Fishing in the dead pool

I have used my free time this summer revisiting a childhood passion: fishing. My father loved to fish. He would take me to Central Park’s Ramble and Lake with a hook and lure. I would inevitably catch something very small, put it in a cup and hope it would survive overnight to show my friends.

As I grew older, we graduated to fishing boats launching from City Island and Sheepshead Bay. My yield was a bit bigger, but most fish failed to meet the required size. The “keepers” were the prize; we brought them home for Sunday dinner. Too often on Sundays, we ordered pizza instead.

These fishing trips came to mind recently on a farewell call with Steve (maybe not his real name), a former IBM colleague. When IBM acquired our company three years ago, the value was more than just Xtify’s mobile engagement platform — the “keepers” were my senior management team.

Each of these executives were destined to become stars at Big Blue. They had successfully helped pioneer an industry (mobile CRM) and met the challenges of persuading large enterprises to adopt a new engagement channel (push notifications). They were creative and passionate innovators. This particular IBM sales executive was calling to ask how he could recruit talented leaders similar to the ones I brought to IBM. He was essentially asking where he could find the keepers.

It’s not that IBM doesn’t have keepers; it does. But notwithstanding the taxonomy, it’s very hard for a large company to find and keep the keepers. And that’s when I told him about fishing in the dead pool.

The dead pool of startups is a fertile (and well-stocked) pond from which to fish.

If IBM, or any company, is looking for talent that can inject passion, creativity and energy into their efforts, the dead pool of startups is a fertile (and well-stocked) pond from which to fish.

In fact, IBM has a history of success fishing in these waters. The executive who built its content and search business came from the pool, as did the strategic team now growing IBM’s cloud offerings.

The Xtify team succeeded with equal parts talent, hard work and luck. Our timing was fortuitous. We matured in the mobile space just when everyone was talking “MobileFirst,” and we grasped the significance of SaaS apps for the CMO just as the market was shifting toward cloud-based offerings. We had the right story at the right time, and a receptive and acquisitive audience in IBM.

But it didn’t have to work out that way. And if it hadn’t, Michael, Gil, Josh and Dan (maybe not their real names) would have been no less keepers. They would just have been keepers floundering in the dead pool.

The energy and passion needed to lead (and live) the startup life is tremendous, and the setbacks can be exhausting. Often those talented executives who did not realize an exit are looking to get off the treadmill — if only temporarily — and enjoy the stability (and balance sheet) of a more established enterprise. Many of these creators, disruptors and innovators are looking to come up to the surface and breathe the fresh air in a more hospitable and stable environment.

This is Steve’s time to go fishing. The challenge is to set his lure just right and cast his rod in the dead pool.