SuperMac War Story 10: The Video Spigot

I was lucky to have been standing in the right place when video became part of the Macintosh.  And I got to experience a type of customer buying behavior I had never seen before –  the Novelty Effect.

Present at the Creation
It was early 1991 and Apple’s software development team was hard at work on QuickTime, the first multimedia framework for a computer.  At the time no one (including Apple) knew exactly what consumers were going to do with multimedia, it was still pre-Internet. But the team believed adding video as an integral part of an operating system and user experience (where there had only been text and still images) would be transformative

But Apple had planned to announce and demo QuickTime without a way to get video into the Mac. They had this great architecture, and Apple had figured out to get movies into their own computers for a demo, but for the rest of us there was no physical device that allowed an average consumer to plug a video camera or VCR into and get video into a Mac.

A month or two before the QuickTime public announcement in May, the SuperMac hardware engineers (who had a great relationship with the QuickTime team at Apple) started a “skunk works” project. In less than a month they designed a low-cost video-capture board that plugged into the Mac and allowed you to connect a video camera and VCR. But to get video to fit and playback on the computers of the era, they needed to compress it. So SuperMac engineering also developed video compression software, called Cinepak. The software was idiot proof.  There was nothing for the consumer to do. No settings, no buttons – plug your camera or VCR in and it just worked seamlessly. (The Cinepak codec was written by the engineer who would become my cofounder at Rocket Science Games.) It worked great on the slow CPUs at the time.

Something Profound
Engineering gave us a demo of the prototype board and software and asked, “Do you guys think we can sell a few of these boards?”  Remember, this is the first time anyone outside of Apple or the broadcast industry had seen moving images on a Macintosh computer. (A company called Avid had introduced a $50,000 Mac-based professional broadcast video editing for two years earlier. But here was a $499 product that could let everyone use video.) Our engineers connected a VCR, pushed a button and poured in the video of the Apple 1984 commercial.  We watched as it started playing video at 30 frames/second in a 320 x 240 window.

Up until that moment Quicktime had been an abstract software concept to me. But now, standing there, I realized how people felt when they saw the first flickering images in a movie theater. We must have made them play the demo twenty times. There were a few times in my career I knew at that moment I was watching something profound – (Holding the glass masks of the Z80 microprocessor. My first IPO at Convergent. First silicon of the MIPS RISC processor.) I stood there believing that video on computers was another – and equally as memorable.

Lets Sell it Like There’s No Tomorrow
When we all regained the power of speech, our reaction was unanimous, “What are you talking about – can we sell it?  This is the first way to get video into a computer, we’re going to sell and market this board like there’s no tomorrow. Even though we won’t make a ton of money, it will be an ambassador for the rest of our product family.  People who aren’t current customers of our graphics boards will get to know our company and brand.  If we’re smart we’ll cross-sell them one of our other products. We might even sell a few thousand of these.”

Everyone laughed at such an absurd number.

The Video Spigot
“What are we going to call it?” Lets see…, it’s video input, … how about we call it the Video Spigot?”

Now, in hindsight, with a spigot, you’re actually pouring stuff out, and, in fact, the ad actually shows you stuff pouring stuff out, but into your Mac. It made no logical sense (a fact engineering reminded us about several times.) But it made the point that this device could pour video into your Mac and consumers instinctually got it.

Our CEO and our VP of manufacturing were incredibly nervous about manufacturing more than a few hundred of these boards. “There’s nothing to do with this product once you get the video in. You can’t manipulate it, you can’t do anything other than playback the video in QuickTime.”  And they were right. (Remember there were no video applications available at all. None. This was day zero of consumer video on the Mac.)

Our answer was, “People will love this thing, as long as we don’t oversell the product.” We knew something our CEO didn’t. We had seen the reactions of people playing with the prototypes in our lab and when we demo’d it to our sales force. When we saw our salespeople actually trying to steal the early boards to take home and show their kids, we knew we had a winner. All we had to do was tell customers they could get video into their computer – and not promise anything else.

But the rest of the management team really skeptical. We kept saying, “Don’t worry, we’re going to sell thousands of these.”  Little did we know.

We launched the product with this ad that said “Video Spigot, now pour video into your computer,” and this just hit a nerve.

We sold 50,000 Video Spigots in six months.

video-spigot-supermac-ad

(As an aside, we saved money by putting my daughter in the ad. (That’s every marketeers excuse for putting their kids in an ad.) She’s in the little car on the monitor, and she’s also, if you look very carefully, in the water. We had that little car around the house for a while.)

