Increase your odds of winning by setting smart goals for the new year.

KPIs, MBOs, OKRs. You’ve probably heard of these and several more ways to set your company’s objectives. With so many options to get to the same goal, it is no wonder why by the middle of the year, objectives, as originally set, often go the same way as New Year’s resolutions. The problem often lies on the goal development: sometimes goals are crafted at the leadership level and not effectively shared and refined with the rest of the organization. Also, there’s a tendency to focus on numbers without regards to the operational goals that drive these numbers, for example, growing revenue by x% (a key business goal) may require sales restructuring (an operational goal).

OKR: a framework that may work for you

Although there is no magic formula for setting goals and sticking to them, I’ve found that the framework provided by OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) can set teams on the right track when it comes to goal setting. Before going into details, diving into the Wikipedia definition of OKR can be useful:

“[OKR’s] main goal is to define company and team “objectives” along with the measurable “key results” that define achievement of each objective. One OKR book defines OKR as “a critical thinking framework and ongoing discipline that seeks to ensure employees work together, focusing their efforts to make measurable contributions.”[1] 

The key term to focus on is “to ensure employees work together.” The OKR framework is good at steering top management to align their goals with those actually in charge of driving the business towards them throughout the year. This means that as you think of OKRs, you need to make sure you’re delivering on the key initiatives the company needs to get done to get to where it needs to be. I find it useful to think of a “value chain” that will support the OKRs with specific initiatives from your team.

Some guidelines about setting objectives and key results

Setting goals and key results together – which is basically what OKRs are all about – can help you create the discipline to have the right internal conversations initially and throughout the year to ensure the team stays focused.

Here are three easy ways to get you going:

  • Get buy-in on your objectives early on. This ensures key team members own the goals, starting with your top management and all the way through to the execution level. Buy-in happens when your team sees a clear connection between objectives and the actions necessary to get there. At the same time, be sure to make your objectives challenging – challenges motivate – along with defining the key results that clearly make the path to this challenge visible.


  • Create a culture around goal-setting and goal-measurement.  Start with top down company OKRs and expand from there. It works a bit like fractals, where goal-setting and key results filter down and climb up. This analogy works also for timing: set your OKRs annually and quarterly to make sure you have the flexibility to adjust and the visibility to correct when necessary.


  • Stay simple: Your goals need to be easy to understand in addition to being simple to measure. This way, people will know right away when they’re deviating from the company’s objectives and will be able to take corrective action sooner. Also, don’t have too many objectives at any level – a maximum of five, each with no more than three or four key results.

The benefits of using a framework like OKRs go beyond just ensuring you develop objectives and meet them. Crafting objectives and key results together disciplines thinking at all levels, communicates the company’s vision accurately, establishes a measurement culture, focuses the effort of your team and enables employee engagement.

Are you ready for OKRs?

Goal setting using OKRs is valuable regardless of your size. As stated before, creating a culture around setting measurable objectives is always a good thing. Think in terms of developing OKRs around functional or product teams in addition to the executive team.

No matter your size, aligning goals with the specific results needed to get there will only result in an organization where everyone – from the CEO to the most recent hire – point their efforts in the same direction.

A well-thought initiative for giving back will help you reach the top faster.

The first days of the year are an ideal time to think about empathy and all the good we can be doing before our To-dos take over all the available energy. This can be a perfect time to realize that building a culture of giving in your early stage company is more than just thinking about giving. The good news is that you don’t need to have a “do good” scheme built in your product strategy or in your business plan; it is much simpler than that, yet the effects in your organization, and with your key customers, can be transformational.

Focusing your team on a cause other than the quarterly goals can help you create strong bonds, build motivation and foster loyalty. Giving back through your company also gives your people meaning and a sense of connection. Finally, having a cause you officially support can boost goodwill and adoption with your customer base.

