Complaints about meetings are one of the hardy perennials of management. Alongside email, dealing with millennials and the stupidity of the C suite, you will hear this in along any corridor and around every water cooler.
Begin at the beginning
If you have a startup mindset, you may be tempted to think this is a real world problem and therefore a big opportunity. Spend any time on the subject and you will quickly learn that there is a solution out there already. Effective meetings are based on a well understood formula.
I could make this longer but you get the picture. And this is not new. Everyone in every business knows this.
Occasionally a new wrinkle appears. For example, Scrum or lean software development often relies on short, sharp meetings where everyone stands up.
This sounds new and smart. Yet the UK Privy Council has been meeting standing since time immemorial. (Note: This is literally true. Time immemorial is defined in English Law as being any time before 6 July 1189 and the Privy Council definitely predates this. Gotta love those lawyers!)
And I have never heard anyone hold this body out as an exemplar of efficient and decisive business meetings.
The hidden value of meetings
The truth is no-one can stick to these rigid rules. Meetings have a social value over and above their business purpose. Colleagues work in different departments or may be scattered across buildings and locations. In field work like sales, meetings may be the only time some team members return to base.
Even in small close knit teams live software developers, the daily or weekly meeting serves a purpose. Some things are just better shared with a group than in a one to one discussion. And Shakespeare’s Antony could never “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” over a coffee in the forum. It needs an audience, a meeting.
People like getting together and chewing the fat. No amount of logic and discipline over minutes and actions and agendas will ever change this. Human behaviour will eat any rationalist meeting approach for breakfast. Along with the biscuits and the bacon rolls if they are provided.
The other end of the telescope
I should apologise at this point. I will get to the other end of the telescope but my real point about meetings is that we should start in the middle. The “other end” would be working backwards from the actions to determine how meetings should be run. Tempting but no more likely to overcome human psychology than the traditional approach.
Instead my starting point is another common attitude. How often have you heard something like “I’m not sure if [insert name of meeting] is a waste of time but I always try to go along because its fun.”
Malcolm in the middle
That quote is the definition of a successful meeting. The attendees are motivated to attend. They enjoy being there. And they want to participate. Given these preconditions you can achieve anything.
So instead of starting with the purpose and agenda, go to the middle and build out.
How can you make this a meeting that people will want to join?
Bring together a group of people that like each other or feel they can learn from each other or have some other clear motivation to be in the same room together. Choose a time slot and venue that suits people’s diaries. If possible give them some additional motivation like free doughnuts or a couple of beers.
Once people want to be there you can think about what you want to achieve. This could be big decisions. But it might also be smaller things. For example, the core of the meeting might be to brief the team on a new strategy. The outcome you want is for each attendee to take away a couple of personal actions to make it work.
There is no need to have a hard line on actions and accountability. In this situation, that will feel like bullying not management.
And you want to people to enjoy the meeting. Otherwise, all that effort is a one off. They will come to your first meeting but not the next one.
Agendas are not required by Law
The final element is to think about what is needed in advance.
Most people like to know why the meeting is taking place. So a clear purpose is a minimum requirement. A simple statement like “Monthly Team Meeting” can be enough. No need to get evangelical.
For many meetings that is all the pre-work you need. Regular meeting have a rhythm of their own and an agenda is rarely necessary. An agenda and material to read in advance may be required. But there is no rule that says there must be an agenda.
A lot depends on timing. In a startup or a deal situation things can move fast. Advance notice can be tough to organise. I can remember, during a takeover bid, holding a Board meeting at midnight and scheduling the next one for 4 am.
Set agendas can be a straitjacket rather than a control. Especially in a startup. This week’s big issue can be superseded by the time you sit down to have the meeting. Any preparation should be set in the context of what is required for a good meeting. Not just a wish list of what you would like to talk about.
The Chairman's View
So there you have it. An alternative formula for good meetings. Plan how you can make the meeting good fun and add social value. Then set out what you can achieve - be realistic. And finally do the minimum needed in advance. No agenda without a reason.
One other thing. Most of this article is written in the context of the person drive ing the meeting. I have sort of assumed the reader is in a leadership position. CEO or founder for example.
And there is no doubt good meetings require good leadership.
Everyone has a role to play in this. Even if you are just a small cog in the business wheel. Come along to the meeting with the right attitude. Enjoy the discussion and work to make it fun for others. Make a note of your own actions and get on with it. Don’t wait for the minutes.
Leadership is about you, not about job titles.
This has lots of implications regardless of the type of customer you are targetting. The gulf between product and service buying for an enterprise SaaS customer is especially wide.
I want to point out a couple of key things in this piece.
Enterprise ready is an entry fee not a sales pitch
Another excellent article which caught my eye was a product manager’s guide to moving up market from Tom Tunguz.
I can’t improve on the list of product features your SaaS product needs to be enterprise ready. If you ever enter into an enterprise procurement process, covering these bases will save you a lot of heartache. And likely prevent your bid falling at the first hurdle.
But don’t be deceived into thinking this is anything like enough. As the title says this is just for a product manager. Selling SaaS to the enterprise has multiple dimensions. Meeting certain technical standards and the preconditions set by procurement is only the entry ticket.
Your SaaS needs to convince buyers not just procurement
Last week someone asked me to share the basic proposal structure I used to use when selling complex professional services. Writing this down reminded me of a fundamental truth about selling services.
Every sale needs its own unique selling point.
Most entrepreneurs will be familiar with the idea of a USP. A clear and distinctive advantage that set your SaaS apart from the competition.
The implication is that there is a clear USP which will appeal to a range of potential customers. Services are not like that. Services are personal. So each customer likes to feel that the USP is designed from them and them alone.
