I’ve been to a gazillion board meetings. I’ve written a lot about them including a book called Startup Boards: Getting The Most Out of Your Board of Directors and piles of board meetings posts on this blog. I still do a lot of them, but I’ve definitely been on a quest the past few years to (a) figure out what works best and (b) try to organize my world around more effective board meetings based on what I’ve learned.
On Friday, I had a Mattermark board meeting. It was our second one since we invested in Q414. Danielle Morrill wrote a post in February about our first board meeting. It was a long board meeting as I’d reserved from 11am until the end of the day for it, followed by dinner together, but it was very different than the one we just had as we search for our rhythm as a board.
At the first board meeting, Danielle, Kevin, and Andy came to Boulder and spent a few days here together. In addition to the board meeting, they spent a bunch of time with founders in other Boulder-based portfolio companies of ours.
This time the Mattermark leadership team, including Sarah, BT, and Beau came to Colorado. They arrived Thursday night and drove up to my house in Keystone (about 90 minutes away). I got up early Friday morning and drove up there, getting there around 10:00am. The Mattermark gang was up, had just finished breakfast, and were doing what lots of startups do when they are hanging out waiting for an investor to show up (queue photo of people sitting around on their laptops.)
We got a little more coffee and then went downstairs into our big, comfy TV room. Last time, we worked directly in a Google Doc. This time, Danielle made a deck summarizing everything we’d been doing back and forth in via the Google Doc over the past week leading up to the board meeting. The deck looked good on our 75″ TV and we fired up Skype on a laptop at the front of the room for Lisa (who couldn’t come) and Megan (our outside counsel.)
We proceeded to spend until almost 8pm going very deep on various aspects of the business, product, product strategy, organizational dynamics, and goals for Q215. During this time, we took 90 minutes off for lunch and had a bunch of Mexican food at Fiesta Jalisco. At about 7pm we shifted into an executive session of just founders and board and then Danielle and I spent 30 minutes just doing a 1:1.
We then jumped into cars and went out to a late dinner. My favorite Sushi place Kemosabe Sushi had an hour wait so we went to Silverheels Bar and Grill next door. We were done talking business so we talked science fiction, crazy obsessive habits, fun ways everyone had met each other, and the stuff you talk about after a long day together.
They then drove back to my Keystone house to spend the rest of the weekend together. I drove home because I really wanted a weekend with Amy just hanging around and chilling out (she’s taking a nap as I write this.)
Overall, I’ve tried to shift my board meeting rhythm to once a quarter. My favorite board meetings are the ones that including the entire management team. I like to have a meal with the entire management team as part of the board meeting. I like to have social time and give the team time and space to get to know me better, and themselves better, outside the normal pressure of the day to day grind that is startup life.
I’m a very deep believer in continuous engagement with companies I’m an investor in. As a result, I do not like a monthly board meeting rhythm. I think it’s too much overhead on a leadership team and lets investor / board members off the hook for continuous engagement. More specifically, I know many investors who only really engage with companies either around the board meeting, when a transaction is going on, or when there is a crisis. While this might be useful for some people, it’s not my style nor how I like to engage.
I’ve only had a few of these “full-day retreat at my house in Keystone followed by management taking over the house” type board meetings and I really like them. I expect I’ll do more in the future and encourage any of the companies I’m on the board of to take me up on them.
When I wrote Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors with Mahendra Ramsinghani, our goal was to help entrepreneurs understand how to create an excellent board of directors, manage it effectively, and get optimal value out of it. This was challenging to do, as the topic of boards can be boring. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten, including consistently positive reviews on Amazon, I feel like we accomplished that goal.
Last year the Kauffman Foundation, with which I’ve had a long relationship and am a big supporter of, approached me about doing a Kauffman Founders School video series on Startup Boards. We completed it early this year – the teaser follows.
There are seven modules that are each five to ten minutes long.
Each module also has suggested additional readings, beyond our book Startup Boards.
I’m proud to be part of the Kauffman Founders School, which includes some great courses such as the ones listed below by folks like Dan Pink, Steve Blank, Bill Reichert, and Meg Cadoux Hirshberg.
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.
I had a fun email exchange with an investor I’ve worked with for almost 20 years in response to something a CEO send out from a board we are both on. I said “fucking awesome.” He said “that’s an understatement.” I said “CEO is such a delight.” He said “CEO is negative maintenance.”
