business relationships

My first boss: a tribute to Ben Lenz

This past weekend, I learned the sad news of the passing of Ben Lenz, a life-long family friend. Ben was the step-father to my brother’s friend Robert. Ben and his wife Pam (and her children) lived down the street from mine in the small town of Sea Cliff, NY. For many people, Ben was best known as the leader of the North Shore High School Explorers’ Club — for me, he was the first boss I ever had.Ben Lenz Bus

Ben Lenz was one of the most quirky, interesting people you could ever meet. No strike that — Ben defined the word eccentric. With his bushy gray curly hair, a cackling laugh, and his endless stories, Ben was a presence. He was very tall (probably over 6 foot 4) and the upper half of his body seemed to lean towards you [edit: according to his family, he wasn’t actually this tall. He just looked that tall to me!]. His gait was marked by a shuffle and a limp. Later in life, he used a cane as a walking stick. He drove a dark yellow VW bus, which he had converted into a camper.

In the mid 80’s, Ben decided to build a garden in his sprawling back yard. This was not just any garden. It was a Japanese inspired garden that was a tribute to his wife Pam. The garden had plants from all over the world, water features, sculptures, windmills and much more. He named the garden “Pam-Ben-monium” – and it was.

Sometime around the 5th or 6th grade, Ben offered me a job helping him with the garden. I’m not sure how this came to pass, but I loved the outdoors and probably was hanging around near the Lenz’s house anyway. He put me to work right away, and boy oh boy did we work. We moved huge rocks, dug dirt, and weeded on our hands and knees for hours under the hot sun. Ben barked out orders, and set the expectation early on that he wouldn’t put up with any complaining. He believed in hard work.

Ben had his own vision for the Pam-Ben-monium garden, but he also solicited my opinion. Without hesitation, he agreed to implement a few of my ideas. As a 10 year old, I welled with pride as I saw the newest waterfall in the garden take shape. For years afterwards, I thought I would become a landscape architect. I still love to garden.

Without fail, we always ate together after we were done with work. We would climb down rickety stairs into the basement, where Ben kept his “emergency pantry.” The shelves were lined with cans and cans of food, and he would choose one for our meal. Then, we would climb the wooden front stairs (even more rickety, the whole staircase leaned towards you) up to the kitchen and ate like we were camping. He asked me questions about school, baseball, and my brothers. And he was genuinely interested in my answers.

I saw Ben Lenz sporadically over the past 20 years, usually at my brother’s house. He remained as eccentric as ever, with stories to tell of his latest hiking expedition or special project he was working on. He always greeted me warmly, with his large hand firmly gripping mine as if to remind me: don’t forget where you came from. The last time I saw him he told a tale of a horse that had escaped from a barn: I don’t remember the details, but I remember his hearty guffaw and deep broad smile.

I didn’t know it then, but Ben Lenz taught me several life and work lessons that I still keep with me everyday:

  1. There’s no substitute for hard work
  2. Have a vision, but don’t be afraid to implement other people’s ideas
  3. There is deep joy to be had by getting your hands dirty with the earth
  4. After you work hard, make sure to eat
  5. Keep emergency supplies in the basement
  6. Eccentric is what makes you memorable
  7. Invest in young people: the impact you make will far surpass your expectations

Ben Lenz died on March 4, 2015. As my old friend Ted pointed out, the date of his passing sent one last message: march forth. I think he would have liked that as the epilogue to his life’s story.

SWAMI SAYS: Rest in peace, Ben Lenz. May your soul live on in all those you have touched, and may you find endless pandemonium in the great beyond.

Just pick up the f*#@ing phone

Like most people, I send dozens of emails a day. Pretty much anything that I work on can be dealt with using email. But is that always the right choice? Most of the time, the communication is simple and requires a simple answer so email is a good choice. Other times, emails fly back and forth, sometimes spanning an entire week, before any resolution. I’m shocked at how much time is wasted, and how much can be lost in translation. Email replies become long chains, hours become days, and progress is slowed to a crawl. Which begs the question.. why didn’t we just pick up the f*#@ing phone?

