Friday, August 11, 2017

Five practices you can learn so that “I told you so” is a gift


Does it irritate you when someone says “I told you so” to you?

You’d be quite normal if it does. There is nothing quite as annoying as having a know-it-all tell you that they knew better than you all along and you did not listen. And yet, if you can check your ego, and if he did actually tell you so, then you’ve been missing a gift. Of course, this only makes sense if you are getting advice from someone who is often right, and who cares about you, otherwise it could be the blind leading the blind!

I have been fortunate enough to have two mentors who were not shy about telling me what they thought, and that I was an idiot when I didn’t listen. I saw one yesterday who, as we talked about the last couple of years, found not one, not two, but three times to say “I told you so”. By the last one he gave me a big grin and said “I think I told you that too!”

On the heels of the laughter, and the chagrin I feel that he was so often right, here are five practices that can help you milk your mentors for their wisdom and make sure you can hear it!

1. Learn to listen to business advice from people who have done it before. Whether it comes to building your engineering or service team, designing a big customer contract or hiring your first sales people if you are working with someone who has done it before, and who is respected, listen carefully. While their advice may not be perfect, and you may not like what they have to say, if they are willing to put the time in to work through an issue with you listen, take notes, and if you don’t follow the advice have a damn good reason. And frankly the argument of “you are not current” or “things are different now” is bs. While pace, technology and regulations changes, the fundamentals of what it takes to build a team and a thriving, profitable business are in common across a huge range of styles of company (as my mentor and I agreed yesterday comparing notes of the range of companies we are both working with now).

2. Pay attention to when someone is sharing a personal story with you. A story which is painful to tell probably has a strong lesson in it. If your advisor is sharing a major mistake they made dig in and try and understand what do they wish they had seen beforehand, or what did they see and ignored? Are there parallels for you today where you are avoiding something that is in front of your eyes but you don’t want to see it? This could be as far ranging as a personnel mistake, or a personal mistake! 

3. When someone tells you something you don’t agree with, and your first reaction is to think in your head that you don’t agree - and so to argue - stop yourself and ask questions. I love the Covey habit “seek first to understand, then to be understood” and too few people use this habit. As someone who coaches every day now, I pick up very quickly whether an entrepreneur understands the power of questioning to figure out what they should know that they don’t know.

4. Pay attention when someone is angry with you. Either they are a jerk and have no business being angry with you, or they care enough that your reaction is upsetting them. Now you can’t take on everyone else’s issues, of course, but anger or intense emotion or stress is a guide that is often worth following. Don’t react with anger, take a deep breath, apologize that you have upset them, acknowledge that they care, and ask questions (see above) seeking to understand the source of their emotion. Maybe you’ve heard them but you are not being skilled in acknowledging that, or maybe you have not been listening. For myself, I have found the skill of active listening “I think you said xxxx, did I understand that correctly?” can be very powerful when an advisor is frustrated with me.

5. Follow the joy in business. Too often we spend time talking through what’s going wrong, and yet some of the best lessons I could have learned (and got an “I told you so” about later) were about where/how I was going to be happiest. Work can be terrific fun if you stay grounded and don’t get wrapped up in your ego so if someone who cares about you is trying to give you advice to “lighten up” (as one of my early mentors told me) do yourself a favor and find a way to ground yourself.

And if you can do all that you'll be a better able to hear advice than most!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

5 reasons it's critical to truly understand your P&L

In the last month I have had the experience of three small business leaders talking to me about their P&L in moment-in-time terms. Something like this... for this quarter (or this year) we'll make $X, we spend $Y less than I thought so we're $Z ahead. Usually followed by why $X and $Z are so great, and how they'll spend those extra dollars they are ahead, or why their company is successful as a result. Naive.

Unless you have a steady business that has been the same for a while, is not growing and is profitable the moment-in-time view of your business tells you very little. It might make you feel good that your bottom line is black and not red, or not as red as you thought it would be, but all you're getting is the warm and fuzzies - no insight.

So, five reasons it's critical you truly understand your P&L over time - to be able to answer what is your revenue, costs, profit/loss and collections every quarter (or month depending on the cadence of your business) for the last year and the coming 2 years?

1. Cash

Cash is Queen for a growing business of any size; it's the fuel for growth and the security for longevity. So you need to see how cash flows every month for the foreseeable future. Unless you are selling products for cash in the local market, every sale comes with a delay in collection. Sometimes it's when the credit card vendor pays you for your product, sometimes it's 90 days later when your customer's AP department pays you, but there is typically a delay. But you are paying your people anyway, and maybe opening up new offices, hiring etc ahead of being paid for your sales.

This means the collections line item in your P&L is critically interesting. What cash are you collecting every month, and so what is your ending cash every month after your expenses? You need to have this carefully modeled over the next 18-24 months, and intimately understand it so that as your business fluctuates and changes you know what it will do to cash flow. Combine this with a need to always have at least 6 months of payroll in the bank and this will tell you how much risk you can afford to take with your business at any moment in time.

I've seen businesses where the CEO is telling him/herself how great they are doing because of all kinds of positive indicators but the cash collections line is not changing over time, it's not growing. You can't hide from cash flow and so it's a great indicator of the true underlying health of the business. Are the dogs eating the dog food and, more importantly, are they paying for it?

2. Measuring your progress

If your business is immature (less than 10 years old) then almost no matter what business plan you build for the next 24 months it will not be what you actually do. Something will change, you'll do better, or worse, or differently than you thought. But having a 2 year outlook and then measuring yourself against it is how you'll learn the nuances of the business and learn how to predict and measure the changes.

Going through the discipline of putting an 8 quarter plan together together to present to your stakeholders and your management team forces you to think through what assumptions you are making about your business. Don't tell me you don't know enough to do this yet - if you take someone else's money, or even hire other people to work for you, then you are responsible, and that means you need to put your assumptions down on paper and fold them into a P&L model so you can measure your progress against your assumptions and course correct accordingly. You can't correct your course if you're not on one.

And don't fall into the trap of comparing your business to last year's business at the same time. While an interesting statistic it tells you nothing except whether you are growing. It does not tell you how you are doing against your plan and so how your top line and expenses are flowing into cash. See #1.

3. Learning financial management

No-one comes out of the womb knowing how to manage a P&L. Most students graduate college without ever learning how to read a P&L and a balance sheet (a crime I think) so no one expects you to just know it. If you are not a trained financial professional, but you want to lead a business team or be a CEO then you need to learn it. Step 1 take a class. Step 2 learn on your own P&L. Do the spreadsheets yourself until you understand the relationships between revenue and collections, costs and margin.

Yes you'll need a CPA to do your books, but when it comes to forecasting the next 2 years of your business there is no reason you should not be able to build a simple model yourself. I despair of entrepreneurs who hand the financial modeling off to someone else, and never really grasp the financial dynamics and dependencies of their business.

4. Valuing your business

As I mentioned up front, unless your business is mature and not growing then how it is doing at any single point in time does not tell you much about it's true value, except a low value such as 1X revenue, or 1X profit. If you want to establish and communicate the value of your business to, for example, a potential investor, you need to tell a story over time. Last year, and next 2 years at a minimum.

