Ms. Fix-It

About twice a year, Donna Novitsky dons a new title, and moves into a new office. Her mission: to transform entrepreneurs' dreams into reality and to take good companies and make them great.

Donna Novitsky sits in the lobby of oneRev, making sure that no one except the young company's half-dozen employees and a few authorized visitors gains access to its offices. The one-month-old business has set up shop in a generic building in Santa Clara, California (it has since moved to San Jose), and the entryway is pure Silicon Valley minimalism: Worn brown leather sofas squat on drab taupe industrial carpeting. But that shabbiness belies oneRev's goal, which is to revamp the supply chain of the electronics industry. The company has secured funding from Mohr, Davidow Ventures (MDV), one of Silicon Valley's top venture-capital firms -- and something a bit more unusual: a commitment from Novitsky, one of that firm's partners, to serve for several months as its vice president of marketing.

By her own admission, Novitsky is hooked on startups. A 42-year-old tech-industry veteran, she craves the passion and excitement that come with building a new company -- even if that means doing everyday chores like watching the front door. About every six months, she takes a new, practically full-time job at one of MDV's portfolio companies. All told, she has helped a half-dozen companies evolve from ideas on PowerPoint slides into full-fledged enterprises.

That's a rare -- and welcome -- contrast to the way that VCs and entrepreneurs usually interact, notes David Kahn, the founder of InLeague, an online payroll and benefits-management company based in San Bruno, California. "So many venture capitalists see entrepreneurs as people to be tolerated. But Donna doesn't treat me like a big baby," says Kahn, 49, who worked side by side with Novitsky for 10 months last year. During that time, she helped InLeague get its strategy right, first as vice president of marketing and then as interim CEO.

In a world full of flashy starters who can't go nine innings, Novitsky's stock-in-trade is going the distance and taking dreamy entrepreneurs right along with her. Someone with her skill set would be a hot property at any point in the economic cycle. But now that the economy is slowing, and now that the Internet has become a much tougher place to do business, her talents are especially valuable. MDV's other partners regard her as one of the firm's hidden assets: a leader who can take a good company and give it a shot at being great. Instead of just fixing problems after they emerge, Novitsky works to prevent problems from happening in the first place. "I'm not just a fix-it person. I'm a build-it person," she says.

Novitsky guides young companies through the intricate -- and vital -- task of thinking about who their customers should be, how to approach their target market, and when to walk away from an opportunity that might take them down the wrong path. Just as important, she delivers her messages in a sympathetic way, doing her best not to kill the passion of a founder by saying no too often. "You can't let your ego get in the way," says Novitsky of her style of working with company founders. "It's their company and their ideas." Even so, she treats her assignment at each company as seriously as if that company were her only employer. "I wake up many nights thinking about these companies as if they were my own," she says.

Catching the Startup Bug

Novitsky has always thrown herself wholeheartedly into whatever she does. Born and raised in Whittier, California, she was a cheerleader, valedictorian, and student-body vice president in high school. She then attended Stanford, where she majored in industrial engineering, and later earned an MBA from Harvard. In the mid-1980s, she returned to Silicon Valley to work at Sun Microsystems, and she spent the next decade getting a real-world grounding in the high-tech sector. She spent six years in Sun's product-marketing department, where she worked on the team that launched the slogan "The network is the computer." In 1991, she left Sun and became vice president of marketing at Clarify, a San Jose-based company that makes customer-service automation software.

At Clarify, she got her first taste of startup life. During her seven years there, she honed the skills that she now uses at her portfolio companies. "This was the age of $12 million venture capital," she says. "How do you operate on a shoestring? That's when I realized that I'm just a miser by nature." In the case of Clarify, that $12 million (parceled out in three rounds) had to last three and a half years, and the promise of more funding depended on whether the company could become profitable in that time.

