May 222016

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview Evan Goldberg, the founder of Netsuite at the company’s Suiteworld conference in San Jose.

While one of the topics we covered was Goldberg’s support of the BRAC Foundation, I was also keen to discuss the company’s complex senior management and board dynamics.

Along with being the CTO, Goldberg is also Chairman of the Board which means CEO Zac Nelson answers to him on board matters but the roles are reversed in their executive management roles.

To make matters even more complex, Chief Operating Officer Jim McGeever is also the board’s President so he also answers to Nelson in executive matters while presiding over both of the others as a director.

“We call it the circular firing squad,” laughed Goldberg when I asked him about it. “We are all incredibly committed to the company and we get along really well. We get our egos out of the way and we just want to do the right thing.”

“Humour is a very important part of it,” Goldberg observes. “Fundamentally it has to be the right people for that to work. Three is a good number as you get to vote on the matter.”

So Goldberg’s view is Netsuite’s arrangement works because the three are friends and leave their egos out of decision making.

Goldberg’s observation is true of any successful business relationship – like a succesful personal relationship a thriving business partnership relies on respect and the individuals being able to give a little, or a lot, without bruising their egos.

Ultimately though, it’s interesting to observe how tolerant investors are towards such arrangements. As an independent, outside investor having too many Executive Directors on the board dilutes the critical management supervisory role of the board and that can’t be encouraging for shareholders.

Tech companies though get some slack from investors given their relative youth and market dynamics so it’s not surprising Netsuite gets away with this. The bond between the senior executives must also count as well.

May 192016

Both the public cloud and a publicly listed company are good things for a business says Netsuite’s Zac Nelson.

“Managing a public company is a great discipline and in some ways gives us an advantage over non-public company who don’t have to have discipline and make good investments,” says Zac Nelson, the CEO of Netsuite.

Nelson was talking to Decoding the New Economy yesterday at the annual Suiteworld conference, Netsuite’s annual gathering in San Jose.

The CEO’s comments are in contrast to a common view that being publicly listed company distracts a company’s management from focusing on long term objectives, a sentiment Nelson rejects.

“In terms of managing a public company I think it’s an important discipline, I think a lot of people are opposed to these SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley) rules but when I look at these rules I think they are just common sense. Are you managing your business right? You want to have control of your business so you aren’t blindsided.”

Probably the biggest advocate of taking companies private is Michael Dell who took his eponymous business off the markets three years ago and is now looking at doing the same thing with EMC in what will be the biggest IT merger in history.

Dell going private

Nelson doesn’t think Dell going private was a mistake though, “I saw Larry Ellison say it was one of the greatest business moves in the history of man, I’ll agree with Larry – he’s usually right on that stuff,” he laughed.

“The thing I see Dell doing that I understand is they are giving their smaller division more autonomy. Dell Boomi is going back to being just Boomi and Secureworks just went public. Certainly from a structural standpoint and business model innovation that makes sense and it’s what I understand.”

As a public company, Netsuite does come under scrutiny and one of the criticisms is that it continues to post losses, something that Nelson puts down to the treatment of stock options. In the last earnings report, the company claimed capitalising stock options added $30 million in costs and not including them would see the company reporting an eight million dollar profit last quarter.

“We’re cash flow positive, we generate over $140 million in cash,” Nelson says. “People are happy with it, we’re still investing. What we’re investing in this year is different to the past, we’re investing in services to enable our customers to invest in product.”

Integrating the stack

One of the advantages Nelson sees that cloud based companies like his have are integrated systems, “the client server world created this perspective that dis-integrated systems actually work – you have Windows, you have third-party apps – but what really works well are integrated systems.” he says. “Look at the most common system you guys use, called Apple, it’s an integrated end-to-end system. Same with Amazon, that’s what we’ve built.”

“The detour we took in the client-server world is still being taken in the software world, a lot of software people believe you can compile this stuff and it will magically work. No, it doesn’t. Integrated systems work better.”

