Published on Aug 31, 2021
Hearing these startup stories, I realize there are several key mistakes that founders often make in regards to board management. In this post, I’ll elaborate on these key topics and share some secrets on how to effectively run a startup board:
Mistake 1: Setting the wrong meeting agenda
Mistake 2: Rare and lengthy updates
Mistake 3: Not asking for help when you need it
Mistake 4: No single source of truth for board records
In setting up a board meeting agenda, I see a common pattern where founders would search for a board deck template, build the board meeting materials around that deck template, and derive the agenda from the deck.
This is an intuitive plan, but a huge mistake. Here’s what’s going to happen:
The board deck templates only focus on your startup’s performance update, so you end up spending majority of the board meeting time to go through the updates. As the meeting drifts, towards the end you’ll realize you only have a few minutes left for the strategy discussions, which should have been the most important agenda items. However, board members have hard cutoffs and thus can’t elaborate on the most valuable part of their experiences and expertise.
In fact, according a McKinsey survey, most board members would like to double the time spent on strategy discussions, instead of routine performance updates.
The best approach here is to decouple your board meeting agenda from the update deck. Your meeting agenda should lead the meeting materials, not the other way around.
Here are the right steps to set up meeting agenda and compile meeting materials:
The meeting agenda should come first and should reflect a list of the most important strategy discussion topics.
This list should be shared with your board as early as possible, so that your board members have time to reflect and propose changes or additions to the topics.
Build the meeting materials based on the collective brain trust from your board members of what are the important topics to discuss.
Here’s what a good meeting agenda structure looks like:
Opening: to lay out the context and agenda for the meeting.
Q&A: for any questions that are best answered live. For the other questions that can be answered asynchronously, you should handle them outside of the meeting.
Strategy topic deep dives: the majority of your meeting time should be spent on this section. Focus on 2–3 of the highest priority strategic topics. Your board members are some of the most experienced and well-connected people you know, so take your chance smartly to tap into their expertise and network to get feedback and help.
Closing: to recap key takeaways and list out action items.
It is also important to manage time well during the meeting, so that you can keep the meeting on track to discuss the important strategy topics.
Most entrepreneurs hold off until the end of month/quarter to write a lengthy email/deck to update to the board and investors. While this approach might be ok for mature/public companies to manage their boards, it should not be how startup boards operate.
Mature companies move slower and their boards are mostly independent members whose financial returns are not directly correlated with the growth and success of the company itself.
But for a startup, your board members are often your largest investors whose returns are directly related to how successful your startup becomes. Therefore, board members have all the incentives to be helpful, but the rare and lengthy updates keep them away from being informed and engaged.
What typically happens is that the founders would start putting together a board deck a few days or weeks before the board meeting, and only send it out the night before the meeting. Board members show up to the meeting, without reading through the tedious deck, and just learn everything during the meeting.
No wonder they can only give you trite and banal answers to your strategic questions—they simply haven’t had the time to process the info and to be prepared for an insightful discussion.
You lost your chance to gain help from your board members and investors.
Instead, you should provide frequent and light-weight communications—weekly or biweekly—to help your board and investors to always stay well-informed and engaged.
Some founders would say they are simply too busy to provide frequent updates to board members and investors. However, you actually end up spending more time on these rare and lengthy updates than on the frequent and light-weight ones.
The most time-consuming part of preparing an update is actually trying to summarize your life of a month/quarter into an email and organizing the different sections of the story in a deck form. So if you break the monthly/quarterly chunk apart into weekly/bi-weekly updates, you’d be able to cut through a lot of redundancy.
Besides, those lengthy updates are hard for board members and investors to read and digest, which in turn makes it hard for you to understand on which topics they are prepared to discuss. If your board and investors can better understand where the gaps between you plans and executions are, they can better help you bridge those gaps. They want to be informed and help you succeed, so give them a way to stay engaged.
When it comes to asking for help such as investor intros or hiring referrals, founders typically bundle asking for help with the rare and lengthy updates or board meetings, instead of asking for help right when they need it.
Most entrepreneurs find themselves embarrassed to ask for help, because they don’t want to appear weak or don’t want to bother board members and investors. However, the best startup founders don’t act like they know everything—they know when to ask for help.
I’ve also heard founders complain that there is no good way to collectively ask for help among board members and investors. Emails and text messages aren’t very organized and are often ignored. Board members and investors have limited visibility on what resources their peers can offer to help, or how much help the others already provided, making each board member and investor siloed.
I designed Surfboard as an easier channel for founders to collaborate with board members and investors on such help requests. The product is designed to help you get more from your board and investors in a few ways:
Ask for help when you need it using templates for certain types of requests. If you need intros to people in certain industries, to potential customers or partners, or for hiring help, you can provide the context of your asks along with your strategy and thinking, so your board and investors know the best way to help you.
When you post a help request, such as intros for partnership or hiring, all board members and investors have visibility on what names they have put down to introduce. This is a super effective way to encourage engagement, because no one wants to be seen as the least helpful or least knowledgeable at the table.
Your board members and investors can interact by commenting on the help requests to get clarification or provide extra information. This enables them to provide more accurate and informed help.
Your board decks are probably stored in local drives, Google Drive, Box/Dropbox, or other cloud storage. Your board communications happen on email, Slack, text, or WhatsApp. Your board docs, signatures, and option grants are conducted and stored on DocuSign and Carta.
All of your important information is scattered in so many different places, which is one of the main reasons why preparing board materials and organizing board communications take so much time.
With Surfboard, you now have one secure and streamlined place where all your board tasks, communications and decisions live.
Surfboard helps you maintain a good record of everything board-related, from past updates, to all the discussions outside or during the board meetings, and even board approvals.
Hope this post can help you clarify some of the most commonly seen misunderstandings of how to run an effective startup board. In the next few posts, I’m going to further elaborate on the best practices to prepare for board meeting materials and to run board meetings. Stay tuned!