Our general answer is “as many as you should for the stage of the company that you are.” We define stage loosely, where you evaluate the company’s revenue performance, the rate of growth of revenue, the headcount of the company, and the strategic issues the company faces. If you – dear reader – are a rational person – you should be responding with the thought “thanks guys – not helpful.” Stay with us – we’ll try to be more prescriptive, but – having been involved in lots of companies, with lots of different boards (and board dynamics) – we know there is no simple and correct answer.
Our experience suggests a private, venture-backed company should have between 8 and 12 meetings a year, with at least half of them face to face. As a company grows and matures, the number of in person meetings will logically decrease, but should never fall below one each quarter, preferably in the first month of the quarter so the performance of the previous quarter can be reviewed while it is still fresh and current.
If you’ve just closed your first round and it was a seed or Series A financing, expect that you will likely to have monthly board meetings. Yep – you heard us – expect to have 12 meetings per year – and it’s best if these are in person. Try to have your meetings set up on some recurring monthly basis like “the third Thursday of every month”. This helps schedule the board and increases the likelihood that board members can actually attend in person. Also, a monthly meeting which shifts from month to month (for example – the third week one month and the second week in another) may not allow enough time to elapse in between meetings.
Your early stage investors and board members will want to be (and you should want them to be) actively engaged in the company. You’ll be dealing with a huge range of issues in the startup phase – frequent, substantive, and open discussions will help keep all the board members up to speed on what is going on and engaged in the decision making process. Since a lot of significant events transpire at a rapid pace in a company at this stage, these regular meetings help the board maintain a level of awareness that enables them to engage in the activity of the company. In addition, a young board needs to learn how to work together – the best way to do this is “to work together” – regular meetings will reinforce this.
Additionally, CEO’s of venture backed companies (or any company with a board of directors) should expect to have fluid and candid dialog with board members in between meetings. Board member styles differ – some (like me) are email guys, some are face to face types, and some are phone call update types. We recommend understanding how each of your board members works best and make sure you spend time with them in between board meetings discussing issues, updating them on the business, and learning how to work together.
Some of this is preparation for later in the life of a company when a board has to make critical and substantial decisions, whether around a financing or M&A event, major change in the direction of the business, leadership change, legal issue, or something else that requires hard discussions. Spending time building working relationships, learning how each other think, work, and act, and developing personal rapport early in the life of the company helps makes dealing with these situations a lot more effective.
Some entrepreneurs have resistance to this level of oversight. If you’re someone who has a negative reaction (e.g. “12 meetings a year – no way!”) we encourage you to re-think your interest in a pursuing a model to build your business that includes venture capital, or for that matter your interest in having a board of directors.
Finally, while it is common that as a company matures, it will reduce the frequency of formal meetings (to say 6 meetings per year), the board will encounter periods of time where they will meet more often then once a month. This can happen when a company is approaching the end of a fund-raising cycle or during key times in the company’s life where substantive strategic actions are being managed (for example – an acquisition.) During these critical times it is common for a board to have formal – but short duration – meetings, both in person and over the phone.
Earlier this week I was enjoying myself at an Oxlo board meeting (the food was “ok” – at least there was food) and I realized that a number of people in the room were folks that I had met randomly. I’ve had a long standing “random meeting” policy – I try to set aside time to get together with people that are referred to me by someone I know. While I don’t do coffee, breakfast, lunch, or other time consuming things, I’m always happy to spend 15 minutes meeting someone for the first time, hearing their story, and seeing if I can connect them up with something I’m involved in.
A year or so ago I realized that the endless context switching between random meetings and all the other stuff I did was disruptive. So – I started doing “random days.” Twice a month, I schedule a day in the office where I fill it up with as many random meetings as I can. I space them apart by 30 minutes and aim for each interaction to be 15 minutes long. If we get into something profoundly interesting, it stretches to 30 minutes. Since I started doing this, I’ve gotten rid of the endless daily interactions that are “random” and end up having a great, super stimulating day where I meet 15 to 20 new people in a very efficient (for me) context.
