Mar 23 2023

Announcing The Daily Bolster (You DO NOT want to miss this new Podcast)

I’m thrilled to announce The Daily Bolster — a quick-hitting podcast for startup leaders scaling their businesses. It’s the actionable insight you need to scale—in about 5 minutes. The first episode drops this coming Monday.

Our team created The Daily Bolster for folks in the startup world who — like me — want to hear from industry experts of all backgrounds, but don’t always have the time to listen to full length interviews, even at 2x speed (which usually ends up sounding like Alvin & The Chimpunks, anyway).

Instead, we’re getting straight to the point. GTTFP, as Brad says.

Starting next week, I will be joined every day by experienced operators and industry experts who share their real-world experiences and practical advice. Each day of the week, we’ll cover a different topic or theme:

  • Monday: CEO Tips & Tricks
  • Tuesday: Scaling Yourself & Your Team
  • Wednesday: The View from the Board Room
  • Thursday: Ask Bolster (this one will be more like 20-30 minutes to go deeper with someone)

The schedule is jam-packed with dynamic guests and punchy interviews. Whether you tune in every day, when you see a guest you’re especially interested in, or only on Tuesdays, we’re so excited to share these conversations with you.

In Week 1, I welcome Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta, board member extraordinaire and marketplace guru Cristina Miller, Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, Helpscout CEO Nick Francis, and Bessemer Operating Partner and veteran CFO Jeff Epstein. They’ll share their practical advice and real-world experiences around professional development, company culture, startup strategy, and tips and tricks for executive growth.

Check out the season preview to learn more. You can also sign up for email notifications, to make sure you never miss an episode. The daily email will also include a pull quote and clips in case even the 5-minute version is too long for you.

You can subscribe to The Daily Bolster on these platforms: Bolster, YouTube, Apple, Google, Spotify, Amazon, Stitcher, Pandora, and Castbox, plus we’ll put each episode up on LinkedIn and Twitter. You should either follow me (T, LI) or Bolster (T, LI) on those to see the content.

Mar 16 2023

How I engage with the CCO

Post 4 of 4 in the series of Scaling CMO’s- the other posts are, When to Hire your First Chief Customer Officer, What does Great Look like in a Chief Customer Officer and Signs your Chief Customer Officer isn’t Scaling.

You can engage with each person on the executive team one-on-one to understand what their issues and challenges are, but I’ve found that engaging with the CCO offsite with customers is far more productive and leads to a better understanding of the service organization than any other meeting time. I have typically spent the most time with or gotten the most value out of CCOs over the years doing the following.

In person at “Canary in the Coal Mine” customers. They don’t use canaries any more in coal mines, but the principle applies to companies: What are the early warning signs that you’ve got big problems looming? The earlier you discover those problems the better, and the CCO is usually the first person to figure out that something isn’t right with your product or service. I always find that the largest clients, the most demanding ones, the ones who push you around, the ones who are highly critical or you, are the ones who make your company a better company.  At Return Path, we had those types of clients over the years, from eBay, to DoubleClick, to Microsoft, to Groupon, to Facebook, to Bank of America—and that’s just the short list off the top of my mind.  The demanding customer is the one who breaks things and forces you to own up to your lack of scalability.  They also either take you to task or threaten to pull their business if you don’t clean up your act.  As painful as some of those meetings are, they are also ones I always wanted to attend in person with my CCO, both so I could eat whatever form of crow needed to be eaten as the Chief Crow Eater (which sends a very powerful message to the customer), and also because the CCO and I could experience the chirping of the canary in the coal mine and learn from the experience together.

While it’s important to engage with the CCO in the critical meetings with demanding customers, it’s also important to understand the base.  There’s an old saying from the hardware world that goes, “God was able to create the world in only 7 days because God didn’t have an installed base.”  The new world of Internet technologies, SaaS, and agile development is one where your installed base of customers is your biggest asset, not a millstone around your neck.  Some of the most meaningful experiences I had over the years with our CCOs was to be in market, spending time with all kinds of customers together in small groups and large, deeply understanding their needs and use of our product.

