Moments of Clarity

I just finished another trip around the sun (they seem to come annually for some reason), and to the extent it was a bit of a numerical milestone, it certainly got me thinking about things that matter.

I like living in this world, despite all its faults. When I am immersed in places like Yosemite Valley and looking up at Half Dome, I have less desire than ever to partake in meta. Learning how to navigate in this reality has never lost its appeal to me. Being an avatar in a virtual world has almost no appeal to me.

I find it deeply troubling that regardless of how technology has accelerated global interdependence, ruthless despots continue to pursue egomaniacal, territorial wars of vast destruction like we are seeing in Ukraine. I find it more troubling that in the 21st century, more humanitarian societies remain largely clueless about how to circumvent crises without accelerating conflict. I love our democracy, our nation, and the limitless opportunity this generational child of immigrants continues to experience, but the divisive politics of rhetoric and hyperbole leave me sleepless most nights and concerned about the reemergence of authoritarian populism.

I like our U.S. currency and monetary system. It is not flawless, but I understand it and trust it enough to park my assets in its floating value. I don’t have an interest in cryptocurrency, particularly those that began as jokes and trade in wide ranges on speculation. I am intrigued by blockchain technology and see its potential in future accounting systems, but I don’t think that has to be tied to flavor-of-the-day money brands. Similarly, I have no plans to purchase NFTs. Maybe if people like me sit out the NFT market, the price will be lower for others who see value here. Consider it our invisible gift to you.

I like trading equities on fundamentals. I like owning shares in companies that either generate earnings or are on a path to generate earnings. I want to understand traditional ratios and multiples that determine the price of stocks. I don’t care if a company has sextupled in current market value because “everyone” is buying it. I want to buy it at fair market value where I understand the valuation.

I also like companies that create products and services with a business model I understand, where technology is not just disruptive but improves process, where customer experience is highly valued, and where there is a path to future reinvention. I like leadership teams who are never satisfied with themselves. I don’t care if an IPO is oversubscribed because of hype if there is not a clear value proposition that is explicitly articulated. I am okay to miss out.

I believe in talent more than I ever have, that great things can happen when high-caliber people are assembled to address a meaningful and elusive task, but I have a very high bar when I think about what constitutes high-caliber talent. Part of my expectation in building a team has to do with a demonstrable track record of success, not just an energetic expression of possibility. Much has been written on the war for talent, and sometimes it is real, but excessive bidding wars to fill open positions in a company are not specifically nurturing or championing talent. Real talent in my mind is rare, precious, usually humble, collaborative, collegial, and views career trajectory over the long haul while building lasting relationships and selflessly mentoring others.

I think people need to read more. This has nothing to do with the fact that I work for a company that sells books (well, maybe it does). Reading helps develop minds. This cannot be substituted with truncated, silly videos, brief unpunctuated texts, misguided tweets, or pithy sound bites forwarded out of context. Reading is a gift, language can be a conduit of compassion, stories often reveal empathy, and books are forever our treasures.

I think excellence in the arts is exceptionally hard to achieve, and too often we confuse celebrity with extraordinary craftsmanship. Super-hero movies are fine for those who want to watch them, but the fact that they generate piles of money doesn’t increase my interest. If someone aspires to be a TikTok star that’s their choice, but that is not in the same class as being a brilliant playwright, painter, or musician.

I think climate change can never get enough attention, income inequality is a corrosive catastrophe we have no idea how to mitigate, and the ravages of woke mandates are shutting down dialogue rather than improving it.

I think working in a workplace rather than at home all the time is critical to collaboration, communication, and leadership development. I think in-person meetings when well planned improve human connection and help augment trust. I think phone calls should be returned politely and promptly.

I am feeling increasingly old-fashioned as I get older, largely because I have spent my life in technology and seen what helps us and what distracts us. I love innovation, I admire visionary change, I adore the notion of a Carousel of Progress. I’m also a lifelong skeptic and a fierce utilizer of a nose for bad-smelling dross. There are things I believe we can improve, things we can’t, and things that sound like we can even when we haven’t a real clue how. An idea pitched is not an idea proven. An idea proven can often be as subjective as it is objective.

And finally, to the extent anyone cares, as a result of the recently settled MLB lockout, I am okay with the universal designated hitter.

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Photo: The Author on His Birthday 

Built to Launch?

I aspire in this post to be among the elite—one of the few business bloggers on the planet currently not commenting on Marissa Mayer becoming CEO of Yahoo. I have never met Marissa, but her reputation speaks strongly for her. I wish her well because I always want good people to succeed, and in this case I also want to see Yahoo succeed. I hope she reads my article about Yahoo from last year that predated her last two predecessors and figures out a way to restore much-needed competition to the landscape of search. Hmm, seems I’m writing about her. Okay, enough said. Got get ’em, Yahoo! Stop.

Now my real topic for the week—not surprisingly, also about succession.

Venture investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz have been steadfast in their support for keeping Founder/CEOs at the helm of the companies they back, from early blog posts on their site that state their philosophy to more recent comments in the Wall Street Journal that reinforce their sometimes contrarian assertions. Not only do they believe most deeply in the Founder/CEO success model, they have championed multiple class shares that keep CEOs in authority with majority control even without majority ownership. Their point of view is clear, consistent, and well-argued—and thus far their financial returns in aggregate have been extraordinary. They want vision, they want independence and long-term creative thinking, and they want continuity.