As I pondered the folks that I work with today that I met “randomly” I smiled and realized this has been working very well for me over the past 20 years.
I woke up late today (yay – 12:06 hours of sleep) to the last 15 minutes of the elite women in the NYC Marathon. Watching them finish and then watching Mutai crush the men’s field over the last six miles was pretty inspiring. I haven’t run a marathon since October 2012 when I ran the Detroit Marathon but after a year of struggling to get into a rhythm I’m once again motivated – and interested – in doing another marathon. I’ve committed to being one of the 14 in 2014 that run the Boston Marathon – there’s a gang of well known tech entrepreneurs and investors that are doing this together as part of a big fundraiser. I’ll definitely try to get at least one marathon in before then just to be confident that I’ll get it done.
Last week I added back in something I used to do regularly, but had stopped for a year or so given my schedule and then ensuing depression. I did a full day of random day meetings on halloween. I sat at Amante Coffee all day, mostly in my cookie monster outfit, had random meetings, drank coffee, and ate cookies. I had a blast.
If you’ve never heard of random day, I’ll meet with anyone who signs up for 20 minutes. I’ve been doing this for almost a decade – it’s part of my “give before you get” philosophy that’s deeply embedded in the Boulder Startup Community psyche. I have no expectation of what I’m going to get out of these meetings, but some pretty magical things, including the creation of Techstars, have occurred as a result of them.
During the course of the day I had 12 meetings, three cups of coffee, a yogurt, a burrito, and two cookies. I met with the following people.
- Friend starting a COO / CEO search
- Attorney in town thinking of starting a seed fund
- Founder of a non-profit I recently supported
- Person looking for a new BD gig
- Founder of a natural foods company I just invested in
- BD person looking to get into the VC or Boulder scene
- Tech entrepreneur I hadn’t seen in a decade describing his new thing
- Content marketing person looking to be plugged into Boulder
- Founders of non-profit looking to expand outside of Boulder
- Partners in a non-profit looking for support for a robot competition
- New VC in town in the natural foods market
- Two entrepreneurs just starting their tech business looking for feedback
I was immediately able to help at least six of the 12. I have no idea what will come from the other meetings, but that’s part of the fun of random day.
I plan to do this again six times in 2014. So that’s about 80 random meetings – people I wouldn’t have met with – and who wouldn’t have had some time with me. If one powerful thing comes out if it, then it’s worth it. Regardless, I had a good day on Thursday and feel like I did something that contributed to the glue in the Boulder Startup Community.
I’ve been writing about boards of directors some lately – both changing my behavior as well as thinking out loud as I explore reinventing how boards work for the book “Startup Boards” that I’m working on with Mahendra Ramsinghani. All fit in the context of continuous communications as I believe three things about early stage companies and their boards.
1. Board members should be actively engaged with the company on a continuous / real time basis.
2. Existing board meeting dynamics are often an artifact of how they’ve been done for the past 30 years.
3. The way most board meetings are currently conducted is a waste of time for management, significantly inefficient, and generally ineffective.
One of the very simple tactical things I’m shifting to is a totally different board rhythm. Historically, many of the companies I’m involved in have been on a board rhythm of meetings every four to six weeks. As they become more mature, these board meetings shift to quarterly, although many of them have mid-quarter update calls. The board meetings themselves are long affairs (even the monthly ones) – often lasting three or more hours.
At some point I’ll dissect one of these board meetings and explain all the things that are artifacts of the past. These artifacts are a result of the communication methods that existed 30+ years ago that required paper and face to face meetings and resulted in very structured communications. But for now, I’ll give you three specific things to change.
1. Separate the monthly financials from the board meeting. Send out monthly financials (Income Statement, Balance Sheet, Cash Flow) with a written analysis of them. This written analysis should be done by the CEO (or president / COO), not the CFO, and should be in English, not accounting-ese.
2. Have quarterly board meetings. These should be in person meetings with no laptops, smartphones, or iPads in the room. Give the people pads of paper to write on if they don’t bring their own (I don’t carry paper). 100% attention for the meeting. Arrange the meeting so you can have a dinner the night before or after the meeting. The meeting shouldn’t last more than four hours but should be fully engaged.
