I seem to be drawn to small, hi-tech companies that show a lot of promise. I’ve been lucky at picking several to work for that have done well. Of the last four companies I joined, two were acquired and two went IPO. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and want to feel what it’s like to be a part of a huge success, you undoubtedly will want to increase your chance of success by choosing a company wisely. Otherwise you are wasting valuable time and opportunity cost. But how do you choose the right company to work for?
After scratching an entrepreneurial itch and finally starting my own company last year, I recently decided to accept a go-to-market role at what I anticipate will be number 5 of 5 successful hi-tech companies. The company I joined is RGB Networks, and I run product marketing and management for the software business unit created from a smaller company RGB acquired called Ripcode. Since I just started at RGB and the hiring process is fresh in my mind, I thought it would be a good example of criteria that can be used to evaluate a company’s chances for success.
First and foremost, you don’t really get to choose any company to work for. They have to want to hire you. Either they need to come find you, or you need to find them and convince them to hire you. In my case, I knew someone at the company and they reached out about a position the company was looking to fill, and that’s how it all started. But possible opportunities come along all the time, and you can’t take every one. If you are looking, you may be evaluating two or three at the same time. You need to evaluate each opportunity carefully while concurrently demonstrating how you would be a valuable hire for the company. Ideally both you and the company should be convincing each other why it’s good for you to join. If it’s just one way, likely it won’t work out in the long run.
1) Value proposition. The biggest criterion that has served me well is evaluating a company’s product value proposition. I recently wrote about this from an investor perspective when looking at a company to invest in; and it is equally important when evaluating a company to work for. In my opinion, value proposition is paramount. In RGB’s case, after taking a close look at the market opportunity and what RGB Networks provides, this part was a no brainer.
RGB builds big iron for video streaming in cable networks, IPTV networks, mobile networks, and anywhere else someone wants to view video. Delivering video is incredibly complex, partly because the industry and technical requirements are constantly evolving. Video and audio codecs, transport protocols, set top boxes, servers, video players – everything is changing which makes it hard for operators to keep up. Couple that with the fact that operators and content providers are teaming up at an incredible rate to offer new ways to deliver content. Every day for the last week I have heard AT&T U-verse radio advertisements offering to stream television programs to my mobile phone. Just today the Financial Times announced Google will be offering Pay-Per-View Hollywood movies on YouTube. And three weeks ago Mashable reported that NetFlix is going to offer content to Android and iPhones.
The biggest problem with delivering video content to all of these devices is that there is not one standard. In the days when only your cable TV provider was handling your Standard Definition and High Definition video content, it was a lot easier because they controlled the end point – the set top box (STB). Now with devices like iPhones, iPads, and Droid phones, IPTV portals like Hulu, and competing streaming protocols from Microsoft, Apple and Adobe – it’s a crazy mixed up world.
Now enter RGB Networks. RGB makes life easier for all of the operator networks, by building hardware infrastructure that can scale video streaming at an order of magnitude over the competition, offered in a flexible architecture (chassis, blades with ASICs and FPGAs, hardware and software solutions). RGB is the one-stop shop for any cable, telco, mobile, or Over the Top (OTT) provider.
2) The strength of the management team. Right after the value prop, the biggest thing to consider when looking at a company is the management team. This is why I was so happy to see who is leading RGB. The CEO Jef Graham is the former CEO of Peribit and sold Peribit to Juniper for $337 million where he became an EVP. The CTO Yuval Fisher is an industry icon in IP video, and has an uncanny market sense in addition to being extremely technical. The VP Engineering, Charles Corbalis, has an incredible track record including a VP/GM at Cisco after Cisco’s acquisition of Stratacom where he was the founding VP Engineering. (For those of us that were CCIEs at the time, the Stratacom ATM/Frame Relay devices were the cool toy to play with.)
And the list goes on. Suffice it to say that if you have a strong management team, and everyone has respect for each other and plays nice, then you have a huge competitive advantage.
3) Company culture. If you are on the go-to-market (GTM) side of a company, especially in product marketing and product management, culture is critical. Not only the traditional sense of company culture, but also how a company conceives of and develops products. Does the product team work in an Agile/Scrum methodology? Is customer development (Four Steps to the Epiphany) encouraged? Will people embrace a Minimum Viable Product (Lean Startup) strategy? The greatest competitive advantage of a smaller company is being agile and responsive to market changes. If you get a sense that a small company isn’t acting like one, that’s a problem.
4) The investors. Having tier-one investors is obviously a good thing. RGB’s investors include Accel, IVP and Kleiner. You should look for companies that don’t have too much investment, or too little, for what they are building. Hardware products take more capital. Software and services not so much. Strategic investments from industry related companies can be very helpful.
5) Revenue trend. Investors like to say “the trend is your friend” when looking at a public company’s investment potential. The same can be said for looking at a company to join. When I joined Inktomi for example, the company was in the middle of what became 14 quarters in a row of 30% quarter-over-quarter growth.
6) Company size. In my opinion, smaller is better. Most companies I join usually have between 50-200 people when I come aboard, which seems to be a good range. Fewer than 50 and the company is likely not that far along yet and the future is more in doubt. Greater than 200 and it’s hard for one individual to make a big impact day one.
7) Opportunity to leverage and extend your strengths. I come from a technical background (network engineering), have run a regional sales organization, led teams in product management and marketing, and recently ran my own web-based business where I learned a great deal about search engine optimization (SEO) and online lead generation. I love to learn new things, as probably do a lot of entrepreneurial-minded folks. If a potential company gives you the opportunity to grow, that’s a great thing.
If the majority of these seven criteria apply to a company you are considering, you have found a winner. If you are fortunate enough to be in a key go-to-market role, then you get to help build the company’s success. Having that possibility in your own hands is a gift and makes every day exciting.