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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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Trust Can Scale

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Following is a guest post from Chris Moody. Chris is president and COO of Gnip, one of the silent killers in our portfolio. Once the main stream tech press starts noticing Gnip, they will be blown away at how big they got in such a short period of time by just executing. Chris is a huge part of this – he joined Gnip when they were 10 people and has been instrumental in working with Jud Valeski, Gnip’s founder and CEO, to build a mind blowing team, business, and market leadership position.

Following is a great email Chris sent me Friday night in advance of the Foundry Group “Scaling Your Company Conference”  which we are having this week for CEOs of companies we are investors in that are on the path from 50 to 500 people.

Startups that experience success are typically built upon a strong foundation of trust among the early founders/employees. This trust has been solidified through long days/nights in small offices working on hard problems together.  The amazing thing is that the founders don’t always realize that their company is even operating under an umbrella of trust or that trust is one of their core values.  Instead, they just know that it feels easy to make decisions and to get shit done.

When companies try to scale, one of the biggest mistakes they make is trying to replace trust with process.  This is rarely a conscious decision, it just feels necessary to add new rules in order to grow.  After all, there are a lot of new people coming into the company and it isn’t clear who of the new people can be trusted yet.

A startup obviously needs to add process in order to scale, but if you replace trust with process, you’ll rip the heart right out of your company.   When adding processes, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this new process help us go faster?
  • Does this new process help us be more efficient?

If the answer to these questions is “yes” you are off to a great start.

Now ask yourself “Are we adding this process because we don’t trust people to make decisions?”  If the answer to this question even has a hint of “maybe” you need to stop and really consider the cost of that process.

Replacing trust with process is like a cancer that will spread quickly and silently throughout the company.  One day you’ll wake up and think “this place doesn’t feel special any more” or ask yourself “why is it so hard for us to get stuff done.”

Trust could be one of your most valuable company assets.  As a leader, you need to fight like hell to protect it.  If you are successful protecting trust, you’ll actually grow much faster and you’ll still have a place where people love working.

I’ve seen trust work at a 700 person company.  Trust can scale.

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Gnip is Hiring In San Francisco

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I’ve written a lot in the last year about how fast Gnip is growing and how they continue to lead their industry. Many of Gnip‘s customers and partners are in the bay area and they have decided to begin adding people in San Francisco to better support those clients.

They’ve just posted their first position in San Francisco to help manage and grow existing customers. If you have the appropriate skills and want to join a truly incredible company, I encourage you to apply.

The Work Begins When The Milestone Ends

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Today’s guest post from Chris Moody, the COO of Gnip, follows on the heels of the amazing Big Boulder event that Gnip put on last Thursday and Friday. To get a feel for some of the speakers, take a look at the following blog posts summarizing talks from leaders of Tumblr, Disqus, Facebook, Klout, LinkedIn, StockTwits, GetGlue, Get Satisfaction, and Twitter.

The event was fantastic, but Chris sent out a powerful email to everyone at Gnip on Saturday that basically said “awesome job on Big Boulder – our work is just beginning.” For a more detailed version, and some thoughts on why The Work Begins When The Milestone Ends, I now hand off the keyboard to Chris.

We’ve just finished up Big Boulder, the first ever conference dedicated to social data.   By all accounts, the attendees and the presenters had a great experience. The Gnip team is flying high from all the exciting conversations and the positive feedback.   After countless hours of planning, hard work, and sleepless nights, it is very tempting to kick back and relax. There is a strong natural pull to get back into a normal workflow. But, we can’t relax and we won’t.  Here’s why.

As a company it is important to recognize the difference between a milestone and a meaningful business result.  Although it took us almost nine months to plan the event, Big Boulder is really just a milestone.   In this particular case, it is actually an early milestone.    The real results will likely begin months from now.   All too often startups confuse milestones for results.   This mistake can be deadly.

Milestones Are Not Results

Milestones represent progress towards a business result.  Examples of milestones that are commonly mistaken for results include:

Getting Funded.  Having someone make an early investment in your company is positive affirmation that at least one person (and perhaps many) believe in what you are trying to accomplish.  But, the results will come based upon how effectively you spend the money; build your team/product, etc.  Chris Sacca has tweeted a few times that he doesn’t understand why startups ever announce funding.  Although I haven’t heard him explain his tweets, I assume he is making the point that funding isn’t a meaningful business result so it doesn’t make sense to announce the news to the world.

Signing a partnership.  Getting a strategic partnership deal signed can take lots of hard work and months/years to accomplish.  Once a partnership deal is finally signed, a big announcement usually follows.  The team may celebrate because all the hard work has finally paid off.  But, the obvious mistake is thinking the hard work has paid off.  Getting the deal signed is a major milestone, but the results will likely be based upon the amount of effort your team puts in to the partnership after the deal is signed.  I’ve never experienced a successful partnership that just worked after the deal was signed.  Partnerships typically take a tremendous amount of ongoing work in order to get meaningful results.

Releasing a new feature.   Your team has worked many late nights getting a new killer feature in to the product.  You finally get the release out the door and a nice article runs in TechCrunch the next day.  The resulting coverage leads to your highest site traffic in a year.   But, have you really accomplished any business results yet?  Often the results will come after lots of customer education, usage analysis, or feature iterations.   If no customers use the new feature, have you really accomplished anything?

