Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

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.

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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 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.

Category creating – it’s as easy and hard as it looks. By Peter Zaballos

February 9, 2018

Part One: Bold vision is everything

I’ve been thinking about categories recently. A lot.

I’ve been fortunate to have been in three companies who had that bold vision, who could see that structural opportunity, and who zeroed in on the audience that was affected. At LSI Logic, we saw the opportunity to enable new categories of computing devices – personal computers and mobile devices. At C-Cube Microsystems we envisioned the impact that digital television and film could have on the broadcast and entertainment industries. And at RealNetworks it was as simple as enabling internet-delivered audio and video – developing the breakthroughs making Netflix and Spotify a reality.

Creating a category is easy to say and so hard to do. Or rather, it’s easy to see a company who has created a category and it sure looks obvious in hindsight. But in the early days, even in the middle phase, it’s nothing short of a free-for-all.

Table stakes are having a bold vision for what you think could be dramatically different for the customers you serve. Not better, but different. Not a little different. Fundamentally, earth shatteringly different. And with those words and the belief in them, you then need to have the audacity to live up to them.

The creators of categories dominate the market they create. Because they see a future their competitors don’t. Their competitors chase what the category creator makes visible. They will always be steps behind the category creator.

Creating a new category in the market begins and ends with a bold vision for what’s possible. A clarity of the mission of the company and more importantly, for the customers you serve. This is about getting precise about the words. The words matter.

But defining the category is more than words and sentences of a paragraph. And bringing a category vision to life is more than a marketing campaign. It is precisely where the company’s strategy and strategic intent are mobilized across the organization. Category creating is a holistic commitment of the business. It is the CEO’s personal obligation. If the CEO doesn’t personally own this ambition, no amount of over-functioning executives can make up for that. At some point the conversation gets shrill.

BRING THE CATEGORY TO LIFE

With the CEO owning the category vision, they don’t need to  develop the framework that will enable the company to take advantage of and define the category. That can be handled by a member of their team. It has to be someone senior enough in the organization to have visibility and perspective, and also be someone who can work across teams, across execs, and orchestrate engagement. This includes:

  • Identifying the people, processes, and products required to fulfill the category potential.
  • Specifying how you will get from today to that future potential. The solution you have today and what you will build in the future to address  the category problem
  • Identifying the ecosystem that will validate and accelerate the development of the category, and squeeze out your competitors

To bring a category to life depends on this strategic alignment first and foremost with the product strategy. The product needs to deliver this category promise to the users. Their experience validates the category potential, and literally brings it to life in the market. And this product alignment needs to be fully aligned with how these products are taken to market. The words that are literally used to attract prospects, engage them in learning more, and choosing the solution all have to map back to the category vision and definition.

In an age where essentially every sale is driven through some form of digital interaction, the good news is that search performance provides and awesome data-driven laboratory to ensure you get all of this right. You’ll know. The data will scream the results at you.

STEP UP AND LIVE YOUR AMBITION

This is where so many companies get scared. Especially once a company is in the midst of category creation. It’s easy to get frightened, chasing near term revenue and investments in the face of the riskier long term commitments that need to be made. Remember, you’re bringing to market something fundamentally different than what exists today. For the meek, that means there will be some pretty powerful forces pulling you back to…today. Today is familiar. It is safe.

Creating a category is lonely. Especially for the leadership of the company. The CEO and their team are the custodians of this vision, and for a long, long time, they may be the only true believers.That’s why it’s easy to get scared. Why it’s easy to back off. To retreat to the goals and tactics that produced the recent past, and not make the bolder choices to bet on the future.Bringing a category to life is a fully focused go-to-market campaign. Externally and Internally.

That internal part is key. Employees need to have clarity on what that different future will be and how to explain in an appropriate context, whey this journey is important. Customer Success needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Sales needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Everyone inside the company is on a mission. To fundamentally transform the lives of their customers.

INVIGORATE THE COMPANY

The day-to-day work of creating a category is the essential job of every employee. They need to be trained, to be fluent in, and have internalized the same understanding of the structural opportunity and the role the business has in realizing this opportunity.That’s why RealNetworks had a palpable intensity – every day – that employees were energized and motivated by.

It’s why my friend and RN colleague Dave Cotter remarked “I was probably young enough to believe it, but there really was a sense that we were fundamentally changing the world, and, actually, for a period of time we were.”Bringing a vision to life for customers and prospects goes hand in hand with bringing that vision to life for employees.

