Friday, June 29, 2012

On Hiring A COO

By external measures, Gnip ("the social media API") is a 4.5 yr old raging success. I'm a technical co-founder in the company. I'm a first-time CEO, and have been for two years now. A year ago I hired a COO (Chris Moody).

Headspace


This is a tough post to write because there is so much ego involved. For months I've been trying to create it in my mind, but have failed until now. My breakthrough came from going back to my roots and putting my ego in check; something I'm traditionally good at, but struggled with in this context. I got close enough that I was able to get the words out!

Among my top five reasons for loving Boulder, CO lies in the deep spiritual community here, generally connecting back to Buddhism. It's something I've tapped my entire life, and whenever I'm challenged, it supports me and gets me through ego stuff. Don't confuse that statement with having anything to do with Religion (separate in my book).

Ego's a funny thing of course, and it's the dichotomy between its strong presence in business (something I strive to "succeed" at), and the Id (something I strive to lead with in life) in humanity that is the most fascinating challenge to me. Hiring someone because you need to scale time is one thing. Hiring someone because you need to scale capability is another. The latter requires that you acknowledge the potential, or real, lack of something in you.

Why Hire a COO?


In short, to go faster!

In Q4 2010 we realized Gnip was going to hit it. Through careful team building and execution (and luck of course) we had a team and tech stack that would scale through the upcoming demand wave we had just caught. A few months into that scaling, one of our board members (Brad Feld) pulled me aside and said "good job, but you have to think bigger. you have to take what you've done, and go further."

That was an interesting moment. I got to a crystal clear realization that building a product and company is truly a never ending process.

Aside…

This notion has distilled into an on-going joke Brad and I now share.


wrapping up a phone call awhile ago…
Jud: "blah blah blah. good to sync. catch you later."
Brad: "good to sync. go sell more."
Jud: "as a VC, you must love being able to end every call with 'go sell more'.
Brad: "Hah. Yes. go sell more"


Now he ends every call we have with "go sell more."

I started thinking about what the organization would need to look like in order to take Gnip to the "next level." What would the team qualities/skills need to be in order to do that? If we were going to "hit the gas," what roles did we need in order to ensure we'd come out intact on the other side of the next phase, and not splattered against a highway wall?

We were going to need more specialization. We'd kept the wheels on using a generalist approach. We were going to need more refined expertise that had proven experience in specific functional areas of the business. We needed specialists who could own those functional areas of the business: engineering, sales, marketing, finance.

Product & Engineering were squarely in my wheelhouse. While it took a good six months to find someone to run development, I knew what qualities we needed/wanted. We ultimately landed someone that had it all; thankfully.

Business functions were more challenging. I invested another six months talking to folks from all over the map. From folks I'd personally worked with over my career, to recommendations from friends and investors. Big company candidates. Small company candidates. Every background you could imagine.

We needed someone who could help us "lean in" to the next phase of scaling the business. We needed someone who would be a solid cultural fit. Someone who had scaled sales teams up, and who had experience in marketing enterprise SaaS business.

I needed someone who wasn't afraid to travel (a lot). I needed someone who could represent Gnip's interests externally, as well as someone that could effectively negotiate sales compensation plans with our team members. I needed someone who could go deep on operational nuts and bolts. I realized that if you're going to have a crew bigger than 25'ish people, more specialized experience in the room is necessary to scale up. Simple laws of distributing creativity, load, and stress kick in eventually. Can one person run a 100 person company? Sure. Can one person run a 100 person company that needs to forever attack new market segments and business lines that result in new products being built? I don't think so. You need leaders with specialized expertise in order to distribute the load.

I needed someone that was stronger than me in my relative areas of weakness. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Gnip would still be an awesome success if we hadn't started scaling up the team, but it would have moved into its adolescence with nutritional deficiencies that likely would have impeded further growth. When you're trying to build a product your customers want, if you ever hear the term "impediment" all of your guns should start blazing in an attack to eliminate it; wherever it is. In this instance, that meant ensuring there was more breadth in experience and leadership on the team.

I grew up doing everything myself; everything. The notion that the company I was building might do better with an additional brain the mix, took some getting used to. I preach the "always hire people who are smarter than you" gospel all the time. It's important to internalize what you preach and practice it yourself. That understanding calmed my ego to the point of being able to hire the role with clarity and commitment to making sure it worked.

Resolution


Chris Moody fit the bill. He is able to quickly go deep in areas I cannot. Sure there's some generalism still in the mix with a COO. I could have hired a CRO and a CMO and a C-blah-O to go even more narrow, but that would have been too narrow, too fast. There was an in-between step for Gnip; COO.

