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One of the inherent risks of investing in companies at the earliest stages is revenue diversification which in turn helps to create operating leverage.  Most startups we meet are dependent on just a few customers, partners, or channels for the bulk of their early growth.  Ideally, these early-stage companies are investing in the business to accelerate and diversify revenue streams.

If executed to perfection, revenues and gross margins are growing faster than operating costs, and operating income (or losses) are increasing (or decreasing) faster than both of them.

But without analyzing a few key metrics, it’s impossible to understand, much less create, operating leverage in the business.  Namely, it’s crucial to know how effectively you turn revenue to actual cash and the contribution margin of each product.

Accounts Receivable – How much cash is owed to you?

Accounts receivable is a great metric to use when validating if revenues are “real” or inflated.  When I use the word real, it’s in the context that the revenues will become cash in a timely manner.  Revenues can easily be inflated by shipping product where payment is not expected or will take a while to collect (more on that in a bit).  Rather on purpose or not, in these scenarios cash will be going down while profits are steady and accounts receivable are growing rapidly.

Book to Bill Ratio – How effective are you at turning bookings into real revenue?

Book to bill ratio is simple to calculate by dividing periodic bookings by the same period’s revenues. If bookings are a lot higher than revenues, that can be a positive sign. But it can also mean that your company is having a hard time getting revenue realized, i.e. you have a higher accounts receivable balance than the peers in your industry or at your stage.

Days Sales Outstanding – How effective are you at collecting revenue?

Another easy metric to calculate is days sales outstanding (ending AR/revenue per day) but instead of tracing how efficient you are at converting bookings, it measures how long it takes on average to collect from customers.  This number provides insights into where contracts can/should be re-negotiated and also the amount of cash needed to finance your business. One quick note, DSO is an average. For a more granular analysis, be sure to highlight AR under 30 days, 30-60 days, and 90+ days outstanding.  This will give you a weighted average which provides more insight into how well the company is actually collecting revenue.

Contribution Margin – Which products/channels are most efficient?

In short, the contribution margin is the window into how each product or channel individually affects the business as a whole. CM highlights what’s available after variable costs to cover fixed expenses and provide profit to your company.  It’s as simple as sales minus variable costs and shows the profit on what you sell before fixed costs.

Variable cost is the key factor in this equation – with revenue or channel concentration these numbers are easy to calculate, but with the diversification comes a new equation for each new product or acquisition channel.

Without understanding your CM by product and/or channel, it’s impossible to make informed decisions about where to invest capital for continued growth, the levers that need to be pulled (pricing, CAC, etc..) to make products more profitable, or if products/channels must be entirely eliminated.

This was a fairly long post full of accounting jargon, but it’s important to understand which metrics translate the effectiveness of the business in creating operating leverage.  As revenues diversify, these calculations become exponentially more complicated with the addition of new products, customers and acquisition channels.  Understanding and tracking them now ensures you’ll have a good grasp on where to allocate new capital when the time comes.

 

It’s not surprising that pricing plays a large role in the success of a startup.  When asked if he could put any one piece of advice to founders on a billboard in San Francisco,  Marc Andreessen famously said, “raise prices.”

However, pricing is more than what you charge your customer, it also includes how you incentivize engagement and create margin as well.  How does this work in practice for two of the most common pricing structures?

Incentivizing Engagement with Consumer-based Pricing

Consumer-based pricing works well when you are working to create a “sunk-cost” feeling or need your users to change behavior, rather that be from an existing software or workflow.

For example,  we work with startups in industries that still use Excel, or if they are really advanced SQL, for most of their workflows pertaining to data entry and analysis.  Charging these customers on per-use basis would be more likely to result in end-users  giving up on the software at the first sign of complication (i.e. MVP / new features have a higher bar to clear), or never using it again a few weeks after onboarding.

Instead, a per-seat charge or a flat-fee creates a sunk-cost feeling within the organization.  The internal manager or champion who initially went to bat for you is now incentivized to show this new cost isn’t going to waste.

Does this create a higher-barrier to sales?  Maybe, but sales were always going to be important.  More importantly, you now have allies working to ensure engagement with your product in their organization due to the effects you’ve had on the budget and their reputation at the company.

Creating Margin with Consumption-based Pricing

Consumption pricing is charging based on how much or often a consumer uses the product.  The two most obvious examples would be almost any cloud storage provider or Invision’s per workflow product.

This structure is perfect if your product could be accessed by an entire group or division with one login and not lose effectiveness.  In the example above, if pricing was consumer based (per seat) a design team could easily create one log-in to create as many prototypes as needed.

If Invision used a per-seat structure, it’s unlikely they could start pricing at $25/mo.  Instead, it would likely be in the neighborhood of $10/mo.  This structure likely allowed them to charge $15 more per month AND make it feel like a value to the end user.

Pricing often gets overlooked in the foundational aspects of company building.  Yet, when structured correctly, pricing strategy can create incentives that become powerful catalysts for early adoption and create extra margin over the long-term.

 

Directionally correct startups could be considered successful depending on the amount of capital raised, but ultimately fail to live up to their potential.  For most, the pull of the market ends early and the next phase of growth requires precise allocation of capital internally.

Subsequently, growth expectations begin to outpace what funding alone can accomplish and a ceiling in valuation is created.  This leaves the company unable to raise more capital, eventually leading to an exit that leaves investors clamoring for what could have been.

