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I had a fun email exchange with an investor I’ve worked with for almost 20 years in response to something a CEO send out from a board we are both on. I said “fucking awesome.” He said “that’s an understatement.” I said “CEO is such a delight.” He said “CEO is negative maintenance.”
I loved this. So I’m going to use this post to think through the idea out loud and I’d love your feedback since it’s still a messy / blurry concept in my mind.
My hypothesis is that the opposite of high maintenance is not zero maintenance but rather it’s negative maintenance.
There are days that I’m high maintenance. Everyone is. But if you subscribe to my “give before you get”, or #givefirst, philosophy, you are constantly contributing more than you are consuming. I’ve talked about this often in the context of Startup Communities, but I haven’t really had the right words for this in the context of leadership, management, and employees in a fast growing company.
Suddenly I do. When I think about my role as an investor and board member, I’m often tangled up in complicated situations. I’ve often said that every day something new in my world gets fucked up somewhere. This used to be distressing to me, but after 20 years of it, if I don’t know what the new fucked up thing is by 4pm, I start to get curious about what it’s going to be.
We all know that creating companies from nothing is extremely difficult. The problems that arise come from all angles. Some are exogenous and some are directly under your control. Some are random and some are obvious. Some are compounded by other problems and mistakes, resulting in what my father taught me at a young age was the worst kind of mistake – one that was a mistake compounded on a mistake compounded on a mistake – which he called “a complicated mistake.”
Personally, when I find myself in a complicated mistake, I stop. I step back and pause and reflect. And then I try to figure out how I can change the dynamic into something positive, not continuing to build on my complicated mistake, but instead getting clarity on what the right thing is to do to get out of the ditch.
Negative maintenance people do this. I’ve seen, been involved in, and made some epic mistakes. The CEO I’m referring to above has a great company, but has also experienced some epic mistakes. How he handles them, works through them with his team, and his board, is exemplary. There is work involved by me and the other board members, but it’s not inappropriately emotional. It’s not high maintenance. It’s just work. Decisions have to be made and executed. And there are impacts from these decisions, which lead to more decisions. Ultimately this CEO is putting energy into the system as we work through the issue, which is where the negative maintenance (as opposed to high maintenance) behavior pattern arises.
I like this idea of negative maintenance people. I’m obviously trying to think it through out loud with this post, so weigh in and help me understand it better.
For those of you that missed my note yesterday, I’m going to start using the first paragraph of my posts with an announcement about something in my world. Today’s is the launch of a new product from Orbotix called Selfiebot. My Orbotix friends are masters at creating amazing robots and are hard at work on the next generation of what we are calling “connected play.” Selfiebot is an autonomous flying robot that shoots HD photos of you, freeing you from the limitations of a handheld startphone when taking selfies. Check out Selfiebot today.
While we are on the topic of Orbotix, let’s talk for a little while about expectations for outside board members. Yesterday I met with an outside board member of another company I’m on the board of. He’s been on the board for about six months and is feeling uncomfortable with his contribution. He’s a very experienced CEO with a large exit under his belt, a founder/investor in several other companies, and an excellent operator. But he hasn’t been an outside board member much. He wanted to get feedback from me on how he was doing and whether his expectations for his own engagement were correct, and what he could do to work with the CEO and leadership more effectively.
I’m an enormous believer in the value of outside directors relatively early in the life of a company. I like to keep boards small and weighted toward outside directors as the companies grow, rather than just a cadre of VCs sitting around the board torturing the CEO with conflicting advice and opinions. I’ve written about this extensively in Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.
I generally see three types of outside board members getting recruited to a board of a VC backed company.
- The friend of the VC: This director is really a proxy for the VC and not an independent thinker. Danger danger.
- The friend of the CEO / entrepreneur: This director is really a proxy for the entrepreneur and not an independent thinker. Danger danger.
- An independent director. Now, this person can be a friend of the VC, or a friend of the CEO / entrepreneur, but is an independent thinker. Or they might be someone from industry that is known to one of the investors or the entrepreneur, but is recruited specifically by the CEO to join the board. Or it might be someone lightly known, or even unknown, but again is an independent thinker.
Note the emphasis on independent thinker. It doesn’t matter who the relationship originates from. There is a unique role for an outside director in a startup company and it’s one that can be profoundly helpful to the CEO. But that person needs to be operating from a headspace of an independent thinker, not a proxy for one of the other participants on the board.
