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Posts from the ‘Entrepreneurship’ Category

Did You Like Being an Executive in Residence (EIR)

This is the fifth and final post of a multi-part series on being an Executive in Residence (EIR). The initial post outlining the full series can be found here. The previous post was “Challenges of Being an Executive-in-Residence (EIR)

As I’m writing this post, I’m feeling a bit sheepish as I promised the to finish this series last year. I was reminded last weekend that people are finding significant value in the series, largely because so few people actually write about being an EIR. In my previous four posts, I stayed objective and incorporate lessons from other EIRs that I’ve had the opportunity to both know and work with.

Despite the series, I still receive questions about my time as an EIR, and the most common question I still get is:

Did I like being an Executive in Residence?

For those who want the short answer, it’sYes, I did.

For the complete picture though, I’ll try to put into my own words why I liked the experience of being an Executive-In-Residence at Greylock Partners, and why I’m grateful for the opportunity.

My Three Top Reasons for being an EIR:

1. The Typical Benefits

As I wrote in my earlier post, “Should I be an Executive-In-Residence (EIR)?“, there are a number of benefits to being an EIR, and my case was no different.

The position gave me the opportunity to create, build and grow relationships.  While I was heads down at LinkedIn, it was often hard to do this well outside the company.  My time as an EIR definitely helped me go into my next role better reconnected into my professional (and personal) networks.

My time as an EIR also allowed me to both broaden & deepen knowledge about multiple markets. I had both the time and the connections to explore a wide variety of product categories and sub-sectors, and more importantly, learn more deeply about what strategies and tactics were finding success.

One of the most obvious benefits of being within a firm like Greylock Partners was the incredible visibility into the startup community. There are so many incredibly talented entrepreneurs and executives building new businesses, and being an EIR provides not only exposure to them, but the opportunity for deep & frank discussion & debate.

Lastly, at a venture capital firm you quickly discover what are the unique knowledge sets where others in the startup community find value.  At Greylock, I had the time and focus to both clarify both my thinking and content around product leadership and growth, two topics that continue to be in high demand.  The investment in thought leadership, that I was able to make during my EIR role has continued to pay dividends well beyond the relatively short time I spent in the role.

2. A Time for Self Discovery & Clarity

About six months into the role, I had the good fortune to experience one of those rare life events that gives you both the time and the catalyst to think deeply. In May 2012, my wife & I welcomed our daughter into the world, and I took a month off to both manage the chaos that comes with a new addition, and reflect a bit on next steps.  (For fans of my blog, this is when I wrote my piece on the Combinatorics of Family Chaos).

During that time, I came to a new level of clarity about what I was looking for:

  • Product. As someone passionate about product & design, it had to be a consumer product & service that I was passionate about.
  • Stage. I’ve had the good fortune to work for both startups and large companies at almost all stages.  That being said, there’s no question that I deeply enjoy the technology, product & strategy issues that come with hypergrowth.
  • Role. After a range of technology & leadership roles, I realized that I wanted the opportunity to help build and lead a company. I wanted to be the CEO.

Finding a company that fit the above felt a little bit like finding a needle in a haystack, but fortunately Silicon Valley turns out to be one of the better haystacks in the world, and the EIR role gave me time to find my needle.

3. Finding My Needle

In the summer of 2012 I met Andy Rachleff for the first time, through an introduction by Jeff Markowitz at Greylock. While I knew of Andy by reputation, we had never had the chance to meet in person. Wealthfront was not a Greylock investment at that time. I told Andy that I loved what Wealthfront was doing, and that I had opened an account almost immediately after it launched in December 2011. That being said, I told him that the only way to make Wealthfront succeed would be to find the right talent and the right growth strategy.

Over a few months we met and debated different ways to attract the right talent to Wealthfront and find a growth strategy that would succeed. One day, as I was discussing the company with my wife, Carolyn, she provided me with exactly the final clarity I needed.  She said, “It seems like you really like Wealthfront and want it to succeed.”

It was true. I not only liked the idea of Wealthfront, but I also liked the idea of a world where Wealthfront was successful. I signed on before Thanksgiving (Wealthfront had about $79M under management at that time), and formally joined after the new year. Andy wrote his own version of his decision to bring me on as CEO on the Wealthfront blog, but I credit the EIR role with the time, the relationships, the clarity and the opportunity to find my dream job.

Right product. Right team. Right role. Right time.

 

EIR Series: Should I be an Executive in Residence (EIR)?

This is the second post of a multi-part series on being an Executive in Residence (EIR). The initial post outlining the full series can be found here.  The previous post was What is an Executive in Residence (EIR).

The most common question in relation to the Executive in Residence role has been a simple one:

Should I be an Executive in Residence?

The truth is, when people ask me this question, they are very often asking two similar, but different questions:

  1. Is the Executive in Residence Role a good opportunity?
  2. Is the Executive in Residence Role something I should pursue?

The answer to the first question is fairly simple, but it has an over-arching caveat.  Like most things relating to venture capital, the quality of the partnership that you’ll be working with and the expectations of that partnership around the role are paramount.  As long as there is strong alignment of expectations between the partnership and the executive about the expectations for the role, the Executive in Residence role can be a unique and fantastic opportunity.

The second question, however, is much more complicated.  And that’s because it implicitly brings up some of the most difficult career questions we have to ask ourselves.

What Do You Want From an EIR Role? 

Last year, John Lilly wrote a simple blog post about leadership and the key questions to ask when you’re asked for advice.  If you are at the point in your career where you are qualified to be a CEO, then the question of what you want from your career becomes increasingly dominant.

What are you optimizing for?  Is it passion for the product you’re building, particular technology or a target market?  Are you looking for a particular business model, corporate culture or lifestyle? Are you looking to join the ranks of the Forbes 400?  Are you looking for power & influence and if so, in what industry / sector?

These questions can become increasingly difficult as you progress in your career because to be uniquely qualified to lead a company, there needs to be incredible alignment between your values and goals, and the goals of the company you want to lead.  Put another way, matchmaking for the right company actually requires a deep understanding of your own motivations, values & priorities.

