Brad's Books and Organizations

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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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My Ideal Board Meeting

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In my new book, Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, in addition to decomposing and explaining a lot about the functioning of board meetings, I also describe my ideal board meeting.

I had four of them this week. That’s a lot of board meetings in a week, but my weeks tend to either be “lots of board meetings” or “no board meetings” as I generally bunch them up. Thankfully, all four of them used my ideal board meeting template.

A critical aspect of my ideal board meeting is that the entire board package should be sent out several days in advance to all board members. It should be thorough, including whatever the CEO wants the board to know about what has happened since the last board meeting. While I prefer prose to a PowerPoint deck, either is fine. Optimally it’s in a format like Google Docs where everyone on the board can comment on specific things, allowing open Q&A on the board material prior to the board meeting. I like to decouple monthly financial reporting from the board package, but including a look back of the financials, along with discussion and framing is useful. But the meat of the board package should be what’s going on now and going forward, not looking back. The looking back is for support of the discussion.

Then – the board meeting has a simple structure intended to fit in three hours. Optimally all participants are either in person or on video conference. Since I’m not traveling for business right now, almost all of my board meetings have a video conferencing component. When done correctly, it’s often just as effective as an in-person meeting, and in some cases (if you follow my video conferencing rules) even more effective. What is not effective is when one or more people are on an audio conference.

Once everyone is settled, break the board meeting into three discrete sections. They, and their descriptions, follow:

Administration (30 minutes): Board overhead, resolutions, administration, and questions about the board package.

Discussion (up to 2 hours): Discussion on up to five topics. The five topics should fit on one slide or be written on the white board. The CEO is responsible for time boxing the discussion, or if he needs help, he should ask the lead director to do this. If you don’t have a lead director, read my book and get yourself one. This should be a discussion – you’ve got your board in the room – use it to help you go deeper on the specific topic you are trying to figure out. These topics can be on anything, but my experience is that the more precise the context is, the richer the discussion. I prefer for the full leadership team to be in the meeting for this part, although it’s entirely up to the CEO who is in the room.

Executive Session (30 minutes): CEO and board only. Here the board can give feedback specifically to the CEO or sensitive issues around personnel or other things the CEO wants to discuss separately from the management team can be covered. At the end, the CEO leaves and let’s the board have some time alone where the lead director checks in if there is any feedback the board would like to give the CEO.

If you have less than five topics, the board meeting can take less time. Or if the five topics only take an hour to go through, the board meeting can take less time. There is nothing ever wrong with ending a meeting early. Ever.

Now this template doesn’t always work – you often have other specific things you have to address. When a company is going through an M&A process, the board meetings tend to be frequent and cover other stuff. Or, when the company is in a downward spiral, or dealing with a crisis, the focus is often very precise.

But in my world, the day of the “board update” is over. I find no value in sitting in a room for three hours, paging through a PowerPoint deck while people present at me, and the people around the table ask an endless stream of questions, mostly demonstrating that they haven’t been engaged in what the company has been doing since the last board meeting.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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Thank you Geraldine. Amy and I love and adore you. And you recommended what I think was my favorite fiction book of 2013.

I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel yesterday on the couch during digital sabbath. It was just wonderful. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it for the first fifteen minutes other than knowing that Geraldine and Amy said that I would love it.

By minute 30 I couldn’t put it down. And two hours later I was done. And smiling. And thinking that I should go read all the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books again. They were childhood favorites and – while having no direct relationship to this book – things that were referenced kept making me think of them.

The characters of wonderful. I especially love Penumbra, Clay, and Kat. But the intricate flavors, mix, interactions, and crossover between the world of Google and the world of dusty old book stores was just delicious.

If you want something light, beautiful, clever, and full of awesomeness to read over New Years, try this one.

Book: Hatching Twitter

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I was in a reading mood this weekend so I read Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal after reading No Better Time on Saturday. I finished it just before I walked the dog and then went to bed.

I slept very poorly last night and woke up thinking about the book. I woke up several times in the night (I’m getting older – that’s part of the drill – anyone over 45 knows what I mean) and each time I had something about the book in my brain.

When I woke up this morning, the first thought I had as I was brushing my teeth was “the characters in the book weren’t right.” When I read history, especially of a technology company, I often know a few of the people pretty well. When the writer captures their essence, it lends credibility to all the other people I don’t know. When the writer misses, it detracts from the whole thing.

In Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton (the author) captured a dimension of the people I know. But it was only one dimension. And it missed – completely – in capturing the whole of the people. The dimension he highlighted made the story more dramatic as he focused on a dimension of conflict. As I sit here writing this, trying to process how I feel about the book, I realize this tactic – by focusing on only one dimension of a person – created incredible tension in the story.

I love Ben Mezrich and his books. I realize that Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is written in the same style as Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. The title is even in the same style. The big difference is that Mezrich doesn’t pretend that he’s not sensationalizing the situation. That’s his gig – and he’s not apologetic about it in any way. Note the phrases after the colon – “A True Story” (Bilton) and “A Tale of” (Mezrich).

