Monthly Archives: March 2010

How to Run Effective Meetings

Most meetings are wastes of time. Even in meetings that people consider to be well-run, there is much room for improvement. But internal meetings – when run effectively – can be the fastest way to reach a vital decision or to disseminate important information. 

So we’re going to explore some of the best ways to run an internal company meeting. For clarification I define “meetings” as forums to make decisions and “concerts” as forums to disseminate company information and build team spirit.  The two are used for very different purposes and should not be confused. 

Top 10 Meeting Best Practices

1.    Only hold meetings when they are absolutely necessary.  Most meetings are not needed in the first place. Only call a meeting if it is truly needed, such as for urgent matters. Often, an email or quick phone can be just as, if not more, effective and efficient.

2.    Keep meetings small.  The ideal size of a meeting is two people. If your meeting has more than eight people it is no longer a meeting, it is a concert.  Sometimes concerts are important (like company meetings for team building and building team spirit), but recognize that people will perceive them differently.  Concerts, just like rock concerts, need to be really fun, engaging, exciting, and interesting to everyone in attendance. 

3.    Aim for ad-hoc meetings.  Ad-hoc meetings (with 2-6 decision makers) are almost always better than standing meetings. Bringing people together to solve a problem is the best type of meeting.  Review all standing meetings and kill meetings that are no longer useful or productive. 

4.    Make meetings optional.  All meetings (especially standing meetings) should be optional.  If people are not getting a lot out of a meeting, they shouldn’t go. And they should self-select out of meetings.

Michael-corleone 5.    Only invite people that NEED to be at the meeting. Be lethal and cut people. Ever notice how some meetings have people creep?  They start at 4 people and all of a sudden have 40 people.  Don’t let this happen in your organization.  Don’t let non-essential people come to your meeting – simply tell them that they are not essential to this meeting.  As Michael Corleone would say: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

6.    Send out a meeting agenda beforehand and notes after.  Every meeting should have an agenda that people get beforehand (ideally by the day before) so that all the participants can prepare adequately for the meeting (or decide to opt-out of the meeting). 

The agenda should be action-oriented: instead of saying “discuss marketing plans” it should say “decide on one of these three marketing plans.”  A meeting agenda should have at most 4 items (a concert agenda can have more) with time limits for each item so that everyone in the meeting understands the time expectations.  If appropriate, someone at the meeting should be assigned to be the note taker who will disseminate notes to people afterwards (including those people that elect not to attend the meeting).

7.    Keep meetings as short as possible. No meeting should be more than an hour.  Nothing good happens in more than an hour.  Meetings should ideally end before the time limit allotted to them – once discussion ceases to be productive for everyone in attendance.  Great concerts, by contrast, can be longer than hour – just remember that no decisions can be made in a concert.

8.    Never discuss a topic that doesn’t engage EVERYONE at a meeting.  Meetings need to engage everyone. Every single person should be actively engaged in every topic in the meeting.  If they are not engaged, they should either not be at that meeting or that topic should be discussed at a later time.  If you are ever at a meeting where a side-discussion is happening between 2 or more participants, then it is definitely a poorly run meeting.  Meetings need to engage everyone.

9.    Keep meeting participants on topic and interesting.  Are you ever at a meeting and you start day-dreaming and you miss part of the discussion?  That’s the sign of a poorly run meeting.  Meetings need to be active and if a participant is going off course or is long winded, it is the meeting organizers job to cut them off.  Again, it aint personal. 

Meetings are about reaching a good decision, not just hearing everyone’s thoughts. Meeting participants should not talk more than two minutes at one time unless what they are saying is utterly mind-expanding.  Meetings are not lectures – if people want to talk for a long time, set up concerts for them to do so.

10.    Make meetings fun.  People should enjoy themselves at meetings and actually look forward to attending them.  Standing meetings should have fun rituals. While you might not have U2 or a laser light show at your concert, you can at least have some slides of fun team photos and people applauding when you announce your revenue numbers. 

Special thanks to meeting enhancers Bryan Duxbury, Dayo Esho, Michael Hsu, Manish Shah, and Mimi Sun  for their help and edits.

Lawyer fees should be in real time

Most business costs are in real time – why aren’t lawyer fees?

From salaries to servers to advertisements, executives today can find out most of their business expenses in real time. The one area where costs are not known until long after the fact is legal.

Planning for legal expenses is often difficult under the current legal billing system. This is because most corporate lawyers bill their clients monthly, and they usually send the bill 30 days after the month’s close. So for March’s legal expenses, you’ll probably get a bill in late April. Although the bill will be very detailed, by the time you receive it and examine it, the itemized time could be over 60 days old. Because of this long lag, lawyer fees can be a big surprise.

Law firms would be doing their clients a real service if they provided their bills daily – just like you can do with ad exchanges.  And like ad exchanges, they can still send you an invoice once a month, but at least their clients can plan and budget appropriately during the month. In today’s world where running a business requires close monitoring of expenses, near real-time legal fees would go a long way.

Email is (still) the most important communications tool

There is still no communications medium more important than email.

Back in the day, the most important way to communicate was to employ the town crier or the town gossiper. Then the printing press made things like the newspaper a good communication tool.  Then it was postal mail and then the telephone before arriving at   email.

Although email gained consumer adoption fairly recently (roughly 15 years ago), it has quickly become an indispensable part of our daily routine. Pretty much all your customers use email — and many check it over 5 times a day.

