Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | February 17, 2015

Welcoming Apptimize

By: Neill Occhiogrosso, Partner

We are thrilled to announce our recent investment in Apptimize and welcome Nancy Hua, Jeremy Orlow and the rest of the Apptimize team. Apptimize lets mobile teams instantly change their native apps for optimization, targeting, and A/B testing.

At Costanoa and at our prior firms, Greg and I were fortunate to participate in the digital marketing revolution with companies like Acquia, Conductor, QuinnStreet, and DemandBase. It’s a space that we know well, and where we think there are many more terrific companies to be built. Apptimize is squarely focused on mobile, one of the unassailable mega-trends in IT today. Like most people, I’m bullish on mobile, but I was still surprised to see the astounding rate at which e-commerce spending is moving to tablets and phones. With their recent Instant Update product launch, the company has hands-down the best product in their market and while the best product doesn’t always win, it sure helps!  The team is incredibly smart and maniacally hard working.  It’s a pleasure to be around them and feel their energy, and we look forward to the amazing things they’ll achieve. Apptimize: Welcome to Costanoa!

Apptimize Raises $4M in Series A Funding to Bring Revolutionary Iteration Speed to Mobile Apps

Menlo Park, CA—February 17, 2015- Apptimize, provider of optimization tools for mobile applications, announced today that it has closed a $4 million Series A funding round led by Costanoa Venture Capital. The Series A round brings Apptimize’s total funding to $6 million, after a $2.1 million seed round in January 2014. The new funds will further revolutionize the mobile development process by enabling product managers, designers, marketers, and developers to make instant updates to any mobile app without having to code or redeploy their app.

“Apptimize is leading and changing the way mobile apps are optimized,” said Neill Occhiogrosso, Partner at Costanoa Venture Capital. “This is the reason why top companies like Vevo, HotelTonight, Glassdoor, Strava, and Flipagram have chosen to leverage Apptimize to iterate faster and with real user data.”

Mobile is changing at an incredible rate, but mobile app development is one of the slowest things out there. Apptimize is solving this by letting mobile app development teams get continuous data-driven deployment without sacrificing the native experience. Traditionally, mobile app development is a slow process because the development, QA, and deployment cycle take 6-12 weeks for a fast moving app.  In order to get faster iteration speed, some apps have opted to integrate non-native components into their app (HTML) at the sacrifice of performance and user experience.

“Apptimize cuts app iteration time down from months to minutes. Now, mobile product mangers can push out a change instantly and immediately start gathering data on whether or not that change made a statistically significant improvement to the app before spending weeks coding,” said Nancy Hua, Apptimize CEO.

“We’ve been able to move faster, iterate faster, and take a few more risks,” says Audrey Tsang, Director of Product of HotelTonight.

“What made me excited about [Apptimize] was the ease by which we could make a change to this new app that just got launched and unlock the whole potential of building things more quickly,” said Jon Li, Senior Director of Product at Vevo.

About Apptimize:

Apptimize is a high performance, reliable way to optimize native Android and iOS applications. With robust A/B testing, Instant Updates, and a codeless installation process, Apptimize empowers anyone on a mobile team to push changes to users in real-time and A/B those changes without App or Play Store approvals. Apptimize also offers a programmatic interface that enables app developers to test anything they can code. Other key features include powerful analytics, feature flagging, staged rollout, results segmentation and filtering, and advanced targeting. For more information visit www.apptimize.com.

About Costanoa Venture Capital:

Costanoa Venture Capital is an early stage investor focused on cloud-­based services solving real problems for businesses and consumers by leveraging data and analytics. The firm’s name originates from the first inhabitants of Silicon Valley, the Costanoans, and harkens back to the origins of entrepreneurship and venture capital in Silicon Valley. Costanoa provides early stage entrepreneurs with a combination of “right­sized” amounts of capital and value ­added support from a high­ quality institutional partner. Current investments include: 3scale, DemandBase, Gamechanger, Grovo, Guardian Analytics, Inflection, Intacct, Kahuna, Lex Machina, NovoEd, Return Path, Risk I/O, StitchLabs, and VictorOps. The firm is headquartered in Palo Alto, CA. For more information, visit http://costanoavc.com/ read and follow on Twitter @costanoavc and @gsands.

