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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Power of Being Human in Business Development

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I’ve had some really crummy experiences with business and corporate development people in the past year. There’s been a strange change in ethos, where suddenly people have forgotten that when they do deals, they are doing deals with other people, not with a company. I learned this in 1993 when my first company was acquired by Len Fassler and Jerry Poch, two of the absolute master deal makers I’ve ever worked with. The each taught me so much about this, by first being people, then dealmakers.

 I’ve got a few posts on this topic coming but until then here’s a great post from Chet Kittleson at UP Global about how he thinks about it. Now, while Chet focuses on business development, the same is true for corporate development or sales.

My name is Chet Kittleson and I’m a human. I have eyes and ears and a nose and two nieces, and one nephew, and two sisters, and a wife, and a house and a couple of cats and a mom and a step dad and a biological dad and some friends and a history filled with good and bad and right and wrong and so much more that I can’t fit into one run-on sentence. Like I said, I’m a human.

What I’ve done with this first paragraph, hopefully, is began to build up trust between you and I. The type of trust that extends beyond the walls of LinkedIn and Twitter, and into a meaningful relationship between us as human beings. I’ve exposed more than simply what I do for a living, and in doing so, I’ve broken down a wall that previously would have created a barrier between where we stand now and where we might stand a week or a month or a year from now.

This sentiment is meaningful in every walk of life, but in business development this is the difference between failure and success. It’s not Microsoft or Google or Amazon that you’re looking to partner with, it’s Mary or Matt or Lindsay.

“Companies don’t make deals with other companies. People make deals with people. Understanding the motivations and incentives of the relevant people involved is critical to getting a deal done,” said Greg Gottesman of Madrona Venture Group.

The old adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” should be something closer to, “it’s not what you know or even who you know, it’s who you can influence.” And to be clear, influence is not in the same family as manipulation. Influence is based off of authenticity and trust built by years of friendship and communication. People who genuinely trust you to help them make smart decisions based on their needs as human beings as well as the needs of the companies they work for are in your sphere of influence. This is where the bulk of real and lasting business happens.

You’ll be surprised at how captive another person will be when they view you as an industry expert on things that pertain to their needs, rather than an expert at selling whatever it is you’re selling. Send them suggestions on other partnerships or products that have nothing to do with your organization. (Thanks to T.A. McCann for that nugget.) Connect them with your competitors if they’re able to offer something that aligns better with their goals. Stay relevant and true and you’ll be invited into conversations and email threads that otherwise you would have never been privy to.

“I never would have imagined what a profound impact the people I bonded with – co–founders, investors, mentors, partners –  early on in my entrepreneurial career would continue to have in my personal and professional life over 15 years later.  What better investment can we all make than in the people we respect.” said Mike Fridgen, GM at eBay and former CEO of Decide.com.

So if you’re interested in pursuing a career in business development, or are new to the field, here’s your first call to action: drop every book you’re reading with “sales” in the title, walk outside, and meet someone. Then meet someone else. Then go back to the first person you met and ask them how they’re doing. And all the while, don’t forget for one second that every single person you’re meeting is ridiculously human. Every one of them, regardless of their title, the number of connections they have on LinkedIn or the amount of budget they have control over, they’re human and they have eyes and ears and a nose and nieces and nephews and sisters and brothers and wives and husbands and all the rest.

Second call to action: start selling something. Anything. Learn how to remain human when money is added to the equation. Cold call strangers out of the phone book, set up camp outside of a grocery store, and learn to build trust out of nothing in an authentic way. I’ve worked with partners on $500 deals and I’ve worked with partners on $500,000 deals, and in the end it all comes down to your ability to understand those on the other side of the table. Start with beef jerky like Noah Kagan did with his 24-hour business challenge, and work your way up from there.

Good people are everywhere, even in the business world, and as the barriers fade away those who you once referred to as contacts or connections turn into, don’t let this word intimidate you, friends. They turn into people you can share stories with, people you can consult with on the next fiscal years partnership proposal, people who can help and that will at some point need help. It’s simple, but if you can remember this throughout each coffee meeting and each conference call and each email, you’ll be just fine. Hey, that’s one human’s opinion though.

Chet Kittleson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at UP Global, parent company to Startup WeekendStartup NextStartup EducationStartup Digest, and Startup Week.

How Does A Small Company Make A Big Company Successful?

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Every single day I have multiple conversations and emails from CEOs and people at companies I work with about how to work with Big Tech Companies. You know – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce, SAP, LinkedIn, Cisco, Yahoo, HP, AT&T, Verizon, Icouldkeepgoingforalongtime.