My hypothesis is that there are several companies which are acquired for somewhere between $20-$50M that fall into the category of directionally correct (accurate), but did not operate with precision during their early days.

Accuracy (n): the degree to which the result of a measurement, calculation, or specification conforms to the correct value or a standard.

Precision (n): refinement in a measurement, calculation, or specification, especially as represented by the number of digits given.

I’m admittedly still in the early innings and need to see more startups at this stage before coming to a valid conclusion, but I want to have a few key points in writing for reference moving forward.  In no particular order they are:

1)  The difference between these two groups happens during the time period between traction and scale.  That is, 95% (or some number larger than 80%) of the time, scale happens when startups execute with precision in product and marketing after their initial customers are onboarded.

2) The first few customers – the early adopters – were going to love the product and be the easiest to find regardless of how well the company executed.  The result is a lower bar than what most of the market will consider “viable” in an MVP and marketing costs were artificially lowered by initial consumer demand.  Counterintuitively, acquisition costs will actually go up after the early adopter market is completely exhausted.

3) Startups that scale don’t over-estimate the fidelity of the data created by early adopters.  Instead, they create a framework for discovering core product value for users which will be key to both growth and preventing customer churn in the future as they enter new markets or segments.

4) Market size (need) is correlated to the length of time a startup has to build a scalable customer acquisition strategy which is more than finding a blended CAC.  Precise startups understand how to achieve a sustainable ROI and focus on LTV (ex. bookings) acquisition instead of purely growth metrics (ex. customer count).  For example, at CE we knew a customer in TX had a substantially higher LTV than one in CT and adjusted accordingly.

5) Precision is defined as a repeatable process in the most vital parts of the startup like sales, marketing, and product.  Often, investors talk about “playbooks” and this is where they really punch above their weight.  If the market is X then we do Y or if we do A then the result is B are powerful indicators of precise execution.  Chamath Palihapitiya highlights the importance of this in a talk on “growth hacking”.  During his time at Facebook, they discovered if a new user hit 7 friends in 10 days they were hooked and built product focused on hitting this metric.

6) Once a startup crosses this threshold, the solution will have seemed obvious. The reason, getting there requires measuring and testing over and over and in hindsight, it’s easy to feel the data revealed a straight-forward conclusion and to discount the decisions needed to arrive at the right answer.

I’m looking forward to having more opportunities to help growing startups bridge the gap from consistency to precisision in the coming years while measuring the level of truth in the insights to refine refine them moving forward.

I’ve decided to publish a list of books I’ve read in 2018 to remember a key point or two from each.   Since this will be a living post, my hope is that it will be a resource for me and hopefully a few others along the way.  Below is the list of books I’ve finished this year in reverse order.

21. The Systems Thinker – Albert Rutherford

This was a quick read and a little less technical than I had originally hoped.  My goal was to find a book that discussed Systems Thinking in practice instead of generalizing the major concepts.  It’s a great primer for systems thinking but does little to go in-depth.  The big lesson here: don’t focus too much on the little pieces, but instead the connections between them that create the bigger picture.  (AKA seeing the forest through the trees)

20. Think Twice – Michael Mauboussin

I’m not a huge fan of Mauboussin like others seem to be.  However, I enjoyed this book as I am reading on systemic thinking and biases right now.  Each chapter is a different bias and how it works in practice in the real world.  It’s worth the quick read and if anything will make you aware of the common biases that affect our everyday decision making.

19. Financial Intelligence – Karen Berman and Joe Knight

For one reason or another, I’ve always felt relatively weak when it comes to finance.  I think it goes back disliking the subject in school and thus avoiding it and working with people who were absolutely great at the discipline.  This book was a great if high-level, review of operational finance which is rare.  It wasn’t too technical nor too academic and had real-world cases with a refreshing lack of numbers for the subject matter.  Highly recommend if you are looking to brush up on finance.

18. The Truth Machine – Michael Casey and Paul Vigna

Much like all books that approach blockchain from a non-technical stand point, this book left me wanting more.  While the major point in the book are correct – energy, finance, healthcare, government can all be great use cases for the technology – there’s no deeper dive other than the very high-level insights.  I’m still waiting for the book that goes into the pros and cons of each proof of work, the scalability of each current technology platform, etc… that isn’t so technical I can’t comprehend it.

17. Regulatory Hacking – Evan Burfield

My favorite thing about this book is that it could have been formulaic, but Evan does a really nice job working anecdotal stories into the book to avoid falling into that trap.  The biggest takeaway here comes early in the form of “The Power Map” concept, which I think any startup would benefit from reading.  Other tips include selling into governments and other bureaucracies as well as navigating the different forms of influencers.

16. Thinking in Bets – Annie Duke

I was slightly disappointed by this book after it received a solid review by Marc Andreessen.  The first few chapters are really good and then it tails off from there.  The key ideas are great: thinking in terms of “Am I so sure about this I would put money on it?”, using confidence percentages over absolutes, and thinking more about the decision process than the outcome are all covered early.  From there, the book goes on to suggest strategies for putting those insights into action and becomes repetitive.

15. Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath

Two main concepts from this book to remember.  SUCCESs (Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete, Emotional, Stories) and Curse of Knowledge.  The first concept is what makes ideas stick and the second focuses on why we don’t use each to make our ideas more sticky to others.  This is a great read for those focused on marketing or sales: i.e. everyone.

