Saturday, June 19, 2010

Done it vs. Read about it

I was having a drink with an old friend who is the best product marketing guy I know, he was also my BoD member and an excellent operating partner at Accel. We were discussing the difficulty in hiring the right VP Sales, VP Marketing, and hardest of all VP Product Management--also called Marketing, Sales and many other things. The product management vertical originated in communications companies, due to a natural need for a highly technical, project management oriented, closer to bridge the gap between sales and marketing. If you think traditionally of marketing as giving aircover so sales can go in and take the territory, then product management supplies recon, logistics, plans the opp, and is often the Seal team that goes in first (or if you prefer a less airforce oriented analogy, marketing sells to groups and can't close anything, sales to individuals and closes them, product management identifies the product, defines the spec, does the initial sales to get the recipe right, and manages the entire process.)

So its really hard to find good people in this role. Actually in any of the customer facing roles-–prior experience is something of an indication of future results, but not that dependable because every startup is unique. Ideally a venture-backed startup is attacking a white space and history doesn't help that much beyond pattern recognition.

One of the key things that a CEO gets shot for is making bad hires, or worse being afraid to hire better people than themselves to enhance the quality and success of the company. I was surprised when I met a young, now quite well known internet CEO and his card read “I’m the CEO .... bitch” – frankly, who cares?

But if being the CEO is so important to someone, then that same ego is going to get in the way of good decision making and great hiring. It's something that VCs look for in any CEO. So how does the CEO win? After all, if they recognize a bad hire, they have to fix it, their investors and BoD will armchair quarterback them and opine sagely that perhaps there is a problem with the CEO and not the new hire ... never mind that it was the same people who helped screen the new hire and approved them ;-)

The California resume, as it's referred to on the East coast, is famous for purporting remarkable achievements and experience, building of great companies, and spectacular exits, most remarkable of which is that they were all achieved either before the candidate left college, or during an internship. While these are easy to spot, the really good sales or marketing person is very hard to distinguish from the really good talker, often it takes until after they have been in the job for a few months.

There is so much excellent training now available, that sales, marketing, and product management roles can be described superbly after doing a few courses and learning key process. This sounds strange, but even seasoned operating guys, like my buddy, can get fooled by the right words. A guy who I worked with years ago, had a gift of remembering every key word his boss used in giving him a task, and then repeated those same key words back to the boss when giving his progress reports, and magically, regardless of progress which was rare in his case, the boss always thought he did a great job.

If and when I ever work out how to avoid making bad hires I promise to let you know, but in the meantime, as with everything else in startups, if you are going to fail fail fast and early, make a change and move on. Don’t procrastinate about reversing a decision already made and firing--its better for the company, it's better for the employee, and it's much better for the CEO.