VC Behavior in Board Meetings

There was plenty of chatter about my post The Best Board MeetingsOne idea popped up a few times and was well articulated by John Boyd in his post What Makes a Good Board Meeting?  In it he talks about what is expected from a VC in a board meeting, rather than just from the CEO / entrepreneur.

“So one thing I would add is nothing is worse than a board member that just gives "good body temperature". i.e. I think it’s important for investors to have well articulated views and data to support their advice on strategic choices the company faces. I think it’s also important that when a CEO asks for investor help on an issue, it’s incumbent on the investor to tap his/her own extended network to get the best help possible.  My point is, while a lot is expected of the CEO, the VC board members need to step up too and a lot of times they don’t.”

I love the phrase “gives good body temperature” – that captures the behavior of so many VC attendees at board meetings (including partners, not just associates.)

Worse, though, is the endless addiction to a blackberry / iPhone or laptop during a board meeting.  I long ago stopped taking my laptop to board meetings because I knew I had no ability to ignore it.  I still find myself regularly taking out my iPhone during board meetings.  I don’t do anything on paper so I’m often taking my iPhone out just to write notes to myself for tasks to do, but I always end up scanning my email due to “poor impulse control.”  While it’s rude to everyone in the room, it’s even worse because no matter how good I think I am at listening while reading my email, I’m not.  And I’m certainly not participating.

Yesterday, during a board meeting, I tried something different. I put a piece of paper and a pen in front of me and whenever I had a thought I wrote it down.  When I reflect on the meeting from yesterday, my level of engagement (which I like to think is usually high) was as complete as it gets – I was “in the board meeting” for the entire board meeting, except for the two minutes when I took a call from Amy (which will always supersede whatever I’m doing, except sex, but since I only have sex with Amy, this won’t be an issue.)

So – starting now, I’m going to banish my iPhone from board meetings.  I encourage my VC colleagues to give this a try.

  • I think technology should be left out of meetings in general. As much as we all love technology the connectedness it brings us, when your face to face with someone it is just a distraction. This goes for party's, dinner, etc. Sometimes you just need to step away from the iPhone.

    • Totally agree.  I’m reminded of this every time I’m at my house in Eldorado Springs where I don’t get cell phone service.

  • Pen and paper? Woot!

  • Good points all around, Brad. I always take notes on a computer these days, but for someone that has access to an assistant, it doesn't take much to have your "old-school" notes transcribed 🙂

  • Brad, I can't commend you enough. The management team prepares carefully for board meetings and wants to look up to board members. Everyone immediately notices when a board member is looking at his email rather than paying attention to the matter at hand.

    Well done!

    • right!

      bankers are the worst – alot of them are stuck in the ditch of – if i look really super busy and important then he'll think i am a mover / shaker/ deal maker type – sorry but as a former banker that approach is no longer the correct one IMO.

  • "Poor impulse control"

    funny, I've got a tattoo with that phrase.

  • I couldn't agree with John Boyd's comment more. Board members need to be engaged or they shouldn't be there. It becomes more of a concern as the company matures, becomes public and compensation of the board increases. Like the Compensation Committee evaluating the performance of the CEO, good corporate governance should provide for the annual review of the performance of each board member.

    I commend you for ditching the iPhone!

  • markbar

    Practice this everyday. Good reminder Brad!

  • OK – this one is near and dear to me. My absolute pet peeve is device distraction in meetings. I will and have walked out of them when someone starts to use a device. Its rude. IF we focus on the purpose of the meeting for 15-30 minutes un interrupted – we will achieve alot more. Whether its me needing something from someone or they from me, it should be the same. Otherwise DON'T take the meeting.

    Meeting with an investment bank last week (we are in the process of selecting one) i walked out after 10 minutes – the guy had device diarrhea and reminded me of Ari gold in Entourage. People need to realize that its not a positive thing to be seen to be busy – its rude, and frankly a turn off.

  • andrew

    you cant rid the iphone since amy might call.

