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3 posts from April 2011

April 28, 2011

Hire a Recruiter...Now

The unemployment rate in America is hovering around 9%. But if you are a competent engineer, sales executive, online marketer or general manager in Silicon Valley, NYC, Boston or other start-up hotspots, the unemployment rate is 0%. 

The talent market has gotten as competitive and aggressive as I have ever seen in the last 20 years. CNN recently reported that 40% of the 130,000 job openings in Silicon Valley are for software engineers.  Senior executives have never been harder to secure.  That's why, even though it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I'm advocating that all my portfolio companies hire recruiters when they are trying to fill senior or key positions.  Immediately.

Typically, when a young company gets financing and begins to hire, they seek to leverage the network of the founding team and their investors. This network provides some valuable leads and perhaps a few hires. Leveraging existing networks has greater benefits than simply cost savings and convenience.  Teams that have worked together in the past simpy are well-positioned to out-execute those that haven't due to their common history, language and relationships.  I have read studies that show that one of the factors that correlates highly for success in a startup is if the team has worked together and made money together in a previous startup. 

But tapping those informal networks alone doesn't scale. And reacting to inbound people flow generates an adverse selection bias - the best people are not looking, so they will never contact you and respond to your job posting. 

As an entrepreneur, I was initially very skeptical of fast-talking, expensive recruiters. I thought hiring them represented a personal failure on my part as an entrepreneur.  After all, it was my job to secure the best and brightest talent through my own efforts and my own network. But my years of recruiting have taught me that startup CEOs are at a distinct competitive disadvantage if they don't get outside help for recruiting. Here are the top five reasons why:

1) You Never Have Enough Proactive Time. As an entrepreneur, you are always battling dividing your efforts into proactive time (where you direct the activities through your own energy) versus reactive time (where you are reacting to people and forces around you).  With the inflow of real-time information and people coming at you from all sides and demanding your attention (employees, investors, customers, etc), it's hard to find enough proactive time in the day.  Recruiting is a proactive exercise.  It requires effort and energy from the entrepreneur to generate candidate flow, meet candidates, vet them, check references.  It is therefore important to have an outside force push you to react to candidates and help you prioritize the recruiting effort, just as your VP Sales is pushing you to prioritize sales and your VP Marketing is pushing you to prioritize marketing.

2) Hiring Inexperience.  Most entrepreneurs are first time CEOs or even second time CEOs who simply do not have a lot of experience hiring, particularly hiring the particular executives they're hiring for (Try this exercise - ask your favorite CEO/entrepreneur how many times they've hired a CFO. Most never have but even if they've done it once or twice in the past, are they really now an expert at it?).  Like anything else, hiring is a science.  A recruiting friend of mine likes to say, "interviews are inquisitions, not discussions".  Too many entrepreneurs don't actually know how to interview well.  Further, they're not experienced at assessing their current human capital needs, analyzing the gaps of management team members, and then understanding the market and how to fill the gaps.  Good recruiters are invaluable in this regard.

3) Shallow reference checking.  Busy entrepreneurs and busy VCs typically do cursory reference checking when making even senior hires.  They allow themselves to be swayed by their own conviction, let the candidates spoon feed them their top fans from past jobs and ignore the opportunity to push for a deep understanding of candidates' histories and claims.  When I make an investment in a company, I typically do 8-10 reference checks and get a wide variety of perspectives from people who have worked with the entrepreneur in the past and seen them in a range of different situations.  It's hard to have the discipline to replicate this thoroughness when making a senior hire, particularly when trying to move quickly in a competitive hiring market (see "You Never Have Enough Proactive Time" above).