14. Everybody Writes – Ann Handley

70+ tips for better writing for everyone.  Because of social media and email, we are all writers rather we admit it or not.  Handley offers tips for all writers and some tips that are specific to the different types of writing.  Highly recommend for anyone looking to sharpen their writing skills.

13. A Guide to the Good Life – William B Irvine

I picked up A Guide to the Good Life after seeing it mentioned by several people on Twitter as a life-changing book.  While that is TBD, I really liked the Stoic concepts discussed in this book.  The biggest takeaway is splitting events into three categories: those we can’t control, those we can, and those we can impact but not control.  Eg. focus on preparing the best you can and don’t be upset if the results are not completely in your control.

12. Talent Wins – Ram Charan, et al.

I recommend this book on the “Critical 2 Percent” tactic alone.  Identifying the highest leverage employees is a no-brainer, but Charan and his co-authors take it to a new level by reframing who the 2 percent are.  (hint: it doesn’t involve titles or salaries)  The book is mostly focused on issues that affect larger organizations however, there are more than a few takeaways for any CEO regardless of company size.

11. Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

I really enjoyed “Hatching Twitter” so I wasn’t shocked that this book had me hooked from the first few pages.  I was amazed at the amount of dysfunction and incompetence that was displayed not only by Theranos but also by executives at publicly traded companies like Walgreens and Safeway.  To say the least, it was shocking.

10. Elements of Eloquence – Mark Forsyth

I was a bit disappointed by this one.  I expected a book that would be a guide to better writing and communication.  Instead, the book is a collection of several figures of speech.  I suspect they will be helpful as a reference moving forward and I will keep the book handy for future writing.  One great thing about the book, Forsyth is a great writer who kept a potentially boring subject from being dull.

9. Skin in the Game – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

My reading slowed down a bit in March & early April, but I did get to finish SITG.  For me, this was NNT’s most readable book yet.  I particularly enjoyed the Intellectual Yet Idiot (IYI) chapter, though I’m now very concerned with avoiding becoming one myself.   One of the more memorable insights from the book was that rigorous, well-executed research that is contradictory should be given special consideration, especially when the person conducting it has skin in the game.  This feels like a great analogy for venture capital, especially at the seed-stage.

8. The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I re-read The Black Swan due to the fact that I didn’t think I fully appreciated the thinking behind it and in preperation for Skin in the Game also written by NNT.  I won’t spend too much time reviewing since this book has been thoroughly discussed online.  However, I encourage everyone to read this and other books that shed light on our biases and provide the reader with new huersitics for problem solving.

7. Blockchain Revolution – Don and Alex Tapscott

This book is probably a great read for those just starting to learn about blockchain, but if you know anything about the technology it’s likely too much of a beginner’s read.  I was already familiar with how the technology works at a very high level and the potential use cases.  Something I’ll likely write about later on that comes from a concept in this book is how will blockchain impact our workforce, particularly middle management.

6. Reset – Ellen Pao

It’s impossible not to feel for Ellen’s journey in Reset, and her passion for inclusion and lasting change is evident.  I also couldn’t read this book and take a side since it is from one perspective but I do recommend everyone read it.  We could all do better by learning about our conscious and unconscious behaviors which prevent the very best employees from rising to the top regardless of gender, race, or religion.

5.  Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

It’s hard to classify this as the best book I’ve read this year because they’ve all been fairly different, but in terms of writing style and readability, Sapiens is hard to top.  I likened Harari’s writing style to that of Carolo Rovelli but for social anthropology.  He takes an incredibly complex subject and makes it extremely enjoyable.  The book is exactly what it says, “a brief history of mankind” and puts into perspective just how insignificant we really are as individuals.

4. Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility – Patty McCord

Patty McCord is best known for her role as head of HR at Netflix and the corresponding Netflix Culture Deck.  The book does a great job of highlighting the counter-productive nature of today’s HR and examines why companies don’t treat HR problem-solving in the same way they would product or marketing despite how well those strategies work.  My favorite insight from the book came in the form of resource allocation when it comes to salaries.  Most companies are either competitive with compensation or not, regardless of position.  Compensation doesn’t have to be a zero or one problem, startups can compensate the positions they most need well, while paying close to market rates in positions where top-level skill is not needed.

3. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl

A powerful book that I was convinced to read after seeing so many successful people recommend it in Tribe of Mentors.  I won’t spoil the one true freedom every man has, but needless to say, it had a big impact on the way I think about things.  I’m not sure there’s a book I’ve read that packs more punch in just a few short pages.

2.  Tribe of Mentors – Tim Ferriss

A quick and skimmable read. Tim asked the same 10 or so questions to a variety of extremely successful people and then put the best answers here. I read most of the interviews but certainly skipped over about 1/3.  The format of the book makes it quite easy for the reader to determine which interviews are worth reading and which may not be applicable.  This book will be a resource over time, especially when it comes to skills like being more diligent with my schedule and for exploring new books.

1.  Principles – Ray Dalio

A must-read for any business professional.  While most of us probably have a loosely defined set of values and norms, Ray has codified his after 30+ years in the investing business.  He encourages the reader to only take the principles they feel apply to them and create their own set of principles.  We could all heed Ray’s advice to be more cognizant and accepting of what we don’t know while being more focused on achieving success rather than appearing successful.

