Thursday, February 23, 2017
It's time for Tone at the Top on Diversity - or Why Uber is Yet Another Wakeup Call for Boards and CEOs in Tech
Uber is just the latest company caught in the act of discriminating against women in it's workforce. Sadly for many minorities in tech this is an old story.
As Ellen Pao writes in today's Time article it is an indication of "tech's existential rot". In a world that "started off seemingly harmlessly by white men funding white men with few exceptions. When only white men were given opportunities, only white men were successful. White men went on hiring only white men, because it seemed to be a common trait of successful employees. Then investors who were white men decided only white men could be successful and doubled down on white men. White men who succeeded in the system decided it worked and saw no need for change. Fifty years later investors can’t break out of that pattern."
But it is time for the pattern to break for many reasons. There is mounting evidence that diverse teams build better products - they are more likely to understand the buying behavior of their customers if they reflect the customer. There is also growing research that companies with diverse boards and management teams produce better returns for investors -so now some investors are encouraging boards to take on diverse board members.
But more importantly it is no longer acceptable for companies to allow employee harassment to continue while HR departments stand by or worse become part of the problem, as Uber is finding out to it's detriment. The #deleteuber campaign has been due for a while and will hurt. (note, I switched to Lyft a year ago after reading about the leadership culture at Uber.)
So if it is no longer acceptable at the board level, in the executive team, and in the engineering ranks what can we do to make change happen faster?
I have worked in the "bro" culture of tech in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years. I have repeatedly experienced unconscious bias (sometimes not so unconscious ), being underestimated, being dismissed, being propositioned etc. and I have worked hard to over come it as I became a CEO who grew my company through a successful IPO and acquisition. And as I have done so I have been open and public about my wish to be a role model to other women that you can be technical, and be in a leadership role, and have a family in the technology industry. It's possible to do and be happy.
I was conscious of the challenge I was facing from day one when I was one of only a handful (I think 5) women majoring in math at Cambridge in my year, out of about 300. And so, to be a role model, I have always tried to hold a leadership position in any situation I am in, especially if everyone else in the room is male.
It is so clear to me now that the problem we have in tech is not a pipeline problem. Yes, we need more little girls to like computers, and more little african american boys to believe they can be Mark Zuckerberg, but we have plenty already who enter the tech world. But the women leave in droves within 10 years because the environment is hostile. Our problem is keeping women in an industry that makes life difficult for them.
It is time to set the tone at the top. To insist that boards have at least 2 or 3 women on them (not just none, or the "we have one so we're done" you see on so many boards). There are now several recruiters who specialize in finding qualified women with the right experience for boards. For example Beth Stewart of Trewstar would tell you there is no shortage of qualified women to serve, but a shortage of boards who think this is an important issue.
It is also time for boards to insist that the CEO builds a diverse leadership team. This takes real work to find diverse, qualified executives but it can be done in most fields. Uber is just one of many examples where a mostly male leadership team is simply deaf and blind to the issues facing their female employees.
"Tone at the top" is an expression used by boards when reviewing the results of the annual audit. They discuss whether the management team is committed to honest, ethical behavior and whether they operate with integrity. The discussion is important to sign off the financials - after all what audit committee chair would want to sign off the financial filings if he did not believe the CEO and CFO had integrity with the numbers?
It's time for companies to embrace a "tone at the top" discussion around equal opportunity for all employees. It is time for every board to pay attention to the diversity statistics within their companies. How many women are employed at every level, has the company done an audit of pay across gender to check that women are not paid less than men for the same job? Are the percentages of women in leadership growing or shrinking? It is just not hard for HR to run reports and track progress over time - but it takes a serious discussion on the importance of diversity from the board down to build a world class company in the 21st century.
I am hoping this is what Eric Holder and my friend Arianna Huffington will now do for Uber.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
I first went to Israel in March 2016. I went at the invitation of a good friend who was teaching a class in Tel Aviv and went because I was longing to explore the ancient history of the area. I packed in a week of experience - as a tourist and as a mentor, across 3000 years of Jewish, Roman, Christian and Muslim history and I was hooked. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the River Jordan, Beit She'an, Masada, Cesarea, Herodium... energy, culture, technology, history and food... fantastic.
But on the same trip I found family. My husband did not know he had a Jewish family of cousins living in New York until they found us in mid 2015 (he was not raised Jewish). First cousins, not distant cousins, and one of his cousin's sons is a orthodox settler in the West Bank. So on the same trip I visited his family in Efrat - after all they are family! As Fivel drove me around the West Bank, explaining what I was seeing, I saw the walls, and the settlements, and the Palestinians villages and while I saw with my eyes I could not really understand what I was seeing or the implications of what I was seeing on the lives of the people living there.
So I spent the last 10 months studying with a focus on the history of the region, trying to get some grasp of the complexity of the situation. I read books covering the last 4000 years of the Middle East, the last 150 years and the British mandate, the last 100 years and self-serving colonial interference, the last 70 years of the state of Israel, the last 8 years of the impact of Obama's policy, and I felt I barely scratched the surface of understanding.
2016 was my year of saying "yes" and so when, sitting in an outside cafe in Mountain View, I was asked if I could go to Gaza to mentor entrepreneurs I took a deep breath and said yes. I had the anchor for my next trip.
And so, on January 19th 2017, I found myself eating breakfast in the besieged town of Gaza City, with dinner plans in an Israeli settlement in Efrat in the West Bank.
Gaza Strip is a small area of Israel with close to 2 million people in it living under siege. The reasons are very complex, but the result is the people of Gaza are not allowed to leave without a permit and a special reason. They live with limited resources, limited access to electricity, youth unemployment at close to 60%, an oppressive local government, bombed out buildings, poverty and the continuous risk of renewal of war. Many told me they have no future, the future for Gaza is "black" and the young people want to leave.
And yet they survive and try to thrive. They go to university, get married, have children, take care of their parents, dance, eat, and now have the chance to build tech startups.
Gaza Sky Geeks is a startup accelerator in Gaza City, run by an amazing dedicated team from Mercy Corps, the only one of its kind in Gaza Strip. Once you are in through the door it has the feel of a typical incubator. Lots of young entrepreneurs, high energy, laughing, laptops everywhere, people camped out whenever they can get to a plug, and unlike Silicon Valley, 50% women. Most of the businesses are very early stage, most of the ones I talked to fall into the category of web applications or platforms to solve issues in the region. For example, a mobile phone app to connect distressed Arab mothers with online advice or a platform to connect freelancers in a more efficient financial model suitable for the Middle East.
But the Gaza startups have significantly more headwind than you'd find in Silicon Valley, or even in Tel Aviv. They have no access to PayPal payment systems (you can read about this issue here), they have very uncertain power at home (although GSG just successfully raised money to buy a generator for the office space), they have limited access to seed funding, limited access to legal support, need an education on what it means to run a business to make meaningful progress and yet, despite their significant challenges, they are creative and determined to succeed.