  1. Giving back is good for teams

The days when people were satisfied with donating a tiny portion of their monthly paychecks to causes are over. Millennials, who now dominate early startups want it all: they want you to give back and they want to be actively engaged in that process. Heeding to their demands is good for your organization. Enabling engaging opportunities for your team to give back builds bonds outside the office thru things such as volunteer days, pro-bono consulting and joint projects.

Better if you let your team choose the non-profit to volunteer to for or to work with, there are hundreds of non-profit organizations around you that need your help. You can choose to focus your giving back efforts at places around your location, to causes connected to the nature of your products or services, to charities who are close to your heart, or all of the above. There is no shortage of organizations that can use the expertise, energy and resources of your team to make the world better.

If you want to get creative, you can also think inside the box. For example, just a few blocks from our office here in San Francisco, AirBnB employs several people from The Arc – an organization that focuses on helping individuals with developmental and mental disabilities have normal lives. AirBnB employees love having them around to help with all kinds of office tasks.

  1. Giving back is good for employees

Research shows that a higher sense of purpose is a better motivator than money. Millennials come with a chip for this, and have forced tech giants like Google, Facebook and Salesforce to make giving-back a centerpiece of their mission.

The energy that your people spend helping others on your behalf is actually re-charging energy. It is very common in non-profit and community organizations around the Bay Area to see employees from the likes of Google and Deloitte work on specific project during the day – not after work. For example, the City of San Francisco has an initiative called Civic Bridge where pro-bono consulting volunteers work together for 3 months to use their expertise to help the municipality on very specific issues. These volunteers then bring back to the office new ideas, connections and a sense of purpose that spreads through their companies.

Engaging giving-back opportunities for your employees will ensure your company’s social DNA is built and nurtured, internally and externally, through individuals that become the ambassadors of what your organization is doing beyond profit.

  1. Giving back is good for business development

The third pillar of giving back concerns the effect it can have on your business development efforts. Having your people donate their talent, time and energy locally will connect you to the community in a way that no PR effort can, and will bring in more business and potential employees.

Additionally, combining business with giving builds empathy into your DNA. Actions that you can take early on involve things like creating a .org for your company, giving your product away for free or at a huge discount to non profits. Toms and  are good examples on how giving can be weaved into your core business to generate additional sales; after all, we are more prone to buying products and services from companies we like and admire.

In order to activate this business development-focused giving, you need to make it easy for a nonprofit to take advantage of your product and for a paying customer to see where some of their dollars go when it comes to social responsibility. In the case of Salesforce for instance, many big non-profits become profitable paying customers when they grow and have the resources to pay full price for a product they’ve been using for years.

It’s never to early to give back.

The positive effects on your team, your employees as individuals and your business development – just to name three areas affected by it – indicate that it is never too early to give back, even for a seed round company. Think about it, and if you need help with the right set-up to make it sustainable, ask your CFO.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

To play the marketing game prepare a solid marketing budget with which you can win.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

Crafting a marketing budget can feel like a guessing game. The options to invest your marketing dollars could seem endless, and you could spend weeks debating what will move he needle for your startup. In this article, Steve Lim, Vice President and Head of Marketing at Vantage Data Centers, and I have put together a quick guide that our CEOs and their marketing teams have found useful for budgeting marketing spend. We divide this brief guide in two parts: the three guiding principles for guiding your plan and the process for defining your marketing scope

Guiding Principles: The 3 Cs of your Marketing Budget

We’ve found three simple guiding principles we call the “3 Cs” that can help you navigate your marketing budgeting options.

1. Comprehensive

Your budget must include spend for the key areas:
1) brand awareness
2) content and tool creation
3) demand generation

Specifically, to drive awareness for the brand, you need to budget for public relations, social media, websites and digital presence as well as other brand related programs that reach customers but do not drive direct lead creation or engagement. Then, to develop content and tools, you need to budget for thought leadership content and sales tools. The important thing to keep in mind is that you need an ongoing strategy to tell your story in a compelling way and to portray your company & products in a positive light. Finally, to deliver contacts and leads to sales, you need to budget for things such as digital programs, digital media, trade shows & events, and partner marketing – all of these create a blended program that directly engage customers and drive lead or contact creation for sales teams.

