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For the past two days I’ve been at an even called SERGE (Seasoned Entrepreneurs Gathering Exchange). I co-founded it with two long time friends, Martin Babinec (founder of Trinet) and Keith Alper (founder of Creative Producers Group). Martin, Keith and I have known each other since the mid-1990s when we were much younger entrepreneurs playing leadership roles at the Young Entrepreneurs Organization (now simply “EO”).
We each invited about ten entrepreneurs and their partners to the event. 50 people showed up – 25 entrepreneurs and their partners – and we spent two days on Miami Beach hanging out and covering a lot of different topics. All of us were between the ages of 40 and 50 (+/- a few years), have each had at least one successful business, and were from all over the US and in plenty of different industries.
We had a solid 12 hours spread over two days in a conference room where the following eight topics were discussed.
- How Will You Measure Your Life?
- Mentor Manifesto
- Impact in the Public Interest – Doing Something That Matters
- Finding and Managing High Impact Board Members
- B Corps – Leveraging Social Purpose To Drive A Business
- Setting Up Family Office to Manage Diversified Portfolio
- Leading the Team: CEO Habits That Set The Pace
- Maximizing Impact of Your Angel Investing
One of led on each topic (for example, I kicked things off with “How Will You Measure Your Life?” – talked for about 15 – 30 minutes, and then facilitated a discussion for the balance of an hour.
It was amazing. If you’ve ever been in an organization like YEO, YPO, EO, Birthing of Giants, or Gathering of Titans, it was like a “super forum”. Two days with peers, talking confidentially and intimately about a wide range of issues, and getting to know each other at a different level. In this case, there were three intersecting groups (mine, Martin’s, and Keith’s) so you got the added bonus of meeting a set of new people that were highly vetted to be your peers that you could immediately trust and engage with.
Partners were included. Some – like Amy – participated for most of it. Others didn’t. This was the only big miss – we should have worked harder to include all the partners in the entire discussion, and have several of them lead topics. Next time.
Once again I was reminded of the power for entrepreneurs of spending time with your peers outside of the craziness of the daily schedule. 50 people invested two days of their life in this event – the feedback I’ve heard so far was awesome. And – for me personally – it was very rewarding.
If you are an entrepreneur, do yourself a favor and find a peer group. If you don’t know where to start, try Entrepreneurs Organization. You’ll thank me in 10 years.
I’ve spent the past two days at the Global Entrepreneurs Congress in Rio. It’s been really powerful for me as it’s shown how broadly the message of Startup Communities has taken hold across the world. At the point I can see that the Startup Communities movement is in full swing, the language and principles that I introduced in the book are being talked about, dissected, and improved on, and many entrepreneurs around the world are leading the development of the startup community in their city.
In a discussion with my long time friend Paul Kedrosky, we talked about a paper he’s writing about the number of “important companies” that get to $100 million in revenue. Our discussion shifted to the magic number – was $100m the right number for “important”, or was it $50m, or $25m, or even $10m. At some point we both realized it wasn’t about a magic number, but about the concept of “scaling up” a business once it had started up.
I’ve been hearing the phrase “scale up” a lot lately. The first time I noticed it being used was in Daniel Isenberg’s post Focus Entrepreneurship Policy on Scale-Up, Not Start-Up. While I didn’t agree with the tone of Daniel’s article, the meta-point, that we need to put more attention into focusing on scaling up businesses, range true with me.
I view the concept of startup and scale up as linked. You have to have a vibrant “startup community” to get to the point where you have enough interesting companies to “scale up.” Many geographies haven’t had enough focus on “startup.” That has dramatically shifted and entrepreneurs around the world understand what “startup” is, are learning and doing it, and a phenomenal amount of activity is happening around it.
So, I’m shifting my focus for the balance of 2013 on “scaling up.” Fortunately, I’ve got a great laboratory for this – the Foundry Group portfolio. Of the 55 active companies we’ve got in our portfolio, more than half are solidly in the “scale up” zone – some scaling very rapidly. In the same way that I used Boulder to form my thesis on Startup Communities, I’ll use our portfolio, and my activity with it, to form my thesis around scaling up. That’s where I’m going to turn my intellectual attention over the balance of the year.
