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Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.
My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.
I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path. And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation. All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts: Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.
But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members. I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others. Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.
Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:
- They are prepared and keep commitments: They show up to all meetings. They show up on time and don’t leave early. They do their homework. The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings.
- They speak their minds: They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room. They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think. I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
- They build independent relationships: They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings. They get to know individuals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well. None of this communication goes through you.
- They are resource rich: I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice. After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add. Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis.
- They are strategically engaged but operationally distant: This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area. But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like.
My interview/vetting process for Board members:
- Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member.
- Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high.
- Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists. Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well.
- Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors.
- Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand. Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting. You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way.
- Have no fear of rejecting them. Even if you like them. Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor. Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC). This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company.
I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member. Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:
- Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
- Comes with an opinion
- Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
- Call out your blind spots
- Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
- Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team
- Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative. Then get out of our way
- Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
- Pattern matching: they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching. To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
- Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
- Colorful and unique metaphors
Disclaimer – I run a private company. While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary. And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture. That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!
I can’t remember when Angela Baldonero joined Return Path, but she’s been there for as long as I can remember. I invested in Return Path eleven years ago at the very beginning of its life. Today it is a profitable, 250 person company that is growing quickly, dominates its market segment, and is an awesome place to work. Angela has been a big part of both hiring many of the people and orchestrating the culture of the company so I very much value her point of view on interviewing. I hope you do also.
Everything is data. The candidate’s responsiveness during the interview process, how the candidate treats the admin staff, and the candidate’s ability to communicate is data. Are you interviewing someone for a tech leadership role who doesn’t have a skype account? Data point. Do you fly a candidate out for interviews who then nickels and dimes you on expenses? Data point. Does your candidate send a thank you note? Data point. Is it well written and specific or a lame generic note? Data point.
Give the candidate feedback and see what she does with it. People are wiggy about feedback. Someone who is self-aware and mature will take it in and own it, then makes sense of how she had that impact. An immature person will get defensive or refute it.
Never sacrifice your culture. Highly qualified yet bad attitude hires wreak havoc with your culture, suck up a ton of management bandwidth and ultimately don’t get anything done. It doesn’t matter if the candidate has cured cancer or invented Jell-o. An asshole is an asshole. Fiercely protect your culture.
People can’t help but be themselves. The interview process is flawed. People are “acting” in order to get a job. You want to know how this person really is to see if they’re a good fit at your company. Interviews take time and people can only fake it for so long. If they’re “putting on a show” in the interview process, that will eventually be revealed.
Give you candidate something to do. This creates a bit of productive stress and shows you what they’re made of. For example, ask a sales person to do a presentation. We’ve axed many sales people because they fell apart during the presentation.
Fred Wilson had an excellent post up this morning titled Social Media’s Secret Weapon – Email. I completely agree that email is the key communications channel for social media and have written about this before in posts like 100% Click Through Rate, Email – The Original Social Graph and Email Is Still The Best Login.
I’ve been investing in email related stuff for over 15 years going back to Email Publishing, my very first Boulder-based investment which I believe was the very first email service provider (ESP) and was acquired by MessageMedia which was then bought by Doubleclick. Fred and I are both investors in Return Path which he calls out in his post as the category creator and market leader in email deliverability. I love Return Path as a company and am incredibly proud of what they’ve done as a business.
My partners and I have continued to invest aggressively in what we believe is social media’s secret weapon which we refer to as the comm channel in a hat tip to the TV show 24. In Fred’s post, the comm channel is email. Our investment here is in SendGrid, a company that came out of TechStars Boulder 2009 and is one of the white hot companies in Boulder. They directly address the problem Fred describes which every software developer knows is a pain in the ass, uninteresting, hard to do well, but needs to be done right. Every web app sends transactional email – rather than build all the code yourself, just let SendGrid to it. They are now doing it for over 24,000 companies, sending out over 60 million transactional emails a day, and just sent their 10 billionth transactional email.
But email isn’t the only comm channel. Everyone that uses apps on a mobile phone is likely experiencing push notifications as an increasingly important as a form of engagement. While mobile phones used to only really work effectively with SMS, you now have SMS, email, and push notifications. So we invested in Urban Airship who does for push notifications what SendGrid does for email. Like SendGrid, they are growing like crazy, are in use by over 10,000 customers and have sent over 3 billion push notifications.
My message to all web developers – if you are serious about what you are doing, focus on your app. Don’t waste precious development time on all the activities around the app. You likely no longer sit around with a screwdriver setting up a server in a datacenter – instead you are using a cloud provider like Rackspace or Amazon. Don’t spent your time coding up an email notification infrastructure – use SendGrid. And if you are a mobile developer, don’t waste your time writing a bunch of code for push notifications – use Urban Airship.
Most importantly, don’t ignore the thing that will actually make your web app get adoption and retention – comm channels!
My long time friend Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, wrote a blog post today titled A New Kind of Partnership for Return Path. In it he talks about his recognition, as Return Path has grown (they are now around 250 people), of the gender imbalance in the software engineering team (women are around 15% of total engineering team.. He knew about NCWIT from my role as chairman and Matt and his team decided to join the NCWIT Workforce Alliance to engage in helping address this issue.
Matt and his team then did something that blew me away. They provided the sponsorship of the first-ever NCWIT/Return Path Student Seed Fund. This will program will provide seed funding to groups of technical women at universities across the US to advance the goals of women in computing. There are so many things about this that are exciting to me, including the focus on students, seed funding, and the linkage to NCWIT’s overall goal.
We’ve got a huge NCWIT announcement coming in a few days that Return Path is also involved in as one of the founding members. I’ll post more about it, why it’s so important to me, who’s involved, and what you can do to engage – probably over the weekend.
Return Path – thank you!
A week ago I had just gotten home after a month in Homer, Alaska. I was totally chilled out – I worked plenty in July but had very little physical human interaction with anyone other than Amy. I’m sitting here in my Boulder condo today thinking about the entrepreneurial tour de force that was the last six days. I think I interacted with more different people each day than I did cumulatively over the previous 30 days in Homer.
The Boulder New Tech Meetup double header (Tuesday and Wednesday) started things off. The second Boulder Open Angel Forum delivered. Then we had TechStars Demo Day which was amazing, followed by an Open House at Jive Software (they acquired TechStars Boulder 2007 company Filtrbox last year and are growing like crazy), a Return Path board dinner at Black Cat, and the the TechStars Afterparty at the Draft House. Friday saw a Return Path board meeting and lunch with the folks at Return Path followed by TEDxBoulder on Saturday. Oh, and in between I had piles of “regular work.”
There were numerous blog posts and tweets from the week, but my favorite post about an event from the week is up on the True Ventures web site titled On The Road With TechStars Boulder. In addition to all the locals, there were a huge number of folks from out of town who participated in the various events and I smiled a big smile when I read the post.
Last night during the TEDxBoulder intermission break, I had a few quiet moments to myself as I wandered around the grounds of the Boulder Chautauqua. I was filled with a deep satisfaction about the amazingness of the people of Boulder. While there are lots of other great places in the world, I am most at home here. And it’s good to be back home.