4) Quarterbacking the Selling Process.  Many hiring managers don't realize that the due diligence process for a candidate is as thorough, if not more so, than your due diligence on them.  The best candidates have choices and are sought after.  Even though you are deciding whether to "buy" over the course of a series of interviews, you need to be in a position to sell every step of the way.  "Everyone's trying to be the coolest place to work," observed one Stanford junior who is being barraged with job opportunities.  Recruiters can be very helpful in quarterbacking the selling process - proactively surfacing objections and handling them with data and follow-up conversations, linking candidates to the right people at the right time in the process.

5) Focus on closing.  Closing candidates in this competitive a market is very hard.  Counter-offers, compressed timeframes and personal considerations all get in the way of smooth closes.  Again, if you don't have alot of proactive time available to you (and who does?!), there's great benefit to having a focused closer.  Further, I have found having an intermediary helps tremendously with the negotiations.  A candidate will be unafraid to tell a recruiter what it takes to get the deal done, and a tough back and forth with the help of an intermediary can avoid bad feelings aftewards between two principals that will need to work together as a team when the dust settles.

Too often I hear entrepreneurs say, "I'll work my network for a few weeks and then we'll hire a recruiter."  Many VCs are over-confident about their own recruiting prowress and will tell entrepreneurs to wait until they talk to their partners and surface a few great candidates from their network.  The problem, of course, is that everyone gets busy and distracted. A few weeks turns into a few months, a few candidates get turned up and interviewed but then discarded, and finally when the network comes up dry, the group reconvenes and decides to hire a recruiter.  Now the recruiters need to be selected, interviewed, reference checked, negotitated with and ramped up - causing more delay.  By the time you get around to getting the recruiter ramped up, the board and CEO feel frustrated that they are already behind.  To be clear, not all recruiters are created equal and some are a waste of time and money. But if you can find a good one, don't let them go. 

Paul English, cofounder of Kayak, is a truly gifted recruiter and there has been alot written about his approach to hiring.  If you can be that exceptional, perhaps you don't need a recruiter.  And, believe me, the price you pay for these folks feels exorbitant, particularly if you are in the scrappy, lean start-up phase of development.

My bottom line advice is to just bite the bullet and hire a recruiter now. The difference will cost you an incremental $50-100k, but everyone knows hiring an "A" has a massive positive impact as compared to a "B" - and that impact is compounded if it can be achieved 3-6 months sooner.

April 10, 2011

What if it’s 1996, not 1999?

In May 1996, Open Market completed a successful IPO and more than doubled on the first day of trading, ending with a $1.2 billion market capitalization.  We had recorded $1.8 million in revenue the year before. 

If investors observing this extraordinary phenomenon in 1996 were to have concluded that the technology market was in the midst of an unsustainable bubble, they would not have been wrong.  But if that observation led them to refrain from investing in the Internet sector, they would have missed one of the most stunning legal creations of wealth in history.

In 1997, a Charles River Ventures fund yielded a stunning 15x return, backing such superstars as Ciena, Vignette and Flycast.  Matrix had a fund in 1998 that yielded an eye-popping 514+% IRR.  The Internet bull market continued to run for four more years after the Open Market IPO, finally ending in the spring of 2000.  The average venture capital fund raised between 1995 and 1997 returned more than 50% per year.

Amidst all the recent talk of boom vs. bubble, there is a hue and cry that the current environment may smack of 1999.  But what if it’s actually more akin to 1996?  What if the fundamentals are good enough to support four more years of insane behavior before the music stops and the natural business cycle correction settles in?

The chart below from this week’s Economist on unemployment made me pause and consider this question.  As evidenced from the unemployment curve in the last economic cycle, these business cycles can often last 4-5 years.  2009 was the trough year of the most recent business cycle – and a deep trough at that.  2010 was a year of firming and climbing out of a hole, but the tepid IPO market and general macroeconomic malaise seemed to linger until late in the year (similar to how 1995 felt).  2011 is the first year where it feels like a real boom – much like 1996.  Employment lags economic output and is an admittedly imperfect indicator, but if you continue the analogy, it may be that the next 4-5 year boom cycle lasts until 2015!

