Sanebox: Make Email Great Again

Unlike the person with a similar slogan, this one is highly accurate. Sanebox does indeed make email great again.

I’ve been using email since 1983. I started with MH and Rmail, then cc:Mail, then Microsoft Mail, with Compuserve mixed in. Eventually I ended up using Pine for non-Windows stuff and Outlook for Windows stuff. For a while. About seven years ago I switched to Gmail and never looked back.

Over the last seven years, I’ve tried a bunch of different add-ons and plug-ins and whatever you want to call them to try to clean up my inbox. As investors in Postini, I was able to eliminate my spam problem early on. But I struggled endlessly with bacn. I get 500+ emails a day so the bacn is intolerable in my main email flow and ends up getting ignored, rather than read later.

So I’d go through weeks of unsubscribe fits, where I’d try to mash out my misery by unsubscribing to things I didn’t want. Often, this just resulted in more bacn, sometimes from the same senders but often from others. I once again would go through another cycle where I’d try a different unsubscribe tool, but I’d always end up with better, but not good enough.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I decided to try Sanebox. My partner Seth has used it for a while and several other people I know swear by it. I tried it when it first came out (as one of my endless efforts to tame my inbox) but it didn’t satisfy me then.

This time – about a month later – I can definitively state that Sanebox is awesome. Not sort of awesome. Extremely awesome. It should consider running for president.

Magic trick #1: @SaneBlackHole: If I want to never see a piece of bacn again, I just label it @SaneBlackHole by typing v<downarrow><enter>. Gone, forever. Anything from the sender never ever shows up in my inbox again, kind of like how Ramsay Bolton will never show up in Game of Thrones again.

Magic trick #2: @SaneNotSpam: I trust Gmail’s spam filter so I never, ever look in my spam folder. But Sanebox does look there for me because it knows not to trust it as much as I do. It finds at least one piece of NotSpam every day – sometimes as many as five pieces. Some of the NotSpam is amazing – on Friday a distribution notice from a VC fund I’m an investor in showed up there.

Magic trick #3: @SaneLater and @SaneNews: Sanebox automagically figures out which things I can look at later. It also figures out which email is a newsletter of some sort. It’s easy to adjust these if it gets it wrong, or label an email in my inbox with one of these labels and it then becomes one of these forevermore. At least 20% of my daily email ends up in one of these folders which I can then process once a day.

Within 30 days, with almost no effort, the signal in my inbox has reached about 99%. I read through notifications and news once a day. The crap that I don’t really want shows up once in SaneLater or SaneNews, I relabel it SaneBlackHole, and it’s gone forever.

Suddenly, my inbox is remarkably clean, useful, and free of noise. Thanks Sanebox!

For Here or To Go

It’s 2am on Friday and I’m awake because Brooks the Wonder Dog is afraid of thunderstorms. His approach to them is to literally try to climb under my body while I’m sleeping, which prevents me from sleeping, which results in me watching the Brexit insanity in real time.

Yesterday, we had our own US insanity around immigration as our Supreme Court voted 4-4 on the legality of Obama’s executive orders on immigration. This means that the issue gets kicked back down to the lower court and nothing is likely going to happen on this until after the election. There are so many ironies in this, especially against the backdrop of the potential immigration implications in England of the Brexit, that one can only wonder if our politicians are taking Game of Thrones a little too literally.

It’s easy to view all of this abstractly, rather than think about how it impacts individual people. Two weeks ago I watched a movie by Rishi Bhilawadikar titled For Here or To Go? It was about a set of Indian software developers in the US on H1-B visas. The main character wanted to start a company, or join a startup, but couldn’t make either happen in the context of the current H1-B visa constraints.

Now, this wasn’t a dry movie. While I don’t know Indian culture very well, Rishi created a rich set of characters, interwoven storylines, and a powerful content – including the challenge of romantic relationships while having an uncertain future around one’s immigration status – that drew me in to the movie.