On March 10, 1876 (138 years ago!), Alexander Graham Bell successfully called his assistant, Thomas Watson and said, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.” In that moment, he enabled us to make an instant connection, wherever we are, with anyone we want. We forget that the ability to make a phone call is something miraculous. The phone is still the way big business is done and how major deals transpire. Ask any investor, investment banker, or CEO and they will tell you that for most of the significant deals in their career, the telephone played a critical role in communication.

I get it — not everyone likes to talk on the phone. There are niceties to be exchanged, needless small talk, and awkward silences. However, if it’s important and time-sensitive, calling someone to hash it out is so much easier than the inefficiency of email. Countless times a month, I’ll challenge one of my employees who is having trouble making progress. I’ll simply ask “well, did you call them?” (What I’m really thinking is “why didn’t you pick up the f*#@ing phone?”)

Screen shot 2014-05-28 at 3.55.24 PMHere are four situations where a phone call could accelerate your progress:

Situation #1: You are knee-deep in legal documents, and have gone through several iterations of changes. You’re sending ‘track changes’ back and forth with your comments, but neither party really understands the reasons for the changes.

Solution: Just pick up the f*#@ing phone. Spend one hour hammering out all the changes together and be done with it.

Situation #2: You’re working on a new business deal. You have a proposal in place, but there’s a significant gap in your partner’s understanding of the product. They are asking questions, but all of the questions are a little “off” because they don’t understand some basic things.

Solution: Just pick up the f*#@ing phone. In a matter of minutes, you can educate the partner about the product and get over this hump. Time is money so get on the phone and fast-forward the partnership.

Situation #3: You’re raising money for your startup, and you haven’t heard back from an investor who has expressed interest. How do you get a firm commitment?

Solution: Just pick up the f*#@ing phone. Raising money is a sales job, so do the hard work. Pick up the phone, call until you reach the person, and ask for the sale. I’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars just by picking up the phone and being persistent. You can too.

Situation #4: You’re hiring a new employee. After a few rounds of interviews and some internal conversations, it’s time to make the offer. Yes, you can send an offer by email, but you really want to convey how much you want them to join the team.

Solution: Just pick up the f*#@ing phone. Call and personally ask the person to be a member of your team. It will differentiate you from other employers and set the tone that you really care about them as a person. You’ll be surprised at how much of a difference this makes in the final stage of recruiting.

SWAMI SAYS: Email is great for lots of communication, but sometimes the most efficient solution is to pick up the phone. Don’t hesitate to call someone to work out the hard parts, and leave the simple stuff for email. Make a personal and instant connection via phone, and watch how you much more you can get accomplished. Just pick up the fucking phone!

NDAs are Stupid (mostly)

A few weeks ago, I asked our System Operation Manager to get a quote from a new service provider. To get a quote, we would need to provide some basic information about our server configuration, and the service provider would give us pricing. But rather than a simple conversation, the vendor decided that we had to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) before they shared any information. You know, for our mutual protection. What a joke.

NDAs are stupid (mostly). The basic idea behind one is that it’s a formal legal agreement that states I won’t share your secrets and you won’t share mine. But how many secrets does a company really need to protect? And what’s the consequence if those secrets are shared? Most importantly, how do we enforce the NDA if the secrets are shared? An NDA is only really useful as a legal document in the case that the parties end up in court. And if you end up in court, it’s going to be expensive – VERY, expensive.

NDANDAs are only useful if the secrets disclosed would have a DETRIMENTAL impact one of the parties involved. If we are sharing proprietary data or we’re divulging top to bottom financial information that would harm us if leaked, then we can do the NDA dance. If we’re simply providing basic information to each other, then there is no use for a piece of paper that is only useful in a court of law. I have a stack of signed agreements from companies that insisted on an NDA before we can have a meaningful conversation. By requiring an NDA, these companies put up an unnecessary roadblock that slowed innovation. They are mired in paperwork for a false sense of security.