Chris was "the right guy" because...
  • he fit the team culturally. there was no oil-and-water effect
  • we spent months together talking about every aspect of the company and direction, and we saw eye to eye on almost everything
  • he had tangible success/experience in his background that we could talk about and connect directly to things we wanted Gnip to have
  • he was consistent in his thinking
  • I believed he could help us scale the team and business
  • we negotiated through some tough points during the dating process, and that illustrated our ability to work through disagreement in a productive manner

Process and Support


I leveraged my network heavily during the process and had candidates talk to Gnip team members, board members and investors. During this process I met a lot of talented, experienced, who generally would have been powerful contributors for Gnip. The consummate professionals that they are, fully understood the process around hiring a position like this, and the fragility of getting the fit right. If you were one of them, thanks again for your time.

Once I'd narrowed it down to Chris, I had him sit down with another team leader. The conversation didn't go well. Both guys came back to me with concerns. After a few days of talking each of them through the concerns, both took my word that the concerns wouldn't be realized in the end. Chris was concerned that there was resistance in this person, and some head-strong characteristics that could get in the way of winning. Gnipper was concerned about the jarring impact bringing someone into the firm in this capacity would have. While both were right, I was able to illustrate to each how we would all win in the end. Onboarding wouldn't come for free of course, but we'd be better off down the road. And sure, Gnipper can be headstrong, but once you get to know him...

I feel awful for friends running other companies who had additional leadership "installed" by investors. The stories they tell are excruciating to hear. Those stories point to a lot of the issues with venture capital at large, and conversely highlights just how good Gnip has it. It has also scarred my view of some VCs I once held in high regard; I no longer would be willing to take them on as investors.

One of the most important people in the process was Brad. He made it clear the entire decision was mine. From whether or not we should hire more leadership in, to who it actually was. He didn't have a horse in the race, and that was critical for me. Pressure on those fronts would have yielded disjoint motivation, and this wouldn't have worked.

One Year Later


It's been twelve months since we brought Chris on board. One of the reasons I haven't posted this earlier is that I wanted some time to pass. Talking about how great a decision was a few months after you made it is kind of pointless; there's still plenty of time for things to go sideways if you judge too early.

Chris Moody has been pouring his heart into Gnip for a year now. Every day he wakes up and fights for Gnip. He is part of the team. Bringing on a COO was a huge Gnip milestone that has resulted in very meaningful business execution! When I use the true measure of a hire, whether or not you learn something everyday from an individual, Chris has been a huge win.

There are entire vectors in Gnip that Chris takes on. I'm always reminded of this when I see him deep in conversation with others on the team. I think to myself a) that's a conversation I would otherwise be having (if I were able to find the time) and b) I'm sure he's doing a better job at it than I would. It's not that I don't want to be having said conversation, it's that I need to be spending my energy elsewhere in those moments.

Gnip has made incredible strides in partnerships over the past six months. Chris has been flying all over the place and investing heavy amounts of time and energy in getting these relationships in place. While he's investing the time which is a huge win, he's also getting the job done which is what really matters.

While I'm still in the process of freeing up my headspace and fully understanding what it means to have a high-caliber COO on the team, one thing I know is that I now have the ability to focus more strategically on our direction at large. It's possible now to rise above the fog of war and view the hiring and money from a strategic vantage point. That's very hard to do when every mechanical component around running a business is your sole responsibility.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Overwhelmed With Joy

WARNING, this post runs into high corny factor in a hurry. I'm also going pretty stream-of-consciousness-style because I'm too tired to polish and think clearly.

some of the exalted Gnip team
24 hours ago Gnip's (the social media API) Big Boulder conference wrapped up in Boulder, CO. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. A culmination of happiness, joy, pain, love, passion, sweat, tears, stress, belief, sacrifice, and faith.

At the end of the day before the event began, I got home around midnight. Flopped onto the bed and talked with my wife about what was about to happen. About six years ago I flung myself into the Boulder tech community, and now it was the eve of Big Boulder. Of course I understood the significance of the event itself, but it had turned into something else for me. I still can't crisply describe it, and I'm sure I'm still delirious from exhaustion, lack of sleep, and adrenalin, but I wanted to get some of this out of me. We told ourselves we wouldn't draw any conclusions (positive or negative) about the event for two weeks following, because we didn't want our exhausted state of mind to contort truths, but I realized I wanted to document some of these feelings now for memory's sake.