Except with mature businesses that generate cash, businesses are valued on their potential. How much revenue and profit will the business generate in the future? Is it growing, and so what does that mean for future cash flows? Should it be valued as a multiple of LTM (last twelve months) revenue or NTM profits?

Building, and deeply understanding, your business' next 2 years of growth and being able to present it in a believable way (because you understand the dynamics so well) is how you establish value with an investor or buyer.

5.  Communicating with your employees

Your employees, or partners, are following you because they believe. Hopefully you're paying them a fair wage, but they are probably with you because they believe in what you are trying to do. Even in a large company this can be true - people join a team because they believe in the mission.

So given they are following you, you need to keep them updated on how the business is doing so they can both help you solve problems, and celebrate with you when things go well. I am a big believer in sharing the basic P&L of your business with your leadership team at a minimum, and with your employees once it stabilizes. If they don't have a good understanding of the future of your P&L how are you going to enable them to fully participate in the building of the business? And how will you celebrate the wins with them if they don't know whether you are making the plans you set out or not?

I don't buy the argument that employees are not able to handle the numbers - that it will "scare" them. Yes you don't tell them you are running out of cash, but if you are hiring college graduates you can at least share your top line plans with them and if they don't understand the basics of a P&L you can teach them. They will thank you for it, and be much more vested in the end results of the business if you share progress with them. I recently put together a 2 hour class on the basics of reading a P&L for a friend's business (where most of the employees have liberal arts degrees) and it was not only great fun for me and the employees, but it gave them a starting point to understand the terrific progress the company they are working for is making.

Bottom line - if you are leading a team with financial targets, or are the CEO of your own venture, you owe it to yourself to learn and truly understand your own business' P&L.

Photo: British Museum

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The importance of being humble

We’ve all met this person in our professional lives. Smart but self-absorbed, in love with their own success so far, or with the self-importance of their title, or the size of their business, or how attractive they are. Executives who are so used to everyone catering to their every need that they forget to be courteous. VCs who are so used to entrepreneurs beating down their doors they forget to be kind (or worse). Entrepreneurs with hubris who think because they have raised money they are already a success. Lawyers and bankers who have been making so much money for so long they think their time is more important than the people around them.

The behavior is irritating, but why does it matter? It’s not my place to moralize in the greater sense but in my experience the behavior does catch up with most people in their careers, one way or another, in the end.

Unless you have fast runaway success, or true genius (very rare), or are the Zaphod Beeblebrox, you are going to need the people around you for you to succeed long term. If you are arrogant it is hard to get your peers to want to work with you, or for you. Weaker people will, but the strong ones will move on. And, in the end, you are only as good as your team. People might stay with you while the money is good – attaching themselves to your coat tails – but when your company/responsibility hits a bump in the road, or they don’t need you, they will leave you.

Being self-absorbed might not hurt you at work because you’re the man with the big, hard-driving job… but chances are you are hurting the people who love you with your self-absorption. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience here both as the one doing the hurting and the one being hurt, and now observing professional friends who, in their self-absorption, forget who they are hurting.

As a good friend (and mega-company CEO) once told me: for the smart, strong, over-achievers it helps to think about life as a three-legged stool and all three legs need to be stable for your life to be balanced.

The first leg is work. How you get intellectual satisfaction and earn a living.

The second leg is fun. Family, friends, good times. How you find pleasure and love.

The third leg is spirituality, whatever that means to you. How you remind yourself that this is a huge, mysterious world and you are (no matter how important you think you are) just a small part of the grand scheme of things.

When the world is beating a path to your door, the money is rolling in to you or your company and the people who want things from you reinforce how terrific you are… how do you keep the third leg planted firmly on the ground?

A shock might do it for you for a while. A project fails, you lose a customer, you have a health scare, maybe you lose your job, but if you’ve done well in the past chances are you will do well again, so how do you keep the humbling realization that you are not the center of the universe with you?

At the Jordan river where Christ was baptized and
Israeli and Jordanian soldiers watch each other, guns cocked


Me, I find it in many ways. Through understanding history where the complex, messy story of our world and our humanity puts my insignificance squarely in perspective. Or through nature by hiking into the beauty of the mountains or the desert where I am reminded just how small I am. For some it is their God and faith. For some it is volunteering to help other people in need. What is it for you?

In my experience of powerful business leaders the truly great ones stay humble. Yes, they have strong opinions and expect to be listened to, but they also never forget who they are. The great ones treat admins, junior staff and vendors with respect, they put time into their family, they vacation with their friends, they are far from the entitled, the-one-with-the-most-toys-wins culture. They are the ones that people follow from company to company and remember with a smile for the rest of their lives.

How do you or I become one of them? I think that along with all the professional skills and opportunities in the world it is critical to remember who you are, truly, in the grand scheme of things and stay humble.

Written for a dear friend who tells me he is working on it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why, what and really? Yet another surreal week of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley

Yet another scandal of sexual harassment is unfolding in Silicon Valley this week, and after several nights lying awake, angry, thinking about the last 30 years, and expressing my ongoing frustration to a group of friends over dinner I was asked by a friend to answer 3 questions:

1. Why this still happens?
2. Are we really surprised that it does?
3. What does speaking up accomplish any more?

First to the news. As has happened thousands of times before a venture capitalist, Justin Calbeck of Binary Capital, sexually harassed women entrepreneurs attempting to raise money from him. But in an extraordinarily brave move 6 women spoke out, and 3 spoke out by name. The allegations were specific enough that despite an initial denial Justin Calbeck has now resigned and the firm no longer has strong support from its LPs. Its days are numbered.

Given that even the most egregious sexual predators don't want to be publicly outed by the women they hit on, and we live in such a public online world, why does this still happen?

The reason is the incredible imbalance of power that exists in the venture fundraising world. Most VCs are clean cut white men. Most have been very successful financially.... and they think it is because they are smart. Some truly are. Company founders, old school VCs who have bankrolled winner after winner, VCs who are true company builders, but with the huge increase in capital coming into the venture market there are many VCs who got where they are by being in the right place at the right time. They were just lucky to be at a company that did well, they know the right people, they talk a good game and next thing you know they are raising a small fund from LPs who are desperate to find enough places to put their money and share in the phenomenon.

Venture partners get paid a lot of money to administer a fund, and entrepreneurs beat a path to their door to try to impress them. The entrepreneurs struggle to get their deck looked at, struggle to get a meeting, work hard to make an impact and as a result many VCs develop a sense of hubris and superiority. Rude, abrasive... and blend that sense of superiority with sex and you get some men who think it's OK to proposition young women who are raising money.

The extraordinary generation of wealth going on in Silicon Valley now (and over the last 20+ years) will lead some people to behave badly. Behave badly to get access to that wealth (Uber being today's poster child) and behave badly abusing their positions of power. Twas ever so when money is being made.

So why are we surprised? I am not. In fact I think in some ways the issue is worse and more pervasive now than it was 20 years ago. The objectification of women in media (see Miss Representation or https://seejane.org if you want to gather statistics on this) continues unabated and so some people forget that the young woman in front of them is not to be sexually objectified.