The person I was talking to yesterday is definitely #3. While I’ve known him for a long time and was an investor / board member in his successful company, he most definitely is not my proxy. I learn an enormous amount from him about the particular dynamics of the specific business since he knows it so well, so when he talks, I listen carefully. I have no interest in being in between him and the executives of the company or hearing about what comes up in his operating level discussions, unless he feels like it’s a board level issue and discussion. But most importantly, I want the CEO to learn from this outside director and his experience by developing his own deep, personal relationship.
Back to Orbotix. We’re recruiting at least one outside director to Orbotix as part of the continued scale up of the company. Paul Berberian, the CEO, wrote a magnificent short overview of his expectation for a board member that he’s sharing with everyone he’s talking to. I asked his permission to reprint it here – it follows. If you are considering adding an outside director, I encourage you to prepare a similar document, and make sure it’s for all of your directors, including your investor directors.
Orbotix Board of Directors Expectations
Orbotix is a startup company and our expectations for board members can be summed up with the following statements:
- Be True
- Be Prepared
- Be Present
- Be Available
- Be Supportive
- Be A Player
Be True: No bullshit or tap-dancing on any subject. Be honest with your thoughts and opinions. Our time together as a group is limited and holding back or sugar coating any issues or concerns you have with the business is simply wasting time in trying to get to the real discussion. If you don’t have an opinion or relevant experience to make an informed decision – say so. No one knows everything. And of course all the other table stakes for serving on any board such as always act in an ethical manner and in the best interest of the company.
Be Prepared: We put a lot of time into preparing the board book – read it in advance. We do not review the board book at the board meeting unless there are questions. The first few minutes are open for questions, approval of standard business items and then we dive into a deep discussion on one to three key subjects. These subjects will we outlined in the board book but additional material may be presented at the meeting. Try to come to each board meeting with one big question or insight you’d like to be addressed during our strategic discussions. Each board meeting will end with an executive session where the directors can give feedback to the CEO as well as talk privately without management present. The lead director will then follow up with the CEO to provide any final thoughts on the meeting.
Be Present: We have four board meetings a year and expect board members to be physically and mentally present. Board meetings are typically 3 hours or less. If you cannot attend physically getting access to a high quality video conference system can be a substitute. We take great care to plan BOD meetings around your schedule so please make them. Missing one board meeting can happen, but it should be rare. If you miss multiple board meetings we assume that something else is taking priority and you should evaluate ongoing participation. When at the board meeting turn off you phone and laptop and participate in the discussion. We will take breaks to allow you to check messages. If you are highly distracted due to other pressing matters, please let us know in advance so we don’t question your willingness to participate. We have a “small group meal” in advance or after the board meeting – typically a dinner the night before. The meal will have 2 to 4 people and will include an equal number of board members and management. This is the opportunity for the board to get to know management and each other at a deeper level – groups will be different for each board meeting. They are not designed to conduct the board meeting in advance. An Orbotix exec will coordinate the meal in advance.
Be Available: One of the key roles a startup board member can provide is to act as a coach or sounding board for the CEO. These interactions typically occur between board meetings. Making time on your turf to have these interactions is invaluable. The expectation that these meetings will not exceed more than a few hours per quarter. Often approvals are needed in short order – board members are expected to be responsive on emails / calls that clearly declare action needed in the title or message.
Be Supportive: As a board member you are expected to support the company and CEO. If you support the company but not the CEO you have three options 1) coach the CEO 2) replace the CEO or 3) resign. Unless there is some unusual circumstance, options #2 and #3 should not be without warning as it is expected feedback will be shared with the board in the executive session. An engaged and supportive BOD member will use their best efforts to help Orbotix succeed. Examples include leveraging your network for creating meaningful partnerships and introductions, and freely sharing your expertise and insights on strategy, products and performance. Additionally we expect every board member to speak about the company favorably in public and share their enthusiasm for our work with others.
Be A Player: We make fun things. That is why before each BOD meeting starts we begin with a play session to highlight our accomplishments and developments since our last meeting. We want our BOD members to embrace their inner child and play with our creations, offer feedback and most importantly share with their friends and family to help us shape our products and experiences. We cannot build fun things unless we are all having fun – so let’s play!
Ari Newman is an entrepreneur, mentor, investor, and a friend. He works at Techstars where his responsibility is to ensure that the connections between alumni, mentors, and staff are as robust as they can be – helping entrepreneurs “do more faster” day in and day out. His most recent company, Filtrbox, participated in the inaugural Techstars class (Techstars Boulder 2007) and was a win for all parties involved; Filtrbox was acquired in 2010 by Jive Software (NASDAQ: JIVE).