I loved this. So I’m going to use this post to think through the idea out loud and I’d love your feedback since it’s still a messy / blurry concept in my mind.
My hypothesis is that the opposite of high maintenance is not zero maintenance but rather it’s negative maintenance.
There are days that I’m high maintenance. Everyone is. But if you subscribe to my “give before you get”, or #givefirst, philosophy, you are constantly contributing more than you are consuming. I’ve talked about this often in the context of Startup Communities, but I haven’t really had the right words for this in the context of leadership, management, and employees in a fast growing company.
Suddenly I do. When I think about my role as an investor and board member, I’m often tangled up in complicated situations. I’ve often said that every day something new in my world gets fucked up somewhere. This used to be distressing to me, but after 20 years of it, if I don’t know what the new fucked up thing is by 4pm, I start to get curious about what it’s going to be.
We all know that creating companies from nothing is extremely difficult. The problems that arise come from all angles. Some are exogenous and some are directly under your control. Some are random and some are obvious. Some are compounded by other problems and mistakes, resulting in what my father taught me at a young age was the worst kind of mistake – one that was a mistake compounded on a mistake compounded on a mistake – which he called “a complicated mistake.”
Personally, when I find myself in a complicated mistake, I stop. I step back and pause and reflect. And then I try to figure out how I can change the dynamic into something positive, not continuing to build on my complicated mistake, but instead getting clarity on what the right thing is to do to get out of the ditch.
Negative maintenance people do this. I’ve seen, been involved in, and made some epic mistakes. The CEO I’m referring to above has a great company, but has also experienced some epic mistakes. How he handles them, works through them with his team, and his board, is exemplary. There is work involved by me and the other board members, but it’s not inappropriately emotional. It’s not high maintenance. It’s just work. Decisions have to be made and executed. And there are impacts from these decisions, which lead to more decisions. Ultimately this CEO is putting energy into the system as we work through the issue, which is where the negative maintenance (as opposed to high maintenance) behavior pattern arises.
I like this idea of negative maintenance people. I’m obviously trying to think it through out loud with this post, so weigh in and help me understand it better.
I have been to thousands of board meetings. Maybe tens of thousands. I’ve done them in person, on the phone, and on video conference. Most of the time I think I’m additive to the mix. Yesterday I had a board meeting (where I was remote on video) where on reflection I was a lousy participant and miserable contributor to the meeting.
I had a really nice dinner with a founder of a company that was recently acquired by a company I’m on the board of. I vented a little about the board meeting to him at the beginning of dinner and then he asked me questions about how I think a great board meeting should work. As I was talking and explaining, I realized the board meeting wasn’t crummy. Instead, I was lousy. So when I got home, I sent the following note to the CEO and the largest VC investor in on the board (who I view as the lead director for this company.)
Dear CEO, Lead Director:
Post dinner, I thought I’d drop you another note. Please feel free to share with the entire management team if you’d like.
I thought I was a shitty board member today.
1. I was late. My brother had surgery today so I had an excuse, but that set a crummy tone.
2. I was painfully bored by the first 90 minutes. I let myself get frustrated as you read us the board package. I know some board members like this and while I don’t, that’s my problem, not yours. You get to run the board meeting however you want.
3. I was annoyed with my lack of clarity on what you were looking for.
4. I let myself get distracted. Rather than pay attention, I drifted to email which I hadn’t been on all day. The mediocre audio wasn’t helpful here, but again that was my problem. I could have paid attention.
5. I then got very frustrated with what I thought was a “let’s go raise a bunch of money thread” which I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but I presumed that there was some positioning going on. I shouldn’t have. But I let that + my general annoyance derail me.
I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t helpful today.
So you are clear about where I’m at.
– I’m psyched about the progress you are making.
– I’m totally comfortable with you running hot at an $xxx net burn rate for the balance of the year. You’ve got plenty of money.
– When I’m bored in, or annoyed with, a board meeting, that’s my problem in the moment to deal with, not yours. You’ve got 14 people in the room / on the phone and that’s more than any human should have to try to process.
– You and <your COO> have my full, unambiguous support.
We all have off days – when you have one – own it.