The prevalence of the bias against funding women should lead to a huge competitive advantage to the partners and firms that DO fund women and ARE gender blind. I get asked so often for a list of VCs who would be truly unbiased I think I need to create the list! If you have a fund that is actively looking for women founders, or have had a great experience with one, send me an email!

But the really tough question here is does speaking out accomplish anything?

I chose not to speak out in the 80s and 90s (and if that makes you angry stop reading here). I became very practiced at simply ignoring the sexual actions - the hand on my knee all through a coffee meeting - the hand on the back of my neck under my hair while talking with me - the stroking of my shoulder - all while I was clearly married. In my head I was made of stone, the action did not touch me, I believed if I simply ignored it and pretended it was not happening it would stop. Most of the time it did. Sometimes I would have to lift the hand off my body. And then sometimes the action would be so aggressive I would get upset and not be able to turn off my anger and I would need to remove myself from the situation before I blew up.

I did not believe speaking up would change anything, and was sure to backfire. Unwanted male attention was my responsibility, and shameful (perchance the influence of the nuns in my middle school). So I was not surprised when the one time I did go to HR for help with the unwanted attention of an executive I was told that if I made a fuss and sued I could get a settlement but my career would be over. Instead they gave me the words to say to get him to back off - turns out he had been warned before (but he was a valuable guy) and they were confident the right language would get the message across. I did, and it worked, but their words "you'll never work in this business again" stuck with me.

No question the very brave women who have spoken up recently, including Susan Fowler who wrote the blog post Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber, will make local change happen. The situations they call out will change for the better in the short term. I do believe the tactic of brushing the complaint under the rug won't work now so that is good.

But to get to systemic change in the long run we need to get away from the boys club, to get away from situation after situation being dominated by men, often with no peer-level women in the room. For most of my career I have been the only woman in the room, and often treated as an honorary male. I've heard my share of locker room talk, even now, and every time I choose my reaction - usually a blend of humor and outrage - just enough to get the message across without damaging my relationship with the speaker.

I frequently raise the need to have more women on management teams and in the board room, although it often falls on deaf ears, and I have to be careful not to be "difficult" (and I am sure some think I am). But I know for certain that once there are 2 or 3 women in a partnership, or in a management team, or on a board not only do the decisions improve (lots of research coming out about this now) but also the locker room talk and unconscious bias decreases.

I have great confidence that most of the men I have worked with are not sexual harassers, and do not wish to be biased. But we all have unconscious bias and gender bias is one that we are only now really starting to grapple with in the technology industry. The industry is big enough and the bro culture prevalent enough, particularly with many of the new economy companies, that we must deal with it. To do that we need to attract women into tech, help them stay in tech, coach them, promote them and get them into leadership positions in venture partnerships and companies so we can build a better culture in the industry.

So does speaking up accomplish anything? The answer is maybe. Depending on your role sometimes you can make more difference working from the inside. But huge credit to the women that do, and to the men that are outspoken about the need for change.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When to tell your employees to take a hike

Small companies are like families. They are full of tension, tight relationships, dreams and disappointments and they form a culture all of their own. And when they are small how each and every employee behaves affects the culture of the company. What it is like to come to work every day, how people solve problems, how they interact and help each other, or don't.

In every group of employees you hire you are bound to hire a few non performers, and it's management 101 that you know you have to move the non performers out. That's what having an accountable team or a performance culture means.

But there is a group of employees that is harder to move on. I'm sure you've worked with people like this. They are good at their job but they are like dripping poison. They talk about "this place" or "this company" in negative terms. They make snide remarks about the leadership or about their coworkers. They work for you because it's a good job, but nothing is good enough.

Clearly if the behavior is egregious you can move on the employee and treat it as a performance problem, but what if it's borderline?

One way to handle this is to invite your employees to leave.

The most valuable resource an employee has is their time. Especially when they are in the early stages of their careers. In terms of personal growth and future earning power every year before 40 is more valuable that five after. Your millennial employees are investing in your company with their time learning, growing, inhaling everything they can do to improve their future. So if they are negative why are they there?

I talk to many teams and my logic to invite people to leave goes something like this:

"If you love this company and our mission, if you love working here, then invest your time wisely. Pour in your passion, work hard to make the company and your career they best they can be. Be a part of creating a positive, winning culture. Share your observations with your leaders but bring solutions, not just complaints. Support your leaders - they are human too and doing their best. Be positive.

But if you are unhappy here, if you see all the things that are wrong and you feel a need to continuously complain, if you think your leadership is incompetent, or the work is too hard then please leave. Get out.

Because life is too short to work in a company or a job you don't like for people you don't respect. If you think things could be better then make them better or please leave."

Sometimes I am even more direct - "There's the door".

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Startups and adrenaline are a potent mix

Fred Wilson's post a few days ago "Starting is Easy, Finishing is Hard" speaks to the grind going on for many tech startups today. He says the easy exit days feel as if they have gone and for many it is taking raw tenacity to finish.

And he's right. When you are the CEO or in the founding team of a startup the years are long. It feels as if it will take forever to get to the next stage of product, or growth, or market development.

But the days are short, and it's what makes the days short that draws in many founders. It's the adrenaline. Yes they should have a vision, and passion to change the world (a passion to get rich typically backfires) but without a love of the adrenaline rush they would not last a year.

You feel the adrenaline every single day. When you close a deal, when you talk with your team about your dreams, when you pitch a VC (whether or not they bite), when you have a vision match with a huge customer, when you can feel the forward progress. Your heart beats faster, your hands may shake. It's hard to come down (many startup CEOs I have known, me included, self medicate with a stiff drink at the end of the day), it's hard to sleep, but it makes 5am exciting because you know the rush is going to start again the next day.

In many ways you need the drug (it's a hormone) in your body. It makes your mind sharp, it increases your intensity, it helps you focus on exactly what you need to do second to second to win in each situation. And succeeding is all about having the tenacity to win against a million people/circumstances/barriers that want to stop you every day.

Getting a new company up and running and successful is SO hard that I don't advise people to do it unless they simply cannot stand not to, and only then if they have the stomach for the stress and can manage themselves through it. I am working with a brilliant founder today who is swinging from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell as her company leaps forward and who has designed a swimming and yoga weekly schedule simply to help her manage the stress.

And what's interesting about the adrenaline phenomenon is one day it all stops. I ran into a girlfriend at the airport this week who ran a hugely successful company, and is now retired, and as we compared notes she told me she just stopped enjoying the rush, and then she knew it was time. When you dread the 5am calls, and you dread taking another redeye, and while you can still get the rush in front of a customer, but not every day, then it's time to hand the baton to the next woman who wants to change the world.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

It's time for Tone at the Top on Diversity - or Why Uber is Yet Another Wakeup Call for Boards and CEOs in Tech

Uber is just the latest company caught in the act of discriminating against women in it's workforce. Sadly for many minorities in tech this is an old story.

