The First Board Meeting

Do you remember your first board meeting? I do. Well, I sort of do, kind of, maybe.

Danielle Morrill of Mattermark memorialized her first board meeting on the web in her post Post Series A Life: Reflecting on Our First Board Meeting and What It’s Like Working with Brad. It’s a detailed view of her expectations leading up to the first board meeting we had along with the blow by blow from her perspective of the board meeting.

I have two simple pieces of feedback to Danielle, Kevin, and Andy about the board meeting. First, bring the rest of the leadership team the next time so we have a room full of the team for most of the meeting. Second, you did great – I love the style of board meeting we had.

We didn’t have board meetings at Feld Technologies – we didn’t really have a board. There were three owners – me, Dave Jilk, and my dad. Dave and I had a monthly offsite where we went away for a day and an overnight somewhere within driving distance of Boston. We did this eight to ten times a year and these were some of the most powerful and useful working days, and personal days, we had together. Once a year my dad would join us for a long weekend somewhere where we hung out, talked about the business, and drove around New England.

My first real board meeting was at NetGenesis. I remember the place – an MIT classroom. I remember the attendees – Rajat Bhargava, Eric Richard, Matt Cutler, Matthew Gray, and Will Herman. The chalkboard was black, the chalk was white and dusty. Will and I had each invested $25,000 for a total of 20% of the company. It was 1994. The meeting was around a wooden MIT classroom table that looked like it was from 1894. I don’t remember much of the meeting, except we wrote lots of lots of things on the chalkboard. There were no PowerPoint slides.

I remember my first board meeting for a company I joined as an outside board member. This company was SBT Accounting Systems, based in San Rafael, California. I flew to San Francisco from Boston, stayed overnight in the city, and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d only been to San Rafael once before, presumably to interview for the board position under the auspices of spending the day at the company. I was nervous because I had no idea what to expect. I showed up a little early, was ushered into the very large board room, and fed breakfast of bagels, pastries, fruit, and coffee. For some reason, I remember eating so much that I was full before the meeting started. SBT always had outstanding, freshly ground coffee filtered through Melitta cone filters which meant that I often drank way too much coffee. Unlike my NetGenesis board meetings, and the few others that I had started attending like ThinkFish’s, this one was formal. Everyone took their place at the table, with blue board books in front of them, and “the show” began. After a number of years of faithful service, I left that board, but I learned a lot and remember the time on that board as helpful to forming my view of an ideal board meeting.

My book, Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, covers what I’ve learned over the ensuing hundreds of first board meetings, and thousands of board meetings, I’ve participated in. While the book was hard to write, and at some points I feared that it would be excruciatingly “boring” to read, the feedback has been positive, especially from entrepreneurs and CEOs like Danielle who are having their first “real board meeting.”

Just remember – keep it real, not fake. Be yourself. And own the meeting.

  • joshuakarp

    My few cents on the first board meeting: 1) manage expectations (don’t tell the Board things that you aren’t certain you will do or achieve), 2) deliver some bad news (or – and don’t look at this as an attempt at manipulation – share some struggles with a plan to mitigate them – there is no point in time when everything is actually rosy – there’s always something that might not work out), and 3) come with specific “asks” for the Board (make them feel some ownership in the process – the more engaged your Board, the easier it will be to overcome problems in the future, even if those problems are of your own making).

  • Rick

    “And own the meeting.”

  • great timing, thanks, Brad.

  • RBC

    Was just thinking how awesome #slack is today, funny that is the lead point!

  • tibbetts

    I have many fond memories of startup meetings in MIT classrooms. Non-MIT people are always surprised that campus is open and available for that kind of thing on weekends and evenings, and still mostly is today. One of the least expensive ways for a university to foster innovation.

    • Yup. And in my days all the doors everywhere where unlocked.

  • Hi Brad,

    “and tens of thousands of board meetings, I’ve participated in.”

    Wow, how is this even humanly possible when factoring the travel?

    It’s a staggering statistic.

    Any thoughts about doing an autobiography?

    • I do many by video (or – in the past) audio conference. And if you know my history, the travel was very tough on me over time as was one of the contributors to my depression in 2013.

      I changed it to thousands – someone did the math and it’s probably less than 10,000, but more than 5,000, over the past 20 years.

  • Mike Porath

    Thanks, Brad. Just wanted to highlight this YouTube video of your presentation/discussion on boards. I found it helpful and I’m sure others will too. I’d suggest skipping the intros and starting at the 8-minute mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSuQz5SC68Q

    • Thanks Mike. I thought this was an ok presentation by me – not my best – but good solid stuff on boards worth highlighting.

  • “bring the rest of the leadership team the next time” — wouldn’t it just make more sense for you to travel to SF for the next Board meeting?
    1x person’s plane ticket and travel time vs 3x founders and x number of execs

    • In this case, they wanted to come to me. They used it as an offsite for the founders, spent a day with a bunch of companies in Boulder, and had some out of office time to think. I find that most companies want to do that with me in Boulder at least once a year. It’s totally up to them.

  • You on on a roll with the dual perspective blog posts – it’s really interesting to read about the same situation from two people.

    I’m about halfway through Startup Boards now – the content is heavy but it hasn’t been boring at all. I’m getting a ton of value out of it. I especially loved the strong emphasis on recruiting female board members.

    Question: Are the charts in the book available online? That’s the one disadvantage of listening on CD.

    • The charts aren’t available online but it’s a good suggestion that I get them up there.