For those of you that missed my note yesterday, I’m going to start using the first paragraph of my posts with an announcement about something in my world. Today’s is the launch of a new product from Orbotix called Selfiebot. My Orbotix friends are masters at creating amazing robots and are hard at work on the next generation of what we are calling “connected play.” Selfiebot is an autonomous flying robot that shoots HD photos of you, freeing you from the limitations of a handheld startphone when taking selfies. Check out Selfiebot today.
While we are on the topic of Orbotix, let’s talk for a little while about expectations for outside board members. Yesterday I met with an outside board member of another company I’m on the board of. He’s been on the board for about six months and is feeling uncomfortable with his contribution. He’s a very experienced CEO with a large exit under his belt, a founder/investor in several other companies, and an excellent operator. But he hasn’t been an outside board member much. He wanted to get feedback from me on how he was doing and whether his expectations for his own engagement were correct, and what he could do to work with the CEO and leadership more effectively.
I’m an enormous believer in the value of outside directors relatively early in the life of a company. I like to keep boards small and weighted toward outside directors as the companies grow, rather than just a cadre of VCs sitting around the board torturing the CEO with conflicting advice and opinions. I’ve written about this extensively in Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.
I generally see three types of outside board members getting recruited to a board of a VC backed company.
Note the emphasis on independent thinker. It doesn’t matter who the relationship originates from. There is a unique role for an outside director in a startup company and it’s one that can be profoundly helpful to the CEO. But that person needs to be operating from a headspace of an independent thinker, not a proxy for one of the other participants on the board.
The person I was talking to yesterday is definitely #3. While I’ve known him for a long time and was an investor / board member in his successful company, he most definitely is not my proxy. I learn an enormous amount from him about the particular dynamics of the specific business since he knows it so well, so when he talks, I listen carefully. I have no interest in being in between him and the executives of the company or hearing about what comes up in his operating level discussions, unless he feels like it’s a board level issue and discussion. But most importantly, I want the CEO to learn from this outside director and his experience by developing his own deep, personal relationship.
Back to Orbotix. We’re recruiting at least one outside director to Orbotix as part of the continued scale up of the company. Paul Berberian, the CEO, wrote a magnificent short overview of his expectation for a board member that he’s sharing with everyone he’s talking to. I asked his permission to reprint it here – it follows. If you are considering adding an outside director, I encourage you to prepare a similar document, and make sure it’s for all of your directors, including your investor directors.
Orbotix Board of Directors Expectations
Orbotix is a startup company and our expectations for board members can be summed up with the following statements:
Be True: No bullshit or tap-dancing on any subject. Be honest with your thoughts and opinions. Our time together as a group is limited and holding back or sugar coating any issues or concerns you have with the business is simply wasting time in trying to get to the real discussion. If you don’t have an opinion or relevant experience to make an informed decision – say so. No one knows everything. And of course all the other table stakes for serving on any board such as always act in an ethical manner and in the best interest of the company.
Be Prepared: We put a lot of time into preparing the board book – read it in advance. We do not review the board book at the board meeting unless there are questions. The first few minutes are open for questions, approval of standard business items and then we dive into a deep discussion on one to three key subjects. These subjects will we outlined in the board book but additional material may be presented at the meeting. Try to come to each board meeting with one big question or insight you’d like to be addressed during our strategic discussions. Each board meeting will end with an executive session where the directors can give feedback to the CEO as well as talk privately without management present. The lead director will then follow up with the CEO to provide any final thoughts on the meeting.
Be Present: We have four board meetings a year and expect board members to be physically and mentally present. Board meetings are typically 3 hours or less. If you cannot attend physically getting access to a high quality video conference system can be a substitute. We take great care to plan BOD meetings around your schedule so please make them. Missing one board meeting can happen, but it should be rare. If you miss multiple board meetings we assume that something else is taking priority and you should evaluate ongoing participation. When at the board meeting turn off you phone and laptop and participate in the discussion. We will take breaks to allow you to check messages. If you are highly distracted due to other pressing matters, please let us know in advance so we don’t question your willingness to participate. We have a “small group meal” in advance or after the board meeting – typically a dinner the night before. The meal will have 2 to 4 people and will include an equal number of board members and management. This is the opportunity for the board to get to know management and each other at a deeper level – groups will be different for each board meeting. They are not designed to conduct the board meeting in advance. An Orbotix exec will coordinate the meal in advance.