Is it okay to celebrate milestones?  Absolutely! Blow off steam for a half-day or a long celebratory night.  Take the time to recognize the team’s efforts and to thank them for their hard work.   But, also use that moment to remind everyone that the true benefits will happen based upon what you do next.

Results Increase Value

Unlike milestones, results have a direct impact on the value of the company.  Results also vary dramatically based upon different business models.   Examples of common results include: increasing monthly recurring revenue, decreasing customer turnover, lowering cost of goods sold (increasing gross margin).

Announcing a new feature is a milestone because it adds no value to the company.  On the other hand, having customers actually adopt a new feature might increase customer retention, which could be a meaningful business result.

The Work Begins When X Ends

When I worked at Aquent, there was a point in time when we were doing lots of tradeshows. We noticed a pattern of team members taking months to prepare for an event and then returning from the tradeshow declaring the event a success.   They would put a stack of business cards on their desk and spend the next several weeks digging out from the backlog of normal work stuff.  The business cards would begin to collect dust and the hot leads from the show would eventually become too cold to be useful.

In order to avoid this phenomenon, someone coined the expression “the work begins when the tradeshow ends”.  This simple statement had a big impact on the way that I think about milestones versus results.  Since that time, I’ve used the concept of this phrase hundreds of times to remind my team and myself that a particular milestone isn’t a result.    You can substitute the word “tradeshow” for whatever milestone your team has recently achieved to help maintain focus.

The most recent example?  The work begins when Big Boulder ends.

Big Boulder Brings Social Data to Boulder

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This week I’ll be kicking off the second day of Big Boulder with a talk about how the Boulder startup community has come to be what it is today. Big Boulder is a conference on social data held by our portfolio company Gnip.

Last year Chris Moody wrote a blog post about how companies should pursue thought leadership. To me, Big Boulder is the embodiment of this. Gnip believes that social data will change the world. To that end, they’ve brought together some of the biggest players from social media publishers including Facebook, Twitter, Klout, LinkedIn, StockTwits, Disqus, Tumblr and WordPress. They’ve put together a killer agenda talking about the many uses of social data and how publishers are thinking about it and what is enabling people to do.

Part of Boulder’s ability to grow as a startup community is our ability to bring high-level events to Boulder. To that end, Foundry Group has worked hard to bring and keep Defrag and Glue in Boulder. We’re excited to have Big Boulder as another high-profile event attracting people to our city. This affords more people to see everything Boulder has to offer a startup community and for our community to interact with attendees. I know that some Big Boulder speakers like Daniel Ha of Disqus are also sticking around to speak to the TechStars teams.

If you’ll be at the conference, please come and say hi.

The Power of TAGFEE and Just Executing

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So far I’m pleased with my shift to Maker Mode this summer.  I’ve managed to get in a solid four hours of writing on my Startup Communities book each day and will have a full draft to circulate to a small group of people on Saturday. I chose deliberately to skip TechStars New York Demo Day (which looks like it went great) this year, which was a hard choice for me but I just didn’t want to break the flow of what I’m doing. And I’m still running on inbox zero and – other than physical proximity – haven’t heard any concerns about my responsiveness or availability. As a bonus, I’m getting to spend 24 hours a day (except when I’m out running) with my amazing wife Amy.

Yesterday I saw a post from Gnip titled You Are What You Do. Gnip is one of the companies we’ve invested in that I refer to as a Silent Killers - they are building an amazing company by just doing things that customers care about, not hyping themselves, and delivering what they say they are going to deliver, ahead of and beyond expectations. No hype – just substance – and execution.

This was coincidentally followed a few minutes later by an email exchange between Ben Huh (Cheezburger CEO) and Rand Fishkin (SEOMoz CEO). Rand and SEOMoz run on a set of principles called TAGFEE (Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional) and if you want to see this in action, take a look at the post Rand wrote recently about the financing we led titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future.

Ben (to:Rand, Brad): Just a random thought… Maybe I don’t have the balls to do it, maybe I just think that I want to run my biz differently, but the more I do this, the more I converge on TAGFEE. Thanks for putting it out there in the world.

Brad (to:Ben, Rand): I am 100% convinced TAGFEE is right. It’s so unbelievably liberating. 

Rand (to:Ben, Brad): This email put a huge smile on my face. That said, it’s fucking hard. So hard I can barely believe it. Being TAGFEE yourself when there’s always pressure not to sucks bad enough. But working with a large team and getting managers and individual contributors to act this way (and figure out when/where/how/whether it’s being broken) is the toughest challenge I’ve ever had. Thankfully, it’s incredibly rewarding, too. Oh – and there’s a missing “H” in TAGFEE. For humility. In fact, empathy and humility in potential hires are the best predictors that they’re going to fit with our team and be TAGFEE.

In contrast, I got an email from a VC earlier this week who said “aren’t you worried that one of your LPs will see your post about spending the summer at your place in Keystone?” My immediate reaction was to point him to TAGFEE and say that we try to be 100% TAGFEE with our LPs so I hope they see what I’m doing and appreciate why I’m doing it. I know unambiguously what my job for my LPs is – they give me a box of money and my job is to give them back – over time – a much bigger box full of money. I’m never confused this and I always try to do it in a way that maximizes the size of the box I give them back.

If you line up You Are What You Do, TAGFEE, and Silent Killers you start to get a feel for the type of entrepreneurs we love to work with. An awesome part of it is watching them learn from each other and learning from what they are learning. It informs everything I’m thinking about and the last 24 hours once again reinforced for me the power of TAGFEE and just executing.

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