Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Luis Villalobos

As many are aware, a pioneering angel investor in our community, Luis Villalobos, recently passed away. I was just reading the comments section of Frank Peters' blog (and related post) and I was touched. Comments came in from all corners of the large, diverse Southern California entrepreneurial community about Luis. This reaction and the consistency of praise, and loss, is a testimony to the man, and I post the link here. We will miss you Luis.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

DEO - The concept going forward

Everyone who is trying to grow traffic to their Internet site(s) knows the all important topic and battles of SEO: Search Engine Optimization. SEO has become a powerful practice area, and indeed an industry, that is characterized by perpetual improvement, tools, tips and tricks, information sharing and hoarding, and gaming the continually shifting algorithmic properties of the search engines, or maybe I should say search engine. Included in SEO is big concept stuff like content being "fresh, unique and relevant." Also included is a recognition of the negative controls, that is the effort to make sure you aren't blacklisted, delisted (or even relisted) as a spam site, mashup site, or poser site -- lest all your hard earned traffic disappear overnight. The complexities around this one effort, and often around one algorithm, are truly amazing and the free market in hyper-action.

However, looking out, I see DEO, Distribution Engine Optimization as the game of the future. More and more companies are recognizing that being a portal (a destination site) is a tough and expensive game for growth and return on effort (and for VC investment). I am seeing more and more companies start to make great and well distributed CONTENT, not traffic, their claim to fame.

In addition, the search engines of today are link-to-website, not content driven, and there is a large difference. Companies that deal in content first need to normalize that content, need to assure its quality and consistency and format and make it ready for mass distribution. Next they need to merchandize that content by applying their unique domain knowledge of what drives placement for that content, not on one site, but on 1000 sites. Next they need to complete that content by adding other pieces of content that are correlated, and put them in context (the context of a user of the content making a buying decision). Good Content DEO companies next want to add monetization to their content, so that it is attractive to publishers. I believe it is KEY to recognize that for many swaths of the online economy, monetizatioin fits better with CONTENT than it does with AUDIENCE. Finally, reporting to consituents will continue to be a differentiator.

I expect in 10 years there will be massive new market cap companies that are leaders in all these things, and these will be the new leaders of DEO.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Top 10 Board Meeting Tips (for CEOs)

As a less laborious follow on to my last post (people love top 10 lists), here are my TOP 10 BOARD MEETING DOS AND DONTS FOR CEOS......

1. Set the TONE. The CEO should have some sort of executive report up front that sets the table for what they want to accomplish in the meeting. Be it, "green, yellow, red" or "top issues" -- you want to help the board help you. This includes managing the agenda or "board deck" carefully to best use the time to help the business -- boards will talk and discuss whatever is put in front of them.

2. Try to reach out to all board members prior to the meeting (or ask them to always reach out to you) so their concerns, if any, are addressed.

3. On key metrics, send it the day before if you can so people dont waste too much board time trying to understand or comprehend a first look on key data. You want the focus to be on strategy and decision making, not comprehension of new data.

4. Avoid defensiveness, either by yourself or anyone else in the room. If you see it happening, call a timeout and change the topic. This is leadership. We are here for the TRUTH (and we cand handle it!)

5. Avoid the cheering section. If you have as a goal for investors to leave a board meeting "psyched" and "supportive" -- Don't. Board meetings are not the time to build support for the Company, and an experienced board member will be critical of the attempt. Do that one on one or in other meetings. Board meetings are a time for good information leading to excellent decision making, and nothing builds investor support quicker than knowning your management team is living in reality and "on it."

6. Avoid long answers, particularly from the other executives. It is OK to for management to answer, "don't know" or "I disagree." I expect a good CEO to cut off drifting discussions at the appropriate time. If a CEO does not do this in the board meeting, I must conclude they don't manage any meeting they lead or attend.

7. Stand up to and manage your VC/investor board members. We all get off track and we all (if we have a healthy ego) like to be managed by a leader. This is your meeting so don't make someone else have to play parent. This includes temper tantrums, foul language and rudeness. I am often shocked at how much childish behavior CEOs let their VCs get away with in board meetings. Don't stand for it -- it is unprofessional.

8. Learn the strength and weakness of each board member. Do they always give prescriptive comments or do they ask penetrating questions? Do they talk to seek answers, or do they talk to be heard? Do they ask multiple choice questions, or open ended questions? What histories have they had that shape their priorities? What are their backgrounds? Do they comprehend by listening, or by reading? Are they better one on one, or in a group?