As Ellen Pao writes in today's Time article it is an indication of "tech's existential rot". In a world that "started off seemingly harmlessly by white men funding white men with few exceptions. When only white men were given opportunities, only white men were successful. White men went on hiring only white men, because it seemed to be a common trait of successful employees. Then investors who were white men decided only white men could be successful and doubled down on white men. White men who succeeded in the system decided it worked and saw no need for change. Fifty years later investors can’t break out of that pattern."

But it is time for the pattern to break for many reasons. There is mounting evidence that diverse teams build better products - they are more likely to understand the buying behavior of their customers if they reflect the customer. There is also growing research that companies with diverse boards and management teams produce better returns for investors -so now some investors are encouraging boards to take on diverse board members.

But more importantly it is no longer acceptable for companies to allow employee harassment to continue while HR departments stand by or worse become part of the problem, as Uber is finding out to it's detriment. The #deleteuber campaign has been due for a while and will hurt. (note, I switched to Lyft a year ago after reading about the leadership culture at Uber.) 


So if it is no longer acceptable at the board level, in the executive team, and in the engineering ranks what can we do to make change happen faster?


I have worked in the "bro" culture of tech in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years. I have repeatedly experienced unconscious bias (sometimes not so unconscious ), being underestimated, being dismissed, being propositioned etc. and I have worked hard to over come it as I became a CEO who grew my company through a successful IPO and acquisition. And as I have done so I have been open and public about my wish to be a role model to other women that you can be technical, and be in a leadership role, and have a family in the technology industry. It's possible to do and be happy.

I was conscious of the challenge I was facing from day one when I was one of only a handful (I think 5) women majoring in math at Cambridge in my year, out of about 300. And so, to be a role model, I have always tried to hold a leadership position in any situation I am in, especially if everyone else in the room is male.

It is so clear to me now that the problem we have in tech is not a pipeline problem. Yes, we need more little girls to like computers, and more little african american boys to believe they can be Mark Zuckerberg, but we have plenty already who enter the tech world. But the women leave in droves within 10 years because the environment is hostile. Our problem is keeping women in an industry that makes life difficult for them.

It is time to set the tone at the top. To insist that boards have at least 2 or 3 women on them (not just none, or the "we have one so we're done" you see on so many boards). There are now several recruiters who specialize in finding qualified women with the right experience for boards. For example Beth Stewart of Trewstar would tell you there is no shortage of qualified women to serve, but a shortage of boards who think this is an important issue.

It is also time for boards to insist that the CEO builds a diverse leadership team. This takes real work to find diverse, qualified executives but it can be done in most fields. Uber is just one of many examples where a mostly male leadership team is simply deaf and blind to the issues facing their female employees.

"Tone at the top" is an expression used by boards when reviewing the results of the annual audit. They discuss whether the management team is committed to honest, ethical behavior and whether they operate with integrity. The discussion is important to sign off the financials - after all what audit committee chair would want to sign off the financial filings if he did not believe the CEO and CFO had integrity with the numbers?

It's time for companies to embrace a "tone at the top" discussion around equal opportunity for all employees. It is time for every board to pay attention to the diversity statistics within their companies. How many women are employed at every level, has the company done an audit of pay across gender to check that women are not paid less than men for the same job? Are the percentages of women in leadership growing or shrinking? It is just not hard for HR to run reports and track progress over time - but it takes a serious discussion on the importance of diversity from the board down to build a world class company in the 21st century.

I am hoping this is what Eric Holder and my friend Arianna Huffington will now do for Uber.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Breakfast in Gaza, Dinner in Efrat: Impressions from my trip to Israel and Palestine

I first went to Israel in March 2016. I went at the invitation of a good friend who was teaching a class in Tel Aviv and went because I was longing to explore the ancient history of the area. I packed in a week of experience - as a tourist and as a mentor, across 3000 years of Jewish, Roman, Christian and Muslim history and I was hooked. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the River Jordan, Beit She'an, Masada, Cesarea, Herodium... energy, culture, technology, history and food... fantastic.

But on the same trip I found family. My husband did not know he had a Jewish family of cousins living in New York until they found us in mid 2015 (he was not raised Jewish). First cousins, not distant cousins, and one of his cousin's sons is a orthodox settler in the West Bank. So on the same trip I visited his family in Efrat - after all they are family! As Fivel drove me around the West Bank, explaining what I was seeing, I saw the walls, and the settlements, and the Palestinians villages and while I saw with my eyes I could not really understand what I was seeing or the implications of what I was seeing on the lives of the people living there.

So I spent the last 10 months studying with a focus on the history of the region, trying to get some grasp of the complexity of the situation. I read books covering the last 4000 years of the Middle East, the last 150 years and the British mandate, the last 100 years and self-serving colonial interference, the last 70 years of the state of Israel, the last 8 years of the impact of Obama's policy, and I felt I barely scratched the surface of understanding.

2016 was my year of saying "yes" and so when, sitting in an outside cafe in Mountain View, I was asked if I could go to Gaza to mentor entrepreneurs I took a deep breath and said yes. I had the anchor for my next trip.

And so, on January 19th 2017, I found myself eating breakfast in the besieged town of Gaza City, with dinner plans in an Israeli settlement in Efrat in the West Bank.

Gaza Strip is a small area of Israel with close to 2 million people in it living under siege. The reasons are very complex, but the result is the people of Gaza are not allowed to leave without a permit and a special reason. They live with limited resources, limited access to electricity, youth unemployment at close to 60%, an oppressive local government, bombed out buildings, poverty and the continuous risk of renewal of war. Many told me they have no future, the future for Gaza is "black" and the young people want to leave.

And yet they survive and try to thrive. They go to university, get married, have children, take care of their parents, dance, eat, and now have the chance to build tech startups.

Gaza Sky Geeks is a startup accelerator in Gaza City, run by an amazing dedicated team from Mercy Corps, the only one of its kind in Gaza Strip. Once you are in through the door it has the feel of a typical incubator. Lots of young entrepreneurs, high energy, laughing, laptops everywhere, people camped out whenever they can get to a plug, and unlike Silicon Valley, 50% women. Most of the businesses are very early stage, most of the ones I talked to fall into the category of web applications or platforms to solve issues in the region. For example, a mobile phone app to connect distressed Arab mothers with online advice or a platform to connect freelancers in a more efficient financial model suitable for the Middle East.

But the Gaza startups have significantly more headwind than you'd find in Silicon Valley, or even in Tel Aviv. They have no access to PayPal payment systems (you can read about this issue here), they have very uncertain power at home (although GSG just successfully raised money to buy a generator for the office space), they have limited access to seed funding, limited access to legal support, need an education on what it means to run a business to make meaningful progress and yet, despite their significant challenges, they are creative and determined to succeed.

I spent only two days with GSG because of my schedule, and would have been happy to spend ten.  It's an exciting place to be and very much in need of mentors, especially in coding, product management and marketing.

It takes a permit from both Israel and Hamas to cross the border in and out of Gaza, and the crossing is not simple. It's Orwellian, and random, and I was disappointed to see that even Israel, the security technology leader of the world, did not have a system to analyze my history and digital footprint and determine I am not a threat. This is a business opportunity...

