Tag Archives: business

The Cost of Comp Plans

By James Kwak

Enterprise software is the industry that I know best. Both of the real companies I worked for (sorry, McKinsey is a fine institution in many ways, but it isn’t a real company) were in enterprise software: big, complicated, expensive software systems for midsize and large companies that can take years to sell.

Although the development of enterprise software is (often) highly sophisticated, sales is typically governed more by tribal custom. One trait we probably shared with other big ticket, business-focused industries is the “comp plan”: the system for calculating salespeople’s commissions on sales. The comp plan is just about the most important thing to any red-blooded salesperson. (Its only competition would be the territory assignment, which determines what companies he is allowed to sell to—or, more specifically, for sales to what companies he will earn a commission.) It is the source of months of lobbying, the subject of intense executive- and even board-level scrutiny, and the target of almost every complaint.

Continue reading

A Bit of Obvious Advice

By James Kwak

People occasionally ask me what it takes to succeed in the business world (since they assume at least that I know some successful people). Luck probably belongs at the top of that list. But I have a very clear idea of the most valuable skill to have in business (in part because I don’t really have it): the ability to pick up the phone, call someone, and convince her to do something that is in your interests—even though she has no other reason to do it.

I’m not saying this should be the most valuable skill in business. People like me would prefer it if all decisions were made on the basis of factual evidence and logical reasoning. But they’re not. And the people whom I have seen become very successful are the ones who are hard to say “no” to, whether in person or on the phone. How they do it can vary: some do it with charisma, some with logic, some with sheer stubbornness.  But they can all do it.

Continue reading

Toxic Trait To Avoid #1

By James Kwak

I generally refuse to be drawn into the Yellen-Summers horse race because (a) everything that can be said, has been said, (b) I have no original information or insight, and (c) it’s all speculation anyway. But I’m going to comment on one parenthesis in Felix Salmon’s good summary post, since it has broader application:

Summers is, to put it mildly, not good at charming those he considers to be his inferiors, but he’s surprisingly excellent at cultivating people with real power.

In my personal experience, especially in the business world, this is absolutely the worst personality trait you can find in anyone you are thinking of hiring. You see it a lot, especially in senior executives. Unfortunately, at the time of hiring, you only see the ability to manage up—not the inability to treat subordinates decently. By the time you figure it out, you’ve already suffered serious organizational damage. (Thanks to my friend Marcus Ryu for identifying this problem so clearly.)

Continue reading

Frat Boys and Tech Companies

By James Kwak

Matt Bai’s recent article on how Curt Shilling’s gaming company, 38 Studios, managed to secure a $75 million loan from the State of Rhode Island and then flame out into bankruptcy is a reasonably fun read. Bai’s main emphasis, which I don’t disagree with, is on Rhode Island’s Economic Development Corporation, which managed to invest all of its capital in a single company in a risky industry that, apparently, had failed to secure funding from any of the VC firms in the Boston area. Overall, this seems like another example of why government agencies shouldn’t be trying to act like lead investors.

But the story has another moral, which struck closer to home for me. Shilling apparently founded the company because he liked MMORPGs and because he wanted to become “Bill Gates-rich.” When the going got tough, in Bai’s words, Shilling “seemed to think that he could will Amalur into being, in the same way he had always been able to pitch his way out of a bases-loaded jam, even with a throbbing arm. His certainty reassured employees on Empire Street, who had no idea that he was running out of money.”

Software is hard. Really hard. And it’s even harder when you’re up against good competition. It has to be done right, and you cannot get it done twice as fast by working “twice” as hard. Too many software companies have been run into the ground by people who wanted to make a fortune but had no understanding of how software is built. Most of them are back-slapping frat boys who climbed the corporate hierarchy in sales, not world-famous athletes. But Curt Shilling, apparently, was just like them.

“Gut Instinct Doesn’t Matter”

By James Kwak

I’m no fan of the genre of CEO interviews published in the Sunday Times. But this past Sunday’s CEO-of-the-week column featured Marcus Ryu, a good friend and someone I’ve worked with at three different companies.

Marcus is not only very smart and someone who really knows what it’s like to build a company from the ground up, but he’s also someone who has thought very hard about what it takes to succeed as a company and what a company needs in its CEO. Unlike many CEOs, he doesn’t believe in gut instinct or the magical ability to judge character. He believes that success in business is hard and, as I’ve heard him say many times, there never is a day when suddenly everything becomes easy. If you are or want to be a CEO someday, I recommend it.

Maybe It Was Apple

By James Kwak

A little over a year ago, iconic but fading department store J.C. Penney hired Ron Johnson as CEO. Johnson was head of retail operations at Apple—which, in case you didn’t know it, is just about the most successful retailer in the world by a bevy of metrics.

According  to today’s Wall Street Journal article, Johnson quickly eliminated coupons and most sales at J.C. Penney.

“Johnson bristled when a colleague suggested that he test his new no-discounts strategy at a few stores. . . . ‘We didn’t test at Apple,’ the executive recalled Mr. Johnson . . . saying.”

Well, yeah. Apple doesn’t discount because they sell stuff that people really, really want and that they can’t get anyplace else. And they don’t test because Steve Jobs refused to. At Penney? Sales have fallen by about 30 percent.

Continue reading

The More You Pay, the Less You Get

By James Kwak

Schumpeter at The Economist pointed me to a paper by Richard Cazier and John McInnis on one of my favorite topics: CEO hiring. Cazier and McInnis first confirm, not surprisingly, that pay for new, externally-hired CEOs is positively related to the past performance of their previous firms. In particular, they measure EXCESS_COMP as the difference between actual first-year compensation and the compensation that you would predict just based on the characteristics of the hiring firm; EXCESS_COMP turns out to be positively associated with the CEOs’ prior firms’ stock returns. That makes sense, since you would think that people from successful companies would be able to command a higher price than people from less successful companies, and it isn’t obviously controversial, since you would think they would deserve it.

But what do the new firms get for this pay premium? It turns out that their future performance, measured in terms of return on assets and operating return on assets, is negatively associated with excess compensation based on prior performance.* In other words, people from successful companies don’t deserve the pay premium because the higher the premium they are able to command, the less well they are likely to do.

Continue reading