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This is a really interesting movie about how consumer services are building businesses on the private data that consumers are handing over, and by extension how big data is fueling new concerns about how that data can be reconstructed and infringe on our personal liberties.

Startup Lessons Learned: Hiring

I spent 3 years at Get Satisfaction, going from around 10 employees to 70′ish at the peak. Leaving was not an easy choice but after 3 years I needed to do something different, not better just different; I detailed my reasons and next move here. After much contemplation I decided to write a blog post in an effort to document my lessons learned about what worked and did not, in an effort to hold myself accountable for personal and professional development. I wrote it and posted it, then immediately took it down because I realized this was far too long for a single post. so instead I rewrote it as a series of posts, the first of which goes up today.

As you might imagine, I learned about more than just a business in my time at Get Satisfaction, and with the benefit of hindsight I was able to reflect on the subtle but critical lessons learned through mistakes and successes over my time there. This is not an easy series for me to write because while the thoughts are crystal clear I don’t wish to reflect poorly on my former colleagues, therefore take what I write with the intention it is written, that of self-reflection for the purpose of learning and self-improvement.

1) Hiring decisions will make or break you, sometimes all at once: The axiom that great companies are built with A team players could not be more true. There are 2 dimensions to this that are worth highlighting, hiring the best people and then structuring them to succeed, which will be addressed in a later post.

It’s not my intention to backstab people after the fact but the fact remains that we hired some people who were simply not up to the task that was in front of us. A worse failing than hiring the wrong people up front was keeping them in place after it became evident that they were not succeeding and taking the rest of the company down with them.

This dynamic is interesting to explore and reflects the challenges of hiring good people in Silicon Valley but more critically reflects the sense of ownership that the executive management team has over top level hires, and the subsequent desire to not have bad hires exposed for what they are, a failing of process and judgment. It happens, everyone is human and in the final equation it is better to just acknowledge a bad hire and move on rather than stick with someone who will impair the business the longer they stay in place.

A bad executive hire is like a cancer and the treatment for a cancer is to get rid of it, not get rid of it and replace it with something else, just get rid of it. I wrote a post about fear shapes personal behavior that was directly in response to my frustrations in dealing with a colleague who was failing in his role.

What makes a good executive hire? If I had to pick one thing in particular I would say good judgment is what is missing in every executive hire gone bad. People skills, execution capability, cross team collaboration, and many more skills essential for the modern executive can all be learned and adapted to different teams, but good judgment is as much a function of DNA as it is education and discipline. Good judgment trumps all because it brings with it focus, confidence, and optimal outcomes relative to execution effort.

Staff hires are no less critical and again the tendency to stick with people who are not A or even B team quality just to have a body in place reflects the challenge of hiring people in the Valley. However the fact remains that if you have a D team member and your aspiration is to bring them up to a C level, what exactly is your strategy? A and B quality people don’t just contribute disproportionately to the success of the company, they inspire other people of similar quality to join as a result of them being there while D quality people drive away the highest quality people you will attract.

In the spirit of full transparency and disclosure, hiring is something I do not consider a particularly strong point in my favor. My personality tends to attract to people who have similar “strange attractors” in their own character and for better or worse I tend to evaluate people on my gut level reaction to them. This has made me more attuned to my own judgment and forced me to be very strategic and deliberate about hires, at any level. Time will tell if I am getting better at it but without a doubt I am more conscious of the consequences of bad hires and looking beyond resume and personality when considering prospective hires.

I have 7 additional posts to publish over the coming weeks, detailing everything from fundraising to product/competitive strategy to managing your board of directors. Stay tuned.

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The Return of Mike and Ike

The movie trailer style advertisement for Mike & Ike candy is, in a word, completely awesome (2 words).

This really underscores a broader movement that the less time constrained online media world started, advertising as storytelling and entertainment, not just another commercial. We all want to be entertained, we don’t want to be sold to…

 

Google+ Turns 2: How Hangouts Completely Changed My Work Routines

Google+ turned two this week and by all accounts Google has won over critics with a compelling social network experience. I have been a fan from day 1 and perhaps what I admire most about Google is that they ignore the pundits while playing a very long game of their own making… so while my initial reaction that Twitter and Tumblr would be the biggest losers, which obviously was not the case, there are other factors that are worth looking at.

Simply put, Hangouts have been enormously impactful on me and how I work. Here is something they nailed and it is so profound that I didn’t even realize it until just this week, Hangouts are built around the notion that a video experience is YOU first, and then whatever you are sharing second.