2. Calculated

We recommend that rather than using rules of thumb, you calculate estimated marketing spend based on lead conversion or customer acquisition costs (CAC) payback period.  To do this you need to incorporate specific building blocks, including:

  • Total addressable market (a large market requires a broader marketing outreach)
  • Size of your existing database (if you don’t have a strong target list, then you will need to invest to build it)
  • Size of sales teams and velocity of sales process (you need to calculate the number of leads required to support each sales rep over time and in relation to time of sale)
  • Your market position (newer entrants will need to assume the CAC will be higher, whereas known companies are able to spend less)

3. Committed

For each category of marketing spend, there is a minimum threshold. Either you commit to spending a certain amount or, in the category, forego spending anything. Do not try to find cost savings in specific line items.  The worst possible scenario is to try and execute a plan after your board agrees on that plan but asks for simple percentage cuts across the board.  You have to look at each area of marketing spend and determine what the minimum threshold for spending should be, and either decide to proceed or cut entirely. This is especially true for demand generation programs that drive direct contact acquisition and lead creation. For example, activities like media spend (digital ads, SEM, etc.) require a certain level of investment with some consistency over time to tune, adjust and manage before you see real results. If you cannot commit to spending consistently for a minimum of 6-12 months, you are best to forego this activity completely.

Some areas are more flexible in how you can tune spending up or down, but you need to ensure that you know the thresholds for each as well as the overall mix of spending required across the key areas of marketing. Properly planned and executed marketing is a well thought out mix of spending across the key areas with deliberate thought to how each investment influences the activities overall – essentially the sum is greater than that parts.

Process: Size and Shape of your Marketing Budget

You need to spend time to determine the right size and shape for marketing spend based on your unique circumstances and your market.


The size of your marketing budget should be based on an overall estimate of spend. To determine the range for marketing spend, we recommend using the average cost for an inquiry and lead conversion analysis to estimate the spend per closed/won opportunity (Marketing program portion of CAC). With a range of estimates for leaders and laggards, you can then determine the overall Marketing spend level with confidence. It’s important to note in the process, however, that there are both minimum thresholds that you need to be conscious of and ceilings that are capped based on total addressable markets. Simply put, you have to spend at certain levels across marketing to achieve any results at all – if an average cost per lead is $100, you can decide to invest $100 and get one lead.  On the other end, you should not assume you can put an unlimited budget into marketing and generate infinite leads.  You’ll be limited by the total addressable market and by some basic assumptions about what a reasonable penetration percentage is for your target market.

To size the marketing budget determining the average costs per inquiry, answer the following key questions:

  • What is the quota assignment?
  • What is the average sales price (ASP)?
  • How many new deals per year?
  • How many Quota Carrying Sales reps today and planned?
  • Who is the buyer? what level? executive? manager? is this a software purchase?  What part of a typical org would make the purchase?
  • What is their target market geography? Are they going after just US business or global?
  • What is the length of the sales cycle (sale velocity)?


The shape of your marketing budget is determined based on the relative importance and spend between brand awareness, content & tool creation, and demand generation. For an early stage company to build infrastructure and capabilities, there is a minimum amount of spend needed in all areas. In later stages, companies can shift emphasis and spend depending on whether they need to build awareness, capabilities or sales leads. The shape is also determined based on the approach to planning and executing your marketing programs. This approach can be either agency or internal-resources led with the appropriate management resource for each approach and is a basic build vs. buy decision. To achieve high levels of quality, many startups should use an agency-model until they can hire enough people to assume relevant functions – after all, the trend in marketing – and in finance also BTW – is rent versus own.

Co-author Steve Lim is Head of Marketing at Vantage Data Centers. He has deep experience in marketing strategy, field marketing, sales enablement, program development & delivery, content marketing, and operations.

