Communication and Productivity

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to spend the majority of my career helping to build and market products with a core mission of helping people improve their productivity as it relates to communication. Netscape Communicator, ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! Mail, SugarSync and Catch – these products served slightly different purposes at different points in our internet and mobile journey but our goal was always the same – improvement of connectivity – not of infrastructure, but human connectivity. Our most basic instincts as humans are to communicate with others through any means possible – words, touch, pictures, sound. Communication is one of the most basic functions in business and it’s not always easy to do it well.

When I was working at Netscape, I had a conversation with Jim Barksdale that has stuck with me. He said that making things happen in business is about writing it down. You can discuss things all you want but it is the leader’s job to put the plans into writing and confirm that they are understood and acted upon. Pre-internet that meant a memo written on paper with the associated headaches of duplication and distribution. The beauty of email is that you have the power of the written word with the convenience and ease of our new technologies. Email is such a powerful tool that it survives as the default written communication tool and – despite its many flaws and forecasts of its demise – it persists.

With new technologies, we are enabling effective action through writing by optimizing the communication app for particular settings. For instance, multiple styles of chat apps for various demographics and types of groups – friends, family and work teams.

But, what if different people in the same stream of communication have different preferences in tools? What if you are trying to recruit or incent these different people who are not your employees and mandating a particular tool were a turn-off? There has been a need for a communication platform that has a lighter touch – that gives recipients greater control, while remaining effective. Initiators can encourage participation and lead particular actions. These initiators, the group leaders, are constantly recruiting and incentivizing their members and they need a tool that supports them, so their companies and missions can scale effectively.

In Mobilize (, I saw just such a platform. Some of the design points are subtle and some are very concrete but it is an incredibly thoughtful way to communicate with groups, particularly those that are not within company walls. After being introduced by my business associate, Ajay Chopra, and meeting with the cofounders, Sharon Savariego and Arthur Vainer, I was convinced that we shared a vision for a new type of communication method, in fact a new category of communication platform, designed expressly to support group communication and help leaders mobilize action. That action can be anything from brand advocacy to software development advances to product sales to volunteering to give blood. I am thrilled they invited me to join the company as COO three weeks ago and look forward to working to scale this exciting idea for so many more groups and companies globally.

P.S. We’re hiring in both San Francisco and Tel Aviv – marketing, sales and engineering positions.  Check them out at




Aligning Incentives

One of the most important things you can do to optimize the chance of getting a positive or successful outcome is to align incentives at the beginning. We think of this often at a micro level when designing compensation such as commission plans or bonus plans but it is true at a macro level in general organizational design and even for marketing and business strategy. The aligned incentives need to be inherent and structural to the strategy and organization. When you get it right it’s like biking downhill – everything takes less effort. When incentives are not aligned there is a resultant continual management overhead dealing with the consequences.

My experience managing both advertising-based businesses such as Yahoo Mail as well as subscription businesses such as SugarSync and Catch taught me that aligned incentives between company and customer make it so much easier to manage day-to-day implementation against strategy. At Yahoo mail we were constantly trying to balance competing interests – we needed a large enough volume of advertising impressions and impression formats that were aggressive enough to yield clicks but not too many or to obstructive so as to detract from the user experience beyond the point where it would reduce usage. There was no science behind this balance leading to endless organizational thrash and, arguably, poor decisions and eventual loss of market share.

A freemium business model approach such as the one SugarSync took while I was CEO from 2009-2013 had the opposite dynamic. The more our customers used the product, the more data they would store, the more likely they were to run out of storage and upgrade from free to paid or to a higher paid plan. The marketing tactic in this situation was simple – improve usability and/or add features such that people will want to use it more. Unlike the ad supported example, usability and revenue are tightly aligned. Day-to-day decisions were therefore more straightforward and easier to delegate. Other freemium businesses have experienced this same phenomenon, certainly it was true for and for Evernote as explained here by Phil Liblin’s.

If you find yourself as a constant arbiter of small decisions and prioritization questions ask yourself where incentives or goals might be misaligned.

Just as organizations can be misaligned I believe that same misalignment can apply to the inherent design of products. We have seen it frequently in particular in apps that focus on anonymous communication. I read an interesting article about the army of labor being employed to fight bullying and other harmful behaviors on the various anonymous apps (Secret, Whisper etc).  They simply can’t keep up with the volume of the problematic behaviors that are rife in these apps. While of course there are many well-intentioned posts, anonymous apps are a draw to those who want to harm. Almost any application will suffer from abuse and the app provider will need to come up with some method, usually a combination of automated and manual intervention, to manage it. But the situation described by Gigaom shows, in my view, that the incentives built into the app actually encourage abuse. It is, as the underwriters say, a form of adverse selection. Sick people are quicker to buy health insurance and the bullies are quicker to join apps and troll on sites that allow them to abuse with impunity.