3. Provide regular weekly CEO updates, to all board members. The best entrepreneurs I know communicate regularly with everyone in the company and have a structured update process of some sort. The best CEOs send out short but focused weekly updates to their boards. These are not “templated updates” – they don’t necessarily fill in a set of things that they update each week. Often they are just a “sit in front of the computer and send out an email update” type of update full of substance, whatever is on the CEO’s mind, and requests for help. My favorites have typos and look like a blog post of mine (e.g. it looks like someone just wrote it rather than struggled over it for hours to get it just right.)
While my 2012 board meeting schedule is locked in, I plan to shift to quarterly meetings in 2013 for every board I’m on. I’m sure some of my co-investors will still want monthly meetings, but that’ll be up to the CEO to ultimately decide and I’ll commit to being in person for one a quarter, but fully engaged on a continuous basis (like I try to always be.)
I tried an experiment last week when I was in Seattle. I did two of my “random meetings” in cars between things.
I had a full day (a run with TA McCann (the CEO of Gist), the Gist board meeting, and then the Impinj board meeting. I had to catch a flight home to Denver at 5pm because I had a meeting first thing in the morning with one of our investors. So – I didn’t really have any slack time in my schedule.
TA had connected with me David Conrad who runs Design Commission and did some of the early design work for Gist. This intro was made and the meeting was planned a while ago. I shuffled the meeting around at the last minute so that it was sandwiched between the Gist and Impinj board meetings.
After I tweeted that I was heading to Seattle, I received an email from Marcelo Calbucci who is the publisher of the Seattle 2.0 blog and recently put on the Seattle 2.0 Awards. Marcelo asked to see if I had 15 minutes to talk about a couple of things.
Now – I hate to drive. I’m a shitty driver so when I travel I take cabs or have a driver take me around. My assistant Kelly plus Taxi Magic on my iPhone take care of me so I don’t really worry about it too much. So – I thought I’d try something different. I asked Kelly to see if David would be willing to drive me from Gist to Impinj and if Marcelo would be willing to drive me from Impinj to the airport. In exchange, they’d have me captive in their car for a meeting for however long the drive took.
Both agreed. I got where I was going safely, we ended up having a face to face meeting (that otherwise probably wouldn’t have happened), and we each have a memorable shared experience. Plus – I hope I was able to be a little helpful to them. Finally, I didn’t spend any money on a car service and – as a special bonus – David had a Prius so we get to feel like we were actually being somewhat energy efficient.
I thought this experiment was a success and I’ll definitely try it again. Pay attention to my tweets and/or TripIt account for where I’m heading – if you want to give me a “Random Ride” just holler. And hats off to both of these guys for being great entrepreneurs and just “making it happen” when given the chance, no matter how random it might seem.
I’ve had a string of great board meetings lately. They all had several similar attributes.
There were no powerpoint slides: While each company has a substantive monthly reporting package, this was decoupled from the board meeting. I got my taste of financials, metrics, qualitative stuff, and whatever else the CEO wanted me to see on a monthly basis. But I read this independent of the board meeting (which wasn’t on a monthly cadence) and asked questions in reaction to getting the monthly reporting package rather than taking up air time in a board meeting.
The agenda was a simple set of bullet points: In several of these meetings it was written on the whiteboard at the beginning of the meeting. The topics covered were substantive but focused and were “in the moment” of importance, rather than some regurgitated monthly agenda that someone mindlessly edited from the previous meeting and then printed out.
Everyone involved was fully engaged: In several cases there were people on the phone or on videoconference, but they paid attention. And when they didn’t, we didn’t pay any attention to them.
Each topic was a discussion: There was no “reporting out”. The issue was framed by whomever started the discussion and then we went after it. There was no time limit. When people drifted off course (including me), someone (not always the same person) interrupted and pulled us back on course. We drove to answers, and – when we didn’t have consensus, ended up with a range out answers for the CEO to choose from (where we’d support whatever he chose.)