 Make sure you fill those crucial initial spots with a great team that will take you places.

Congratulations to the Houston Astros, 2017 World Series Champions, and to the city of Houston who can use the win after a rough summer of devastating storms.  How did the worst team in baseball in 2013 with only 51 wins turn it around so quickly and reach the pinnacle of their sport?  They committed themselves to building the best possible team using all means available.  The Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, another great team that also had a great season.  Both teams won over 100 games and survived a tough run through the playoffs.  Also, both teams made major in-season moves that just may have been crucial to getting them to the World Series.

Assembling the best team

Like every other major sport, it’s now conventional wisdom that to win a championship, you do everything you can to put the best team on the field. The Astros traded for Justin Verlander, who went a combined 9-1 in the remainder of the regular season and playoffs and was key to all three of their playoff series wins.  The Dodgers picked up Yu Darvish who helped solidify their rotation and get them to the World Series.  Last year, it was Aroldis Chapman joining the Cubs and Andrew Miller joining the Indians.  In 2015, it was Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist for the Royals and Yoenis Cespedes for the Mets.

This lesson applies just as well to startups and to companies as a whole. The best team wins, and the question to ask is: are you doing everything you can to put the best possible team on the field?

I spent 13 years as a venture capitalist and during that time we had a saying.  If the three most important factors in real estate investing are “location, location, location”, we often said the three most important factors in VC investing are “management, management, management.”  We would take an “A” management team with a “B” idea over the reverse every time.  Why?  Because we had confidence the “A” team would be able to handle all the twists and turns required to successfully navigate the startup minefield and eventually find the “A” idea.  While the “B” team might just get stuck and fail to execute.

As a founder and entrepreneur, I had the same experience regarding the importance of having the right team. No matter how novel the idea, there were always multiple other companies chasing the same goal.  With the proliferation of startups, accelerators, incubators, seed funds, crowdfunding, etc, this is likely more true today than ever.  There is no doubt that timing matters.  Market size matters.  Business model matters.  But all else being equal, the better team has a much greater chance at winning.  I’ve seen it personally from both sides.  Bet the jockey, not the horse.

The relentless pursue of opportunity

Of course, as a startup you don’t have unlimited funds to pay seasoned leaders to join your team.  So, you need to be creative and grab talent whenever and however you can.  Probably the best definition of entrepreneurship I ever heard was from legendary Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson, who defined it as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.”

I joined Burkland Associates about a year ago and one thing that has surprised me so far is how many founders I’ve met who spend their time building Excel models, creating pitch decks and even doing journal entries and reviewing expense reports instead of leading their companies. At a stage where assembling a great team is crucial, a great founder focuses on setting the vision, charting the course, motivating the team and assembling the resources to be successful.  Recruit a team of experts – full time or part time, employees or consultants – to help you execute.

Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish may only take the ball every fifth day. They may not even be around 2-3 years from now, but this year, they made all the difference. The lesson to learn from this is: who can you add to your team to give you the cover you need to put you over the top?

Think about it.

There will be storms ahead. Make sure you learn resiliency from the ones that came beforehand.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

For millions of people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, the summer of 2017 is synonymous with tremendous suffering and loss, as one of the most active hurricane seasons in history hit their communities. As tactical response to the storms scales down and recovery begins, strategic focus will shift to making critical systems more resilient – such things as the water levies in Houston, and the power grid in Puerto Rico.

Although there is a world of difference between how governments and organizations respond to the challenges of large-scale disasters like storms and how a management team runs a business, I think there are some valuable resiliency lessons that can be drawn for startups.

When I’m not working as a consultant, I serve as a Civil Air Patrol liaison officer to FEMA’s Region II. In this capacity, I’ve worked six major hurricanes in the past several years, including Sandy in 2012 and this year’s Irma & Maria. Aside from master-of-the-obvious missives like “failure to plan is planning to fail,” here’s my top five list of lessons from disaster response every CEO can incorporate into their business strategy.