Recent examples have only served to heighten my concern about the harm caused by anonymous apps and anonymous commenting by trolls. People who are obviously vulnerable and suffering such as Zelda Williams just after the death of her father are attacked. In fact any public figure is likely to suffer at the hand of internet trolls. But you don’t even need to be famous to be a victim of trolls. We are witnessing a dramatic chilling effect – misogynistic trolls have silenced many serious articulate female voices.

Does anonymity encourage bad behavior? Psychologists and sociologists have long observed that we restrain ourselves from self-interested bad behavior based on two systems – our internal conscience or “superego” as designated by Freud as well as societal pressure and feedback. Our relationships, commitments, values, norms, and beliefs and desire to participate fully in society encourage us to meet societal behavioral norms. Take away the societal element through anonymity and we’re left with only our individual consciences. For most people our conscience and empathy is enough to keep us following the “golden rule” but the internet is so vast that a small percentage of the population can make things miserable for many people.

Yes, there are some excellent reasons to allow anonymity (as described by the EFF here  and further discussed here by Fred Wilson). But the harm from anonymity enabled trolling and messaging is a very real, even deadly problem.

I suppose that any technology that can be used for good can be used for harm.  Twitter is a great example of this. There has been harm, as in the Zelda Williams example, but also very important and positive social benefits have occurred where the cloak of anonymity has protected the vulnerable. But we must not stand behind the shield of the legitimate benefits of anonymity when there are some technologies and settings that seem to be at worst, designed for harm or, at best, designed in such a way that the ratio of harm to good is negatively balanced.

It does not have to be this way.  I find it amazing that smart application design and community standards can make seemingly scary things like selling valuable goods over the internet or renting your guest room to strangers surprisingly secure while poor design can make you the “go to” app for cyberbullies. If your app requires an army of labor in the Philippines to police user behavior its time to question what are you really trying to do. It comes down to aligning incentives.



Working From Home

The recent Yahoo policy banning working from home has become quite controversial spawning many articles and even a highway 101 billboard.  Over the years I’ve managed teams using a range of policies so I have some definite views about what works and what doesn’t in different situations.  And that is the key point…this is not a one size fits all theory but one that is specific to the business and it’s situation at the time.

It wasn’t so long ago that we did not have the tools to make working from home practical.   As I’ve written about here previously, in my early days at Informix – pre laptop, pre internet at home, I would need to go back to the office to work in the evening or weekends.  Those tools and technologies enhanced by web and video conferencing allow us to be extremely effective even when not in the office.

I’ve experienced varying degrees of remote work effectiveness during my career.  When I was at Netscape (post IPO 97-03), the success of the Mozilla project and browser development in general was strongly impacted by key developers who worked remotely.  Their talents would become obvious from their open source contributions and either they would participate long term as key volunteers or in several cases we hired them as employees.  Most of those individuals stayed working in their locations as far away as Europe and New Zealand.  We also had some star employees who had to move out of the area for personal reasons.  What made these situations work well was the proven talent and work ethic of these individuals plus the open source infrastructure to manage their contributions and assess their performance.  There was a critical mass of remote employees that meant that large group meetings were always set up with dial-in numbers and managers were trained to facilitate.  We even had one director who effectively managed a multi-location team from Boulder.  That being said, most employees were in the office most of the time and it was a very collaborative culture.

My next role, ironically given the impetus for this post was at Yahoo.  I was there from 2003-2004 – during the heyday.  It is interesting to note that people rarely worked from home during that time.

When I got to Check Point to manage the Zone Labs division I inherited a very liberal work from home policy.  In addition, Wednesday and Friday were supposed to be “no-meetings” days.   Early on my manager Eyal Desheh expressed concern about the productivity and work ethic of the team.  My first assumption was that he didn’t understand Silicon Valley culture and how this could actually work.  Unfortunately, his warnings were correct.  The issue wasn’t the work from home as much as a lack of drive related to many typical post acquisition HR issues.  The work ethic issues were far from universal but they were contagious and affected everyone and working from home accentuated the problems.  I quickly changed the work from home policy for the people who reported to me.  The “no meetings” policy was changed to not apply to my team nor managers in the engineering organization and it eventually fell away (although managing the amount of time spent in meetings, particularly for engineers is critical).  The transition was difficult and created lots of handwringing but it improved productivity quickly and morale soon after.

When I started at SugarSync I was glad to see that our culture was one of people working primarily in the office.  In January of 2009 we were 13 people – the challenge was great to just get the job done with such a small team.  We couldn’t afford missteps anoffice spaced missed communication and collaboration possibilities by not being together.  We kept that policy going as we hired – it is much easier if the ground rules are clear from the start.  We designed our new office to be a very open setup to foster collaboration.

This didn’t mean it was easy – SugarSync has several people commuting long distances.  We always have had flextime – working slightly earlier or later schedules to avoid the traffic but still we were generally in the office together during the main part of the day.  Of course this doesn’t mean we didn’t recognize that people have life issues that require occasional work from home – a sick child, dentist appointments, plumbing emergencies but those are the exception not the norm.

