« April 2008 | Main | June 2008 »

May 27, 2008

Survivors, but not killers

The Celtics did a great job hanging around in their loss to the Pistons last night, but they have yet to show any sort of killer instinct in these playoffs.  I admire their ability to hang in there, even when they weren't shooting well.  They were in that game up until late in the fourth quarter, despite never leading.

When their backs have been up against the wall (Games 5 and 7 vs. Atlanta, Games 5 and 7 vs. Cleveland, Game 3 vs. Detroit), they have come up with great efforts and solid wins.  But, when they have a team down, they haven't been able to deliver the knockout punch (Games 3 and 6 vs. Atlanta, Games 3 and 6 vs. Cleveland, Game 4 vs. Detroit).  In each of these cases, the Celtics had won the previous game and had a chance to end, or virtually end, the series.  In each case, they let their opponent get up off of the mat.

Now, Detroit is a very tough team and would never go down easy.  Maybe this series was destined to go seven games from the start.  And, it's very hard to imagine the Celtics winning both Games 3 and 4 in Detroit.  But, just about every champion has shown the ability to put at least one or two of their opponents out quickly.  It's possible that the Celtics could win the championship with 4 seven game series wins.  But, that's certainly the hard way.

It's not the problem, it's the response

Every company I have worked with has faced its share of problems.  If everything is easy, it probably means you aren't trying hard enough.  Whether you are trying to push technology into areas not yet explored, selling to customers who are wary of small companies, forging a partnership with a much bigger company, or just trying to be as productive as possible with a small amount of resources, every small company faces problems.

I don't judge companies by their problems (or lack of problems).  Instead, I look at their response to problems.  What communication style does the CEO and management team employ?  Does the CEO start making all the decisions, like a field general?  Or, does the CEO pull the team in close and forge consensus on the path forward?  You can find successful examples of both styles, but I bet that the second style has a higher chance of success.

One key to me is how much the company is willing to change in order to focus on its key priority.  Will they get employees to back off from their normal tasks in order to put more effort onto the big issue?  Can they keep up morale as people do jobs that aren't their top desire or main occupation?  During these times of crisis, you can learn a lot about how a company really works.  These are the times that the wheels can fall off of the bus if you don't have a strong team.

Another great indicator is how the CEO deals with the Board and other advisors.  Do they get defensive and keep information to themselves?  Or, do they open up and bring in outside help?  This is one of the trickiest questions because the outside help can also take up a lot of time and be a distraction.  There is usually no shortage of people who can offer help if only you can spend several hours bringing them up to speed.  If you do this a few times, you have wasted a lot of valuable time.  This is where the CEO has to triage with one or two key Board members to gain agreement on the action plan.  Bringing in a couple of key people from outside can make a huge difference in some situations.  But, bringing some partner from your venture firm up to date so that the person on your Board can cover their butt is a waste of time.

I usually like to have one or two engaged outside Board members on every company Board of Directors.  I like experienced executives who come from the company's industry and have good mentoring skills.  These people will already be up to speed on the company and can provide a lot of targeted advice during difficult times.  And, the CEO should already trust them and be used to opening up to them. 

One of the hardest things to do is to plan ahead for crises.  You can't be sure what type of crisis may come up, but at least make sure you have some good independent Board members and advisors who stay up to speed on the company so you can put them to use quickly when you really need them.

May 21, 2008

Online addiction

I am so used to being online all the time, I take it for granted.  This past week I have been beset with an unreliable laptop and non-functional hotel Internet access.  I kept up with things on my Blackjack, but it's not a substitute for laptop access.  I hate falling behind on work, and there are some things you need your own laptop to do (writing and editing documents, etc.).  If someone sends you a long document that you need to read and edit, there is no substitute to having your own laptop on the plane to get it done. 

There are several online solutions that should let you use any computer to get access to documents that sit in the cloud.  Those services are great, but the world doesn't use them broadly yet.  If I knew in advance that I was going to have such problems, I may have been able to prepare something to make my online life this week easier.  But, going warm turkey (I did have some intermittent access, so it wasn't cold turkey), has shown me how hooked to being online I am.

Email, news, RSS feeds, podcasts, access to a Slingbox to watch the Yankees on my home TV (although that hasn't been worth doing this week!).  Even having a reliable PC to watch DVDs on a long plane ride is something I take for granted.  Without all this, I have, caught up on some reading.  But, I've also wasted a lot of time trying to troubleshoot things and limp along.