The CCO role is one that is easy to ignore or put on the back burner if things are going smoothly at your company, but as CEO I feel that it is best to stay close to the market and engaging with the CCO with demanding customers and with the base is a good way to understand your company and CCO better.

(You can find this post on the Bolster Blog here)

Mar 9 2023

Patience vs. Impatience

Patience and Impatience are both critical tools in the founder toolbelt. That sounds kind of funny since they’re at odds with each other. Let me explain.

Patience is hard, but there are some things that require it. As they say metaphorically about Product, nine women can’t make a baby in a month. Products needs to be built, tested in the wild, marinate with clients. GTM motions take time to figure out. Brands take time to build unless you have billions to throw at the problem. Bread takes time to rise.  Patience is a really useful tool when people on your team or board get itchy for success and you need to calm them down and keep them focused.

Impatience, on the other hand, is easy, and you have to moderate it. Once we have a vision…don’t we want it to become reality yesterday? Why is that roadmap item taking so damn long? Where’s the blog post? We already agreed to terms on the financing, why do the lawyers need to take 60 days and $50,000 to paper it?

How do you know when to use which tool?

Be patient with the seemingly impossible – changing the world, changing people’s habits, changing thoughts and perceptions all take time. But be impatient with those eminently possible and important items – the things someone on the team or you need to knock off a to do list to advance the business.

Most of all, be impatient for success and tangible signs of progress. Turning your vision into a viable business requires that kind of fire within you.

Mar 2 2023

Signs your Chief Customer Officer isn’t scaling

This is the third post in the series. The first one When to hire your first CCO is here and What does Great Look Like in a CCO is here).

Although we think of scaling issues as primarily startup issues, any company can face scaleup issues for example, through a merger or acquisition that changes your landscape immediately. Nowhere is a scaling issue felt more deeply than in the company-customer relationship and there are several signs that I use to quickly figure out whether the Chief Customer Officer is up to the task, or even ahead of the game, in scaling.

 A CCO who isn’t scaling well past the startup stage is someone who typically throws bodies at things like support instead of making processes more automated or efficient.  This is true of other functions I’ve written about in other parts of Startup CXO (accounting, for example), but it’s particularly important in Customer Success. As a company scales and takes on more customers the support burden can get out of hand. This is especially true if the product team spends their time and effort building more new features and functions rather than automating internal tools or sunsetting old product modules. Before you know it you have a support team that is spending lots of time on legacy systems or products as well as learning new products. And while sometimes, sure, it may make sense to open up a massive support location offshore, that may be just a less expensive way of avoiding a process redesign or system implementation. Your CCO should be looking far enough ahead to begin thinking early about the amount of support required and working to develop systems and processes that solve the problem, not thinking about how many new hires they need to keep up.

A second sign that your CCO isn’t scaling is if they fail to specialize the service organization as it grows. Just as a startup scales from its founding team as generalists, capable of pitching in on everything, to more specialized roles running different functional areas, Chief Customer Officers have to grow their teams by increasingly specializing roles. It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of hiring and training expensive generalists because they’re really good, and they don’t require a lot of training.  It’s much harder to break a role down into two or three smaller roles, figure out how to career path existing generalists into the more specialized roles, and redesign systems and processes to execute better and more efficiently. The CCO who can look at all the parts and see where to create specialists will be much more effective at scaling.

(You can find this post on the Bolster Blog here)

Feb 23 2023

It All Starts With Self-Awareness

If I had to pick one human trait that is the single most impactful in one’s ability to have positive and successful interpersonal relationships, there’s a hands-down winner: Self-Awareness. This is true no matter what kind of relationships you’re talking about — parent, manager, executive, friend, partner or spouse.

Someone shared a framework with me years ago that helps explain why this is true, which I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time. I found this image, which is close enough to the 2×2 that was once drawn for me on a whiteboard.

Found on Google Images from Research Gate, adapted from Goleman & Boyatzis 2013

The framework is at once incredibly simple and incredibly complex.

Having true self-awareness and the ability to be reflective, to take in input and feedback, and the ability to accurately self-assess is where it all starts. “I am unhappy today,” “I am doing a bad job right now,” “I am not good at doing this task” are all pretty difficult things to say to yourself. And yet, without those, it’s impossible to progress through this framework.