There were several big twists, including the challenges of a large company co-founded by two Indian immigrants, one who was frustrated with the US immigration system and wanted highly educated Indians in the US to go back to India and start their companies there. This intersected with the main character’s romantic relationship and job search, which came together at the end in a powerful way.

Rishi is planning on formally releasing the movie at the beginning of next year. I’ve offered to help, and – like I did with Code: Debugging the Gender Gap – am providing some financing for that effort. If you care about the immigration issue and want to help with the movie in some way, email me and I’ll get you set up with a free full preview screening of the movie so you can watch it and decide if you want to get more involved.

Don’t Waste A Crisis

This cliche, which has uncertain attribution (Winston Churchill, Rahm Emmanuel, M. F. Weiner) is a priceless line that gets tossed out periodically, especially in the middle of a crisis.

Over the years I’ve been involved in many business crises. I qualify this, since my crises have never involved life and death or the survival of the human race. But they are still crises. Some have lasted moments while others have lasted months, and I can think of one that went on for three years – or at least took three years to dig out of.

I’ve only occasionally been in the CEO (or equivalent) role during a crisis. Most of the time I’m a board member or investor. As a result, I’ve participated in dealing with the crisis, but I’ve also been able to observe the behavior of the leader during the crisis. While I’ve had to go throw up in the bathroom after a particularly distressing conference call more than once, I’ve been fortunate to be able to be one level removed from the essence of the crisis.

A typical leader has a natural tendency is to be defensive in the face of a crisis. The first reaction is to blame someone – or something – else. Often the blame is aimed at something abstract or non-controllable, which often has nothing to do with the crisis, but is adjacent to whatever is going on so it’s an easy target. As soon as the blame is out there, the attack begins, which often causes others to be defensive, generating a vicious cycle of anger, hostility, frustration, and obfuscation at the beginning of the crisis.

Over time, I’ve learned that the best leaders take a completely different approach. When the crisis erupts, rather than immediately go into action, she pauses and takes a deep breath. She starts collecting data about what is happening. In parallel, she communicates the crisis to the key people who need to be involved – the board, the leadership team, and anyone specifically engaged in the crisis.

If the crisis lasts moments, rapid action is critical. But if it’s simply the beginning of a broader issue, especially one where the root cause isn’t known yet, the worst thing a leader can do is act immediately. As a teenager, my dad taught me about the idea of unintended consequences and I’ve had the experience, and how to deal with it, pounded into my soul over the years.

If you want to understand this better, I encourage you to read Charles Perrow’s classic book from 1984 – Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk TechnologiesI often forget to mention it when asked which books have influenced me the most – Normal Accidents is in the top 10.

So, you are now in the crisis. As CEO, you feel an immense need to address whatever is causing the crisis and resolve it. But that’s only half of it. If all you do is focus on solving the crisis, you are missing the big opportunity, which is to learn from it and integrate it into the fabric of your company. It’s not that you won’t ever have a crisis again – you most certainly will. But if you can change the way your company functions in the context of a crisis in a positive way, you can actually get some value out of the crisis.

Don’t forget to breathe.

A Scaling Magic Trick

By definition, as a company scales rapidly, it adds people quickly. There are many things about this that are difficult, but a vexing one has to do with the leadership team.

Often times, the wrong people are in senior positions. The faster a company grows, or the less experienced the CEO is (e.g. a first time founding CEO), the more likely it is a problem. Per Fred Wilson’s famous post What A CEO Doesthis is one of the three key responsibilities of a CEO.

“A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”

I’ve slightly modified in my brain to be that a great CEO has to do three things well. These three things. They can be great at many other things, but if they don’t do these three well, they won’t be successful long term.

Let’s focus on “recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company.” This is where the vexing part comes in. As a company grows from 25 to 50 to 100 to 200 to 500 to 1000 people, the characteristics of who is the very best talent in leadership roles will change. It’s rarely the case that your leadership team at 1000 people is the same leadership team you had a 25 people. However, the CEO is often the same person, especially if it’s a founder.