They’re All Coming Back
So, manufacturing ramped up our factory, and as we’re selling 10,000 Video Spigots a month, our CEO is now concerned that maybe all these boards were all going to be returned to us because they didn’t really do anything once you got video into your computer. (A rational fear, as the sum of all of our other graphics boards shipped was about 7,500/month.)

Marketing knew who the Spigot customers were; we had all the registration cards and all the data. So we turned to our customers, surveying a few hundred people who had bought the product and asked:

  • Question: Were you the person who bought the board? Answer: Yes.
  • Question Are you happy with the board? Answer: Oh, it’s great.
  • Question Are you using the board? Answer: No.
  • Question And … wait a minute, you’re not using it anymore? Answer: No.
  • Question So do you want a refund? Answer: No, no.
  • Question Why not? Answer: It did everything you said. We loved this product.

It didn’t do anything else. People loved it, they used it, and they put it in their desk drawer.

We accidently had a product with the Novelty Effect.

The Novelty effect
I didn’t recognize the behavior at the time, but anyone who loves technology and gadgets has at one time or another has bought a technology toy – USB memory sticks, iPod Shuffles, umbrellas with LED lights, alarm clocks that talked, Flip Video Cameras, etc. – used them for a while and then stuck them in the drawer. The product does what it said it would, and amuses you for a while. You don’t regret the purchase price because you got entertained and then you lose interest – the Novelty Effect

Unintended Consequences – Video Editing
As these boards are flying out the door, one of the software engineers at SuperMac got to thinking about what did you do with video once you did get it into a computer – so he wrote the first Quicktime-based video editor which we called ReelTime.

But you probably never heard of ReelTime.  You may know it by its final name.

Since we had gotten out of the software business when we came out of Chapter 11, and our sales channel didn’t know what to do with software, we licensed ReelTime to Adobe.  And, of course, Adobe said, “Oh, by the way, you don’t mind if the software engineer comes with us, do you?”

Adobe renamed ReelTime to Adobe Premiere.  And Randy Ubillos, its author, went on to author Mac-based video editing software for the next 18 years. His team wrote what became FinalCut Pro at Macromedia; it was bought by Apple, and now he’s at Apple doing new versions of iMovie.

So an unintended consequence of the VideoSpigot, and to the benefit of video editors everywhere, video editing for the masses was invented at SuperMac.

Thanks to Bruce Leak and the Apple QuickTime team, Peter Barrett for Cinepak and Randy Ubillos for giving us video editing on the Mac.  It was fun watching it happen.

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Customer Analytics – From Those Who Should Know

I ran into an interesting paper about thinking about analytics – A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis.

It’s a useful read to explore and challenge analytical arguments and mind-sets.

BTW, I don’t know to be hopeful or concerned that that this is the state of the art of analytical thinking at this agency.

The Sharp End of the Stick

The Sharp End of the Stick
At some point in my career as I began to formulate thoughts about mission and intentI started to think about the broader role of marketing in a growing technology company. It became clear to me that the mission of marketing in most companies has to be to support sales.  While this may seem obvious to anyone not in sales and marketing, trust me, in a technology company this is a conceptual breakthrough. In my experience, every marketer with an MBA wants to “do strategy.” Every marketing communication hire couldn’t wait to produce the next great ad or PR program.  Every product marketer thought they should help define the product feature set, etc.  But without sales there is no revenue, and without revenue there is no company.  All the strategic thinking in the world won’t make up for a missed revenue plan.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Sales was the Sharp End of the Stick, and Marketing was the Stick
The epiphany for me was that in any company where I was running the marketing department, marketing’s number one job (its mission) would be to support sales – and to make the (commission-driven) sales VP the highest-paid person in the company. We were going to do that by turning marketing into a machine to generate end user demand, drive the that demand into our sales channels, and educate our sales channels.  And the same time we were also going to do all the other strategic stuff about pricing, positioning, promotion and customer discovery and validation to help engineering understand customer needs.  But sales came first.

(By the way, companies that have a single individual as the VP of Sales and Marketing have decided that marketing doesn’t add any other value then tactical sales support, and the only way to get is to put it under the VP of Sales.  That’s why you almost never see a marketer as the VP of Sales and Marketing.)