But how long email will remain at the top is uncertain. It has come under increasing attack by other communications forms like SMS, instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook messages, blogs, Gowalla, FourSquare, Google Buzz, and more. And last March, Nielsen Online reported that time spent on social networks surpassed emails for the first time.

It’s not surprising then that many people expect these other communication mediums to replace email. But with consumers directing all social media notifications to their inbox, social network use actually increases email activity, not replace it.

Maybe something will replace email one day, but it’s clear that email is still dominant and will not be giving up its top spot soon.

Given the importance of email, here are some ways to improve how you use email.

•    Personalize the content – don’t send everyone the same email. Segment your emails based on purchase behavior, demographics, and interests to increase targeting and relevance to your customers.

•    Keep communication brief and simple – consumers suffer from email fatigue. To make your emails stand out and work best, focus on what’s important to your customers and keep it short. Also, think of ways to reduce the total emails sent to avoid annoying recipients. Doing so will have your customers look forward to getting mail from you.

•    Use email to drive marketing – email is one of the most efficient and effective forms of communication. Email should be the focus point of your retention and acquisition strategies, and should also be used to drive customers to your social media efforts. Startups, especially, should focus on planning and leveraging email marketing. Companies that do a great job with emails include Groupon,, and Gilt Group.

e-commerce should really stand for “email commerce”

Email commerce is hot.  really hot.  Gilt Group and companies like One Kings Lane are really moving products like crazy.  GroupOn moves a massive amount of sales.  MoveOn raises an insane amount of money.

and they all do this by using 1990s technology: email.

The death of email has been predicted many times, but in 2010, email is king, emperor, and grand poobah. Email drives dollars better than anything (including Google ads, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  Email drives revenue and every company looking to get revenue should be focusing on getting great emails to their customers.

E-commerce now stands for "email commerce."

why Intel is a great company (it is all about the engineers)

Companies that go through CEO changes usually degrade over time because the company is no longer innovating at the rate of new competitors. Tech companies usually hire non-technical CEOs to replace the technical founders and innovation invariably suffers.  Intel has been a clear exception to this pattern because of its technical focus.

Since its founding in 1968, the company has successfully navigated stiff foreign competition, shifts in market demand, and changes in strategy and business model. Today, Intel is the world’s largest semiconductor chip maker with 81,000 employees worldwide, revenues of $38 billion, and a market cap of $115 billion.

Its current success is largely the result of adhering to and emphasizing its technical prowess through hiring technical leaders and managing internal talent.

Standing by Core Values

Intel continues to be an incredible company despite having been led by five CEOs.

Innovative companies typically have very technical founders and a technical CEO, who in turn, rely on a technical management team. But over time, sales and marketing take over the company, and often at the expense of its core competency of creating great products.

Intel not only hires tech-savvy leads, but also devotes significant resources towards innovation and research. In 2009, R&D spending rose to 16% of the company’s revenues. And of course, Intel attracts and hires some of the top engineering talent from all over the globe.

Growing from Within

Great companies hire under people, not over them … and Intel is a prime example of this. Over the course of its four decade history, Intel has developed a ton of internal talent and rarely goes outside the company to fill important vacancies. In fact, many of the company’s top executives have spent most of their careers working at Intel (Paul Otellini, the current CEO, joined the company in 1974).

Similarities Across the Pacific

Intel as a company shares many similarities with another powerhouse across the Pacific Ocean – China. Both have undergone incredible growth since the 1980s and are on a path to continued dominance. Additionally, both understand the importance of innovation and are heavily recruiting top talent. Also, both being led by people coming from technology – out of the current 9 standing members in China’s ruling politburo, eight come from engineering. If they continue their emphasis on technical resources, good things will continue to happen.

Given its history and progress to date, Intel is one of those rare companies that will be around for a good while longer. And it can thank its technical roots for that.

Special thanks to Michael Hsu for his research and edits.

Best writings in the past few years

Lanny Davis recently asked me to put together my most popular writings over the last few years to share.  Here they are:

When Good Isn’t Good Enough
A company should focus on only hiring Great people.

Why Hiring is Paradoxically Harder in a Downturn
Noise goes up but the quality stays the same.

Engineers are the Best Deal – So Stock Up on Them
Discussion on how engineering productivity gains far outstrips their pay increases.

Recessions Promote Breakthrough Innovations
Economic downturns are good for innovators and bad for pretty much everyone else.

When and Why We Pendulum
Humans tend to over-correct from past mistakes.

It Takes Tech to Elect a President
A history of how politicians have used technology is successful campaigns.

Think for Yourself but you Act Like Your Friends (on homophily)
Our friends influence us more than we think.

Bird of a Feather Shop Together
A discourse on how our friends influence what we buy.

Common Traits of A-Players
Some musings on what A-Players have in common.

Insider’s Guide to Tech-Job Hunting
Eight tips to finding a job in a recession.

A Call for Transportation Innovation
Innovation in transportation since 1969 has fallen short of our dreams.

Sweat the Small Stuff
Sometimes the little things are most important in business.

Seeking Great Candidates Online
Tips on how to find and hire great people.

Social Media Gender Gap
Women are far outnumbering men in use and adoption of social media.

Going by the Board
Advice on putting together an advisory board.

A Second(ary) Chance for Venture Capital
Troubled VCs need to rethink how they invest in start-ups.

Everything You Learn in College is Wrong

Do Successful Politicians Have more Daughters
Male politicians with more daughters seem to be more successful

Who Cheats More: Democrats or Republicans?
Trying to answers the eternal question.