Be Available: One of the key roles a startup board member can provide is to act as a coach or sounding board for the CEO. These interactions typically occur between board meetings. Making time on your turf to have these interactions is invaluable. The expectation that these meetings will not exceed more than a few hours per quarter. Often approvals are needed in short order – board members are expected to be responsive on emails / calls that clearly declare action needed in the title or message.
Be Supportive: As a board member you are expected to support the company and CEO. If you support the company but not the CEO you have three options 1) coach the CEO 2) replace the CEO or 3) resign. Unless there is some unusual circumstance, options #2 and #3 should not be without warning as it is expected feedback will be shared with the board in the executive session. An engaged and supportive BOD member will use their best efforts to help Orbotix succeed. Examples include leveraging your network for creating meaningful partnerships and introductions, and freely sharing your expertise and insights on strategy, products and performance. Additionally we expect every board member to speak about the company favorably in public and share their enthusiasm for our work with others.
Be A Player: We make fun things. That is why before each BOD meeting starts we begin with a play session to highlight our accomplishments and developments since our last meeting. We want our BOD members to embrace their inner child and play with our creations, offer feedback and most importantly share with their friends and family to help us shape our products and experiences. We cannot build fun things unless we are all having fun – so let’s play!
When I was working on Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors I spent a lot of time thinking about my ideal board meeting. I also spent a lot of time thinking about why boards are ineffective and what you – as an entrepreneur – can do to change the dynamic of an ineffective board (other than firing your VCs, which is hard to do.)
On March 6, from 5:30pm – 7:00pm at CU Law School, I’ll be doing a Crash Course on Startup Boards. I’m being hosted by my friends at CU Law Dean Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal (head of the Entrepreneurship Initiative).
I’m going to cover three things and then do Q&A.
I’ll give real examples from my experience as a board member on hundreds of boards.
I hope to see you there.
In my new book, Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, in addition to decomposing and explaining a lot about the functioning of board meetings, I also describe my ideal board meeting.
I had four of them this week. That’s a lot of board meetings in a week, but my weeks tend to either be “lots of board meetings” or “no board meetings” as I generally bunch them up. Thankfully, all four of them used my ideal board meeting template.
A critical aspect of my ideal board meeting is that the entire board package should be sent out several days in advance to all board members. It should be thorough, including whatever the CEO wants the board to know about what has happened since the last board meeting. While I prefer prose to a PowerPoint deck, either is fine. Optimally it’s in a format like Google Docs where everyone on the board can comment on specific things, allowing open Q&A on the board material prior to the board meeting. I like to decouple monthly financial reporting from the board package, but including a look back of the financials, along with discussion and framing is useful. But the meat of the board package should be what’s going on now and going forward, not looking back. The looking back is for support of the discussion.
Then – the board meeting has a simple structure intended to fit in three hours. Optimally all participants are either in person or on video conference. Since I’m not traveling for business right now, almost all of my board meetings have a video conferencing component. When done correctly, it’s often just as effective as an in-person meeting, and in some cases (if you follow my video conferencing rules) even more effective. What is not effective is when one or more people are on an audio conference.
Once everyone is settled, break the board meeting into three discrete sections. They, and their descriptions, follow:
Administration (30 minutes): Board overhead, resolutions, administration, and questions about the board package.
Discussion (up to 2 hours): Discussion on up to five topics. The five topics should fit on one slide or be written on the white board. The CEO is responsible for time boxing the discussion, or if he needs help, he should ask the lead director to do this. If you don’t have a lead director, read my book and get yourself one. This should be a discussion – you’ve got your board in the room – use it to help you go deeper on the specific topic you are trying to figure out. These topics can be on anything, but my experience is that the more precise the context is, the richer the discussion. I prefer for the full leadership team to be in the meeting for this part, although it’s entirely up to the CEO who is in the room.
Executive Session (30 minutes): CEO and board only. Here the board can give feedback specifically to the CEO or sensitive issues around personnel or other things the CEO wants to discuss separately from the management team can be covered. At the end, the CEO leaves and let’s the board have some time alone where the lead director checks in if there is any feedback the board would like to give the CEO.
If you have less than five topics, the board meeting can take less time. Or if the five topics only take an hour to go through, the board meeting can take less time. There is nothing ever wrong with ending a meeting early. Ever.