I spent only two days with GSG because of my schedule, and would have been happy to spend ten. It's an exciting place to be and very much in need of mentors, especially in coding, product management and marketing.
It takes a permit from both Israel and Hamas to cross the border in and out of Gaza, and the crossing is not simple. It's Orwellian, and random, and I was disappointed to see that even Israel, the security technology leader of the world, did not have a system to analyze my history and digital footprint and determine I am not a threat. This is a business opportunity...
I left Gaza City at 1pm, crossed the border at Erez finally at 3:30pm, and arrived in Jerusalem by 5:30pm. Since I stayed in West Jerusalem last time I chose to stay in East Jerusalem this time, at the American Colony Hotel which is over a hundred years old and built in colonial times. I felt right at home.
Off to dinner with family that evening, we drive to Efrat as Fivel gives me a running, highly educated commentary of what I am seeing. There are about 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, another ~300,000 in East Jerusalem, and many are American so it makes sense that the settlements look like US suburbia. Nice white houses with red roofs, gardens and often on hilltops (for defensive reasons). You could be in the Midwest, except for the barbed wire protection around them. The Palestinian villages look similar, but different. They are white houses, with white roofs, black water tanks, and a mosque in every village. And big red signs at the entrances saying Israelis are forbidden to enter. And while the settlers have easy access to Jerusalem for work, the Palestinians do not. They must go through a crossing point and be checked.
But family life in Efrat, and the Palestinian villages, is not unlike family life anywhere else in the world. Kids go to school, people run small businesses, their kids won't go to bed, they worry about their kids future... but they also all worry about what the long term looks like for peace and financial prosperity. And obviously there is no comparison between the difficulty of life in Gaza and the challenges of the two communities living in the West Bank.
I won't take sides in this conflict - I don't know enough, both sides seem entrenched and politically responsible for this terrible situation but who am I to judge? But I asked questions. During my trip I spoke with a Palestinian business leader who just wishes the Israelis would leave her country. And I was reminded of the Gazan entrepreneur who told me she just wished they had the quality of life of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I spoke with Israelis who feel strongly that security is the top issue and they are determined to ensure Jews never come close to extinction again, and Israelis who long for a democracy and peace with their Arab neighbors.
After my surreal day spanning the two worlds I spent the next few days mentoring and teaching. I met with women entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv at Startup Nation Central and was very impressed by their businesses, drive and intellect. I taught an EMBA class on being a CEO at Hebrew University to wannabe VCs who were intense, and funny and a joy to talk with - and interested in how they can help Gaza. This is a small place, and everyone's lives are, in the end, intertwined.
For me, the small way I can help is on the ground with women and entrepreneurs. I have believed for many years now that our world will only become sane when women hold equal power to men. Most women are not as violent; when most women make money they invest in the family and education. The long term solution is women also having financial power, investing in a peaceful future.
I also believe in the state of Israel and the need for it to exist and thrive. Whatever the past, it is here and here to stay. But the long term path to peace is that the people living on Israel's borders, in Israel's occupied territories of Palestine, and in Jordan, have jobs and a future and hope. They need a healthy economy. So I have decided I will, to the extent I am permitted to, help on the ground mentoring entrepreneurs and women in Israel, Gaza and Palestine.
The Middle East and Islam dominates so much of our global and US politics, and it's so complicated that I encourage you, if you have not done so already, to go and see for yourself. And, if you're willing, volunteer mentor for Gaza Sky Geeks.
HuffPo article on Gaza Sky Geeks
TechCrunch article on the fundraiser for a power generator and coding academy at GSG
The Silk Roads - Peter Frankopan - a retelling of world history
The Kingmakers: The invention of the modern Middle East - Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E Meyer
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel - Ari Shavit
The Two State Delusion - Padraig O'Malley
Jerusalem - Simon Seabag Montefiore
and there are many more...
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
I am more convinced than ever that there is a bright future for women entrepreneurs and 2016 proved it to me!
I stepped back from being a full time CEO a little more than a year ago. It was time, for family reasons, and I set out to change my life. I still work (I serve on two public company boards) but I decided to spend a great deal more time with my father and my family than I have ever been able to do before, and to prioritize my time to giving back. But I had no idea what that really meant for me – what could I do that was meaningful other than work as a CEO?
I decided that I would just say “yes” to every request for help from entrepreneurs, especially, but not exclusively, women. Not that I would be a pushover and do anything I was asked, but I would say yes to any request for a meeting from an entrepreneur who wanted advice. A first meeting at least and if I thought I could make a difference I'd keep saying yes. I wish I could say I was inspired by Shonda Rhimes’ TED talk but I did not see it until I was well into the year. Instead I was thinking of it as following breadcrumbs without knowing where they were going to lead.
It's been an extraordinary year, it's taken me in directions I never would have expected, and it's changing me.
I've met with many amazing female entrepreneurs. Aged twenties to sixties. A psychiatrist who has figured out how to use technology to dramatically reduce the cost of cognitive testing for veterans with PTSD or the elderly with dementia, a media executive with a passion for travel who's changing how people explore the world, a technologist who's figured out how to measure skin tone so you can buy the right makeup for your skin, a CEO with an IoT product that can tell you all about the water leakage risks in your commercial property assets (something I did not know was a big problem), a woman revolutionizing the sex tech industry, a woman with breakthrough security technology to protect your phone, a visionary who set up the first and only incubator in Gaza... a new calendaring app, a better travel itinerary planning app, a next generation geospatial model, better on-chip failsafe technology, the artistic director of a ballet, networking technology, machine learning technology ... the whole gamut! I have found I love talking with entrepreneurs and CEOs. I love listening to their stories about their businesses, what’s working, what’s scaring them, how they are getting funded.
I ask questions, ad nausea, and then focus in on one of two challenges they face and discuss with them how to overcome them. It's fun for both of us, and I realize I can help many of them. No judgement, just the experience of being there myself more than once before. And I now believe, more than ever, it is much harder for women to get venture funding than men. I have far too many data points now!
I've met with women hedge fund managers who only invest in women led companies, recruiters whose only business is placing women on boards, bankers who want to do deals for women CEOs. The movement is happening. Women are, more than ever, proactively helping women. I threw a book party for Joann Lublin’s new book Earning It - the party was 3 days after our horrific election - and I saw ~60 women (eating my husband's terrific food and drinking good wine) talking to each other about how this cannot be our future and becoming even more committed to make a different future for women.
But I also visited Israel for the first time and I was hooked. I found Israel fascinating and a historical goldmine but then I spent time in the West Bank with family who are orthodox settlers, and at the same time joined a small group trying to help Palestine with Silicon Valley technology. Wow, that is a complex area. I am reading like crazy trying to understand, but it's also an area where young women are starting businesses and where I can help.