A puzzle piece just clicked into place for me. I read Hatching Twitter (Twitter story) the day after I read No Better Time (Akamai story). Both were dramatic. No Better Time was history; Hatching Twitter was sensationalized history. No Better Time created real depth around one character – Daniel Lewin. Hatching Twitter tried to do this around the story of Twitter but had to do this at the expense of the depth of the characters to fit into the 300 pages that a non-fiction book like this ends up being due to publishing industry constraints so it has a chance of ending up on a best seller list.

I wonder what Bilton could have done with 900 pages instead of 300 pages. I’ve got to believe – given the extensive interviews he did – that he has a much deeper view on many of the characters in the book. Or, instead of using 300 pages to rush through parts of the story, he used 900 pages to go deeper on the whole story, instead of picking out several of the dramatic highlights.

I’m clearly still processing this. I had hoped to love this book. Instead, it disturbed me. Something felt deeply off, but even after writing this, I’m not sure what it is. If you’ve read Hatching Twitter, and you have an opinion, please weigh in as I try to sort this out in my mind.

Startup Boards Publisher Draft Is Finished

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I shipped off the publisher draft of Startup Boards last night. For those of you who haven’t written a book that means I’m in the home stretch “pre-production” – I’ll have the final draft done by 9/3 and it’ll be published by December.

This has been – by far – the hardest book I’ve written so far. If you like my writing and want to do me a solid, pre-order a copy of Startup Boards today. That’ll make me smile.

The book was originally planned to come out this summer. My co-author Mahendra Ramsinghani wrote a good first draft. We got together in Miami for a week in February to work on it together. I was pressing for an end of February deadline for the publisher draft. While we made progress that week, I knew I was struggling. And not just with the book – I was depressed but I hadn’t yet acknowledged it.

By the end of February I just didn’t care about the book. I didn’t want to work on it anymore. And I knew I was depressed and just struggling to get my normal work done. So I told Wiley (my publisher) that I was punting until the fall. We reset the schedule with the goal of having the book out by the end of the year.

Mahendra was patient with me. I didn’t pick the book back up until a month ago. I’ve been working on it since the beginning of August and I made a hard push over the weekend to get it out to the door.

Saturday was a grind. I finally hopped on my bike at the end of the day and rode out to our new house in Longmont and then wandered over to my partner Seth’s house (a mile away) for a party he was having. On Sunday morning I knew it was in good shape. I spent all day Sunday in front of my computer except for lunch with Amy. I gave myself until 5pm, at which point I was going for a run. I had a superb, book fueled 75 minute run, had some dinner, spent one more hour on what I was now referring to as “the fucking book” and then sent it off via email to Wiley.

Man – this one has been hard. I hope it’s helpful.

Being A Great CEO

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Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Businessis about to come out. If you are a CEO and haven’t preordered it, I recommend you go get it right now.

I had a chat with a CEO I work with who has had a challenging year scaling up his company. He – and the company – have made a lot of progress after hitting a low point this spring. After the call, he sent me the following note he has pasted on his desk.

1. Lead by example by holding myself and all accountable, no matter how hard.

2. Set the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicate it to all stakeholders.

3. Recruit, hire, and retain the very best talent and inspire them.

4. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

5. Be the advocate for the customer over the company’s short-term needs.

6. Drive the execution and evolve the operating system.

7. Champion the company and our mission to the world.

You might recognize #2, 3, and 4 from Fred Wilson’s magnificent post What A CEO DoesI give a talk for many of the Techstars CEOs called “How to be a Great CEO” and I focus the conversation around Fred’s points. Matt’s book also uses Fred’s three points as a framework. And when I think about how a CEO is doing, I always start with 2, 3, and 4.

I’ve come to believe that you can’t be a great CEO if you don’t do these three things. But, great CEOs do many more than just these three things. So – I view them as “price of admission” – if you can’t / aren’t doing these three things, you won’t be a great CEO.

I always encourage the CEOs I talk with to create a clear framework for what they are doing. What you are doing, and spending time on, will change over time based on the stage of your company. When you are 10 people, you’ll have a different set of priorities then when you are 100, or a 1,000 people. But having a clear framework for what you, and how you do it, is powerful.

I love what this CEO has done to make Fred’s framework his own. Notice that each sentence starts out with the imperative form of an action verb (Amy told me that – doesn’t it sound smart!) – basically a statement of action. Lead, set, recruit, make, be, drive, champion. Great words.

If you break it down, it also defines a value set for the CEO, and for the company.

Finally, you are going to hear a lot more from me about the Company Operation System (what you see in #6). That’s the essence of what Matt Blumberg has figured out in scaling up Return Path, and uses to define his approach to scaling a business in Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.

My experience with all of this is that it’s incredibly hard, breaks regularly at different points in the life of a company, and requires a great CEO to continually grow and learn from mistakes, adjust course based on new information, and work diligently at being honest with himself, his team, and his board about what is going on. But, if you get it right, it’s magical.

Build something great with me