Think about how Gotomeeting and Webex handle video, it is something that is added to the act of presenting something and despite a significant push to feature video, I have encountered few instances where someone says “hey share the camera!”. Contrast that to Hangouts where video is a primary experience… Google just figured this out while Webex and Gotomeeting are still locked into their traditional mode, which also limits their ability to have an instant video conference in the absence of a persistent conference room.

We have a very distributed company and on any given day I will have between 3-6 planned video Hangouts and a bunch of ad hoc ones. This has become such a fundamental mode of communication for me that I invested in SteelSeries gamer headsets to provide the best audio quality while also improving the comfort factor.

The integration with Google Calendar is another winner, where adding a video conference to a meeting is as simple as clicking the link. No scheduling service, passwords, dialin numbers. and so on… it just works.

Another experiences I had recently that drove this home was at HP with one of their sophisticated teleconference systems. Yes, it was remarkable but I kept thinking that I could do something a lot easier with Hangouts… instead of getting a bunch of people in dedicated rooms just to talk to each other, we could have each run a separate video in Hangouts and the result would have been the same in terms of what we accomplished… and for free.

The integration of Talk with Hangouts is a mixed bag and I hope that Google restores the ability to place voice calls from the Hangouts add-on in Gmail. Google has an interesting integration challenge that is a result of an embarrassment of riches with a robust chat product that built on XMPP, Google Voice, and Hangouts. A big change they announced last month was the abandonment of XMPP, which has a lot of features as well as a big developer community, and the replacement of Talk with Hangouts. I like the user experience and having my chats pop up in Hangouts in addition to Gmail, but the degradation of features is disappointing, most significantly the inability to place voice phone calls right from Hangouts.

I don’t know where they are going with this but the result for me is that I now use Skype more frequently for voice calls instead of hitting the phone icon in Talk and placing a call.

Lastly, the mobile experience is completely seamless, and that extends to video as well. On my Samsung S4 the mobile video conferencing is surprisingly good and glitch free… how far we have come from commercial video phones that started showing up in the 1980′s that used super expensive hardware and puts POTS through an extreme gymnastics routine.

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Design Principles and the Value of Experimentation

I have been watching Chris Harris’ Youtube channel while on the treadmill and yesterday I caught this fantastic segment on the legendary 1987 Porsche 962 that dominated Le Mans.

There were 3 distinct parts of the video that are worth highlighting. Le Mans is a unique motorsport event, a 24 hour event that features a wide range of classes racing together on the same track and combining the technical prowess of manufacturer sponsored teams as well as the innovation of privateer teams. The race was held this weekend and Audi won in their class, again.

1) Norbert Singer, the Porsche engineer who had a strong hand in every one of Porsche’s 16 victories at Le Mans, talks about Porsche’s reliability, a hallmark of the Porsche customer racing car program (you could actually walk in and buy a 962, hand over some money and get a set of keys… imagine that, a race car with a keyed ignition!). At about 1:30 in the video Singer is talking about reliability and how everyone in the Porsche racing program oriented their worldview around Le Mans because of the demands the race presented. Running a high performance vehicle for flat out for 24 hours and crossing the finish line is no small feat, and as Singer highlights it “first you have to finish the race and then you see where you are”.

This is a great commentary on design principles and everything in life and work has attributes that can be isolated to drive this degree of clarity. Now, if the car isn’t fast, handles poorly, or any one of a thousand other factors you won’t win but if the car isn’t reliable you won’t finish, much less win.

2) The 962 had for it’s time some pretty revolutionary ground effects, which also reduced drag as well as generating downforce that contributed to the extraordinary handling of the car. Following the successful 917 program, Singer sought to create ground effects by mimicking what Formula One cars were doing at the time and dramatically increasing downforce irrespective of the consequences on drag because with 1,000 horsepower they had plenty of power they could tap into to overcome deficiencies in aerodynamics.

Through experimentation the engineers learned that controlling the airflow over AND under the car improved the downforce while at the same time improving the slipperiness of the car itself. Conventional wisdom held that the two goals were in conflict, Singer developed the science of design based on his observations of air flow and continued testing to learn the science. Testing and experimentation can always be relied upon to overcome the power of repeated anecdote.

At around 11:40 Harris asked Singer some interesting questions about the handling of the car and Singer went into some detail about how the increase of ground effects on the rear of the car, with the extended tail, has the effect of improving the force on the front axle. This is really surprising and again points to the value of experimentation because what Singer and the Porsche team were learning is how the air moving over and under the car can be shaped to deliver specific forces with outcomes that are very desirable in a race car.