Last week I tweeted what I believe to be one of the best personal growth hacks for anyone looking to advance their career at an accelerated pace.  Find a mentor that is 2-3 steps ahead, which is about 24-36 months, but on a similar career path.

Why?

1) Their experience will still be relevant.  The best practices and advice they offer will still be current.

2) They are far enough removed to have seen results from the key decisions you are currently facing or will be soon.

Naturally, the question of “how do I make this happen?” came from one of my followers.  So I thought I’d answer it here in more detail.

Be authentically curious –  One of the best things about working in a startup is the opportunity to interact with multiple co-workers in different functions of the business on a daily basis. I was able to learn about engineering, finance, and marketing just by making it a priority to engage with our team.

I learned early to ask people what surprises them most about our business and what I should look out for in the future. This helped me understand how people thought, reduced my naivete of building a startup and increased my empathy for others which in turn created deeper connections with my co-workers.

Be a magnet for knowledge- Read, write, listen to podcasts, and take online courses to enhance your knowledge base.  The most important thing I came to realize was how little I knew.

However, others tend to take notice when you are learning new skills and attempting to put them to use.  I was naturally given new tasks because I’d learned some simple code or wanted to apply a concept I’d heard or read about to our business.

Give back 10:1 and expect nothing in return- Try to help in every way possible and expect nothing back.  Invest in other’s success and they’ll invest in yours.  Mentorship is no different from any relationship, it’s a give and take.  Attempt to give more than you receive and never expect the return, the right mentor will always repay the favor.

Be someone’s right hand- Find someone and be their go-to for everything possible.  I did this with my bosses and it paid off.  My job became very simple, to make other’s easier.  This helped me gain insights into processes and decisions that I would never have gotten otherwise.

Say yes a lot- This is the opposite of how I have to operate now, but as an operator who aspired to grow into new roles, I said “yes” to almost everything that was asked of me.  This doesn’t just pertain to high-level, “fun” work.  It may mean working 25-50% more, but the pay off is worth it.

Always ask to be challenged – Speak up and ask for the tough assignments.  You’ll get a shot you don’t deserve and you’ll have to make it happen by asking for help.  Asking for help is one of the best ways to connect while learning from those who have skillsets that are complementary or more advanced.  Asking to run the B2B platform at Choose is still what I consider to be one of my bigger breaks.

It’s important to remember that mentorship is a two-way street and not everyone will have the bandwidth or desire to be a mentor.  However, the steps I took above made me better regardless and at the end of the day, that’s was my real goal.  The right people will take notice and when they do it’ll be like adding a multiplier to your career.

2017 was a year of incredible change for me professionally.   We sold Choose Energy in Q2 of this year which triggered a wave of emotions that I wasn’t expecting. Subsequently, we launched Intelis Capital, a dream 18-months in the making.

While the acquisition was our goal, it was also bittersweet. Our team and leadership had worked so well together in the 12 months leading up to it, but the timing was right and I couldn’t be happier with the result we produced together.  Luckily, I still talk with most of the team regularly and hope we’ll have a chance to work together down the road.

Perhaps most surprising to me, was the feeling of anxious excitement that came once Jonathan, Kevin and I officially announced Intelis Capital.  We’d spent a lot of time strategically planning our firm and the brand we wanted to build, but there’s no feeling quite like the one that rushed through me once I realized my job was officially a partner at a firm I’d co-founded.

Partnering with Jonathan and Kevin continues to be an amazing experience, and I’m excited about the future as we work to execute on an ambitious vision in which we deeply believe.

If 2017 was an inflection point for new opportunities, 2018 will be about optimizing the way I work to accelerate the trajectory for potential growth. I ended the year still struggling to adjust to my new schedule and workflow, so my 2018 will center around getting into a rhythm that makes me most effective in my new role.

While most would say they want to read or write more, that strategy didn’t work for me in 2017. I read about the same and only wrote slightly more. Instead, I want to improve the prioritization and protection of my schedule so that I can work on the things that make me a better resource to everyone in my expanding network.

I believe, maybe naively, that this will lead to more research, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. The goal is to increase the quality of the time I spend with others instead of the quantity.

The result will be me saying “no” more often, but will also give me a chance to improve the way I communicate that response moving forward.

It’s safe to say that regardless of what happens in 2018, 2017 marked a turning point in my life.  I’m thankful for all of you who continue to be a part of the journey.  With the backing of an amazing wife, which I’ve come to learn you cannot start a business without, I’m excited to expand on the opportunities that are in front of me.

Recently, I decided to take a “themed” approach to my book selections.  The first theme has been centered around a new approach to my work habits.  I asked myself three questions (selected book):

  1. How can I learn more effectively and efficiently? (Make It Stick)
  2. How can I spend time in a deeper state of concentration so the most important tasks always get my best work? (Deep Work)
  3. How can I prioritize my day around getting the most important tasks done? I.e. owning my schedule instead of letting it own me. (Essentialism -thanks, JT)

As I engaged with these books and started applying their lessons to my day-to-day workflow, I wondered where else could their principles be applied in a startup setting.  For the latter two books, the answer soon became clear, meetings.