My way of explaining our support and service role to the marketing department was that:

  1. Sales is the sharp end of the stick, and marketing at best, is the stick.
  2. But while the sales team works for commission, the rest of the employees have equity (stock) in the company.
  3. If sales revenue and profits are high enough, we could take the company public or sell it, and the stock would be worth more than the paper it was printed on.
  4. In exchange for being the “point” organization, performance of a salesperson is measured continuously and individuals who fail to deliver quota are removed.
  5. If sales as an organization failed to deliver revenue to plan then all we had were worthless shares.
  6. In reality the sales team was working for the rest of the company to make all of our stock valuable.

No one was confused after that.

Who’s on the Sharp End
In an early stage startup, instead of sales being up front, the point departments are likely to be product development and customer development. Later on in this same company’s life, sales will become the pointy end and product development moves to a supporting role.  In other companies it may be that manufacturing or finance is the sharp end of the stick.  In an IP licensing business, legal and finance are the sharp end of the stick. It varies by company and changes over time.  There’s no magic formula but there are always “leading” departments.  And all “leading” departments have some type of “consequence-based” feedback loops that make success or failure obvious.

The clearest example is the U.S. military.  Combat troops are the “tip of the spear” while everyone else is the logistical tail.  No one in the support chain of the troops is confused or resentful as they all understand that the greatest risk is up at the front.

Killing The Company With Equality
I’ve been on boards where the CEOs took the egalitarian position that “all our departments are equal, no one is more important than any other.”  The unfortunate corollary is that in these companies no department believed it was in a supporting or service role.

In these companies, departments that should have been providing support and service instead behaved like they were the “sharp end” organizations. I’ve encountered finance organizations with budget processes designed to simplify their lives, but not the rest of the company’s. Or expense reporting requirements that took hours of a sales teams time to fill out every week.  Sometimes it was the legal department crafting contracts so onerous I wouldn’t even sign it, let alone expect a customer to do so. At times it was human resources with policies that made people leave rather than stay, or it was a CIO more interested in standards than deployment.

None of these departments operated with any particular sense of malice – just with the certainty that the company revolved around them. But they were misguided because they lacked a clear departmental mission statement that reminded them of the corporate goals. If each department had a mission statement, it would have been clear whether their role was in support or at the sharp end. Having each department develop a mission statement depends on leadership and direction from the CEO.

“Going Out of Business” Strategy
I’m now convinced “all our departments are equal” is a “going out of business” strategy. Not understanding who are the “lead departments” makes companies feel like ponderous, bureaucratic and frustrating places to work.  The best people in the “sharp end” organizations simply vote with their feet and leave.

I loved to compete against these companies.  Their own internal culture would tie them up in knots, and agile startups could run rings around them.

Don’t let this happen to your company.  Embrace and then communicate the idea of a lead department(s).  Build a company culture where everyone supports the “sharp end of the stick.”  

Stay agile, stay focused. 

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Customer Development Talk Startup2Startup

Eric Ries of Lean Startup fame and the author of the Lessons Learned blog joined me at Startup2Startup for a joint Customer Development talk. Thanks to Dave McClure and Leonard Speiser for the opportunity to speak.

The Customer Development talk can be seen here74HGZA3MZ6SV

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The slides are here.

If you’ve never seen Eric’s Lean Startup presentation, take a few minutes to at least watch his part. It starts at ~40:30 in the video.

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Preparing for Chaos – the Life of a Startup

I just finished reading Donovan Campbell’s eye-opening book, “Joker One“, about his harrowing combat tour in Iraq leading a Marine platoon. This book may be the Iraq war equivalent of “Dispatches” which defined Vietnam for my generation.  (Both reminded me why National Service would be a very good idea.)

Campbell describes how he tried to instill in his troops the proper combat mentality.

I’ve paraphrased his speech into the language of a startup.  It’s eerily similar.

Startups are inherently chaos. As a founder you need to prepare yourself to think creatively and independently, because more often than not, conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant.

If you can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can’t bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then your investors and competitors will make your decisions for you and you will run out of money and your company will die.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Therefore the best way to keep your company alive is to instill in every employee a decisive mindset that can quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant, synthesize the output, and use this intelligence to create islands of order in the all-out chaos of a startup.

Every potential startup founder should think about their level of comfort operating in chaos and uncertainty.  It may not be for you.