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | February 17, 2015

The Four Stages of the Learning Curve for Young Companies

By: Greg Sands, Founder and Managing Partner

A startup team has accomplished two important goals out of the blocks: 1. they’ve spent the time finding a market and problem space that is big enough to satisfy their ambitions; and 2. they’ve engaged deeply with prospective customers to understand requirements and priorities to build a product that solves a significant problem. What’s next?

About once a week, I hear an entrepreneur during a financing presentation tell me that the product is almost ready for General Availability. They say, “Now all we need to do is hire a sales guy.”  It’s a little bit of an overstatement to say that the meeting ends at that point, but suffice it to say that I know I am dealing with someone who doesn’t have any idea what to do next – and as a result, we are very unlikely to invest.

Enterprise-focused software companies need to take a learning approach to their sales and marketing process if they want it to be scalable and capital efficient. The next stage of a startup, the sales learning curve (SLC), can be both thrilling and terrifying. And even though getting the first product to market is less expensive than ever, it can create or destroy value at high speed because the “go-to market” (sales and marketing) can still be extremely expensive for Software as a Service (SaaS) and other enterprise- focused companies.

Below are the four key stages of my version of the Sales Learning Curve built for early stage companies just shipping their initial product. This process can be used for any new product as well. I use the analogy of industrial development because it makes clear and basic principles like process standardization and scalability.

  1. The Craft Economy—Founder-led selling

Sales in early stage companies shipping 1.0 products is too important to be left to sales people. Founders* have several key advantages critical for early selling—they are involved in creating the product so they know the product and market it serves deeply; their charisma, brilliance and Reality Distortion Field can help overcome the disadvantages of having a new product of a new company; they carry CEO/Founder business cards which opens doors and looks impressive (if they bother to wear closed toe shoes and long pants); and they sell at the white board, sometimes making up new products or committing to new features in a meeting. In addition, this is an essential way to get early product feedback while the company is honing in on Product Market Fit. Feature requests and rejections from potential customers are the fuel for the next phase of innovation. I find that Founders and CEOs are uniquely good at interpreting this early product feedback and synthesizing what needs to be done to be productive.

* sometimes early product managers or CTOs can play this role as well

  1. The Sales Apprentice—Business Development as Sales

When the Founder/CEO has successfully found a pattern of successful sales, it is tempting to say, “Now it is time to hire a traditional coin-operated sales person to scale up this process,” but that rarely works. I’ve seen companies hire a salesperson from a competitor or incumbent and not sell anything. Even worse, I’ve had the experience (as a board member) of hiring “exactly the right” VP of Sales, (she worked previously in an adjacent company for a former colleague so I could reference closely) and she hired a team to scale up the process. It was a very expensive mistake, but it wasn’t the fault of the VP of Sales. The company had very few things a mature company has– like sales materials, marketing air cover, a real price list, and inbound leads. By contrast, the highly charismatic CEO could “sell ice cream to eskimos”- so the handful of early (and big) sales was not an indication that a mere mortal could do the same.

In contrast, the most successful example I’ve seen was at Merced Systems, where I was fortunate to be the only venture investor. Founder and President Mark Selcow sold the first half dozen deals himself and then hired a young, smart and hungry Sales Apprentice. The Apprentice learns from the Founder, but doesn’t assume he can simply replicate the process. He doesn’t have Malcolm Gladwell’s proverbial “10,000 hours” in the domain, the stature or oftentimes the natural charisma. His job is to run experiments and see how he can map the founder’s successes onto his own pitch, skills and process. The Sales Apprentice has to be smart and humble enough to learn from all this experimentation to find a process that can be scaled up successfully. Oftentimes, this person is a mid-level Business Development hire rather than a traditional coin-operated sales rep. Business Development in more mature companies still involves investigation with potential partners, typically deeper product knowledge and tends to attract people who want to create a new process rather than follow an existing one. In the modern parlance, this might be a “sales ninja” (see Bloomreach CEO, Raj De Datta’s piece on this subject), but a sales ninja doesn’t tell you what to do before or next.