Securing the cloud

One area he specifically sees where cloud services have an advantage in being integrated is with security, “a problem that large enterprises have that we to some degree don’t have is we have one system, we have five data centers. You look at some of these large enterprises and some of them don’t even know where some of their data centres are. How on earth do you secure that environment? It’s not a product problem, it’s a process and IT management problem.”

Nelson’s comments on security are a swipe at competitors like SAP and Oracle who are often criticised for having disparate systems.

With Suiteworld moving to Las Vegas next year, it will be interesting to see who’s taking bets against cloud services like Netsuite. Certainly with salesmen like Zac Nelson, they’re able to tell a good story. The key though is to show some profits in the longer run.

Paul travelled to Suiteworld in San Jose as a guest of Netsuite.


May 042016
not listening to your market or industry is a big management risk

One of the big technology industry stories currently is the merger of Dell and data storage giant EMC, which at seventy billion dollars will be the biggest merger in the tech industry’s history.

With fifty thousand employees managing such a change presents a challenge for EMC’s managers and something noticeable attending the company’s EMC World conference in Las Vegas this week is how upbeat almost all the staffers about the impending merger.

In an interview with David Goulden, the CEO of EMC’s Infrastructure division, which is the company’s core business, I asked him how they were keeping staff morale up in the face of changes that will almost certainly cost jobs.

“Change creates uncertainty,” says Goulden. “One thing I’ve learned from this is you cannot over-communicate and that’s true internally and it’s true with our customers. We’ve put an incredible amount of effort in communications so our teams are engaged to go and speak to their customers.”

As change is now a constant in all industries Goulden’s lesson should be noted by all managers and business leaders – clear, honest and open communications with employees and customers is essential in keeping the trust of the markets and workforce.

The old model of restricting information and hoping no-one finds out is increasingly harder to sustain and from a business point of view unprofitable in the medium term as well.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of EMC and Netsuite.

Apr 112016

Life changes when you become the chief executive says Bill Wagner, the CEO and President at remote access company LogMeIn. “I now spend thirty percent of my time with investors,” he says

Wagner, previously the company’s Chief Operating Officer, took over the leadership at LogMeIn last September after founder Michael Simon  stepped down.

The company is in the midst of a major change as Simon steered the company toward the Internet of Things in response to the shift away from desktop personal computing that had been the business’ core market.

LogMeIn’s IoT strategy is around being a trusted platform for controlling the myriad household, CEcommercial and industrial devices that want to connect to the internet, with Wagner only seeing AWS as being their main competitors that has seen a range of companies entering in the last few years.

“I don’t think IoT will be a wave, it’s more like a rising tide,” Wagner says.

Wagner is one of the IoT’s enthusiasts citing applications ranging from the insurance sector through to connected clothing as being potential markets, although industrial application may be the earliest adopters of LogMeIn’s services. “The more industrial the industry, the more mature is M2M to IoT adoption,” he observes.

That adoption though is tempered by the presence of industry groups where Wagner maintains LogMeIn’s hostility towards slower moving associations such as the Industrial Internet Alliance and proprietary platforms like Google Nest.

An advantage Wagner sees in his taking over as LogMeIn’s Chief Executive Officer is his experience with the company, “I don’t know how externally recruited CEOs manage it,” he observes.

With LogMeIn facing a continued transition into uncertain markets, the company needs a steady vision. It may be that internal recruitment is an important strategic move.

Mar 312016
Can overinflated job titles affect a business

One of the most derided organisational theories of recent times has been Holacracy, a system of running organisations without managers.

The idea behind Holacracy is job descriptions are outdated and unnecessarily limiting. Modern workplaces and roles are far more fluid than the traditional, almost militaristic, structure of the hierarchical organisation chart.

Creator of Holacracy, Brian Robertson, describes in a Medium post how the anti-management theory came around during the early days of running a tech startup in the early 2000s.