This is consistent with the next three books in the Startup Revolution series – Startup CEO (written by Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path), Startup Boards (written by me and Mahendra Ramsinghani), and Startup Metrics (written by me and Seth Levine). Each of these are a lot more about “scaling up” than “starting up.”
As part of this, I’ve shut down all my travel for the rest of the year (starting in May, as I’ve got some commitments for the next six weeks that are too close in to cancel.) But I’m going to spending a lot more time in one physical place (Boulder), going deep on the notion of scaling up, while continuing to support the incredible energy around startups that has a wonderful and amazing life of its own.
I meet a lot of people. I hear a lot of people introduce themselves. I interview a lot of people. Sometimes I want to hear their story; most of the time I don’t.
I’ve realized recently that I’m tired of hearing histories. And I’m tired of telling mine. It’s easy to find out most by a simple search on the web. Or a scan through LinkedIn. Or listening to one of the video interviews I’ve done where someone has said “tell me your story.”
I was thinking about this especially in the context of any interview. I don’t care where you went to school (I never have). I don’t care what your first job was. I don’t care what happened 15 years ago. I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go in the first five minutes of our interview. Sure – I’ll go back further in specific examples, but I don’t need to spend the first fifteen minutes hearing your story from beginning to today. It lulls me into a false sense of complacency, making me feel like I know you better because I now know your version of your history, when in fact I don’t know you at all.
I’ve learned a lot about interviewing people over the years. I used to be terrible at it. Now I’m pretty good. I don’t enjoy it very much, so I force myself to do a good job. I only interview senior execs and I separate clearly between evaluating people for the role and evaluating them for culture fit with the company. But in both cases I feel like I have to grind through the process. Some of it is my introverted nature; some of it is just not enjoying the interviewing a person thing.
I’ve realized that spending half of an interview listening to someone tell me their story is a total cop out on my part. It lets me shift out of evaluate mode and be passive during the interview process. And, while a lot of people love to listen to themselves tell their story, it’s not doing them any good either since my goal is to make a recommendation as to whether or not they fit in the role and the organization they are interviewing for. I should be more focused on what they have learned over their career and how they apply it today, not the path they took to get to this point, which I can read on a resume or on LinkedIn.
I’m no longer interested in telling my own story. Each time I do it, I realize I am wasting another 15 minutes of my life. By starting with the now, and not worrying about going backward, I can get to the meat of whatever I’m communicating, or want to communicate. I’ll more quickly engage whomever I’m talking to – making the conversation immediately active instead of passive. When I need to reach into the past for a story to support an example, I will.
I’ve decided that going forward I’m telling my history in reverse chronological order whenever asked. I’ll start with what I am doing now. I’ll go backwards as relevant to the particular context. I’ll skip stuff that doesn’t matter, and I’ll stop when it’s time to go on. I expect my introductions will be a lot shorter going forward. And I’ll be less bored with myself. And that is a good thing, at least for me.
Every year in December and January I go through the same cycle for all the boards I’m on. It’s the annual bonus, next year bonus plan, option grant refresh cycle. For many management teams, especially in rapidly growing, or mature companies, it’s an important part of their existence as culturally we’ve oriented compensation, bonuses, and future compensation around an annual cycle.
I embrace this – my goal is to help these entrepreneurs and management teams win. I know compensation is an important part of the feedback / reward loop. While I’ve occasionally had conflict over compensation, and I’ve had a few CEOs I work with tell me they feel like it’s an uncomfortable discussion, my own perception of my behavior is that I’m a softy. If things are going well, I am supportive of anything that’s reasonable. And, having thousands of data points over the past 17 years, I’ve got a good calibration on reasonable.
One thing, however, has always baffled me. I’ve never really understood why the majority of stock option refresh grants are stacked grants mid-way through the granting process.
Let me give an example. Assume you hire someone and grant them 10,000 options with monthly vesting of four years with a one year cliff. That means that after one year, they get 25% of their options and then start vesting the remaining options monthly at a rate of 1/48 (208.3 options / month, or 2,500 / year.) On day 1 of year 3, the person has vested 50% of their options, or 5,000 of them and still has 5,000 left to vest. This person is doing great so management puts them in the annual option refresh cycle. Now, the company has increased in value, as has the option strike price, so the refresh grant is determined to be 25% of the original grant – or 2,500 options vesting monthly over four years, or 625 options per year.