Now this template doesn’t always work – you often have other specific things you have to address. When a company is going through an M&A process, the board meetings tend to be frequent and cover other stuff. Or, when the company is in a downward spiral, or dealing with a crisis, the focus is often very precise.
But in my world, the day of the “board update” is over. I find no value in sitting in a room for three hours, paging through a PowerPoint deck while people present at me, and the people around the table ask an endless stream of questions, mostly demonstrating that they haven’t been engaged in what the company has been doing since the last board meeting.
Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors is shipping. It was so satisfying to see this today.
This was by far the most difficult book to write so far. The title we came up with should have tipped me off – it ended up be extremely challenging to make a book about “boards” not be “boring.”
If you are up for it, give me some opening day love and order a copy of Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.
Ari Newman is an entrepreneur, mentor, investor, and a friend. He works at Techstars where his responsibility is to ensure that the connections between alumni, mentors, and staff are as robust as they can be – helping entrepreneurs “do more faster” day in and day out. His most recent company, Filtrbox, participated in the inaugural Techstars class (Techstars Boulder 2007) and was a win for all parties involved; Filtrbox was acquired in 2010 by Jive Software (NASDAQ: JIVE).
I’ve worked closely with Ari for a while and love his candor. He talks, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, with recent first hand experience. Following is his advice to early stage entrepreneurs for creating structure in their company.
Here’s the punchline: if you run your company as if you have closed a VC equity financing round even though you actually closed a convertible debt round, you’ll be in much better shape when it comes time to raise your Series A financing. Specifically, I am talking about putting a board in place, running formal board meetings, and making sure you have people at the table who act as the voice of reason and sanity. One of the key benefits of doing this early on is that when it comes time to raise that next round, the people you’ll need the most help from are already involved and engaged.
Convertible debt financings have become an increasingly attractive approach for seed rounds because it delays the valuation discussion, costs less from a legal standpoint, and is an easier financial instrument to “keep raising more small amounts of money” on. There are two different cases, with shades of grey in between: (1) there are only a few investors or (2) it’s a “party” round, with $1M+ raised and many investors. This second kind of seed financing can be a double-edged sword for the entrepreneur and company if not very carefully managed. This post is not about the economic implications of debt rounds versus priced rounds – there has already been plenty written about that including this great one from Mark Suster. Rather, this post is a call to action for entrepreneurs who have successfully raised a debt round and must now turn their idea into a serious business.
So why would you treat your debt investors (somewhat) like equity investors? This may seem counterintuitive, even even a pain in the ass. So, I’ll explain my reasoning through the story of ASC, a fictitious company that has a combination of characteristics I’ve seen across a number of early stage companies.
Acme SaaS Corp (ASC) was started by two entrepreneurs; they have a big vision and if they can execute on it, the business will be a clear home-run. One of them used to be a lead developer at [insert hot consumer tech company here]. They need to raise money before building anything substantial after determining that they needed a little dough to follow the Lean Startup methodology.
They decide to go out and raise money on a convertible note – several angel investors have signaled interest in participating in the note and they don’t feel ready to pitch VCs yet. Fundraising goes better than expected and they quickly find themselves with a $750k round consisting of several VCs and a bunch of angels. The investors, founders, and “community” are all super excited about ASC. They close on the $750k, hire a buddy or two, buy some Macs, and get to work.
ASC starts building product, but as they get into the thick of it, the team realizes executing on their vision is going to be extremely hard. Things start to get a little fuzzy in terms of priorities, but not to fret, the new office is coming along really well with all of the hiring! For the first the months, the team meets often and strategizes on what they want to build while some code gets written. Early customer development talks are going great which keeps the team really excited. Three months in, the burn is now at $70k/month.
Two more months go by and the team is continuing to iterate, but every two-week sprint results in some re-factoring and re-thinking. No updates, screen comps, or metrics have been publicly shared yet. It’s too early for that shit. Heads down on product, they say. Every now and then, investors are told things are going great and the founders are really excited about what they are doing. Soundbites from potential customers are encouraging. Eventually early product demos start happening but they’re rough and the product looks very alpha. At month six, one of the early hires leaves, a developer who turns out wasn’t a good fit. There is $350k left in the bank.
