Saturday, December 31, 2011

Don't drop off the grid if you support my customers

Sometimes I can be a hard ass.

We have a very flexible vacation policy at FirstRain, but I also have a deeply held principle that customers come first, ahead, even dare I say it, of vacation. Preparing for the break this year (when I encouraged everyone to get some down time) I also had to give some pointed input to my customer facing team. I have no problem with our R&D guys dropping off the grid. I do have a problem with customer facing employees dropping off the grid unless they have several layers of backup to make sure customers are supported - and if they are on the grid I do expect them to check email once per day to check for customer critical issues.

Here's the note I sent to the sales and support team on checking in during vacation... if you touch our customers in any way...


I want to be clear with you on my expectations for customer and sales support during the break.

It is imperative that our customers, and our sales team if they are working on deals, have uninterrupted support from the pre- and post-sales team. This does not mean you do not take a break, but it does mean you need to be organized about their support.

Some ground rules

- check your email at least once a day. We are a small company where customers form personal relationships with you. If they contact you by email you need to see it, so not checking your email is not OK. If you see a customer request forward it on to the person who is covering for you and ask them to respond to the customer and service their request. Likewise with sales.

- do not put an out of office message up that customers would see - if they are working so are we.

- if you cannot check email once a day then forward your email to someone else to cover for you so the email to you gets answered promptly

Your time off is important but you need to do it in a sufficiently connected way that customers are always supported, and if you cannot stay connected then you must forward your email to someone who has agreed to check it for you.

Any questions - call me or email me.


I take vacations. No question. I love spending time in warm locations with my family. But I am connected almost all the time and if not (I was off grid on a kayak up a river yesterday) I check before I leave - and give a heads up if needed so someone can cover for me.

Yes, maybe I am a hard ass, but customers always, always come first.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Techcrunch, Penelope Trunk and the damaging stereotype in pursuit of traffic

When someone takes a strong, clearly personal position and claims it is the majority is it journalism, controversy for it's own sake or an unprincipled pursuit of traffic?

Penelope Trunk's recent blog Stop Telling Women To Do Startups is one such example that begs the question. With statements like :

"Here’s a post by Tara Brown wondering why women don’t comment on VC blogs. Here’s the answer: Because women don’t care." We don't? All of us? Are you sure? Maybe we are just very focused in the use of our time as we run tech companies.

"Women can do startups. The thing is, most don’t want to." Do you know these "most"? If you lived in Silicon Valley you'd know many, many women do want to. I mentor them continuously.

"For the most part, women are not complaining about the lack of VC funding in the world. They are complaining about the lack of jobs with flexible hours." Are you not listening to the number of women trying to figure out how to break in?

I guess this type of "stop changing things we are quite happy not having equal opportunity" thinking is not new.

In 1852 the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin played a strong role in the anti-slavery movement by popularizing the discussion on the wrongs of slavery. In response the pro-slavery South published a series of novels romanticizing that slaves were happier and better off being slaves than being free.

In 1913, as women campaigned for the vote, Helen Kendrick Johnson wrote Women and the Republic, stating the reasons why women did not want the vote - "Because the influence of women in social causes will be diminished rather than increased by the possession of the parliamentary vote."

In no way do I equate the issue of equality of opportunity for women in tech startups to the struggles of the anti-slavery movement or women's suffrage but come on Penelope, do you need to, in our own little world, repeat the pattern and stereotypes?

Today less than 5% of venture capital goes to women led startups. Startups are not only fun they are also a way to create products and personal wealth. It makes sense that women want to get funding too. And they should be encouraged to try if they are interested.

For many women, maybe not you, career and family go hand in hand. You snark at Sheryl Sandberg but she, like me, and many others, is having both a vibrant career and children. Many of us enjoy the challenge and the role model we create for our kids - oh and by the way have happy, normal kids.

Don't stereotype us with generalizations like "I think you’d be really hard-pressed to find many moms with two young kids who wants Sandberg’s life. Which is why women are not “leaning into their careers” like Sandberg says they need to in order to get to the top." Many women ARE leaning into their careers and I take my hat off to them. I know it's hard but it's also fun, rewarding and creates more opportunity for the next generation of women.

But maybe this is about ad traffic? Maybe this is about creating a platform for yourself as a speaker and a blogger ? If so your strategy is working. But you are doing a disservice to the women working hard to build an equal role for themselves in the male dominated field of technology.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How much candor is too much?

A week ago I spoke to the MIT Sloan Executive MBA classes of 2012 and 2013 about being a CEO. As you can imagine within an EMBA class -- made up of professionals with an average age of 40 – many of the students are entrepreneurs, or are considering whether to develop into a CEO/GM/entrepreneur so my experience could be helpful, or at least interesting to them.

I find that in a setting like this story telling is the most interesting way to communicate. I’m not teaching, I’m simply sharing experience. And I try to be light hearted so that it doesn’t get boring. But sometimes I do wonder if I am too candid. My talk centered around huge challenges and how I dealt with them. I started with one of my worst low points when my confidence was in the tank and described the abyss. As I posted before this happens to everyone at times and as a CEO you must not let on, not quit and find a healthy way to cope.

Then I shared three really tough experiences:
- becoming a CEO, finding out I was clueless and struggling to work out what really mattered in this new, amorphous job

- switching industry from EDA (software for semiconductor design) to the Information industry and going back to first principles (customers) to figure out how to develop the strategy

- having my market melt down on me not once, not twice but three times (April 2000, Sept 2001, Sept 2008) and figuring out how to change and survive each time.

I truly believe people learn much more from mistakes than from successes and so sharing my mistakes, with plenty of self-effacing humor, exposes that everyone is haunted by the same thoughts of failure. Finding ways to deal with the problems and thrive is what you need in 99% of companies. Some are right place, right time but most morph their strategy several times before they get it right.

The feedback from this talk was a first for me. My audience was probably 70% male, 30% female and at the end of the talk and Q&A both men and women came up to chat with me and ask me more questions. The feedback was positive (whew!) but about my candor. Specifically one student voiced that most speakers come in and talk about all the great things that happened and what they did, not all the things that went wrong and the mistakes they made. But how much candor is too much?

This talk was not taped but if it had been could it hurt me if pieces were take out of context?

Candor is amusing, it’s compelling and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable but it is usually unforgettable because it is pointed and rare. Cindy Gallop is an extremely brave example speaking on and the pornification of our culture – and people listening to her are uncomfortable but they will never forget what she said. Candor is also often simple – like Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech. Nora Denzel in her Top 10 Career Tips makes fun of herself and women as a group in a charming, funny way.

Candor is also self-indulgent. For me, it’s easy to laugh at myself. It takes more work for me to be serious.

I am serious in front of customers when talking about our technology and how we can help them. I am serious when speaking about the changes impacting the information industry. I am serious when working with investors of the private or public companies I work with. With my employees I strive for serious transparency.

But me and my experience? It’s hard to be serious about that!

And that leads to the question. As a female CEO, where there are not very many of us, do I hurt women when I am candid and share my mistakes and challenges more than a male CEO would? Do I help the student but confirm that women are less serious about their careers and themselves than men?

I take everything seriously in business. But when I am talking with peers – as I consider the students at the Sloan MIT EMBA program to be – I try to be candid and share in a way that will help them see the “man behind the curtain” to demystify the leadership role.

After all, the only way to walk on water is to know where the rocks are - and that takes mistakes and learning.

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