  1. Light Manufacturing

At this stage, the company is ready to TRY to standardize the process with a few traditional sales people. I emphasize ‘try’ because even if the company has been through the first two stages, there is no guarantee of success- and the focus has to remain on the learning curve. I’ll also note that the sales team is an important principle. In today’s world where a great deal of selling is handled inside (or over the phone), startups that have 2-4 people in a single location—even a bullpen—challenging and learning from each other can accelerate the rate of learning.

Ideally, the first true sales people come from adjacent companies or segments. I differentiate “true sales people” from Business Development because they’ve been on quota all their life and once they figure how to make a sale, they want to go as fast as they can rather than invent a second new way to sell. The first hires are often people who want to be early in a company’s life and have honed the skills to do so. The Sales Rep from Oracle who has been selling with that brand and machinery behind him is unlikely to be successful at this stage. Early stage sales people like learning a bit more about product and are comfortable iterating their own positioning, presentation and scripts (for inside sales). Their high energy lets them run many experiments- making a lot of calls into different customer types and with different pitches. While the Apprentice is focused on making their product (in this case, the sale) themselves, the first sales team is “engineering” the first sales factory. They are employing to the method developed in stage two, beginning to standardize it, and continually tweaking, improving and optimizing the process. Building from the first rep to the first team of reps (5-10 people), who are closing business and hitting their quotas, is where you start to see the unit economics of sales and marketing.  Once you have them dialed in, you are ready for the final stage, heavy manufacturing.

  1. Heavy Manufacturing

Once the company is generally hitting sales goals, knows the levers to improve and scale up the sales/marketing process and its unit economics (Customer Acquisition Cost/estimated Lifetime Values), they are ready to accelerate. In fact, the company is ready for the bigger equity round that gives you the resources to do so. Stepping on the gas has several forms, from gentle acceleration to rocket boosters, which is largely driven by how good the unit economics (again, CAC, LTV) are. However, it is important to note that some acceleration may be appropriate even when the numbers are just “OK” since this phase is all about learning to improve it.

This final stage is where the company moves into the process of optimization and scaling at an even higher velocity — developing a hiring profile, training and onboarding program, standardizing the sales process materials, improving close rates and the accuracy of forecasting. This is where the team is increasingly fed leads by marketing or a sales development team, which qualifies leads inbound leads and does outbound prospecting. This final stage also requires significant development of all the adjacent functions. Arguably the first job of marketing is sales enablement and getting the sales team “selling on PDF” where the sales materials are completely standardized so the company can deliver consistently and efficiently. Sales operations becomes a real job.

Summary

Taking a learning approach to selling is like building a solid foundation for your house—it’s safer and more capital efficient. Do it right and the entrepreneur can build a very big company—and one that the founding team owns much more of than they would if they took the “go big or go home” approach. Even if “go big” is the orientation, knowing where a company is on the Sales Learning Curve will help an entrepreneur make better decisions and grow more efficiently. And I assure you, venture capitalists will highly value a company’s knowledge of and approach to build the sales machinery. Growth equity investors, who typically pay higher prices than early stage investors, love nothing more than a “just add water” company where the go-to market process is well defined and has good unit economics. They know such a company can use the new capital with high confidence to grow faster. As a result, focusing on the Sales Learning Curve is the way to increase the value of your next round and the long-term value of your company.

*Mark Leslie’s Sales Learning Curve in the Harvard Business Review uses a different nomenclature and is a much more detailed article based on his experience building Veritas Software and as a Silicon Valley board member. I highly recommend it for further reading.

A version of this post originally appeared on VentureBeat.

Image Credit: Frank Fiedler/ShutterStock

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | October 26, 2014

Security Will Need Big Insight, Not Just Big Data

Guest Post by Neill Occhiogrosso

In looking for new opportunities in security and many other sectors, we look for the echoes of the current IT mega-trends: cloud, mobile, big data. These trends, and especially the interactions between them, are dramatically changing security needs. Add to that the changing profile of would-be hackers — now a frightening mix of international organized crime and employees of enemy governments — and we see the potential for several new solutions that can each be the foundation of one or more successful companies.

The first is the application of big data technologies to produce security insights. This is a classic example of “Applied Big Data,” the application of new analytic technologies to a current business problem. Security professionals are drowning in log files, vulnerability scan reports, alerts, reports, and more, but the data is not actionable.