2016 wasn't all about female entrepreneurs. I've spent 25% of the year in Europe. Driving with my Dad through France, quiet days with him in England helping him write his life story, Italy with my daughter, with my husband, with my sister. Enough time that I know I was truly present for my family, for the first time in a long time.
I am not unaware that it is a privilege for me to be able to do this, but I also now recognize that it is not only money that holds us in our jobs. It is also social status, recognition, a sense of being important. One of my new friends, now in her seventies, and who had a very big, high profile CEO job, told me one of the things she found most difficult about retiring was not being important any more. We are all, in our own ways, driven by ego and giving up the identity that defined me for most of my adult life has had it's hard moments, like when a man asked me at a fundraiser what I do for a living and when I said I am retired he said “oh” and walked away. I've had plenty of "invisible" moments this year and it takes some getting used to.
We may feel it's hard for women entrepreneurs in 2017, but the groundswell is growing. The number of smart women building businesses inspires me. The number of powerful female CEOs inspires me. And in 2017 I am open for business to help them in any way I can!
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
If you want to join a board, you are not alone. Some people want to find a board in the middle of their career because they like the idea of learning about board life, or for the status of it; some people are looking for board work towards the end of their career because they want to stay engaged and give back. Either way it's a common, serious interest for many people.
But what does it take - how do you prepare yourself to be qualified?
First off, determine why you want it - and be able to articulate that. Are you looking for income or interest? Be clear about this because there is a huge difference between the two. Non-profit boards typically don't pay, in fact they expect you to give money. For-profit private company boards may pay cash, or they may only pay in stock (which may, or may not, ever be worth anything) and for-profit public company boards pay, but the pay varies widely depending on the size, industry and country of the company.
Once you can clearly state what you want and why, the next step is for you to determine what value you are going to bring - what is your value proposition? What experience do you bring, how will you be helpful, why should a board want you on it? I had never done this formally until a few weeks ago when I was on a panel and the moderator asked us panelists to write down our value propositions. This is what I came up with (late at night in a hotel room!):
As someone who has 20 years as a high tech CEO, has been through an IPO and many M&A deals and who is very technical, I bring experience in what it takes to create the strategy, execution plans and leadership teams necessary to drive growth. As a compensation committee chair on two public boards I team with the CEO to create the right incentives to execute the operational plans and create shareholder value. I tend to be the voice in the room focused on strategy and the needs of the leadership team in a rapidly changing world.
Try writing yours - what would you say?
Another way to approach this is to inventory your skills. Make a list of what you're good at - what makes you unique. This is your experience - what types of jobs you've had - PLUS what is it about your intellect and personality that will be helpful? Are you good under pressure, are you energized by solving hard problems, are you good at negotiation, are you natural coach, do you have strong P&L management experience? These are skills that are often not on your resume, but when a recruiter asks you what you would bring to a board it's good to be able to confidently state the top 3 or 4 skills that you would bring.
The next challenge is that while you may feel you are ready to contribute on a board, many boards will not want to hire someone with no previous experience. This is one of the top objections that prevents boards diversifying - boards tend to hire people they know, who are like them, who have served on boards before. It's less work than hiring someone who is different and needs training. But as the trend towards building more diverse boards continues, nomination committees are coming to terms with hiring board members without previous experience.
One of the ways you can prepare yourself is to go and take training. I am a member of the volunteer faculty at a two day intensive training course - the NextGen Directors Academy - designed to take a small group of diverse, aspiring future board members through the nuts and bolts of being on a board. We cover the basic responsibilities, what each committee is responsible for, what your institutional investors care about and case studies of boards who got off track with activists. It's an interactive, peer to peer format, and there are no stupid questions. There are several courses around like this, but not all have deep, intense content so make sure you talk with previous attendees before you sign up.
Another way you can prepare is to make sure you have the business basics covered. Most of the top business schools run executive training classes, from a few days to several weeks, ranging from general management preparation to specialized skills like cyber security. Once you have inventoried your own skills and experience, think about whether you have a gap you need to fill with some training, or whether you want to develop a skill that is currently in high demand for board members.
One of the ephemeral requirements of many boards is "fit". Boards are expected to be collegiate, to get along, to voice difference but in the end come together on decisions. (I could write a tome on whether this is healthy for the shareholders or not, but not here). If you want to get onto a company board, but have no experience to point to, try joining a non-profit board first. Pick one that is a decent size (>$500k a year in budget), that has a real board that meets 2-4 times a year and that is run by an experienced chairperson. Reading the prep materials, listening to the management team, sitting in the meetings contributing to the discussion in a balanced, collegiate way will bring you confidence and experience that you can then refer to when you discuss your first for-profit board.
Make sure you have the time to be an effective board member. Being on a board carries status with it, it sounds important, and it may pay well. And many boards have 4-5 meetings a year so it doesn't sound like much. But actually board work can take a huge amount of time. On a regular basis you need to put the time aside to read, to prepare and to attend the meetings. But in addition you will have countless phone calls and phone meetings outside of the regular meetings. You will need to meet with the CEO and members of the executive team and if the board needs to find a new CEO (for whatever reason) expect to spend days and days, over a series of months, meeting candidates and discussing them with the other board members. So before you pour time into preparing yourself to sit on a board make sure your day job allows you enough time to truly contribute.
And finally, don't be shy. If you want to get on a board say so. Tell everyone you talk with about boards that you are, yourself, looking for a board seat. Network with recruiters who specialize, and stay in touch with them so you are current in their minds. Talk to people who are already on boards. Finding the right board is a pretty random process and so getting the word out will help the right board find you.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Sicily is magical. Ancient history, glorious art, beautiful countryside and marvelous food and wine. My Christmas present from Bret this year was he was willing to go to Sicily with me without his kiting gear - and for those of you who know him this is a big give! So we set out, guidebooks in hand, and explored...
I got started with an overview of Sicilian history through the book Sicily by John Julius Norwich. This book walks through 3,000 years and is an expression of the author's long standing love affair with the island. It gives a rich backdrop to help you understand what you are seeing every day.
Your can see our route here.
The Normans ruled Sicily for a hundred years through most of the 12th century, and left behind the most glorious byzantine mosaics. A visit to Monreale Cathedral and the Capella Palentina, both built by Roger II, are a must for any art lover. It's easy to wander around Palermo following in the Norman's footsteps through churches, cathedrals and the great Norman palace. Then move forward a hundred years to the time of Frederick II (stupor mundi- the wonder of the world) and think about his extraordinary achievements while standing by his porphyry tomb. The Normans and Frederick II were rich, cultured, religiously tolerant and clearly had an eye for beauty and visual story telling.