But this conversation is not limited to just the gigantic tech companies. They include all the up and comers andtheabunchmoreyouprobablydontthinkarethatbigbutare, including a long list of newly public companies or still private but mega-funded companies.

This conversation comes from two different directions.

- BigCo reaches out to LittleCo and has a classic “happy ears meeting” where BigCo talks a great game about all the great things the two companies can do together and how it’s going to be awesome and LittleCo hears what they want to hear, not what has been actually said. And then the giant black time suck hole of the “let’s work together dance” begins. In the typical case, this goes one for months and months without any resolution or action. Eventually everyone gets tired of each other.

- LittleCo reaches out to me and says “Hey – I really think we could be strategic to BigCo. Can you make an introduction.”

My response to each of these is NO NO NO NO NO NO. After I say NO a few more times, I state “You are thinking about it wrong.”

Instead of expecting BigCo to react to you in any way, start from the perspective that if you want a relationship with BigCo, your only goal in life should be to help BigCo be successful.

Start by coming up with a hypothesis about what you are going to do to help BigCo be successful. Then, test this hypothesis. The Lean Startup approach is super helpful here. Test, ship, iterate – just keep trying and keep learning. Use what you are creating to get the attention of BigCo. Don’t spend six months developing a business development relationship. Don’t spend months trying to get the decision maker on the phone before you’ve done anything. Don’t wine and dine endlessly the people you know, or get connected to. And never, ever go single threaded with one person at BigCo, or one BigCo, hoping something good will happen.

Simply go do some shit for BigCo. Be precise. Execute well. Communicate it to the people you know at BigCo. Do it without any formal arrangement. Show BigCo why they care and why you are the one that will move the meter for them.

Then you can start having the business conversation.

As a bonus, this works for sales also. But you probably figured that out already.

Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Actions

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Recently I had  a full day of meetings with chaotic juxtapositions of people.

In one meeting, the person I interacted with was awesome. He owned everything that was going on in his company – good and bad. He was clear minded. He knew what was working, what wasn’t working, and what he needed to change. And he took responsibility for it.

Immediately after, I had a non-scheduled conference call to try to get something wrapped up. It was a total waste of 15 minutes of time where the person on the other end simply refused to take responsibility for something that should have been easy for them to take responsibility for. After 15 minutes of back and forth, it was clear that the other person had no interest in taking responsibility for something I thought he should. And he couldn’t make the case for why, other than “because I don’t want to.”

I eventually gave up.

I then switched to a call with a CEO who was exploring something new. She asked a series of clear and direct questions, knowing that it was her responsibility to make a decision about what to do. It was easy to be on the receiving end of a series of challenging questions as she tried to get as much data as she could out of me as she formulated her point of view. Whatever decision she makes will be fine with me – it’ll be a thoughtful one that she owns.

After a long day, I came home to an inbox with 200 emails in it. I spend two hours grinding through them. As I was reading, responding, and archiving, I started noticing that many of the strong CEOs I work with owned whatever was going on at their company. There was simplicity in this – no blame, no excuses, no justification. They just took ownership.

While there were lots of other emails where the person owned whatever was going on, there were many situations where this wasn’t the case. This was especially true with a few entrepreneurs struggling to raise money, or asking questions about situations they had gotten themselves into, such as a poor allocation of equity to co-founders, where a co-founder had left, but there hadn’t been any vesting. While more obvious in situations where things weren’t working, this was also true in situations where there was ambiguity around what was going on.

When I step back and ponder this, the CEOs I respect the most are the ones who take responsibility for the actions of their company. Good or bad, successful or not, they don’t shirk any responsibility, blame anyone, or try to make excuses. They just own things, and if they need to be fixed, they fix them.

What kind of CEO are you?

The Right Way To Do A Software ROI Analysis

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On Monday we had a Foundry Group portfolio company sales summit. We are fortunate in that we’ve got a bunch of amazing sales execs in our portfolio, including several CEOs like Howard Diamond of MobileDay and Matthew Bellows of Yesware who have long histories selling and building sales organizations.

The “enterprise sales software ROI analysis” as a selling tool comes up over and over and over again. And most people blow it, or try to bullshit their way through it, or put together something that is clearly not credible. 

So I asked Matthew how he did it at Yesware. Following is his story. Oh, and if you are a Gmail user, check out Yesware.

After spending nearly 20 years selling startup software and services to big companies, I can safely say I’ve seen thousands of “Return on Investment” (ROI) slides. It’s the go-to slide for every enterprise technology salesperson, illustrated with a 4-8 table row, predictably showing that the service in question will pay back the required investment in 6-12 months. Never more (who can wait?), never less (unbelievable).

And like most startup business plans, ROI slides are almost always fake.

