Dashboards for Dummies
A Step-By-Step Guide To Help Make Board Meetings More Effective For Venture-Backed Companies
I’ve lost track of how many board meetings I’ve attended so far in my venture capital career, but I’d estimate it’s somewhere between 500 and 1,000. It’s certainly enough to have formed an impression of what makes effective regular interactions between entrepreneurial management teams and those who are responsible for startup governance.
Board meetings of venture-backed companies vary widely depending on the personalities of everyone involved. Some are formal and disciplined; others are casual and free-wheeling. Some meetings are conducted in an hour, while others may last half a day and feature extensive reports from a variety of operating executives.
In my experience, productive board meetings have a high ratio of “facts per minute” — in other words, these meetings focus on objective data to support analysis and decision making, instead of anecdote and story telling. Narrative skill might be how entrepreneurs capture attention from investors initially; but at a certain point, the emphasis should shift to realistic assessments so that the board can help management navigate challenges, capitalize on opportunity, and thrive. Board meetings, in my opinion, should be grounded in reality.
A good dashboard may be one of the best tools for shaping pragmatic board dialogue. Yet most of my boards struggle with what should be a relatively straightforward tool that’s a natural output of running the company.
To address this frequent challenge, here is a step-by-step guide for developing a dashboard that could be useful whether you are a CEO, CFO, venture capitalist, independent board member, or internal corporate innovation lead reporting to your sponsors and stakeholders.
- Working together with a subset of your board that includes representatives from the management team, investors, and independent directors, brainstorm a list of relevant metrics that signal the health of the business, or lack thereof
- Review the metrics and eliminate any redundant concepts
- As a group, prioritize the metrics you have brainstormed into “critical,” “important,” and “optional”
- Include just the “critical” metrics on your dashboard, saving the “important” metrics for materials that follow the dashboard and eliminating the “optional” metrics from board discussion
- Review the resulting list with your entire board to ensure buy-in, and present the dashboard in your next board meeting, attempting to incorporate as many of the following guidelines as possible:
Start with the Dashboard
Always put the dashboard at the very beginning of the board materials, right after the agenda. The idea is to make these metrics easily accessible. After all, the dashboard of a car isn’t in the back seat or the trunk.
One Page Only
Don’t include more information than can be presented on a single page in a legible font size. This requires editing your list to just the metrics that matter, as described in steps 3 and 4 above. The key is not to throw everything at the board, because this obscures the discussion that’s needed. For most businesses this will be between 10–15 metrics. Any more than 15, and the signal may get lost in the noise.
Dashboard metrics should be reported three ways: (i) most recent period actual, (ii) most recent period plan, and (iii) relevant prior period actual. The periodicity should reflect how often your board meets. If you meet quarterly, the most recent period is the prior quarter. If you meet monthly, it’s the prior month. The relevant prior period should take into account any seasonality in the business. So for some companies the prior period will be the one immediately preceding the most recent period (if you are meeting at the beginning of Q3, then the most recent period is Q2 and the prior period would be Q1) and for some businesses year-over-year results are more appropriate (for the same Q3 meeting, the most recent period is still Q2, but the relevant prior period might be Q2 of the previous year). Including all three columns is essential to showing how the business is changing over time and whether the company is achieving or missing plan.
Start the dashboard with core financial and operational metrics that matter for any business, regardless of industry or business model. These typically include revenue, expense, headcount, cash, and burn rate.
Good dashboards also include metrics that matter for your business model specifically. These are drivers of revenue and expense and determine the success or failure of the business. For example, in a SaaS business model, relevant metrics would include cost to acquire customers, lifetime value, churn, months to recover acquisition cost, and others. In a “unit sale” model, metrics might include unit price, manufacturing costs, and the scale of the company’s distribution channels. Healthcare metrics might include the company’s progress through the stages of FDA approval, since those determine whether a product can be brought to market. Choosing custom metrics is probably the most difficult part of the dashboard process.
Track and report on these same metrics from period to period. You should change your metrics only when your business model changes, and only with the agreement of your board. If management changes what’s tracked without notice, it might be interpreted as an attempt to hide weaknesses in the business, which can erode trust.
Again, the dashboard should be developed together with key stakeholders so that everyone agrees on what matters. These metrics should also be consistent with what management already tracks to run the business every day. The dashboard should not be a special exercise or “make work” done just for the board — it should take almost no extra work to pull together. This should help address one of management’s biggest complaints about board meetings, which is that they are a distraction from running the business.
Here is a redacted example from a board with which I am familiar that I consider to be well run:
The company’s business has two main components: publishing original intellectual property (“IP”) and translating that IP into filmed entertainment like movies and TV shows. Note how the dashboard is so simple. Every single metric on the page relates to the core operations of the company and allows directors to see — at a glance — what’s working and what’s not. The dashboard starts with common metrics like revenue, EBITDA (from which directors can calculate expense), cash balance, and headcount. The dashboard progresses to indicators that are specific to this business, such as total number of properties owned, number of properties in development with Hollywood studios, number of publications, etc.
While the dashboard is simple, this company’s business is actually quite complicated: the publishing operations alone typically include more than 50 SKUs per month, original content and licenses, thousands of online and retail outlets, and distribution in more than a dozen countries and languages; but that is all secondary detail. The dashboard focuses on the company’s high level performance so that the most important information is presented clearly and prominently.
A focus on facts and pragmatism isn’t to say that board members shouldn’t engage with each other socially or have fun — that’s why so many boards plan a dinner the night before a meeting. But the meeting itself should be focused and productive, even if the tone is collegial and relaxed.
A good dashboard will help focus your board’s preparation for the meeting. If a representative of the board reads nothing else but the dashboard, that person should get a sense of the health or struggles of the business and be able to ask deeper questions that help a CEO understand where there may be opportunities for greater success.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.
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