Benefits of the EIR Position

The Executive in Residence role offers a lot of unique benefits.  These include:

  • Create, Build & Grow Relationships.  It’s an incredible opportunity to make new relationships, re-establish dormant relationships, and deepen existing ones.
  • Broaden & Deepen Your Knowledge of the Market. When you are in an operational role, you tend to become extremely deep on the companies related to your market and space, and tunnel vision sets in.  The EIR role gives you the opportunity to explore a much wider range of product categories and sub-sectors, and learn more deeply what strategies and tactics have been successful outside your specific niche.
  • Learn about New Companies.  We all like to think that we’re in the flow of knowing the important, successful private companies being built in Silicon Valley.  The truth is, there are a shockingly large number of amazing private companies that you haven’t heard of.  The EIR role gets you fantastic exposure to a large number of companies you haven’t heard of.
  • Platform for Thought Leadership.  Top tier venture firms have great reputations, and EIR roles offer a unique opportunity for you to nurture, develop & grow your own reputation around specific topics and issues.  The venture firm benefits from its association with thought leadership, and the EIR benefits from its association with the firm.  The end result can be magnified opportunities for both parties.
  • Try Before You Buy.  The EIR role gives you an exceptional ability to spend time with portfolio companies.  They are usually extremely happy to get additional help, and the time spent can help both parties figure out if it’s a potential good fit or not.  The best part about the role is that if it isn’t a good fit, the time spent was without firm commitment, and can be easily ended at any time without few (if any) negative relationship or reputation effects.
  • Self Discovery.  The EIR role is structured to give you time to ask the hard questions about what you are looking for in a company, a product, a market, a culture.  It’s structured enough to provide stimulus and ideas, but unstructured enough to give you gaps to ask (and answer) the hard questions.

Problems with the EIR Position

While I’m extremely positive about my experience as an EIR at Greylock Partners, I’m one of the first to caution people who ask me about the role that there are real issues to consider.

  • Firm Lock In.  When you are immersed in the people & culture of a particular firm, it’s very easy to de-prioritize networking and intellectual debate outside the firm.  Venture firms tend to discuss their own successes and failures, and the burden is really on the EIR to ensure they broaden & deepen their relationships outside the firm.  This is why, for example, some successful executives will take EIR roles at two different firms.
  • Paradox of Choice.  We are all human, and humans don’t do well with a massively expanded selection set.  The more companies, industries, products & concepts you are exposed to, the harder it can be to assertively make a choice to pursue a single company.  This is why, for example, successful EIRs will often frame their time in waves – spending weeks or months on a particular area or topic, and then shifting to another, rather than trying to explore and pursue everything at once.
  • Portfolio Work vs. Discovery.  Working with portfolio companies takes a certain amount of time and effort to be effective.  If you are going to spend 1-2 days a week with a company, you’ll quickly run out of days of the week.  As a result, it’s important for EIRs to find a system that allows them to balance networking & discovery time with active engagement with companies.  6-12 months can pass unbelievably quickly, and in the end, your goal is to find that next great role.
  • Operating Skills / Credibility.  Technology moves incredibly quickly, and it’s amazing how even in a matter of months the landscape of ideas and tactics can change.  Venture capital firms tend to be comfortable places, but never forget that you always need to be learning & growing, most likely by engaging and helping entrepreneurs with real challenges they have today.  The lessons from 2012 are interesting and useful in 2013, but the half life of those lessons can be shorter than you might think.

So, Should You Do It?

I’m colored by own personal experience, which was with a great firm and a great outcome (I’m exceptionally happy with my role at Wealthfront).

If you are looking for either your first CEO role, or your next CEO role, and you have the opportunity to be an EIR with a great firm, I believe the Executive in Residence role can be a unique & excellent opportunity.  Going into it, however, you need to do two things to be successful: be prepared to take advantage of the unique opportunities of the role, and be extremely cognizant of the potential pitfalls and issues inherent with the position.

Going forward in this series, I’ll be focusing on the Executive in Residence role. My next post will attempt to answer the question: “How Do You Get an Executive in Residence Role (EIR)?

EIR Series: What is an Executive in Residence (EIR)?

This is the first post of a multi-part series on being an Executive in Residence (EIR). The initial post outlining the full series can be found here.

One of the first things I learned when I accepted the role of Executive in Residence at Greylock Partners was that almost no one actually knows what that means. (I can hear my father asking me now, “You’re a resident now? Like a doctor?”)

In fairness, the role is rare enough that, outside of the Silicon Valley venture community, you might never run into it. It’s almost pathologically designed to be cryptic. Not only is it rare, but it’s also designed as a short term role, not a permanent one. If that wasn’t tricky enough, it turns out that there are a few flavors of “EIR” just to add a good dose of acronym confusion to the mix.

So before discussing the details of the Executive in Residence role, let me clarify the three different types of EIR you may come in contact with. (As a side note, the following definitions and examples are certainly biased towards my recent experience at Greylock Partners.)

  • Entrepreneur in Residence. The original EIR role, the Entrepreneur in Residence role is designed for entrepreneurs who are actively working on both the conception & execution of their next company. These roles are generally structured as 3-6 month engagements without compensation, but the entrepreneur is given resources & a place to work, and significant time & exposure to the investment team at the venture capital firm. The entrepreneur benefits from the constant challenge & framing of world-class investors, and a higher than average likelihood of funding from the venture capital firm. The firm, on the other hand, gets a significant degree of proprietary access and influence over the new company.

    Notable recent examples: Nir Zuk, co-founder of Palo Alto Networks (PANW, $3B+), Josh McFarland, founder of TellApart.

  • Executive in Residence. Sometimes referred to as an XIR, the Executive in Residence role is designed for executives, typically CEOs, who are in between companies. These roles are typically structured as 6-12 month engagements with limited compensation (well below typical executive salaries). The executive is given an office, with an expectation that they will split their time between working with portfolio companies, helping with due diligence on potential investments, and completing their own search efforts for their next role. The executive gets a platform for broadening their strategic thinking, networking and inside access to a number of extremely promising companies, while the firm gets inexpensive support for their portfolio companies and disproportionate access to top executive talent.