I’ve worked closely with Ari for a while and love his candor. He talks, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, with recent first hand experience. Following is his advice to early stage entrepreneurs for creating structure in their company.
Here’s the punchline: if you run your company as if you have closed a VC equity financing round even though you actually closed a convertible debt round, you’ll be in much better shape when it comes time to raise your Series A financing. Specifically, I am talking about putting a board in place, running formal board meetings, and making sure you have people at the table who act as the voice of reason and sanity. One of the key benefits of doing this early on is that when it comes time to raise that next round, the people you’ll need the most help from are already involved and engaged.
Convertible debt financings have become an increasingly attractive approach for seed rounds because it delays the valuation discussion, costs less from a legal standpoint, and is an easier financial instrument to “keep raising more small amounts of money” on. There are two different cases, with shades of grey in between: (1) there are only a few investors or (2) it’s a “party” round, with $1M+ raised and many investors. This second kind of seed financing can be a double-edged sword for the entrepreneur and company if not very carefully managed. This post is not about the economic implications of debt rounds versus priced rounds – there has already been plenty written about that including this great one from Mark Suster. Rather, this post is a call to action for entrepreneurs who have successfully raised a debt round and must now turn their idea into a serious business.
So why would you treat your debt investors (somewhat) like equity investors? This may seem counterintuitive, even even a pain in the ass. So, I’ll explain my reasoning through the story of ASC, a fictitious company that has a combination of characteristics I’ve seen across a number of early stage companies.
Acme SaaS Corp (ASC) was started by two entrepreneurs; they have a big vision and if they can execute on it, the business will be a clear home-run. One of them used to be a lead developer at [insert hot consumer tech company here]. They need to raise money before building anything substantial after determining that they needed a little dough to follow the Lean Startup methodology.
They decide to go out and raise money on a convertible note – several angel investors have signaled interest in participating in the note and they don’t feel ready to pitch VCs yet. Fundraising goes better than expected and they quickly find themselves with a $750k round consisting of several VCs and a bunch of angels. The investors, founders, and “community” are all super excited about ASC. They close on the $750k, hire a buddy or two, buy some Macs, and get to work.
ASC starts building product, but as they get into the thick of it, the team realizes executing on their vision is going to be extremely hard. Things start to get a little fuzzy in terms of priorities, but not to fret, the new office is coming along really well with all of the hiring! For the first the months, the team meets often and strategizes on what they want to build while some code gets written. Early customer development talks are going great which keeps the team really excited. Three months in, the burn is now at $70k/month.
Two more months go by and the team is continuing to iterate, but every two-week sprint results in some re-factoring and re-thinking. No updates, screen comps, or metrics have been publicly shared yet. It’s too early for that shit. Heads down on product, they say. Every now and then, investors are told things are going great and the founders are really excited about what they are doing. Soundbites from potential customers are encouraging. Eventually early product demos start happening but they’re rough and the product looks very alpha. At month six, one of the early hires leaves, a developer who turns out wasn’t a good fit. There is $350k left in the bank.
Seven months in, there is a beta product. It’s better than before, but not by miles. The people on the sales side don’t feel they can charge for it yet because who’s going to take out their wallet for something that isn’t perfect. A bunch of potential customers are kicking the tires on the product but it seems that every engaged beta customer needs something slightly different or feels as if the product is not ready to be truly used in production. “This is all a part of the normal product and customer development process,” the CEO tells the team. The burn is now at $90k/month as they had to hire a “customer delight” person to handle the beta process. The team thinks their investors still love them and that they are still a hot company. The first material update goes out to the investors, with lots of positive quotes from VPs at potential customers, and they all indicate future product acceptance if a bunch of other stuff gets in place. Investors are dismayed that there are no real customers yet. There is no discussion of burn, runway, and more financing yet. The team wants to make a little more progress first.
A month later, another email update goes out to the investors – the team has decided to pivot based on feedback and they are super excited about the new direction and once they have the product updated to capture the new, bigger opportunity, it’s going be great. Oh, and the email says the founders will be in touch to discuss another round of funding since there are only 2 months of runway left.
Sound familiar? I could continue but the odds are that this story isn’t going to end well. The company flames out and the team gets aquihired. The investors get nothing.