  • I were in a meeting where everyone was playing with their phones I would start introducing random film quotes into the conversation. If that didn't work, I'd silently sneak out.

  • How would you feel about a company instituting a no-device policy on board meetings? I'm seriously considering it, hoping the board takes it well.

    • Go for it!

    • Hemant Aneja

      All for it!

      Being a banker, I've myself seen others using their Blackberry (and embarrassingly done so myself) and now realize that the meetings would be at least twice more productive if not for these devices!

  • i would totally do that. seriously whats the point if not? its just a room of ridalin addicted robots otherwise. You can break every 30-40 mins for a fix.

    My wife is due next week – its the only call i would take – and i absolutely dont look at my texts or mail.

  • ABW

    I was actually on board with John in the late 90s and I will say one thing–even tho guy was very young back then, he was probably one of the more strategic and rational board members we had. It's not how old the car is, it's the mileage on the car. Always working to build the business and getting an exit and always really good in a tough or delicate situation which we had a lot of.

    Truth be told though, he used a blackberry like a madman, I mean–it was like it was wired into his hand and he was doing deals on his blackberry. But with that post maybe he has given up his blackberry too now!

  • I think this only works when people are willing to cancel unnecessary meetings. It's reasonable to calendar a BoD meeting every 4 or 6 weeks for a startup, but ~20% turn out to be unnecessary as the date approaches. If the group won't cancel the gratuitous and purely habitual of the scheduled meetings, email becomes appropriate.

    • In this case it is even worse because everyone is wasting everyones time.

  • DaveJ

    Is there an app for that?

    • Yeah. It's called the off switch.

  • Taylor Brooks

    Huge impression on me when you answered Amy's phone call in the middle of your "How to Raise Angel Funding" talk at TechStars. I made it a point to do the same thing.

    Obviously you have a successful marriage and a career you love – I'd like to see a post on how you juggle professional life and family life.

  • Aaron

    "except for the two minutes when I took a call from Amy (which will always supersede whatever I’m doing, except sex, but since I only have sex with Amy, this won’t be an issue.)"

    This is the kind of stuff that makes your blog such a rollicking good read.

  • what happened to being polite when in a meeting? You wouldnt talk out loud to the person beside you if someone was giving a presentation, what makes people think that typing an im/text/email is any less distracting?

    It drives me absolutely nuts to see people use blackberries and iphones in a meeting. If I am not important enough to have your undivided attention the entire meeting then just dont come.

  • That’s good advice for anyone going to a meeting. In a weekly meeting I attend laptops were forbidden, phones were not, yet. And the way to enforce it is that if you have your laptop open, you take notes. It was quite effective.

  • Hi Brad – I am a VC who has recently started taking his laptop into board meetings, but all I do is take notes, which are then immediately filed in the right place and searchable.

    This has made me a better director by virtue of having better notes and better recall of issues and events.

    I have had to reassure people that all I do is take notes and your post has made me think that I should do that again, but I see that as a surmountable issue.

    Like anyone else I have a desire to check interesting emails when the alert window bubbles up, but I simply don't, and it isn't that hard, and I don't think of myself as having uber strong self control or anything.


    • Step 1: Turn off your email notifications!  Or – just shut down your email client while you are in the board meeting.  Turn your laptop around and show everyone that the only app you have open is Word (or whatever you are using to take notes.)

      I don’t take notes at all ever so this doesn’t apply to me.  But I know plenty of people that do and I’m never bothered as long as it’s note taking.  But – when the person goes into a black hole of silence for 5 minutes, it’s rarely just note taking.

      • If this whole 'devices in meetings' debate is really about doing email in meetings then I agree with the point – doing email detracts from attention and it is very hard to just do a small amount.

        There are lots of good reasons to have computers in meetings besides email though, taking notes being one, and it would be a shame if they got lost because of an issue about email.

        • Agree, but most people can’t figure out how to just take notes and not do email at the same time!  Seems simple, but it apparently isn’t.