This is why the obligation for defining the category rests with the CEO, but how important it is that every employee is enlisted making the vision real to prospects and customers, every day.Category creation is not a board topic, it’s not an exec staff meeting topic.

It’s the CEO’s life mission. It’s internalized by every employee. It’s the lifeblood, the daily obsession, of everyone.

I’m done with Uber – The moral cost is too high

November 29, 2014

I was one one of Uber’s best fans – I must have recruited a dozen friends and colleagues to the service, because it fundamentally is just so much better than taxis or car services. Wonderfully inspired idea, and at the street level, brilliantly executed. I loved it.

And I use the past tense because I did love it. But not anymore. The trickle of moral lapses by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, have become a roaring torrent. Uber has an ethics problem, but most importantly it has an ethical leadership problem.

Peter Thiel summed it up succinctly: “Uber is the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”

Which is why the details of the plan to smear journalists who create unflattering views of the service pushed me to the point of being all done with the service.  So, on November 25 I sent my request to Uber to cancel my account, as “the moral cost to me of doing business with your firm is more than I can afford, and I have happily created my first accounts at Lyft and Curb.”

And in efficient Uber fashion, I received this confirmation of my account cancellation, which is sad. The service and drivers are great. But that’s not enough today. You have to believe in and trust the people at the top. And I can do neither with Uber the way it is being run right now. Travis – until you show some leadership and I won’t be back.Uber Cancellation

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

Preparation for a long offsite

July 23, 2009

I’ll be hiking the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California next month, which is something I’ve wanted to do my entire adult life.  The Sierras and backpacking really took root with me in high school, where a core group my friends went every summer, and continued through college and a few years beyond before losing the thread to careers and starting families.

Three years ago we restarted these annual trips, and about then I realized how much I enjoy being up in the mountains, away from all forms of electronic communication, as a way to get some perspective and some balance.

So this year I leave on August 4, and my friends and I will start down the John Muir Trail, five days later they’ll leave the trail at Red’s Meadow, and I’ll resupply there and continue on, on my own.  I’ll finish near Mt. Whitney, two weeks and 170 miles later.

And I’ve been doing a lot of reading to prepare for the trip.  Mostly trail guides, even a book on the geology of the Sierras (ensuring I will be the most boring person at the next cocktail party I go to).  But one that’s proven particularly helpful is a book called High Sierra by Phil Arnot, and it’s been great at providing detail on side trips I can make along the way.

300+ pages of detailed route descriptions, elevation changes, permit locations…in short a bunch of data and information about as “touchy feely” as the phone book.  It even has a section on “Hiking Solo” with a set of very pragmatic preparation guidelines regarding safety.   But then it went in a direction I didn’t expect, with the following passage:

“So, in a way the wilderness experience may be catalytic in bringing us to face, really face, the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves:  Am I really living the life I want to live?  Am I fulfilled in my work?  Are my relationships based on sharing and intimacy or are they primarily obligatory?  What do I really want to do with my life?”

Well, for those of us who love backpacking and being in the mountains, that set of questions told me the author truly knows his subject.  For me, these are the questions my mind gets drawn to when my “job” for the day is to traverse six or eight miles (or more) of trail at 10,000 feet, and what separates you from the beginning and end of the hike is a lot of time to walk and think.

Take the “fulfilled in my work” question.  That one’s easy.  I love my job as a venture capitalist.  I love that it requires that you think hard about strategy and equally hard about operations and execution.  You’re on a constant learning curve looking at new businesses and needing to quickly get to their essence to make a funding decision.  And when you find a business you want to fund, you get to go deep with it, for years, to help it (hopefully) succeed and grow.

But that’s the “work” part of this, and what makes my job truly fulfilling is who I work with.  Through equal parts self-selection and deliberate effort, my partners and I have created the kind of transparent, friction-free, trust-based working relationship that up until this point I had only read about.

The fact that we had all worked together before getting into this business helped, but over the past five years we’ve had to make our way through uncomfortable, difficult conversations that required egos to be set aside, and personalities to be parsed from the logic and data.  Everybody talks about this, it’s the first time I’ve experienced it first-hand.