I left Gaza City at 1pm, crossed the border at Erez finally at 3:30pm, and arrived in Jerusalem by 5:30pm. Since I stayed in West Jerusalem last time I chose to stay in East Jerusalem this time, at the American Colony Hotel which is over a hundred years old and built in colonial times. I felt right at home.

Off to dinner with family that evening, we drive to Efrat as Fivel gives me a running, highly educated commentary of what I am seeing. There are about 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, another ~300,000 in East Jerusalem, and many are American so it makes sense that the settlements look like US suburbia. Nice white houses with red roofs, gardens and often on hilltops (for defensive reasons). You could be in the Midwest, except for the barbed wire protection around them. The Palestinian villages look similar, but different. They are white houses, with white roofs, black water tanks, and a mosque in every village. And big red signs at the entrances saying Israelis are forbidden to enter. And while the settlers have easy access to Jerusalem for work, the Palestinians do not. They must go through a crossing point and be checked.

But family life in Efrat, and the Palestinian villages, is not unlike family life anywhere else in the world. Kids go to school, people run small businesses, their kids won't go to bed, they worry about their kids future... but they also all worry about what the long term looks like for peace and financial prosperity. And obviously there is no comparison between the difficulty of life in Gaza and the challenges of the two communities living in the West Bank.

I won't take sides in this conflict - I don't know enough, both sides seem entrenched and politically responsible for this terrible situation but who am I to judge? But I asked questions. During my trip I spoke with a Palestinian business leader who just wishes the Israelis would leave her country. And I was reminded of the Gazan entrepreneur who told me she just wished they had the quality of life of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I spoke with Israelis who feel strongly that security is the top issue and they are determined to ensure Jews never come close to extinction again, and Israelis who long for a democracy and peace with their Arab neighbors.

After my surreal day spanning the two worlds I spent the next few days mentoring and teaching. I met with women entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv at Startup Nation Central and was very impressed by their businesses, drive and intellect. I taught an EMBA class on being a CEO at Hebrew University to wannabe VCs who were intense, and funny and a joy to talk with - and interested in how they can help Gaza. This is a small place, and everyone's lives are, in the end, intertwined.

For me, the small way I can help is on the ground with women and entrepreneurs. I have believed for many years now that our world will only become sane when women hold equal power to men. Most women are not as violent; when most women make money they invest in the family and education. The long term solution is women also having financial power, investing in a peaceful future.

I also believe in the state of Israel and the need for it to exist and thrive. Whatever the past, it is here and here to stay. But the long term path to peace is that the people living on Israel's borders, in Israel's occupied territories of Palestine, and in Jordan, have jobs and a future and hope. They need a healthy economy. So I have decided I will, to the extent I am permitted to, help on the ground mentoring entrepreneurs and women in Israel, Gaza and Palestine.

The Middle East and Islam dominates so much of our global and US politics, and it's so complicated that I encourage you, if you have not done so already, to go and see for yourself. And, if you're willing, volunteer mentor for Gaza Sky Geeks.

Reading resources:
HuffPo article on Gaza Sky Geeks
TechCrunch article on the fundraiser for a power generator and coding academy at GSG
The Silk Roads - Peter Frankopan - a retelling of world history 
The Kingmakers: The invention of the modern Middle East - Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E Meyer
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel - Ari Shavit
The Two State Delusion - Padraig O'Malley
Jerusalem - Simon Seabag Montefiore
and there are many more...


 Fishing boats in the Gaza city harbor
 Christian (Greek Orthodox) church built in 407 AD in Gaza City
The Great Mosque in Gaza City - on a site from the 5th century but destroyed and rebuilt as a cathedral or a mosque many times in the last 1500 years
 The port at Gaza, growing the harbor walls with the debris of the shellings
 Creativity bursting out in Gaza as graffiti
Walking out of Gaza
 Beautiful Judea (West Bank)
 A fence winding between Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages
Dense, intense, Jerusalem

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

How 2016 rocked my world as I talked with women entrepreneurs

I am more convinced than ever that there is a bright future for women entrepreneurs and 2016 proved it to me!

I stepped back from being a full time CEO a little more than a year ago. It was time, for family reasons, and I set out to change my life. I still work (I serve on two public company boards) but I decided to spend a great deal more time with my father and my family than I have ever been able to do before, and to prioritize my time to giving back. But I had no idea what that really meant for me – what could I do that was meaningful other than work as a CEO?

I decided that I would just say “yes” to every request for help from entrepreneurs, especially, but not exclusively, women. Not that I would be a pushover and do anything I was asked, but I would say yes to any request for a meeting from an entrepreneur who wanted advice. A first meeting at least and if I thought I could make a difference I'd keep saying yes. I wish I could say I was inspired by Shonda Rhimes’ TED talk but I did not see it until I was well into the year. Instead I was thinking of it as following breadcrumbs without knowing where they were going to lead.

It's been an extraordinary year, it's taken me in directions I never would have expected, and it's changing me.

I've met with many amazing female entrepreneurs. Aged twenties to sixties. A psychiatrist who has figured out how to use technology to dramatically reduce the cost of cognitive testing for veterans with PTSD or the elderly with dementia, a media executive with a passion for travel who's changing how people explore the world, a technologist who's figured out how to measure skin tone so you can buy the right makeup for your skin, a CEO with an IoT product that can tell you all about the water leakage risks in your commercial property assets (something I did not know was a big problem), a woman revolutionizing the sex tech industry, a woman with breakthrough security technology to protect your phone, a visionary who set up the first and only incubator in Gaza... a new calendaring app, a better travel itinerary planning app, a next generation geospatial model, better on-chip failsafe technology, the artistic director of a ballet, networking technology, machine learning technology ... the whole gamut! I have found I love talking with entrepreneurs and CEOs. I love listening to their stories about their businesses, what’s working, what’s scaring them, how they are getting funded.

I ask questions, ad nausea, and then focus in on one of two challenges they face and discuss with them how to overcome them. It's fun for both of us, and I realize I can help many of them. No judgement, just the experience of being there myself more than once before. And I now believe, more than ever, it is much harder for women to get venture funding than men. I have far too many data points now!

I've met with women hedge fund managers who only invest in women led companies, recruiters whose only business is placing women on boards, bankers who want to do deals for women CEOs. The movement is happening. Women are, more than ever, proactively helping women. I threw a book party for Joann Lublin’s new book Earning It - the party was 3 days after our horrific election - and I saw ~60 women (eating my husband's terrific food and drinking good wine) talking to each other about how this cannot be our future and becoming even more committed to make a different future for women.

But I also visited Israel for the first time and I was hooked. I found Israel fascinating and a historical goldmine but then I spent time in the West Bank with family who are orthodox settlers, and at the same time joined a small group trying to help Palestine with Silicon Valley technology. Wow, that is a complex area. I am reading like crazy trying to understand, but it's also an area where young women are starting businesses and where I can help.