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Supermac War Story 8: Cats and Dogs – Admitting a Mistake

At SuperMac, I thought I was good VP of marketing; aggressive, relentless and would take no prisoners – even with my peers inside the company.  But a series of Zen-like moments helped me move to a different level that changed how I operated.  It didn’t make my marketing skills any worse or better, but moved me to play forever on a different field. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Zen moment #1- Admitting a mistake and asking for help

Up until this point in my career I had one response anytime I screwed something up: blame someone else. The only variable was how big the screw-up was – that made a difference in whom I blamed.  If it was a very big mistake, I blamed the VP of Sales.  “This marketing campaign didn’t work? It was a brilliant strategy but Sales screwed it up.”  (My own lame defense here for this behavior is that sales and marketing are always cats and dogs in startups. Historically, these were two guys with high testosterone. They hit each other with baseball bats until one of them dropped.)

This first Zen moment happened at a SuperMac exec staff meeting. I was asked to explain why a marketing program that cost $150,000 bucks literally generated nothing in revenue for the company.  I still remember that I was gearing up to go into my ‘I’m going to blame the sales guy’ routine. Since our sales guy was a good street fighter, I knew the ensuing melee would create enough of a distraction that no one would talk about my marketing debacle.  My brain had queued up the standard, “It’s all Sales’s fault,” but instead, what came out of my mouth was, “You know, I really screwed this marketing campaign up, making it successful is important for the company, and I need all your help to fix it.”   You could have heard a pin drop.  It was so out of character, people were shocked.  Some stammered out, “can you say that again?”

Our president picked up on the momentum and asked me what I needed from the rest of the exec team to fix this debacle. I replied:  “This is really important for our success as company and I’m really at a loss why customers didn’t respond the way we expected.  Anybody else got some other ideas?”

From there, the conversation took a different trajectory. It was uncomfortable for some people, because it was new ground  – I was asking for help – wanting to do what was right for the company.

It was definitely a “Zen moment” for me in terms of my career.  From then on when I screwed up, not only did I own up to it, I asked for help.  This behavior had an unintended consequence I couldn’t have predicted: when others started volunteering to help me solve a problem, finding a solution became their goal as well.

Soon one or two others execs tested the waters by making a small tentative “ask” as well.  When they discovered that the sky didn’t fall and they still had their jobs, our corporate culture took one more step toward a more effective and cohesive company.

Ownership and Teamwork not turf.

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Killing Innovation with Corner Cases and Consensus

I was visiting a friend whose company teaches executives how to communicate effectively. He had just filmed the second of a series of videos called, Speaking to the Big Dogs: How mid-level managers can communicate effectively with C-level executives  (CEO, VP’s, General Managers, etc.)  As we were plotting marketing strategy, I mentioned that the phrase “Speaking to the Big Dogs” might end up as his corporate brand.  And that he might want to think about aligning all his video and Internet products under that name. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

We were happily brainstorming when one of his managers spoke up and said, “Well, the phrase ‘Big Dogs’ might not work because it might not translate well in our Mexican and Spanish markets.”  Hmm, that’s a fair comment, I thought, surprised they even had international locations. “How big are your Mexican and Spanish markets,” I asked? “Well, we’re not in those markets today… but we might be some day.”  I took a deep breath and asked, “Ok, if you were, what percentage of your sales do you think these markets would be in 5 years?”   “I guess less than 5%,” was the answer.

Now I mention this conversation not because the objection was dumb, but because objections like these happen all the time when you’re brainstorming.  And when you are brainstorming you really do want to hear all ideas and all possible pitfalls.  But entrepreneurial leaders sometimes forget that in startups, you can’t allow a “corner case” to derail fearless decision making.

Corner Cases
A corner case is an objection that may be:

  1. technically reasonable
  2. may have a probability of occurring
  3. its probability of occurring is lower than your probability of running out of money.

I’ve noticed that corner case comments are directly proportional to the intelligence of the people in the room.  The smarter the team the more objections you’ll have – and they’ll all be technically and theoretically possible.

Corner Cases and Consensus are For Large Companies
Carefully considering each and every possible outcome before you proceed with a decision is something large companies with large revenues, shareholders and employees need to do.  

Achieving consensus about every corner case from each stakeholder in the room  is something large companies with large revenues, shareholders and employees need to do.  

Unlike large corporations, startup meetings are not about achieving consensus for every objection raised.  They are about forward motion, momentum and feedback loops (i.e. Customer Development.)

Calculate the Odds
The heuristic I suggest is: hear the corner case objections, make the objector calculate the odds, if the potential damage estimate is low (probability of the event occurring multiplied by its ability to put you out of business) keep the meeting focussed and move on.  If you do this consistently your team will catch on.

You’ll be spending your time on what matters, rather what’s theoretically possible. For a startup “No Corner Cases” needs to be an integral part of your corporate DNA.

