Jul 252004

The Good, The Board, and The Ugly

Fred, Brad, and Jerry have done a bunch of postings recently, and threaten to do more, sharing the VC perspective on many aspects of startups and entrepreneurship. I thought it might be interesting to share the entrepreneur’s perspective on the same subjects. I’ll try to cross-post and keep pace, but I’m already a couple behind, and I can’t crank out postings as fast as these guys can! (For reference, Fred and Brad are on my board, and Jerry as Fred’s partner is an advisor to my company, Return Path.)

Topic 1: Boards of Directors. All three have many good points. Brad says that boards come in three flavors (working, reporting, and lame duck), and that small companies need working boards which include other entrepreneurs in the industry as well as management and investors. He also advises to take good care of directors and not let them get bored. Fred calls the good ones engaged boards (interactive, candid, engaged, passionate, and involved) and says that while you can have a good company without an engaged board and even with a bored bored on occasion, to have a great business you need an engaged board. Finally, Jerry says that you should pick your board carefully and build it with some diversity like you would a management team and to avoid people who will yes you.

I basically agree with all of these points, and would add the following four thoughts for entrepreneurs:

1. Building a board can be one of a CEO’s greatest trump cards. Without being even a little bit disingenuous, you can use the “I’m the CEO and would like to talk to you about a potential board seat with my company” as an entree to meet face to face with some of the most interesting, senior, brand-name people in your industry (turns out, flattery will occasionally get you somewhere). Use this card wisely and sparingly, and always be prepared to follow up on your meetings, but take full advantage of it as a way to network. You never know what opportunities you’ll uncover along the way.

2. Don’t think of managing your Board as a burden. Communicate early and often to your Board members and make sure all big conversations and debates are pre-wired in one-to-one conversations before Board meetings, and that debates are framed and researched properly in advance of meetings. Nail the basics (reporting, financial reviews, well-crafted and easy-to-read materials sent out several days before the meeting), so you can focus the valuable meeting time on strategy, not on the minutiae.

3. Figure out how to work differently with investor directors and outside directors. VCs who sit on your board have very different interests, time availability, and things to contribute than outside directors, especially non-retired industry executives. Not all directors are created equally, and you don’t have to behave as if they are.

4. Sit on a board yourself. There’s nothing like a real-live counterpoint to make you take a step back and think about how to build and run an effective board. Find something — another startup, a nonprofit, your high school or college alumni association — to join as a board member. Watch and learn.

All that said, the most important thing I’ve found in running a board is following Brad, Jerry, and Fred’s collective wisdom about fostering an engaged/working board. Definitely don’t let them get bored on you!