She stayed at Clarify up through its IPO, all the while working 80-hour weeks. By early 1998, she was burned out and ready for a change -- especially after she decided that she needed to spend more time with her children. Around that time, she met with Nancy Schoendorf, a managing partner at MDV. Over lunch at Buck's, a Silicon Valley power eatery, Schoendorf listened as Novitsky told her what she wanted to do: marketing, working with startups, perhaps a little consulting. That all sounded fine to Schoendorf. But something that Novitsky said -- "I love the early days of a business" -- led Schoendorf to envision a larger role for her.

Every week, MDV's partners were looking at embryonic businesses -- and trying to predict which ones might turn into successful, freestanding companies, or maybe even legendary institutions. "We were trying to figure out what was the maximum point of influence for our startups," says Jonathan Feiber, 44, an MDV managing partner. "We decided that the point came in those first few months, when you can still make changes and be flexible. After that, trying to correct the consequences of bad decisions can be fatal."

Following up on that insight, MDV had developed a staff of "venture partners" -- people who focus on helping young portfolio companies, rather than on scouting for new investments. "Other venture-capital firms don't do this, because it's expensive," says Schoendorf, now 46. "But it's a model that we feel we just can't live without." Novitsky seemed to fit the model perfectly, and the firm wasted no time in asking her to come on board as a venture partner.

Cutting-Edge Common Sense

Of the startups that Novitsky has worked with so far, InLeague presents the clearest example both of what a promising young business needs and of what an in-house venture partner can do. Founder David Kahn wanted to make InLeague the leading U.S. payroll-services vendor -- which would mean going after ADP Inc., the longtime industry leader. MDV executives relished his passion, but they wanted to make sure that his growth strategy was focused and realistic.

Kahn believed that ADP was trapped in a basic old-economy dilemma: It couldn't move its business rapidly to the Internet without destroying its long-established (and nicely profitable) ways of calculating, printing, and distributing checks. In fact, ADP had rolled out a Web version of its service in May of last year. But in Kahn's view, too much of ADP's capital was still tied up in operating regional service centers. Moreover, while ADP did a great job of serving big companies, Kahn believed that there was a crack in the market for serving small companies -- those with, say, fewer than 20 employees. His goal: to swoop in and capture lots of customers within that underserved segment of the market.

But could InLeague make money that way? Novitsky was dubious. Profitably selling to and serving lots of small companies would require InLeague to have a huge sales-and-marketing team, as well as a product that would cost little to deliver. InLeague had neither, and Novitsky unequivocally told Kahn as much early in 2000. "That may be where ADP ain't," Kahn remembers Novitsky telling him, "but if you want revenue, you have to scale up in size."

What if InLeague, working with resellers and large benefits-management outfits, were to target slightly larger companies? Novitsky asked. True, some of those companies might be core ADP customers, but they were also more likely than small companies to yield profitable accounts.

That advice represented a paradigm shift for the company. It also offered a startlingly clear example of what Novitsky had learned during her years at startup companies: "There is such a thing as a 'bad' customer," she asserts. As she critiqued the original InLeague strategy, she treated Kahn as a colleague and confidant, saying things in front of him that would be far harder to say if she were just a board member -- the role that venture capitalists traditionally take with portfolio companies.

"When you're building a company, you are desperate to bring in customers and revenue," Novitsky remarks. "Plus, employees are evaluated on how many clients they bring in." Indeed, pursuing such goals can mean the difference between getting the next round of funding and going out of business. But that sense of urgency shouldn't prevent top managers from thinking about which customers are truly worth having.

Knowing how to pick customers is one of Novitsky's most highly prized talents. A few months after arguing that customers with 20 to 250 employees were the right fit for InLeague, she was at it again. Along came an opportunity to land a 500-employee account. "Do we do it or not do it? And if we do it, what about our other customers?" Novitsky asked. Such a big account would take InLeague in a new direction -- one that the company probably wasn't ready for at that point. "If you can't leverage something that you are doing for one client across your entire client base, then you should take another look at it," Novitsky says. (By the end of 2000, InLeague had worked its way up to targeting companies with 20 to 1,000 employees.)

