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A practical guide to a first board meeting: Advice from the pros

As I prep for my first Backupify board meeting, I asked more experienced pros for their take on setting the right tone and starting things off right for productive board participation.  Here’s what I got back:

David Hornick, August Capital:

"Here's some anti-advice.  When I first invested in VideoEgg I was really excited about the company and thrilled to be working with them...  I was so excited about the company that I was overly-active in the board meeting, to say the least.  I talked over the entrepreneurs.  I talked over the other board members.  I forced the conversation at my pace.  And I forced the conversation in the directions I felt were interesting.  I wasn't trying to be a jerk.  And I wasn't trying to be a dictator.  I was just completely wired and moving a million miles an hour.  We got through the board meeting and it felt like it went great.  But later that afternoon I thought back on the meeting and realized that I had been a dictatorial asshole -- a well meaning dictatorial asshole, but a dictatorial asshole nonetheless.  I emailed Matt Sanchez that afternoon and apologized for my behavior and he very gently said that he was relieved that I wouldn't be like that in future board meetings because I was pretty crazy.  It is fine to be excited and to want to be involved and helpful, but don't get carried away with yourself.  Board meetings are a team sport and require everyone being team players."

Chris Fralic, First Round Capital:

“One good practice from David at Roblox – he leads with the Bad – gets it on the table and out of the way, so the board doesn’t feel like we’re waiting for other shoes to drop later in the deck”

 

Bijan Sabet, Spark Capital:

"Ask the CEO in advance to tell the board upfront (preferrably before the mtg) what is the main thing he/she wants out of the meeting and how the board can help."

 

Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures:

Really understand the business. And I've taken that lesson to heart in my career. I don't like to invest in businesses unless I really understand them. And when I invest in a business that I do understand, I like to "roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty." I like to engage with the management team and help them build the business.

There is a fine line between "getting your hands dirty" and meddling. You have to let the entrepreneurs and management team operate the business and make all the key decisions. But that doesn't mean you can't help them. And to help them you need to understand the business. So roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty and you'll be a better investor.”

 

Mark Suster, GRP Partners:

Set two strategic topics per board meeting and start with them.  Have a standard pack. Use time series and use graphs – Produce the standard of what you want to report to the board in terms of business performance and produce the same thing every time.  Each board pack should have the history of performance over the past year, a comparison of performance relative to plan and your forecasts going forward. Don’t allow computers, iPhones or Blackberries”

Howard Morgan, First Round Capital:

Board responsibilities: Read the stuff before you get there.  Understand variances from plan.  Stay in contact between meetings.  Have a todo list from each meeting.  Evaluate performance of a CEO.”

 

Jason Pressman, Shasta Ventures:

"First board meetings always are a bit scary b/c you actually find out what is going on so my advice to both sides (investors and entrepreneurs) is to have no surprises due to a transparent, thoughtful and engaged due diligence process.  In fact, one of my key pieces of advice for sound boards is to avoid surprises at all times by clear proactive communication…"

 

Stu Ellman, RRE:

"Don’t micromanage or try to manage the company for the CEO."

 

Bryce Roberts, OATV:

"I think establishing a clear set of metrics that are going to be accounted for month over month is an important first step at the board meeting. I also like the what working, what isn’t working approach. Always helpful too for them to include a “here’s what we need from you” slide so you know your marching orders post board meeting too."

 

Brad Feld, The Foundry Group:

"My recommendation is to view yourself as a partner with the CEO and focus on strategy rather than sitting around grilling the CEO and management team on things.  Using the Socratic method is fine, but drive toward solutions to big questions…   I’ve found that the more time that is spent on [important issues the CEO would like to discuss], the more impactful the meeting is."

 

Josh Kopelman, First Round Capital:

By providing [a board with] open access to information sources there are a number of benefits:

It eliminates surprises. By providing a continual stream of information, the board should never be surprised.

It makes board meetings much more productive.  Rather than spend a lot of time presenting the raw data, the CEO can now provide interpretation and analysis of data -- they can put the numbers in context.

It allows board members to make more meaningful suggestions.  Different board members have different skills. Some are strong at enterprise sales -- and by tracking a sales pipeline over time they might be able to identify areas for improvement in the sales cycle.”

Albert Wenger, Union Square Ventures:

Actively solicit input on decisions from every board member…communicate with individual board members outside of board meetings.  Some people are oddly quiet in group meetings.  Don’t assume that means they are in agreement with everything that is being said. Leave enough time for formal business so that you don’t need to rush through things like option grants.  These may require a bit of discussion, especially early on before you have bands established…  [Put a] premium on the ability to see the big picture and that should really be a critical role of the board.  That is as true for startups as it should have been for the big banks.  But with sometimes tons of data available to the board, I know how easy it is to get lost.  When I feel that is happening, I try to come up — by reduction — with what I believe is the one truly critical hypothesis and a single clear alternative.”

 

 

 

From Entrepreneurs:

Marc Pincus, Zynga:

“Define your board relationship, goals and give them each a job. Don't treat them like you boss”

Brett Hurt, Bazaarvoice:

"Send your decks 2 days in advance so people have 48 hours to review and have everyone show up in person for it so you build a face-to-face relationship."

 

Matt Blumberg, Return Path:

"Focusing on the future, not the past.  In the early years of the business, our Board meetings were probably 75% "looking backwards" and 25% "looking forwards."  They were reporting meetings -- reports which were largely in the hands of Board members before the meetings anyway.  They were dull as all get out.  This past meeting was probably 10% "looking backwards" and 90% "looking forwards" and much more interesting as a result.

Remind people at the beginning of every meeting to be laptop and smartphone free, and tell them if they have to do something on a device, to please step out of the room.  And when things get slow or bogged down, I call a break."

Rodger Desai, Payfone:

“I would start by saying thank you and now please tell me what you are most worried about.”

Dave Morgan, Simulmedia:

“Listen, talk as little as possible. Too many board members like to hear themselves talk and want everyone else in the room to know how smart they are. The best ones don't, and don't need to.”

 

Brian O’Kelley, Appnexus:

“Spend the first board meeting almost as a meta-meeting. Talk about what you want to accomplish in board meetings. Figure out some key metrics that you want to manage to and build a really simple (10-12 slide) board package deck that the team can fill out each time.”

 

Scott Rafer:

“Board meetings, particularly the first one, are screwy as hell and expectations setting is always hazardous. The 1st time agenda should be entirely collaborative, figuring out what the other ones should be about. the investor should go way out of their way to say "prepare NO materials. we'll figure it out together." otherwise, someone is always disappointed and the dialog takes months to recover.”

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