Post Founder: Donna Novitsky and Clarify

Entry IV in Post Founder series — Q&A with early employees of companies which later became tremendous successes.

Donna Novitsky and I met in 1999 when she was my mentor on the Board of Directors for the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. After holding executive posts at Sun and Clarify, Donna entered venture capital with Mohr Davidow, where as a venture partner she also worked closely with several of their portfolio companies on marketing strategies. More recently she’s been teaching at Stanford and has taken a leadership role at bigtent, a startup building web community tools. Below I ask Donna some questions about her time at Clarify, a CRM software success which today exists as part of Amdocs.

Donna Novitsky

>> Who did you know at Clarify or how did you otherwise get connected with the team?
I was introduced to the CEO by one of the VCs on the board. I was introduced to the VC by a friend who went to business school with her.

>> What stage was the company at when you signed on?
It had just closed series A funding. Product was in development. No demo yet. No customers. Just the CEO, 9 engineers, an office manager and me!

>> Was CRM well understood yet by the industry?
No. The industry didn’t exist. We had the opportunity to name it and lay its foundation. I was coming from Sun Microsystems and it was clear that businesses needed a way to build relationships with customers beyond price/performance – and there was real pain in tracking customer cases. People were starting to build solutions themselves, which didn’t seem like a good idea.

>> You led marketing at Clarify – how did you position against larger established software companies
The larger software companies didn’t have a solution like ours, so we partnered with them. We used the databases from Oracle and Sybase and delivered turnkey but tailorable applications. We sold a lot of database seats for them. At the time, no one thought we could build an off-the-shelf application that could be tailored to the unique processes of a businesses without writing code. That was the big ahah. Every customer could implement their own workflow for customer care, so no customer issues fell through the cracks.

>> When did you know it was going to be incredibly successful and/or did you ever have significant doubts about the company’s prospects?
I never had doubts, but it wasn’t easy. We could tell from the positive feedback we got from our customers, and the way the pipeline grew that we were on to something. However, we had 2 head-to-head competitors, so we were constantly striving to beat them. That made us all better so the market grew and the customers benefited.

>> Clarify went public in 1995 – did you do anything internally to commemorate the IPO?
Of course! We had a great culture at Clarify. We always shared all the news with all the employees – the good and the bad – as we were building the company. So we were all on the journey together. A significant milestone like that was cause for celebration. Everyone got into that party!

>> Did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture?
Yes. Probably the most important one was the weekly all hands meeting friday afternoons. This is where we shared updates on what was going on in all the departments and it usually evolved into a beer bust. We did this from when we could all fit in one small conference room, up until we had to go to a local hotel to fit everyone in. I guess at that point it was more like once/month – but the culture of communication continued.

>> When did you know it was time to leave?
We had grown to 500 employees and $100M in revenue in about 7 yrs. We were well-established and a recognized leader in our industry. The challenges of growth from there are quite different from the 0-$100M stage. Personally, I had a new baby at home, which changes the whole equation. So it was time to move on to something where I could have more flexibility in my schedule than needing to be in the office 10 hrs/day. I loved my time at Clarify and am quite proud of what we accomplished there. I hope to build an equally successful company with many of the same cultural aspects at my new venture, Big Tent.

Post Founder: Dave Shen and Yahoo

Continuing the Post Founder series where I ask a few questions of early employees at companies which later got big and famous.

Dave Shen and I met via a mutual friend about a year ago. He’s incredibly modest for a guy who worked at Apple, Frog Design and was the 17th employee at Yahoo. Dave’s current pursuits involve angel investing and consulting for select startups. He also used to write very persuasive Yelp reviews.

David Shen, Yahoo

>> how many people were at Yahoo when you started and how did you get connected with the early team?
I was employee number 17 at Yahoo!. I had met Jerry many years prior when he was a sophomore at Stanford and I had just gotten there as a grad student. David I had met a few years later when he arrived at Stanford and both he and Jerry were in the same computer department working on their Ph.Ds. The story is well known that both Jerry and David built Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web which became Yahoo! during their time in the Ph.D program, and late 1994 Jerry called me up to work on their corporate logo for them, which made its official debut in spring of 1995 at Internet World.