We got closure on each topic: There was no ambiguity. Even when we didn’t end up at a single answer, it was clear who (usually the CEO) owned the decision with an expectation that he would make it.
There was no bullshit: I don’t recall much “noise” – the “signal” in all of these meetings was very high.
The meetings didn’t expand to fill available time: The length ranged from 30 minutes to about four hours. But when we were done, we were done.
Everyone had a positive / constructive attitude, even when dealing with difficult issues: These were not happy, fluffy, mellow, no-conflict meetings. There was plenty of disagreement. There were arguments. But everyone approached them from perspective of solving a problem and getting to an answer.
We had a fun dinner either the night before the meeting or the evening after the meeting: Bottom line – we like hanging out with each other.
I’ve got another board dinner / meeting combo with a CEO who runs great board meetings (and – not surprisingly – a great business). While I’m sure I’ll figure out how to subject myself to more mind-numbing meetings that I don’t want to participate in, I feel like I’m turning a corner and have some impact on changing the board meetings I’m involved in for the better.
I’ve been a long time practitioner of having “random meetings” where I meet with whomever wants to get together with me. Some amazing things have come out of this over the years, including my first meeting with David Cohen which turned into TechStars.
I’ve decided to try something different for the next few months. Rather than having random days in my office, I’m going to have “community hours” in the Bunker (the TechStars office) once a month. The TechStars space is big enough for people to hang out and mingle (unlike my office) so it’s easier for groups to hang out and meet each other, in addition to spending time with me. I’ve always loved the idea of “professors office hours” – this is the closest I could come to simulating it in my little section of the universe.
We’ve set up a self-service wiki for my Community Hours. The rules for signing up are simple – just set up an account and then pick a date and time slot. Put your name, email address, and a brief description of the meeting. Given my ever changing schedule, there’s always a chance that we’ll have to move one of the dates around so having a valid email address is critical for us. More extensive instructions are on the wiki.
Over the past 15 years I’ve been to thousands of board meetings. Last week I had four; this week I have two. I’ve spent a lot of time – often during board meetings – thinking about how to make them better and more effective.
Yesterday, Fred Wilson (who was at the Return Path board meeting in Boulder with me) wrote a great post titled Face To Face Board Meetings. Fred and I have been on a number of boards of the years and I strongly agree with his post. To be effective, board meetings need to be (a) in person and (b) there is immense value in a board dinner the night before a board meeting (maybe not every meeting, but at least once a quarter).
While board meetings have a different tempo at different stages of the life of a company, I’ve developed the point of view that the vast majority of the board meeting should be “forward looking.” Ironically (and frustratingly), the general culture of many VC-based boards – especially larger ones – is “backward looking”.
What I mean by this is that most board meetings are 80% status updates, 10% strategy / issues, and 10% administration. I’m fine with the 10% administration, but the 80% / 10% split on status vs. strategy should be reversed. There are plenty of different ways to organize the “strategy” (I’m using “strategy” as shorthand for “forward looking discussion”) and strategy includes a blend of short, medium, and long term issues, as well as plenty of “tactical stuff” (for those that think “strategy” is too specific a word), but I imagine you get the idea.
My favorite board meetings have the following characteristics.
- All board material goes out 48 hours in advance, including a detailed financial package and operating review of the business. This material includes any administrative stuff (draft 409a report, options grants, compensation stuff, audit stuff, prior board meeting minutes.) Everyone reads this in advance – if the materials go out 48 hours in advance there’s no excuse to have not read it.
- There is a dinner the night before that is at least the board and the CEO. Sometimes it includes non-CEO founders; other times it includes various members of the leadership team. This is a casual dinner (e.g. not expensive or full of pomp and circumstance) – a chance for everyone to catch up with each other. If the board meeting is an afternoon meeting, sometimes you can pull off a lunch prior to the meeting that acts as a proxy for the dinner, or a dinner after, although I find the dinner after to be much less helpful.