Why do some teams leave meetings without accomplishing their goals and how can they apply the theses of the books above in order to walk away from meetings feeling ready to execute?

Deep Work = (Time Worked x Intensity of Work) – Distractions

How many meetings have you been in that include a “brainstorming” session? The validity of brainstorming has come into question in recent years due to the increased propensity for social-loafing, regression to the mean, and production blocking.  While brainstorming is meant to increase creativity, we are actually at our most creative when our work is done in solitude.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. – Picasso

Instead of asking everyone to express several ideas all at once, encourage (or perhaps require) members of the meeting to spend 1-2 hours beforehand working through the topic of the meeting individually in order to allow them to achieve a state of deep work on the problem at hand.  The results will be of higher quality and buy-in can still be achieved since everyone will have something to contribute during the meeting.

Essentialism = Less but Better

While leaving any meeting with a plan of attack is a must, it is a partial completion of the actual requirement.  Great meetings end with a prioritized list of to-dos and deadlines.  We all have the tendency to want “more” and to chase shiny objects.  This is especially true early on in a company’s life when there are many things to do.

However, leaving a meeting with ten top priorities is, as Greg McKeown puts it, “ironic.” Make it a practice to prioritize what can be accomplished in the time period given.  In my experience the following limits have worked well:

  • Quarterly: 3-4 priorities
  • Monthly: 2-3
  • Bi-Weekly: 1-2

Additionally, encourage your team to say “no” when they feel overwhelmed or that a task is unimportant to the greater goal at hand.  Healthy debate will lead to an even clearer list of priorities on which to execute.

Leaving a meeting with no clear direction (decision maker, execution plan, priorities) is one of the biggest wastes of company resources imaginable. We often think about tangible costs but almost never compute the costs of pulling multiple team-members into an hours long meeting.  If you’re having the issue of multiple, yet unproductive, meetings I encourage you to try some of these tactics geared toward the individual to make your group sessions more effective.

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Remember those terrible word association problems from your SAT? (A is to B as C is to D) I do, and this is the first time I’ll be using them again almost 15 years later.  But they serve an important purpose in this post as the framework for equating a few common pitfalls of large companies to the high-growth startup.

– Big Company: Bureaucracy; Startup: Democracy

Two of the biggest inflection points for a growing startup happen when headcounts go from 10 to 20 people and subsequently 20 to 50 people. During the former, employees begin to transition from generalists to specialists.  For example, the engineer who was also serving as a PM moves focus to just one of those roles and a startup hires the remaining position.  Yet after this phase, every employee in the company still has knowledge of most decisions that are being made.

As your company continues to grow, roles become even more generalized and senior leadership is brought in to help scale the company. Key decisions are now made by the exec team, and often those early employees begin to feel left out of the process.  It’s crucial to avoid the temptation to save “culture” and include everyone as often as possible.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in transparency and communication from leadership but when everyone has a vote in key decisions your progress is bound to slow to a screeching halt.  Stick to the Jeff Bezos meeting size, if it takes more than two pizzas to feed everyone it’s too large.

 – Big Company: Paralysis by Analysis;  Startups: Fear of Failure

We now live in a world of almost unlimited data, and the best data any startup can capture is proprietarily customer-centric.  The only way to capture it is to get your product to market.  Entrepreneurs by nature are often visionary, and see the long-term possibilities of the product they are creating. Therefore, it’s often counterintuitive for them to release something that is not up to their personal standards.  I’ve seen products that took over 6 months of development fail, not because they weren’t well thought out, but because the customer wanted something we didn’t see. The cruel joke of entrepreneurship is that most of the time, no matter how great you are, certain aspects of your product will be rejected by the market and that’s okay.

“If you cannot fail, you cannot learn.” – Eric Reis, Author – The Lean Startup

Large companies use data to become proficient and knowledgeable.  However, the returns on data analytics are marginal (at least when done by humans) and often lead to a blind spot where large firms are unable to see the unrealized potential of what lies ahead, preventing them from developing new products that grow market share.  The best early-stage companies are able to get a viable product to market quickly, and thanks to a myriad of new tools, collect as much data as possible including how customers use their product, customer acquisition costs, and customer value.  Combining these types of data with a vision for the future of an industry can be a powerful pairing.

– Big Company: Hire for Resume; Startups: Hire for Culture

When I decided to go back to school in order to get my MBA I knew I was adding a checkbox to my resume for certain positions within large companies.  Little did I know, my passion for startups would prevent that from becoming useful.  Yet, my intentions highlighted an issue with many large firms, they hire exclusively based on things like titles and advanced degrees.  While it’s true that these things can be an indication of effectiveness and leadership, it is certainly no guarantee.  Large companies often neglect things chemistry and creativity.

If large companies neglect culture fit, startups can often do an exact 180 and over-value it.  While I still immensely value culture, I’ve also learned that results (good or bad) are part of the culture and often what is seen as good culture is actually vanity perks masquerading as such. What does this look like in hiring? It means doing things like having subordinates interview their potential new boss for “buy-in” or expecting someone to adhere to the “work hard, play hard” schedule.  I’ve fallen into that latter bucket with people we hired only to be proven completely wrong about the person’s work-ethic and capability.

Remember, while many of us are working to disrupt the incumbents in large industries, we’d still be served to look to them for examples, both good and bad.  After all, we’re working toward being as large as them someday.