2016 wasn't all about female entrepreneurs. I've spent 25% of the year in Europe. Driving with my Dad through France, quiet days with him in England helping him write his life story, Italy with my daughter, with my husband, with my sister. Enough time that I know I was truly present for my family, for the first time in a long time.

I am not unaware that it is a privilege for me to be able to do this, but I also now recognize that it is not only money that holds us in our jobs. It is also social status, recognition, a sense of being important. One of my new friends, now in her seventies, and who had a very big, high profile CEO job, told me one of the things she found most difficult about retiring was not being important any more. We are all, in our own ways, driven by ego and giving up the identity that defined me for most of my adult life has had it's hard moments, like when a man asked me at a fundraiser what I do for a living and when I said I am retired he said “oh” and walked away. I've had plenty of "invisible" moments this year and it takes some getting used to.

We may feel it's hard for women entrepreneurs in 2017, but the groundswell is growing. The number of smart women building businesses inspires me. The number of powerful female CEOs inspires me. And in 2017 I am open for business to help them in any way I can!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

So you want to join a board: Advice to help you prepare

If you want to join a board, you are not alone. Some people want to find a board in the middle of their career because they like the idea of learning about board life, or for the status of it; some people are looking for board work towards the end of their career because they want to stay engaged and give back. Either way it's a common, serious interest for many people.

But what does it take - how do you prepare yourself to be qualified?

First off, determine why you want it - and be able to articulate that. Are you looking for income or interest? Be clear about this because there is a huge difference between the two. Non-profit boards typically don't pay, in fact they expect you to give money. For-profit private company boards may pay cash, or they may only pay in stock (which may, or may not, ever be worth anything) and for-profit public company boards pay, but the pay varies widely depending on the size, industry and country of the company.

Once you can clearly state what you want and why, the next step is for you to determine what value you are going to bring - what is your value proposition? What experience do you bring, how will you be helpful, why should a board want you on it? I had never done this formally until a few weeks ago when I was on a panel and the moderator asked us panelists to write down our value propositions. This is what I came up with (late at night in a hotel room!):

As someone who has 20 years as a high tech CEO, has been through an IPO and many M&A deals  and who is very technical, I bring experience in what it takes to create the strategy, execution plans and leadership teams necessary to drive growth. As a compensation committee chair on two public boards I team with the CEO to create the right incentives to execute the operational plans and create shareholder value. I tend to be the voice in the room focused on strategy and the needs of the leadership team in a rapidly changing world.

Try writing yours - what would you say?

Another way to approach this is to inventory your skills. Make a list of what you're good at - what makes you unique. This is your experience - what types of jobs you've had - PLUS what is it about your intellect and personality that will be helpful? Are you good under pressure, are you energized by solving hard problems, are you good at negotiation, are you natural coach, do you have strong P&L management experience? These are skills that are often not on your resume, but when a recruiter asks you what you would bring to a board it's good to be able to confidently state the top 3 or 4 skills that you would bring.

The next challenge is that while  you may feel you are ready to contribute on a board, many boards will not want to hire someone with no previous experience. This is one of the top objections that prevents boards diversifying - boards tend to hire people they know, who are like them, who have served on boards before. It's less work than hiring someone who is different and needs training. But as the trend towards building more diverse boards continues, nomination committees are coming to terms with hiring board members without previous experience.

One of the ways you can prepare yourself is to go and take training. I am a member of the volunteer faculty at a two day intensive training course - the NextGen Directors Academy - designed to take a small group of diverse, aspiring future board members through the nuts and bolts of being on a board. We cover the basic responsibilities, what each committee is responsible for, what your institutional investors care about and case studies of boards who got off track with activists. It's an interactive, peer to peer format, and there are no stupid questions. There are several courses around like this, but not all have deep, intense content so make sure you talk with previous attendees before you sign up.

Another way you can prepare is to make sure you have the business basics covered. Most of the top business schools run executive training classes, from a few days to several weeks, ranging from general management preparation to specialized skills like cyber security. Once you have inventoried your own skills and experience, think about whether you have a gap you need to fill with some training, or whether you want to develop a skill that is currently in high demand for board members.

One of the ephemeral requirements of many boards is "fit". Boards are expected to be collegiate, to get along, to voice difference but in the end come together on decisions. (I could write a tome on whether this is healthy for the shareholders or not, but not here). If you want to get onto a company board, but have no experience to point to, try joining a non-profit board first. Pick one that is a decent size (>$500k a year in budget), that has a real board that meets 2-4 times a year and that is run by an experienced chairperson. Reading the prep materials, listening to the management team, sitting in the meetings contributing to the discussion in a balanced, collegiate way will bring you confidence and experience that you can then refer to when you discuss your first for-profit board.

Make sure you have the time to be an effective board member. Being on a board carries status with it, it sounds important, and it may pay well. And many boards have 4-5 meetings a year so it doesn't sound like much. But actually board work can take a huge amount of time. On a regular basis you need to put the time aside to read, to prepare and to attend the meetings. But in addition you will have countless phone calls and phone meetings outside of the regular meetings. You will need to meet with the CEO and members of the executive team and if the board needs to find a new CEO (for whatever reason) expect to spend days and days, over a series of months, meeting candidates and discussing them with the other board members. So before you pour time into preparing yourself to sit on a board make sure your day job allows you enough time to truly contribute.

And finally, don't be shy. If you want to get on a board say so. Tell everyone you talk with about boards that you are, yourself, looking for a board seat. Network with recruiters who specialize, and stay in touch with them so you are current in their minds. Talk to people who are already on boards. Finding the right board is a pretty random process and so getting the word out will help the right board find you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The difference between being right and getting the right answer

Entrepreneurs can be a hard headed lot. It takes courage, determination, a lot of luck, and sometimes just old fashioned, bull-headed persistence to create a company but as a result entrepreneurs don't always listen well.

But even if you know you resemble this description, ask yourself - is it more important for you to get to the right answer, or to be right?

You want to be right because your team wants to follow someone who knows what to do. You want to be right because it's more efficient, and it increases your confidence, and if you're right more often than you are wrong you have a good chance of winning. And if you believe you are right you are more likely to take risk.

But your potential investor wants you to be more interested in getting to the right answer than being right. When you are building your company you cannot predict what's going to happen. You may switch markets, your customers may show you a different direction, the company may almost die more than once, you are certain to make some bad hires along the way. It is almost guaranteed that your journey will not be smooth.

As a result, it is much more impactful as an investor to work with entrepreneurs who are seeking truth, seeking to understand, seeking the right answer. These entrepreneurs ask questions, question themselves and try out ideas without fear of being wrong. As an investor you can dig in and problem solve with them. It's more fun, it's less frustrating, and you are more likely to get to a great end result together.

So when you are talking with potential investors, or even potential senior team members you want to hire, ask yourself how strong is your need to be right?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Three critical questions to ask a startup before you agree to work for it

So you want to work for a startup!

You've been talking to one that you think is going somewhere and will give you the experience you want, you like the people and the title, job and salary sounds right for you. They make you an offer. Great!