But the Romans also developed Sicily and one of the best preserved Roman villa floors in the world is in the middle of Eastern Sicily at Piazza Armerina - the Roman Villa Casale. Built in the early 4th century, every room has gorgeous, complex, well preserved mosaics on the floors. Hunting scenes, lovers, athletes, children's whimsical playtime, it's overwhelming. Forgotten for many years, it is now a Unesco site, and while off the beaten path well worth the effort to get there.
Ah the riches! Segesta, Selinute, Agrigento - each captured our imagination as we walked through reconstructed temples and climbed over the remains of even bigger fallen temples. The Greeks started building in Sicily by 750 BC and built vast cities warring with each other. But while the temples were abandoned by ~200BC the sites were not, so in each case you can visit for an hour or two - or for a day - depending on your taste. Speaking of taste, when an old man hands you a flyer inviting you to his restaurant which is 5 km down a dirt track from the site accept the invitation. One of our best meals was at a farmhouse surrounded by goats with no menu, where no one spoke English but everything was made by the old man's wife. Yum.
All these ruined temples are very atmospheric, but the best is not a temple, it is the Duomo in Syracuse. While masquerading as a duomo now, it is actually a Greek temple where the gaps between the columns have simply been filled in with tufa blocks. The inner and outer colonnades are in place and the columns are exposed so as you walk through you feel you are actually still inside a pagan temple but it has a thin veneer of monotheism on top.
Of course because there were Greeks there are also Greek theaters. From the small one at the hilltop in Segesta to the huge one in Syracuse to the panoramic one in Taormina. Every one has to be explored.
Sicily is a perfect climate for citrus. And the south east corner is the best - miles and miles and miles of lemons, oranges, grapefruits and hundreds of varieties.
At the Marchesi di San Giuliano they have been making marmalade for 20 years all organically, only from fruit on their land. Everything is cut by hand, everything is prepared, cooked and bottled by hand. We requested a marmalade tasting in advance and, after getting lost a few times, found ourselves at a small farm where they had rolled out the red carpet. The chief cook hosted us and she had made a lemon marmalade tart, as well as prepared bread, butter and a selection of all their marmalades to try. The whole experience was delicious and amusing, and even more so when I innocently asked "how many people come to taste marmalade a year?" and they answered "You are the first!" We satisfied their curiosity about our strangeness when we told them we are English.
Even in late September Sicily is hot. T-shirts, sandals, hats and sunscreen. Except in the small mountaintop village of Erice. Erice is at 2500 feet with sheer cliffs on 3 slides and a defensive wall built by Daedalus. The town is walled in with cobble streets and no room for cars (although of course you don't know that when Google maps says you can drive to your hotel and you break numerous traffic laws figuring out you can't). There is a small Norman castle at the top (of course on the site of an ancient Greek temple) and by mid afternoon we were completely shrouded in fog. On brief breaks in the fog we could see down to the glittering sea, but then we'd be back in the clouds - perfect for a spooky abandoned castle!
There is so much to see in Sicily and there is something for everyone. Expansive white beaches, cocktails on the harbor wall, wine tasting, Caravaggios, museums and easy driving. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and pleased to help us and our fellow travelers were from all over Europe, and rarely from the US. If you have not been, put it on your bucket list!
I worked with the team at Indagare.com for all reservations - and cannot say enough about this service. Excellence at every turn and they booked us into everything from a 3 star hotel with worn carpets (but still the best hotel in Erice, and the best coffee of the trip), to a 7 room super quiet agritourism hotel in the middle of an orange grove to the 5 star experience of the Villa Athena in Agrigento. All with grace and patience.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
Entrepreneurs can be a hard headed lot. It takes courage, determination, a lot of luck, and sometimes just old fashioned, bull-headed persistence to create a company but as a result entrepreneurs don't always listen well.
But even if you know you resemble this description, ask yourself - is it more important for you to get to the right answer, or to be right?
You want to be right because your team wants to follow someone who knows what to do. You want to be right because it's more efficient, and it increases your confidence, and if you're right more often than you are wrong you have a good chance of winning. And if you believe you are right you are more likely to take risk.
But your potential investor wants you to be more interested in getting to the right answer than being right. When you are building your company you cannot predict what's going to happen. You may switch markets, your customers may show you a different direction, the company may almost die more than once, you are certain to make some bad hires along the way. It is almost guaranteed that your journey will not be smooth.
As a result, it is much more impactful as an investor to work with entrepreneurs who are seeking truth, seeking to understand, seeking the right answer. These entrepreneurs ask questions, question themselves and try out ideas without fear of being wrong. As an investor you can dig in and problem solve with them. It's more fun, it's less frustrating, and you are more likely to get to a great end result together.
So when you are talking with potential investors, or even potential senior team members you want to hire, ask yourself how strong is your need to be right?
Thursday, September 1, 2016
So you want to work for a startup!
You've been talking to one that you think is going somewhere and will give you the experience you want, you like the people and the title, job and salary sounds right for you. They make you an offer. Great!
But now is the point where you need to ask three critical sets of questions to determine if this is actually a good company to work for or not. Remember each job you take influences your future career. What you learn, who you get to know, what opportunities you get as a result. Many people peak in their forties (career wise, and for a myriad of professional and personal reasons) and so the job choices you make in your twenties and thirties will affect how you peak.
After 30 years in Silicon Valley, 20 of them as a high tech CEO, and now talking almost every day to people who want company and career advice, I've seen too many bad company structures to take any offer at face value. I recommend you (respectfully) ask questions to explore these three areas - the health of the business, the capital structure and the organization - and if a company won't answer then that in itself tells you this is a not a great situation for you.
1. Understand the health of the business
Health is all about rate of growth. What is the revenue, how is it growing and what other metrics are critical health indicators for the business? so ask:
- What was the revenue for the last 2 years, what is the forecast for this year and next year? You're listening for consistent, sustainable growth and a management team that is making its plans. There is no right answer here because it depends on the stage of the company, but you're listening for b.s. or inconsistency.
- What percentage of the revenue this year is recurring (ie. it renews every year)? Do you expect this percentage to improve? You're listening for the quality of the revenue. Recurring is higher quality than one-time revenue and drives a higher valuation. If a high percentage is recurring then you want to understand how many of the customers renew - i.e. what is the customer retention rate? How much do they churn.
- Are you profitable? If so for how long? If not when do you plan to be profitable? If not, when do you need to raise your next round of investment? Note, if your hiring manager says "we're not profitable and we don't want to be" don't buy the b.s. The ONLY time you don't want to be profitable is when you have easy access to lots of cash and you're truly investing for growth but most good companies would like to be profitable, while still growing, so they stop burning cash. They should be able to talk about how much time and cash it is going to take to get profitable if everything goes to plan.
- What are the other important metrics you track for your business? For example customer acquisition rate and costs, customer retention rates etc? Be sure to listen for real metrics that are about the true health and growth of the business, not just marketing metrics (clicks, downloads etc) but which are not metrics leading to revenue growth.