Consider the following:

  • When bellwether players go public (such as Netscape in 1995), there is a massive rush of capital and companies that follow.  Facebook will likely go public in 2012 and be valued in the $50-75 billion range.  This IPO and others like it (e.g., Groupon, Zynga) will create tremendous liquid wealth for a number of people and institutions who will likely pour that wealth back into the start-up ecosystem.  That liquidity flowing back into the start-up ecosystem will arguably fuel the boom.
  • Macroeconomic choppiness is holding back more dramatic market euphoria.  Tsunamis, Middle East crises, government shutdown threats and a looming budget deficit are all dampers on the market.  But if some of these dampers clear out – if there is a period of reasonable international stability,  if a divided US government can strike another fiscally responsible deal for the upcoming budget year and begin to deal with some of the long-term, fundamental drags on growth, then the markets will become even more euphoric.  Remember, it wasn’t a straight line between 1995 and 2000 – there were a series of macroeconomic crises on the domestic front, such as a near government shutdown (sound familiar?) as well as international crises, including the Mexican debt default, Russian currency defaults and the Asian market crisis.  Let’s not forget that Time Magazine featured Alan Greenspan, Rob Rubin and Larry Summers on the cover in February 1999 with the headline:  “The Committee to Save the World.”  At times, this period saw pretty grim macroeconomic trends, while the Internet continued to boom in the trenches.
  • Thanks to recent decades of strong growth, the combination of China, India and Brazil have GDPs that are 4x the size and impact on the global economy as compared to the 1990s (see chart below).  Demand from these, now larger, economies are having a very positive effect on the US tech market. They are gobbling up mobile devices, PCs, routers and other technology gear at a rapid rate.  This powerful source of economic demand didn't exist 15 years ago. 

  GDP int'l

  • All the existing technology players are awash in liquidity and all the numbers are bigger this time.  There are eight US-based global technology companies with market capitalizations of greater than $100 billion (Apple, Google, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, HP, Cisco).  There are a handful of companies that are very well-positioned, growing fast and could be the next $100 billion players (Amazon, Dell, Netflix, EMC, VMWare, Salesforce.com and Baidu come to mind). These companies either didn’t exist in the mid-90s or are in infinitely stronger positions than they were 15 years ago.  Internet usage, mobile phone usage, advertising dollar spend – all have grown enormously over the last 15 years to provide a stronger foundation underneath the latest boom.  See the chart below, which will only explode further when updated for more recent figures that will take into account Internet access via mobile phones.

Internet growth

The point here isn’t to be Pollyannaish.  I recognize that we have major structural issues in the global economy and they are perhaps more daunting than they have ever been.  And the recent run up in the stock market has many arguing that the bull market won't last much longer.  If oil soars to $150 per barrel, a few more soverign nations default on their debt obligations and gridlock persists in Washington, we could be looking at another recession as soon as 2012.

Yet, with entrepreneurship on the rise, with this generation of young people (“the Entrepreneur generation”) surging in their use and interest in technology and digital content, with some of the positive fundamental forces in innovation, it may just be that the music may not stop for another 4-5 years.  Wouldn’t that be something?

April 05, 2011

Board Meetings vs. Bored Meetings

I have been thinking alot about start-up best practices.  There has been a great deal written about how to pitch VCs and how to drive towards product-market fit, but there is relatively little out there about managing your board.  I spent a very modest amount of time on it in my book and there have been very few good blog posts on the topic.

Yet a well-functioning, well-managed board of directors is incredibly critical to a start-up's success.  Whether your board is full of VCs, angels, outside directors or a blend of all three, learning how to effectively manage your board is critical to your start-up's success and your personal success as an entrepreneur.

One of the best books on the topic is the somewhat obscure Board Room Excellence by a wise old start-up lawyer I worked with many years ago, Paul Brountas.  I send a copy of the book to every CEO I invest in and it gets rave reviews.  With a dozen years of of board work under my belt, here is the play book I try to encourage my CEOs to follow in running the board meetings.