But now is the point where you need to ask three critical sets of questions to determine if this is actually a good company to work for or not. Remember each job you take influences your future career. What you learn, who you get to know, what opportunities you get as a result. Many people peak in their forties (career wise, and for a myriad of professional and personal reasons) and so the job choices you make in your twenties and thirties will affect how you peak.

After 30 years in Silicon Valley, 20 of them as a high tech CEO, and now talking almost every day to people who want company and career advice, I've seen too many bad company structures to take any offer at face value. I recommend you (respectfully) ask questions to explore these three areas - the health of the business, the capital structure and the organization - and if a company won't answer then that in itself tells you this is a not a great situation for you.

1. Understand the health of the business

Health is all about rate of growth. What is the revenue, how is it growing and what other metrics are critical health indicators for the business? so ask:

- What was the revenue for the last 2 years, what is the forecast for this year and next year? You're listening for consistent, sustainable growth and a management team that is making its plans. There is no right answer here because it depends on the stage of the company, but you're listening for b.s. or inconsistency.

- What percentage of the revenue this year is recurring (ie. it renews every year)? Do you expect this percentage to improve? You're listening for the quality of the revenue. Recurring is higher quality than one-time revenue and drives a higher valuation. If a high percentage is recurring then you want to understand how many of the customers renew - i.e. what is the customer retention rate? How much do they churn.

- Are you profitable? If so for how long? If not when do you plan to be profitable? If not, when do you need to raise your next round of investment? Note, if your hiring manager says "we're not profitable and we don't want to be" don't buy the b.s. The ONLY time you don't want to be profitable is when you have easy access to lots of cash and you're truly investing for growth but most good companies would like to be profitable, while still growing, so they stop burning cash. They should be able to talk about how much time and cash it is going to take to get profitable if everything goes to plan.

- What are the other important metrics you track for your business? For example customer acquisition rate and costs, customer retention rates etc? Be sure to listen for real metrics that are about the true health and growth of the business, not just marketing metrics (clicks, downloads etc) but which are not metrics leading to revenue growth.

2. Understand the capital structure and cash

Startups run on cash from investors, not cash from operations and so it's important you know what the terms are and how they might affect the future of the company, so ask:

- What is the capital structure? How many preferred shares are outstanding, how many common and what is the total number of shares including the unallocated options in the employee pool? You want to know the total number of shares so you know what your options may be worth in the future.

For example
The company has raised $5M selling 5 million shares at $1 per share to preferred sharesholders
The founders have 5 million shares
The option pool has 1 million shares priced at 10 cents per share
=> there are 11 million shares and the post-money valuation is $11M

The company is sold for $49M. 

$5M is returned to the preferred shareholders so now there is $44M to share
This means $4 per share - you make a gain of $3.90 per option you have vested at that time

- What are the basic terms of the preferred shareholders? Are they participating? - this means they take their money back first as in the example above and then what's left is divided across the total number of shares.

- Do the preferred shareholders have any control on the sale of the company? For example, can they veto a sale below a certain valuation, or veto a capital raise below a certain threshold valuation? You want to know this because if they can, and you think it's unreasonable then you should discount the potential value of your shares. These kind of terms are not typical with high class VCs, but you do see them with PE firms and newer VCs who don't have a lot of experience on the downside effects. And I know of too many founders who lost their companies because of these types of terms. If you are unsure, ask around or check out The Funded to get a measure of the quality of the investors.

- Do any of the executives have 100% vesting on change of control? Some VCs say no to this for everyone, some say only the CEO, some say only the CEO, CFO and VP Sales and so on but most executives want it. This tells you a lot about whether the executives are looking to ramp quickly and sell vs. build a long term company.

- And if they suggest you buy your common stock don't. Look at what happened to the employees at Good Technology, and there are thousands of examples like this where the common holders lost their money because they were behind the VCs. Be patient and pay a little more tax when you make money.

3. Understand the org chart and politics

- Figure out where you fit in the organization. How many layers are between you and the CEO? What is the span of control of your VP? You're looking for a relatively flat organization where you are in a strong part of the organization - i.e. your exec has power.

- Does the organization make sense to you? Do you see what looks like politics between founders (odd titles, responsibilities in places they should not be)? Do you see one CEO by name, but two CEOs by organization? Does the balance between R&D and sales make sense to you? Again, does it pass the sniff test for you?

Remember, you want to work for someone who is really good at their job, a great manager, and who will invest in you and your skills. And someone who you will work for for a decent period of time - like a year. You don't want a weak manager, a revolving door of managers, or ill defined responsibilities between you and other people/teams. The chaos being reported at WrkRiot is certainly unusual, but there are many aspects of this story I have seen and heard when founders don't know what they are doing and don't have good advisors - so be selfish and do your homework.

Most good companies will help you understand these three areas because they will respect that you are making an important decision for your career. The most precious thing you have is your time and the best thing you can get is experience. Not money, or options, or a title but experience. Training, education and opportunity. So measure your startup against those metrics too before you fall in love.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Silk Roads - and other Summer reading which may make me live longer

I was highly amused to read the New York Times article that people who read books live longer!

According to the NYT "Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all."

Well I am on my way to changing my longevity to a long old age surrounded by piles of books. Hooray!

And this Summer, as my first Summer not working full time as a CEO, the books are certainly piling up but by far the best book I have read in a long time is the Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. This book is a retelling of world history by looking at it through the lens of the development of trade routes, specifically the silk roads, through the center of the world (Persia and it's neighbors). It does a beautiful job of weaving a complex story of how these economic relationships developed in a completely compelling and riveting way, while at the same time it ties the trading relationships into world events as diverse as the discovery of the New World and the Second World War.

It's not perfect - as the Guardian review says "The need for brevity has led to some troubling misrepresentations" but at 646 pages of dense type it is hardly brief. And the Washington Post review is fair in both praising the book, and pointing out it's shortcomings.

But for me much of the fascination with this book comes not from learning any specific new history but instead to see how intimately everything is connected. I, like the author, was raised with a Eurocentric point of view and my education was very pro British Empire. I cringed at times at how critical the author is of the British in the 19th century, but my discomfort was even more acute reading his perspective on the Americans in the Middle East since the second world war. He's harsh, and maybe a little biased against both my countries (I'm a dual national after all) and yet his perspective was thought provoking.

If you are interested in world history this is a book truly worth making the time and effort to read. And even if you are not, this book will open your eyes to a new way of thinking about the history we were taught.

For the rest of my Summer... of the many books I have read I recommend:
Sicily by John Julius Norwich - a loving walk through the history of this fascinating island and a must if you are thinking of visiting.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit - gorgeous, rich description of the birth of modern Israel, although a little biased.
Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore - deeply researched sweep through 2500 years of this fascinating city's history, also well written.
Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy - a nerdy feast on this fascinating man.

And for a scented confection that makes you want to cook with lemons and get on a plane to Italy my current delight is The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helen Attlee. It is simply perfect!



Thursday, August 18, 2016

When Thomas Paine went back to high school: Or how Thetford Grammar saved my father


It's strange how the tendrils of history weave our lives together in unexpected ways.