2. Understand the capital structure and cash
Startups run on cash from investors, not cash from operations and so it's important you know what the terms are and how they might affect the future of the company, so ask:
- What is the capital structure? How many preferred shares are outstanding, how many common and what is the total number of shares including the unallocated options in the employee pool? You want to know the total number of shares so you know what your options may be worth in the future.
The company has raised $5M selling 5 million shares at $1 per share to preferred sharesholders
The founders have 5 million shares
The option pool has 1 million shares priced at 10 cents per share
=> there are 11 million shares and the post-money valuation is $11M
The company is sold for $49M.
$5M is returned to the preferred shareholders so now there is $44M to share
This means $4 per share - you make a gain of $3.90 per option you have vested at that time
- What are the basic terms of the preferred shareholders? Are they participating? - this means they take their money back first as in the example above and then what's left is divided across the total number of shares.
- Do the preferred shareholders have any control on the sale of the company? For example, can they veto a sale below a certain valuation, or veto a capital raise below a certain threshold valuation? You want to know this because if they can, and you think it's unreasonable then you should discount the potential value of your shares. These kind of terms are not typical with high class VCs, but you do see them with PE firms and newer VCs who don't have a lot of experience on the downside effects. And I know of too many founders who lost their companies because of these types of terms. If you are unsure, ask around or check out The Funded to get a measure of the quality of the investors.
- Do any of the executives have 100% vesting on change of control? Some VCs say no to this for everyone, some say only the CEO, some say only the CEO, CFO and VP Sales and so on but most executives want it. This tells you a lot about whether the executives are looking to ramp quickly and sell vs. build a long term company.
- And if they suggest you buy your common stock don't. Look at what happened to the employees at Good Technology, and there are thousands of examples like this where the common holders lost their money because they were behind the VCs. Be patient and pay a little more tax when you make money.
3. Understand the org chart and politics
- Figure out where you fit in the organization. How many layers are between you and the CEO? What is the span of control of your VP? You're looking for a relatively flat organization where you are in a strong part of the organization - i.e. your exec has power.
- Does the organization make sense to you? Do you see what looks like politics between founders (odd titles, responsibilities in places they should not be)? Do you see one CEO by name, but two CEOs by organization? Does the balance between R&D and sales make sense to you? Again, does it pass the sniff test for you?
Remember, you want to work for someone who is really good at their job, a great manager, and who will invest in you and your skills. And someone who you will work for for a decent period of time - like a year. You don't want a weak manager, a revolving door of managers, or ill defined responsibilities between you and other people/teams. The chaos being reported at WrkRiot is certainly unusual, but there are many aspects of this story I have seen and heard when founders don't know what they are doing and don't have good advisors - so be selfish and do your homework.
Most good companies will help you understand these three areas because they will respect that you are making an important decision for your career. The most precious thing you have is your time and the best thing you can get is experience. Not money, or options, or a title but experience. Training, education and opportunity. So measure your startup against those metrics too before you fall in love.
Monday, August 22, 2016
I was highly amused to read the New York Times article that people who read books live longer!
According to the NYT "Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all."
Well I am on my way to changing my longevity to a long old age surrounded by piles of books. Hooray!
And this Summer, as my first Summer not working full time as a CEO, the books are certainly piling up but by far the best book I have read in a long time is the Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. This book is a retelling of world history by looking at it through the lens of the development of trade routes, specifically the silk roads, through the center of the world (Persia and it's neighbors). It does a beautiful job of weaving a complex story of how these economic relationships developed in a completely compelling and riveting way, while at the same time it ties the trading relationships into world events as diverse as the discovery of the New World and the Second World War.
It's not perfect - as the Guardian review says "The need for brevity has led to some troubling misrepresentations" but at 646 pages of dense type it is hardly brief. And the Washington Post review is fair in both praising the book, and pointing out it's shortcomings.
But for me much of the fascination with this book comes not from learning any specific new history but instead to see how intimately everything is connected. I, like the author, was raised with a Eurocentric point of view and my education was very pro British Empire. I cringed at times at how critical the author is of the British in the 19th century, but my discomfort was even more acute reading his perspective on the Americans in the Middle East since the second world war. He's harsh, and maybe a little biased against both my countries (I'm a dual national after all) and yet his perspective was thought provoking.
If you are interested in world history this is a book truly worth making the time and effort to read. And even if you are not, this book will open your eyes to a new way of thinking about the history we were taught.
For the rest of my Summer... of the many books I have read I recommend:
Sicily by John Julius Norwich - a loving walk through the history of this fascinating island and a must if you are thinking of visiting.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit - gorgeous, rich description of the birth of modern Israel, although a little biased.
Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore - deeply researched sweep through 2500 years of this fascinating city's history, also well written.
Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy - a nerdy feast on this fascinating man.
And for a scented confection that makes you want to cook with lemons and get on a plane to Italy my current delight is The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helen Attlee. It is simply perfect!
Thursday, August 18, 2016
It's strange how the tendrils of history weave our lives together in unexpected ways.
This Summer my father told me that he had decided to give a 1925 copy of the complete works of Thomas Paine to his old school in memory of his brother. He asked me to go with him and, thinking it would be a pretty drive on a summer day, I said yes, not knowing I'd peel another layer of his story.
My father's school is Thetford Grammar School in Norfolk, England. It's a very old school, dating back to Saxon times with old flint buildings that were part of a Dominican Friary and a Norman cathedral in the past, and where ruins still stand in the parking lot.
But more importantly, Thomas Paine went to Thetford Grammar from 1744 to 1749. One of the founding fathers of the United States, and author of the radical work Common Sense, went to this little market town school all those years ago. It's in a rural part of England which was surrounded by farms and wealthy landed gentry back then; I have to wonder how many of Thomas Paine's ideas were formed by the feudal attitudes still prevalent in England in those days.
I knew the school meant a lot to my father, but I didn't realize quite how much until I went with him.
My father grew up in Thetford in the War surrounded by air bases, Yanks and the excitement of a war going on around him as a young boy. But he also grew up in a tough household because his father had a drinking problem. He was a bright kid with a positive outlook on life and his schooling had a huge influence on his life - he would say it was how he got out. He was pushed ahead early, supported by his teachers and did so well he got a scholarship to UCL and so escaped his family's life in Thetford.
Without the school he would still be there instead of traveling the world. And this is what he had the chance to tell some of the kids when we went to the school. Little did we know that the new headmaster made an event of my father coming up! We had the local press and a photographer there, the heads of the boys and the girls schools, the chair of the board of governors all there to receive the gift.
The headmaster, Mark Bedford, gave a speech, my father gave a speech, and I teared up. I looked up at the wall and saw his name on the wall board of Bartram Gold Medal winners in 1949. There was his name (with the old apostrophe put into the name in the late 19th century and removed again in the late 20th) recording that his teachers and his own ability pulled him out of a dead end situation at home and put him on a path to an international career in tech. Not surprising that at age 84 he still remembers the names of all his maths teachers!