Ordered a new laptop, which should come in soon.  In the meantime, don't be concerned if I don't get back to you as fast as usual.

Another good start for the Celtics

I've been traveling and have been beset with computer and connectivity troubles.  So, I haven't had a chance to post anything for a few days.  But, I did watch the Celtics game last night and thought it was one of the best games they have played this playoff season.  Of course, they have generally played well at home.  Detroit is their toughest opponent yet.  They have played together so long and have been through a lot.  This Celtic team is just building that level of experience, which is critical.  Teams like Detroit and San Antonio are always the toughest because the core has been together for years.  That's one asset that this Celtic team can't pull together quickly.  However, they have overcome some tough series and two Game 7s so far this year.

As I wrote previously, I am glad that Doc Rivers has stopped playing Sam Cassell.  Eddie House has done well as a backup guard, and Pierce brings the ball up often when House is in the game.  Nevertheless, if Rondo doesn't play well, the Celtics rarely win.  He had another good game last night vs. Detroit.  He doesn't need to score a lot, but he needs to total 20 points+assists+rebounds in a game to really do well.  Overall, the Celtics ball movement was excellent.  If they can commit to that every game, they will win it all.  And, their defense has continued to be excellent.

I think that Chauncey Billups is still hurting from his hamstring injury.  That's something that Rondo can exploit as well.

Garnett and Pierce are carrying the team.  I like the fact that Doc keeps trying to get Ray Allen going.  Ray is really struggling and missed quite a few wide open shots last night.  But, he'll hit them, and he is also starting to drive to the hoop in order to get some points on the board.

I think that the Celtics showed great energy after a tough series vs. Cleveland.  If they win Game 2 in Boston tomorrow, I'll feel OK.  If they can also win either Game 3 or 4 in Detroit, series over.

Cardenio is worth a trip to the theater

Full disclosure:  I am on the Advisory Board of the American Repertory Theatre and have been a subscriber for more than 25 years.

I recently attended a performance of Cardenio at the ART.  It was one of the funniest and most enjoyable evenings I've had at the theater in a long time.  The idea is that Cardenio is a lost Shakespeare play.  Based on the rumors of what the play included (it was performed a few times, but the manuscript is lost), the playwrights have created what the play could have been.  They didn't attempt Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, but they have many, many Shakespearean devices in the play.  The modern language makes the play very accessible for all audiences, even those who are not Shakespeare fans.

The play was incredibly funny, with many subtle jokes.  I was really impressed with the facial expressions and body language of the acting company, which helped deliver many subtle messages.  Although the play was 2 1/2 hours long, including an intermission, it moved along nicely and had no slow spots.  And, like many Shakespeare plays, there are many vignettes, such as a funny dance scene, an incredible pasta dinner, and some operatic singing.

Although I enjoy almost all the work at the ART, this is one that I can strongly recommend to everyone.  Go see it!

May 17, 2008

You Are What You Golf

As NPR reports, Politico.com interviewed President Bush this past week.  In the NPR story, they talk about the message sent by Presidents and their golf game.  Bush said to Politico:

For the first time, Bush revealed a personal way in which he has tried to acknowledge the sacrifice of soldiers and their families.

“I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” he said. “I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

Bush said he made that decision after the August 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. official in Iraq and the organization’s high commissioner for human rights.

“I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man's life,” he said. “I was playing golf — I think I was in central Texas — and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, ‘It's just not worth it anymore to do.’"

I guess Eisenhower, as a general, played golf during World War II.  He also played golf during the Korean War.  Everyone needs a way to relax, even a President during a 5+ year war.  Maybe this is the message Bush really wants to avoid:


May 16, 2008

Manny Being Manny

Although I am a Yankee fan, I am also a long time Red Sox observer.  A couple of days ago, there was a great 'Manny being Manny' moment.  Check out this video of Manny Ramirez making a nice catch in left field.  As he goes up against the wall after making the catch, he slaps hands with a Red Sox fan in the stands (the game was played in Baltimore), and then throws out the runner before he can return to first base for a double-play.  You gotta love a ballplayer who enjoys playing the game, and Manny defnitely does.

It's Not Where You Play, It's How You Play

Tonight, the Celtics will try to close out their series vs. Cleveland.  The second round of the NBA playoffs have been a home team's dream.  Of the 21 games played so far, the home team is 20-1.  Of course, the Celtics struggled on the road in Round 1, too.  All of this has been disappointing to Celtics fans as they team was the best road team in the NBA this year, with a 31-10 record, four games better than the next best team.