3) Finally, Singer is asked about the dramatic performance gains that were created in just a few short years. As is the case with new technologies, the biggest gains come in the beginning and after the big steps are taken everything is incremental. I am struck by this because I think we, as an industry, adhere to the notion of disruption but far too often deliver incremental. Therefore, if we more finely tune our appreciation for big steps we will then seek to upend the balance with new invention rather than fine tuning the status quo… as Audi did when they introduced diesel powered cars that were not only more durable than competitors but also more fuel efficient which resulted in fewer pit stops.

I would encourage you to watch this video because the lessons that are revealed extend well beyond racing.

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David Karp, Gotcha and Double Standards

I read this piece in Business Insider about comments that David Karp of Tumblr made while keynoting at Cannes Lions, a big advertiser conference held this week. I’ll save you the pain of reading it on their site, here’s what their core complaint is:

1) Karp originally refused to allow advertising on Tumblr, stating at the time that “it turned their stomach”.

2) In 2010 Tumblr famously reversed their stance on advertising.

3) Today Karp is effusive in his admiration and praise of advertisers (therefore he is clearly a hypocritical bastard).

I’m glad BI has a memory machine that they spin up whenever someone influential in this industry speaks but is it really necessary or useful to excoriate people for evolving their viewpoints? We see this all the time in entertainment, up-and-coming musicians and actors start out saying “it’s all about the music” or “I just want to make great movies” and years later, after success finds them, the soundbites shift to royalties, distribution points, and their production companies. Life brings a lot of complexity, it’s naïve to think that the naïve won’t grow into it.

Furthermore, we regularly ridicule politicians for being obstinate in their positions and a favorite Inside the Beltway game is “gotcha, remember when you said…”. Should we not hold high the value of changing one’s position when facts and understanding demand that we do so? So we say we want leaders to expand their thinking yet we punish them when they do so.

If I am ever so fortunate to find the success that brings with it the attention that many in Silicon Valley’s upper echelons receive, bring on the quotes because I have lived my life with a simple mantra, strong opinions loosely held for things outside of core values like honesty, integrity, and ethics…

Living With a Chromebook

Last week I bought a Samsung Chromebook.

The reason for taking the plunge is that my son needs a new computer and I talked with my wife about getting him a laptop instead of a new iMac. The only desktop computer in the house is his, Lisa and I both use laptops and tablets while working, reading, whatever, and rarely sit in our home office. As a result, if my son used his computer he was often doing it unsupervised and at his age I still want to have a watchful eye on what he is doing.

The proliferation of free, and pseudo-free, applications available through app marketplaces also presents a challenge for parents because many of these apps have features that circumvent the parental controls that operating systems provide. For example, many games have embedded chat capabilities. With that in mind, I wanted to give him a laptop that cut off one of the avenues by which children can stumble into trouble, installed apps, which often also bring security risks that could impact our entire home network.

Lastly, I wanted to experience the Chromebook as a possible extension of my own computing needs for when I am traveling or out-and-around town for meetings and such. An 11″ lightweight computer with a long lasting battery makes a lot of sense, and with my Verizon mifi connectivity I can be connected in the absence of a fixed wifi network.

The Samsung Chromebook is an appealing laptop on several levels. It is lightweight, has great battery performance, features a surprisingly nice keyboard, and good enough performance. It delivers the goods and doesn’t promise any extras. it is certainly no Pixel but it is $250 so from a value perspective it is hard to beat. In addition to the basic features, it includes a couple of USB ports and, surprisingly, a full sized HDMI port; storage is extended with an SDCard slot in the side.

I like what Google did with the launcher and dock, and setup was really straightforward. Performance is, as I noted, good enough, but it really lacks responsiveness. which is to say it just isn’t very snappy. The only significant negative that I can point out is that the display is washed out and generally unimpressive.

The only surprisingly challenging thing to do on the Chromebook is print, but once I figured out how to add a “classic printer” to Google Cloud Print and then shared that across my multiple Google profiles, it worked but clearly Google has some work to do with Cloud Print although competitive offerings from HP and others could fill this gap. Eventually I will replace my printer with one that is cloud-centric, which will also help smooth over this issue.

The display brings up the topic of the Google Pixel, which by all accounts has one of the nicest hardware/software experiences available in the market today, and the display performance and quality is nothing short of phenomenal. However, as good as that is, it is a $1,300 price tag and a larger form factor at 13″, plus the battery life is not very good.