And he's been asked back to give the speech at the Speech Day at the beginning of term in September, with teachers, parents and students. I'm so proud of him!
Monday, August 8, 2016
I've been working with a number of small companies this year. I'm on a mission to help CEOs, especially women, figure out how to grow their businesses, manage their investors and boards and to create a level playing field for themselves.
But as I have spoken to some of these CEOs I've seen several data points which are very worrying, and which I hope don't make a line! These data points are investors putting money in to companies, and then taking the money back out for services - so effectively reducing the cost of their investment. Double dipping.
For example.... The professional service provider:
This is the case for a small software company, lets call them W. W has developed a software technology to improve building management, and so reduce insurance costs. It wasn't an easy company to raise money for and in the end the CEO raised from angels, one of whom invested $480k. Nice.
But he then turned around and sold W the development service to create the product from the technology for $490k. He didn't require it, but it was "expected". Assume a typical margin of 50% then the service cost for the angel to deliver is $245k and he has a profit of $245k. So he got $480k worth of equity in W for $235k. And to make matters worse, when the product delivery was not to the satisfaction of the CEO she found it very difficult to push back on him in the way she would have been able to push back on an independent contractor. It's awkward to say the least, but I think it's what in a public company would be called a related transaction - it is simply not independent and so has the potential for conflict of interest.
The investors with a side business:
Another small app company, raised money from an angel group. The angel group has a strategy of creating an ecosystem from their companies, and providing services to them to drive the market adoption. But, unlike the old school VCs like Mayfield and KP, or even the new large scale guys like Andreessen Horowitz, this group turned around and charged the company (which had only raised $1.5M) $11k/month for marketing. That's $132k per year - which could have been spent on another engineer or a lot more marketing consulting from an independent.
The board member who wants a salary:
This time a technology company in the security space. Killer technology, but a turnaround from a prior (not-well-run) incarnation so raising money was hard. In the end money came in from a PE firm. But after the close the PE firm put in an executive chair to "help" and insisted he be paid $180k a year for a few days a week. Now I am supportive of a board deciding a CEO needs some help and adding in an exec chair if the CEO agrees (or even if she doesn't if it's really needed) but to pull a salary out of a company that is not profitable is very tough on the company. And in the end it's not in the best interest of the investors; it doesn't make sense.
I wonder if I have seen a few outliers and this is not the new normal, or if this is a new trend? Is it a result of the number of angel groups out there who are not professional investors (and so to give them the benefit of the doubt we could assume they don't realize the impact of what they are doing), is it a result of the tightening of investment (and so they can get away with it) or it is a result of the simply huge number of startups and first time CEOs who can be taken advantage of? If you have an example in your own company inmail me on LinkedIn.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
When I stepped back from being a full time CEO 9 months ago I knew there were a few things that would take an adjustment. Most have been a good change for me. And some are just very different.
One of the choices I have made is to spend a great deal more time with my father. He's 84 (almost 85!), lives in England and is physically fit. But he's alone, and slowing down, and long periods alone get him down. So this year I've been going to the UK every other month, and he's come to stay with us, and we've vacationed together in France. And next Winter he's coming to us for several months to escape the long, cold, grey days which England serves up after Christmas.
Life's a very different pace when you're 84. There is routine. Breakfast always at the dining table which is set with china, a trip to the supermarket every other day, time with the paper in the morning after breakfast, the big meal (meat and two veg) in the middle of the day (if possible), a walk through the woods by the house (only if it's not raining), project work (his life story, sorting out photos...), lunch and dinner at the set dining table, and TV after dinner.
It's idyllic. One day each trip we go to London because he has a meeting at the Dyers and I go to a museum, although this time I stretched the day when I arranged to meet one of my young cousins for a drink after work and got a later train home. But I realized it is very tiring to have such a long day if you are 84 (although it was "great fun"). My sister comes by at the weekends and breaks up the routine for us, and some days I leave for a few hours to see old friends. But in general, it's a gentle way to live.
And it's an education for me. An education to help him write his life story, and hear the stories over and over and so realize how important they are to him. An education we are now getting together on self publishing. An education to see how important his lifetime of collecting furniture, art, china etc is to him and how each piece is attached to a memory. An education to hear how important each job was to him, and how much he loved his work, and yet an education to see that all the b.s. he put up with as he was climbing the ladder isn't really meaningful in comparison to the time he had with my mother, and with family, kids, vacations and adventures. I know this myself, and yet it's very grounding to actually live in the reality of someone over 80 for a while.
In 48 hours I'll be on my way back to the hustle of Silicon Valley. Board responsibilities, coaching, the daily tumble of a household and pets. So I try to treasure this gentle pace. And know when it's all over, hopefully many years from now, I'll look back on this as a magical time. But it's also a good reminder that I am not ready to check out of the rat race yet...
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
One of the first decisions an entrepreneur needs to make once she has raised money for her great new idea is to build a board.
This is a conscious act. Yes, your investors probably have board seats, at least the lead investor will. If your investors are angels maybe 2 or 3 of them have demanded to be on your board. But beyond this crew you owe it to yourself to step back and think about who do you want on your board to help you build your company.
It is entirely reasonable for you to put one outside director on your board, and it's an unusual set of investors that will not allow you to bring one new director on. And when you do, you want to bring on a current/former CEO.
Why a CEO? Why not a technologist, or a family friend, or your cofounder? Fundamentally, a current/former CEO is going to have seen your movie before and will bring a wealth of unexpected advantages to your board and your company.
Your board has a duty to represent all your shareholders, but more than that they have a responsibility to care for the company first. For your employees, your reputation, your probability of success. Having a board member who is truly independent of the investors can help bring a broader perspective to the board discussions. I have seen investors who are so focused on their own issues they lose sight of what's best for the company. An independent director can take her role - as the one person who is not worried about the timing and size of liquidity but is instead worried about the long term success of the company - very seriously.
I met with a big time PE partner (let's call him Adam - not his name) recently, who is sitting on a private technology board. As we talked he told me the CEO was dealing with the issue that he, and the other big time PE firm on the board have different agendas. One is a long term investor, one is interested in liquidity sooner, and the difference is a strategy problem for the CEO. The investors are balanced in ownership and the CEO is caught in the middle. I asked Adam "Why is this the CEO's problem? Surely the CEO's responsibility is to grow a great company and create the greatest value he can, not worry about negotiating between the two of you on the timing of an exit. It's a ridiculous waste of his time". Adam (figuratively) took a step back and agreed. I'm not on this board, but I can still make the case for the CEO not being distracted!