>> what was your initial role at Yahoo and how’d this change over time?
I was their first user interface designer, working on all aspects of the GUI from graphics to interaction. In later years, one person became two, and grew to over 120 people in all disciplines of design, ranging from visual design, interaction design, user research, ad design and ad research, as well as the Yahoo! front page ad team. I ran this team as the VP of User Experience and Design until 2003 when I left to briefly be the VP of International Products, and was responsible for the propagation of product development processes and technology worldwide.

>> at what point did you realize Yahoo had legs to be a very serious business?
I think my first realization was when we went IPO, and a huge infusion of cash came into the company which allowed us to grow our team and spread our development into a wide swath of internet products and services. Couple that with the fact that partners and marketers all wanted to be on our system and there seemed to be no end to flow of deals coming in and you realize that it seemed that we could make a lot of money. Once momentum was achieved, we were a brand name, we had loyal users who returned day after day and found our services trusted and useful, and we could monetize that steadily growing amount of traffic.

>> what was your most meaningful contribution(s) to Yahoo’s success?
If you talk to Jerry and David, they would say that they have always been user focused from the beginning. This resulted in key decisions like keeping the pages fast and light to load, which resulted in users coming to us for information simply because we minimized the frustration of waiting for pages to load in a modem driven world. My contribution to user experience was to create a process and a discipline around the already present user driven principle, and to bring traditional methods of user centered design into the company so that we could continue to exploit designing to what users want and need. Back then, user centered design had barely hit any of the big companies out there and this was a competitive advantage for Yahoo!, having one of the largest and most talented set of designers all in one place. Building that team and introducing and instilling those concepts into the company was what I would consider my first important contribution.

My second major contribution began in 2001 when the company and the market were down as far as they could be. We needed to revitalize the company and bring in revenue, which seemed to have dried up. I, along with a few others, led the transformation of the ad business at Yahoo! at a time when the 468×60 banner was dying and new formats and initiatives needed to be introduced. I led the implementation of new and more attractive ad units, helped repair relationships with agencies which had been strained through the years prior to 2001, helped the agencies get their ad programs off the ground from a technical standpoint, performed ad research to show the company and the outside world what was annoying and what was not, and worked with industry groups to standardize display ads within and outside Yahoo!. Also, I helped evangelize creativity in advertising and helped marketers and agencies realize that there was great work being done out there, and that they could do the same. In helping with all these initiatives, I am proud to say that for many years, marketers rated Yahoo! as the number one company to work with and helped Yahoo! regain its leadership as a marketing platform of choice, and enabled its revenue to grow during a time when the entire Internet market was in a state of non-growth.

>> did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture?
I think it was the no-bozos rule that manifested itself in not only hiring good people, but people like ourselves. We could argue that was a good or bad thing, but certainly it caused the persistence of the culture for many years when everyone you hired could be your best buddy as well.

>> when you look at the Yahoo site(s) today, what do you feel is most similar to the early days, what is most different?
Speaking from a GUI standpoint, I think structurally the pages are still the same. It’s either the 2 or 3 column layout, and the old red Yahoo! logo is still up there despite the appearance of the sometimes purple iconic Yahoo! logo. Blue text for links is still there, although people seem to be using less underlines than before. Definitely the richness of the visuals has gone up. Yahoo! used to be a very graphic-less place (due to the need-for-speed during the modem era) but I’m glad to see that Yahoo! has increased its visual impact, now that networks are much faster.

Post Founder: Stewart Bonn and Electronic Arts

Continuing the “Post Founder” theme (early employees of companies which later became huge successes), here are some great insights from Stewart Bonn, an early Electronic Arts’er.

Stewart is kinda of like the Godfather of Interactive Entertainment in the Valley. Notable for his Hawaiian shirts, he’s always connected somehow to interesting ideas, most recently at Bix before their sale to Yahoo. I met Stewart in 2000 via a mutual friend at Mayfield while Stewart was at

Stewart Bonn, Electronic Arts

> how many people were at Electronic Arts when you started and how did you get connected with the early team?
I was the 19th employee at EA. I was introduced to Trip Hawkins, the founder and CEO, by Brook Byers, a partner in Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers. I first met Trip in September of ’82. My background at this point was a degree in computer science and 7 years as a salesman at IBM. Trip’s background and many of the others had worked with him in marketing at Apple so I was very different from them. After he initially didn’t see a fit, I kept coming back to him selling him on the idea of hiring me. Over the course of 6 months he said “no” plenty of times. It was only when I offered to work for free for one month that he said yes. Of course he didn’t let me work for free but I am sure he decided that this was the only way to get rid of me.

