughtfulness that we should all take note of, and admire.  You should read his final blog entry, a real fitting testimonial to a worthy business, and an incredibly decent founder.  And you can see pictures of his “warehouse” in his garage, and learn more about how he took his idea and brought it to life.

His wife framed this so well, reminding him that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

That phrase captures the essence of what it means to take an idea that crossed your mind, and have the courage to start a company to bring that idea to life.  And you bring it to life focused on why it will and should succeed, while also keeping, in a separate place, the knowledge that there are many reasons why it could fail.

Dustin, you should be very proud of what you accomplished and learned these past two years, but you should also be very proud of how you ran your company, and how you finished.  Well done, not painless, but well done, indeed.

Startup advice brilliance

October 21, 2009

A friend pointed me to a superb summary of advice for startups, specifically calling out the ways that advice can be flawed, along with some perceptive insights into how to identify advice that’s actionable and useful.  The post is by Eric Reis, and is appropriately titled The 10 Ways Startup Advice is Flawed

Eric’s pov is appropriately snarky, and at a macro level he calls out various ways that being lucky and being smart are frequently confused with each other.  Snarkiness aside, the really valuable point he makes is how important it is to be a critical thinker, in general.  The value of making your own assessment of the information you’re consuming, and not just accepting it.

I especially liked his point #6: Maybe the thing they did used to work, but it doesn’t anymore

I think about that a lot in my own context.  I was at RealNetworks back when it truly was pioneering this new phenomena of sending audio and video over the internet, and we owned that market.  In public we said we had 85%+ share of the market, but in reality it was closer to 95% for a good long time.

We called the shots, named the prices, dictated terms.  We muscled into and out of markets we cared about, aligned ourselves with titans of the technology landscape.

And then Microsoft showed up and we fought them tooth and nail.  It was a hard and ugly fight, which they eventually won (once they started paying attention).

Well, they won, sort of.  It was epic, and in a start-up kind of way, it was epic fun.  I remember picking a big fight with the Windows Media team on an internet media list-serve, where I’d just published some user research showing how people preferred our new video to Windows Media’s.

And Microsoft’s head of a/v technology posted to the list, accusing us of fluffing up the research, and he included a three page outline of the ways you could falsify/skew consumer surveys.  And it was so much fun to respond to the list , asking “how was it that Microsoft knew of so many ways to distort research?”

But I digress.

We each became so obsessed with each other we quit paying attention to what Macromedia was doing with Flash and what Apple was doing with the tight coupling of iTunes and the iPod.  So, while we were both wrestling in the mud pit, Apple and Macromedia left the building and started more interesting and lucrative businesses elsewhere.  And until that point the thing we did at RealNetworks really did used to work.

Eric’s “ten ways” are simple and insightful.  The hard part is putting them into action, in the moment.  My experience at RealNetworks is valuable to the startups I work with and talk to if and only if both of us are cognizant of its context.  And it takes discipline and a good dose of humility to walk the talk Eric is alluding to.

I know there’s a ton of stuff I did that was a product of luck and timing, and a lot that was a result of deliberate hard work and applied intelligence.  The hard part is being honest enough with myself to examine where those boundary lines are, to strip out the specific circumstantial knowledge from the generalized, truly durable knowledge.

So, let’s all get a good laugh out of Eric’s list, but also remember how hard it is to actually do what he’s suggesting.

Performance and an opportunity to explore it

October 2, 2009

The underpinning principle of this blog is “meaningful failure”, and what you can learn when you examine this critical juncture of where you fail and embrace what you can learn through that failure.

I’ve been seeking out others who share this interest, and last year I discovered Ross Bentley who runs a consulting business, Bentley Performance Systems, that focuses on improving performance for executives and interestingly, professional race car drivers.  That latter constituency intrigued me.  Failure on a race track has specific tangible implications that failure in business does not:  bent metal, physical harm, or worse.

Ross spends his time working with his clients on very personal elements of improving performance, along with more straightforward tools and techniques of planning and analysis.  His focus on who you are as a person I find interesting, the examination about what emotionally or psychologically may be holding someone back from achieving their potential is an area like failure where people are less comfortable speaking plainly and openly.

In the case of the racers and the executives the conversation goes in the same direction:  how can you best prepare yourself to be constantly improving, learning from success and failure?  He engages them in relevant and specific conversations focused on getting them to do to what they do differently and better.

And after this discussion, examination, and hard work the racers go to the track and the CEOs go to their offices.  In both cases they’re in environments where the information is flowing by, fast, and they need to make decisions and situation assessments rapidly.  And each ends up with a quantifiable data set telling them how well they performed: lap times & finish order, income statements & balance sheets.

Ross and I got together yesterday so he could share a research project he’s starting called Performance in the Workplace. He wants to to better understand how executives assess their own performance, and what affects their performance over time.

The research is nice and simple:  he’s asking them to fill out a short survey, once a week, and tell him how well they feel they’ve performed, and why.  You can participate in the project by signing up here.

What I like about his approach is that he’s not defining “performance” for the participants.  He’s letting them define it for themselves.  When he first told me about this my reaction was “that’s pretty subjective, why not quantify performance with metrics”?”.  But then I realized, that really misses the point.  When you’re trying to help people do better every day, metrics are the product of your performance, not the measure of it.

We run businesses based on a set of milestones, KPIs (key performance indicators) – “dashboards” – and these are important measures of the recent past.  And they’re critical – I’ve written about why a well documented operating plan and the corresponding assumptions are essential to managing your business.

But executives spend their days making decisions, asking questions, analyzing and assessing – and of course this results in metric-based results.  But not in the moment.  How do you assess the effectiveness of your performance while you’re making those decisions, asking those questions, digging into those numbers?

I think Ross is onto an interesting topic here.  What causes you to feel you’re performing well one day, and not so well the next?  Will the act of self-assessing performance help you, in and of itself, to become more effective and cause you to be closer to the top of your game?

I’m going to participate, because in my business, at best I get monthly or quarterly metrics from my companies in terms of valuations I can apply to rates of return – on paper – and it takes years to get to the point where you can convert the paper value to cash or stock you can sell for cash.  Daily performance is not at all quantifiable with metrics, but matters oh so much.

I’m sure I can learn something from this, and am eager to see how what he finds.