This Summer my father told me that he had decided to give a 1925 copy of the complete works of Thomas Paine to his old school in memory of his brother. He asked me to go with him and, thinking it would be a pretty drive on a summer day, I said yes, not knowing I'd peel another layer of his story.

My father's school is Thetford Grammar School in Norfolk, England. It's a very old school, dating back to Saxon times with old flint buildings that were part of a Dominican Friary and a Norman cathedral in the past, and where ruins still stand in the parking lot.

But more importantly, Thomas Paine went to Thetford Grammar from 1744 to 1749. One of the founding fathers of the United States, and author of the radical work Common Sense, went to this little market town school all those years ago. It's in a rural part of England which was surrounded by farms and wealthy landed gentry back then; I have to wonder how many of Thomas Paine's ideas were formed by the feudal attitudes still prevalent in England in those days.

I knew the school meant a lot to my father, but I didn't realize quite how much until I went with him.

My father grew up in Thetford in the War surrounded by air bases, Yanks and the excitement of a war going on around him as a young boy. But he also grew up in a tough household because his father had a drinking problem. He was a bright kid with a positive outlook on life and his schooling had a huge influence on his life - he would say it was how he got out. He was pushed ahead early, supported by his teachers and did so well he got a scholarship to UCL and so escaped his family's life in Thetford.

Without the school he would still be there instead of traveling the world. And this is what he had the chance to tell some of the kids when we went to the school. Little did we know that the new headmaster made an event of my father coming up! We had the local press and a photographer there, the heads of the boys and the girls schools, the chair of the board of governors all there to receive the gift.



The front page report in the Bury Free Press!

The headmaster, Mark Bedford, gave a speech, my father gave a speech, and I teared up. I looked up at the wall and saw his name on the wall board of Bartram Gold Medal winners in 1949. There was his name (with the old apostrophe put into the name in the late 19th century and removed again in the late 20th) recording that his teachers and his own ability pulled him out of a dead end situation at home and put him on a path to an international career in tech. Not surprising that at age 84 he still remembers the names of all his maths teachers!

And he's been asked back to give the speech at the Speech Day at the beginning of term in September, with teachers, parents and students. I'm so proud of him!


 Norman cathedral ruins in the parking lot

 Smiling for the local press

 The medal winners - he is F.A. O'Nians up there in 1949

The "old school" where Thomas Paine studied

 In Old School, telling the students why he's giving the books









Monday, August 8, 2016

Are your investors double dipping in your startup?

I've been working with a number of small companies this year. I'm on a mission to help CEOs, especially women, figure out how to grow their businesses, manage their investors and boards and to create a level playing field for themselves.

But as I have spoken to some of these CEOs I've seen several data points which are very worrying, and which I hope don't make a line! These data points are investors putting money in to companies, and then taking the money back out for services - so effectively reducing the cost of their investment. Double dipping.

For example.... The professional service provider:

This is the case for a small software company, lets call them W. W has developed a software technology to improve building management, and so reduce insurance costs. It wasn't an easy company to raise money for and in the end the CEO raised from angels, one of whom invested $480k. Nice.

But he then turned around and sold W the development service to create the product from the technology for $490k. He didn't require it, but it was "expected". Assume a typical margin of 50% then the service cost for the angel to deliver is $245k and he has a profit of $245k. So he got $480k worth of equity in W for $235k. And to make matters worse, when the product delivery was not to the satisfaction of the CEO she found it very difficult to push back on him in the way she would have been able to push back on an independent contractor. It's awkward to say the least, but I think it's what in a public company would be called a related transaction - it is simply not independent and so has the potential for conflict of interest.

The investors with a side business:

Another small app company, raised money from an angel group. The angel group has a strategy of creating an ecosystem from their companies, and providing services to them to drive the market adoption. But, unlike the old school VCs like Mayfield and KP, or even the new large scale guys like Andreessen Horowitz, this group turned around and charged the company (which had only raised $1.5M) $11k/month for marketing. That's $132k per year - which could have been spent on another engineer or a lot more marketing consulting from an independent.

The board member who wants a salary:

This time a technology company in the security space. Killer technology, but a turnaround from a prior (not-well-run) incarnation so raising money was hard. In the end money came in from a PE firm. But after the close the PE firm put in an executive chair to "help" and insisted he be paid $180k a year for a few days a week. Now I am supportive of a board deciding a CEO needs some help and adding in an exec chair if the CEO agrees (or even if she doesn't if it's really needed) but to pull a salary out of a company that is not profitable is very tough on the company. And in the end it's not in the best interest of the investors; it doesn't make sense.

I wonder if I have seen a few outliers and this is not the new normal, or if this is a new trend? Is it a result of the number of angel groups out there who are not professional investors (and so to give them the benefit of the doubt we could assume they don't realize the impact of what they are doing), is it a result of the tightening of investment (and so they can get away with it) or it is a result of the simply huge number of startups and first time CEOs who can be taken advantage of? If you have an example in  your own company inmail me on LinkedIn.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Living the life of an eighty four year old and the lessons that teaches

When I stepped back from being a full time CEO 9 months ago I knew there were a few things that would take an adjustment. Most have been a good change for me. And some are just very different.

One of the choices I have made is to spend a great deal more time with my father. He's 84 (almost 85!), lives in England and is physically fit. But he's alone, and slowing down, and long periods alone get him down. So this year I've been going to the UK every other month, and he's come to stay with us, and we've vacationed together in France. And next Winter he's coming to us for several months to escape the long, cold, grey days which England serves up after Christmas.

Life's a very different pace when you're 84. There is routine. Breakfast always at the dining table which is set with china, a trip to the supermarket every other day, time with the paper in the morning after breakfast, the big meal (meat and two veg) in the middle of the day (if possible), a walk through the woods by the house (only if it's not raining), project work (his life story, sorting out photos...), lunch and dinner at the set dining table, and TV after dinner.

It's idyllic. One day each trip we go to London because he has a meeting at the Dyers and I go to a museum, although this time I stretched the day when I arranged to meet one of my young cousins for a drink after work and got a later train home. But I realized it is very tiring to have such a long day if you are 84 (although it was "great fun"). My sister comes by at the weekends and breaks up the routine for us, and some days I leave for a few hours to see old friends. But in general, it's a gentle way to live.

And it's an education for me. An education to help him write his life story, and hear the stories over and over and so realize how important they are to him. An education we are now getting together on self publishing. An education to see how important his lifetime of collecting furniture, art, china etc is to him and how each piece is attached to a memory. An education to hear how important each job was to him, and how much he loved his work, and yet an education to see that all the b.s. he put up with as he was climbing the ladder isn't really meaningful in comparison to the time he had with my mother, and with family, kids, vacations and adventures. I know this myself, and yet it's very grounding to actually live in the reality of someone over 80 for a while.

In 48 hours I'll be on my way back to the hustle of Silicon Valley. Board responsibilities, coaching, the daily tumble of a household and pets. So I try to treasure this gentle pace. And know when it's all over, hopefully many years from now, I'll look back on this as a magical time. But it's also a good reminder that I am not ready to check out of the rat race yet...

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