Startup founders often see board meetings as a chore which distracts them from building their business.
At their best, board meetings — usually made up of founder(s) and investors — are a place to discuss critical issues and advance strategy; they leave founders feeling inspired, supported and enriched with diverse opinions. At their worst, they are disappointing, disengaged, long monologues by members, attended by investors who are too detached to make a difference.
How to avoid board meetings becoming more of the latter? Here are 13 tips.
Do's and don'ts to help founders make the most of their board meetings
Be intentional with your board composition. Some startup boards are just too large. Keep your board small and don’t hesitate to ask early-stage investors to relinquish their board seat at the next funding round. Carefully pick who will sit on your board and try to create a diverse one, not only in ethnicity and gender, but also in terms of age, background and experience (investors vs operators for example, or SaaS vs vertical sector knowledge).
Recruit non-executive board members (NEDs). Non-executive board members are members who are not also part of the daily management of the company. Most startups I know think they are too early for a NED. On the contrary, NEDs can bring invaluable experience to a board, while providing more balanced viewpoints. They can also potentially act as chairpersons. Many successful operators or corporate execs are interested in taking startup board seats, and you would be surprised by the quality of people you could attract to your board. Aim high!
Run a tight ship. Board meetings should last between two and four hours. The presentation should have no more than 40-50 slides at most. Don’t make the mistake of allowing the board meeting to become a leadership team meeting. Putting a hard stop on the meeting forces you to be more productive and make better use of everybody’s time. Feel free to manage the conversation and put a stop if a topic takes too much time. Do send short minutes after every meeting.
Focus on the bigger picture. Send your deck and ideally financials to board members ahead of time, so that you don't have to spend time on the day going through historical performance. If there are questions on the numbers, they can be handled in a separate session with the CFO. The board should be focused on the future, not the past.
It can be very useful to prepare a single-page summary that contains the key challenges and highlights in your mind. This is probably the most important slide of the presentation.
The board is only productive if everyone is at the same level of knowledge
Leave space for brainstorming. Brainstorming is a great way to figure out bigger issues and company ambitions. Try using open-ended questions to elevate the conversation: “If we had $50m more in the bank, what would we do?” “If we could prioritise only one item on the roadmap, which one would it be?” “If we had to become profitable today, what would it take?”
How (and how not) to run a startup.
Discover and understand each board member’s motivations. The board has a fiduciary duty to act in the interest of all shareholders and of the company itself. However, board members are often inevitably misaligned and have very different objectives. Some early-stage investors will have been in the company for 10 years and are looking to exit, others will have come in more recently and will not have seen any return on their investment. Wider market shifts, outside responsibilities and other factors can also cause investor intentions to change. Make sure you know what each investor is looking for because it will certainly affect their advice.
Ask for help. Tell your board explicitly about where you need support going forward and be clear about your needs.
Keep your board members informed and engaged. It is of course the board members’ responsibility to know your business well enough to give advice. However, there are always some who don’t seem to know the business that well and ask irrelevant questions. As a founder, make sure you’ve given them every chance to know the company. The board is only productive if everyone is at the same level of knowledge.
Ask for feedback. After board meetings, ask members if they saw all the materials they needed, what topics they’d like to see more or less of, and whether the meeting was too long or too short. By sending an agenda ahead of time, circulating notes after the event, and constantly seeking feedback, you can hone your meetings to be as useful and impactful as possible.
Get bogged down in the detail. This isn’t the place to discuss the colour of your new logo, or detailed candidate profiles. Most of these topics are management decisions. A board’s role should really be more strategic, not discussing granular, day-to-day activities. If the slides show too much detail, then the discussions will inevitably become tactical as opposed to strategic.
Getting figures for recent performance out ahead of the meeting gives you the opportunity to focus on the future
Use the board to tackle sensitive topics. This isn’t the right place to discuss the founders’ compensation, for example. The conversation will inevitably be taken offline and that’s the right place for it. Also, don’t put board members on the spot asking them if they will follow-on in your next round. Those conversations are better handled on a one-to-one basis.
Drop bombshells. Do not wait until quarterly board meetings to communicate significant changes. Keep them up to date on pressing issues in real-time, such as if a C-suite team member has quit or you’ve lost a substantial contract. That way board members will have more time to digest the news and have thoughtful advice, as opposed to shooting from the hip.
Focus on the past. What’s gone can’t be changed. Getting figures for recent performance out ahead of the meeting gives you the opportunity to focus on the future and what can be done better. The last thing you want is your board meeting to be a “show and tell” session describing historical performance.
Lucile Cornet is a partner at London-based VC firm Eight Roads Ventures