May 1 2019

OnlyOnce, Part XX

I realize I haven’t posted much lately.  As you may know, the title of this blog, OnlyOnce, comes from a blog post written by my friend and board member Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures entitled You Are Only a First-Time CEO Once, which he wrote back in 2003 or 2004.  That inspired me to create a blog for entrepreneurs and leaders.  I’ve written close to 1,000 posts over the years, and the book became the impetus for a book that another friend and board member Brad Feld from Foundry Group encouraged me to write and helped me get published called Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business back in 2013.

Today is a special day in my entrepreneurial journey and in the life of the company that I started back in 1999 (last century!), Return Path, as we announce that Return Path has entered into a definitive agreement to be acquired by an exciting new company called Validity.  Press release is here.

Over almost 20 years, we’ve built Return Path into one of the largest and (I think) most respected companies in the email industry.  We’ve had a culture of innovation that has led to some groundbreaking products for our customers and partners to help make email marketing work better for consumers as well as marketers, and to help keep inboxes safe and clean for mailbox providers and security companies.  

But the company is unusual in many respects.  One of those is longevity. I’m not sure how many Internet companies started in 1999 are still private, backed and led by the same team the whole time, and generally in the same business they started in.  Another is our values-driven “People First” culture. From Day 1, we have believed that if we attract and retain and develop and invest in the best people, we will make our customers successful with great products and service, and that if we do right by our customers, we will do right long term by our shareholders.  While I know that not every employee who ever walked through our doors had a great experience, I know most did and hope that all of them realize we tried our best. Finally, I’m proud that our company gave birth to a non-profit affiliate Path Forward a few years back at the hands of executives Andy Sautins, Cathy Hawley, and Tami Forman.  Path Forward helps parents get back to work after a career break and helps companies improve their gender diversity and hiring biases and has already been a game changer for dozens of companies and hundreds of women.

Today, Return Path serves almost 4,000 customers in almost every country on the globe, with $100 million in revenue, profitable, and excited about the next leg of our brands’ and our products’ lives in the care of Validity.  If you haven’t heard of Validity before today, watch out – you will hear a LOT about them in the weeks and months ahead. They are an incredibly exciting new company with a vision to help tens of thousands of companies across the globe improve their data quality but also help them use data to improve business results.  That vision, inspired by a new friend, CEO Mark Briggs, is a wonderful fit for Return Path’s products and services and people.

To finish this post where I started, Fred’s exact words in that post which got this blog going were:

What does this mean for entrepreneurs and managers? It means that the first time you run a business, you should admit what you are up against. Don’t let ego get in the way. Ask for help from your board and get coaching and mentoring. And recognize that you may fail at some level. And don’t let the fear of failure get in the way. Because failure isn’t fatal. It may well be a required rite of passage.

All of that is true and has been great advice for me over the years.  But Fred left out one important piece, which is that entrepreneurs need to constantly thank the people around them who either work their butts off as colleagues in the business or who give them helpful advice and coaching.  Return Path’s journey has been a long one, longer than most, and the full list of people to thank is too long for a blog post.

I’ve noted Fred and Brad in this post already and I want to thank them and also thank Greg Sands from Costanoa Ventures, the third member of our “dream team” investor syndicate, for their friendship and unwavering support and good counsel for me and Return Path for almost two decades, as well as many other board members we’ve had over the years including long-time independent directors Jeff Epstein, Scott Petry, and Scott Weiss.

I want to thank my co-founders Jack Sinclair and George Bilbrey, and anyone who has ever been on my executive team, including long-time execs Ken Takahashi, Shawn Nussbaum, Cathy Hawley, Dave Wilby, Anita Absey, Angela Baldonero, Andy Sautins, Louis Bucciarelli, Mark Frein, and David Sieh.  There’s nothing quite like being in the proverbial foxhole with someone during a battle or two or ten to forge a tight bond. I want to thank Andrea Ponchione, my extraordinary assistant for 14 years, who keeps me running, sane, and smiling every day. I want to thank my executive coach Marc Maltz and the members of my CEO Forum for allowing me to be unplugged and for their friendship and advice.  I want to thank all of Return Path’s 430 employees today and over 1,300 ever for their hard work in building our company and culture together and for our 4,000 customers and partners for putting their faith in us to help them solve some of their biggest challenges with email.

Finally, no thank you list for this journey would be complete without saying a special thank you to my wonderful wife Mariquita and kids Casey, Wilson, and Elyse.  They deserve some kind of special honor for being inspirational cabin-mates on the entrepreneurial roller coaster without ever being asked if they were up for it.

This event may inspire me to begin writing more regularly again on OnlyOnce.  Stay tuned!