That’s great, but actually making money in this business is getting incredibly hard.  The whole industry is in a state of transition and transformation.  Fred Wilson has done a good job explaining this, but in short, it’s taking longer to get companies sold, the IPO market is dead, and the median valuations at sale have been declining for years.  In order to generate the returns institutional investors need, you’ve got to as a firm perform well above median.

It’s daunting.  We’re doing well as VCs, but looking at the whole industry it gives you pause.  This business will be getting smaller before it gets larger, and as I’ve written in an earlier post, the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place in industries who are in a state of transition.  And this is an industry in transition.

But that’s where the exciting part of this job is.  Transitions create no shortage of opportunity, and challenge.  I’m grateful I have the chance to put some more thought into this, during my long offsite.

Between now and when I “go off the grid” on the 4th, I’ll be posting on some related topics.

A Blockbuster closing

July 9, 2009

The Blockbuster closed in our town last week, in the “out of business” sense.  I heard a lot of folks attribute this to the popularity of Netflix.

About a year ago our post office (looks like the one in Mayberry RFD) put a sign above their “Out of town” mail slot, saying “Please put Netflix envelopes in the “Packages” drop box.”  Apparently Netflix has gotten so popular that the post office has had to make an adaptation just to handle the volume, and the reflection of the shift in consumer behavior couldn’t have been written more plainly.

But the more I think about it, Netflix didn’t single-handedly kill our Blockbuster.

About six months ago our (only) supermarket got one of those “Redbox” DVD rental kiosks, and slowly it’s taken over the activity at the front of the store.

People are lined up at it all the time, and when I thought it was just a stand-alone machine, I didn’t consider it all that novel until I realized that you can reserve movies, at an individual machine, over the internet. That’s when I thought “this is really cool.”  No wonder folks are jammed there, they’re going to the store anyway, and they can get their movie too, and reserve what they want.  Wow.

So, I did a quick Google search on “Redbox Netflix” and this was the third citation, the headline says it all: Blockbuster CEO: Redbox, Netflix “Not On Radar Screen” as Competition.  The article was from December.  And this is a publicly traded company.  How in the world does someone say this?  What detachment from the customer (and reality) does that broadcast?  It certainly provides a more grounded understanding of why our local Blockbuster went down the drain.

But while Netflix may have pushed Blockbuster to the brink, Redbox may have sent them over the edge.  Not because Redbox was targeting Blockbuster: they were collateral damage.  It’s Netflix who’s in the cross-hairs of Redbox.  And the best part?  Netflix paved the way for Redbox to hollow them out.

How?  Netflix fundamentally changed consumer behavior.  Until they arrived you were at the mercy of your local video store: you had to actually make a separate trip there, choose from their inventory,  and had to remember what you came in there for.

Netflix created a whole new behavioral model of how you rent and experience movies and tv shows.  Infinite inventory to choose from, your own queue on a website, and they mail your movie to you.  How simple, how convenient.  And as I wrote earlier, a change in behavior like this takes time – like a decade.

Convenience is nice, but where Netflix really grabbed hold of people was by also embracing people’s existing behavior: they don’t return movies on time.  Eliminating late fees was the rallying cry that created incredible word of mouth.  And started that hollowing effect for Blockbuster.

So how does this apply to Redbox?  Well, they just applied Netflix’s playbook:  focus on consumer behavior and where the economic leverage is.  They recognized most people rent the current releases, and thanks to Netflix, they also expect to be able to use the web to choose as well as know they’ll get what they want.  Critically, they also realized that having the movie mailed to you meant for many consumers just not having to make a separate trip to get  it.

So Redbox embraced this existing behavior in a clever way.  They just  rent the top movies from a vending machine located in a supermarket.  You can reserve your movie over the web.  So you get what you want, with no special trip.

And the fact it’s a kiosk also means expectations are automatically set that the selection is limited.  This reflects a nuanced understanding of consumer psyches, while dramatically reducing the complexity of inventory management.

And while convenience is nice, where Redbox really gets its leverage is with the economics, just like Netflix did with Blockbuster.  $1 per movie.  Sure there are late fees, but at this price it makes Netflix seem expensive and really tough for digitally delivered movies to pencil out from a margin perspective.  Ouch.

So, against this backdrop, it’s hard to fathom the statement from the Blockbuster CEO.  He’s right, Netflix and Redbox really weren’t on his radar screen.  He wasn’t even in the same business, wasn’t even in the fight.

And if I were Netflix, I’d be working my bankers, hard, to figure out how to acquire Redbox.