It's more mentally challenging to play well on the road.  The crowd is against you, and perhaps the referees are influenced by the home crowd, too.  If you've been to a Celtics game in the playoffs this year, you know how positive the crowd can be.  Every team benefits from this type of home atmosphere in the playoffs.

But, the key to playing well on the road is to rise above these challenges.  That's why I worry about the Celtics playoff chances.  The teams that have been together the longest, like Detroit and San Antonio, are the toughest.  They have been through adversity and overcome it.  This Celtics team hasn't done that yet, at least not at this level of intensity.  Basketball is a real team sport.  When the Celtics play well, they are an unselfish team.  Even if they fall behind in a road game, they need to stick with the tough defense and team play that got them here.

That's why I have soured on Sam Cassell.  Like most fans, I was excited when the Celtics signed him during the season.  He has the experience you would want in the playoffs.  At 38, he can still play well as a back-up.  He'd be a great mentor for Rajon Rondo.  But, when Cassell comes into the game, the offense grinds to a halt.  Too often, Sam dribbles, dribbles, dribbles, then shoots.  When he is making shots, I can look past it.  But, he has been cold in the playoffs.  And, he can't run the offense as well as Rondo.  Finally, in Game 5, Doc Rivers seemed to give up on Cassell, who only played 5 minutes.  I'd rather have Eddie House in the lineup.  Eddie isn't a real point guard, but the Celtics can run the offense through Paul Pierce when Rondo is out and let Eddie spot up for some open jumpers.

By the way, only Kevin Garnett has played consistently well for the Celtics in every game this series.  I hope that the Celtics continue to play physical and drive the ball to the hoop tonight.  The Celtics have the depth to play this way, even if a few players rack up some fouls.  Cleveland can't win this type of game, and the inside play should slow down Cleveland's ability to run their fast break where they are the most dangerous.

The Celtics don't get a rest.  Even if they win tonight, they start the next series on Sunday vs. Detroit.  Meanwhile, the Hornets and Spurs, who played last night and are now tied at 3-3, get three days off before they play Game 7 on Monday.  I thnk that the NBA should try as much as possible to have every series play on every other day.  The players seem to prefer this regular schedule, and it maintains the excitement.  Teams can get a longer break if they win their series early.  Otherwise, the every-other-day pace should continue.

Can't Change Fast Enough

Everyone talks about how start-ups have to move quickly.  And, if you have worked at a start-up company, you know that things move at a frenetic pace.  One of the strongest assets that a start-up has is a singularity of purpose.  Everyone knows (or should know) what the goal is.  There aren't competing objectives and hopefully no individual political agendas.  This helps the company operate at high speeds.

But, what happens when a more mature company has to make changes?  Both big and small companies can hit dead ends or come to the end of one growth path.  Changing direction, refocusing, or restarting can be difficult times at a company.  But this is the time when actions have to be the swiftest.

During the decision-making process when the Board and management are deciding what to do, it is natural for the rank-and-file employees to lose productivity as they engage in their own discussions and debates on direction.  Or, they wonder if the hard work they are putting in will see the light of day.  If the project looks doomed, why put in another long day of work on it?  This kind of attitude can quickly permeate an organization.  While I think it is best for management to be open with employees about the existence of a process to re-evaluate strategy, a message must also be delivered about the importance of carrying on with day-to-day work until a new decision is made.  Hiding the strategy evaluation from employees will lead to speculation that something far worse may be up.  The best way to keep productivity up is to squash rumors before they start.

But, there will inevitably be discomfort and uncertainty during this process.  So, make sure that it happens swiftly.  Set deadlines for gathering data and making decisions.  Then, stick to them.  The price of inaction is usually much higher than the price of a sub-optimal decision.

Once a new direction is set, take action switfly.  If the company is going to focus on a new direction, find a way to quickly get rid of products and projects that don't fit the direction.  Maybe they can be sold off or spun out.  Investigate this on a tight time frame.  If not, they have to be cut.  Make sure to deal with any people affected fairly.  No one likes participating in either side of a layoff.  But, if decisions are made in the context of the best long-term health of the company, resentment is usually kept to a minimum.  However, the way you treat employees on their way out will also set a tone for those who stay.  I've been involved with layoffs that, after a few days, reinvigorated a company with an exciting new focus.  And, I've been involved with layoffs that felt like one more step on a downward spiral to failure.  You need to reinvigorate a company if you want to retain the key talent.

