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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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Mentor Whiplash About Early Board Members

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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 MembersWhen 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.

Sometimes Failure Is Your Best Option

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This post originally appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal as part of their Accelerators Program in answer to the question “When and how should you wind down a failing business.”

Some entrepreneurs and investors subscribe to the creed “failure is not an option.” I’m not one of them.

I strongly believe that there are times you should call it quits on a business. Not everything works. And — even after trying incredibly hard, and for a long period of time — failure is sometimes the best option. An entrepreneur shouldn’t view their entrepreneur arc as being linked to a single company, and having a lifetime perspective around entrepreneurship helps put the notion of failure into perspective. Rather than prognosticate, let me give you an example.

My friend Mark’s first company was successfully acquired. After being an executive for several years at the acquirer, Mark decided to start a new company. I was the seed investor, excited to work with my friend again on his new company.

Over three years, this new company raised a total of $10 million from me and several other investors over several rounds. The first few years were exciting as Mark launched a product, scaled the company up to about 40 people, and tried to build a business. But after two years we realized that we weren’t really making any progress — there was a lot of activity but it wasn’t translating into revenue growth.

In year three we tried a completely different approach to the same market with a new product. Mark scaled the business back to a dozen people in an effort to restart the business. Over the course of the year we tried different things, but continued to have very little success.

By the end of the year there was $1 million left. Mark cut the company back again — this time to a half dozen people. He started thinking about how to restart for a third time on the remaining $1 million.

Mark had never failed at anything in his life up to this point. He was proud of this, and the idea that he couldn’t at least make his investors’ money back was devastating to him. But he was stuck and started exploring creating an entirely different business, in a completely different market, with the $1 million he had left.

Mark was newly married and was working 20 hours a day. We were talking at the end of the day during the middle of the week and he was so tense, I thought his brain might explode. I told him that as his largest investor and board member, I wanted him to turn off his cell phone, take his wife out to dinner, have a bottle of wine, and talk about whether it made any sense to spend the next year of his life trying to restart the business with the remaining $1 million.

After resisting turning his phone off, I insisted. I told him that I gave him permission to decide that it wasn’t worth the next year of his life at this point and that as his largest investor it was perfectly ok to shut the business down and declare it a failure. I then said I was hanging up the phone and would talk to him in the morning. Click.

He called me back early the next morning. He was calm. He started by saying thanks for giving him permission to consider shutting down the company. This had never occurred to him as an option. During dinner, he realized he needed a break as he was exhausted. He wasn’t coming up with anything to do to reinvent the business and was just desperate to figure out a way to pay his investors back.

By morning, he realized it was time to shut things down, return whatever money was left, and take six months off to recover from the previous three years while he thought about what to do next.

We gracefully wound the company down and returned five cents on the dollar to the investors. Mark took six months off. He then spent six months exploring a new business, which ended up being extraordinarily successful. And he’s now very happily married.

Failure is sometimes the best option if you view the process of entrepreneurship as a lifelong journey.

Ignore Trends and Predictions

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This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series last week under the title Don’t Believe the Hype.

Every year, at this time, I get a flurry of requests for my “predictions for 2013” or “exciting, hot, new trends for 2013 that I’m looking at.”

I respond with “I don’t care about trends and my only prediction is that one day I will die.”

This is usually not a particularly satisfying response to whomever sent me the request. One of two things happen: They either ignore my response and drop me from their prediction request list for whatever article they are writing. Alternatively, they press a little further, usually with something like “c’mon, you’re a venture capitalist — you must have an opinion about what is going to be hot next year.”

Actually, I don’t. I have never been a short term investor, and I don’t think entrepreneurs should be short term thinkers. Creating a company is really hard and it almost always takes a long time. Sure, there are occasional short term success stories — companies founded two years ago that get bought for $1 billion, but these are rarities. Black swans. Things you don’t see in nature and can’t count on.

So don’t. If you are an entrepreneur and following a trend, you are too late. You want to be creating the trend that other people are following. And then you need to work your butt off to stay ahead of them. Every single day. For a very long time. Through many product cycles and multiple trends.

As a VC, I feel exactly the same way. At Foundry Group, we have a set of well-defined themes. We believe there will be investment opportunities in these themes for the next ten to 20 years. We are constantly tuning the themes, learning from our investments, and exploring new themes. But these themes aren’t trends and we don’t predict anything around them, other than they are constructs in which we think great companies can be created and built.

So I don’t really care about the predictions for 2013. I don’t care about hot new trends. I don’t care that some people think the world is going to end on 12/21/12. I take a much longer view. And I encourage you to as well.

Hire For Cultural Fit Over Competence

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This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series last week under the title Cultural Fit Trumps Competence. Also, I’m going to be doing online office hours with the WSJ on Friday 12/21 at 3pm ET – join and ask questions!

The first people you hire in your startup are critical to your company’s success. So it’s easy to say that you need to hire the “absolute best people you can find.” But what does this actually mean?

Take two different spectrums – (1) competence and (2) cultural fit. Imagine that you have a spectrum for each person – from low to high.

Now, you obviously will not hire someone who is low on both competence and cultural fit. And you obviously will hire someone who is high on both competence and culture fit. But what about the other two cases?

Many people default into choosing people who have high competence but a low cultural fit. This is a deadly mistake in a startup, as this is exactly the wrong person to hire. While they may have great skills for the role you are looking for, the overhead of managing and integrating this person into your young team will be extremely difficult. This is especially true if they are in a leadership position, as they will hire other people who have a cultural fit with them, rather than with the organization, creating even more polarization within your young company.

In contrast, people with low competence but a high culture fit are also not great hires. But if they are “medium” competence, or high competence on in a related role, or early in the career and ambitious about learning new skills, they may be worth taking a risk on.

While you always want to shoot for high competence, high cultural fit people when you are hiring early in your company’s life, it’s always better to chose cultural fit over competence when you have to make a choice.

If you are interested in working with a company that is an expert at figuring this out, go take a look at RoundPegg.

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