Managing Series A Board Meetings

I recently wrote this email to a first-time CEO and founder who we were fortunate enough to invest behind as the Series A lead. I am excited to be working with her and believe she can become a world class CEO over time. Learning to lead the board is part of helping her fulfill her immense potential.

I hope the perspective is helpful to other entrepreneurs at early stage startups who are learning to manage investors and boards for the first time. I think in some ways it applies to Seed stage entrepreneurs too, who may not have official boards, but do meet with the investors on some regular cadence.

Hi [Name deleted for privacy!]

I wanted to put down in writing some of my thoughts on board meetings as we begin the journey with the hope of making some of this easier to absorb for you. Writing things out really helps me sometimes so I’m hopeful this is of some use for you too!

Timing: At this stage we should have them every 6–8 weeks. Duration ~2–3 hours (not more).

Purpose: Please don’t think of the board meetings as a time when you and the team are meant to present “here’s our progress report.” The board meetings are for the CEO and the executive team. It is the occasional opportunity to step back and think about the strategy of the company and its main functional areas. The goals are to ask — are we doing the right things? How is our progress against our plans? Is this still the right plan? And get feedback from the board — who in theory should be people you value input from and trust.

If you don’t do this step back every 6–8 weeks, I guarantee you wont do it enough. Because the day to day will consume you. And in a market that is moving fast it is crucial that we do this.

Style note: Here’s a thought for your consideration — The board is always evaluating the CEO to see how it can help. You must lead your board the way you lead your team. If you aren’t leading your board, people will wonder if you are doing the CEO job well. The board meetings are not SALES meetings to the board. This is time to candidly discuss the good, the bad and the ugly. You have an experienced board which means you will NOT scare us with anything. We are all in the boat together and the only way we can help is if we know what is working and what isn’t. Intellectual honesty and transparency about the facts of our reality greatly improve our chances of success.

Board meeting agenda: The CEO should start with highlights and lowlights. In 10 minutes give the board the update on how the company is doing in all areas. In the CEO’s own words — how is the company doing? How is the market? What are the top 1–2 things on your mind that are keeping you up at night? If the board meeting were to end after 10 minutes, the board would have the 80/20 on the situation.

Next there should be overviews of the critical 4–5 areas.

Goals: For each critical functional area there should be stated current quarter and annual goals that can be measured. At each board meeting we review the goals and we recap how we are doing against those goals. What’s working and what isn’t.

Areas to Focus On: As we’ve been talking about, the key areas for us right now are similar to every Seed stage or Series A funded startup:

1. Team — current org chart. Desired org chart. What are the open positions we want to fill now? Pipeline of candidates. What are the other key hires we need to make in the next 3 months? 6 months? How is morale? Any attrition? (wanted and unwanted).

2. Sales Pipeline — details the current customer conversations in progress. What stage are they? (Note: we need to establish a qualification label we all understand for each stage of the sales process). Please note for each account in progress: WHAT IS REQUIRED TO CLOSE? And WHAT IS THE USE CASE? We must identify that use case which BEST fits our current product offering and be sure we are addressing a “hair on fire!” situation. [I know I’ve said that to you 10 times and I probably will a few more so apologies in advance!].

3. Product/Engineering — need a clear, visual timeline we can all understand. Dates that are tied to specific releases and the functionality we expect with each. We constantly need to be asking ourselves — Does our engineering/product road map align with the “what is required to close” for our top accounts. Are we prioritizing what our desperate users need?

4. Marketing — Review with the board the marketing “plan” for the company. Any updates on outbound activities? Demand Generation plan and targets (top of the sales funnel pipeline which includes any content strategy, PR, conferences, cold calling). What are our goals in terms of awareness? Quantify them so we at least have something to measure against. Website visits? Articles published? Qualified leads? We want to learn to distinguish between who is just interested in getting educated about what we do and who has a timeline to buy something, a project, a budget and the authority to do so. We are in a hot, emerging space that people want to learn about. And you are so gregarious and charming and an expert — of course they will want to meet you. And KEEP meeting you. But time is our most precious resource so we have to learn to identify who MUST have what we offer now and who is really only in learning mode.

Marketing is revenue creation. Sales is revenue conversion. So how is our revenue creation engine working?

5. Finance — we need a 12 month operating plan. Monthly and quarterly targets. When we get together we review how we are doing against plan. Right now this is key for expenses and early bookings. It is less important that the targets are precisely correct. More important that we have measurable goals and we talk about if they are right or wrong and how we should adjust.

Focus: Typically it is TOO much to cover all 5 areas in detail. Instead, the better approach is to give at least an overview for each of the main functional areas of the business (1–2 slides for each area) and you want to keep the format generally the same from board meeting to board meeting so we can easily track progress. Then, at each board meeting it is normal for the CEO to want to do a deep dive into one key area and discuss and get feedback on the plan and the metrics. These are NOT brainstorming sessions. These are meant to be the CEO leading the thinking on the plan and talking through the metrics. And then getting feedback on the go forward plan to improve. Do we need additional headcount? Is the current leader of this function not up to the task? Why aren’t we hitting our targets? Etc.

Example decks. I’ll walk you through some old examples. There is no RIGHT style or format. I simply want you to see examples of those meetings that I think were done well and give you a better sense of what I expect. I fully expect that we will talk about this many times. You aren’t going to perfect this anytime soon. It really is an art and a muscle you build up. But it is part of being a great CEO and so I want you to learn it. Communicating with your board and capturing the key performance indicators for the business in a way that explains what is happening is essential to success.

Who talks? Who is present? Over time we would expect your VPs who are responsible for each area to present their sections of the board deck. Right now you don’t have all of these people but that’s a great reason to spend time on the org chart and talk through the plan and timing of such hires. As you hire great VPs, you will have more time as the CEO to work on the strategic decisions for the business — which only you can do.

We should have an open session where all Directors, observers and Executives can participate and then a closed session where we review sensitive matters like compensation.

Goals to Accomplish with the Series A Funds:

Team — get you more “A players” on the engineering team and start to build a go to market team and engine with an early sales rep (the renaissance rep). Once we are clear about our desperate user and use case, we can talk about adding marketing resources.

Product — need to make sure we understand our highest priority use case — the situation where we can land and delight our early customers. Then we make sure our engineering road map and timeline are prioritized based on this.

Sales Pipeline — clarity on which conversations are just conversations right now and those that are likely sales in the next 90 or 180 days. Life and death difference between “we are excited about what you guys are doing and want to learn more” and “we have to have that ASAP.” If there is one thing startups screw up at our stage it is having “happy ears” and thinking customers really want to buy but not qualifying what it will take to actually close a deal. I’m going to keep pushing you hard here. :)

Reference Customers — we need those EARLYVANGELISTS. The accounts that use our product and want to tell everyone how happy they are about the choice. We should aim for 5–10 of these in the next 12 months. It WILL take iterations with them on product to make sure they are thoroughly delighted with our solution — we must understand that. We simply can’t add aggressively to sales expense (headcount) until we have these 5–10 delighted customers. Literally the worst thing we can do is add to sales expense too fast before our product is showing signs with customers that we’ve nailed it.

Again — I hope writing this out helps! I want to make sure I lay it all out for you and come back to this regularly as our north star. If we can do this, we will be building something incredibly valuable here. Our board meetings will be productive sessions to get us on (and keep us on) this path. See you tomorrow.