  1. Resources always govern results. There is never a shortage of demands on an organization’s resources, and the natural tendency is to pay the most attention to the fire burning brightest at the moment. However, an organization’s effectiveness is metered by the resources it can strategically bring to bear, not devote to this or that tactical fix. Avoid the trap of allocating resources (in a company, usually capital or talent) to things that are not bringing your organization closer to your broader goal. Also, avoid the cardinal mistake of not allocating enough resources to do the job at hand properly. Another landmine is the order in which you deploy your resources, which can matter as much as getting them in the first place. To use a FEMA parallel, there’s no use surging hundreds of trucks to help distribute food and water in Puerto Rico unless there are drivers on the ground to operate them. It sounds obvious, but in high-stress environments, it’s the simple and obvious things like this that will make or break the impact of scarce resources.
  2. Know what has to come first. Prioritization and precedence are critical to resource management, so knowing (or carefully planning for) what should receive support first is paramount if you are to avoid going back and doing something over again, or worse, detracting from your ability to deal with more important things down the road. Resources are almost always limited, while demands invariably outstrip supply. Management must prioritize, but it should do so more adroitly than merely forecasting an ROI on capital invested; look at your resources holistically, with your strategic goal in mind, and parse out in which order they should be expended. Bear in mind that it’s not always immediately apparent what should come first, and your decisions regarding prioritization will be based on incomplete information.
  3. Consequence management. This is one of the most common mistakes I see leadership teams make. While they may be very adept at allocating resources and prioritizing, CEOs often fail to extrapolate the broader impacts of their decisions, and how their choices may affect subsequent requirements. The more ambitious the goal and the tighter the timeline, the less likely is that you have really worked through how everything fits together, and how what you decide today may govern what has to be done tomorrow. I recommend mapping out how your decisions will move your startup towards its ultimate goal in order to see where the consequences lie.
  4. Avoid the soda straw. Every executive, commander and leader is at risk of viewing their world through the proverbial soda straw, focusing on the immediate requirements or mission they are tasked with at the moment to the virtual exclusion of everything else. This is a natural tendency: concentrate on the immediate task for survival. However, maintaining situational awareness of the entire enterprise – and its priorities – is key, no matter how exciting or promising a certain project might look today. In the disaster world, this means remembering that almost every decision comes with a long logistical and economic tail that must be managed – for instance, the person who orders thousands of first responders and military personnel to a hurricane zone must also think of the lodging, provisioning, and sanitary requirements they will place on an area that is likely to be already highly deficient in all three.
  5. Rapidly iterate based on new information. Private sector companies typically exist in rapidly-changing environments, and as the old saying goes, no plan ever survived the first hour of combat. Don’t be afraid to abandon prior conceptions about your market or customers in favor of new, real-life information you receive from the field. In this sense, treat your decisions as MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) that are just starting points from which to depart. Real-time adjustments are more valuable than anything you put up on a white board six months ago. And make decisions quickly – one of the few unassailable advantages a startup has over its larger competitors is an inherent ability to move very quickly, so use it often. Case in point: Google’s plan to use high altitude balloons to temporarily take the place of cell towers may restore mobile phone service in Puerto Rico weeks or even months ahead of any other solution available from local telecoms or the government.

In many cases, your CFO can help you not only properly define your company’s strategic goals, but also help you execute the day-to-day demands in order to reach them in a focused and efficient manner. Like with disaster response, there is no one thing that makes all the difference, but rather countless small elements that make up the overall effort. To sum up, remember another old saying: Manage the little things right, and the bigger things will take care of themselves.

If you’re in for a long race, venture debt financing could give you the air you need to get to the next peak in better shape. Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

Raising venture debt is always an interesting subject for startups. For some CEOs it is completely off their radar, and for others it is a taboo subject. In between these extremes, there’s a growing number of startups using venture debt effectively to buy time for a higher valuation, making it a cheap form (in terms of amount of stock it costs) of financing while the value of your company rises.