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What a few months it’s been, Choose Energy sold to Red Ventures and my partners and I made our first investment into a startup.  These big events have led to a lot of discussions among myself and my friends and colleagues.  This led me to reflect on the biggest factors in my growth up until this point, and it was easy to conclude that I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with so many people who shared their skill sets to help me expand mine and gave me the opportunities to put those newfound skills to work.

Almost 4 years ago I was laid off from NRG Energy.  While I should have been panicked, I had an amazing group of friends from SMU that came to my immediate aid.  There wasn’t anyone I asked who didn’t offer to intro me to their network.   Despite these enormously kind gestures, I had no idea what I wanted to do. What I did know is that I was done with energy and had a pile of student debt that needed paying off.

Enter Jerry Dyess.  Job offer in hand (from a chance meeting at a wedding), I agreed to meet Jerry after being introduced to him by a colleague from NRG who had scrambled to help anyone and everyone after the layoffs.  Jerry is the CEO and founder of Choose Energy and among his many skills as a leader, the guy could sell water to a fish.  After 10 minutes I was hooked by his vision for the company and knew I had to be a part of Choose.  It was, and still to this day is, the best career decision I’ve ever made.  Jerry taught me how to be a professional, how to conduct myself in meetings, and how to do subtle things like reading body language.  He also taught me the phrase “things of that nature” which I now use habitually.

After reporting to Jerry for several months, it became clear to him that I wanted a deeper connection to Silicon Valley, and to his credit, Jerry moved my role underneath John Tough.  John is the ultimate mentor.  He expects you to perform at a high level, he shares any and every thing he can to help you grow your skill set, and most importantly (and most like Jerry) he cares about people.  John taught me everything from operational finance to strategy to fundraising.  He remains my biggest mentor and there’s no doubt my future career wouldn’t be possible without his guidance.

I’m not sure what these two saw in me, but for some reason, they decided to let me build and lead what eventually became the US’ largest B2B energy marketplace.  It was the learning experience of a lifetime and one I likely didn’t deserve at the time.  After our new product launched, John set up a meeting with Dave Mount at Kleiner-Perkins who challenged me to think about our business in ways I hadn’t thought about before.  It was the first time I’d been challenged to rapid-fire, board-style questioning and I was hooked.  Jerry and John ensured that I was included in almost every board meeting moving forward and that exposure was invaluable.

Jerry and John weren’t the only Choose employees that helped me tremendously along the way.  As a new product manager, I needed the benefit of learning from people who had been there before.  Kerry Cooper, our then CEO, set up a lunch with Bryan Byrne, the first B2B product manager at Yelp where I learned lessons about how business owners view their time and prioritize it which helped us prioritize features from day one.  Afterward, Kerry and I set up a bi-weekly touch-base where I was able to discuss strategy on how to scale a company with a seasoned executive on a regular basis. This access proved enormously helpful as I navigated my way through the decision-making process of a growing product.

Throughout my time at Choose, I was surrounded by an incredibly talented product and engineering team.  I worked closely with guys like Ethan Wais who has a more capacity to learn than anyone I’ve ever met.  Working side-by-side with him for over 2 years was as challenging as it was rewarding.  Here, challenging is meant to be the ultimate compliment because there was never a day that I didn’t believe I needed to learn something new just to keep up with the guy.

Over the last year, I had the privilege to work Sai Nayagar and our engineering team (Jeff, Chad, Donnie, O’Neal, Jake, Kat and Melody).  Similar to the board meetings, sprint meetings opened my eyes to an entirely new aspect of our business.  This team worked tirelessly, creatively and with great patience while a non-technical product manager learned the ropes.  There’s nothing quite as intimidating as sitting in a room with 9 really smart people speaking in a language that might as well be foreign to you but these people made me feel right at home.

My string of good luck continues as I explore a potential new career.  I’ve had complete strangers on Slack, Facebook, and Twitter introduce me to their network in order to help me get off the ground.  Lastly, in perhaps the greatest stroke of luck of all, my business partner was introduced to me by the best man in my wedding.  Their moms were high school friends who reconnected after a decade.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to think of luck as a flywheel that creates amazing opportunities. By being curious and willing to learn it becomes possible to capture the most from those opportunities which in turn creates more luck down the road. I’m thrilled to be moving on to a career where I can not only leverage the lessons I’ve learned and pay forward the amount of luck I’ve had, but also help others create their own.

 

Over the decade, I’ve been blessed to work a variety of different jobs with a diverse group of people. I’ve gone from retail store manager to a publicly traded company, to a growing startup while acquiring my MBA somewhere in between. During that time, I’ve worked with some exceptionally talented, hardworking people who all had two characteristics in common: curiosity and tenacity. There are two phrases you’ll never hear them say during a conversation or meeting, “I don’t know” and some form of “that’s going to be too difficult” respectively. However, I firmly believe that ignorance and level of difficulty should never be adequate reasons for refusing to solve real business problems.