Seven months in, there is a beta product. It’s better than before, but not by miles. The people on the sales side don’t feel they can charge for it yet because who’s going to take out their wallet for something that isn’t perfect. A bunch of potential customers are kicking the tires on the product but it seems that every engaged beta customer needs something slightly different or feels as if the product is not ready to be truly used in production. “This is all a part of the normal product and customer development process,” the CEO tells the team. The burn is now at $90k/month as they had to hire a “customer delight” person to handle the beta process. The team thinks their investors still love them and that they are still a hot company. The first material update goes out to the investors, with lots of positive quotes from VPs at potential customers, and they all indicate future product acceptance if a bunch of other stuff gets in place. Investors are dismayed that there are no real customers yet. There is no discussion of burn, runway, and more financing yet. The team wants to make a little more progress first.
A month later, another email update goes out to the investors – the team has decided to pivot based on feedback and they are super excited about the new direction and once they have the product updated to capture the new, bigger opportunity, it’s going be great. Oh, and the email says the founders will be in touch to discuss another round of funding since there are only 2 months of runway left.
Sound familiar? I could continue but the odds are that this story isn’t going to end well. The company flames out and the team gets aquihired. The investors get nothing.
While you may think ASC is an extreme case, it happens all the time. I’ve observed too many companies that have some or all of these elements in their story. I’m not saying, under any circumstance, that the debt round was the catalyst or sole reason for the company’s missteps but there are a number of times in this story where good company hygiene, good governance, and a properly utilized board would have helped to positively affect the outcome. Following are a few ways that a board would have helped out.
Easy Debt Round Lasting A Year – Even if the raise wasn’t that easy, the company was able to raise enough to buy a year or more of runway. In startup time, that feels like forever. It’s enough time to hang yourself if you are not careful. Had the company created a board and run it properly, they would have ratified a budget, reviewed compensation plans, and agreed on spending levels during early product development. The year would have been a full year, not just 7-9 months.
Real Product and Market Focus – This company lost 3-6 months of execution because they got lost building towards a high level vision. That high level vision was a beast to tackle, and being younger founders, they they didn’t realize they were in over their heads. With advisors or a board, the founders could have opened the kimono and asked for guidance. There are about a dozen corrective actions, best practices, or methodologies that could have been applied during this critical time. It’s up to the team to be able to execute them, but they had their heads in the clouds for too long and no one else at the table with them.
Don’t Pivot in a Vacuum – Had ASC properly used its board, advisors, and investors, it would have brought the pivot strategy to the table early on. A discussion around overall business viability, time to market, and capital impact would have ensued. A review of the cash position, burn rate, and execution plan would have revealed there was not enough cash on hand to nail the pivot while leaving 3-6 months of time in market before raising again. The plan would have to get way tighter, way faster. They didn’t keep the investors up-to-date, then pivoted without engaging or validating whether there was going to be follow-on support. They took a right turn into a brick wall. Investors do not own the company or its strategy. I often say “it’s your company” when I’m bluntly asked what direction a company should take, especially if I’m wearing my investor hat. While that is true, if you rely on outside capital to reach escape velocity, keep the cockpit talking to the engine room.
Use The Smart Money or Lose It – Almost every investor I know makes investments because they want the return, but they also believe they can be helpful to the company in some way. When teams don’t communicate and engage with their investors, the void is often filled with skepticism, doubt, and (often false) assumptions about the business or the team. You borrowed money (or sold a portion of your company) from these folks – they want you to be successful. Leverage them for the better of the company, whether that means using their wisdom or their rolodex. They also can create major signaling problems for your next round if you allow the radio-silence void to be filled with doubt and distrust. Who would blindly give ASC another big check after what occurred above?
Company Hygiene Matters – One of the responsibility of a Board of Directors is to regularly discuss financials, burn rate, and cash management. Had ASC created a board, the company would have potentially managed their cash more conservatively and had the wherewithal to initiate the shift of the company sooner, whether it be through M&A talks, raising more capital, or making the pivot earlier.
I bet that some of you reading this post are entrepreneurs who are in this situation. I beg of you, treat your debt holders like equity holders, and utilize their expertise to help further your business. One easy way to do so is to act as if they are board members. In the super hard, fuzzy, pivot-happy early days of a company, a little structure, accountability, and organizational discipline can be all the difference between running headlong into a brick wall or creating a meaningful, well-operated company.
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