I learned this framework where boxes II and III in what you see in this graphic are the other way around, but I’m not sure that matters as much as box I being first and box IV being last.

Once you have a solid level of self-awareness, you can exert some level of self-control. That’s not a guarantee — self-control is its own animal, but you can’t manage what you can’t understand. Empathy is similarly a follow-on to self-awareness, but also its own trait. How can you possibly understand what someone else is going through if you don’t understand what you’re going through?

The final box — Influence — is the result of building on all three of the prior traits. It’s impossible to influence others, to have deep and lasting relationships, and to be able to work productively together, without having a solid level of empathy and self-control.

You can be a leader without any of these traits if you’re an autocrat, whether a political one or a corporate one. If people MUST listen to you, then you can tell them what to do. But founders, especially ones who control their companies, shouldn’t be under the misapprehension that they are influencing others if what they’re really doing is ordering them around.

Can self-awareness be taught, or is it something you’re either born with or not? While most traits have a balance of nature and nurture, I am a big believer that self-awareness can largely be learned over time, so let’s call it a 10/90 on the nature/nurture scale. I’ve had a lot of influencers in my life who have, in their own ways helped me learn the practice of self-awareness, from my parents, to the professor in college who gave me my first 2×4, to my first couple of managers in my early jobs, Neal and Eleanor, to my coach, Marc who gave me my first 360, to my long-time colleagues along the way at Return Path and Bolster, to my wife, Mariquita, even to my kids. I’m sure I’m forgetting many others along the way. I’m thankful to all of them.

Want to improve your practice of management? Leadership? Collaboration and teamwork?

It all starts with self-awareness.

Feb 16 2023

What does Great Look like in a Chief Customer Officer?

(This is the second post in the series… the first one When to Hire your first Chief Customer Officer is here)

I mentioned in an earlier post that few startups begin with a full-time Chief Customer Officer and the likely scenario is to promote someone from within the service organization to that role. It’s possible that the person who takes on the CCO role will be ideal for the job, but often startups end up searching for someone outside the organization to lead the customer success team. Either way, promoting from within or hiring from outside, there are several telltale characteristics that great Chief Customer Officers share, and there are three things they do particularly well.

First, the CCO is the primary evangelist across your executive team and entire organization and this message should be so constant and consistent that everyone in your organization will be able to finish the sentence of the CCO. At Return Path our CCO, George Bilbrey, was constantly reminding everyone that the purpose of Return Path was to do the job the customer hired us to do.  In non-professional service businesses, where the bulk of the organization is not face-to-face with customers on a regular basis, it can be very easy for employees, teams, and projects to quickly become internally focused.  They focus on projects, milestones, internal metrics—all the things that customers don’t care about. The great CCO is the one who brings the Outside In, every day.

 A great CCO is equal parts quantitative and qualitative.  Almost all high-level work that the CCO and their team does includes quantitative measures: math, metrics, analytics, and statistics.  Net Promoter Score analysis.  Customer segmentation.  Customer profitability. Anything worth knowing has usually got a measurement behind it and the CCO must nail these or, if partnering with the CFO or someone else, at least be fluent in them.  And the greatest CCOs are also the ones with the most customer empathy, something that comes by listening carefully to customers, and I mean really listening. Once they understand customers on an emotional level the great CCOs have the ability to relate that feeling to others in the company, and to other customers.  They can recite customer and experience stories like a politician giving a stump speech.

The final characteristic or skill of a great CCO is that they like designing processes.  Account Management, Customer Success, Support, Onboarding, Professional Services, Knowledge Management — all the different teams reporting to a CCO — must work together in a seamless way to apply their specific areas of expertise to bring general solutions to the customer.  The head of the team, the CCO, must be a rock star at process envisioning and design, and at engaging teams in the process.  Otherwise, the teams will be inefficient, hand-offs will be missed, there will be no single source of truth, and customers will not be well served.

Whether your CCO is promoted from within your organization or hired from the outside, the great ones all have the same traits: evangelists for the customer, quantitative and qualitative skills, and a passion for processes that connect disparate parts of the organization into a seamless, functioning team.