One of the more bonehead uses of an NDA is by entrepreneurs who try to get an investor to sign an NDA before sharing their idea. It’s a sure sign of a newbie if you ask an investor to sign an NDA. When an entrepreneur approaches an investor for money, it is unlikely that the ideas and technologies discussed are absolutely novel. Most likely the investor has already seen something similar, and if they haven’t they soon will. If an entrepreneur is really concerned about someone “stealing” the idea, then the idea probably isn’t that good. A successful startup is all about execution, not novelty. Case in point: how many social networks existed before Facebook came along? Mark Zuckerberg and friends simply out-executed everyone else.

So in what scenarios does it make sense to sign an NDA?

  1. If we are sharing specific financial data with each other that would harm the company if shared. For example, if I’m going to disclose revenue, expenses, profits, margins and I don’t want my competitors to have this information, then I probably will want you to sign an NDA.
  2. If we are going to show each other proprietary technology that is not yet commercially available, then we should probably sign an NDA.
  3. If we are engaged in partnership discussions that will have a material impact to either of our businesses, then we should probably sign an NDA.
  4. If we are deeply engaged in merger and acquisition discussions, then we should probably sign an NDA. Neither party would want that information leaked, and the addition of an NDA demonstrates the seriousness of the parties.

SWAMI SAYS:  If you sent me an NDA to sign, there better be a very compelling reason that we need to sign it. Are we sharing proprietary information that could harm both of our businesses? Would we actually sue each other if the information gets leaked? If not, let’s skip the NDA and focus on building a mutually beneficial relationship. We don’t need a piece of paper to prove that we’ll respect and trust each other.

Six Things I Want to Teach My Dog about Work

Dharmesh Shah recently wrote a blog post about the lessons of entrepreneurship that he wants to teach his son called “12 Things I Want to Teach my Toddler about Work.”  It was an neat post which offered his typically pithy insights, with the twist that it was directed at his three-year-old son. After reading the post, I started making my own list of things I would like to teach my four-year-old daughter. I came back to the list recently to add a few items. As I was making notes, my dog Roxxee interrupted, and wanted me to take her for a walk. In typical fashion, she sauntered into my office and with her tongue sticking out and her tail wagging so hard it hit the walls.

So I took her for her afternoon walk and the fresh air gave me some new perspective. As we walked (and I spoke to her), I thought to about the things that I wish I could teach my dog about work . (In case you’re wondering, yes, I do talk to Roxxee as if she would respond to me). In the five years I’ve been bringing her to work, she’s heard and seen EVERYTHING at my office. Here are six of the most important things I want to teach my dog (and my readers) about work:

1. Always be loyal – In the business world, loyalty is arguably the most important trait. Roxxee is usually loyal, but sometimes she can be distracted or lazy. At times, she can appear like she just can’t be bothered (like when I tell her it’s time to go home at the end of the day). Employees look for loyal employers and partners look for loyal counterparts. Don’t let complacency or laziness get in way of always being loyal to your colleagues and partners. If you get a reputation of not being devoted and steadfast, no one is going to want to work (or play) with you.

2. Greet everyone in the same way – This does not mean sneak up behind your guests to sniff their…uh…shoes. It means welcome your guests and greet them all with the same level of energy regardless of how tired you are or how tasty the bone you’re chewing. You never know if the person you’re greeting is going to be someone important in your life (or perhaps your new dog walker). Make that first impression really count.

3. Focus on long-term goals (not just short-term ones) – Roxxee (like most dogs) has a one-track mind. She’s does what she has to in order to get treats. But unlike this Pavlovian response, building a company is a series of short-term goals (i.e. treats) that lead to long-term successes. Real progress isn’t accomplished by only achieving short-term goals. You’ll find success by viewing those short-term goals as stepping stones to larger, more meaningful goals down the road. Don’t just focus on the treats!