    Notable recent example: Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn (LNKD, $20B+)

  • “Something Else” in Residence. Behold, the age of the SEIR. In recent years, there have been a few top venture capital firms experimenting with other “in residence” roles. There have been designers, engineers, data scientists and even growth strategists in residence. The basic proposition for this role is similar to the traditional executive in residence role, with a notable tilt towards work with portfolio companies and PR to help build the reputation of the individual and the firm.

    Notable recent examples: DJ Patil, Data Scientist in Residence, Andy Johns, Growth Strategist in Residence.

There have been quite a few good blog posts on the pros & cons of the Entrepreneur in Residence role. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s probably too early to talk categorically about the plethora of new “in residence” variants as a class.

Going forward in this series, I’ll be focusing on the Executive in Residence role. My next post will attempt to answer the question: “Should I be an Executive in Residence (EIR)?

The Executive in Residence (EIR) Series

It’s hard to believe, but it is now exactly six months since I left my role as an Executive in Residence at Greylock Partners, and joined Weathfront as COO.

Diving into a startup is all encompassing, but over the past few months quite a few people have asked me questions about the Executive in Residence (EIR) role.  Some of these people have had offers to become EIRs, others are curious about the role and whether they should pursue it as a career option.  For most, however, it’s just genuine curiosity  the EIR role is largely a low volume, undocumented role that is very unique to the private equity & venture capital ecosystems.

One of the guide posts for this blog has been a dedicated effort to take the questions that I receive regularly, and translate them into thoughtful and useful content to be broadly shared.  So before my experiences of 2012 fade into the shrouds of history, I’ve decided to write a quick series about my experience as an EIR, and the most common questions I’ve received.

The series will cover the following questions:

  1. What is an Executive in Residence (EIR)?
  2. Should I be an Executive in Residence (EIR)?
  3. How do you get an Executive in Residence (EIR) role?
  4. Challenges of being an Executive in Residence (EIR)
  5. Did you like being an Executive in Residence (EIR)?

As always, I’m hopeful that the information will be both interesting and even useful.

Joining Wealthfront

It’s official. As per the announcement on the Wealthfront Blog today, I have officially accepted the role of Chief Operating Officer at Wealthfront. I feel incredibly fortunate to be joining such an amazing team, with an opportunity to help build an extremely important company.

WF Logo New

From Human Capital to Financial Capital

One way to imagine your professional life is overlay of two types of capital: the building and growing of your human capital, and the transformation of that human capital into financial capital.

It feels like just yesterday that I was writing a blog post here about my first day at LinkedIn. At its heart, LinkedIn is building, growing & leveraging human capital throughout your career.  Wealthfront provides an answer to the second part of that equation – how to grow and leverage the financial capital that you accumulate throughout your career.

As Marc Andreessen put it, software is eating the world, and it is providing us a platform to bring the features and sophistication previously only available to the ultra-rich, and making it available to anyone who wants to protect & grow their savings.

Too many good, hard-working individuals today lack access to many of the basic advantages accorded to people with extremely high net worth.  With software, Wealthfront can bring features and capabilities normally available only to those with multi-million dollar accounts to everyone, and at a fraction of the cost.

Personal Finance as a Passion

For regular readers of this blog, the fact that personal finance has been a long standing passion of mine comes as no surprise.  What many don’t know is that this passion dates all the way to back to my time at Stanford, where despite one of the best formal educations in the world, there was really no fundamental instruction on personal finance.

In fact, upon graduation, I joined with about a dozen friends from Stanford (mostly from engineering backgrounds) to form an investment club to help learn about equity markets and investing together.  (In retrospect, the members of that club have been incredibly successful, including technology leaders like Mike Schroepfer, Amy Chang, Mike Hanson and Scott Kleper among others.)

A Theme of Empowerment

As I look across the products and services that I’ve dedicated my professional life to building, I’m starting to realize how important empowerment is to me.  At eBay, I drew continued inspiration from the fact that millions of people worldwide were earning income or even a living selling on eBay.  At LinkedIn, it was the idea of empowering millions of professionals with the ability to build their professional reputations & relationships.

With Wealthfront, I find myself genuinely excited about the prospect of helping millions of people protect and grow the product of their life’s work.

We’ve learned a lot in the past thirty years about what drives both good and bad behaviors around investing, and we’ve also learned a lot about how to design software that engages and even delights its customers.  The time is right to build a service that marries the two and helps people with one of the most important (and challenging) areas of their adult lives.

A Special Thank You

I want to take a moment here to voice my utmost thanks to the team at Greylock Partners.  My year at the firm has given me the opportunity to learn deeply from some of the best entrepreneurs, technology leaders and venture capitalists in the world.  The quality of the entrepreneurs and investors at Greylock forces you to think bigger about what is possible.  Fortunately, Greylock is also a partnership of operators, so they understand the never-ending itch to go build great products and great companies.

… And Lastly, A Couple of Requests

Since this is a personal blog, I don’t mind making a couple of simple requests.  First, if you have a long term investment account, whether taxable or for retirement, I would encourage you to take a look at Wealthfront.  I’d appreciate hearing what you think about the service and how we can make it better.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, we are hiring.  So let me know if you are interested in joining the team.

User Acquisition: Cycle Time Matters

This is an extension to my original three post series on user acquisition.

Over the past few months I been fortunate enough to give over a dozen talks at various events and companies about user acquisition, virality and mobile distribution.  One of the best parts of the experience is that, without fail, every talk yields a new set of questions and insights that help me learn and refine my own thinking on distribution & growth.

One of the most common questions I get is around the difference between my definition of “viral factor” and the semi-standard definition of “K Factor” that has been floating around for a few years.

What’s a K Factor?

Wikipedia offers a fairly concise definition of a K factor, a term borrowed from epidemiology.

i = number of invites sent by each customer
c = percent conversion of each invite
k = i * c

As the wikipedia article explains:

This usage is borrowed from the medical field of epidemiology in which a virus having a k-factor of 1 is in a “steady” state of neither growth nor decline, while a k-factor greater than 1 indicates exponential growth and a k-factor less than 1 indicates exponential decline. The k-factor in this context is itself a product of the rates of distribution and infection for an app (or virus). “Distribution” measures how many people, on average, a host will make contact with while still infectious and “infection” measures how likely a person is, on average, to also become infected after contact with a viral host.

