AGILEVC My idle thoughts on tech startups

September 19, 2012

There’s a lot of good suggestions out there for how early stage startups can approach (or improve) board meetings.  Some of my favorites are from Brad Feld (also this one from him), Andy Payne, and Steve Blank.  All three have perspective as both entrepreneurs and as investors / advisors in the startup board room.

There’s a range of different approaches from the somewhat traditional to the more radical (e.g. single slide board mtgs).  I personally think there’s no single template that’s “right” for all startups.  Each startup CEO has their own style and each board has its own quirks in terms of composition and DNA (size, investors vs founders vs independents, etc).

As an entrepreneur I only participated in a single board, presenting as a member of LinkedIn’s management team in the early days when we still had a pretty small board.  As an investor I’ve been a director or observer of many more boards, both highly effective and some less so.  Regardless of what template or style you choose, the common facets I’ve seen from productive and efficient board meetings are as follows:

  1. Materials in Advance – this one is pretty obvious, but it makes #2 a lot easier.  There’s also a happy medium between nothing and a package with 50+ pages across multiple documents.  Assuming they’re sent out 12+ hours in advance, it’s entirely reasonable to expect board members to have digested these prior to convening.
  2. Majority of Meeting Discussing Top Priority – a minority of the session should be spent on general business update and reviewing the materials.  The best board meetings always focus on a substantive issue where an engaged discussion among a small group of smart folks with common motivation can accomplish something.  The topics of course vary – maybe it’s a discussion of pricing, or figuring out right org structure for the next 1-2 years, the merits of competing product strategies, or the approach to an impending fundraising process.  All of these are temporal in nature, but can benefit from a serious discussion with concrete to-dos for both the company and outside BOD members.
  3. CEO’s Should Have A Point Of View - in addition to having more time for discussion and lest for general reporting & updating, I think it’s imperative that CEOs come to these discussions of top priorities with a point of view.  I don’t mean they should dictate the conversation or that they can’t lay out several hypothesis or potential plans.  Discussions should by definition be collaborative.  But as the leader of the company, as an investor board member I genuinely want to hear startup CEOs have a specific point of view.  Hopefully they synthesize the input they may receive and admit when they’re wrong, but at the end of the day being intentional and having conviction are huge parts of leadership.

Again there’s no single template or agenda that makes sense for every company and every board.  But all of the best boards I’ve been involved with have included #1-3 above.

  • robchogo

    I’d add two other components that I find effective. 

    1. Meeting/talking to board members before the meeting to pre-wire.  This helps goal #2, by allowing the CEO to get everyone up to speed so that there is more focus during the actual meeting. The CEO can also give investors a preview of the highest priority things to discuss, so either an investor can add/suggest others or think about the areas where feedback is needed.

    2. I find that some sort of report card is really good.  Something that lists the major goals/levers of the busienss and a quantitative or subjective measure of how things are tracking. 

    • leehower

      Both great points.  In terms of meeting up before the meeting, I think that’s useful 1-on-1 as you suggest.  Doing a board dinner or something before the actual meeting I find is usually counterproductive as you end up having an incomplete discussion about the board business before the proper meeting.

      • robchogo

        Agree. 1:1 or even a 15 minute call is best.

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