I recently read Raghav Haran’s Career Advice No One Tells You in which he asserts “having the right mentor is the real key… And you’ll avoid the mistakes that keep others stuck for years on end.” He couldn’t have been more correct. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a superior was, “remove the phrase I don’t know from your vocabulary.” This mentor wasn’t insisting that I know everything. In fact, he was adamant that I couldn’t, even though I thought I did at 20. Instead, he encouraged me to always use the phrase “let me look into that for you.” This small change in my expression of ignorance had a profound effect on my career moving forward. Not only was I expressing a desire to learn that which I did not know, but I was holding myself accountable for getting back to others with the information they desired because I had promised I would. I’ve worked with several exceptionally bright people and all of them amplify their natural intelligence by being the most curious person in the room. I’ve seen retail managers find their passion by mentoring teenage sales associates and MBA graduates learn how to code on the fly, and both become extremely successful in their fields because they had a passion to learn.

Being curious requires a certain level of tenacity to research problems even if the answer and data are not always clear. Due to the amount of data available in today’s business climate, it often takes an immense amount of hard, tedious work to get the results we want. The most successful people I’ve seen in my young career are those who know the hurdles ahead and regardless still tackle the task at hand. I don’t want to confuse the amount of resources (cost) of a project with amount of effort that goes into solving a problem; great business people consider ROI almost naturally. However, it is human nature to be confronted with a complex problem and naturally respond, “this is going to be difficult.” I encourage everyone to reject this natural notion.

I’m often reminded of a summer working with my electrician uncle in California when I’d follow him around the Bay Area for a few extra bucks. We spent an entire blistering summer day changing lightbulbs at a low-income apartment complex. When I asked why we were doing this instead of the more complicated (and to me, fun) jobs we’d been working on previously, his response stuck with me, “there are a lot of lightbulbs that need to be changed, and people who want to pay me to do it.” The very best of my peers and mentors always had the inclination to encourage myself and others to immerse themselves in the problem regardless of difficulty or level of enjoyment even from an early age.

Hard-work and curiosity often go hand-in-hand. It’s rare in today’s specialized economy that an individual possess all of the skills required to solve a problem. Yet, those who do solve the problem, or get the closest for their company, are those who are willing to learn a new skill, dust off an old one they haven’t used in years, or execute on the mundane. While my career post-grad school might be in its infancy, I’ve worked with an extremely diverse group of people with varying skill-sets. However, all of the most successful had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the work ethic to solve any problem before them.

Be curious. Be tenacious. Stay hungry.

“You get what you measure.” A concept that seems simple enough, yet even the world’s best businesses get wrong.  Measuring the wrong things drives poor decision making and undermines performance.  Simply put, using a metric the wrong way is as bad or worse than not measuring anything at all.

Let’s take a look at a few metrics that are useful when assessing the health of a startup but might not always be what they seem from an operational perspective.  Before we begin, it’s important to note that these are just examples, and each metric is worthy of a deep dive.  For our purposes, we are just looking to highlight a few metrics that can be perilous if other factors are not taken into consideration.

Customer Lifetime Value (CLV or LTV)

What it actually measures: Effectiveness of acquisition channels or marketing programs to acquire similar customers

How it’s misused: Comparing the cost of customer acquisition with the cash flows that come from the customer over time, often mistaken as the margin made on a customer and relaxing the drive for near-term profit.  Lifetime value is extremely useful, but should be used in combined with metrics like payback period to ensure a startup won’t have to choose between cash flow and growth.

What can go wrong: CLV doesn’t account for revenue timing, i.e. cash flow implications for SaaS businesses. It is inherently uncertain via discount rates and attrition which imply assumptions about future market conditions . If LTV > cost of acquisition, many will justify “pouring gas on the fire”

Let’s take an example. A customer costs you $50 to acquire and pays you $4.99 on a monthly subscription, it will take over 10 months to breakeven on this customer leaving a lot of time for uncertainty. Even if the customer stays, it will take 13 months to make 30% margin on just the cost of acquisition which doesn’t account for the overhead of the business itself.  The other issue to consider here is supply and demand. As you work to buy more customers, the price will go up and the payback period will be pushed out. It’s highly unlikely to get more efficient the more you spend, typically the outcome is the opposite due to competition and the removal of first adopters which are always cheapest to acquire.

Churn

What it actually measures: Churn can be measured in two ways, customer churn or revenue churn.  For the purposes of this post we’re looking at churn as the percent of customers lost monthly.  It is inherently a measure of customer satisfaction and a startup’s ability to retain customers through renewal campaigns.

How it’s misused:  A startup focuses only on the percent of churn instead of combining the measure with the rate of new customer acquisition.  Instead of looking at the percent of churn, it becomes important to look at the actual number of customers lost.  When % churn stays steady, there becomes a point where customers acquired = customers lost and growth slows to a halt.

What can go wrong: Startups recognize the problem too late.  As the number of customers churned grows, two things happen.  First, the cost to retain becomes high through marketing spend and /or operational overhead to put systems in place for retention.   Second, the cost to acquire new customers to replace the churn AND grow becomes burdensome at scale.

Let’s use an overly simple example, last year a startup acquired 5,000 customers at a $100 CPA for a total of $500,000 spent.  This year it needs to grow year over year 70% to 8,500 customers acquired for this year and a goal of 13,500 total customers under contract.

Assuming the CPA stays constant (remember from the CLV discussion this is unlikely), new customer acquisition will cost $850,000 to reach the goal of 13,500 under contract. But what happens when 20% of last year’s customers churn? Now, we have 1,000 less customers and need 9,500 to meet our goal meaning we’ll spend an extra $100,000 to meet our growth numbers.