While you may think ASC is an extreme case, it happens all the time. I’ve observed too many companies that have some or all of these elements in their story. I’m not saying, under any circumstance, that the debt round was the catalyst or sole reason for the company’s missteps but there are a number of times in this story where good company hygiene, good governance, and a properly utilized board would have helped to positively affect the outcome. Following are a few ways that a board would have helped out.
Easy Debt Round Lasting A Year – Even if the raise wasn’t that easy, the company was able to raise enough to buy a year or more of runway. In startup time, that feels like forever. It’s enough time to hang yourself if you are not careful. Had the company created a board and run it properly, they would have ratified a budget, reviewed compensation plans, and agreed on spending levels during early product development. The year would have been a full year, not just 7-9 months.
Real Product and Market Focus – This company lost 3-6 months of execution because they got lost building towards a high level vision. That high level vision was a beast to tackle, and being younger founders, they they didn’t realize they were in over their heads. With advisors or a board, the founders could have opened the kimono and asked for guidance. There are about a dozen corrective actions, best practices, or methodologies that could have been applied during this critical time. It’s up to the team to be able to execute them, but they had their heads in the clouds for too long and no one else at the table with them.
Don’t Pivot in a Vacuum – Had ASC properly used its board, advisors, and investors, it would have brought the pivot strategy to the table early on. A discussion around overall business viability, time to market, and capital impact would have ensued. A review of the cash position, burn rate, and execution plan would have revealed there was not enough cash on hand to nail the pivot while leaving 3-6 months of time in market before raising again. The plan would have to get way tighter, way faster. They didn’t keep the investors up-to-date, then pivoted without engaging or validating whether there was going to be follow-on support. They took a right turn into a brick wall. Investors do not own the company or its strategy. I often say “it’s your company” when I’m bluntly asked what direction a company should take, especially if I’m wearing my investor hat. While that is true, if you rely on outside capital to reach escape velocity, keep the cockpit talking to the engine room.
Use The Smart Money or Lose It – Almost every investor I know makes investments because they want the return, but they also believe they can be helpful to the company in some way. When teams don’t communicate and engage with their investors, the void is often filled with skepticism, doubt, and (often false) assumptions about the business or the team. You borrowed money (or sold a portion of your company) from these folks – they want you to be successful. Leverage them for the better of the company, whether that means using their wisdom or their rolodex. They also can create major signaling problems for your next round if you allow the radio-silence void to be filled with doubt and distrust. Who would blindly give ASC another big check after what occurred above?
Company Hygiene Matters – One of the responsibility of a Board of Directors is to regularly discuss financials, burn rate, and cash management. Had ASC created a board, the company would have potentially managed their cash more conservatively and had the wherewithal to initiate the shift of the company sooner, whether it be through M&A talks, raising more capital, or making the pivot earlier.
I bet that some of you reading this post are entrepreneurs who are in this situation. I beg of you, treat your debt holders like equity holders, and utilize their expertise to help further your business. One easy way to do so is to act as if they are board members. In the super hard, fuzzy, pivot-happy early days of a company, a little structure, accountability, and organizational discipline can be all the difference between running headlong into a brick wall or creating a meaningful, well-operated company.
Follow Ari on Twitter at @arinewman or ask him about the power of the Techstars network at email@example.com.
At TechStars, we talk often about “mentor whiplash” – the thing that happens when you get seemingly conflicting advice from multiple mentors. Talk to five mentors; get seven different opinions! This is normal, as there is no right or absolute answer in many cases, people have different perspectives and experiences, and they are responding to different inputs (based on their own context), even if the data they are presented with looks the same on the surface.
Yesterday, Steve Blank and I both put up articles on the WSJ Accelerators site. The question for the week was “When should you have a board of directors or a board of advisors?” My answer was Start Building Your Board Early. Steve’s was Don’t Give Away Your Board Seats. I just went back and read each of them. On the surface they seem to be opposite views. But upon reading them carefully, I think they are both right, and a great example of mentor whiplash.
For context, I have enormous respect for Steve and I learn a lot from him. We are on the UP Global board together but have never served on a for-profit board together. We both started out as entrepreneurs and have spent a lot of time participating in, learning about, and teaching how to create and scale startups. I’ve been on lots of boards – ranging from great to shitty; I expect Steve has as well. While we haven’t spent a lot of physical time together, all of our virtual time has been stimulating to me, even when we disagree (which is possibly unsettling but hopefully entertaining to those observing.) And while we are both very busy in our separate universes, my sense is they overlap nicely and probably converge in some galaxy far far away.