Any startup that’s striving for consensus on corner cases instead of speed and tempo will be out of business.

Focus on Speed and Tempo

SuperMac War Story 7: Rabbits Out of the Hat – Product Line Extensions

A year after we started repositioning the company, Engineering, which had been working on a family of new products literally for years, came to deliver some good news and bad news.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

First the bad news:  the new family of eight high performance graphics cards we were counting on couldn’t be delivered.  The plug-in co-processor architecture was too complex and couldn’t be made to work reliably.  Instead of the family of eight products we were expecting, only one could be delivered.  Nothing else was in the development pipeline for the next 12 months.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  One of the reasons I had joined the company was seeing these boards as hope for the future.  Now we were faced with the fact that even though we were gaining market share daily, there was nothing coming out of Engineering.

Well not quite nothing: there was the good news. Instead of eight boards, Engineering was going to be able to deliver one new graphics board.  Just one.  But it was going to be the fastest graphics board ever made.  In fact, according to our Potrero benchmark suite this new board ran our customer applications ten times faster than our current products.

I went home to think about this.  Instead of a product family, we had a single point product.  Each of my competitors each had 5-10 graphics boards covering a range of prices with performance to match.  Even our current product line had four graphics boards in it.  Now our new product line would only have one board?!.  What could we do?

Marketing Gets into the Engineering Business
The next day I walked in uninvited to the VP of Engineering’s office and asked if he had a minute. I said, “I realize you’re trying to get the one board out to market, but I have a question – can you slow our new board down?”   It doesn’t take much imagination to see the look he gave me when I asked that question.  “Steve, this hasn’t been a good week. What do you really want?”  I felt sorry for him, he was working really hard to dig out of this mess.  I replied, “No joke.  Can you make it slower?  I think he wanted to strangle me as he barely got out, “We worked for years to deliver a product that’s ten times faster than anything that exists and you want to make it slower?”  Well, not exactly, “What I want to know is if the board would work if you slowed it down by 10%?”  Yes, was the answer.  “How about if you slowed it down 20%?” Yes, was still the answer.  “By 30%?”  The change in his demeanor – from trying to kill me – to laughing, as it dawned on him where I was going, could only be described as hysterical relief. “40%?”  Yes, yes and yes.

We were about to be partners in building a new product family.

Rabbits Out of the Hat – Branding and Line Extensions
First, what we proposed is that we take our world class, ten-times-faster-than-anyone board and build an entire product family around it, by slowing it down.  We wanted nine boards, each differing in performance by 10%.  The only real difference between them would be the addition of “wait states” or “slow down” instructions on a chip.  Our entire new product family would be an identical board. 

Next, we were going to create three separate product families, each its own unique brand.  And within each brand we would have a “good”, “better”, and “best” graphic board.  All tailored to our color publishing market. 

Finally, these product families would be priced to bracket (box in) everyone of our competitors’ products with better price and performance. We were going to price the products from $699 to $3,999.  Our calculations had us losing money on the two lowest cost boards, breaking even on the third and making great margins on the other six.  We calculated our blended gross margin for the company by estimating the number of units we would sell of each board times the gross margin of each individual board (then I crossed my fingers and prayed we were right.)

In essence we were proposing that we ship the same board in 9 different colored boxes and charge from $699 to $3,999 depending on the color of the box and the speed of the board. (This turned out to give our customers immense value.  We would have charged $3,999 for the high-end board.  Now we could give customers lower price boards without Engineering spending 12 months to design new ones.)

You’re Going to Do What?!
The reaction inside our company could not be described as polite.  At first most people thought we were joking.  No one believed it would work.  Some engineers were insulted that we were going to slow down their board and sales was convinced that within days of the board hitting the street we would have a black market in chips to speed up the $699 boards and turn them into $3,999 ones.  My own marketing department was convinced that the same industry magazines, which we had managed so well, would turn on us when they saw that the boards were physically identical. 

Yet I believed that this was the only alternative to slowly going out of business. (While our engineering department was close to the customer, seven of those eight products they were going to ship to those customers weren’t going to see the light of day.)  Now it was up to Marketing is to take the technology as delivered by Engineering and shape it to the needs of the customers and market.  By creating these new families of products we could provide real value to our color desktop publishing customers by giving them performance at a price they couldn’t get anywhere else.