First, the preamble - what happens before the board meeting:

  • Materials get sent out in advance, typically 2 days.  The materials contain:  CEO's overview, a briefing on the one or two key strategic issues that will be the focus of the meeting, financial and functional updates from each of the executive team members and the overall key operating metrics for the business.
  • The CEO sends a cover email along with the materials summarizing the one or two key strategic issues and soliciting board feedback for additional issues, observations or reactions to the material in advance of the meeting. 

Then, during the meeting, the agenda flows as follows:

  • The CEO begins alone with the board for 30 minutes where the CEO provides a one-page summary of the business and the key issues from their standpoint.  I often suggest presenting this in a "Red/Yellow/Green" format - what's going well, what's making you nervous, and what's not going well.  The best one-page summaries are very brief - hence the one page rule - and help focus the board's energies as well as provide a window into the CEO's priorities, thinking and "stay awake" issues.
  • The CEO then invites the CFO in and perhaps members of the management team to provide summary functional and financial updates.  Because the materials were distributed in advance and each board member has read the materials, it's more of an interactive Q&A than presentation.  This portion of the meeting lasts 30 minutes.
  • The CEO then invites members of the management team to join in a discussion on the one or two key strategic issues that will be the focus of the meeting.  The board has read the preparation materials in advance and so not every bullet on every slide needs to be read.  Often this is an opportunity for the management team members to present materials and get some board exposure.  The CEOs frame the  issue, present a recommendation as to how to proceed alongside their team, and then ask the board for help and guidance.   Ideally, a board decision is made at that point or in the private session that follows.  This portion of the meeting lasts 60 minutes.  The key issues may be approving the annual financial plan, the product roadmap, a briefing on a major partnership, the new product launch, an acquisition, an international launch or a new marketing initiative. 
  • Then, the CEO remains with the board for 30 minutes for an executive session.  This provides an opportunity for the board to reflect on the content of the meeting with the CEO and have additional dialog around the strategic issues.  In this session, for all of 5 minutes, resolutions are voted on, options grants are reviewed and previous board minutes are approved.
  • Finally, the CEO steps out and allows the board to have a non-management session.  When I was an entrepreneur, I was initially uncomfortable with this idea of stepping out of the room so that the board could talk about me and "my company".  But I came to appreciate the value of the private session for both the board and the company.  It's an opportunity for the board to gain alignment on the key takeaways, direction to give the management team, and also a forum to make decisions around compensation and bonuses, CEO performance feedback, financing, and generally build a functional decision-making unit.  This session typically lasts for 30 minutes.

After the board meeting, ideally the following would occur:

  • The lead director will summarize the points of board feedback to the CEO verbally or in writing in a follow-up call or email.  If the topic is a sensitive one, this may be done face to face.
  • The CEO would in turn summarize their takeaways in a follow-up email to the entire board.  This ensures alignment and clear communication so that nobody is confused about what the CEO decided to do with the advice received - particularly if there were conflicting opinions around the room and a single direction needed to be selected.

The best board meetings are working sessions, not reporting sessions.   A key role of the board, among other things, is to contribute to the company and work hard to increase shareholder value.  If the CEO isn't making the board work and creating a meeting framework that gets the most out of the board, then shame on everyone involved.

Boards should evaluate their CEOs once a year in a formal, 360-degree review process.  One of my new year's resolutions this year was to do this across my entire portfolio and, although its been somewhat burdensome, it's been a very valuable exercise.

In turn, boards should evaluate themselves every year.  The board should ask itself a few simple questions, like:  How effective is the board?  Does it work as a decision-making body?  Is the CEO getting the most out of the board?  Only through a rigorous focus on self-improvement and honest assessment will progress get made on any of these dimensions.

So that's my download on board best practices.  Would love to hear your tips and add them to my arsenal.