So – when you read Steve’s article and hear “Steve says don’t add a board member until after you raise a VC round” and then read my article and conclude “Brad says add a board member before you raise a VC round” it’s easy to say “wow – ok – that sort of – well – doesn’t really help – I guess I have to pick sides.” You can line up paragraphs and have an amusing “but Brad said, but Steve said” kind of thing. I considered making a Madlib out of this, but had too many other things to do this morning.
But if you go one level deeper, we are both saying “be careful with who you add to your board.” I’m taking a positive view – assuming that you are doing this – and adding someone you trust and has a philosophy of helping support the entrepreneur. From my perspective:
“… Early stage board of directors should be focused on being an extension of the team, helping the entrepreneurs get out of the gate, and get the business up and running. Often, entrepreneurs don’t build a board until they are forced to by their VCs when they raise their first financing round. This is dumb, as you are missing the opportunity to add at least one person to the team who — as a board member — can help you navigate the early process of building your company and raising that first round. In some cases, this can be transformative.”
Steve takes the opposite view – concerned that anyone who wants to be on an early stage board is resume padding, potentially a control freak, or the enemy of the founders.
“At the end of the day, your board is not your friend. You may like them and they might like you, but they have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, not the founders. And they have a fiduciary responsibility to their own limited partners. That means the board is your boss, and they have an obligation to optimize results for the company. You may be the ex-employees one day if they think you’re holding the company back.”
Totally valid. And it reinforces the point we both are making, which Maynard Webb makes more clearly in his Accelerator post ‘Date’ Advisers, ‘Marry’ Board Members. When I reflect on my post, I didn’t state this very well. Anytime you add an outside board member, you should be reaching high and adding someone you think will really be helpful. You are not looking for a “boss” or someone who is going to hide behind their abstract fiduciary responsibilities to all shareholders (which they probably don’t actually understand) – you are looking for an early teammate who is going to help you win. Sure – there will be cases where they have to consider their fiduciary responsibilities, but their perspective should be that of helping support the entrepreneurs in whatever way the entrepreneurs need.
The power of a great entrepreneur is to collect a lot of data and make a decision based on their own point of view and conviction. You’ve got a lot of info – including some different perspectives from the WSJ Accelerators segment this week. That’s their goal – now I encourage you to read the articles carefully, think about what you want your board to be like, and take action on it.
I’ve been on a lot of boards. I’m still on a lot of boards. And I’ve been thinking about boards a lot as I work on my next book Startup Boards: Recreating the Board of Directors to Be Relevant to Entrepreneurial Companies.
I used to think every board needed a chairman and early in my investing career I was often this chairman (or co-chairman). At some point I began feeling like the chairman role in a private company both undermined the CEO and sent the wrong signal to the employees of the company, and I preferred that the CEO be the chairman. I also started disliking being the chairman, as it seemed to create a view that I had some kind of ultimate power and responsibility for the company that I rarely had, and that almost always belonged to the CEO. So I stopped being chairman and in a number of cases refused to be called it, even when I played the role of it. The one exception I made was non-profits, where chairman seems to have a somewhat different connotation. And since I’ve decided not to be on public company boards, I don’t have to make a decision in that context.
Several years ago I started using, and encountering, the phrase “lead director” more frequently. Recently, I decided it’s the right one and have used it to replace chairman in my vocabulary. And, when asked the question, “does a private company board need a chairman”, I now say “no, but it needs a lead director.”
The lead director is responsible for working with the CEO to manage the board of directors. The lead director is always the most active director and in many cases represents the largest non-founder shareholder in the company when a company is private. The lead director is not the communication conduit to the CEO – every director interacts directly with the CEO – but the lead director gets involved in any conflict between a director and the CEO, any concerns that arise, and any conflicts between directors. And the lead director helps the CEO manage the board meetings.
The lead director should be the CEO’s board confidant, organizer, and conflict resolver. I sort of like the word consigliere, as used in The Godfather, a lot, although it has both obvious negative connotations and a different actual function in real life than the one represented in the film, so I’m searching for a better one.
When I look at the boards I’m currently on, I play this role in many, but not all of them. And the phrase feels correct to me.
Do you have a lead director on your board? How about a chairman? What do they do and how does it feel? And is there a better word than consigliere?