This isn’t an idle observation: Several high-profile breaches happened through vulnerabilities that had been documented months or sometimes years prior. The future lies in analyzing this data to give security professionals a comprehensive view of their security posture. Tell them what is at risk, how severe the risk, how important the asset is, and how to fix it. We see tremendous promise in Risk I/O’s approach to this problem, and we’re proud to have led their most recent investment.

Another area for exploration is security solutions that follow assets to protect them wherever they are. With cloud infrastructures (both public and private) and bring-your-own-device mobile enterprises, there is no perimeter and every layer of the stack is dynamic. Security professionals need to be able to apply security policies to applications, data, and users wherever they are, and those policies need to adapt based on the changing context.

There’s an increasingly popular saying that there are two types of organizations now: those that have been breached, and those that just don’t know it yet. As attacks have become too sophisticated for signature-based detection, there is a need for solutions that quickly notice anomalous and potentially dangerous behavior (likely leveraging machine learning) to prevent breaches or — failing that — detect malicious behavior once a breach has occurred, and minimize its impact.

Guardian Analytics, another Costanoa investment, applies behavioral analytics to data already resident in online banking platforms to prevent a broad range of fraudulent activity. This is just one example of applying data science to existing data sets to address more nebulous threats. There will be more opportunities looking at different applications and different types of attacks.

Finally, there is also the need for efficient data capture and analysis that can look broadly and historically across an infrastructure, sometimes trailing several months, to see when and how a breach occurred, and what the consequences were. This is a prototypical big data problem. It involves great volume, variety, and velocity of data.  It now may be tractable, and we are on the lookout for solutions.

We live in an exciting time, but unfortunately in the case of security, that is a double-edged sword. New technologies present new opportunities for criminals. We are optimistic that great new companies are emerging to rise to the challenge.

This post originally appeared on TechCrunch.

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | May 31, 2014

The Missing Slide in a Startup Venture Pitch

We see a lot of pitches at Costanoa Venture Capital. We look to make a small handful of new investments per year.  With those odds, entrepreneurs need every advantage they can get.

Most people get the basics of a venture pitch: an overview, team information, product and customer adoption (early indications of product/market fit), market and market size (ideally built from the bottom up rather than top down) and competition — pick your favorite two-by-two matrix. As a former product manager, I’m partial to adding a Harvey Balls chart as well and then your financial plan (not optional).

However, there is one missing slide. When we come out of a meeting with an entrepreneurial company and want to learn more about its forward plan, I often ask the entrepreneur to create one more slide with the following directions:

  1. Draw a line across the top representing the next six quarters.
  2. Tell me what happens.

As an early stage investor, we do detailed analysis of product and product/market fit, extensive work on the team, and technical due diligence, but there just isn’t much financial data to analyze. Going through the pro forma financial plan in detail is important, but it doesn’t tell us very much beyond how well the team has thought through the business. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

This new missing slide tells us what the entrepreneur thinks are the most important developmental milestones for the business. Typically, they include things like:

  • critical product shipments
  • number of customers and/or average selling price
  • revenue or the annual contract value (ACV) of bookings
  • net burn (total cash flow, usually negative for well more than 18 months given the stage at which we invest)
  • number of employees
  • key hires

One of the best missing slides I’ve seen had “Revenue and Operating Burn” superimposed on a chart in the back. The innovative format combined quantitative and qualitative information in a way that conveyed a ton of information. It brought me back to the best visual display I’ve ever seen from Edward Tufte’s map of Napolean’s March to Moscow by Charles Joseph Minard. The revenue and operating burn slide put a smile on my face and I gave a huge compliment to the entrepreneurs. I’ve included a mock-up using this format below:

Image: Costanoa Venture Capital

Image: Costanoa Venture Capital

This chart gives us a sense of the planned development of the business over the next six quarters. What are the key milestones and hires? When do new products ship? What will the catalysts be for future growth and which metrics should we be looking at to decide if it is time to step on the gas?  This timeline also gives us a better sense of how the pieces of the business fit together — as well as what the company will look like the next time it needs financing.

A version of this post originally appeared on WSJ Weekend Read.

