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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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What I Learned From The First Time I Was Fired

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I was fired from my first two jobs. Here’s the story of one of them, which first appeared as part of LinkedIn’s My First Job content package.

“You’re fired.” Those were the last two words I heard from my boss after working for six months at Potatoes, Etc., my first real job. I smirked, immaturely threw my apron at her (I was 15 years old after all), and slammed the door on my way out.

My final three words, preceding hers, were “you’re a bitch.” In hindsight, her response was predictable.

I remember riding my bike home the three miles from Prestonwood Mall where I worked. I had no idea what I was going to tell my parents, but I decided I’d just tell them what happened and see where the chips landed. I felt ashamed of myself for being so disrespectful to my boss, even though she had constantly demeaned me, and all the other people that worked at Potatoes, Etc. I didn’t have any respect for her, but my parents had taught me better and I was proud of my ability to suck it up and not lose my temper.

Potatoes, Etc. was one of those local fast food restaurants in a giant shopping mall from the 1980s. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Yup – that was us, except Potatoes (as we liked to call it) was staffed by the “honors kids.” I think the Greek souvlaki place was staffed by the jocks and the Corn Dog place was staffed by the stoners, but it all blurs together 30 years later.

In hindsight, the Potatoes, Etc. supply chain was pretty cool. Idaho spuds appeared magically in 50 pounds boxes and ended up in a dank, gross storeroom. Each shift, one person was responsible for getting them, cleaning them, putting them on trays, covering them with industrial grade salad dressing, and racking the trays. Another person was responsible for putting them in the convection oven and making sure there were enough potatoes cooking at all times to handle the spikes in demand. Another person manned “the bar” – cutting open the potatoes and filling them with whatever goop and toppings the customer ordered. And the last person worked the cash register. After we closed, we were all responsible for cleaning up.

Since we were honors kids, we had a lot of fun with the supply chain. We did a good job of load optimization. We figured out process improvements to cut, fill, and serve the potatoes. We ran a parallel process on cleaning and closing up, so we could be done in ten minutes. We were never, ever short on cash.

Our boss was a young woman – probably in her early 20s. I remember the smell of smoke and alcohol on her breath. I remember Saturday morning shifts where she would come in at 1pm, clearly hung over. She liked to yell at us. Her favorite form of managerial shame was to call someone into the back “room” (there was no door) and dress them down randomly so everyone in the food court could hear.

We were good kids. It took a lot to get a rise out of us. Sure – we’d complain to each other about her, but we bonded together and did a good job regardless of her antics. Every now and then she’d do something that she thought was motivating, like bring a case of beer into the back of the store and offer up cans to us (we always declined – remember, we were good kids). But I can’t remember a single time she praised us – or at least me – for anything.

I had been racking potatoes all day on the day I got fired. I was cranky – I wanted to work up front but today wasn’t my day. I was tired – lifting 50 pounds of potatoes and washing them one by one is a drag. And I was bored out of my mind.

My boss probably noticed I was in a bad mood. A kind word from her would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, she came over to the full rack of potatoes, started pulling them off the racks, and without even looking at me dumped them one by one in the sink.

“You suck at washing potatoes.”

“You’re a bitch.”

“You’re fired!”

My parents were gentle with me. They made sure I understood the lessons from the experience, which included the power of respect and not losing your temper with a superior.

But most importantly this was a key moment that I think back to whenever I consider motivation. My boss never did anything to create a context in which we were motivated. It wouldn’t have taken much. And, if she had, respect – and motivation – would have followed. At 15, I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss who had no idea how to create an environment in which the people that worked for her were motivated. I’ve carried that experience, and the resulting insight, to every subsequent thing I’ve been involved in.

No More MBOs

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I am so very tired of MBO-based bonuses in startups. I knew the concept of MBOs pre-dated my time in business school, but I couldn’t remember where they came from. Wikipedia reminded me – it’s another Peter Drucker creation from The Practice of Management.

I’ve only worked in what could be considered a “big” company for 18 months (1993 – 1995) and that was the company (AmeriData) that bought my first company (Feld Technologies). When they acquired us, they weren’t  big (probably 200 people) and when I left they still weren’t really big (2,000 people) but were “big enough.” So the joy, and experience, of working in a 50,000 or even 100,000 person company eludes me.

As we enter Q4, I’m starting to see discussions about annual performance – often in the context of gearing up for 2014 plans. This often comes in the form of long emails or tedious board discussions about compensation and bonus programs. And inevitably, discussions of MBOs and qualitative performance bonuses quickly enter the discussion.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of programatic bonuses. I spend way to much time reviewing comp plans and trying to help CEOs get a decent alignment between an elusive and inaccurate “plan” (which – especially in a rapidly growing company is never anywhere close to correct), bonuses driven off of company performance, and then bonuses driven off of individual performance. It’s just really hard to get right and feels like an enormous misallocation of time for a young company.