A Big Idea – Marketing Adds Value. This notion of Marketing taking what Engineering builds as a starting point, not an end point, is the difference between just being a marcom department and a value-added Marketing department.  If all you’re doing is shipping and launching the product as spec’d by Engineering, you’re not adding value. The job of Marketing is to help Engineering figure out how to deliver product(s) that customers need and want.  It starts with a deep understanding of what customers need (and making sure Engineering is getting continuous customer feedback and interaction.)  We did that when we surveyed our customers. Next, we had a good understanding of the capabilities of the product that Engineering was building.  And in this very unique case, we figured out how to maximize revenue and profit by branding and product line extensions.

We would use this same idea 10 years later at E.piphany.

SuperMac product line - built on a single graphics card

SuperMac product line – built on a single graphics card

Relentless Execution
If we were right, this line extension and branding strategy would allow us to catch up to our competitors and overtake them. 

Luckily marketing had built a reservoir of credibility with our peers and CEO.  After the VP of Engineering described the alternatives (no new products for a year), desperation became the mother of innovation and we launched our new family of nine new graphics boards.  As far as manufacturing was concerned, they were the identical graphics board.  As customers saw them, they were a new family of products aimed directly at the color desktop publishing market with astonishing performance and a low-cost entry price.

The results spoke for themselves: Not one black-market board ever appeared, and the press was satisfied with our “customer value and product family” explanation. Our new graphics boards became the market leader of the industry. In three and a half years SuperMac’s market share went from 11% to 68%, as we went from bankruptcy to $150 million in sales.

Years later, I was having coffee with the VP of Sales and Marketing from one our competitors and he said, “We would have beat you guys, but we just couldn’t keep up with the tidal wave of products coming from your engineering department. They came up with exactly the right products at the right price.”  I took a long sip of coffee as I thought of all the things I could say. Instead I smiled, nodded and said, “Yep, it was amazing, they just kept pulling rabbits out of the hat.”

What did I learn so far?

  • At times, what Engineering delivers is the raw material.
  • Marketings job is to take engineering products and use them to maximize revenue and profit.
  • In an existing or resegmented market, this may include branding and product line extensions.
  • This requires deep customer and competitive knowledge.
  • In most markets, “first mover advantage” is illusorily; fast followers often win.

“Speed and Tempo” – Fearless Decision Making for Startups

”If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.”

Mario Andretti

I was catching up over breakfast with a friend who’s now CEO of his own startup. One of the things he mentioned was that when it came to decision-making he still tended to think and act like an engineer. Each and every decision he made was carefully thought through and weighed. And he recognized it was making his startup feel and act like a big ponderous company. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Speed = Execution Now

General George Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” The same is true in your company. Most decisions in a startup must be made in the face of uncertainty. Since every situation is unique, there is no perfect solution to any engineering, customer or competitor problem, and you shouldn’t agonize over trying to find one. This doesn’t mean gambling the company’s fortunes on a whim. It means adopting plans with an acceptable degree of risk, and doing it quickly. (Make sure these are fact-based, not faith-based decisions.) In general, the company that consistently makes and implements decisions rapidly gains a tremendous, often decisive, competitive advantage.

Decision Making Heuristics for the Startup CEO

The heuristic I gave my friend was to think of decisions of having two states: those that are reversible and those that are irreversible. An example of a reversible decision could be adding a product feature, a new algorithm in the code, targeting a specific set of customers, etc. If the decision was a bad call you can unwind it in a reasonable period of time. An irreversible decision is firing an employee, launching your product, a five-year lease for an expensive new building, etc. These are usually difficult or impossible to reverse.

My advice was to start a policy of making reversible decisions before anyone left his office or before a meeting ended. In a startup it doesn’t matter if you’re 100% right 100% of the time. What matters is having forward momentum and a tight fact-based feedback loop (i.e. Customer Development) to help you quickly recognize and reverse any incorrect decisions. That’s why startups are agile. By the time a big company gets the committee to organize the subcommittee to pick a meeting date, your startup could have made 20 decisions, reversed five of them and implemented the fifteen that worked.

Tempo = Speed Consistently Over Time

Once you learn how to make decisions quickly you’re not done.  Startups that are agile have mastered one other trick – and that’s Tempo – the ability to make quick decisions consistently over extended periods of time.  Not just for the CEO or the exec staff, but for the entire company.  For a startup Speed and Tempo need to be an integral part of your corporate DNA.

Great startups have a tempo of 10x a large company.

Try it.

