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Posted: January 25, 2013

Board experiments

Some success and some epic fails

Brad Feld

I joined my first board of a company other than mine in 1994 (NetGenesis). Since then, I’ve sat on hundreds of boards and been to a zillion board meetings. It crushes my soul a little to think of the number of board meetings I have sat through that were ineffective, poorly run, or just plain boring. I guess that’s part of the motivation I have in writing Startup Boards: Reinventing the Board of Directors to Be Useful to the Entrepreneur (the next book in the Startup Revolution series which should be out sometime this summer.)

In the meantime, over the past two years I’ve done a lot of experiments with the boards I’m on. I’ve tried a lot of different things – some that are awesome, some that don’t matter, some that suck and some that have been epic fails. For any that aren’t awesome, I’ve tried to kill the experiment quickly so it didn’t hurt anything. When I reflect on everything I’ve tried, I think I’ve managed to “do no harm," which is more than I can say for a lot of the other VCs who I’ve sat on boards with since 1994.

By this summer, I expect I’ll have a very clear view on the best practices from my perspective for making a Startup Board effective. Until then, I’m still running experiments, or experiencing experiments that the entrepreneurs run. And I’m thinking out loud (including in posts like this) on what has worked and hasn’t worked.

One of the things I’ve played around with is the board package. The number of different formats, styles, information incorporated, and distribution methods over the years boggles my mind. I not-so-fondly remember toting around “binders full of board meeting material” in the 1990s. Or pre-Gmail having a “board meeting folder” in Outlook so I could quickly find the upcoming board meeting documents. Or fighting through 19 attachments to an email to figure out where the actual board material was. PowerPoints, PDFs, Word documents, text files, Excel spreadsheets, Prezi docs, videos, email outlines – the list goes on.

Recently, I had a magical moment. I’m a huge believer in distributing the board material a few days in advance, having all the board members comment on it in advance of the meeting, and then having the meeting without going through the board material page by page. No death by endless Powerpoint, no reading a document I’ve already read. My favorite board meetings are the “one slide board meeting” where the only piece of paper allowed in the room is the agenda of the meeting.

When entrepreneurs don’t get this, I suggest that they pretend their board members can read and cognitively process the information in advance. And, if they don’t believe their board members will do this, just start having the board meeting under this assumption and watch how they board members get their act together and read the material in advance.

In this recent magical moment, rather than receiving anything via email, a Google Doc notification showed up in my inbox. I went to it and the entire board package was in a single Google doc file. The entire management team and the entire board was included on it. As I read through the Google doc, whenever I had a comment or a question, I highlighted the section in question, hit Command-Option-M, and left a comment. Then, as other people read through the package, they left comments. And then the management team responded to the comments.

Voila – an interactive board package. Zero special technology. It wasn’t planned, or assigned. It just naturally happened. When we showed up to the board meeting, everyone had the issues in their mind. We’d already cut out an hour of setup, and probably another hour of discussion. So we got right down to the higher level issues that the board material, and comments, and the responses generated.

In this case, the CEO created a very simple agenda immediately before the board meeting that captured the strategic issues we needed to address. There were a few tactical questions outstanding – they got knocked off quickly. We had a two-hour board meeting – 90 minutes of it was intense and fruitful. No one referred to any paper – we looked each other in the eyes for 90 minutes and had a deep, engaged, substantive discussion.

I’ve been describing this as a part of a “continuous board engagement” – similar to “continuous deployment and continuous innovation” in Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses . I get information daily from most of the companies I’m involved in. I’m in the flow of a lot of information – some “noise” but a huge amount of “signal.” Then – the week before the board meeting, the current state of things gets consolidated into a dynamic document that allows everyone involved to interact with each other around the content.
I’m going to play a lot with this in the next few months.

Any suggested tweaks or changes to this approach? Any obvious pitfalls?

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. Prior to co-founding the Boulder-based Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship and writes widely read and well respected blogs at www.feld.com and www.askthevc.com. He holds bachelor's and master's of science degrees from from MIT. Contact him at brad@feld.com

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