What’s a Z Factor?

This blog post from Mixpanel in 2009 does a great job of walking through the standard definition of Z factor.  Hat tip to Dave McClure for his slide, which is included in the post.

Based on this framework, the Z factor is literally the percentage of users who accept a viral invitation that they receive.

The Problem with K & Z Factors

I meet with a startup that told me proudly that they had measured the viral factor of their new service, and that it was over 2.  My first question, of course, was:

“over what time period?”

In my blog post on viral factor basics, I define a viral factor as follows:

“Given that I get a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next N days?”

The key to understanding viral math is to remember a basic truth about rabbits.  Rabbits don’t have a lot of rabbits  because they have big litters.  Rabbits have a lot of rabbits because they breed frequently.

You’ll notice that, unlike the other popularized definitions, I focus on a new variable, “N”, the number of days it takes for your viral cycle to complete.  I do this for a simple reason: cycle time matters.   The path to success is typically the combination of a high branching factor combined with a fast cycle time. If you don’t think deeply about the channels you are using for viral distribution, you risk prioritizing the wrong features.

How Do You Pick the Right Cycle Time?

Once a growth team digs into the numbers, they quickly realize that there is no one “cycle time”.  So what number do you pick for analysis?

There is no right answer, but in general, you tend to find in the data that there is a breakpoint in the data where a vast majority of all viral events that are going to complete are going to complete.  For example, maybe with a viral email you’d see most responses happen in 24 hours, with 90% of total responses happening within 3 days.  If that’s the case, picking 3 days might be the right cycle time for your feature.  Once you pick a cycle time, the conversion rate gets built into your projections.

Cycle Time Matters

If you are already focused on the new user experience, distribution and virality, well then kudos to you and team.  Too many consumer products to this day spend too little time focused on these problems.

But if you want to see clear, demonstrable progress from your growth team, make sure you include cycle time in your thinking about what viral features will be most effective for your product.

Now go out and make a lot of rabbits.

The Game Has Changed. Design for Passion.

One of the most exciting developments in software has been a resurgence in the focus and priority on design.  With the growing dominance of social platforms and mobile applications, more and more people are growing comfortable productively discussing and utilizing insights about human emotion in their work.

Google: The Era of Utility

The progress of the last five to seven years is really a significant breakout from the previous generations of software design.

For decades, software engineers and designers focused on utility:  value, productivity, speed, features or cost.

If it could be quantified, we optimized it.  But at a higher level, with few exceptions, we framed every problem around utility.  Even the field of human-computer interaction was obsesses with “ease of use.”  Very linear, with clear ranking.  How many clicks? How long does a task take?  What is the error rate?

In some ways, Google (circa 2005) represented the peak of this definition of progress.  Massive data.  Massive scalability. Incredibly utility.  Every decision defined by quantifying and maximizing utility by various names.

But let’s face it, only computer scientists can really get passionate about the world’s biggest database.

Social: The Era of Emotion

Like any ecosystem, consumer technology is massively competitive.  Can you be faster, cheaper, bigger or more useful than Google?  It turns out, there is a more interesting question.

Social networks helped bring the language of emotion into software.  A focus on people starts with highly quantifiable attributes, but moves quickly into action and engagement.

What do people like? What do they hate? What do they love? What do they want?

In parallel, there have been several developments that reflect similar insights on the web, in behavioral finance, and the explosion in interest in game mechanics.

Human beings are not rational, but (to borrow from Dan Ariely) they are predictably irrational.  And now, thanks to scaling social platforms to over a billion people, we have literally petabytes of data to help us understand their behavior.

Passion Matters

Once you accept that you are designing and selling a product for humans, it seems obvious that passion matters.

We don’t evaluate the food we eat based on metrics (although we’d likely be healthier if we did).  Do I want it? Do I love it? How does it make me feel?

The PayPal mafia often joke that great social software triggers at least one of the seven deadly sins. (For the record, LinkedIn has two: vanity & greed).  Human beings haven’t changed that much in the past few thousand years, and the truth is the seven deadly sins are just a proxy for a deeper insight.  We are still driven by strong emotions & desires.

In my reflection on Steve Jobs, he talks about Apple making products that people “lust” for.  Not the “the best products”, “the cheapest products”, “the most useful products” or “the easiest to use products.”

Metrics oriented product managers, engineers & designers quickly discover that designs that trigger passion outperform those based on utility by wide margins.

The Game Has Changed

One of the reasons a number of earlier web giants are struggling to compete now is that the game has changed.  Utility, as measured by functionality, time spent, ease-of-use are important, but they are no longer sufficient to be competitive. Today, you also have to build products that trigger real emotion.  Products that people will like, will want, will love.

Mobile has greatly accelerated this change.  Smartphones are personal devices.  We touch them, they buzz for us. We keep them within three feet of us at all times.

Too often in product & design we focus on utility instead of passion.  To break out today, you need to move your efforts to the next level.  The questions you need to ask yourself are softer:

  • How do I feel when I use this?
  • Do I want that feeling again?
  • What powerful emotions surround this product?

Go beyond utility.  Design for passion.

User Acquisition: Mobile Applications and the Mobile Web

This is the third post in a three post series on user acquisition.

In the first two posts in this series, we covered the basics of the five sources of traffic to a web-based product and the fundamentals of viral factors.  This final post covers applying these insights to the current edge of product innovation: mobile applications and the mobile web.

Bar Fight: Native Apps vs. Mobile Web

For the last few years, the debate between building native applications vs. mobile web sites has raged.  (In Silicon Valley, bar fights break out over things like this.) Developers love the web as a platform.  As a community, we have spent the last fifteen years on standards, technologies, environments and processes to produce great web-based software.  A vast majority of developers don’t want to go back to the days of desktop application development.

Makes you wonder why we have more than a million native applications out there across platforms.

Native Apps Work

If you are religious about the web as a platform, the most upsetting thing about native applications is that they work.  The fact is, in almost every case, the product manager who pushes to launch a native application is rewarded with metrics that go up and to the right.  As long as that fact is true, we’re going to continue to see a growing number of native applications.