I thought we could shed some light into whether venture debt is a good thing for your company by creating a simple model you can use to project its long-term effects on your valuation and on your stock and explore if it makes sense for you. For a sense of the value of this exercise, under a relatively conservative growth scenario, Venture Debt could save the company from having to give away 3% of equity. Before getting into detail about how this model works, it’s worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on a couple of issues you will need to think through before raising money this way: covenants and purpose.

Covenants and Purpose

Many think that some banks and venture debt providers require excessive terms and may tie up the company with covenants that hurt you in the long-run. Our experience with this is that most of the terms and covenants can be negotiated, with the exception of the investor support covenant, which requires the venture investors of your company to agree they will continue to support the company or the covenant is triggered. Even the MAC (Material Adverse Change) covenant, which seems to be the most draconian of all because it gives the venture debt provider the option of not following up on their promise if there is a significant change in the company (based on their definition), can often be negotiated. What you need here is a supportive board that has a venture investor with venture debt experience, working closely with you and your CFO to ensure you get the best deal for the company.

Putting in place venture debt is best done right after a VC raise. You can usually structure it to pull the funds much later – and face only a small portion of the costs before pulling the funds. The goal is to have it available in the future in order to buy time for growth so that the next round comes a bit later, giving you more time to increase the value of your company. This means that  growth should be the purpose for making your case to raise venture debt with your board. Emergency money or, worse, an excuse just to spend more, is what this kind of financing can unfortunately be wrongly associated with. Although if it comes down to using it in the event of an emergency, that can also be a valuable use, but in that case, it’s usually just to give another shot at pivoting and potentially save the company rather than juice value. In any event, raising venture debt with growth in mind, before you need it, will help you get better terms with debt providers and negotiate favorable covenants.

The Model

The basic assumption behind our model is that you’re raising venture debt for the purposes of growing. As such, the spreadsheet helps you look at two scenarios of growing: with and without venture debt. The results, once you input your numbers, are quite simple:

  1. Whether using venture debt made you save equity
  2. Whether using venture debt gave you time to increase the value of your company

If there is a positive number answering these questions, then you should take a closer look at venture debt. We plugged in numbers to show you how it works, feel free to substitute these with yours (red fields are input fields and the two key outcomes are highlighted in yellow).

Click here to access the spreadsheet.

The model begins by assuming a venture raise just happened (Cash at the End of Period 0, $10 million in the example). In the example, you raise $5 million in venture debt, giving away 0.2% of equity (0.1% when you put the facility in place and the other 0.1% when you draw the money), and paying a setup fee of $30,000. Cash burn is the same in both cases ($3 million), except for the venture debt payments. The example assumes a valuation growth of 25% every period (in this case, every 6 months). Note that you pay the bank the initial fee ($30,000 in the example) even though you don’t draw the venture debt of $5 million until you need it in the third semester.

This model is built to show the debt enabling a six-month funding delay in your next round ($20 million in the example) and assumes the same valuation for both scenarios, as it is just comparing financing structures in isolation. The result in the example: you raised money at a valuation of $97.6 million in the last semester rather than raising it at a valuation of $78.1 million six months before. The net value saved was $3 million, leaving you with 3.07% in equity you can keep. Not too bad!

Does venture debt work for you?

If you plug your numbers into our model through this link (red marks indicate input fields), you will see the impact of using debt in addition to equity for some of your financing. The model buys you time, but you need to keep in mind that growth needs to happen.

Venture debt works when it buys you time for a better valuation because things are going well. You pay for this time with debt and not with equity, saving you equity in two ways: initially by raising debt, and then afterwards by using that debt to get to a better valuation. If your growth scenarios come to fruition, venture debt enables you to raise money a bit later than you would, when the value of your company is higher. That is a great deal if you’re good at forecasting. You can also explore the impact of the debt using different growth scenarios, thus further exploring the potential value or the downside. Have fun 😉