4. Get fresh air everyday – One of the reasons I love having Roxxee in the office is because she forces me to take a break in the afternoon. But I don’t check  out from work on those walks. The fresh air wakes up my mind and helps me think differently. I usually ask if anyone wants to catch up with me and they join me on a walk. The fresh air helps foster some great conversations. Whether you have a dog or not, I recommend stepping out of the office at least once a day to get some fresh air.

5. Sleep when it’s time to sleep, work when it’s time to work – Roxxee often sleeps most of the day away, and if she were an employee that would be a serious problem. To be productive, everyone needs to get 6-8 hours of sleep every night in order to be ready for work. My worst days at work are when I’m tired and sometimes the only solution is sleep. Rather than continuing the vicious cycle, the best way to be productive is to reset your body so that you can work efficiently. And when it’s time to work, you need to be alert, engaged and ready. Roxxee might need to learn to sleep a bit less during the day.

6. Only wag your tail when you mean it – Like most dogs, when Roxxee is happy, she wags her tail. It’s her way of telling someone that she appreciated a treat, a walk, or a pat on the head. But sometimes Roxxee wags her tail as an innate reaction, and not as a response to something positive. I think it’s important to provide positive feedback to employees, but not unless you really mean it. Too often managers provide positive feedback for insignificant and inconsequential milestones. It’s important to only recognize meaningful moments so that employees know what matters and what doesn’t.

SWAMI SAYS: They say that dogs are “man’s best friend” — and Roxxee is no exception. I treat her like a member of the team at my company. And while she’s an important fixture in the office, she could stand to learn a few things about work. Can I teach this dog some new tricks? Probably not. But perhaps the things I would teach her might be helpful in your startup or company.

Matt Douglas is the Founder & CEO of Punchbowl.com. Follow@mattdouglas on Twitter. 

It took me 25 years to meet Mickey Mouse

By now, hopefully you have heard the news — Punchbowl has been named the exclusive provider of digital invitations featuring Disney characters. To say I’m excited would be a gross understatement.

disney_blog

This is the kind of deal that doesn’t come easily and requires many, many meetings. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had countless phone calls and exchanged numerous emails with the folks at Disney.  I’ve gotten to know my counterpart at Disney very well through this process. And yet, I’ve never met him.

I’ve seen a picture of him online, and I’m sure he’s seen mine. We’re connected on LinkedIn, I have his cell phone number, and I know some details about his family. In the past few days, I’ve been on the phone with him several times per day as we prepared to launch this partnership. But we’ve never shook hands, shared a meal, or looked each other in the eyes. This significant deal was completed without ever meeting face to face. Like many people I do business with these days, neither of us felt the burning need to get together. Oh, we tried a few times. The latest attempt was when I was in Southern California for a conference. He even gave me a great tip about flying out of Long Beach instead of LAX. But our schedules didn’t align and I wasn’t able to stick around an extra day. “That’s ok,” we both agreed, we’ll catch each other next time.

Perhaps it’s fitting, because it took me 25 years to meet Mickey Mouse. Unlike many kids in America, I never had the opportunity to go to Disney World or Disneyland as a child. Of course I loved all of the characters, but growing up in a middle-class family with six kids it wasn’t practical to go on a Disney vacation. Many of my friends went, but I grew up without seeing the live Disney experience. That didn’t quell my desire to go.

In my mid 20s, I was living on the West Coast and my girlfriend (now wife) and I took a trip to Disneyland. I loved it. I’ll never forget seeing the Muppet Studios or flying on the California Dreamin’ ride (I even bought the soundtrack). A few years later, I went to visit my family in Orlando and had the opportunity to visit Disney World. I loved Epcot, the parades, and the rides. And I even got to meet Mickey Mouse up close and personal.