For a startup in a fast moving industry such as the cloud, the work environment is dynamic and high-pressure.  Challenging problems require creativity and quick teamwork to solve.  I believe we were much more effective at SugarSync by being together.  As the team grew the learning curve was shortened dramatically for newcomers working alongside the experienced people.  Once people were working in our environment and saw the benefits of close proximity and collaboration they understood why it was needed and embraced it.  One of my favorite questions to ask new hires was what surprised them the most about SugarSync – a frequent answer was how they thought we were a much larger team than we in fact were.  I think this was a reflection of the team’s productivity.

Is it always better to be together in the office?  For certain tasks that require extended, uninterrupted time, working away from the office can be more productive (assuming you have an appropriate environment for concentration at the alternate location).  Some roles, like sales or field support by their nature are not in the office.  Many people have critical points in time where they need more time away from the office perhaps due to a health or other personal issue for them or a family member.  Allowing them to work remotely allows key people to stay with the company and maintain project continuity.

So what’s my net on this important debate?  For me it’s clear.  If at all possible, have the team primarily working together in the office during work hours.  If there are critical hires you can only make (or keep) it might be worth considering exceptions recognizing the consequences and need to manage around them.  For a company in crisis or a turnaround situation (like Yahoo) or where there is reason to believe there are productivity issues (again like Yahoo) having everyone much more together in the office may be one of the keys to the turnaround.   For a fast growing startup in a very intense space requiring collaboration and team problem solving working in the office together is important.

Does this make juggling work and personal life less easy – perhaps.  This is why companies need to be reasonably consistent.  If the reports of Marissa Mayer’s in the office nursery are true I would find that to be insensitive to the other parents of babies who are coming to the office without that close access.  We must, after all,  lead by example.  The example that I tried to set was to work hard and collaborate together during the workday.  When not in a crunch time, to leave early enough to have a few hours, including dinner, with the family and then, if needed, get back on line after the kids went to bed (or were doing their homework independently).    As managers and leaders we need to figure out what works best for our businesses and our teams.  These observations are what I have found to be most effective.

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You Do What You Have to Do

I’m thrilled to see Yahoo appoint Marissa Mayer as CEO.  I don’t know her personally but from what I’ve heard from her at various conferences I believe it she is a great choice.  I was at Yahoo from 2003 -2004 – Yahoo had already strayed from its product/customer experience roots and while not as apparent publicly was already internally confused as to priorities and inefficiently run – I was frustrated with this and left after a short time.  Mayer appears to be just the antidote to this problem.  This will be a huge step up for her – it is quite different to run a company rather than product divisions but we all have to jump in the deep end when we take those big steps forward and she seems to be quite the fast swimmer.

I wanted to comment on the various hand-wringing going on about her starting a job 6 months pregnant.  It sure feels like you can’t please anyone these days – her comment about her plans to just take a few weeks off is either going to damage her child or set a bad precedent for family leave in general.  I don’t believe either of these ideas are true.  The difficult thing for Mayer is that all of this happens in the public eye but from a practical matter it is the same for parents all over.

In my view this all boils down to the fact that you do what you have to do at the time.  If you are as loving and attentive to your child as possible and have a good support system things will be fine.  I have gone through this 4 times under varying circumstances.  My oldest son was born in the beginning of December during the second year of my masters program at Georgetown.  I had 4 final exams that semester.  I had already taken two then Derek was born the Monday after.  Then back to studying for my last 2 finals.  Todd was born a month after I started my first job at Informix.  I didn’t qualify for disability yet so I just could take 2 weeks of vacation.  Margot was born in June after I had been working for Informix for 5 years.  I enjoyed taking 8 weeks of maternity leave when she was born and since Adam was born right after I left Gupta I also ended up with about 8 weeks off.

Sure – it was very nice to be able to have a “normal” maternity leave with Adam and Margot – it was preferable to the short recuperation time I had with Derek and Todd but I don’t think they turned out any worse for the experience.  It was difficult for sure but I completed my exams and work and got through it with the support from my family.  I don’t think we are any less “bonded” then I am with the younger two and the memory of the stress of juggling work with a newborn has faded.

Of course timing isn’t always perfect to allow men as much time as they would like off either.  Our VP of Marketing Drew Garcia had his first daughter shortly after he joined SugarSync.  At the time he was our only person in Product Management and we were in the middle of a big release so he couldn’t take much time off.  Fast forward 2 years and he had two great employees who could cover for him when his second child was born giving him more flexibility.

Bottom line is a dedicated professional such as Marissa Mayer will get the job done, both professionally and personally.  I wish her, as is customary in Jewish culture, B’Shaah tovah!**

**B’shaah tovah – congratulations to an expectant mother (literal translation “in a good hour,” means “at an auspicious time,” i.e. may whatever time your child is born be a good time.”  Also the correct response to the announcement of a marriage engagement.  In both cases, it is in in anticipation of a “mazal tov” for something to hope for that has not yet occurred.