Startup Lessons: Board Management

This is the 5th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. This one will certainly inspire a lot of head shaking around the table as anyone who has been involved with a startup can relate to this.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First
4) Marketing

5) Board management: My point here is not about criticism of investors because at the end of the day what investors provide above all else is access to capital, and point in fact their motivation is ultimately pure, which is they are in it to make money. Clarity of purpose is really a blessing but as anyone who has been involved with venture capitalists from the perspective of a startup can attest, there is a lot of complexity.

Investors do not do that much to help a company operationally, despite what they may want to believe about their contribution. They are a sounding board and provide critical objective voice on strategic subjects, but an investor is far too removed from the day-to-day decision making to be useful in an operational capacity, and if they are involved in the day-to-day then the are no longer simply investors.

Where this all comes to a head is when a company is facing headwinds. People in general tend to want to simplify things down to the just one thing moment and any problem set in the modern tech startup that can be distilled to just one thing at it’s root is an exception if there ever was one.

An example of this is having a board member say “well you should just charge more” without first considering the competitive dynamics of a market, or the product and customer perspective on value. If the challenge of running and growing a business like this is easy then anyone could do it, so for all the investors reading this right now, it would be helpful to acknowledge that people running these businesses have more knowledge than you do about the business itself. As much as you want to pattern match, that isn’t always helpful because no one person has experience with all the patterns that can be identified and patterns of the past are not indicators of future performance.

Companies and markets are highly volatile multi-variant problem sets that defy simple explanations and recommendations. What investors across the board should be doing in environments like this is helping clear the fog and applying intellectual horsepower where it is really needed, the planning side of the business. Building good forecasting models against the backdrop of fast changing performance factors is no small task, and planning is 1/2 of the planning/controlling responsibility a team is responsible for, but typical boards end up spending a lot of time on the controlling part of the equation.

Furthermore, when it comes to planning the typical startup has the additional dynamic of being not well equipped to push back against investors who have an expectation of growth rates in the early stages that well exceed 100%. This is where the multi-variant challenges rears it’s head, which is that no market is static so while you are building a product, growing a customer base, facing new competitive threats whether they be other startups or incumbents who have identified you as a threat, and then hiring people to support growth in the business. well a lot of things can derail the best laid plans.

Managing for growth vs. managing for margin enters the discussion because investors want to manage cash efficiently while also proving the growth capability of the company in order to get to the next stage of financing. There is little room for error here and the capital markets are far less forgiving of pivots than they were 2 or 3 years ago.

I also want to talk about shareholder interests and the Board members positions are, typically, preferred shareholders. What is really lacking in tech startups today is a strong voice for common shareholders, the employees, in private companies. The executive members of the board are supposed to fulfill this but all too often their voice is not equal to that of the other board members when it comes to shareholder classes. Preferred shareholders are inherently conflicted in this regard because they enjoy advantages such as liquidation preferences and anti-dilution protections that give them a built-in advantage over the common class of stock.

The modern board needs to cast off the standard operating procedures of the past, in the process becoming more inclusive of shareholder classes as opposed to representing the preferred shareholders first and everyone else second. Board meetings require great structure and strong leadership, and board members need to accept that there will be pushback and dissent based on facts and information that they may not see plainly relative to executives of the company.

As a startup you have a choice, you can be subservient to the board, bending to their pre-determined points of view, or you can be a strong force that counterbalances the parochial interests and instead favoring the greater good. Lastly, boards should be focused exclusively on the substance of the company and less about the personalities of the board members and the executive team.

Startup Lessons Learned: Hiring

I spent 3 years at Get Satisfaction, going from around 10 employees to 70’ish at the peak. Leaving was not an easy choice but after 3 years I needed to do something different, not better just different; I detailed my reasons and next move here. After much contemplation I decided to write a blog post in an effort to document my lessons learned about what worked and did not, in an effort to hold myself accountable for personal and professional development. I wrote it and posted it, then immediately took it down because I realized this was far too long for a single post. so instead I rewrote it as a series of posts, the first of which goes up today.