(You can find this post on the Bolster Blog here)

Feb 9 2023

Swoop in, Swoop out

A fellow CEO with whom I’m friendly was venting to me the other day about one of their Board members. They were stunned that the lived experience they have day in, day out running the business wasn’t something the director internalized at all — and this is a good, well known, high quality VC director.

I pointed out that VCs are on lots of boards and can’t get in the headspace of all their CEOs all the time, although the good ones don’t just swoop in and swoop out but do take the time to track all the significant things and the nuances with all their portfolio companies.

My friend, the CEO, had a brilliant comeback line that is worth sharing and documenting here. Their company is going through a tough time at the moment like so many companies. Layoffs, missed numbers, uncertain future. The line was:

It’s my shit show, he just makes a cameo appearance in it once in a while

That pretty much sums up the difference between the operator and the director!

Feb 2 2023

When to Hire a Chief Customer Officer

(Post 1 of 4 in the series of Scaling CCOs)

Very few startups start life with a Chief Customer Officer, even though customers are the lifeblood of every startup; instead, you’ll likely start your customer service organization with a “jack of all trades” account manager position. You’ll have one person who handles all customer issues from basic support all the way through to true customer success. Sometimes these functions will be handled by the product team but most often they are handled by a customer service team.  Specialized roles and multiple teams (e.g, support vs. professional services) with their own managers can emerge quickly in the life of a startup and these roles will usually come before a full-time CCO, unless one of the company’s founders happens to be playing that role.

But you won’t be able to scale effectively (or quickly) with a hodge-podge of customer support roles and there are some telltale signs that will let you know you need to bring in a CCO. For example, you’ll know it’s time to hire a CCO when you realize you’ve never measured customer satisfaction. You don’t have any metrics at all — no Net Promoter Score, no basic customer satisfaction measures, no product engagement levels…nothing. You’re just hoping for the best, and hope is not a strategy. Another sign that you need to hire a CCO is if you are spending too much of your own time putting out customer fires rather than thinking about how to make customers more successful by using your product.

A second telltale sign will come from your board, if you have one. If your board asks you which of your customer segments has the highest margin, or has the most opportunity, and you don’t have a great answer and aren’t sure how to get to one then it’s time to consider hiring your first CCO. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a board member to ask that question and if you want to be proactive you can create a list of questions that a board member might ask and see whether or not you can answer them. If you can’t, or if it takes a ton of time to track down the answers, you’re probably ready for a CCO.

The search for a CCO can be long and time-consuming and in a future post I’ll talk about what “great” looks like for a CCO, but if you’re at the point where you need a CCO but don’t have the money or time to bring in an executive, a fractional CCO is a great option. A fractional CCO can work well if you have a relatively contained or small customer success/account management organization, but it is already very diverse in its sub-functions (support, account management, success, professional services) and none of the team leaders of those teams have the range of experience to orchestrate the handoffs and synergies across the sub-functions. A CCO touches nearly every part of the organization, from sales, to product, to marketing and this person needs to be a collaborator, a champion for customers, and a strategic thinker that understands consumer trends and demographics. A fractional executive CCO can bring a lot of skills to a startup and help to grow both the customer organization and the individuals in it, including mentoring those in the Customer organization who can become eventual leaders, or helping to reorganize the Customer organization for greater efficiency, or even help interview, vet, and find their replacement.

If you’re a startup and you have potential to scale but seem to be spending a lot of time and energy working on customer issues—without being able to actually move forward—a Chief Customer Officer should be a role you’d want to fill as soon as possible. Almost nothing takes down more companies than poor customer support. 

You can find this post on the Bolster Blog here

Jan 26 2023

5 Things Successful Founder Operators do Differently

I am fortunate in my current job to spend a lot of time talking to other founders and CEOs. I mentor and coach them, my company and I help counsel them on executive and board searches, and I spend time with them at conferences and seminars. Even when I am giving them advice, I always take time to learn what they’re doing, what works, and what doesn’t work. I’ve noticed a consistent set of behaviors and practices common among the successful founder operators – the ones who go on to lead their companies through multiple chapters of growth and sometimes never hire the “seasoned operator” to come in and take over. 

