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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.
Over and over again people talk about transparency. Many people assert they are transparent, or are being transparent. Few actually are.
I was thinking about this last night while watching the last few episodes of Revenge: Season 2 with Amy. Suddenly the word “transparent” started being thrown around by the Grasons, referring to their new found desire to be transparent. In this case, it was simply disingenuous - they are transparent only when it suits their purposes and usually as a setup of some other nefarious act they were about to perform (or had performed).
Whenever a word makes it into a TV show like Revenge, you know that it’s lost all meaning. And, as I’ve observed in the world of tech and startups I play in, transparency is used all the time to justify something, but rarely actually supported by behavior.
In the “everything that is old is new again” category, the master of transparency, and likely the originator of “open book management“, is Jack Stack. I remember meeting Jack and hearing him talk at the very first Birthing of Giants event created by Verne Harnish in 1991. I read Jack’s book – The Great Game of Business: Unlocking the Power and Profitability of Open-Book Management – about his experience at Springfield ReManufacturing Corp - and was blown away by his thinking. My first company – Feld Technologies – was definitely not run with an open book and Jack’s ideas were very provocative to me.
Over the years, several CEOs I’ve worked with have been incredibly open book, or – if you want to use today’s lingo – transparent. My two favorites are Matt Blumberg of Return Path and Rand Fiskin of Moz. Matt shares his entire board book after the board meeting with everyone at the company (now over 400 people). He’s been doing this since the beginning, and only redacts specific compensation information and occasional legal stuff. Rand shares – well everything – including one of the best, most detailed, and completely transparent posts about a private company financing in the history of private company financings.
When an entrepreneur says he’s transparent, I now ask “do you publish your board book to your entire company?” I view this as a benchmark for transparency. If the answer is “no”, then I ask the entrepreneur what he means by “I’m transparent.” If you can’t be open with your company about the information you report to your board, how can you actually be transparent?
This week I had two meetings with CEOs of companies we’ve recently invested in where the question of “what is an ideal board meeting” came up. I’m writing an entire book on it called Startup Boards: Reinventing the Board of Directors to Better Support the Entrepreneur so it’s easy for me to define my ideal board meeting at this point since my head is pretty deep into it intellectually.
One of the things I always suggest to CEOs is that they be an outside director for one company that is not their own. I don’t care how big or small the company is, whether or not I have an involvement in the company, or if the CEO knows the entrepreneurs involved. I’m much more interested in the CEO having the experience of being a board member for someone else’s company.
Being CEO of a fast growing startup is a tough job. There are awesome days, dismal days, and lots of in-between days. I’ve never been in a startup that was a straight line of progress over time and I’ve never worked with a CEO who didn’t regularly learn new things, have stuff not work, and go through stretches of huge uncertainty and struggle.
Given that I am no longer a CEO (although I was once – for seven years) I don’t feel the pressure of being CEO. As a result I’ve spent a lot of the past 17 years being able to provide perspective for the CEOs I work with. Even when I’m deeply invested in the company, I can be emotionally and functionally detached from the pressure and dynamics of what the CEO is going through on a daily basis while still understanding the issues since I’ve had the experience.
Now, imagine you are a CEO of a fast growing startup. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to spend a small amount of your time in that same emotional and functional detachment for someone else’s company? Not only would it stretch some new muscles for you, it’d give you a much broader perspective on how “the job of a CEO” works. You might have new empathy for a CEO, which could include self-empathy (since you are also a CEO) – which is a tough concept for some, but is fundamentally about understanding yourself better, especially when you are under emotional distress of some sort. You’d have empathy for other board members and would either appreciate your own board members more, or learn tools and approaches to develop a more effective relationship with them, or decide you need different ones.
There are lots of other subtle benefits. You’ll extend your network. You’ll view a company from a different vantage point. You’ll be on the other side of the financing discussions (a board member, rather than the CEO). You’ll understand “fiduciary responsibility” more deeply. You’ll have a peer relationship with another CEO that you have a vested interest in that crosses over to a board – CEO relationship. You’ll get exposed to new management styles. You’ll experience different conflicts that you won’t have the same type of pressure from. The list goes on and on.
I usually recommend only one outside board. Not two, not three – just one. Any more than one is too many – as an active CEO you just won’t have time to be serious and deliberate about it. While you might feel like you have capacity for more, your company needs your attention first. There are exceptions, especially with serial entrepreneurs who have a unique relationship with an investor where it’s a deeper, collaborative relationship across multiple companies (I have a few of these), but generally one is plenty.
I don’t count non-profit boards in this mix. Do as much non-profit stuff as you want. The dynamics, incentives, motivations, and things you’ll learn and experience are totally different. That’s not what this is about.
If you are a CEO of a startup company and you aren’t on one other board as an outside director, think hard about doing it. And, if you are in my world and aren’t on an outside board, holler if you want my help getting you connected up with some folks.
I’m working on a book with Mahendra Ramsinghani called “Startup Boards” where we are trying to provide clear best practices for how the boards of startup companies should work. You may recognize Mahendra’s name – he wrote The Business of Venture Capital which I reviewed recently.
This book is part of my continuous effort to dramatically improve startup company boards. I’ve been on hundreds of boards and have been to thousands (or tens of thousands) of board meetings and way too many of them are bored meetings instead of productive sessions consisting of the leaders, owners, and board members for a company.
Give us a hand and take 5 to 10 minutes to fill out our survey on Startup Boards. It can be anonymous or include you name and email if you are willing to be interviewed in more depth.