Stress on fast growing companies comes from a lot of different places. The one that is often the largest, and creates the most second order issues, is the composition of the leadership team. More specifically, it’s specific people on the leadership who don’t have the scale experience their role requires at a particular moment in time.

Take a simple example. Imagine a 50 person company. Now, consider a VP Engineering who has never worked in a company smaller than 5,000 people. His last job was VP Engineering on top of a division representing 25% of the development resources of a very large company, reporting up to the division president. By definition he has never worked in a company that grew from 50 people to 100 people in a 12-month period. He might argue that he’s seen that kind of growth within a segment of the company, but he’s never experienced it working directly for a CEO of a small, rapidly growing company.

In comparison, consider a VP of Engineering who has worked in three different  companies. She started with one that grew from 20 to 200 and was acquired. The next one grew from 5 to 100 and then shrunk again to 10 before being acquired. The one you are recruiting her from grew from 100 to 1000 while she was in the role and is still going, but she’s now tired of the larger company dynamic and wants to get back to a smaller, fast growing company.

Which one sounds like a better fit? I hope you chose the second one – she’s a much better fit in my book.

Now, here’s the magic trick – if you are a CEO who is interviewing for a new member of your leadership team, ask the person you are interviewing if they have every been in the same role as a company that grew from size -50% to +200% of yours. So if you are the CEO of the 50 person company, you are looking for someone who has been in at least one company that grew from 25 to 100 people. Ideally, they participated in growth to a much larger scale, but at a minimum they should bracket these numbers.

Now, ask her to tell you the story of the company, the growth experience, how she built and managed her team, and how she interacted with the rest of the team. Keep digging into the dynamics she had with the CEO, with other executives, and with the people who worked for her. Focus a lot on a size you will be in a year so you know how she’s going to handle what’s in front of her.

Remember – you are looking for competence fit and culture fit. By using this approach, you are exploring both, in your current and near term context.

Book: The Curve

Yesterday was not an awesome day.

I was tired from my run on Saturday and a late-ish night so I slept in. Amy got up with the dogs. When I woke up, our country was deep in the fallout from the worst mass shooting in the history of the U.S. I was shocked by the shooting, then angry about some of the responses, and then ultimately – with Amy – just sad about the whole thing. Love is so much more powerful than hate, and there is so much hate in the world right now.

So I went for a long run. That didn’t help much so I took a nap and laid down on the couch and read the book at the top of my pile of infinite books. Other than being with Amy and seeing Mark Pincus and Dick Costolo in a cameo on Silicon Valley, reading The Curve was the best part of my day.

Jeremy Blachman, the co-author, wrote a book a decade ago called Anonymous Lawyer which I loved. It almost inspired me and my partner Jason to write a book titled Anonymous VC, but Jason decided to make the video I’m a VC instead. Jeremy sent me an advanced reader copy (ARC in the book trade) of The Curve so my simple task was to read it.

I enjoyed it a lot. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m surrounded by them (Jason used to be a lawyer and some of his best friends are lawyers). I didn’t go to law school but I’ve become very involved at CU Law and Silicon Flatirons around their entrepreneurship initiatives (Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal are close friends.) I’m not deeply involved in politics, but about 25% of the people I interact with in politics went to law school.

The Curve is a super snarky take on law school. It chronicles the year of a fictional law school in New York – one at the bottom of the barrel. One of the protagonists is a first year law school teacher who quit his job as a high powered New York corporate lawyer to achieve more meaning in his life. The cliche “be careful what you wish for” comes immediately to mind.

It’s a fun, quick read. I enjoyed the dramatic twists, the sarcasm, and the characters, especially as the book cranked into the second half. Once it hit it’s full speed around page 100, there was no stopping it.

If you are a lawyer, or a law school student, or just know a bunch of lawyers and law school students, this book is for you.

And … this just in. Microsoft to buy LinkedIn for $26.2 billion. Nice job on the marathon Reid and Jeff!