#1 – They are students of the game. It’s easy to get mired in the day to day details of building a business from scratch. The best founders are the ones who take time to watch, read, and learn. They want to see what other entrepreneurs do and they ask probing questions about what works and doesn’t work. They read blog posts, articles, and books. They listen to podcasts and constantly try to apply learnings to their company. They seek out coaches and mentors. 

#2 – They have positive and regular (and sometimes extreme) personal habits. It’s easy to get sucked into working all the time when you’re building a business from scratch and counting every penny and every minute. However, observing how successful CEOs manage their time shows that either very early mornings or very late nights are pretty common, and not in the way you might think. A 4:30 or 5 am alarm for regular exercise, or drawing a hard line around “no work after 6” means the leader is committed to personal time to stay fresh, and connect with friends and family. Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

#3 – They know how to leverage themselves. It’s easy as a founder to think you’re the only person who can get something done. Delegation is hard, and it often involves investing more time to train someone else how to do something than doing it yourself. The best founders figure out how to squeeze every minute out of the day by remembering that building a startup is a team sport and that building up the team around them is the key to their own productivity. 

#4 – They have great work hygiene. It’s easy to not respond to emails or texts or Slack messages because they’re not the most important thing you have going on. It’s easy to not send a Thank You note after a meeting or take time to connect with a colleague on a human level. The best founders are the ones who know the power of their own words, the power of their own presence, and who find the time to inject that power into others’ lives.

#5 – They have a recurring belief in creative destruction. It’s easy to create a new company because there’s a need in the market to disrupt incumbents. Creative destruction is central to the story of entrepreneurs everywhere. It’s very hard to apply that same creative destruction mentality to your own work. The best founder operators are the ones who are not just capable of tearing down an industry…but are equally capable and enthusiastic about tearing down their own product, their own team, and their own business processes in order to build them back up. MVPs are often too “M” and need to be replaced and upgraded consistently over time.

None of these practices is the path of least resistance—they require extra effort. I’m not sure what the cause and effect is here. A weak founder with bad product market fit and an untrusting attitude towards employees can’t just start waking up early and reading a lot and magically become successful. But on the margin, enough correlation leads me to believe that there’s something in the combination of these practices that leads to the competitive edge, the informed intuition, the vision, and the ability to motivate the people around them that are common in successful founder operators. 

Jan 19 2023

How To Engage With The CMO

(Post 4 of 4 in the series on Scaling CMOs – other posts are, When to Hire your First Chief Marketing Officer, What Does Great Look like in a Chief Marketing Officer and Signs your Chief Marketing Officer isn’t Scaling)

Similar to interactions with all CXOs, you’ll have to capitalize on your moments but there are a few ways I’ve typically spent the most time or gotten the most value out of CMOs over the years.

 One of the key ways to engage with the CMO is to include them in meetings with the rest of the go-to-market (GTM) executives as a group, not in a silo.  While of course I have always had 1:1 meetings with my CMO, I find that the most valuable conversations are the ones with the GTM group as a group, talking about shared objectives and the underlying drivers and coordination points to get there. You might say, “Well, Matt, that’s true of all the GTM executives,” but I disagree. It’s even more important to have the CMO in the same room as the other GTM roles like Sales, Account Management, and Partnerships because marketing needs to be on the leading edge of GTM, not just a function working in a silo at the direction of the other GTM leaders. A lot of what happens in the GTM meetings is nuanced and since Marketing has to somehow make everything tangible, the earlier they hear about it and can start thinking about it the better off the whole company is.

On the other end of the spectrum, I find it very useful to create a thinking session with the CMO, where we take time away from the day-to-day to do deep dives on strategic topics like the company’s positioning, voice, or brand.  Sometimes I like to do these in the context of reading a relevant marketing book or business journal article, or after reading something I ran across on the internet, or something I learned at a conference—something that piqued my interest. Sometimes I don’t have a perspective or an idea, but the thinking session is valuable either way.  I find that the most creative thinking and ideas happen in some of these longer form, unstructured conversations. These sessions are not limited to ideas, positioning, or branding because even the quantitative part of marketing involves a lot of creativity. So, the thinking session can be wide open in terms of agenda, but it needs to be scheduled and done, otherwise all these ideas just ramble around and we don’t make as much progress.