- The first 30 minutes of the meeting are administrative. Everyone settles down, you go through any formal board business, discuss it, and get it done. Often it takes five minutes (which gives you an extra 25 minutes for the strategy stuff); sometimes it takes the full 30 minutes. I can’t think of a case where it has ever needed to take longer.
- The CEO then puts up one slide summarizing prior period financial performance and asks if anyone has any questions about the board package. This discussion takes however long it takes.
- The CEO then puts up one slide with the issues he’d like to discuss. These are bullet points that are crisp yet detailed enough to know what the issue is. This is then the bulk of the meeting.
Some CEOs are capable of running a 2+ hour discussion off of one slide (I love these guys). Others need slides to prompt them through the setup for each topic (which is fine). Either way, the setup for each topic should be brief (five minutes at most) and the bulk of the activity should be a discussion. The CEO and management team is looking for board feedback, input, advice, and guidance. Ultimately, the CEO has to synthesize this and decide what he wants to do, but by engaging the board in an active discussion, the team will generally get useful input as well as discover where there might be additional domain expertise around the table on the particular issue.
I’ve found that the more time that is spent on #5, the more impactful the meeting is. Obviously, it’s difficult for people on the phone to engage as effectively, which draws them into physically attending the meeting, or not participating.
I’ve got a lot more thoughts on this, but realize I’ve got to get off my ass, get in the shower, and head over to the Boulder Theater for TechStars Investor / Demo Day. More on this another time.
The second element of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back). It’s extraordinarily simple while being profoundly hard.
It’s simple because it’s easy to say “I’m doing this without any expectations.” That felt good, right? You are going to be a good mentor, helping another up and coming entrepreneur, and it’ll be good karma. It’s good marketing – who doesn’t like people to say things about him like “Joe is such a good guy – he helped me without expecting anything back.” Simple, right?
It’s profoundly hard because this just isn’t human nature, especially in a business context. We live in a transactional world, constantly deciding where to invest our time to get the best ROI – there’s even a phrase for that which is “return on invested time.” We worry about things like reputational effects, being cautious of spending too much time with low impact activities or unknown people, while being drawn to the spotlight and well-known people, even if the activities are hollow and lack substance or value. We feel overwhelmed with the base level of work we have and struggle to justify spending time on activities with an unknown impact on what is directly in front of us. We prioritize how we spend our time, gravitating towards things where we can see the payoff.
I have two constructs I use that have broken this cycle for me which are at the core at being an awesome mentor: Give Before You Get and Random Days.
Give Before You Get is a cousin to a concept many of us are familiar with called “pay it forward.” With pay it forward, someone once did something for you to help you with your life or your career and you are now helping someone else out to “pay it forward” as compensation for this previous support. While nice, it’s still a transaction concept, which is where give before you get differs. In give before you get, you enter into a relationship without defining anything transactional – you “give” in whatever form is appropriate, but you have no idea what you are going to “get” back. Now, this isn’t altruism – you will get something back – you just don’t know when, from who, in what currency, or in what magnitude. You enter into the relationship non-transactionally and are willing to continue giving without a defined transactional return.
This is at the core of my Startup Communities thesis. To truly activate a startup community you have to get everyone in the startup community putting energy into the community, essentially giving before they get. If you create this culture, magical things happen very quickly as an enormous amount of kinetic energy goes into the startup community, generating rapid activity, results, and powerful second order effects.
In the construct of give before you get, it’s important to remember this isn’t altruism, which is why I’m repeating that notion. You will get something back, you just don’t have any expectations around what it will be. That’s unnatural for humans, and is the fundamental difference between a mentor and and an advisor. An advisor says “I’ll help you if you give me a $3,000 / month retainer and 1% of your company.” A mentor says simply, “How can I help?”
Random Days is one way to practice being a great mentor and giving before you get. I started doing random days in 2005 after a long history of random 15 minute meetings – something I’ve always done, but at some point realized I couldn’t effectively squeeze them into the normal flow of my day anymore. So I started setting aside about a day a month to do a dozen or so random 15 minute meetings. Some magical things, including Techstars, have come from Random Days. The trick to an amazing random day experience is to meet with anyone (zero filter) and let the 15 minutes be entirely about them and their agenda. I typically start each meeting with “Hi, I’m Brad Feld, the next 15 minutes are about whatever you want to talk about.” That establishes that I have no expectations and I’m fully available and present for the person I’m meeting with.
