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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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Pre-Order Startup CEO, The Newest Startup Revolution Book

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Pre-orders for the new book Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business by Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, are available now on Amazon. Matt, who writes the awesome blog Only Once (which stands for “you can only be a first time CEO once”) has put a herculean effort into writing an amazing book while running a very large company.

This is the latest book in the Startup Revolution series of books that include Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your CityStartup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, and Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.

I’ve worked with Matt since 2001 when I joined Fred Wilson and Greg Sands on the board of Return Path. At the time I was an investor in a company called Veripost that was a direct competitor with Return Path. Fred was an investor in Return Path. Each company was about 20 people. The founders knew each other well and were in a brutal competition in a market that didn’t yet exist. They decided they wanted to join forces, Fred and I cut a deal over the phone in 5 minutes, and Greg Sands (at Sutter Hill at the time) led a financing round that set a price for the combined company.

Twelve years later Matt is still Return Path’s CEO. George Bilbrey, one of the Veripost founders, is the President. They are incredible partners and Matt is still a first time CEO, but now running a 400 person company that dominates its market.

The book is broken up into five parts:

  • Part I: Storytelling
  • Part II: Building the Company’s Human Capital
  • Part III: Execution
  • Part IV: Building and Leading a Board of Directors
  • Part V: Managing Yourself So You Can Manage Others

Matt  has the entire outline of Startup CEO up on his blog. As with all books in the Startup Revolution series, it combines practical experience with advice with stories with commentary from other experts.

I think Startup CEO is going to be a must read for any CEO. Do Matt a solid and go pre-order it today.

Do You Publish Your Board Book To Your Entire Company?

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Over and over again people talk about transparency. Many people assert they are transparent, or are being transparent. Few actually are.

I was thinking about this last night while watching the last few episodes of Revenge: Season 2 with Amy. Suddenly the word “transparent” started being thrown around by the Grasons, referring to their new found desire to be transparent. In this case, it was simply disingenuous - they are transparent only when it suits their purposes and usually as a setup of some other nefarious act they were about to perform (or had performed).

Whenever a word makes it into a TV show like Revenge, you know that it’s lost all meaning. And, as I’ve observed in the world of tech and startups I play in, transparency is used all the time to justify something, but rarely actually supported by behavior.

In the “everything that is old is new again” category, the master of transparency, and likely the originator of “open book management“, is Jack Stack. I remember meeting Jack and hearing him talk at the very first Birthing of Giants event created by Verne Harnish in 1991. I read Jack’s book – The Great Game of Business: Unlocking the Power and Profitability of Open-Book Management – about his experience at Springfield ReManufacturing Corp - and was blown away by his thinking. My first company – Feld Technologies – was definitely not run with an open book and Jack’s ideas were very provocative to me.

Over the years, several CEOs I’ve worked with have been incredibly open book, or – if you want to use today’s lingo – transparent. My two favorites are Matt Blumberg of Return Path and Rand Fiskin of Moz. Matt shares his entire board book after the board meeting with everyone at the company (now over 400 people). He’s been doing this since the beginning, and only redacts specific compensation information and occasional legal stuff. Rand shares – well everything – including one of the best, most detailed, and completely transparent posts about a private company financing in the history of private company financings.

When an entrepreneur says he’s transparent, I now ask “do you publish your board book to your entire company?” I view this as a benchmark for transparency. If the answer is “no”, then I ask the entrepreneur what he means by “I’m transparent.” If you can’t be open with your company about the information you report to your board, how can you actually be transparent?

Return Path Launches Email Intelligence

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Today, Return Path launched three new products and reframed its business as “email intelligence.” Matt Blumberg, Return Path’s CEO has an excellent post up titled Email Intelligence and the new Return Path.

Return Path is an extraordinary company that I’m proud to have been involved with for the past 12 years. At our board meeting last week, Matt gave me and Fred Wilson our 12 year anniversary gift – a pair of red Return Path-branded Adidas sneakers. I still vividly remember the phone call Fred and I had where we cut a deal to merge two nascent companies – Veripost and Return Path – in what became Return Path. We cut a deal in 10 minutes – I offered up a 50/50 merger and Fred suggested he wanted a little more since Return Path had raised 3x the money Veripost had. I responded with “how about 55/45″ and Fred said “it’s a deal.”

Twelve years later Return Path is company with over 300 people, major offices in New York, Boulder, and the Bay Area, and other offices around the world. It has created and leads an entirely new category we call Email Intelligence. In 2008, after plenty of forward progress as well as some twists and turns, we finished divesting several older lines of business and focused the company entirely on a new category we created called “Email Deliverability.” As we grew, we expanded the definition to the point where the word “deliverability” only covered a subset of what we did, hence the creation of the category of “Email Intelligence.”

Matt says it extremely well in his post:

“Our solution to these problems is email intelligence. Email intelligence is the combination of data from across the email ecosystem, analytics that make it accessible and manageable, and insight that makes it actionable. Marketers need all of these to understand their email performance beyond deliverability. They need it to benchmark themselves against competitors, to gain a complete understanding of their subscribers’ experience, and to accurately track and report the full impact of their email programs.” 

I’ve been investing in and around email since my first email-related investment in 1994 in a company very creatively named “Email Publishing” which was the very first email service provider. Since then I’ve had a number of investments in email companies including Critical Path, Postini, and SendGrid. I’m psyched with the success and leadership of Return Path to date, love working with everyone at Return Path, and look forward to continuing the journey as we work to ensure that inboxes contain only messages that users want.

Welcome To The Fall Semester

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I love this time of year. I get up at 5am, catch up on email (holy shit – is it already 6:37?), write a blog post, go for a run, and then have a completely jam packed day full of working with amazing people. Some days are awesome, some days have crushing challenges, all of them are stimulating.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve run incredibly hot from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. The boundaries seem to be the holidays and the bookends are Amy‘s birthday (9/14) and my birthday (12/1). We often find ourselves in New York around Amy’s birthday and in some exotic warm beach place (like Mexico) on mine. Between the two is complete and total chaos, which is delicious when I give myself up to it rather than fight it.

Here are a few of the things going on this fall.

As my dad likes to say, “if you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.” I’m enjoying the edge this semester.

If you happen to talk to Kelly along the way, tell her thanks for putting up with me. Or send her flowers. Or chocolate.

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What Makes An Awesome Board Member?

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Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.

I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.

My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.

I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path.  And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation.  All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts:  Why I Love My Board, Part IIThe Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.

But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members.  I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others.  Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.

Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:

  • They are prepared and keep commitments: They show up to all meetings.  They show up on time and don’t leave early.  They do their homework.  The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings.
  • They speak their minds: They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room.  They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think.  I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
  • They build independent relationships: They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings.  They get to know individuals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well.  None of this communication goes through you.
  • They are resource rich: I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice.  After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add.  Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis.
  • They are strategically engaged but operationally distant: This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful.  Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area.  But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like.

My interview/vetting process for Board members:

  • Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member.
  • Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high.
  • Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists.  Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well.
  • Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors.
  • Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand.  Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting.  You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way.
  • Have no fear of rejecting them.  Even if you like them.  Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor.  Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC).  This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company.

I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member.  Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:

  • Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
  • Comes with an opinion
  • Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
  • Call out your blind spots
  • Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
  • Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team
  • Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative.  Then get out of our way
  • Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
  • Pattern matching: they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching. To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
  • Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
  • Colorful and unique metaphors

Disclaimer – I run a private company.  While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary.  And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture.  That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!

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