The impact of our deep dive into agile software development went far beyond just “how we built software”?—?it infused our culture and gave us a foundation of principles and practices for the management of the company as well. Over the next several years, we’d do our best to express this paradigm in everything we did. Agile principles became a guidepost and a measurement for all of our future experimentation, as did the highly overlapping principles of the lean movement.

Given the tech startup roots of the idea, it’s not surprising Holacracy applies many of the principles that make up the Agile and Lean movements – particularly the hostility to micro-management.

Moving on from Holacracy

It’s notable that Robertson posted his background on Holacracy on Medium as the service was one of the more prominent adopters of the organisational theory, however the publishing platform has now dumped the philosophy.

In his post about why he and his business partner have dumped Holacracy, Medium founder Ev Williams said “the system had begun to exert a small but persistent tax on both our effectiveness” however he still thought the concept has merit and traditional management structures are too slow to deal with the demands of modern business.

The management model that most companies employ was developed over a century ago. Information flows too quickly?—?and skills are too diverse?—?for it to remain effective in the future.

Williams’ point is right, the 19th Century military structure of businesses was fine at a time when product cycles could be measured in years if not decades. In today’s world where the life of companies, let alone products, has been drastically compressed a much more flexible and fast moving way of organising businesses is needed.

Dynamic times

Along with needing far more flexible and fast moving structures, organisations also have the tools to create them. Again, the days of memos moving through layers of management via manila envelopes are long gone and now we have collaborative, real time communications methods.

One of the great changes in business over the next decade is going to be the rethinking of how organisations are managed, Holacracy may turn out not to be the answer but it is an early attempt of making sense of a very changed business world.

Management are the one group that really hasn’t been disrupted over the past thirty years. As strange as it might sound, Holacracy is a taste of the radical changes the executive suite are about to experience.

Mar 252016

Once dominant IBM is facing another major market transition, do they have the management skills the navigate that change?

Robert X. Cringely writes a depressing account of the company’s tactics in cutting its head count but the main thrust is how IBM are cobbling together a bunch of disparate products under umbrella brand names as a bloated, bureaucratic management puzzles with a marketplace change.

At the heart of everything is the question of what IBM’s customers really want, as Cringely points out.

The lesson in all this — a lesson certainly lost on Ginni Rometty and on Sam Palmisano before her — is that companies exist for customers, not Wall Street.  The customer buys products and services, not Wall Street.

While investors are important, businesses only exist if customers want to pay for their wares. If a company can’t convince people to buy their products, or find a way to subsidise it like the media industry did for most of the Twentieth Century, then there is no reason for the venture, or its industry, to exist.

For many technology companies this is the situation they are facing right now, many other industries aren’t far behind.

Mar 122016
Networks and computers connecting to the web

The one company that has driven both the adoption of cloud computing and the current tech startup mania is Amazon Web Services.

Later this week AWS celebrates its tenth birthday and Werner Vogels, the company’s Chief Technical Officer, has listed the ten most important things he’s learned over the last decade.

The article is a useful roadmap for almost any business, not just a tech organisation, particularly in the importance of building systems that can evolve and understanding that things will inevitably break.

Importantly Vogels flags that encryption and security have to be built into technology, today they are key parts of a product and no longer features to be added later.

Most contentious though is Vogels’ view that “APIs are forever”, that breaking a data connection causes so much trouble for customers that it’s best to leave them alone.

Few companies are going to take that advice, particularly in a world where changing business needs mean APIs have to evolve.

There’s also the real risk for businesses that their vendors will depreciate or abandon APIs leaving key operational functions stranded, this could cause major problems for organisations in a world that’s increasingly automated.

Vogel’s commitment to maintaining APIs may well prove to be a competitive advantage for Amazon Web Services in their competition with Microsoft Azure, Google and an army of smaller vendors.

Werner Vogel’s lessons are worth a read by all c-level executives as well as startup founders looking to build a long term venture, in many ways they could define the new rules of business.