I'm in awe with what team Gnip has become, and accomplished. For those wondering "how we did it" (both the conference itself, and the transition from "startup" to a real business), the answer is simply, amazing people. I can unequivocally say that the team is it. It all starts there. Without the right set of people aligning with common beliefs, you have nothing. I'm eternally grateful for what everyone poured into this event, and into the company. Money, equity, and "thank yous" can't express the gratitude I want to express enough. All I can do is hope that each one of us understands these importance and value of these moments in time. Not only the personification of them in events like Big Boulder, but also in "company" form. We effectively live with eachother week-in and week-out.

Continuing on that people theme, the quality of everyone at the event struck my core. Hundreds of fun, smart, great, passionate people (friends, customers, prospects, partners, family). I was quickly overwhelmed by the greatness of humanity. We're all struggling to build amazing things, and solve amazing challenges, and we all have awesome lives and experiences. The sharing that went on (business and personal) was just incredible.

The ecosystem Gnip saw 4.5 years ago is thriving. I still can't believe we're here. Hundreds of millions of dollars exchanging hands (excluding "ad revenue") under the umbrella of social data. The flagpole Eric Marcoullier and I planted several years ago is paying off. I sometimes just can't believe it.

Publishers and public social data consumers in the same room exchanging ideas. Four years ago this notion was nothing more than a pipe-dream. 24 hours ago, it was reality! I'll never forget Eric paying $6k (against every fiber in his body) for some Forrester Report that described some area/space/vertical/category (I don't even recall what it was) ad-nauseam. He then bought a printer to print it out. He studied it for days... trying to piece together components in the ecosystem we had growing in our heads. How could we translate this into a business? Who would pay? What would they pay? The report gave us some scope/scale insight. We shelved it pretty quickly, but it was enough for us to look at each other and say "yup, there's money in that hole somewhere... let's figure out how to pull it out." Big Boulder was the progression of this ecosystem, and the progression of the Gnip team has carried the torch to where the ecosystem is today. We're still so early, but not only is there life on this planet... it's intelligent and expanding at an incredible rate. The continued scaling of Gnip charts the overall ecosystem course going forward. Being a part of this is overwhelmingly wonderful to me.

People flew to this event from all over the world. Can you believe that!?!

At the end of the event about 30 people joined a bike-pub-crawl. I rode next to Stu with Textifer. If you don't know him, he is one of those people that sees the bright-side in everything. He is happy. He understands life. The several blocks we rode together put everything in perspective for me. When we got to the second bike-stop, he ran over to the pop-water-jets on Pearl St. and splashed water all over his head. I _love_ that stuff. I _love_ it when life permeates us like this. I love people who break out of the molds. It's simple stuff like this that makes it all worthwhile. Thanks Stu!



Passion around software always blows my mind. Michael Wilde with Splunk personifies this. I _love_ how he _lives_ software. Parts off of so many shelves comprise his world. If you know him, he also _lives_ life. He was late to the start of day two, and I saw him first that day when he blew into the "speaker's room" dripping with sweat; "we did it!" He yelled. Sleepy and focused on going on stage in just a few minutes, I couldn't figure out what he was talking about. "We made it all the way to the top!" He was talking about the hike we'd organized that morning. He and @zhu had summited the 1st Flatiron! So cool!

The homefront was like a support station during a bike race. Briefly visited during the past week, but required for sustenance (family love, food, sleep). My wife... my life... thank you.

This past week has been affirmation that I've spent the past six years of my life wisely; I can't wait for the next! All we've done up until this point is establish a foundation. Now comes the real work!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Life In Scrabble Letters

Something hit me hard yesterday when I was playing Words With Friends with my son. I'm always grappling with how to approach life/business. When am I pessimistic? When do I approach something with passion and vigor? When do I shy away from something? When do I lock onto something and go nuts with it? etc.

It was my turn to build a word. There were a few words on the board already. A new letter lineup was in front of me. I glanced at the letters and subconsciously distilled vowel and consonant ratios between my new jumbled letters and the board. I got a shot of adrenalin. I was psyched because the ratio felt right and I was excited to dive in and built a word. I didn't have word yet at this point. I just felt like the raw material was there to do something great (as opposed to a rack of all consonants which can illicit fear).

As I peeled the onion, I was coming up short. The raw material was good, but I couldn't turn it into a powerful word. What the heck was I so excited about at first blush? This was sucking! Time passed. Discouragement came over me. A few more shuffles of the original letters, and I found a great word and played it. It turned out great in the end, after some twists and turns.

The parallel of that little experience to how I approach challenges in life was fascinating and vivid.