> what was the first game you worked on and how did the concept come about?
The first product I produced was Music Construction Set for the Apple II. Since I was new in my role as producer, I had to go out and find some products since all of EA’s products were created by independent Software Artists (much like music and books) not employees. I attended an Applefest in Anaheim where I saw this cool music product being demonstrated by the Mockingboard company, the first Apple II sound card. When I asked the people there who did the product, they were very guarded and said it was created by a young man in the bay area but they did not want to reveal his name. Bummer because I really loved (and wanted) the product. I had to find that kid but it was going to take some serious sleuthing to find him.

Now we fast forward a couple weeks. The receptionist came into our weekly producer meeting and asked if anyone was available to talk a 15 year-old in the lobby. Everyone looked down and I was the only one eager to meet him. His name was Will Harvey and he was a sophomore in high school.

What he had to show was an interesting, well-executed though abstract (therefore not easily marketed) action game called Lancaster. We talked quite a bit but I politely said we couldn’t publish his game. I asked if there is anything else he is working on? He said there was one project where he was in final discussions with another company but he would like to show me anyway.

It was the music product I had seen in Anaheim! He set it up in a corner conference room and he started it playing “Something Dancer”, a popular theme song from a movie whose name I can’t remember. What you saw on the screen was the sheet music scrolling by but what you heard was 4-part composition that was amazing since the only thing an Apple could do up to this point was beep. I turned up the volume and heads started popping up from their cubes like gophers and looking in our direction. Eventually just about everyone (50 at that point) crowded into the room smiling and laughing. I knew we had a hit!

One of our launch titles was Pinball Construction Set by Bill Budge. It was a WYSIWYG (drag/drop) program for building a pinball machine using the mouse. This product was in the same vein in that you would drag notes onto a music staff and then click on the Piano icon and it would play. We called it Music Construction Set. It was simple, hot and deep which was the phrase Trip coined to describe the kinds of products EA would publish.

Time Magazine ended up doing a one-page story on Will and the product. It ended up selling over 500,000 units at full retail which was insane for a game let alone a music product. Will took all those royalties and went on to get his Ph.D in Computer Sciences. After school he founded and then IMVU.

> as a producer, did think about what you wanted to make or what you thought would sell?
Over the years I worked with or hired some of the most successful producers in the industry. What they all shared was a strong editorial point of view about what was good and bad. This point of view came from personal experience and was always coupled with a skill about communicating what made something good. Hiring people with great product sense and the ability to communicate it was one of the things we did right at EA. We were highly intuitive about our product decisions. There was not a lot of analysis that occurred. There was a separate marketing organization that helped us with the naming, packaging etc. We learned very early on that they, too, had to be avid gameplayers.

It is a simple concept. Hire people with good taste that make stuff they want to play. As long as their taste aligns with popular tastes, we would be successful.

> what was your most meaningful contribution(s) to EA’s success?
When I was GM of EA Studios, my job was to deliver an agreed upon number of games on a particular schedule and at high quality. In order to make sure we delivered those products, we had to have more titles in development than we would commit which would give the Producers the freedom to slip some products if they needed more time as long as they could deliver other titles sooner. I was able to change the expectations of the company such that only 70% of the titles in development were committed.

I also encouraged the producers to “kill early and kill often”. Entertainment software is a “hope business” as in “I hope all this time and money produces a hit product.” Sadly that is not always the case. In fact, the titles most in trouble take the most of everyone’s time in an attempt to improve them. Killing a bad project frees up more than its share in time and energy. To encourage people to kill stinkers, I gave each producer a budget for write-offs so they could kill a title and not have the company feel any unplanned financial impact.

> did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture?
We had company meetings every Friday at 5. Each exec would give a brief summary of the week’s progress with emphasis on particular individual’s efforts. Those achievements were recognized with a “Star Achiever” award which was a 3″ button that you could stick onto your cube walls and show off like those stickers on football players helmets.