You're going to need advice as you build your company, great advice. Yes your investors may know a few people, but you want to be referred to people who are not looking to your investors for future referrals, again who are truly independent. You'll need lawyers (you want a pit bull in your corner unless you have truly world-class VCs), recruiters, marketing consultants etc. etc. And when you hire them you want to know they are loyal to you, not back channeling to your investors. An independent CEO should have a quality network for you to tap into.
Working for you
There will be times when you need to get something done but you are out of time and need some sleep. You can use your CEO/director to give you capacity. Maybe you need her to build a model for you, maybe you don't know how to present an issue to your board and your director can build a sample presentation for you to help you frame the issue. At a minimum your director can do deep reviews for you of your own presentations, legal agreements, offer letters, compensation plans... with the eye of someone who has done it before.
A high quality former CEO will bring experience of what the job really entails. What are you truly responsible for vs what decisions your board can make (which is very few in reality)? What does it take to build a world class team? What does it take to close your first few big deals? How to focus. Only someone who has done the job for many years really knows what it takes, and there are many investors out there who like to give you advice, but have never been in the role. Your director can be a sounding board for you in the role of CEO.
Being the bad guy
Your CEO director is not your friend, and sometimes she may feel like your enemy, but because her only reason to be there is to help the company, you can trust her even when you hate her. I've always had a former CEO on my boards, and sometimes it's been absolutely maddening.
For example, the time my director attacked me in a board meeting and took me to pieces for a plan I proposed. Afterwards I asked him what the hell was he thinking coming after me in a board meeting? He humbled me by telling me he could see my main investor was winding up to attack and so he decided to attack me first so I did not get into a fight with my investor. He knew me well enough to know that if attacked I would attack back, and hard, and that could damage my relationship with my investor.
And for example, the time my director had a one-on-one with me and decimated my forecast. Destroyed my faith in every deal. Ripped every one of my sales campaigns to shreds. His motivation? To wring every piece of optimism out of my forecast so I knew the worst case and could then focus on what needed to be done to bring the probability up on each campaign.
There are times when things go well, and then there are times which are rough. Raising money can be one of those times. Having someone you can call every day to review how things are going is so very helpful, and you cannot be calling your investors. You need a safe place to call. Someone who has no other agenda but to help you and the company succeed. And someone who has been there. That is a current/former CEO.
You may be thinking "well that's self-serving of her given she's a former CEO who sits on boards". Yes, probably right, but right now I am meeting with many, many interesting entrepreneurs, only one of whose boards I have joined so far (www.savonix.com) and I am hearing too many worrying stories of entrepreneurs who need better board advice and support.
Photo from Buzzfeed
Thursday, July 14, 2016
What do you think of when you think of being sold to? A salesman? Speed and feed? Talking your ear off with feature function? Closing you with obvious closing questions?
Sadly, still today, despite everything we know, many people sell this way.
But actually true selling is just the opposite. The sale is made in the silence.
There are a thousand B2B sales training classes and self help books you can read but they all basically say the same thing. Do discovery, qualify your customer, understand the org chart, understand their needs etc. etc. And yet, despite what we know, the simple concept that the power is in the silence gets lost and sales teams talk too much. They talk more than they listen.
One of the best enterprise sales people I ever sold with told me "Ask a question, shut up, and the first one who speaks loses". People are fundamentally uncomfortable with silence and they speak to fill it up. And when they do they reveal what they are thinking.
When you are selling working with silence allows you to truly deeply listen. Prepare and ask your questions about their needs, process etc. and then listen carefully. Let them speak and then be able to speak some more because you don't jump in to fill the silence they leave.
It also allows you to show respect. I'm always astonished at how often sales people talk over the customer or interrupt them. There is respect in silence. I am giving you the respect to fully express your needs and interests before I jump back in and tell you how great my mousetrap is. People buy from people and showing respect is a critical step to establishing trust.
And it allows you to close. When you ask for the order ask and then shut up. Too often people ask for the order and then immediately gabble on about why, when etc., justifying why they are asking for the order. You should not ask for the order until you know you can provide real value to your customer, and when you know you can, then ask, and wait. Don't explain, talking will not help by this point. And if they speak, they either say no (and you talking wasn't going to change that) or they reveal where they are at and you're on the path to close.
And the same concept applies whether you are selling an idea or a product. People want to be heard. Master the art of asking questions and being silent. Present, silent and listening.
Monday, June 20, 2016
I was struck by the interesting interview with Beth Comstock of GE in the NYT today - where she says "you have the permission to try something new". In this case she is talking about innovation but innovation is not the only area where we are held back by the need for permission. Too often we are stymied in areas that lead directly to our happiness.
Too often, as working professionals, and especially women, we are held back by our fears. Fear of failure, fear of what other people will think, fear of the unknown, fear of being less than. We live in the world of Lean In and male-dominated tech, where I know and have personally experienced that to get ahead you have to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart, as the men around you. This doesn't leave much room for permission to change, or to be rested, or happy.
So what's the solution. I think it's to consciously, and overtly, grasp the nettle and give yourself permission.
Permission to stop caring what other people think. As Cindy Gallop (entrepreneur and change agent extraordinaire) says "Fear of what other people will think is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business and in life. You will never own the future if you care what other people think". And yet so often we worry endlessly about what the people around us think. Our boss, our peers, our parents; the people who have opinions about our title, or car, or house, or how much money we make. But in the end, the only people whose opinion really matters is our closest friends (who if they love you will support you no matter what you do, or how your screw up) and our partners in life (who do have to be in the boat with us). No one else matters. Truly.
Permission to try something completely new - like start a company. Scary. What if I am no good at it, don't like it, fail at it? Well, so long as you do some basic financial planning so you can survive a temporary misstep what are you afraid of? Chances are you can always go back to what you did before. I have seen this many times in Silicon Valley - value accrues to failure. People try something completely new, it fails and they go back to what they did before. But they are often now actually more valuable. They have more experience, they may be humbled and so be a better leader and more compassionate. They will be changed, and usually for the better. Or maybe permission to try something completely new for yourself means going to back to school and taking the chance you can create a whole new career path for yourself.
Permission to not check your email 24/7 on vacation. Permission to not keep a perfectly tidy house. Permission to wear flats to work. Permission to leave a job you hate, or a boss you hate, even if it means making less money. Permission to pursue a sports passion which may mean you don't climb the corporate ladder as fast as your peers. Permission to experiment with your career.
I had to take myself through this process as I made the decision to change my professional life. I can get wracked with guilt that I am no longer driving the feminist CEO agenda. I can get down on myself that I stepped back when other women are running companies and setting the agenda for key technologies in the valley. I, like so many successful women, continue to fight the demon of feeling like a failure inside every day. And so I give myself a talking to - sometimes physically in the mirror! Permission to try a new way of life. Permission to be with my family, and travel, and read, and write. And to stop caring what other people think.
For a while at least!