Finally, a lot of my engagement with the CMO is actually a continuation of a longer relationship, before they become the CMO.  Let me explain what I mean. For years, we went through CMOs at Return Path at the same clip as other companies: every 1-2 years we’d make a change and bring in the new flavor-of-the-month CMO and we had a pattern of hiring them from the outside.  Over time, though, we realized that we would be much better served by having more continuity in marketing by investing in our own people and promoting them from within.  The last few CMOs we had at Return Path were all promoted into the role — so I got to know them pretty extensively ahead of time. I was not only thrilled to give them a shot at the top job, but I was in a great place to understand their strengths and weaknesses coming into the role so I could most effectively mentor them.  Of course, you can say the same thing for the other functional departments, but marketing is more acute based on the average tenure of CMOs.

(You can find this post on the Bolster blog here).

Jan 12 2023

The myth of the “playbook” in executive hiring, and how to work around it

I help mentor CEOs on executive hiring all the time. One common refrain I hear when we’re talking about requirements for the job is about something I like to call The Mythical Playbook. If I only had the exec with the right playbook, thinks the hiring CEO, all my problems in that executive’s area would be magically solved.

I once hired a senior executive with that same mentality. They had the pedigree. They had taken a similar SaaS company in an adjacent space from $50mm to $250mm in revenue in a sub-group within their functional area. They had killer references who said they were ready to graduate to the C-level job. They had The Playbook! 

Suffice to say, things did not go as planned. I ignored an early sign of trouble, at my own peril. The exec came to me with a new org chart for the department, one with 45 people on it instead of the 20-25 who were currently there. I believed the department was understaffed but was surprised to see the magnitude of the ask. When I pushed back in general, the response I got was “I plan to overspend and overdeliver.” Hmm, ok. I don’t mind that, although a more detailed plan might be useful.  

Then I pushed back on a specific hire, pointing to a box in the org chart with a title that didn’t make sense to me. The response I got was “Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what that person does either, but I know I need that, trust me.” Yikes. 

There are two reasons why The Playbook is mythical. 

The first reason there’s no such thing as a Playbook for executives is that every situation is different. No two companies are identical in terms of offering or culture or structure. Even within the same industry, no two competitive landscapes are the same at different points in time. If life as a senior executive were as simple as following a Playbook, people would make a zillion dollars off publishing Playbooks, and senior executive jobs would be easier to do, and no one would get fired from them.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t value in analogous experience. There is! But when hiring an executive, you’re not solely looking for someone who claims to know all the answers based on previous experience. That is a recipe for blindly following a pattern that might or might not exist. The value in the analogous experience is in knowing what things worked, sure, but more importantly in knowing when they worked, why they worked, under what conditions they worked, what alternatives were considered, and what things fell apart on the road to success. A Playbook is only useful if it can be applied thoughtfully and flexibly to new situations.

The second reason there’s no such thing as a Playbook when it comes to hiring executives is that the person who might have written the Playbook is actually not available for your job. Most CEOs start a search by saying, “I want to hire the person who took XYZ Famous Company from where I am today to 10x where I am today.” The problem with that is simple. That person is no longer available to you. They have made a ton of money, and they have moved beyond your job in their career progression. What you want is the person who worked for that person, or even one more layer down…or the person who that person WAS before they took the job at XYZ Famous Company. Those people are much harder to find. And when you find them, they don’t have the Playbook. They may have seen a couple chapters of it, but that’s about all.

In the end, the department I referenced above was more successful, but not because of adherence to the new exec’s entire Playbook. The Playbook got the department out over its skis – we overspent, but we did not overdeliver. The new exec ended up leaving the company before they could implement a lot, and that person’s successor ended up refocusing and rightsizing the department. That said, the best thing the department got out of the exec with the Playbook was their successor, which was huge — one element of a strong exec’s Playbook is how to build a machine as opposed to just playing whack-a-mole and solving problems haphazardly.

(Note – I am using the singular they in this and in other posts now, as Brad. Mahendra, and I chose to do in Startup Boards. I don’t love it, but it seems to be becoming the standard for gender neutral writing, plus it helps mask identities as well when I write posts like this.)