As you might imagine, I learned about more than just a business in my time at Get Satisfaction, and with the benefit of hindsight I was able to reflect on the subtle but critical lessons learned through mistakes and successes over my time there. This is not an easy series for me to write because while the thoughts are crystal clear I don’t wish to reflect poorly on my former colleagues, therefore take what I write with the intention it is written, that of self-reflection for the purpose of learning and self-improvement.

1) Hiring decisions will make or break you, sometimes all at once: The axiom that great companies are built with A team players could not be more true. There are 2 dimensions to this that are worth highlighting, hiring the best people and then structuring them to succeed, which will be addressed in a later post.

It’s not my intention to backstab people after the fact but the fact remains that we hired some people who were simply not up to the task that was in front of us. A worse failing than hiring the wrong people up front was keeping them in place after it became evident that they were not succeeding and taking the rest of the company down with them.

This dynamic is interesting to explore and reflects the challenges of hiring good people in Silicon Valley but more critically reflects the sense of ownership that the executive management team has over top level hires, and the subsequent desire to not have bad hires exposed for what they are, a failing of process and judgment. It happens, everyone is human and in the final equation it is better to just acknowledge a bad hire and move on rather than stick with someone who will impair the business the longer they stay in place.

A bad executive hire is like a cancer and the treatment for a cancer is to get rid of it, not get rid of it and replace it with something else, just get rid of it. I wrote a post about fear shapes personal behavior that was directly in response to my frustrations in dealing with a colleague who was failing in his role.

What makes a good executive hire? If I had to pick one thing in particular I would say good judgment is what is missing in every executive hire gone bad. People skills, execution capability, cross team collaboration, and many more skills essential for the modern executive can all be learned and adapted to different teams, but good judgment is as much a function of DNA as it is education and discipline. Good judgment trumps all because it brings with it focus, confidence, and optimal outcomes relative to execution effort.

Staff hires are no less critical and again the tendency to stick with people who are not A or even B team quality just to have a body in place reflects the challenge of hiring people in the Valley. However the fact remains that if you have a D team member and your aspiration is to bring them up to a C level, what exactly is your strategy? A and B quality people don’t just contribute disproportionately to the success of the company, they inspire other people of similar quality to join as a result of them being there while D quality people drive away the highest quality people you will attract.

In the spirit of full transparency and disclosure, hiring is something I do not consider a particularly strong point in my favor. My personality tends to attract to people who have similar “strange attractors” in their own character and for better or worse I tend to evaluate people on my gut level reaction to them. This has made me more attuned to my own judgment and forced me to be very strategic and deliberate about hires, at any level. Time will tell if I am getting better at it but without a doubt I am more conscious of the consequences of bad hires and looking beyond resume and personality when considering prospective hires.

I have 7 additional posts to publish over the coming weeks, detailing everything from fundraising to product/competitive strategy to managing your board of directors. Stay tuned.

Who Owns That?

I had an interesting conversation with a senior executive from a large enterprise (in the Global 50) who was expressing frustration with the pace of innovation when it comes to implementing social business in his company. It’s not that they were not doing anything but rather that the act of getting social technologies adopted always seems to run into one large obstacle, who owns it.

This is a problem for a lot of social technologies because in some cases the ownership is truly collective, it’s not a system that gets locked down and controlled by one business unit.

It’s like asking “who owns the logo?”. There is going to be one organization that oversees the company trademarks and another that manages the creative application while another is concerned with the attributes, both real and abstract, associated with it, but in the final equation there is a collective effort behind branding. Social is a lot like this, it’s not a technical system but rather a collective system of tactics and values that drive it.

This is kind of a problem because marketing organizations have been fighting for control of social technologies yet marketing applications for social have been the least interesting. If customer service is really a highly evolved form of marketing then does it not make sense to evolve marketing competencies in customer focused business units?

Customer service organizations are also predisposed to working with other groups in a company, if nothing else it is an essential capability for customer service teams, yet marketing organizations often exist in isolation. The collaborative aspect of social business goes right to the core and having an inherently collaborative system will not in itself make an organization more collaborative as a result if the core DNA isn’t there.

I’m at the Gartner 360 CRM event this week and this is one of the big themes that is being discussed, and if Gartner is right about social being the single most significant cultural trend that companies will confront in the years ahead then the organizational issues that contribute to success or failure online will certainly be a focal point.

 

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