The ostensible goal is to motivate certain behavior and reward certain outcomes. The quantitative, performance-based bonuses are about rewarding outcomes. The qualitative MBO based bonuses are often included to motivate behavior.

Therein is the conflict for me. I have a deeply held belief that a manager cannot “motivate behavior.” She can only create a context in which a person is motivated. It’s up to the individual to motivate himself. Theoretically MBOs help create this context, but it’s often an artificial construct linked to arbitrary behaviors that have nothing to do with motivational structure. Toss money in, and you put focus on the behavior, not on the motivation.

This is totally messed up in a startup. Things are changing daily. Annual performance plans are often irrelevant by February. Quantitative metrics are either too easy to hit, or completely impossible. So the MBOs becomes the achievable bonus, and behavior shifts to achieving them, even when they are even more irrelevant because of the needs of the business.

At Feld Technologies, we had a very simple bonus program. Each quarter, we paid out 10% of pre-tax profits as a bonus. We did this on an accrual basis. My partner Dave and I took the number, made a list of all employees, and figured out how much we were going to give each of them. We then printed out checks and gave them to each person. When we had our act together, which was several quarters each year, we delivered feedback – good and bad – with the checks. If I had realized how powerful this was, I would have done a better job of figuring out and delivering the feedback, in the goal of creating a context for motivation for each person, and realigning goals each quarter.

I’m considering encouraging all the CEOs I work with to get rid of MBOs in 2014. If you insist of having a bonus plan, use a financial bonus for the entire company based on top down performance. This will be a calculation across the entire company and built into the budget at an EBITDA level (e.g. it has to be funded by the performance of the company, which could include a negative EBITDA number, but the bonus pool is linked to that.) Then, the CEO and the leadership get to allocate the bonus to each person on a direct performance basis at the end of the year.

Even better, consider using equity compensation as the bonus. Figure out an equation for converting the bonus amount (in current cash terms) to stock option awards. Then let’s set aside that pool, at the beginning of the year, to award at the end of the year based on the bonus achieved. Be transparent with everyone in the company about the size and determined value of the pool, how their behavior will increase the value, and then work like hell to achieve it.

I’m looking for feedback on this approach. A programatic bonus amount driven by company performance. Individual bonuses based on the discretion of the leadership team that add up across the company to the company bonus pool. No MBOs.

Battlestar Galactica KPI

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Often One Number Is All That MattersAs Amy and I get to the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, I’m noticing more and more management and leadership lessons. Oh – and it’s awesome SciFi.

In my experience, it’s a challenge for CEOs and management teams to get focused on a small set of numbers that drive behavior. I talked about this in my post Three Magic Numbers. I regularly suggest that you should only have three numbers that you focus on daily – that reflect “what is going on right now in the business.”

You should be able to discern what is going on from the daily trend of these numbers. Sure – you’ll look at plenty of other numbers, but these are the three you focus on every day. You don’t need fancy tech for this – just a white board.

If you are a BSG fan, you’ll recall the white board behind President Roslin’s desk. It has one number on it. The number of survivors alive at that moment. This number started showing up in the opening credits some time in Season 2, and after a few episodes I noticed it changing each time in the credits, often based on what had happened in the previous episode.

This is BSG’s KPI. The number of humans alive. Right now.

When I reflect on this KPI, I realize it drives all the behavior on BSG. The easy behavior to focus on is keeping the number from decreasing. But as Gauis eloquently states late in Season 2, if the trend line continues, based on a complex regression analysis he’s done, the human species will be extinct in 18 years. Soon after, Admiral Adama reminds Roslin that the number generally just goes down, and that Roslin had said early on that if the human species is to survive, the colony needs to start “making babies.”

This is an obvious set up for a much more complex social issue – that of pro-life vs. pro-choice. But obvious set up aside, Adama is focusing on the KPI and reminding Roslin that the goal is for it go up, as well as not go down. It turns out there is a lot of richness in the number.

In my world, as companies grow, I notice a proliferation of KPIs being tracked. On a periodic basis, I encourage CEOs to keep paying attention to all the numbers, but surface – on a daily basis – the three magic numbers that drive their business.

Do you know your three magic numbers?

It’s Your Job To Improve Your Team

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At this year’s NVCA meeting, my partner Jason Mendelson (who was the chair of the event) interviewed Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter. Dick is an awesome CEO, awesome human, and awesome interviewee. Among other things, he’s hilarious, and PandoDaily wrote a fun summary of the interview in their post What CEOs could learn from comedians.

Dick had many great one liners that fit in 140 characters as you’d expect from someone who is both the CEO of Twitter and was once a standup comedian. But one really stuck in my mind.

It’s not your job to defend your team. It’s your job to improve your team.