But why do they work?

There are actually quite a few aspects to the native application ecoystem that make it explosively more effective than the desktop application ecosystem of the 1990s.  Covering them all would be a blog post in itself.  But in the context of user acquisition, I’ll posit a dominant, simple insight:

Native applications generate organic traffic, at scale.

Yes, I know this sounds like a contradiction.  In my first blog post on the five sources of traffic, I wrote:

The problem with organic traffic is that no one really knows how to generate more of it.  Put a product manager in charge of “moving organic traffic up” and you’ll see the fear in their eyes.

That was true… until recently.  On the web, no one knows how to grow organic traffic in an effective, measurable way.  However, launch a native application, and suddenly you start seeing a large number of organic visits.  Organic traffic is often the most engaged traffic.  Organic traffic has strong intent.  On the web, they typed in your domain for a reason.  They want you to give them something to do.  They are open to suggestions.  They care about your service enough to engage voluntarily.  It’s not completely apples-to-apples, but from a metrics standpoint, the usage you get when someone taps your application icon behaves like organic traffic.

Giving a great product designer organic traffic on tap is like giving a hamster a little pedal that delivers pure bliss.  And the metrics don’t lie.

Revenge of the Web: Viral Distribution

OK. So despite fifteen years of innovation, we as a greater web community failed to deliver a mechanism that reliably generates the most engaged and valuable source of traffic to an application.  No need to despair and pack up quite yet, because the web community has delivered on something equally (if not more) valuable.

Viral distribution favors the web.

Web pages can be optimized across all screens – desktop, tablet, phone.  When there are viral loops that include the television, you can bet the web will work there too.

We describe content using URLs, and universally, when you open a URL they go to the web.  We know how to carry metadata in links, allowing experiences to be optimized based on the content, the mechanism that it was shared, who shared it, and who received it.  We can multivariate test it in ways that border on the supernatural.

To be honest, after years of conversations with different mobile platform providers, I’m still somewhat shocked that in 2012 the user experience for designing a seamless way for URLs to appropriately resolve to either the web or a native application are as poor as they are.  (Ironically, Apple solved this issue in 2007 for Youtube and Google Maps, and yet for some reason has failed to open up that registry of domains to the developer community.)  Facebook is taking the best crack at solving this problem today, but it’s limited to their channel.

The simple truth is that the people out there that you need to grow do not have your application.  They have the web.  That’s how you’re going to reach them at scale.

Focus on Experience, Not Technology

In the last blog post on viral factors, I pointed out that growth is based on features that let a user of your product reach out and connect with a non-user.

In the mobile world of 2012, that may largely look like highly engaged organic users (app) pushing content out that leads to a mobile web experience (links).

As a product designer, you need to think carefully about the end-to-end experience across your native application and the mobile web.  Most likely, a potential user’s first experience with your product or service will be a transactional web page, delivered through a viral channel.  They may open that URL on a desktop computer, a tablet, or a phone.  That will be your opportunity not only to convert them over to an engaged user, in many cases by encouraging them to download your native application.

You need to design a delightful and optimized experience across that entire flow if you want to see maximized self-distribution of your product and service.

Think carefully about how Instagram exploded in such a short time period, and you can see the power of even just one optimized experience that cuts across a native application and a web-based vector.

Now go build a billion dollar company.

User Acquisition: Viral Factor Basics

This is the second post in a three post series on user acquisition.

In the first post in this series, we covered the basics of the five sources of traffic to a web-based product.  This next post covers one of the most important, albeit trendy, aspects of user acquisition: virality.

Lot-of-Rabbits

It’s About Users Touching Non-Users

Look at your product and ask yourself a simple question: which features actually let a user of your product reach out and connect with a non-user?   The answer might surprise you.

At LinkedIn, we did this simple evaluation and discovered that out of thousands of features on the site, only about a half-dozen would actually let a user create content that would reach a non-user. (In fact, only a couple of these were used in high volume.)

I continue to be surprised at how many sites and applications are launched without having given careful thought to this exactproblem.  Virality cannot easily be grafted onto a service – outsized results tend to be reserved for products that design it into the core of the experience.

Useful questions to ask, from a product & design perspective:

  • How can a user create content that reaches another user?
  • How does a users experience get better the more people they are connected to on it?
  • How does a user benefit from reaching out to a non-user?

Understanding Viral Factors

One of the most useful types of metrics to come out of the last five years of social software is the viral factor.  Popularized by the boom of development on the Facebook platform in 2007, a viral factor is a number, typically between 0.0 and 1.0.  It describes a basic business problem that affects literally every business in the world:

“Given that I get a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next N days?”

“N” is a placeholder for a cycle time that makes sense for your business.  Some companies literally track this in hours, others 3 days, or even 30.  Let’s assume for now that 7 is a good number, since it tells you given a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next week.

Basic Viral Math

The good news is, once you identify the specific product flows that allow users to reach non-users, it’s fairly easy to instrument and calculate a viral factor for a feature or even a site.  But what does the number really mean?

Let’s assume a viral factor of 0.5, and an N of 7.  If I get a new user today, then my user acquisition will look like this over the next few weeks:

1 + 0.5 + 0.25 + 0.125 ….

It’s an infinite series that adds up to 2.  By getting a new user, the virality of this feature will generate a second user over time.

Two obvious epiphanies here:

  • A viral factor is a multiplier for existing sources of user acquisition.  0.5 is a 2x, 0.66 is a 3x, etc.
  • Anything below 0.5 looks like a percentage multiplier at best.

What about a viral factor of 1.1?

One of the memes that started to circulate broadly in 2008 was getting your viral factor to “1.1”.  This was just a proxy for saying that your product or service would explode.  If you do the math, you can easily see that any viral factor or 1.0 or higher will lead to exponential growth resulting in quickly having every human on the planet on your service.

I don’t want to get into a Warp 10 debate, but products can in fact have viral factors above 1.0 for short periods of time, particularly when coming off a small base.

Learning from Rabbits

The key to understanding viral math is to remember a basic truth about rabbits.  Rabbits don’t have a lot of rabbits  because they have big litters.  Rabbits have a lot of rabbits because they breed frequently.