Of course, slow decision-making is also a drain on the company's finances.  Projects that drag on for too long waste hard dollars.  But, they also waste the soft dollars of management attention.  Distractions probably exact a 25-50% penalty on the hard time they take up.  It takes mental and physical effort to shift gears, to stay abreast of unimportant projects, and to continue to evaluate options that should have been long since decided.

One trap is that entrepreneurial management and visionary board members may not be the best people to make decisions around a restart.  Entrepreneurs and early-stage VCs tend to be optimists.  But, cutting back on a company or making a radical direction shift requires some pessimism.  When faced with these situations, I have often felt that I should have cut a bit deeper and made decisions a bit faster.  Don't be afraid to bring in some outside help to objectively analyze the situation.

When making the hard decisions on a layoff, I would advocate cutting a bit deeper than you think you might have to.  Make sure you cut back on the workload to accomodate this, too.  But, it's good if the remaining people feel very busy.  And, if things start off OK, it's not a bad idea to hire a couple of new people a month or two after a layoff.  Chances are, when pursuing a new direction, you need some different talent than you had previously anyway.  Bringing in some new blood can reinforce the message that the company is reinvigorated and pursuing something exciting.

Overall, you have to measure twice before you make a cut or a change of direction.  Just make sure you measure quickly and move decisively.

May 12, 2008

Crazy and Dangerous

If you live in Massachusetts, watch out.  This group -- Committee for Small Government -- is trying to create some chaos.  According to today's Boston Globe, this group is trying to put a binding ballot initiative on the November ballot that would abolish the Massachusetts state income tax.  Now, it sounds great to not pay income taxes, but, according to the Globe, this represents about 40% of the state budget.  You can't make a cut that big without a plan.

The Globe says that this is 3x the amount of money that the state sends to cities and towns for schools.  So, your income tax savings would probably be offset with big property tax increases.  But, Proposition 2 1/2 makes it hard for towns to raise their property taxes, so schools, police, and fire departments will just be cut, probably deeply. 

The advocates of this crazy idea cite government waste as the reason to do this.  I am all in favor of cutting government waste.  I'd love to pay less in taxes.  But, I'll only do it with a well thought out plan for making departments more effiicent, thinking through alternative funding sources, etc.  I know from looking at my town's school budget that there is huge pressure from special education and energy costs that ensures that the schools have to tighten and cut a bit every year.  Although this is painful, it does make sure that the adminstrators are looking out for effiicency.  Could they do more?  Probably.  Could they cut 40% overnight and still do anything close to their current mission?  No way.  We'll be paying fees for everything to offset this crazy scheme.

Something like this surprisingly got 45% of the vote in 2002.  I expect a more organized fight this time.  I'd love to see a debate between Governor Patrick and Carla Howell on this.  We'd be so much better off if people like this put forward well thought out proposals on cutting government spending without creating chaos.

May 09, 2008

Persuasion not Domination

I haven't read his book yet, but I did listen to an extensive interview with Fareed Zakaria where he discussed "The Post American World".  My main exposure to Fareed has been on The Daily Show, where he is a frequent guest.  I always liked his viewpoint.

Fareed's new book is about how America finds its place in a new world where there are many powers, not one superpower.  With the ascendancy of China and India, the resurgance of Western Europe, and the US bogged down in Iraq and with some internal issues, the US has lost a lot of influence over the past few years.  I don't think we can get this back by flexing our muscles.  Instead, we must change our approach and be the 'Chairman of the Board', as Fareed describes.

One of the best lines from the interview (and probably a quote from the book) is that the US must lead by persuasion, not domination.  We have lost our power of persuasion and have tried to get our way by being the bully.  We'd be much better off, and much safer, with a persuasive and inclusive approach.  We need to be engaged with the world and building coalitions, not demanding that we get our way.

I think that this is one of the most important meta-trends in our country.  One of my main criteria in deciding who I am going to vote for in the Presidential election is "which candidate is best able to change the perception of the US in the world and lead by persuasion?"  Hint: Talking about being in Iraq for 100 years or obliterating Iran probably disqualifies you.

Another good line from Fareed: When other countries are looking out for their self-interest first, we call it nationalism.  When we look out for our own self-interest first, we call it patriotism.  I think that what we need to do is  to persuade people that all of our interests are actually aligned.

This theme particularly resonated with me because our new investment firm, Sempre Management, will also require us to use the power of persuasion with our active, hands-on investor approach.  We like to think that we are pretty good at persuasion.

