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.)
tl;dr – Yes.
I’m on the firstname.lastname@example.org list for a number of the companies I’m on the board of. CEOs and entrepreneurs who practice TAGFEE welcome this. I haven’t universally asked for inclusion on this list mostly because I hadn’t really thought hard about it until recently. But I will now and going forward, although I’ll leave it up to the CEO as to whether or not to include me.
In an effort to better figure out the startup board dynamic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of continual communication with board members. The companies I feel most involved in are ones in which I have continual communication and involvement with the company. This isn’t just limited to the CEO, but to all members of the management team and often many other people in the company. Working relationships as well as friendships develop through the interactions.
Instead of being a board member with his arms crossed who shows up at a board meeting every four to eight weeks to ask a bunch on knuckleheaded questions in reaction to what is being presented, I generally know a wide range of what is going on in the companies I’m on the board of. Sure – there are lots of pockets of information I don’t know, but because I’m in the flow of communication, I can easily engage in any topic going on in the company. In addition to being up to speed (or getting up to speed on any issue faster), I have much deeper functional context, as well as emotional context, about what is going on, who is impacted, and what the core issue is.
Every company I’m involved in has a unique culture. Aspects of the culture get played out every day on the email@example.com email list. Sometimes the list is filled with the mundane rhythms of a company (“I’m sick today – not coming in”; “Please don’t forget to put the dishes in the dishwasher.”) Other times it’s filled with celebration (“GONG: Just Closed A Deal With Customer Name.”) Occasionally it’s filled with heartbreak (“Person X just was diagnosed with cancer.”) Yet other times it is a coordination mechanism (“Lunch is at 12:30 at Hapa Sushi.”) And, of course, it’s often filled with substance about a new customer, new product, issue on tech support, competitive threat, or whatever is currently on the CEO’s mind.
As a board member, being on this list makes me feel much more like part of the team. I strongly believe that board members of early stage companies should be active – and supportive – participants. My deep personal philosophy is that as long as I support the CEO, my job is to do whatever the CEO wants me to do to help the company succeed. Having more context, being part of the team, and being in the flow of the firstname.lastname@example.org communication helps immensely with that.
There are three resistance points I commonly hear to this:
1. “I don’t want to overwhelm my board members with emails.” That’s my problem, not yours, and the reason filters were created for people who can’t handle a steady volume of email. If you are a Gmail user, or have conversation view turned on in Outlook, it’s totally mangeable since all the messages thread up into a single conversation. So – don’t worry about me. If your board member says “too much info, please don’t include me”, ponder what he’s really saying and how to best engage him in continuous communication.
2.”I don’t want my board members to see all the things going on in the company.” That’s not very TAGFEE so the next time you say “I try to be transparent and open with my investors”, do a reality check on what you actually mean. Remember, the simplest way not to get tangled up in communication is just to be blunt, open, and honest all the time – that way you never have to figure out what you said. If you don’t believe your board members are mature enough to engage in this level of interaction on a continual basis, reconsider whether they should be on your board.
3. “I’m afraid it will stifle communication within the company.” If this is the case, reconsider your relationship between your board members and your company. Are you anthropomorphizing your board? Are you shifting blame, or responsibility to them (as in “the board made me do this?”) Are you creating, or do you have, a contentious relationship between your team and the board? All of these things are problems and lead to ineffective board / company / CEO interactions so use that as a signal that something is wrong in relationship.
Notice that I didn’t say “all investors” – I explicitly said board members. As in my post recently about board observers, I believe that board members have a very specific responsibility to the company that is unique and not shared by “board observers” or other investors. There are plenty of other communication mechanisms for these folks. But, for board members, add them to you email@example.com list today.
Over the past year, I’ve been systematically trying to change the way the board meetings work for the companies that I’m on the boards of. I’ve done a bunch of experiments and continue to learn what works and what doesn’t work.
Ever since I started investing in the mid-1990’s I’ve been exposed to a concept called “board observer rights.” When we did investments at Mobius Venture Capital, in addition to a board seat, we always got board observer rights. This was a way for us to bring another person to the board meeting other than the board member (usually an associate or a principal but sometimes another partner), or have someone sit in for the board member if the board member wasn’t available.
Early in the life of a company, this often seems manageable. But after several rounds of financings with new investors, I’ve often found myself in board meetings with ten or more people. I think the most I’ve ever seen was about 25 people in the room for a board that had five board members. As you’d expect, there was very little critical thinking or real discussion in these board meetings; instead, the management team just presented to the mass of people in the room. And, in this context, the board members rarely formed a tight and effective working relationship.
Over the last few years, I’ve become very anti-board observer. I’ve been on several boards where the CEO didn’t allow board observers in the meeting. I’ve been on several boards where there were observers in the room, but they weren’t allowed to sit at the board table and could only “observe”. In both cases, the quality and level of discussion in the board meeting was dramatically higher.
I’ve come to believe that formal board observer rights shouldn’t exist. Instead, they should be voluntary and controlled by the CEO. In some cases, the CEO will want observers at the meeting; in other cases he won’t. But it should be up to him.
The best board meetings I’ve been at have been ones that only have the board members and select participants from the management team in the room. Casual discussion, either through dinner the night before or lunch after the board meeting, with an extended group including people from the management team and any other investors, is an effective way to engage everyone else. But the 25 person board meeting is rarely effective.
At the HBS VC Alumni event I was at last week (no – I didn’t go to HBS – I was a panelist) I heard a great line from a wise old VC who has been a VC about as long as I’ve existed on this planet.