When trying to “spread” to other users, most developers just focus on branching factor – how many people they can get invited into their new system.  However, cycle time can be much more important than branching factor.

Think of a basic exponential equation: X to the Y power.

  • X is the branching factor, in each cycle how many new people do you spread to.
  • Y is the number of cycles you can execute in a given time period.

If you have a cycle that spreads to 10 people, but takes 7 days to replicate, in 4 weeks you’ll have something that looks like 10^3.  However, if you have a cycle that takes a day to replicate, even with a branching factor of 3 you’ll have 3^27.  Which would you rather have?

In real life, there is decay of different viral messages.  Branching factors can drop below 1.  The path to success is typically the combination of a high branching factor combined with a fast cycle time.

As per the last blog post, different platforms and traffic channels have different engagement patterns and implicit cycle times.  The fact that people check email and social feeds multiple times per day makes them excellent vectors for viral messages.  Unfortunately, the channels with the fastest cycle times also tend to have the fastest decay rates.  Fast cycle times plus temporary viral factors above 1 are how sites and features explode out of no where.

Executing on Product Virality

To design virality into your product, there really is a three step process:

  1. Clearly articulate and design out the features where members can touch non-members.  Wireframes and flows are sufficient.  Personally, I also recommend producing a simple mathematical model with some assumptions at each conversion point to sanity check that your product will produce a strong viral factor, layered over other traffic sources (the multiplier).
  2. Instrument those flows with the detailed metrics necessary for each step of the viral cycle to match your model.
  3. Develop, release, measure, iterate.  You may hit success your first time, but it’s not unusual to have to iterate 6-8 times to really get a strong viral factor under the best of conditions.  This is the place where the length of your product cycles matter.  Release an iteration every 2 days, and you might have success in 2 weeks.  Take 3-4 weeks per iteration, and it could be half a year before you nail your cycle.  Speed matters.

You don’t need hundreds of viral features to succeed.  In fact, most great social products only have a few that matter.

What about mobile?

Now that we’ve covered the five scalable sources of web traffic and the basics of viral factors, we’ll conclude next week with an analysis of what this framework implies for driving distribution for mobile web sites vs. native applications.

User Acquisition: The Five Sources of Traffic

This is the first post in a three post series on user acquisition.

The topic of this blog post may seem simplistic to those of you who have been in the trenches, working hard to grow visits and visitors to your site or application.  As basic as it sounds, however, it’s always surprising to me how valuable it is to think critically about exactly how people will discover your product.

In fact, it’s really quite simple.  There are only really five ways that people will visit your site on the web.

The Five Sources of Traffic

With all due apologies to Michael Porter, knowing the five sources of traffic to your site will likely be more important to your survival than the traditional five forces.  They are:

  1. Organic
  2. Email
  3. Search (SEO)
  4. Ads / Partnerships (SEM)
  5. Social (Feeds)

That’s  it.  If someone found your site, you can bet it happened in those five ways.

The fact that there are so few ways for traffic to reach your site at scale is both terrifying and exhilarating.  It’s terrifying because it makes you realize how few bullets there really are in your gun.  It’s exhilarating, however, because it can focus a small team on exactly which battles they need to win the war.

Organic Traffic

Organic traffic is generally the most valuable type of traffic you can acquire.  It is defined as visits that come straight to your site, with full intent.  Literally, people have bookmarked you or type your domain into their browser.  That full intent comes through in almost every produto metric.  They do more, click more, buy more, visit more, etc.  This traffic has the fewest dependencies on other sites or services?

The problem with organic traffic is that no one really knows how to generate more of it.  Put a product manager in charge of “moving organic traffic up” and you’ll see the fear in their eyes.  The truth is, organic traffic is a mix of brand, exposure, repetition, and precious space in the very limited space called “top of mind”.  I love word of mouth, and it’s amazing when it happens, but Don Draper has been convincing people that he knows how to generate it for half a century.

(I will note that native mobile applications have changed this dynamic, but will leave the detail for the third post in this series.)

Email Traffic

Everyone complains about the flood of email, but unfortunately, it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.  Why?  Because it works.

One of the most scalable ways for traffic to find your site is through email.  Please note, I’m not talking about direct marketing emails.  I’m referring to product emails, email built into the interaction of a site.  A great example is the original “You’ve been outbid!” email that brought (and still brings) millions back to the eBay site every day.

Email scales, and it’s inherently personal in its best form.  It’s asynchronous, it can support rich content, and it can be rapidly A/B tested and optimized across an amazing number of dimensions.  The best product emails get excellent conversion rates, in fact, the social web has led to the discovery that person to person communication gets conversion person over 10x higher than traditional product emails.  The Year In Review email at LinkedIn actually received clickthroughs so high, it was better described as clicks-per-email!

The problem with email traffic generally is that it’s highly transactional, so converting that visit to something more than a one-action stop is significant. However, because you control the user experience of the origination the visit, you have a lot of opportunity to make it great.

Search Traffic

The realization that natural search can drive traffic to a website dates back to the 90s.  However, it really has been in the past decade in the shadow of Google that search engine optimization scaled to its massive current footprint.

Search clearly scales.  The problem really is that everyone figured this out a long time ago.  First, that means that you are competing with trillions of web pages across billions of queries.  You need to have unique, valuable content measured in the millions of pages to reach scale.  SEO has become a product and technical discipline all it’s own. Second, the platform you are optimizing for (Google, Microsoft) is unstable, as they constantly are in an arms race with the thousands of businesses trying to hijack that traffic. (I’m not even going to get into their own conflicts of interest.)

Search is big, and when you hit it, it will put an inflection point in your curve.  But there is rarely anysuch thing as “low hanging fruit” in this domain.

Advertising (SEM)

The fourth source of traffic is paid traffic, most commonly now ads purchased on Google or Facebook.  Companies spend billions every year on these ads, and those dollars drive billions of visits.  When I left eBay, they were spending nearly $250M a year on search advertising, so you can’t say it doesn’t scale.