Upon reflection, all of the great CEOs and executives that I’ve ever worked with believe this and behave this way.

Every time I make an investment I believe it is going to be an incredible success. I don’t know any VC who invests thinking “eh – this will be mediocre. When you start the relationship you believe it’s going to be massively successful. The same is true of hiring an executive. Dick made the point that the cliche “only hire A players” is completely obvious and banal. CEOs don’t run around saying “hey – let’s hire C players – that’s what we want – C players.” Everyone you hire is someone you think will be an A player, by definition.

But, in the same way that every VC investment doesn’t become a 100x return, every person you hire won’t turn out to be an A player. After a few months, you start to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of the person. And you see how the person interacts with the rest of your team. This is normal – there’s no way you could know any of this during the interview process.

The not so amazing CEO or executive immediately falls into a mode of trying to defend the person, or the team, to the outside world (board, investors, customers) and other members of the team. I’ve heard a remarkable number of different rationalizations over the years about why a person or a team is going to work. And, when I press on this, the underlying response is often simply “give us / me / them more time.”

Instead of defending the team, the amazing CEO will respond with “yup – we need to get better – here’s what we are doing.” And then they’ll add “what else do you think we should do?” and “how can you help us improve?” This type of language – accepting reality and focusing on improving it, rather that defending it, is so much more powerful.

Of course, often the answer is that to improve a team, you have to eliminate a person or move them to a very different role. This is hard, but it’s part of the process, especially in a fast growing company. Someone who was incredible at a job when the company is 50 people might be horrible at the job when the company is 500 people. Nothing is static – including competence.

This is true of CEOs as well. We can all be better at what we do – a lot better. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending our own behavior when someone offers us feedback or constructive criticism. The walls go up fast when someone attacks us, or we fail. But if you switch immediately from “defend” to “improve”, you can often get extraordinary feedback and help in real time. And sometimes you have to replace yourself, as Jonathan Strauss at Awe.sm did recently and explained in his tremendous post Replacing Oneself as CEO

I loved working with Dick at FeedBurner – I learned an incredible amount from him. I treasure every minute I get with him these days and one of the biggest bummers about not being an investor in Twitter is that I don’t get to work with him on a regular basis. It was joyful to listen to him and realize that there is another wave of people at a rapidly growing and very important company that are learning from him, as he works to improve his team on a continual basis.

How Is Your Q1 Going?

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Now that we are in March, you should have a pretty good view of how your Q1 is likely to end up. If you are a revenue generating company, you’ve probably got a formally approved 2013 plan by now (if not, why not?) Your board is paying attention to your performance against plan, and you and your management team are executing based on the plan you had approved, which likely includes both a revenue plan and an expense plan.

If your sales and revenue are not on or ahead of plan, it’s time to take a hard look at what is going on. Q1 is the easiest quarter to make since you just created the annual plan. If you miss Q1, especially in a recurring revenue, services oriented business, or adtech business, there is almost no way you will make it up over Q2 – Q4. Sure – it’s nice to think something magic, special, and happy will happen, but it almost never does.

Step 1: Put on the brakes right now on discretionary spending, especially headcount. You are probably spending at plan. If sales / revenue / MRR are behind plan, you are just creating a bigger problem for yourself.

Step 2: Do an aggressive root cause analysis of why you missed Q1 so far (January and February). Use the five whys approach and keep digging until you actually understand what is going on. Don’t let your sales organization wave things off. Don’t assume it’s all going to come together on 3/31. Don’t assume the high level metrics you are looking at tell the story. Go deep as a management team. Get everyone on the management team in a room for the day on Saturday 3/9, and figure it out. Yeah, I know some of you are going to SXSW – figure it out. It’s important.

Step 3: Keep playing through on your plan for all of Q1 other than discretionary spending. Be surgical about what is going on. Use this as a wakeup call that you aren’t executing well yet, or at least to the plan you put out there. Do you have confidence you’ll make it up in March? If you do after you think hard about it, then you’ll know in a few weeks. But don’t wait for those weeks to pass to get your mind into the issue.

Step 4: Re-forecast Q1 and the rest of 2013 based on what you expect the actuals for Q1 to be. Again, go deep. You just created an annual plan so the process and the numbers should be fresh. Use it to re-forecast based on the new information you learned in January, February, and Step 2. Get it in shape so that after you know the score for Q1, you can quickly put it in front of the board.

Step 5: Call a board meeting for around April 15. Make this a Q1 review and Q2 – Q4 planning meeting. As part of this, get a new 2013 plan approved that takes into consideration what you learned in Q1.

Don’t panic, but don’t be caught off guard. Assume you won’t make things up and get ahead of them by figuring out what your real trajectory is.

Oh – and if you are beating your Q1 plan, then start thinking about how you can accelerate and grow even faster!

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