To drive the point home even further, here is an extreme example.  This week Facebook announced it has 1.23B daily active users as of December 2016.  If they churned 0.5% of users in January 2017, they would lose 6.1M users.

This concept seems simple enough (we use compounding interest in finance all the time), but as a startup focuses on growth and scale it is easy to forget about churn.  The goal is optimal net customer growth, the optimal spend of acquiring new customers and the reduction of churn.

Revenue

What it actually measures: In its simplest form, revenue is the income a business receives from operating activities, but like most things it is much more complicated in practice.  For our purposes, revenue can actually be divided into three parts: booked revenue, recognized revenue and collected revenue. These three are often referred to as the flow of revenue.  Depending on the business, booked revenues can be realized and collected immediately or spread out over a period of time.

How it’s misused:   It is perfectly fair to champion “bookings,” “annual recurring revenue” and other numbers that often exceed actual revenue, as defined by generally accepted accounting principles because they are often better indicators of a companies growth prospects.  However, monitoring the flow of revenue becomes just as important as a startup grows. Startups should dedicate as much attention to the rate, both time and frequency, at which they are collecting revenue as they do to booked and realized revenue.

What can go wrong: The (un)realization of revenue. In some industries, bookings do not always turn into revenues. Marketplaces are one such example of an industry where bookings are often materially different than realized revenue. The marketplace doesn’t actually realize revenue upon signup or booking, but instead is compensated when the customer uses the actual service.

If your business is booking revenue at a high rate, but not collecting it you’ll be carrying a high accounts receivable balance and hinder your cash flow.  In this case, yield becomes an important indicator of performance. While this is just one example across one particular type of business, revenues / cash flow are the lifeblood of any business so it’s critical revenues are measured the right way.

 

 

This past week, our CRO John Tough provoked a conversation over email about our success at Choose Energy and he’d noted a change in our culture over the last few months.

Culture is something which had always been top of mind for us, but lately something had been clicking. As any good leader does, John often pushes me to think deeper about trends within the business and asked me to think about why “culture” never comes up in our conversations anymore, was it overrated or was it now engrained in our company?
I am a huge believer in culture, mission, and values as a company so my answer as the latter. Below are a few quick thoughts what makes for a quick transformation from average / non-existant culture to great culture.

Early hiring is crucial and eliminate bad culture swiftly and ruthlessly

Great culture begins with the very first hire. I know you’ve likely read this cliche over and over again but there’s a reason. Think about this, your first hire likely hires 3–7 people, those 3–7 people hire at least 1–2 people and so on. If the first hire poisons the well, it could be poisoned until the very last person on that hiring tree is let go. Which leads me to this, hiring early is CRUCIAL.

If early and new hires do not exhibit core values and dedication to the mission they must be let go quickly, if no action is taken it’s likely one of two things will happen: 1)since bad culture is evident, the employee is promoted because they “have been there the longest” putting them in position to influence other employees and their new hires, and setting the expectation that time = value, 2) the employee isn’t promoted but believes they should be only based on their “time served” and begins to spread the word inside the company that “hard-work” isn’t appreciated or rewarded. Both terrible outcomes that compound an initial mistake. Take action, remove bad apples as it is likely they are just as unhappy at work as you are with their performance.

If you are constantly talking about culture, it’s likely because you believe it’s not there

Think about your goals as an individual. Do think about your big core values and mission everyday? Or is it a subconscious effort to take action based on them? For me, it’s the latter, I know the values and goals that drive my decision making are but I don’t repeat them to everyone I know over and over. Instead, I work on taking action towards them then evaluate periodically for progress.

Companies should be very similar, core values are great but if you are hiring people who truly believe in them they are not something that must be repeated everyday. Instead, those people will set quarterly goals that are set in your mission and act on them accordingly.

Establish one main, clear goal and march towards it with every action, rather than words

Speaking of action, it is ALWAYS the number one driver of company culture. It’s easy to hang a poster that lists something like “we put customers first, be relentless, be resourceful, have a sense of humor” etc… But what actions are your leaders taking to show employees they live these values?

Establishing one clear goal can help companies with culture problems begin to build one they can be proud of. For example, if you set a goal of profitability as some startups have been lately, pick a metric that you believe drives towards that goal. We’ve done something similar with conversion on our product team because it lowers CPC and improves revenue both leading to better unit economics.

We took action immediately on this goal, posting a real-time metrics board in the center of the office where anyone walking by must face the reality of our performance. Lately, performance has been amazing, so we added a gong to celebrate wins throughout the day. These little things might seem silly but the impact on camaraderie has been immeasurable.

You have to lead by example, culture is set by leadership and there are no short cuts

Similar to taking action, leadership leads by example. This not only applies to the values of the company but also the common traits of leadership. Leaders are almost always curious, relentless in work-ethic, good listeners, and ambitious in goal setting. Good leaders have most, if not all of these qualities, if not it’s unlikely they can spearhead or drive the company mission.

Leaders who aren’t relentless in problem solving, listening to the employees on the front lines, and must have things done their way are unprepared to lead a company to the results needed to fortify great culture.

There are a multitude of paths to creating great company culture.  No matter where your company is on the growth curve, remember culture starts early (there’s no bigger reward than setting the foundation for a successful business) and it must be LIVED not just spoken about or hung on a wall in the office.