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | May 20, 2014

How to Be a CEO: The Sales Leader or the Chess Master

There are many types of successful entrepreneurs that build and lead great companies. Most that I have seen have elements of what I refer to as the “Chessmaster” and those of a “Sales Leader.” Some amount of each skill set is required, but it is interesting to observe which is the dominant or “go to” skill set for an entrepreneur. After more than 15 years in the venture business and over 40 venture investments, I have found that I prefer – and work more effectively with – entrepreneurs and CEOs where the Chessmaster is the more dominant skill set.

It’s a bit of a caricature, but the Chessmaster is someone who is data-driven, constantly trying to understand the landscape, formulate strategy, run experiments and learn quickly. The Sales Leader has a big vision, has high confidence that he (or she) is right, and is highly successful in getting others to see the world their way. Most media represent entrepreneurs as the Grand Salesman. A fellow venture investor recently stated on a panel that the qualities she looked for the most in an entrepreneur were passion and storytelling. Steve Jobs, the subject of so much Silicon Valley hagiography, was an unbelievable Salesman and got much of the world to share his worldview – but this isn’t the only route to success.

I’ve been re-reading the Lean Start Up by Eric Ries. In my opinion, the entire book describes the Chessmaster approach to launching a new product- whether a start up or as part of a bigger company. The successful companies I’ve seen and been a part of have a dedication to learning quickly and cultures where people are trained to “speak with data.” Figuring out which metrics are truly meaningful for the business, building the instrumentation to understand them, and making data driven decisions to improve product market fit and business performance are actions of a great Chessmaster.

This post was provoked by a recent blog post, “The Post Mortem,” by Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg. His main argument is that successful endeavors need post-mortems as much as failures because companies often misattribute the reasons for their success and find it hard to sustain or replicate those successes. Success has a hundred fathers – and that is just within the company. As Matt points out, some of those claimed reasons for success come from external dynamics, market phenomena or the failures of competition. And it can be damaging –or even fatal – for companies to have the wrong interpretation of successful history. The clear thinking and intellectual honesty of this argument is one of the reasons why I enjoy working with Matt and many of the other Costanoa portfolio CEOs.

It is the relationships with great entrepreneurs that make my role in the start up ecosystem so rewarding. I appreciate: entrepreneurs who call when they have an issue and don’t quite have a solution but just want someone else thinking about it as well; CEOs who value questions about a product or its strategic context instigating an appropriate discussion rather than getting defensive because it assumes the team hasn’t done its job well; long, informal conversations that meander through various perspectives of the business and how to align all of its elements into a coherent strategy and execution plan; debating challenges that can go unresolved because all the information isn’t there, but a concerted effort is being made to address them; executives and team members who will say what they think and add a perspective to the comments of the CEO in a board meeting, but respectfully sign up to execute a plan agreed by the team. These are the signs of a high function company- and the kind that I love to work with.

Matt brought this kind of data-driven honesty and transparency to a whole new level last week by having his 360 degree review conducted with the Return Path management team and board together in one room. He applied the core lesson to himself – you can’t improve performance if you don’t have the data- and then he committed to getting the data about his own performance.

It takes a special kind of entrepreneur to lead like that. I’ve noticed several common traits: a sense of humility, knowing what they know but also what they don’t, comfort with uncertainty, and a data-driven orientation. These are the people that make my job great. Thank you.

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | March 19, 2014

How to Build and Manage High Performance Start Up Teams

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to entrepreneurs and CEOs about team building, but it had been a long time since I was at Netscape (‘94-’98) building teams of my own. When I started Costanoa Venture Capital in 2012, I had to test my principles once again. They held up pretty well, but with a few modifications I was able to distill it down to these three:

1. Team first

Start ups are a team sport. Especially in business-facing companies, the product development environment, go to market infrastructure and overall business system are complicated enough that alignment matters as much as brute force or sheer brilliance. There is an old saying that “there is no I in team.” More recently, we’ve learned that there is an “I” in team, it is just hidden. You need to make sure you root out the ***holes– those that destroy chemistry, ruin alignment, and pursue their own agendas.

One of the best parts of being at Netscape in its founding days was that we really lived “All for one and one for all.” It really felt like we were on a mission together. Anyone’s victories were victories for the team. Any failure was a challenge to all. Unfortunately, that changed in early 1998 when the business stalled and we had a Reduction in Force of 12%. The change in culture was palpable as some people began to think their interests and the company’s might not be the same. It became less fun – and the company never was the same.

