Startup Lessons on Weight Class

By March 18, 2011Uncategorized

I’m catching up on some blog post reading, and just ran into Mark Suster’s absolutely wonderful post, “Who Should You Hire at a Startup? (attitude over aptitude).” If you haven’t read it yet, go check it out (I’ll wait…). I want to address two parts of the post: Finding people to punch above their weight class, and Not worrying about exact roles.

The post reminds me of my early days at Ping Identity. I’ve recounted my “ping story” multiple times in multiple places, so I won’t do the long version here. In short, I was employee #1 (after the founders – CEO, Andre Durand, and the CTO, Bryan Field-Elliot). I became employee #1 by, essentially, “hanging around” (and by hanging around, I mean working 18 hour days for little or no money for months).

Ping built to a seed round with Nokia, and then a Series A round with General Catalyst (sidenote: somewhere in this time is where I first met Brad Feld face to face. We pitched him, he said no.) Suddenly, Ping went from three guys working out of their houses (and a small 12×12 office), to space, a director of finance, a VP of engineering, developers, etc. And I suddenly found myself asking, “um, what is my role?”

Up until that point, I had done anything necessary — from “biz dev” to early sales to writing whitepapers to marketing to product planning, etc. But when the A round happened, I needed a title. Jamie Lewis (CEO of what was then Burton Group) told me he thought I was a “VP of Marketing,” so I did what any good entrepreneurial type would do: I walked into Andre’s office and told him I wanted him to tell the new board I should be the “CMO.” Now, keep in mind, at this point in my “career,” I actually had ZERO marketing experience. I hadn’t ever worked for a big tech company doing event marketing, or running programs for lead gen, or even running customer focus groups. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. What I knew I had was a passion for Ping that was unrivaled outside of the founders, and a confidence that I could *do* whatever it took to be “the marketing guy.”

I had the good fortune of having spent some good “off time” (socializing) with the board, so several board members (notably, Jeremy Allaire, David Orfao and Dean Leffingwell) took the stance of “alright, let’s give Norlin a roll” — with one caveat: I’m a VP, not a CMO. Dean, specifically, then took me under his wing and began to walk me through some of the more traditional functions of a marketing VP.

By the time Series B hit, the game changed. When we did the B round, we brought in some new investors. And with that, new board members, with new experience sets and new expectations. I suddenly found myself under the microscope as “VP Marketing.” To be clear, I don’t *blame* those new board members (names withheld) at all for this stance. It was perfectly reasonable. They wanted (as Mark outlines in his post) someone with experience, some who had already been there and done this, not some guy off the street who was learning on the fly. It didn’t matter that I was punching WAY above my weight class until this point, they wanted experience.

Again, Andre (and some board members) said, “let’s give Norlin a shot (to screw this up).” But now the message came down in a very different way (delivered *by* a member of the board). I’ll never forget the conversation. It went something like this, “we’re all adults here. So, here’s how it’s going to go. Your budget is X. The board expects marketing to result in sales leads that generate Y in sales. If that doesn’t happen by timeframe Z, you will be asked to either leave the company, or step down to a Director level while we hire someone who can.” By the way, the numbers (generate X in sales leads with Y in budget in Z timeframe) were daunting, to say the least.

So, I did what any good entrepreneur would do: started working longer hours and basically killing myself because there was NO WAY IN HELL that this board was going to take away my baby. I was so fully invested in Ping by that point that I didn’t think about not being a founder; I felt like a founder. This was my baby! And I’ll be damned if you’re going to hire someone to sit above me and tell me how to run my baby. Not. Going. To. Happen.

With some good coaching, a smart board (they knew *exactly* what they were doing in the context of my personality), and a little luck, I made it through that period. The leads were delivered. I secured my “title.” I learned to punch above my weight class. And I think Ping was better for it (for one thing, they didn’t have to pay me as much as they would an experienced VP).

And then, one day I woke up in a meeting about a setting up action plans for another meeting so that we could plan strategy that would lead to a series of meetings. In short, Ping had grown up.

I don’t do bureaucracy well. It also turns out, I don’t do “exact” roles all that well. I knew there were times when I could close a sale at Ping. But I had to turn it over to sales, who sometimes took the “long way” to the close. Exact roles and the necessary infrastructure of scaling a company just weren’t my forte.

So, I once again did what any pushy, headstrong, “I earned my VP title” guy would do: I announced that unless there was a customer on the phone or in the meeting, I would not be attending (this was a bit uncomfortable in that we had a weekly VP and CEO meeting to sync up, and I had just told my CEO that since he wasn’t a customer, I didn’t have time for him). Yea, that didn’t work either. It was clear to me. My baby had outgrown me.

Luckily, I was in a position to walk away (we had just sold Digital ID World — our “hobby” — to IDG). So I did. And since I have, Ping has scaled and grown to amazing heights. I barely know anyone that works there anymore (outside of Andre – who has grown into an amazing amazing amazing CEO).

I learned two very important things in that time period:

  • how to punch above my weight class (and the value of hiring people that do).
  • that exact roles weren’t my style

    And Mark’s post reminded me of that. Thanks Mark! 😉

    P.S. Mark will be keynoting Gluecon.