Back in the day, we used to refer to this as the killer slide. Every proposal had to have one page that made the buying decision for the client.
Your SaaS needs to be beyond compare and score
Achieving this when you are selling to the enterprise needs a couple of things.
First, this will never appear on the procurement agenda. Procurement’s job is to get specific answers to a whole range of standard questions. This allows them to do like for like comparisons and score your SaaS against its competitors.
Winning this type of scoring is an art form in itself. But it does not touch on USP. By definition this defies comparison. To figure this out you need to talk to the real buyers. The people in the enterprise that will benefit from your SaaS.
Your USP for a specific customer needs to be couched in the benefits that key people within that enterprise will realise if they use your SaaS. (Note use it, not just buy it.)
The Chairman's View
The service mindset is the key to enterprise SaaS. Building a product with the right operations and support to deliver behind it is a core essential. You can take account of these needs from the outset of your startup.
Once you engage with customers, you have to get on the business benefits agenda.
Satisfy procurement and deliver the wow factor the business buyers. away. Or, click the Write button and compose something new.
This particular learning has been front of mind for me during the past week. And things right v the right thing turns out to be a good way of shining a light on some of the more frustrating moments.
Are we making it easy for startups to do business?
I like to focus on helping entrepreneurs and companies. There are plenty of other smart people and organisation trying to help in the same way. You would think that making life easy for founders would be important. And on the face of it, Scotland and the UK should be a good place to achieve that.
There are a handful of key measures Economists like to turn to when explaining the relative economic performance of different countries. A favourite is the Ease of Doing Business index compiled by the World Bank. The UK ranks 7th in this list and 16th for the specific category “Starting a Business.”
Yet it doesn’t seem to work out that way. So often a promising startup pitch becomes entangled in a web of process and bureaucracy
Or tangling SaaS in a web of complexity?
One recent experience sticks in my mind. The entrepreneur had a strong, simple idea in a high value life sciences niche. Life sciences is not my speciality but this lady was the best entrepreneur in the sector that I have seen in the last 4 years. It was all clear and compelling. Questions were answered with confidence and little bit of brio.
Then we got to IP.
And found what felt like dozens of unanswered and unanswerable queries. Many of which lay in then hands of an organisation that I know is committed to helping companies like this get started. Yet the founder was left unable to get to any clear answer. Never mind a simple one.
And there are plenty of other areas where the ecosystem designed to help has enmeshed startups in complexity they don’t need.
On the very same evening I heard about challenges related to complex shareholder arrangements for a company that has not product yet and has not started trading. Questions surrounding the best way of ensuring that a startup qualifies for EIS or SEIS, the two excellent tax incentives that exist in the UK. And another entrepreneur worn down by the time and effort required to go through the process for a pitching competition designed to give startups free money.
This happens all the time.
Sometimes its the founding team that initiates the problem. In other cases, the system designed to help is just too process heavy. But every time there is more people like me and other senior mentors could be doing to help.
Matters of shareholder law and contracts, tax incentives, distribution of public money and IP are all important to get right. Risk and complexity do exist in these arrangements. The way this reality is approached is wrong.
Complex solutions are offered and pursued. Or worse, the situation is allowed to go unresolved. Professionals and others weigh the options while the startup tries to move forward. In time, the weight of this uncertainty becomes crushing. A huge obstacle to investment. And a real drain on the time and energy the founding team needs to get things moving.
The Chairman's View
Too often (and I include myself in this) experienced professionals hear the problem and switch straight into doing things right mode.
We all need a big dose of doing the right thing mentality.
In the shareholder example above, there was a lawyer in the room. The entrepreneur explained what he wanted to achieve with his co-founder. Rather than taking him at his word, she challenged the underlying thinking. Take an alternative approach and get a simpler, faster, cleaner solution.
Great work Julie.
Advisors need to look for the simple way through. Resolve obstacles and move forward. Or to be clearer, get shit done. There is nothing worse than confusion and uncertainty. Not knowing your IP rights or shareholder structure kills any investment and the business with it.
So the job of an advisor is to make it easy for entrepreneurs to focus on innovation getting in front of customers. That is doing the right thing.
The start not the end of a customer lifetime
All that aside, a different thought struck me as I was driving home. In my mind, these guys are already a customer. They are busy people with high pressure jobs that are literally life and death. And they gave up 3 hours of time between them to help me out.
Since I have gained value, I must owe them more value in return. Its an obligation plain and simple.
Retention first not acquisition first
That took me back to thinking about this article from Price Intelligently which argues for a retention first mindset rather than an acquisition first approach. The authors have approached this from a metrics standpoint. And they demonstrate clearly that reducing churn can be a straight path to rapid growth.
But metrics are outcomes not strategy. Churn and its relative LTV are good examples. They capture an important concept. Yet they result from measuring customer lifetime at the end not from the beginning. That can’t be right!
Nonetheless, I liked the principle when I first read the post. I was also a little bit doubtful to be honest. Retention first sounds very attractive to someone who prefers building relationships to cold sales. So was I just playing to my own preferences?
My customer meeting has put that niggling doubt to bed. Good business works on human relationships. Not just transactional benefits.
That’s why numbers and benchmarks are useful tools but no way to run a business.
B2B SaaS - relationships not pipeline
So for me, retention first is a simple principle. One that applies to any B2B SaaS from day one. And it works like this:
Competitive pitching drives a whole lot of bullshit.
Its become one of the centrepieces of every startup ecosystem. If you want to build a reputation, grab some PR, grow your network, win cash prizes and generally just fit in, you need to pitch to win.
Founders are groomed by a whole coterie of experts and supporters. How to hone your message? How to pitch your startup? Get yourself investment ready? Business is framed as a race and only the fastest and strongest are winners.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.