“VCs only need three rights: Up, Down, and Know What The Fuck Is Going On”
If you’ve read Venture Deals: How To Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, you already know that Jason and I agree with this statement. And even though a term sheet might be four to eight pages long and the definitive documents might be 100 pages or more, other than economics, there are really only three things a VC needs in a deal.
Up: Pro-rata rights. When things are going well (up) a VC wants the ability to continue to invest money to maintain their ownership.
Down: Liquidation preference. When things don’t go well (down), a VC wants to get their money out first.
Know What The Fuck Is Going On: Board seat. Beyond demonstrating that older VCs also swear in public, many people believe that with a board seat comes great power and responsibility. In reality it mainly gives one the ability to know what’s actually going on, to the extent that anyone knows what’s actually going on in a fast moving startup.
As I was writing this up, I remembered that Fred Wilson had a post about this a while ago. I searched his blog (using Lijit and the term pro-rata) and quickly found a great post titled The Three Terms You Must Have In A Venture Investment. He attributes this to his first VC mentor, Milt Pappas, and the three terms are the same ones referenced above. It’s a great post – go read it.
Entrepreneurs – don’t get confused by the endless mumbo-jumbo. If you haven’t read Venture Deals: How To Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist grab a copy. Or read blogs. Or do both. And VCs – don’t forget what terms you really care about – focus on making it simple.
I spend all of my working time in the domain of software, Internet, and entrepreneurship. Over the past few years I’ve gotten increasingly involved in a handful of political situations – local, state, and national – that directly impact companies either in the ecosystem I’m part of or that I’ve invested in. Many of these political situations stifle entrepreneurship, innovation, or opportunities for these companies.
I’ve come to appreciate the importance of organizations of like-minded individuals working together to advocate clear positions and help acceleration entrepreneurship and innovation. Historically I’ve been very reticent to formally join anything, preferring to help as much as I can as an individual contributor. Recently, I’ve stepped up my involvement in some non-profits, adding Startup Weekend and Startup Colorado to the list of non-profits I’m working with in addition to my longstanding role as chair of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
When my long time friend Don Dodge reached out and asked me to join the board of the Application Developers Alliance, I said yes. Developers are at the heart of the universe I work in and central to many of the things I do. Making sure they have a voice in the rapidly evolving software / Internet ecosystem on a global scale is important to me. Hopefully I can be helpful.
In the mean time, if you are a company that develops applications or provides ecosystems for application developers, take a look at the current member list and consider joining our effort.
I love getting post board meeting emails that are retrospectives from execs in the meeting. This one came a week ago from Jeff Malek, the CTO and co-founder of BigDoor. They’ve been on a tear lately and are in the process of a massive set of Q1 launches for new customers.
We had a solid board meeting, but I suggested they were being too casual about a couple of things, including communication about what was going on. This is NOT a casual group and I knew using the word casual would press a few buttons. And they did – the right ones. Jeff’s retrospective is awesome and he was game to have me share it with you to get a sense of what’s inside a CTO’s head during and after a board meeting.
I have a retrospective addiction. But as a result of looking back at our meeting today Brad, words like ‘casual’ still ringing in my ears, I recognized I’d let some of my own assumptions drive away potential opportunities, maybe even creating some problems along the way. I’ve always run under the assumptions that :
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that I took your feedback and concluded that I needed to give you more BigDoor insight, or that you needed more info in general to get a better picture – that’s what the numbers are for.
So while all of the above assumptions are probably true to some degree, here’s the new protocol I’m going to start optimistically running under:
Those are my new assumptions. I felt like giving this topic some time and thought, glad I did, will keep it (mostly) short going forward but hopefully you know a bit more about where I’m coming from, out of this.
Thanks again for the time today, I thought it was an awesome f-ing meeting. I always leave them on fire.
Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.
My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.
I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path. And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation. All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts: Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.
But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members. I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others. Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.
Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:
My interview/vetting process for Board members:
I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member. Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:
Disclaimer – I run a private company. While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary. And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture. That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!
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 on a number of board calls this month while I’ve been in Paris. About half of them have been via Skype; the other half have been standard audio conferencing. I’ve also had a bunch of other meetings, discussions, and pitches via Skype.
The quality of the meeting and interaction – when all attendees are in person or via videoconference (in my case Skype on my laptop) – was 10x better than the ones via audio conference only.
I’ve been vacillating between a “physical attendance at all board meetings” approach or “video conference at all board meetings approach” to life. It’s impossible for me to physically attend all board meetings, but there’s no reason why I can’t attend by video conference. I’m now encouraging everyone I work with – as well as everyone that has a board meeting – to have a physical + video conference approach. It is so much better than having people on audio conference.
In several of the meetings, we simply set up Skype on a laptop and put the laptop at the end of the table. It’s a simple, low cost (free) solution, that works awesomely well. In one case, there was more than one person on Skype. Rather than try to do a Skype three-way (which works well also), the company simply set up two laptops with a separate Skype session on each. Skype audio seemed to work just fine in all cases but one, so we did an audio conference for voice and Skype for video.
While there will always be adhoc conference calls on short notice for boards that need to ratify something, for any meeting over an hour, or any scheduled meeting, putting the effort into getting everyone either physically there or on video makes a huge difference.
I know it sounds trite, but it’s remarkable how much better – even in a one on one conversation – the discussion is when it’s video instead of just audio. The calls are higher impact, body language is apparent, and people pay full attention rather than “minimally acceptable attention + email”.
We’ve been waiting for and talking about video conferencing for a long time. I think it’s really ready this time.