In a busy world with constant performance pressure and expectations around outcomes, the concept of give before you get and the idea of having a periodic random day may seem ridiculous. If you are thinking “that sounds nice and utopian, but I don’t have time for that” or “yeah Brad, whatever, but you are in a different position in life than I am”, I challenge you to rethink your position. I’ve been doing this since my first company in my early 20s. I’ve built the notion of give before you get into the core of my value system. I’ve allowed myself to continually be open to randomness and many of the incredible things I’ve gotten to be involved in have come from one of these random interactions. Most importantly, I continually am amazed by what comes back to me, over and over again, from people I’ve put energy, time, and resources into without any expectation of a return. The payoff, financial and non-financial, has been profound for me.
So try it. Don’t shift to a 100% give before you get mentality, but allocate 10% of your time to it. Find ways to give before you get. And if you are a mentor for an accelerator, a younger person, a peer, or someone in your organization, make sure you internalize the idea of giving before you get and expecting nothing in return. You’ll be delighted with what you do get back.
When you support a family member in need, you’re doing the right thing. The community you are part of is counting on you, and fulfilling your obligation to them is part of being a member of that community.
What happens, though, when you help someone you don’t know? What happens when one community deliberately seeks out someone who needs a leg up and attention and support and reaches out – with no possibility of reciprocity? That feeling is extraordinary, and as I run the 29 marathons I’ve got left to go to make my 50 marathons by age 50 goal, I have been thinking harder about fundraising as part of this experience.
After my close friend Andy Sack was diagnosed with testicular cancer, the impact of a medical emergency really hit home for me. Andy’s fully recovered after surgery and a 62 day chemo regimen – the experience caused me to think a lot about what families go through when a loved one is ill.
During this time, I met Ethan Austin, the co-founder of GiveForward at Lindzonpalooza. I was blown away by what they are doing and decided to team up with them to do 29 random acts of kindness over the next few years.
For each of my upcoming marathons, I’m going to run in support of one of the GiveForward campaigns. Amy and I will kick off the fundraising with a commitment of at least $145,000 ($5,000 per marathon) and encourage our extended community to contribute whatever they can. We may increase this amount in the future ($5,000 will always be our minimum) depending on the total level of contribution (more contributors = bigger contribution from us.) I’m also going to do some random things for the people who contribute on a marathon by marathon basis – look for me to have some fun with this rewarding my community for helping with a random act of kindness.
The people we will support will not be people we know. Rather, they will be people who inspire us and who we want to shine a random act of kindness on. Our fundraising efforts will be a complete surprise to these families, and our hope is that we can create a little unexpected joy for the people we support.
The first random act of kindness is Justin Salcedo from Devine, TX who has testicular cancer. I’ll be running the Missoula Marathon on July 8, 2012 in Missoula, Montana for him. His family friend set up a GiveForward page for him and wrote the following description:
Justin Salcedo is from a small town south of San Antonio, TX. We live in Devine, TX. He is a good athlete, a good son, and a good friend to everyone. Always has a smile on his face. He just recently found out he had testicular cancer. His mother is the one who told me the story of how he found out about his cancer. I have known him for about 17 years. My sister-in-law baby sat him when he was little. My son and Justin were in pre-K together, they were in little league baseball, our local youth basketball league, Middle school athletics and 2 years highschool athletics. So for this news it was a shock to me and I am not his immediate family. It feels like dream…..
The GiveForward campaign is called Kicking Cancer. Our goal is to raise at least $10,000 by May 31st to help out Justin and his family. Let’s do this for Justin and show the world how the power of a community can deliver random acts of kindness.
PS – if you can’t afford to donate, I urge you to share Justin’s GiveForward page on your Facebook wall or give Justin a “virtual hug” by leaving words of encouragement on his page. Neither of these things will cost you a dime but they might mean the world to Justin.