Products are complicated enough that they are produced by teams, not by one great engineer. Building a great product doesn’t matter if it targets the wrong market, so alignment with product management and marketing matters. Some companies are lucky enough that they build a great product and the world comes to them credit card in hand. However, most often there are actual human beings (salespeople) who talk to customers, explain the benefits, and try to close business. If these pieces aren’t working together, the business fails. As a result, finding people with the communications skills, emotional maturity and self-awareness and ability to put the team’s needs ahead of their own desire for professional advancement or empire-building is absolutely essential.

Besides, you’re going to be working long hours on a project whose material rewards come from team success, so you might as well like them (no ***hole rule) and you better think they are working for the team too.

2. Get A players in every job

Most start ups are lean by definition. Raise a chunk of capital, target a couple of key milestones, hit targets, and get to raise another chunk of capital at higher prices. Constraints on capital mean constraints on headcount, so each person needs to hyper-productive. There isn’t room for mediocrity. In fact, mediocrity reduces team morale (when it is needed most) and is poison in terms of people being able to put the Team First. Besides, when someone isn’t pulling their weight, everyone on the team knows it.

In the early days of Netscape when I was a Product Manager, there was a Director-level person in another department who wasn’t pulling his weight. It was a source of frustration to many who wondered (sometimes outloud) whether the organization was as meritocratic as we all wanted it to be. Management eventually took care of it but not before it had festered for too long. This is one of the ways Me First gets introduced into the organization.

An A Player refers to someone’s ability to do the job at hand, what Andy Grove called Task Relevant Maturity in his book High Output Management. Everybody doesn’t need to be a future CEO. You can have people who are great individual contributors and will always be great individual contributors, and you can mix in a couple of super star talents that are inexperienced but capable of high output and are willing to learn if you have some people they can learn from. BUT you cannot tolerate mediocrity in a startup or have people that are bottlenecks. Time and teamwork is too precious.

3. Everybody goes to their highest and best use

One could call this a corollary of Team First but I think it is important enough to draw it out separately. Team members absolutely need to spend most of their time and energy recognizing how they can contribute the most to the team at that moment. Typically, this means working on the things they are best at, but sometimes that means taking on an unglamorous task that no one wants to do. People with “utility player” skills – and attitudes – are extremely valuable.

Over and over again, I see people who screw up their jobs – and sometimes their careers – by wanting to be something they are not. At one of our portfolio companies, we had a terrific executive who was great at his job, highly valued and well-compensated. But he wanted more- particularly, he wanted a General Management responsibility to meet his own career objectives. In a fast growing company, he endeavored to grow and defend his “empire” rather than partnering with new executives who had joined the thriving company. In the end, it was destructive for him and for the executive team. Avoiding such a situation requires a combination of self-awareness and humility, and it isn’t easy.

There is room for professional development in start ups, but it needs to be built on the foundation of achievement in areas of strength that are important to the company. Executing on the things that a team member is great at “earns” the right to take on new roles/capacities and learn new skills.

Further, the areas of development ought to be adjacent to areas of strength, all of which requires a real understanding of both strengths and weaknesses. Some of that can be obtained by introspection, but eventually any team member needs external feedback – and s/he might need to solicit it since most companies do it poorly.

—-

Nothing in start ups is easy. By following these general principles, one can build high performance teams while trying to achieve crazily ambitious things with limited resources – and that goes a long way towards success.

Photo: Off Center Designs

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | March 3, 2014

5 Tips for Running a Great Startup Board Meeting

A startup isn’t a public company and a startup board shouldn’t be like a public company’s board, many of which focus primarily on status updates, performance against plan, governance and compliance. Admittedly, this is a caricature, but directionally correct, as bigger companies have existing businesses to sustain and protect, and significant assets with which to pursue them.

By contrast, a startup board really needs to focus on understanding where the company is, from the perspectives of product-market fit and sales learning curve, building the right team for the stage of the company, and helping the management team think a couple of moves ahead on strategy and financing.

Here are five things you can do now that will help you use your board to your advantage:

1. Get the right people in the room – Shape your board so that both investors and independents have areas of contribution. You want input from a diversity of perspectives and experiences, but you also want people who understand their roles.