Now, in year 3 the employee in question vests a total of 3,125 options, in year 4 they vest a total of 3,125 options, in year 5 they now vest 625 options, and in year 6 they vest 625 options. This makes no sense to me. You just changed their first four year vesting package from 10,000 options to 11,250 options (2,812.5 options per year) and then left them with 625 in years 5 and 6. This is a bonus in years 3 and 4 and a refresh in years 5 and 6.
Instead, why not grant them the new 2,500 options that vest in two years – 50% in year 5 and 50% in year 6. So now, they once again have 2,500 options per year for years 1 to 4 and 1,250 options vesting in years 5 and 6. This is a refresh in years 5 and 6.
The key difference is you are separating the “refresh grant” from a bonus, or retrading, of the hire grant. Now, I’m totally supportive of giving people bonus grants – if someone is doing an awesome job and they deserve more options in year 3 and year 4, do that. But that’s separate from a refresh, especially if your goal is to make sure there is always plenty of future options vesting.
The reason companies do the refresh in year 3 instead of year 5 is that – assuming success – the strike price of the option in year 3 will be lower. So the “value” of the option theoretically is higher if you grant it earlier since you get to lock in a lower strike price, especially against the uncertainty of where the strike price will be in two years. So that’s perfectly rational, but the idea of stacking the refresh grant on the old grant is not.
I’m not pushing to implement this in 2013 since I’m at the tail end of the refresh cycle with many of the companies I’m an investor in and just recently realized why the way refresh grants historically have been done didn’t make sense to me. And it shouldn’t make sense to the management team either – their goal and my goal is aligned – get plenty of future option value locked via vesting as a reward and retention tool.
I’m open to hearing why this doesn’t make sense. I just read it again and realize it’s confusing, as is almost every conversation I have with a management team around what, how, and why they are refreshing options. So – tell me what you do – and why – as I try to make this explanation / approach simpler.
This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series.
A few our entrepreneurial heroes work on more that one company at a time. Steve Jobs (Pixar, Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square), and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn, Greylock). And we regularly hear of entrepreneurs who are working at companies that acquired their first company who are now working on new companies while still at their acquirer.
It’s takes an extraordinary talented entrepreneur to be able to do this. So, should you try to emulate this? “Mostly” no.
If you are working on your first company or you don’t have a clear track record of success, put all of your energy into your first venture. Go all in, unambiguously. Your employees will expect, and respect this. Your customers will hope for this. Your investors will require this. And, the likelihood of your success will increase.
That said, I encourage every entrepreneur to have their own equivalent of Google 20% time, where you spend 20% of your time on something other than your primary company. If you are a first time entrepreneur, invest this energy in things that directly benefit your company. Find a peer group like Entrepreneurs Organization and invest time and energy in learning from and giving to your peers. Invest some of your 20% time in your local startup community, taking lessons from my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, which will have immediate positive impacts on you and your company’s reputation in your local ecosystem. Or invest actively in your own personal development as an entrepreneur through reading, spending time with other entrepreneurs, and actively engaging with accelerators like TechStars.
Once you’ve had some success, even if you are still running your first company, start expanding the definition of what “mostly no” means. I encourage every CEO I work with to serve as a director on another entrepreneur’s board. If you’ve made some money, don’t be afraid to make some angel investments in other companies. But stay focused on your business or else you might find yourself in a position where you suddenly don’t have the success you think you do.
Once you’ve sold your first company, or taken it public, you can start diminishing the definition of the word “mostly.” Some entrepreneurs love to be involved at the inception stage but don’t want to run companies. Others like to have a portfolio of companies they are working on at the same time, with one being the primary company. An example of this is my long-time friend and entrepreneurial collaborator Rajat Bhargava. We’ve now done nine companies together, with four of them currently active. Rajat is CEO of one of them (StillSecure) and a major shareholder and board member of three others that he’s helped co-found that I’ve funded (Yesware, MobileDay, and SafeInstance.) But this is an exception, build on a collaboration between entrepreneur (Rajat) and investor (me) over almost 20 years.
While it’s often tempting to start multiple companies, especially as you start to have some early success with your first company, resist this temptation, mostly.