The problem with advertising is really around two key economic negatives.  The first is cash flow.  In most cases, you’ll be forced to pay for your ads long before you realize the economic gains on your site.  Take something cash flow negative and scale it, and you will have problems.  Second, you have solid economics.  Most sites conjure a “lifetime value of a user” long before they have definitive proof of that value, let alone evidence that users acquired through advertising will behave the same way. It’s a hyper-competitive market, armed with weapons of mass destruction.  A dangerous cocktail, indeed.

While ads are generally the wrong way to source traffic for a modern social service, there are exceptions when the economics are solid and a certain volume of traffic is needed in a short time span to catalyze a network effect.  Zynga exemplified this thinking best when it used Facebook ads to turbocharge adoption and virality of their earlier games like FarmVille.

Social Traffic

The newest source of scalable traffic, social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be great way to reach users.  Each platform is different in content expectations, clickthrough and intent, but there is no question that social platforms are massively valuable as potential sources of traffic.

Social feeds have a number of elements in common with email, when done properly.  However, there are two key differences that make social still very difficult for most product teams to effectively use at scale.  The first is permission.  On social platforms, your application is always speaking through a user.  As a result, their intent, their voice, and their identity on the platform is incredibly important.  Unlike email, scaling social feed interactions means hitting a mixture of emotion and timing.  The second issue is one of conversion.  With email, you control an incredible number of variables: content, timing, frequency.  You also have a relatively high metrics around open rates, conversion, etc.  With social feeds, the dynamics around timing and graph density really matter, and in general it always feels harder to control.

The Power of Five

Eventually, at scale, your site will likely need to leverage all of the above traffic sources to hit its potential.  However, in the beginning, it’s often a thoughtful, deep success with just one of these that will represent your first inflection point.

The key to exponential, scalable distribution across these sources of traffic is often linked to virality, which is why that will be the topic of my next post.

Product Leaders: User Acquisition Series

I can be pedantic about user acquisition.  The truth is that consumer web and mobile applications are under increasing pressure to demonstrate explosive exponential traction.  Building a great product is no longer sufficient, lest you be left with the best product in the world that no one has discovered.

As an engineer and designer by training, I didn’t always put this level of focus on traffic acquisition.  It wasn’t until we tried to build an entirely new site under the eBay brand (eBay Express) that I was forced to focus our team’s efforts on one large fundamental challenge: traffic acquisition.

Those struggles, some successful (and some not) led me to appreciate how profoundly the social web changed the metrics of distribution.  When we founded the growth team at LinkedIn in 2008, we were able to structure our thinking around user acquisition, measure it, and bend the curve significantly for the site. 

A special thanks to both Reid Hoffman and Elliot Shmukler, who both contributed significantly to my thinking on the subject.

History is Written by the Victors

History is written by the victors, and on the consumer web, victory is often defined by market distribution.  Growth does not just happen, it has to be designed into your product and service.

The following posts attempt to capture some of the fundamentals that I’ve personally found useful to structure thinking around social user acquisition, and extend those concepts from the web to mobile applications:

Remember, Product Leaders win games.  Now let’s get started.

Top 10 Product Leadership Lessons

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the 9th annual Harvard Business School Entrepreneurship Conference.  I’m trying to be better about posting the slides from these talks as they happen.

Context & Caveats

This talk is based substantially on a lecture I gave at LinkedIn on August 31, 2011.  It’s heavily based on the unique product, strategy and organizational issues that you see currently in fast moving, hyper growth, consumer-focused software companies.

At the same time, many of the higher level business and management issues discussed are fairly universal, so hopefully there is something useful here for anyone who is passionate about building organizations that build great products.

So take a look, and I look forward to the comments.  FWIW The Optimus Prime quotes are from this excellent list of Optimus Prime quotes for the workplace.

Be A Great Product Leader

Great Product Leaders Win Games

Being a great product leader is hard. Every organization and process is different, and in many cases your are responsible for the outcome without having the authority to enforce decisions. My recent blog post on Being a Great Product Leader was an attempt to capture the specifics of how to lead a great, cross-functional software team.

To scale a great team, however, you need more than just a list of roles and responsibilities. How you onboard new talent is as important for the long term health of your team as how you identify and hire them in the first place.

The Trials of Being a New Coach

When a sports team gets a new coach, there is some authority that comes with the role. You can immediately set standards for behavior & strategy – how the team is going to practice, what plays the team is going to run. That authority, however, tends to be short -lived. Before you know it, the team begins to focus on one thing: are we winning games?

Joining a new team as a product manager has the same dynamic. At most of the companies I’ve been a part of, there is this false sense of security that comes from process and organization. Sure, if you are technically fulfilling the role and responsibilities of a product manager, there is a certain amount of respect and authority initially. However, in the long term, teams want to win games, and in software that means products that people are proud of and products that move the needle.

So is there a pattern of behavior for new product managers that ensures long term success? I’ll argue yes, and for my new hires I boil it down to three phases:
2 weeks, 2 months, and 2 quarters.

Two Weeks

The first two weeks of a product manager are critical, because this is the window where a new leader can establish the most important aspect of the role: what game are we playing, and how do we keep score.

As a result, the first thing I lay out for new product manager is:

  • The company culture and organizational philosophy of the team. Why the company matters. Product/engineering partnership. Results oriented performance.
  • The current strategic frame for how their product fits into the overall strategy of the company.
  • The current metrics and milestones for the product they are taking over.
  • A set of frameworks for the roles & responsibilities of product managers. These include posts on being a great product leader, product prioritization, finding heat in design, etc.

In the first two weeks, a new product manager is expected to:

  • Thoroughly challenge and finalize the strategic frame for the area. Does the existing frame make sense, or is there a better game to be playing?
  • Thoroughly understand the existing product metrics, and identify new or different metrics needed to properly assess the success of the area (max: 3)
  • Reprioritize all existing and future ideas & concepts based on the above, a.k.a. the product roadmap.

In addition, the first two weeks is the time when a new product manager can physically sit down and meet all the other key product and engineering leaders in overlapping areas, to help them both have context for their product and more importantly establish communication channels across the company with other key leaders. Great product managers very often serve as efficient people routers, and knowing who to talk to is often as important as knowing what to do.

Two Months

Like medicine, theoretical knowledge will only get you so far as a product manager. At some point, you learn by doing. A team will tolerate theoretical discussion for a short while, but in the end, a new product manager needs to get their hands dirty.