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SuperMac War Story 6: Building The Killer Team – Mission, Intent and Values

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

At the same time we were educating the press, we began to educate our own marketing department about what exactly we were supposed to be doing inside the company. During the first few weeks I asked each of my department heads what they did for marketing and the company. When I asked our trade show manager she looked at me like I was the house idiot and said, “Steve, don’t you know that my job is to set up our trade show booth?” The other departments in marketing gave the same answers; the product-marketing department said their job was to write data sheets. But my favorite was when the public relations manager said, “we’re here to write press releases and answer the phone in case the press calls.”

If these sound like reasonable answers to you, and you are in a startup/small company, update your resume.

Titles are not your job
When I pressed my staff to explain why marketing did trade shows, or wrote press releases or penned data sheets, the best I could get was “why that’s our job.” It dawned on me that we had a department full of people who were confusing their titles with what contribution they were supposed to be making to the company. While their titles might be what their business cards said, titles were not their job – at least in any marketing department I was running.

Titles are not the same as what your job is. This is a big idea.

Department Mission Statements – What am I Supposed to Do Today
It wasn’t that we somehow had inherited dumb employees. What I was actually hearing was a failure of management. No one had sat the marketing department down and defined what our department Mission (with a capital “M”) was.

Most startups put together a corporate mission statement because the CEO remembered seeing one at their last job, or the investors said they needed one. Most companies spend an inordinate amount of time crafting a finely honed corporate mission statement for external consumption and then do nothing internally to actually make it happen. (And to this day I can’t remember if we even had a corporate mission statement.) What I’m about to describe here is quite different.

What was missing in SuperMac marketing was anything in writing that gave the marketing staff daily guidance on what they should be doing. The first reaction from my CEO was, “that’s why you’re running the department.” And yes, we could have built a top-down, command-and-control hierarchy. But what I wanted was an agile marketing team capable of operating independently without day-to-day direction.

So what we needed to do was to craft a Departmental Mission statement that told everyone why they come to work, what they need to do, and how they will know they have succeeded. And it was going to mention the two words that SuperMac marketing needed to live and breathe: revenue and profit.

Five Easy Pieces – The Marketing Mission
After a few months of talking to customers, talking to our channel and working with sales we defined the marketing Mission (our job) was to:
Help Sales deliver $25 million in sales with a 45% gross margin. To do that we will create end-user demand and drive it into the sales channel, educate the channel and customers about why our products are superior, and help Engineering understand customer needs and desires. We will accomplish this through demand-creation activities (advertising, PR, tradeshows, seminars, web sites, etc.), competitive analyses, channel and customer collateral (white papers, data sheets, product reviews), customer surveys, and market requirements documents.

This year, marketing need to provide sales with 40,000 active and accepted leads, company and product name recognition over 65% in our target market, and five positive product reviews per quarter. We will reach 35% market share in year one of sales with a headcount of twenty people, spending less than $4,000,000.

  • Generate end user demand (to match our revenue goals)
  • Drive that demand into our sales channels
  • Value price our products to achieve our revenue and margin goals (create high-value)
  • Educate our sales channel(s)
  • Help engineering understand customer needs

That was it. Two paragraphs, Five bullets. It didn’t take more.

Working to the Mission
Having the mission in place meant that our marketing team could see that what mattered was not what their business card said, but how much closer did their work move our department to completing the mission. Period.

It wasn’t an easy concept for everyone to understand.

Building the Team
My new Director of Marketing Communications turned the Marcom departments into a mission-focused organization. Her new tradeshow manager quickly came to understand that their job was not to set up booths. We hired union laborers to do that. A trade show was where our company went to create awareness and/or leads. And if you ran the tradeshow department you owned the responsibility of awareness and leads. The booth was incidental. I couldn’t care less if we had a booth or not if we could generate the same amount of leads and awareness by skydiving naked into a coffee cup.

The same was true for PR. My new head of Public Relations quickly learned that my admin could answer calls from the press. The job of Public Relations at SuperMac wasn’t a passive “write a press release and wait for something to happen activity.” It wasn’t measured by how busy you were, it was measured by results. And the results weren’t the traditional PR metrics of number of articles or inches of ink. I couldn’t care less about those. I wanted our PR department to get close and personal with the press and use it to generate end user demand and then drive that demand into our sales channel. (The Potrero benchmark strategy was one component of this creating end user demand through PR.) We were constantly creating metrics to see the effects of different PR messages, channels and audiences on end-user purchases.