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
The strange story of the lost Poussin the "Destruction And Sack Of The Temple Of Jerusalem" and my Uncle Ernie
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This is a true story of a great masterpiece, lost in time for 350 years and found in our family.
My great-uncle Ernie was born Ernest Onians on August 14th, 1904 in Liverpool. He was the youngest of 6, and his immediate elder brother Frank, with whom he was close friends as a young man, was my grandfather. After working together as salesmen selling animal food in East Anglia, Ernie recognized a huge business opportunity - taking waste food at the back door of London restaurants and turning it into pig food which he would process at his mill in Suffolk and then sell to the farmers. He was very successful, a ladies man, and became wealthy.
As he traveled around Suffolk he became interested in art and to educate himself he read extensively, subscribed to art magazines and developed an eye for beautiful things. During and after the War many large houses were being forced to sell their paintings and furniture because of death, taxation and the poor economic situation in the country. As my cousin John wrote "during the 'forties and early fifties' he visited many a house sale and county auction, bidding - or more frequently leaving bids - for literally thousands of objects which, like the girlfriends of his youth, caught his curious and sensuous eye. The honied toned ivories, the fresher colors of porcelain, the weave of tapestries, the smooth escapements of watches, the chimes of clocks, the polished veneer of furniture, and above all the flesh, flowers, fruit, animals and landscape found in paintings, all called him to possess them."
But sadly, although married for a while, he became a hoarder and a miser. He collected so many pieces that he filled up his house and three sheds in his garden with paintings stacked vertically in dirty conditions. As a child I remember my uncle and my father taking me through the piles of paintings, tapestries and clocks which were not insured because Ernie didn't want anyone to know. My father would visit him frequently (out of loyalty to his own father) as would two of my father's cousins who were in the art world themselves, one John the professor, the other Dick the artist.
Typical family stuff - until one day one of the sheds burned down. As a result of the fire Ernie did ask his nephews for help to get a review of his pictures. Christies came to the Mill for 2 days and told Ernie and his nephews that there were 7 paintings that should be fully researched before they were sold.
But as is so often the case, his treasures obsessed him. Arguments erupted about what was going to be in his Will and Ernie decided he did not want anyone to get the benefit of his treasures after he died. My father, despite having spent 30 years visiting his uncle and trying to help him, in the end would not be a part of it because, after many iterations, Ernie insisted that his whole estate be tied up in a trust that would last for 30 years after his death. Only a few of his great nieces and nephews who he hardly knew would benefit, and only if they did not get divorced in the meantime.
As a result, when Ernie died at age 90 in 1994 the paintings were not researched and his executors gave the sale of the estate to Sotheby's. A quick one day sale later the estate fetched £2M.
But unbeknown to the experts, and to my cousins who administered his estate, there was a treasure in among the paintings.
This painting had a small, very dark photo in the glossy catalogue (a copy of which my father keeps on his shelf as a reminder of life's ironies). It was "Attributed to Pietro Testa" as The Sack of Carthage and estimated to fetch £10,000-15,000. But experts watch the sales and as the Guardian reported four years later it was "picked up at the Onians' auction for £155,000 by the London gallery Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, after its advisor, the distinguished Poussin expert Sir Denis Mahon, spotted a photograph of it "the size of a large postage stamp" in the catalogue and ordered them to acquire it "at any cost"."
Hazlitt's cleaned it, restored it, had it confirmed by the Louvre and it was then that we learned that it was actually the glorious masterpiece the Destruction And Sack Of The Temple Of Jerusalem. Painted by Nicholas Poussin in Rome in 1625-1626, it had been commissioned by the Pope's nephew Cardinal Barberini as a gift for Cardinal Richelieu! It fetched £4.5M when it was sold to the Rothschild foundation who gave it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it is now the pride of the museum.
I visited the painting in Jerusalem in March of this year and as I stood in front of it I wondered at the mystery of its journey.
If the executors of Ernie's will, or Sotheby's, had had it cleaned as Christies had advised, they would have known what it was immediately. In the middle of the painting is a large menorah being carried out of a Roman temple. And it is the traditional shape of menorah that Poussin would have seen in Rome on the Arch of Titus (who was the general, and future emperor, who sacked and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE in a brutal, fiery battle to put down the Jewish rebellion - and until 2009 that was the earliest depiction of a menorah found). Any historian would have known it to be destruction of the Temple as documented by Josephus, an event that was the beginning of the diaspora and is mourned even today by Jews around the world.
But the story didn't stop there. My cousins sued Sotheby's for negligence in 1999 when this all came to light. The suit went on for several years until, in 2002, as Sotheby's realized their £3M insurance policy was running out, they settled (the BBC reported "Pig swill estate wins Poussin war" !! ) and £1.4M went to the estate with the rest going to the lawyers.
In the end my father bought a beautiful painting and a clock out of the estate which he cherishes in his home, and a cabinet which was in our house for many years as he lovingly had it restored for his uncle is now in a museum in Los Angeles and known as the Onians Cabinet. Hopefully many people are enjoying the many paintings Uncle Ernie saved, and millions of people will have a chance to marvel at the Poussin in Israel.
Is it sad that the family did not recognize the painting? After all, the children will get plenty of money from the estate in the end. Or is it instead perfect that a painting that depicts such an enormous event in Jewish history was lost, picked up for pig swill cash, not researched by the family, and so was available to be bought by a benefactor who gave it to Israel so Jews from all over the world can cherish it? Personally, I think it's ironic and perfect.
Notes on the painting from an exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Nicolas Poussin was the foremost exponent and practitioner of seventeenth-century Classicism. This work from his early Italian period (1625-1626) was commissioned by Poussin' patron Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew and secretary of Pope Urban VIII, and was offered as a gift to Cardinal Richelieu, the French head of state. Barberini led a papal legation in a vain attempt to reconcile France and Spain, at the time engaged in a bloody war. Poussin draws a parallel in the painting between his patron, the would-be peacemaker, and the enlightened pagan emperor Titus, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the ruin of Jerusalem and its temple. The composition is divided between the image of the Temple engulfed in flames in the background and the chaotic struggle, dominated by the striking figure of Titus on his white mount, in the foreground. A sense of drama, with the clash of arms and flashes of golden light from the Temple vessels, suffuses the entire work. Classical Roman architecture and sculpture provided sources for Poussin's painting. The scene seems to be a Roman city: the soldiers' dress is taken from reliefs on Roman sarcophagi; the facade of the Temple resembles that of the Pantheon; the figure of Titus was inspired by the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline; and the menorah derives from the famous depiction on the Arch of Titus. After Richelieu's death, the painting was inherited by his niece, who then sold it. It changed hands many times and eventually reached England. Its whereabouts were unknown from the late 1700s until 1995, when it was rediscovered by the art historian Sir Denis Mahon, restored to its original state, and donated to the Israel Museum in 1998.