Two months is too short a time to significantly move the needle, but it is enough time to run through a few release cycles. In the first two months, it’s crucial for a product manager to actually be responsible for something released to users. In addition, the first two months is the typical time frame for a new product manager to flesh out the “best idea” from the team on how to win.

Two months is enough time to:

  • Have identified key outstanding bugs or minor feature fixes that matter.
  • Led the design / specification of solutions to those issues, and see them go live.
  • Write their first product specification for a larger, more significant milestone for their area. This should be their highest priority project to “move the needle” as they’ve defined it for the team.

The first two months are crucial, because not only does it help the new team execute together and coalesce, but also put their stake in the ground on what their next big evolution will be. By leading the effort to place that bet, a product manager sets the team up for the type of success that hopefully will provide long term momentum for that product team.

Two Quarters

Six months is the window to get a cross-functional team into the positive, reinforcing cycle of ongoing success. At this point, the team has released both small and large features, and has meaningfully “moved the needle.”

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the product manager led the launch of a single, monolithic all-or-nothing feature. In fact, what it most likely means is that the team launched a combination of iterative efforts to test out their theories and push through changes that in the aggregate validated the strategy and prioritization that had been put in place.

Great Product Leaders Win Games

Once teams have victories under their belt, in hyper-growth companies they gain both the desire to win again, and the confidence to execute on that desire. Creating that momentum is one of the hardest, and yet most valuable elements of cross-functional leadership.

This pattern has proven reliably consistent for my own product leadership efforts, as well as in differentiating the long term success of product managers I’ve hired and mentored.

In some ways, it’s really simple: great teams like winning, and great leaders reliably lead teams to great victories.

Now go out and win games.

Be a Great Product Leader

People who know me professionally know that I’m passionate about Product Management.  I truly believe that, done properly, a strong product leader acts as a force multiplier that can help a cross-functional team of great technologies and designers do their best work.

Unfortunately, the job description of a product manager tends to either be overly vague (you are responsible for the product) or overly specific (you write product specifications).  Neither, as it turns out, is it effective in helping people become great product managers.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to communicate the value of a product manager in a way that both transparently tells cross-functional partners what they should expect (or demand) from their product leaders, and also communicates to new product managers what the actual expectations of their job are.  Over the years, I reduced that communication to just three sets of responsibilities: Strategy, Prioritization & Execution.

Responsibility #1: Product Strategy

They teach entire courses on strategy at top tier business schools.  I doubt, however, that you’ll hear Product Strategy discussed in this way in any of them.

Quite simply, it’s the product manager’s job to articulate two simple things:

  • What game are we playing?
  • How do we keep score?

Do these two things right, and all of a sudden a collection of brilliant individual contributors with talents in engineering, operations, quality, design and marketing will start running in the same direction.  Without it, no amount of prioritization or execution management will save you.  Building great software requires a variety of talents, and key innovative ideas can come from anywhere.  Clearly describing the game your playing and the metrics you use to judge success allows the team, independent of the product manager, to sort through different ideas and decide which ones are worth acting on.

Clearly defining what game you are playing includes your vision for the product, the value you provide your customer, and your differentiated advantage over competitors.  More importantly, however, is that it clearly articulates the way that your team is going to win in the market.  Assuming you pick your metrics appropriately, everyone on the team should have a clear idea of what winning means.

You should be able to ask any product manager who has been on the job for two weeks these questions, and get not just a crisp, but a compelling answer to these two questions.

The result: aligned effort, better motivation, innovative ideas, and products that move the needle.

Responsibility #2: Prioritization

Once the team knows what game they are playing and how to keep score, it tends to make prioritization much easier.  This is the second set of responsibilities for a product manager – ensuring that their initial work on their strategy and metrics is carried through to the phasing of projects / features to work on.

At any company with great talent, there will be a surplus of good ideas.  This actually doesn’t get better with scale, because as you add more people to a company they tend to bring even more ideas about what is and isn’t possible.  As a result, brutal prioritization is a fact of life.

The question isn’t what is the best list of ideas you can come up with for the business – the question is what are the next three things the team is going to execute on and nail.

Phasing is a crucial part of any entrepreneurial endeavor – most products and companies fail not for lack of great ideas, but based on mistaking which ones are critical to execute on first, and which can wait until later.

Personally, I don’t believe linear prioritization is effective in the long term.  I’ve written a separate post on product prioritization called The Three Buckets that explains the process that I advocate.

You should be able to ask any product manager who has been on the job for two weeks for a prioritized list of the projects their team is working on, with a clear rationale for prioritization that the entire team understands and supports.

Responsibility #3: Execution

Product managers, in practice, actually do hundreds of different things.

In the end, product managers ship, and that means that product managers cover whatever gaps in the process that need to be covered.  Sometimes they author content.  Sometimes they cover holes in design.  Sometimes they are QA.  Sometimes they do PR.  Anything that needs to be done to make the product successful they do, within the limits of human capability.

However, there are parts of execution that are massively important to the team, and without them, execution becomes extremely inefficient:

  • Product specification – the necessary level of detail to ensure clarity about what the team is building.
  • Edge case decisions – very often, unexpected and complicated edge cases come up.  Typically, the product manager is on the line to quickly triage those decisions for potentially ramifications to other parts of the product.
  • Project management – there are always expectations for time / benefit trade-offs with any feature.  A lot of these calls end up being forced during a production cycle, and the product manager has to be a couple steps ahead of potential issues to ensure that the final product strikes the right balance of time to market and success in the market.
  • Analytics – in the end, the team largely depends on the product manager to have run the numbers, and have the detail on what pieces of the feature are critical to hitting the goals for the feature.  They also expect the product manager to have a deep understanding of the performance of existing features (and competitor features), if any.

Make Things Happen

In the end, great product managers make things happen.  Reliably, and without fail, you can always tell when you’ve added a great product manager to a team versus a mediocre one, because very quickly things start happening.  Bug fixes and feature fixes start shipping.  Crisp analysis of the data appears.  Projects are re-prioritized.  And within short order, the key numbers start moving up and to the right.

Be a great product leader.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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