The salesperson or their marketing department has no experience to draw on or data from which to extrapolate. Moreover, there’s no accounting for the time value of money, the customer time required to deploy the service, or the risk of time wasted if the deployment doesn’t go well.

Occasionally, a few of the numbers on an ROI slide are based on a previous deployment of the technology. In the rarest cases, the slide has relevant and reference-able data that a potential customer can apply to their situation.

Because of the problems associated with software ROI analyses, we waited a long time to build one at Yesware. And we still failed the first two times we tried. Along the way, we learned that a decent, defensible and compelling ROI analysis requires two key components:

1. Reputable, reference-able customers: The first time we tried to build an ROI slide at Yesware, we anonymously evaluated the data of 40,000 salespeople across a six-month time frame. We were looking for evidence that the people who were using Yesware more actively were making more money than inactive users. Although we found out some great stuff about email open rates and times, and our ROI results looked great to us internally, when we talked to prospects, they were skeptical. Companies, products and industries are so different. No one felt good about applying a broad survey to their specific situation. Lesson learned: Unless a reasonably well-known company is willing to publicly testify to the specific numbers you are showing, you are skating on ice that’s too thin.

2. Identifiable benefits: The second time we tried to build an ROI slide, we worked with one well-known company, analyzing their email and Salesforce.com data. We were blown away by the results – a 40% increase in sales productivity between the active and the inactive Yesware users. It was almost too good to be true.

When we presented the findings to the partner company, they were ecstatic. Not because of our results, but because they just had the best quarter in their company history. They were happy to acknowledge that Yesware had something to do with their success, but a successful product launch also played a big role the 40% increase. Lesson learned: Accounting for your benefits should be easy for both the purchasing manager and the finance evaluator to measure. There shouldn’t be too many variables baked into the results.

We tried again, and this time we got it right.

In our most recent ROI efforts we compiled data from three separate companies to uncover the specific benefits their sales teams have achieved using Yesware. These are all well-known companies that our prospective customers can call to learn more – Acquia,Mimeo, Dyn, and WeddingWire. Each is a leader in building modern sales teams, and has offered to be a reference for Yesware.

With this kind of dataset, a simple survey can reveal incredible results. We discovered that on average, sales teams using Yesware:

  • Grew new business (including upsells) by 25%
  • Improved response rate by 32%
  • Improved overall call connection rate by 32%

There are certainly ways to make our ROI analysis better: We will continue to gather a bigger dataset both in terms of customers and salespeople. We will get data from companies outside the USA. And we will keep trying to better tease apart the various contributing factors to changes in productivity.

But overall, we’ve finally cracked the code on a decent, defensible and compelling Return on Investment analysis. I hope this guide helps you create your own.

Matthew Bellows is co-founder and CEO of Yesware, an email productivity service for salespeople. Follow him on Twitter @mbellows.

I Will Instead of We Should

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While driving down Highway 36 from Boulder to Denver for a FullContact board meeting, TA McCann told me a wonderful phrase that I’ve been carrying around with me for the past month or so.

“At RivalIQ, we’ve implemented ‘I Will’ instead of ‘We Should.’”

I’ve worked with TA since we invested in Gist in 2009. TA was a co-founder and the CEO. He’s been deeply involved in Techstars Seattle since inception. When RIM acquired Gist, he ran a big software team within RIM for two years. A year ago he co-founded RivalIQ. And last fall he joined the FullContact board. So he’s been around the block.

As part of working together, we’ve become very close friends. We ran the Madison Marathon together (my 17th). We’ve fought together in the trenches over some challenging issues. We’ve enjoyed each others’ friendship, advice, and guidance on some heavy personal issues.

TA embodies the concept of “I will instead of we should.” I’ve always known him to be willing to roll up his sleeves and just get something done. He’s quick to give feedback, challenge ideas, and ask questions, but he’s never afraid to do the work himself.

At Foundry Group, there are twelve of us. I like to believe we embody the “I will” spirit – if someone suggests that something is wrong or needs to be done, they do it. Sure – we pass things around and there’s some delegation, but there’s never a willingness to criticize or give feedback without a corresponding willingness to participate in doing the work.

It’s a small but powerful mental tweak that is similar to the I / We challenge I used to have. In this case it’s the inverse. By shifting to “we” instead of “I” when I talk about what Foundry Group accomplishes, our whole team gets the recognition for the work we’ve all contributed to. This is powerful externally. But internally, by saying “I will” instead of “We should” it puts the responsibility for getting it done on the person making the suggestion. Even if they only manage the work, they are still responsible for making sure it happens, instead of the non-specific and ephemeral “we.”

TA – thanks for the phrase. I continue to learn much from you.

Build something great with me