May 04, 2008

That's a Hard Foul

I went to the Celtics-Hawks game today to see the Celtics finish up what they should have done a few days ago -- close out the Hawks and move on to face the Cavaliers.

ESPN caught one of the big moments in the game, and I was in the background (on the left, the guy further back in the Celtics green jersey).  It was great to see this photo because they didn't show a replay of this foul at the game, and obviously we didn't have a clear view of how flagrant the foul really was.



















May 02, 2008

I couldn't have said it better

While I have had a busy week, the Celtics have been making a lot of people nervous.  They lost Game 4 to the Atlanta Hawks, dropping the series to a 2-2 tie.  Then, back in Boston, they had another strong game to take a 3-2 lead.  Let's hope they can finish them off tonight down in Atlanta.  The Celtics didn't have trouble winning on the road this season, but they haven't done it yet this series.

As an old-time Boston resident, I have always enjoyed reading Bob Ryan's column in the Globe.  He also has a blog with some nice added content.  I wish I had time to write some of the things he did this past week, but I couldn't have done it as well anyway.

First, after the Celtics lost to the Hawks to drop the series into a tie:  Don't Panic

Second, after the Celtics regained the series lead: Told Ya So

Now, if they lose tonight to force a Game 7 (which I'll attend), I'll be back out on the ledge.  It shouldn't get this far.  After not being disappointed in the Celtics all season, evern after any of their 16 rare losses, I wsa pretty disappointed when they lost a 10 point lead late in Game 4.  Let's hope that this is the wake up call that they need to keep them focused for the rest of the playoffs.

The issues are the issue

I thought that the long, drawn out Democartic nomination process would be a good thing, but now I am not so sure.  I thought that having the whole country involved, with two closely matched interesting candidates running, would lead to more people paying attention to the election, more careful consideration of the candidates, and higher voter participation.  Certainly, there are more people voting, which has to be a good thing.  Also, the Democrats have an easier time staying in the news, which is probably helpful to them.  But, I think that the nomination race has deteriorated greatly.

I am late to the party on this, but the focus on which fringe religious person support whom and what misstatement each candidate when is a complete waste of time.  I can't believe that a whole hour of the last debate was focused on this.  Who cares?

I liked Hillary's idea of a head-to-head debate with no moderator.  I guess that Obama is not going to do this.  He must feel that he has a lead and doesn't want to give her any openings.  There have been a lot of debates, but much of the country has only been paying attention since February.  Once Super Tuesday didn't end the race, it got a lot more interesting.

Unfortunately, in the last few months, there has been very little discussion of the issues between the candidates.  They had their slightly different views of NAFTA.  They certainly disagree on the usefulness of a federal gasoline tax holiday.   But, they should be talking again about the big issues -- Iraq, the economy, energy policy, healthcare.  That may not be what the press wants to focus on, but that's what the country needs to focus on.

I'd love it if one of the candidates in the last debate told Charlie Gibson "that is a ridiculous question that I am not going to answer.  Can we have a question about the real issues, please?"

Where does the time go?

Wow, I can't believe another week has gone by.  I have always prided myself on time management.  I consider myself responsive and efficient.  I don't think I've lost that, but the number of things to get done has exploded.  One thing that has suffered has been my regular blogging.  I need to refocus on it as I am not yet ready to give it up.

This is the fun of being an entrepreneur.  You are never done.  When I come home late from work, my kids ask "Why are you home late?  Why couldn't you get your work done on time?"  My kids think that work is like school -- you have some tasks to do and, if you are focused and fairly smart, you can get your tasks done in the allotted time.  Although I don't have a boss these days, my kids assume that someone, or something, is assigning me some amount of work.  And, if i am home late, it must be because they gave me too much work or, perhaps, it took me too long to get it done.

I love the fact that being an entrepreneur means that you are never done.  You are always short on staff and long on work.  Your 'top priorities' still can't get done in a normal day.  Every day is triage, with vicious prioritization required to figure out what to do each day.  It's ever changing and exciting.

Couple that with sales dynamics.  Always prospecting, pitching, following-up, overcoming objections, and closing.  You go where you have to when you have to in order to get the deal done.  When you are making good progress, it's very satisfying.

It's been great starting up a new investment firm.  It couples the investing I love with the entrepreneurship I have missed.  I thought that being a VC would keep me in touch with entrepreneurship, but I think that there is no substitute for being on the firing line yourself.

Hosting by Yahoo!