2. Define the board’s role and rules of engagement. Have a conversation about what you want the board to do – relative to management and its role. I’d typically propose input and guidance on strategy and even tough tactical decisions. Help the management team to think and navigate through complex issues, but leave the actual decisions to them. Hold the management team accountable, including compensation policies (and the ultimate responsibility to hire and fire the CEO). Be advocates and evangelists for the company and an arm for business development and recruiting. As for rules of engagement, it is great to have input and points of view – even to be able to argue vociferously during periods of debate – but board members shouldn’t forget that management necessarily has ten times more information about most subjects and that they should ultimately make the call, unless it touches on corporate development (M&A) and financing, or will require the company to raise additional capital.

3. Use meetings as a time to re­evaluate and/or re­affirm strategy and touch base on critical issues. Focus the board’s time on the critical issues – both strategy and tough operational issues. Tee those up in advance by doing the staff work and sending out memos or presentations that provide the board context for the discussion. As former Return Path board member Scott Weiss (now a partner at A16Z) used to say, “We’ll eat what you feed us, so tee up the right stuff.” One or two issues is ideal, but no more than three. Some CEOs, like Return Path’s Matt Blumberg, includes a section called “On My Mind.” While you should do the staff work, the issues don’t need to be fully processed and ready for decision. If you’ve got the right people in the room, don’t feel like you and your team already have all the answers. You won’t get as much out of the discussion.

4. In order to free up time for this more meaningful discussion, you need to limit the time dedicated to status updates and reporting . This is the part that requires more work from you. To that end, develop the right metrics for the business and design a consistent reporting template. Send out the board packet, including all the data, at least two full days before the board meeting. Give board members time to prepare – and expect them to do so. Tell the board that you’re not going to go slide by slide, but instead, will dedicate as much time as necessary to asking and answering questions. While even a startup board has a role of giving visibility to (and providing motivation for) the broader management team, you simply can’t have each VP report on their function – or you won’t have any time for the meaty discussion above. You might choose one functional review as one of your topics for the meeting – but only one.

5. Enjoy. The right board can help you dream higher than you might have thought possible, bring expertise and experience that you don’t have, and extend your company’s reach. The path to doing so is by engaging your board and treating its members like partners in building the best company you can build.

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | February 3, 2014

Welcoming a Partner!

I’m excited to introduce Neill Occhiogrosso as the newest Partner at Costanoa Venture Capital.

We’ve been really pleased with the firm’s progress to date, particularly in our ability to find and back great entrepreneurs building exciting businesses in our core sectors. It felt like the right time to double down and do more – to increase our capacity with a new partner who loves working with early stage entrepreneurs, will source fantastic opportunities, be a value-added partner to the portfolio – and help us build a great firm along the way.

Neill has the network, and the experience as an investor and a great partner to entrepreneurs, to expand both our capacity and capabilities.  His passion for what we do shows up in his work.  He has deep and abiding interest in analytic applications where he invested actively, especially around the digitization of marketing with companies like Conductor, Maxymiser, and Acquia. Neill also enhances our capabilities in data-driven infrastructure, so he is poised to find our next VictorOps or 3scale as well.    

He started as a Developer and then Product Manager before becoming a successful investor at Highland Capital Partners and, most recently, Investor Growth Capital (IGC).  Most importantly, when I spoke to Founders and CEOs at Guavus, HireVue and other companies where he was involved, they were fervent advocates and pounded the table for Neill. They were emphatic that he really worked to understand their business and focused on the most important things.  He has a strong network and wasn’t afraid to leverage it to help the company.  Most importantly, he was a trusted partner that they really enjoyed working with.

Neill and I met over a year ago and have been able to compare notes on many projects as the year evolved.  He was actively involved in helping us with the VictorOps investment. He will be a great partner of mine – and most importantly a great partner to a new crop of entrepreneurs.

 

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | January 28, 2014

5 Must Ask Questions When Hiring a Vice President of Engineering

Some thoughts from Costanoa Entrepreneur in Residence, Paul Melmon

Here is a subject I am passionate about, having gone through the interview process from both sides of the table more times than I care to admit : ).  You have just plunked down between $80 and $120K to do a retained search for your next (or first!) VP of Engineering.   How do you ensure that you optimize the process and get the best possible hire?  Outside of the standard interview techniques (of course, grill them with behavioral style interview questions, and definitely check off-list references), what are the 5 questions that you must include in the interview process?