The same was true for the Product Marketing group. I hired a Director of Product Marketing who in his last company had ran its marketing and then went out into the field and became its national sales director. He got the job when I asked him how much of his own marketing material his sales team actually used in the field. When he said, “about ten percent,” I knew by the embarrassed look on his face I had found the right guy. And our Director of Technical Marketing was superb at understanding customer needs and communicating them to engineering.

Teaching Mission Intent – What’s Really Important
With a great team in place, the next step was recognizing that our Mission statement might change on the fly. “Hey, we just all bought into this Mission idea and now you’re telling us it can change?!”

We introduced the notion of Mission intent. What is the company goal behind the mission. In our case it was to sell $25 million in graphics boards with 45% gross margin. The idea of intention is that if employees understand the thinking behind the mission, they can work collaboratively to achieve it.

But we recognized that there would be time marketing would screw up, making the mission obsolete (i.e. we might fail to deliver 40,000 leads.) Think of intention as the answer to the adage, “When you are up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to remember you were supposed to drain the swamp.” For example; our mission said that the reason why marketing needed to deliver 40,000 leads and 35% market share, etc, was so that the company could sell $25 million in graphics boards at 45% gross margin.

What we taught everyone is that the intention is more enduring then the mission. (“Let’s see, the company is trying to sell $25 million in graphics boards with 45% gross margin. If marketing can’t deliver the 40,000 leads what else can we do for sales to still achieve our revenue and profitability?”) The mission was our goal, but based on circumstances it may change, but the Intent was immovable.

When faced with the time pressures of a startup, too many demands and too few people, we began to teach our staff to refer back to the five Mission goals and the Intent of the department. When stuff started piling up on their desks, they learned to ask themselves, “Is what I’m working on furthering these goals? If so, which one? If not, why am I doing it?”

They understood the mission intent was our corporate revenue and profit goals.

Core Values
Even after we had Mission and Intent down pat, one of the things that still drove me crazy was when we failed to deliver a project for sales on time or we missed a media deadline, everyone in my department had an excuse. (Since a large part of marketing was as a service organization to sales, our inability to deliver on time meant we weren’t holding up our end of the mission.) I realized that this was a broken part of our culture, but couldn’t figure out why. And one day it hit me that when deadlines slipped there were no consequences.

And with no consequences we acted as if schedules and commitments really didn’t matter. I heard a constant refrain of, “The channel sales brochure was late because the vendor got busy and they couldn’t meet the original deadline.” Or, “the January ad had to be moved into February because my graphic artist was sick but I didn’t tell you assuming it was OK.” Or, “we’re going to slip our product launch because the team thought they couldn’t get ready in time.” We had  a culture that had no accountability, and no consequences –  instead there were simply shrugged shoulders and a litany of excuses.

This had to change. I wanted a department that could be counted on delivering. One day I simply put up a sign on my door that said, “No excuses accepted.” And I let the department know what I meant was we were all going to be “accountable.”

What I didn’t mean was “deliver or else.” By accountable I meant, “we agreed on a delivery date, and between now and the delivery date it’s OK if you ask for help because you’re stuck, or something happened outside of your control. But do not walk into my office the day something was due and give me an excuse. It will cost you your job.” That kind of accountable.

And, “since I won’t accept those kind of excuses, you are no longer authorized to accept them from your staff or vendors either.” The goal wasn’t inflexible dates and deadlines, it was no surprises and collective problem solving.  After that, we  spent a lot more time working together to solve problems and remove obstacles in getting things done on-time.

Over time, accountability, execution, honesty and integrity became the cornerstones of our communication with each other, other departments and vendors.

  • We wouldn’t give excuses for failures, just facts and requests for help
  • We wouldn’t accept excuses for failures, just facts, and offer help
  • Relentless execution
  • Individual honesty and integrity

That was it. Four bullets. It defined our culture.

Why Do It
By the end of the first year our team had jelled. It was a department willing to exercise initiative, had the judgment to act wisely, and an eagerness to accept responsibility.

I remember at the end of a hard week my direct reports came into my office just to talk about the weeks little victories. And there was a moment as they shared their stories, that they all began to realize that our company (one that had just come off of life support) was beginning to kick the rear of our better-funded and bigger competitors.

We all marveled in the moment.

What did I learn so far?

  • Push independent execution of tasks down to the lowest possible level
  • Give everyone a shared Mission Statement: why they come to work, what they need to do, and how they will know they have succeeded.
  • Share Mission Intent for the big picture for the Mission Statement
  • Build a team comfortable with independent Mission execution
  • Agree on Core Values to define your culture
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