Investor and Board Communication — Make it Worth your Time

Or, at least, reduce the boredom of board meetings.

I believe informed investors, especially as part of an engaged and productive board, can be helpful for a founder to manage and grow a business. And they shouldn’t be undervalued. But it’s up to the founder to manage the crowd well.

Despite the good intentions and high level of experience in the room, the reality is that precious time and energy is wasted in board meetings. I have sat on multiple boards in the German startup scene, where I have seen both highly productive, helpful meetings as well as having had to endure long, tedious hours of boredom. Plus many investors, especially the smaller ones, have very little impact.

In this post I’ll talk about four topics that should help founders get more from their investors and board:

  1. Keep Investors Informed: Monthly KPI reporting
  2. Help Investors Understand Your Business: the Quarterly Update
  3. Board Composition and Logistics
  4. What To Expect From Your Board

1. Monthly KPI Reporting

Your investors (and board members) will expect a monthly KPI report. I like an Excel sheet, with perhaps 3–5 bullets of commentary in an email with key developments. Don’t feel the need to include anything too fancy, this goes in the Quarterly Update (see below).

Deciding on which KPIs to include is a bit of an art, but I would always include:

  • P&L, reconciled to a cash-flow statement. Cash-flow is important as you will run out of cash first. Track progress against plans. Rework the plan if you are too far off (or else it gets depressing), but not too often. If you want to be really fancy add rolling forecasts.
  • Key metrics for your core business. They depend on the industry you’re in. For mobile games, this was a few numbers each from acquisition, retention, engagement, monetization/lifetime value and finally customer acquisition cost. For SaaS it will be quite different, Christoph seems to have created the gold standard.
  • Cohort-based view. For most businesses the “vertical slice” per month is a mix of old and new customers. This makes it hard to determine the effect of your work. For example, your EBIT may have worsened due to increased marketing spend, but the new customers will pay this back many times over. I like seeing cohort-based views on key metrics, especially around marketing recoup.

Where possible, automate the generation of these numbers — it shouldn’t take you too long. You could have your engineers whip up a process which fills Google Docs you can share or, alternatively, use your own internal dashboards. The metrics you are sharing should be the same ones you manage your business with anyway.

2. Quarterly Update on the Business

One thing (among many) I learned from Jens (CEO at Wooga) was his use of the Quarterly Update on the business.

Typically, companies create a board deck, with tons of slides mixing data and (often random, abbreviated) bullet points. Side note: more on how Powerpoints usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning by Edward Tufte.

Rather than create slides, Jens decided to write a long-form memo expressing his thoughts on whatever was relevant at the time. This would typically run for 10–15 pages. An update would include overall business development, a broad product roadmap, marketing campaigns and results, update on competitors, new hires, etc.

I really liked the format. As Jeff Bezos once said in an email to senior management (in 2004 already!):

Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness of ideas.
— Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO, Amazon.com Inc.

Jens sent his CEO Overview around about two weeks before the board meeting itself. By the time the meeting came around members were well prepared knowing the current state of the business, what it was working towards, as well as the pertinent issues on the CEO’s mind.

I would also suggest that you also include your specific asks in the CEO Overview. For example, ‘we are looking for a new XYZ’ or ‘we need office space’.

A redacted version was also disseminated internally, to get the leadership and key people aligned after the board meeting.

3. Board Composition and Logistics

Roberto nailed most of this in his post, “Board Meetings: Helpful or Useless”, so go ahead and read that too, I’ll add my 2 cents:

  • Add operators and industry experts, not only investors. Diversity is good. Some investors may need a board seat due to fund regulation. But if you have a board that is completely made up of investors you should ask your investors if they believe this is really the best setup. Most will say ‘no’.
  • Quarterly is a good rhythm for board meetings (except in critical times). A good habit is to insist on having two board meetings per year where you meet in person and go for dinner/drinks afterwards.
  • Keep operational updates to a minimum. Focus on the future and strategy.
  • Involve your senior leadership team. The board members will appreciate seeing your leadership team in action. And your key people will enjoy the board exposure (and learn from it, too).
Typical board member, working on emails during your board meeting. Photo by Maliha Mannan on Unsplash.

4. What To Expect From Your Board

To be realistic, boards can be a great resource for founders and executive teams in certain areas:

  • Support in key situations. For instance, fundraising or mergers and acquisitions. If you have experienced board members, use their experience and learn from them.
  • Assistance with senior hires. Getting someone to join your young startup can be a challenge. Experienced board members who back your company add legitimacy.
  • A sounding board for new ideas. Treat this with caution. Still, before you embark on a new adventure your board may have helpful input.
  • Insight on market perspectives, especially around fundraising or M&A. Your board members likely speak to other bankers, companies, investors etc. They should have a good feeling on where the market stands on your sector, stage etc.
  • Input on organizational matters. As you are growing the business to the next stage, board members who have relevant leadership experience can be helpful. Or just read “How to Scale”…
  • Mental support. As a founder you have a bunch of stuff happening, most of which probably does not feel positive. Having someone to talk to among your board members can be helpful.

So, here is a quick recap of the topics covered today:

  1. Keep your investors informed with monthly KPI reporting
  2. Quarterly Updates help investors understand your business
  3. Board composition and logistics is crucial
  4. Leverage the experience of your board

As a founder you need to lead your board, not follow it. You control your board meetings. More importantly, you control which issues are discussed. Your board members are there to support you and help you solve difficult challenges. In order to get the most out of your meeting, don’t waste time on content that can be read and reviewed in advance. Use your valuable board time to work together and find ways to help your company grow.

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