Despite a few shortcomings, I think the Chromebook will find a place in my toolbox and this reflects a broader trend that many people are experiencing where they end up with a proliferating array of devices that either depend on the cloud or are synced to reflect a unified user experience.

What Would Steve Jobs Tell Congress?

Like many I watched the kabuki theater that is Congress perp walking Apple CEO Tim Cook in front of a committee to berate the company for legally applying the tax code, that Congress itself created, to preserve cash using the offshore entities the income was earned in. I was left with the question “would Congress have dared bring Steve Jobs in front of a committee in this manner?” knowing full well that Jobs’ personal popularity and habitual bluntness would have left Congress with proverbial egg on their face.

I also could not help but notice that the CEO of the legendary tax firm with a small manufacturing business on the side, General Electric, was not hauled in front of Congress to explain how not only does GE use the tax code to the full extent but also how they successfully manipulate members of Congress to create new tax subsidies and incentives that they can then exploit for shareholder benefit. as they should. Few members of Congress would want GE exposing the one-hand-washes-the-other hypocrisy that is the intersection of money, politics, and public policy.

What about Cisco? They have over $50 billion in cash and all but $5b of it is offshore. John Chambers is on record pointing out the obvious, U.S. corporate tax law is stunting job growth and forcing companies to invest outside the U.S. Let’s bring Chambers in front of Congress.

However, what is lost in all this is that the companies pay taxes at many levels and the growth they experience economic growth which leads to a myriad of additional tax layers. Directly as a result of strong performance, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Cisco institute share buybacks and dividends which fuel capital gains tax receipts. Microsoft alone has returned $170 billion of cash to investors as a result of buybacks and dividends, which for U.S. investors and entities is a form of income that is then taxed.

To paint successful companies as money grubbing tax cheaters misses the point entirely, and fails to address the structural flaws in the overly complex and burdensome tax system the U.S. currently relies on. Richard Epstein at the Hoover Institution put it succinctly:

And so we are left with a series of distracting hearings meant only to excoriate a profitable American company for making entirely legal, and totally rational, decisions. Those hearings may have been useful if they had addressed serious structural reform. For instance, one possibility for reform is to lower American tax rates, which would induce more businesses to keep operations in this country in the first place. A second, more radical, possibility is to consider shifting to a consumption tax, which would eliminate all the distortions of the current system by gutting the present two-tier corporate tax and allowing the tax-free return of capital from abroad for everyone.  But at this moment, the insatiable demands of the welfare state leave too many misguided champions of tax reform clamoring for more money to fill the federal coffers.

The Wisdom of Being Safe

I was reading this article on the wave of executive departures at HTC on the heals of a successful product, the HTC One, and a clearly unsuccessful launch of the HTC First. The reporting is actually good and highlights the phenomena of the death spiral that many in Silicon Valley are familiar with, as influential people in the company leave a succession of departures is certain to follow and taking with them the ability of the company to seamlessly conceptualize and develop new products that are the lifeblood of technology companies in the consumer space.

One quote caught my attention if for no other reason than it exhibits the vanity of the tech media:

even as reviews have consistently lauded the gorgeous One and bashed the S4′s cheap plastic and comparably safe – even boring – design.

Shocking as it may be to tech reporters and the chattering class of Silicon Valley, consumers clearly don’t give a shit about the fact that the Samsung S4 has a plastic back cover that, like all it’s stamped aluminum competitors, will get covered with a case.

The HTC One has a beautiful form factor but comes up short in significant functional areas that give the S4 a real advantage, and the stripped down Android experience reflects that fact that HTC’s software development has been a problematic area for them more than a desire to deliver a strategic alternative to the market.

The S4, by comparison, delivers a “safe” design that is the successor to the already best selling Android smartphone on the market, the S3, so what did the reviewers expect Samsung to do. cast aside their success and start over? It is entirely illogical that you would take a current generation leader and rethink it. and point in fact the entire iPhone empire is built on product extensions that trace back to v1 in form factor, capabilities and user experience. Where are the critics when discussing that safe platform?

My Next Journey: Ping Identity

I recently wrapped up my transition period out of Get Satisfaction and immediately swung into a new role at Ping Identity. This was no easy decision for me as I continue to support the mission of Get Satisfaction and have invested much of myself in it over the last 3 years. Life in the Valley can be frenetic and the degree of institutional ADHD we exhibit is something I have long been aware of, and as a counterbalance to this I have strived for a high degree of continuity and stability in my professional life while also pushing myself into the next interesting thing. it’s a tough balance to hold but one that gives me a great degree of reward and stimulation.