I am not sure I have an absolute opinion yet on absolute power for a start-up CEO; we’ll have to see how those play out over the next ten or twenty years. I do worry that without senior team loyalty and continuity, it may not matter whether a CEO stays or goes. Teamwork is what matters in today’s intellectual property centric companies, and if your team is not stable, I wonder if your company can remain so. Surely new blood is a great infusion when parsed appropriately, but it needs to be in balance, at equilibrium with a set of players we can count on.

What about the top-tier executives, perhaps a level down, who seem to jump freely from ship to ship, following their own personal muses, particularly after liquidity gives them the ability to set themselves free? Is this good for companies and long-term shareholder value, for companies with massive capitalization that are taking on investment—public or private—ostensibly with some hope of being Built to Last?

Clearly within our pressured and fragile economy, the bonding relationships between employers and employees have become increasingly tenuous. “At-will employment” is not just boilerplate in an offer letter, it means what it says, that jobs are temporal. Employees not under contract may depart a gig when they wish without much obligation, and employers may equally freely dismiss them (to the extent those decisions are not discriminatory) without much warning or explanation. Companies are predisposed to protect earnings and cost-cutting can be a tactic to achieve those goals, the favor of which gives employees good reason to always be in the market. Although there are any number of topics I can extract from that thread and will do so in the future, that is not my key focus here. This is not about everyday turnover and the anxiety it creates, it is about senior level turnover as a litmus test for investors.

Reality is, a lot of high-profile employees in high-profile start-ups seem to jump ship early these days. I am not so sure that they are cashing in as much as their attention spans or personal desires lead them from one thing to the next. Some examples:

• Two of Twitter’s co-founders who served as CEO left the job and their day-to-day roles, although one returned, not as CEO, but as head of product. The third co-Founder also left day-to-day responsibilities.

• Facebook’s most recent CTO, who joined the company in 2008, departed voluntarily almost immediately following the IPO. Facebook also lost an extremely high-profile CFO in 2009, and a number of other prominent C-level executives have churned through in the years leading up to the IPO.

• Groupon’s former COO, a Silicon Valley veteran brought in to steady the ship, spent about a year on the job day-to-day before moving to an advisory role.

• Yahoo continues to make headlines with five CEOs in five years, although the situation here is different. The last one to leave on his own timeline was media veteran Terry Semel, who preceded the five. Perhaps more curious at Yahoo is the level below CEO, where the turnover has been even more active, voluntary or otherwise.

• Google is now being celebrated as iCEO University, for which it has reason to be proud with strong executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Armstrong, Dick Costolo, and now Marissa Mayer all willingly accepting significant challenges. My sense is this is sustainable as long as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stay on the job (guided by the advice of Eric Schmidt), but at some point the spinning off of entrepreneurs may take a toll as it did at once great legendary giants like Sun and Silicon Graphics (also keep an eye on HP).

It is hard to fault someone with talent and wealth for leaving a position with an “old company” to tackle a brand new start-up concept. They have the creativity, they have the yearning, and they can absorb the personal risk. Yet these aren’t exactly old, mature companies they are leaving, even in internet time. If talent retention is critical to continuity and leadership is demonstrated by example, what does it say about loyalty to the “rank and file” millionaires of Silicon Valley hungry to pursue their dreams when so many of the top dogs or near top dogs are endemically antsy?

Can you build a company that is Built to Last when many of your brightest employees—especially those made wealthy with capital they can reinvest—are thinking Built to Jump? Should shareholders in emerging high-valuation private and public companies be concerned with the New World of high turnover that is largely viewed as the way things are? There is already risk enough in holding stakes at the high valuations these companies will need to grow into, but if these are essentially knowledge-based companies where the key assets go home to their families each night, how much should owners worry whether they come back tomorrow or start a new company that’s more fun? Are these companies Built to Last or Built to Launch—launch themselves to early prominence, and launch the careers of the stars who emerge from their ranks?

Retention and the war for talent are surely talked about a lot, but I wonder if these are just buzzwords now, if key stakeholders really are losing sleep over the next spun-off employee or just prepared to roll with the punches. For anyone who has ever led a company, the notion of culture is no small issue, and companies where the culture is strong have a heritage of continuity that gives them a shot at longevity. Do we now assume Creative Destruction is such a powerful force that short-lived companies are a norm, regardless of culture and continuity? I wonder, and look forward to checking the Fortune 500 again for a few more decades to see how this plays out—not to mention the long-term trend on aggregate net job creation we so desperately need for our economy to go the distance.

I am not suggesting that employees should stay past their welcome or interest level, and in no way would I ever want (or tolerate as a manager) any form of stagnation in the form of tenure-based retention or retention for continuity’s sake. The case I am trying to make is for a tiny bit of balance in an Old World concept known as loyalty—which has been very good to me on both sides of the desk for most of my years on the job. It has been said that in today’s world loyalty is between individuals, not within companies, and there is every reason to understand how that has come to be. Yet if companies are not loyal to employees and employees are not loyal to companies, can these kind of companies really be long-term investments for shareholders? Said another way, if the system and talent are not demonstrating loyalty and commitment, should investors?