We developed what we called the “Action Values” which were the core values of the company. They were Achievement, Customer Service, Teamwork, Innovation, Ownership and “Now” (as in “Do it now”). Quarterly we gave out awards to individuals who exemplified those values.

We also gave out awards at the Christmas party. There were about a dozen or so categories. First year I received “Most Tenacious” and the “Most Valuable Player” the following year. Along with being voted “Teacher Irritator” in high school, these are my most coveted honors.

> do you see many connections in today’s EA to the company you helped start?
When I left, EA was the largest independent publisher of pc and video games. They still are.

Post-Founder: Joel Jewitt and Palm

Joel Jewitt became a de facto mentor during grad school. Encompass, his latest start-up, had been purchased by Yahoo and we met as I wove my way through the big Y! recruiting process. We immediately hit it off and when, midway through my interviews, Joel left Yahoo, I took that as a sign and recused myself as well.

A few months later we almost worked together for a second time when Joel invited me into what would later become Good Technology. Although the timing wasn’t right, we stayed in touch and still grab the occasional breakfast near his home in Woodside. Our conversations spanned New Yorker articles, meditation, The Selfish Gene and other deep thought items.

In addition to founding a number of companies, Joel was an early employee of what would later become Palm. My work at Second Life, Google, and YouTube has given me the chance to work with a number of notable founders but it also left me interested in what degree the early employees of these companies contributed to the overall success (I can only answer that for Second Life having been the first non-engineer on the team; the others I came in much later). So I’m looking to track down folks who were hired in the very early days and asking them about the experience. Joel was game for answering a few of these questions re: Palm.

Joel Jewitt, Early Palm Employee

> was it the idea or the people that attracted you to Palm

Bruce Dunlevie introduced me to Jeff and I liked him and the idea

> how did you first meet jeff and donna
Bruce Dunlevie intro to Jeff and two engineers, Ain MckEndrick and Art Lamb. We incubated Palm at Merrill Pickard Anderson and Eyre (now the Benchmark offices). Donna joined Palm when we moved to a new building (across from Lozano’s brushless carwash in Los Altos, but usually we didn’t have to tell people Los Altos, all we had to tell them was that it was across from Lozano’s)

> what stage was the company at when you signed on
Jeff and Ain and Art had just incorporated, I wrote the first business plan

> what was your most meaningful contribution to Palm’s success
I have three: (i) I created a spinner that we put on the wall that had on one half “Mother of All Markets” (which was John Sculley’s view of the PDA market) and on the other half “Pipe Dream Driven by Greed” (which was Andy Grove’s view of the PDA market), and we could spin it each day and see what our prospects were, (ii) I had a Brooks Brothers 15 1/2 – 35 shirt and we used its front pocket to determine when the Pilot design was “pocket sized”, (iii) In 1996 we were trying to raise money but by then Sand Hill Rd had given up on PDA’s (Apple Newton and GO/EO had failed). Our valuation was dropping and we were headed to a bad place in terms of needing money and no one wanting to bite the bullet and invest. I flew over to Stockholm and got Ericsson to give us a letter of intent to invest in the company as part of a project to build what would have been the first smartphone. The valuation in the letter of intent put a floor on our value and propped up our confidence, basically kept us above water until John Zakin from US Robotics swooped in and bought us (I still have the US Robotics shirt that he gave us at our deal party).

> when did you know it was going to be incredibly successful and/or did you ever have significant doubts about the company’s prospects
It wasn’t until the first developer’s conference at the Javitz Center in NYC in 1997 that folks at Palm got the visceral feeling that it was going to be big. Jeff was always confident (at least relative to everyone else). In 1994 and 95 we all crossed a desert and Jeff was Moses.

> did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture
Donna brought in some great best practices about creating solid culture, but the tradition I remember was that at 5:59PM all was quiet around the office, and then at 6PM all hell broke loose in most of the cubicles as we worked our way through Wolfenstein 3D and then DOOM and Duke Nukem (Ain McKendrick was the best at it.).

> when did you know it was time to leave
When we got bought I wasn’t going to end up as a top level exec so I left to start another company (Adaptive Media).