When you've got solid raw material to work with, you'll get solid results. When the raw material is too easy/obvious, you won't get much out because not much had to be put in. When you get a set of "impossible" letters, work hard, and construct some gnarly high-point word, it feels great.

Anyway, random post, but the level of excitement I felt after a glance at a new rack of letters was intriguing. Opportunity was in front of me, and I had another shot at taking raw material and turning it into goodness. Fun.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Parenting & Technology: An Update

I haven't been posting about raising kids in this technically dense world as much as I'd like. Here are some quick thoughts...

Stuff in the house


  • We're a heavy Apple house.
  • A few mac laptops.
  • A central/common-area big screen iMac in the "computer room."
  • Mom/Dad iPhones
  • Kid's iTouches
  • Sonos
  • AppleTV
  • Tivo
  • Wii (barely used anymore)
  • XBox
  • BlueRay player (almost never used unless true 58Mbit throughput uncompressed 1080p resolution is desired (e.g. remastered Star Wars))
  • One "big TV" in the family room (no other TVs in the house).
  • Comcast HD Cable
  • Comcast Cable network connectivity (as fast as they offer for residential; 50'ish Mbs/sec up/down IIRC)
  • A few Amazon Kindle's (the kids have their own, and I have one)
  • A few iPads
  • Some cameras
  • a bunch of other stuff I'm missing


Tearing Apart Technology

When I was a kid my dad would let me tear apart old music players and telephones. It was a total blast. That's a lot harder to do today because everything's soldered to circuit boards and there are no moving parts anymore. It's less interesting for the kids, because the physicality of the process is vastly different. Electronics are just smaller now, and everything's solid-state. Yes, you can get into a conversation about silicon, circuits, resistors, and capacitors, it's just not as fun.


Network Availability

I have mixed feelings on this one. By now I'd expected the network to be persistent, and everywhere. Neither are true (not in the slightest), and my 9 yr. old son is keenly aware that connectivity must be sought and established if he's away from home-base. A positive outcome from this is that he understands "connectivity." I was worried it would be so ubiquitous that the kids would never actually understand that there even was a network.


Identity

The big one. I'm very strict with unique accounts for family members; everyone has their own accounts/logins, and I don't like it when I see them shared. We're pretty good on this front. There are so many things tied into "your account" today it's simply too much to manage. My diligence takes an inordinate amount of energy.

  • Installed Apps are bound to accounts. If you mix accounts, then your iPhone (for example) becomes littered with kid's game apps, or kid's education apps. Conversely, your kid's iTouch becomes littered with your apps, and before you know it, they're, unknowingly, racking up your iTunes bill by messing with your apps.
  • Music is bound to account. Similarly with Apps, if you mix/share accounts, your music (explicit lyrics in my case, not to mention songs my kids don't want to listen to) winds up in their player, and vise versa. You don't want Justin Beiber showing up on your iPhone do you!?!
  • Movies are bound to account.
  • TV shows are bound to account.
  • Parental Controls are bound to account.


Money

This is a big one. If you just share iTunes/Amazon accounts, your child has no concept of money. Their only understanding is that when they want something, they run over to you so you can type in your password to "get it." If you share accounts, it hits your bank account, and they learn nothing. We setup bank accounts for our kids awhile ago, replete with debit cards (which they don't use yet, but we use the account numbers from), which we wire into their cloud/operating system accounts. This way, they can see their own account balances, and associate credits/debits with earning and spending. They are exposed to the boundaries of spending.


Protection

This one I did a 180 on. Pre-heavy technology use I told myself "I'd educate my kids about stuff as they came across it, and everything will be fine." Today, we have Parental Controls enabled on the kids' stuff/accounts, and passwords on communal devices (like AppleTV, Tivo, XBox) to prevent willy nilly content acquisition. The reality is that within a few clicks, young minds can be exposed to things that, even with your explanation, cannot be understood at a young age (it's not the relatively innocent stumble upon of a Playboy magazine like it was for me 30 years ago, anymore). So, you either allow a developmentally incapable mind to be exposed to some stuff at the wrong time (and suffer whatever consequences come out of that), or you lock down.

I've been impressed at the options in "locking down." They're better than I expected; not great, but pretty good. Of course, soon enough, the kids will be able to get past everything (or just go over to a friend's house where things are wide open), but at that point they'll be more prepared and able to understand some of the content they're exposed to (with explanation and discussion) anyway, so, life will go on.

We block network access to the mac addresses of our kid's devices between the hours of 8pm and 8am everyday; just in case :).

My daughter just woke up. Gotta go!