9. Realize you have many tools in your toolbag. Board meetings are one venue only. In the situation where you are having difficulty communicating with a board member in the board meeting, accept that it may not happen. Instead, be prepared to have one on one phone calls ,dinners, invite them to management meetings, have them participate in advisory board meetings, ask them to visit customers or industry conferences. You have many tools at your disposal to communicate with investors.

10. Last but not least, and this ties into the tone you want to set for the board meeting, KEEP IT INTELLECTUAL -- regardless of how others act. For example, a grumpy venture investors asks "well how come you haven't even updated the so and so yet, we talked about this last meeting!?!" Instead of defending against the attack, a better response is, "I have really tried to focus on the priorities. You keep mentioning this as important and I don't see it as important. Tell me why you think this is where we should be spending our time?" Lead by example, and mean it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How to Run a Great Board Meeting...

I do “publish” a lot of thoughts on what I am seeing in my industry (VC, startup companies), but just not HERE! Time to put those comments here….

How to Run a Great Board Meeting…

Today I want to put a thought out there on how to run a board meeting once you take institutional capital. First, when I say institutional capital, I mean you have taken capital and set the expectation that you are going to try to get the Company, someday (say inside of 7 years), to a real liquidity event, which I describe as north of $200 million dollars in value. This could be an M&A event, or it could be (hopefully) a standalone company that seeks an IPO and to have enough credibility (and visibility) to create a market in its stock.

Obviously, that is ambitious and requires that you create a powerful economic model and an important product or service position in an important market – so if you have raised capital that has this ambition, then you have taken institutional capital.

Board meeting requirements are usually written into the terms of such a financing, and are a big part of the communication culture of startups today. So, how to run one as the CEO or founder (or both)?

Why are We Here?

First, let’s define the purpose of the meeting. An important purpose is the reporting function and fiduciary oversight. Investors have put money in (often not their own money and they have to answer to their own investors) and want to see how their investment is performing. While basic and necessary, this is the simplest form of meeting with your investors, and I don’t think this is the main function of a board meeting, certainly not in the successful companies of which I have been a part.

A nasty corollary here is that often management, or founders, want the investors to leave “jazzed” about the Company! If that is even an implicit goal of a board meeting then all the information will be warped and unreliable and sincere questions will be met with deflections and defense.
Another important purpose of the board is to understand where management is taking the Company and then apply their contacts and industry knowledge in helpful way. Investors need to be listening and deeply understanding during this activity, and I personally prefer it when the investors keep the “I know a guy” comments to a minimum during the board meeting. There is plenty of time for that when investors are one on one with the management team.

Because startups are about companies creating their product, their team, their market positioning and market identity in rapid order, every week and every day -- critical decisions are happening. Often without the management or board being aware that they were making a decision! In such an environment a key role, and maybe the most important role, of the board is to help the management team make better decisions – but that is a very tall order.

Stealing Hindsight

In this last, highest purpose of a startup board, I have found that the concept of “hindsight” delivers the best standard by which to judge the effectiveness of a board. In hindsight, so much is clear. We often beat ourselves up with the “benefit” of hindsight, when many past decisions can look silly.

Think about a big project (or company or career or relationship or startup) you have been working on. It really can be anything. Your current perspective, July 2009, on this project has factored in hundreds of variables and you can try to make some guesses about issues that are really facing you and this project today. However, six months from now, in January of 2010, you are going to have a much clearer view of what issues were really facing your business in July of 2009. In hindsight, you will have a better view.

Let’s look back 6 months. From you current perspective, what were the real issues facing your project in January of 2009? Can you recall what you would have said in January versus what you would say today regarding this issues facing the project then? I think it is very difficult to “predict the future” around a company or market, and not usually productive to use a smart group to try to come up with such predictions. However, a better, and more valuable effort, in my opinion, is to try to see the business today through the eyes of tomorrow, or what I call “stealing hindsight.”

Most of the successful companies I have worked with have engaged in this effort to some degree, often implicitly, and this has led to better decision making by all. A good first way to put this technique to work is to ask yourself, “In January of 2010, what will I say were the top issues facing my project in July of 2009.” It is a subtle difference, but a board that can do this has by definition a lot of other issues worked out and can be very helpful to a startup management team.