The Questions:

  1. How many engineers on your current team have worked with you in the past?
  2. How many engineers on your current team have worked with you more than once in the past?
  3. How many engineers have you hired in the past 12 months? 24 months?
  4. How many engineers have you fired in the past 12 months? 24 months?
  5. What do you do for fun outside of work ? (see Peter Bregman’s  comments  from the  Harvard Business Review Blog on this)

What these 5 questions will tell you:

Questions 1 and 2: I consider the first two questions the equivalent of a personal net promoter score.  The Net Promoter Score is a metric used by many organizations to measure their customer satisfaction by asking “How likely are you to recommend our company/product/service to your friends and colleagues?  Take this concept and apply it to a leader.  A sign of a great engineering leader is the ability to grow and retain talent.   If they have the ability to continue to draw technical talent and the loyalty of skilled engineers, that says more about them than words on a resume.

Once you know you have a VPE candidate with a “following”, that is, people who want to work with him or her again, then you need to make sure they can expand that “following” which goes to questions 3 and 4.  Presumably if you are making the hire, you are trying to either a) expand the engineering team and/or b) increase the engineering horsepower which may imply trading up in some areas.

If a VPE candidate has not had to let anyone on the team go in the past two years, that is likely a sign that they avoid facing unpleasant issues or are not tough enough.  If they have been unable to make any hires in the past year, what does that say about them?  Or about the company they worked for?  Hiring and firing have costs and must be done judiciously; however they are real and undeniable derivative measures of the level of the rate of change of the organization.  Target your VPE hire with the desired rate of change you believe is needed by the organization.

The last question, focusing on activities outside of work, will tell you a lot about what makes a candidate tick.  The VPE role requires discipline, tenacity and focus.  Of all the executive roles at a start-up, the VPE must be engaged and present day in and day out, and lead by example.  They need to have the ability to create a unique relationship with each engineer on the team.  Look for outside activities that correlate well to these traits.  These activities do not need to correlate with technology at all to be indicators of the right kind of VPE for your team.

What they do for fun reveals qualities about them.  Do they like group activities?  Are they competitive?  Are they creative?  Don’t over analyze this – you are looking for passion that can ultimately be harnessed for success of the organization, and whether it comes in the form of cycling, aviation, or interpretive dance is immaterial – it is all about passion.

Posted by: Costanoa Venture Capital | October 8, 2013

Kahuna Launches Customer Engagement Engine

After much anticipation, today Kahuna launches their Customer Engagement Engine, which brings adaptive engagement campaigns to the mobile experience. Customer engagement management enables companies, in particular mobile commerce businesses, to make use of the data they already collect to improve customer experience and boost vital business metrics such as revenue, engagement, and recurring active users.  Mobile engagement and cross-channel marketing are essential to e-commerce and consumer-focused companies who live or die by their customer engagement.

Kahuna’s marketing engine works by both creating a dynamic behavior-based engagement profile for every customer and unifying each customer’s experience across apps, devices and platforms.  Kahuna is able to customize the experience for new users and also re-engage users when they exhibit drop off signs through targeted and personalized messaging in the form of push communication and email.  Similar real-time tools have proven successful in the web channel, and Kahuna is the first to integrate the mobile environment.

Delivering a unified and consistent experience, personalizing the message, and communicating with the user when and where they want to be contacted is the key to meaningful engagement – and it shows in the numbers.  Success stories from early adopters like Gyft (a mobile gift-card service) show Kahuna’s impact.  After the very first campaign, Gyft saw a 240% increase in engaged users, a 17% growth in revenue from cards purchased, a 12% rise in cards redeemed, and a 7% boost in sharing on social media.  There is real value being generated here!

Adam and Jacob make a great team. I’ve known Adam for many years and this investment was special because Costanoa and Kahuna have shared a parallel entrepreneurial journey.  Adam was leaving Bain to start Kahuna just as we closed our Fund I and had capital to invest.  Backing him and Jacob was a no-brainer, and they have continued to prove me right.  The Kahuna team knows how to execute and is dedicated to creating value for customers first and foremost.

Congratulations to Kahuna!

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