  • Good post Brad. I'd suggest it also applies outside of board meetings though. I'm actually considering instituting a no laptop rule in some of our meetings internal to management too..

    We've got a young management team and I've been frustrated repeatedly by everyone having their laptops/iphones at the ready. The extra distraction and the detraction from connectedness presented by a device really pulls away from the engagement, even between two or three people.

    Your post actually helped "tip" me and we're going to try the no device rule for the rest of the month and see how it affects our meeting effectiveness.

    Is our time too precious to actually write key things down and then (God forbid) copy our notes into our meeting minutes/memos after the fact?

  • As we've begun our second round of presentations to investors and others, I'm intrigued by the decrease in 'device disorder' we've been seeing.

    For the most part, Round 1 was barely more than a side-bar conversation while the person we were meeting with attended to their other duties.

    Through luck, good planning or talent (I like to think we've got all 3!), now that we're in Round 2 the attention deficit is much lower and we're being engaged rather than dealt with.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the seriousness of the conversation as we get closer to term sheets from a few of these potential investors.

    From a Board Member perspective, we banned devices in our meetings about 3 months ago and wait for it . . . the meetings are more productive and typically 15-30 minutes SHORTER! The only exception is for the scribe who gets to take notes on his/her computer. But, everyone else gets to use (SHOCKING) paper!

    Can't agree more – ban the devices and you'll get more done!

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  • Completely on point except for suggesting that board meetings are somehow different than other meetings. I think that all meetings would be better if the attendees left the technology behind. Few have the self-discipline to bring their laptops and not check email / the web / whatever.

  • So, being present=effiiciency? A friend sent just me Seinfeld's comments (1 min. 28 sec.) on Blackberrys and Iphones

  • Oops. A friend "just sent"…

  • Mike Schmidt

    Kudos for coming to the realization that "gadgets" don't amplify ability, their just tools for execution.

    Take it from an "old dog" (will be 50 next year). After almost 10 startups under my belt (all around the world), I can still out-paper anyone in the room in terms of taking notes in meetings, and always show up with a yellow-note pad and pen, (All electronic gadgets set to "stun"). And because of this, I was always the one that could develop the detailed product spec, or create the hard hitting sales letter, or generate the detailed contract because I had a grasp of the details… not bullet summaries of powerpoint slides that seem to "dumb-down" a business or a technical topic to sound bites. If you don't understand the details, you don't understand the business.

    I have a lot of company and project files containing meeting notes on paper that document in detail all the deals, telephone conversations, meetings, technology trainings, seminars, conferences, and inspirations that I have had over the last 25 years. Actually, someone suggested to me when they saw my basement office with this trove of files and information why don't I scan it all and put it online to share with the world what 25+ years of business activity and the resulting "note-trail" looks like… Interesting idea. Maybe someone will come-up with a "Scan-to-web" solution that I can utillize for the task !

    However, it might be better to just "post" this "history" after I start my "dirt nap" – for both personal and professional reasons ! – 🙂

  • You don't answer the phone during sex? What kind of investor are you anyways?

    Next thing you know, you'll be taking time off from the grid every year….

  • Only those of us who have known Brad "I absolutely detest paper, the only kind of paper that should exist is toilet paper" Feld for more than a decade can appreciate the irony of this post.

    There is a better solution, however:

    1. Purchase a tablet PC.

    2. Disable its ability to connect to the Internet — e.g., take out the built-in WiFi attenna.

    3. Install Microsoft OneNote.

    4. Do not install any other software on it.

    OneNote is vastly superior to pen and paper. You can easily erase, move notes around, etc. It even has handwriting recognition.

    James Mitchell
    [email protected]

    • The only notes I take are “things to do” – I’ve never been a notetaker.  So – I write the todos on a piece of paper during the meeting and then either do them immediately after the meeting or put them in my Outlook task list to do.  I then throw the piece of paper away.

      I’ve tried to use OneNote and – while I could see how it would be useful for an extensive note taker, I don’t find it useful at all.

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  • I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..

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