I hope it doesn’t take 25 years for me to meet the person at Disney who helped make this deal happen. As I’ve told him numerous times, I wanted this deal badly, and I did everything I could to get it done. In the new world of online business, he didn’t need to meet me to know that I am who I appear to be online. I’m a passionate entrepreneur who loves hard work and doesn’t like excuses. And I didn’t need to meet him to understand that he was looking for a great partnership with a company that has a best-in-class product and team. Together, we learned everything about each other without the need to meet face to face.

SWAMI SAYS: Big deals can happen between companies even if you never meet face to face with your counterpart. So it’s more important than ever to make sure that your digital persona matches who you really are in-person. In this day and age of business online, it’s a whole new world. It’s a magical world, where when you wish upon a star, sometimes dreams do come true. Check out the new Disney Digital Invitation Collection.

The ‘flyover’ states

Like most startup CEO’s, I spend most of my time dealing with companies on either the East Coast or the West Coast. Between Boston and New York on the East Coast, and San Francisco, Silicon Valley, LA and Seattle on the West Coast there are a lot of potential partners for a business like Punchbowl.

Flyover

However, over the last year, I’ve noticed an increasing number of potential partners and big customers  that are between the coasts. I’m talking places like Idaho, Missouri, Indiana, and Minnesota. In fact, I spent several hours last week talking with a couple of companies in the Midwest that are several billion dollar companies (yes, that’s billion). And guess what? Many of them talk about their strong customer base in the middle of the country.

Those of us on the coasts tend to forget that there are a lot of people who live between the coasts. The wonderful thing about the Internet as a marketing channel is that you can reach them just as easily as the people on the coasts. You don’t need to get on a plane or spend thousands of dollars on billboard ads up and down the interstate. Punchbowl.com doesn’t care where you live (and we love our international customers too!). (more…)

Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur’s Soul

A few weeks ago, I had a meeting that was supposed to be uneventful, but it left a lasting impression. The meeting was with the CEO of a small company in downtown Boston. On my drive into Boston (about 25 minutes) I reflected on how much I value these kinds of meetings. In this case, it had taken a few months for us to find a date that would work for both of our schedules. I looked forward to meeting this fellow CEO.

When I walked into the company’s offices, I was immediately impressed. It was the kind of office that says a lot about the company: modern conference rooms, open-style workstations, colorful walls, and a whole lot of smart-looking people that looked genuinely happy to be at work. The CEO took me for a tour of the facilities — which included a design firm that worked within the company (not affiliated, they just shared space), and an artist-in-residence (you know, the kind that actually paints art). Very cool. (more…)

All because of George

If you have lost your faith in humanity and the goodness of people, read this story. It happened to me and my family today, and I’m still shaking my head in awe.

Today, my wife and my 3 1/2 year old daughter were headed up to a lake in NH — somewhere in the middle of the state. We chose a route to avoid traffic, and found ourselves cruising along the highway sometime around 2pm about 70 miles from home. All of a sudden, I noticed white smoke blanketing the highway behind us. I assumed it was another car, but my wife quickly pointed out that it was coming from our car. I had no idea what was going on, but it was clear that we needed to pull over right away.  (more…)

Change one word and improve your conversations

A very wise person taught me an important lesson several years ago:

Rather than saying “but”, try saying “and” instead.

just-one-word-sketch

I remember when I first heard this advice, my first reaction was that this was another one of those trite phrases that people like to say sometimes. However, I really trust the person who shared his wisdom with me, so I took the time to carefully listen to his perspective. (more…)

7 Pithy Insights about Dharmesh Shah

Note: This is a refresh of a post that I originally wrote in 2007, but it was removed from the web when I created my new blog. Much of the content below is new.

Before I begin, a disclosure: Dharmesh is an investor in Punchbowl, an advisor, and a business friend. However, even though I know him fairly well, he remains an enigma for many people in the Boston startup community (and beyond). What makes this man tick? How does he churn out such great content, attract fantastic people to join HubSpot, and invest in so many companies as an angel investor? (more…)