For both InLeague and Novitsky, the toughest part of working together was letting go. In November, InLeague managers talked anxiously about Novitsky's imminent departure from the company's day-to-day operations. They worried that it might be hard to get the chemistry right when someone else filled her role. Even Kahn, who knew from the beginning that Novitsky would leave, acknowledged that he was in denial. He predicted that she wouldn't be able to give up this baby that had learned how to walk with her help: "She'll work here more than she expects."

A few weeks later, Novitsky's cubicle at InLeague had been cleaned out. Novitsky herself was spending just a few hours a week at the company. Even so, her legacy continues. "The foundation here is strong because she built a cohesive executive team," says Roxanne Jung, 35, director of corporate sales. "Now, instead of going to her, we turn to one another for help. That's what she's left here."

No Goals, No Company

If life in Silicon Valley were less intense, Novitsky might settle back into MDV for a month or two before taking on a new outside assignment. At the firm's headquarters, in Menlo Park, she has a well-appointed office that she shares with fellow venture partner Geoffrey Moore, author of Living on the Faultline and other business best-sellers.

But Novitsky doesn't see that office as her true work home. In fact, by last December -- even before she had finished her tour of duty at InLeague -- she had begun her next startup assignment. That's when she joined oneRev, the supply-chain company. Such a double-duty stint broke one of her own rules: She doesn't like to juggle her work inside MDV with work at more than one company. But sometimes life doesn't work according to rules.

Just before Christmas, Novitsky found herself revamping a sales pitch so that oneRev could start meeting more customers by early January. The PowerPoint slides that the company had put together a few months before would miss the mark with many potential clients. Meanwhile, there was no time to lose. "I'm a month late," Novitsky admits, "because I couldn't extract myself from InLeague."

Even so, she had already won over Nageen Sharma, 40, president and CEO of oneRev. Sharma says that he was initially skeptical of the venture-partner idea: "My perception of VCs had been that they get into your life and tell you what to do. They change things that they don't understand." But after about five minutes of working with Novitsky, Sharma decided that he was ready for a venture partner.

"She's not a venture capitalist coming down from heaven," says Sharma. "She's just one of the guys." And Novitsky, speaking of the oneRev team, returns the compliment: "These entrepreneurs know their stuff. One is a recognized expert in automating factories. Another has already built a company from the ground up."

So Novitsky will focus on what she knows best: choosing customers, setting goals, marketing. "I ask questions. I want to know what customers care about," she says. And while the idea of goal setting may seem like it's torn from a self-help book, Novitsky remains a stickler on that point. "A company without goals isn't a company," she asserts.

The big goal for oneRev will be selling Sharma's vision. "So often, executives know the benefit of what they are making, but they don't know how to package and price it," says Novitsky. "I don't claim to be the visionary here. I package the vision."

Just knowing that Novitsky is walking the hallways at oneRev brings Sharma peace of mind. "I knew that marketing was going to be a critical element of what we do, but how could I trust someone else to form the basic points?" he asks. "Now I feel extremely comfortable. We're ahead of where I wanted to be. We're already sending out invoices this month."

Precisely what impact Novitsky will have on oneRev remains unclear. After all, the prospects today for companies being hatched in Silicon Valley aren't what they used to be. But Sharma is already responding to Novitsky's commonsense ways. In fact, some of his quips sound as if he learned them straight from her. "The big question now is whether people are willing to write a check for what we make," he says. "We're focused on that. We might not even have a Web site for a year. And we are signing a lease in San Jose because it's cheap. There will be no sign and no receptionist."

That's just the kind of talk that oneRev's (then) "receptionist" likes to hear.

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in San Francisco. Contact Donna Novitsky by email (donna@mdv.com).

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