If you look back at my roles and responsibilities at Get Satisfaction over my tenure there you will see a progression that prepares me for where I am today:

  • In my capacity leading product marketing we focused heavily on how we craft a position that spans the challenge of marketing a service that appeals to consumers but one which the economic buyer is a business. This new normal in enterprise software is here to stay and reflects the consumerization trend that has long been talked about, enterprise software buyers of all stripes are responding to user experience as a primary driver.
  • With the work I did on plans and pricing, later enhanced and executed by other teams in the company, we were able to position to the market a consolidated portfolio of services that could be sold to SMB, mid-market, and large enterprise companies all off the same product platform. In addition to that, we maintained the commitment to freemium to serve the very small segment while contributing to the overall network growth that propelled the company in terms of powerful brand recognition.
  • I led analyst and influencer relations, and with no budget early on and a limited one in just the last year we were able to garner positive coverage and affinity with traditional analysts and market influencers. We employed a different kind of AR strategy, one that relied heavily on social influence and less on economic relationships.
  • I assumed leadership of the SMB business at a time when it had no leadership and with a small team of 2 we reworked the web presentation, instrumented for funnel analytics, A/B tested continuously, and impacted product development with a high priority initiative around the Getting Started user flow, from which the lack of an effective getting started flow contributed heavily to churn.
  • The inflexible legacy billing system was rip-and-replaced under my watch, with a new homegrown subscription management app built as a separate Rails app in the infrastructure and hooked up to Chargify for transaction billing.
  • Shifting over to business development, we broadened the strategic focus of our efforts to target additional CRM vendors, enterprise marketing applications, and resellers. My last official act was representing the company at SugarCon with new reseller and development partner DRI-Global. We also launched a highly innovative Marketo integration blueprint and a host of 3rd party app support. Resellers in Latin America started to produce revenue, a first for the company.

I feel good about what I accomplished at Get Satisfaction and rather than running away from the company I left running to something else. Enter Ping Identity, a company I have had a long association with as a result of my work at SAP Ventures. I have maintained a relationship with Andre Durand, the CEO/founder, and while catching up with him on general topics he highlighted the challenges they were facing as they moved to subscription economics while simultaneously delivering impressive growth through the traditional enterprise, and then using SaaS as a distribution channel to reach customers of the ISVs that were SAML-enabling their applications. Right up my alley.

The timing was perfect because I was coming to the realization that 2 things were happening in identity, the first being that a world without passwords was not only achievable but would also drive significant benefits for end users and vendors alike. There isn’t a day that goes buy without cringing at the experience of a login screen for which I don’t recall the password. While Facebook, Twitter and Google all offer compelling authentication capabilities they are not without limitations, principally in the manner by which entitlements and privileges are assigned. SAML is an approach that offers more extensibility and security integrity, and also spans workforce management to consumer identity.

The BYOD movement is also driving an interesting extended consequence related to bring your own identity. Consumer identity and workforce identity should merge in a federated state, offering portability and the ability to go beyond identity as an access and authentication technology to identity as profile management. Richer profile management drives future innovation in applications of all kinds as developers evolve to focus on user experiences that are highly individualized as a result of what people declare about themselves and what systems are able to infer about them.

Lastly, great identity access management should not be exclusive to large enterprises managing employee populations and public facing websites pre-occupied with the password protection alone. Businesses of all sizes and kinds should have available to them feature rich identity technology that is both affordable and business transformative.

This is where I cut to Ping. a recognized leader in a space that requires technical excellence and industry recognition in order be a leader. Identity is not the province of 2 engineers, a dog and a dream. which is why the landscape of companies in the space doesn’t look like a map of the stars. Ping offers cutting edge SAML-based identity technology to large enterprises for workforce management and customer identity, while also leading a charge into the cloud with PingOne, a unified platform for integrating single sign-on technology across hundreds of cloud apps.

I am leading the goto market for PingOne to SMB and ISV segments, which includes the web assets and self-service capabilities that cut into the product itself. My challenges in this role are well aligned to what I did at Get Satisfaction and if you look at the summary I detailed above you could pretty much check the boxes on all of them for my new role. I am excited on many fronts but probably most of all by the challenge of growing into a new space and working with a team of people who exhibit a team culture that is built on shared success and commitment to the mission with an appropriate sense of urgency about getting it done.

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