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Startup Boards — Why getting the “helicopter view” is crucial

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Investment Manager, Tom Wilson, shares his top 10 tips to make sure you get the most out of your startup board

When it comes time to formalise a board (often around the time of a Seed financing round), it can be hard for founders to get the most out of this potentially high value group of people.

A well functioning board can provide founders with an excellent opportunity to remove themselves from day-to-day operational matters and focus on high level strategic issues. Obtaining this “helicopter view” can help ensure the business is on the right track.

To help with this I’ve distilled down some actionable tips to leverage such expertise and make your board meetings as high impact as possible.

10 Tips for Startup Boards:

  1. A board meeting isn’t an update session

Aim to send your board materials 3 to 4 days in advance and insist that everyone reads the materials and comes prepared. Consider catching up one-to-one with certain people ahead of the meeting if there’s some big topics you’d like their opinion on. The goal of all this should be to free up time to focus on the bigger strategic issues in the meeting itself (see tip 7).

2. Set an agenda and stick to it

Set out in minutes how long you propose to spend on each section. This can be included as one of the first pages of the board pack materials you prepare. Try to stick to the agenda and the allotted time for each section. Avoid spending too long on business updates and get to the key areas to discuss promptly.

3. Keep the board materials simple 

Work with your board to get a version of the board materials that is easy for you to use as a template each time. The first few board meetings you should ensure you get a steer on material that’s useful for the board and you. It’s important to provide sufficiently comprehensive materials to help with the board discussion. However, I don’t think it’s the best use of time to spend too long producing beautiful presentation decks. The goal is a set of materials that gets everyone up to speed with the business as efficiently as possible and frames the topics for discussion.

4. Report your key performance indicators (KPIs) 

I like to see KPIs clearly signposted in the materials circulated prior to the board. It’s always tricky to get the right balance of too much vs. too little when it comes to KPIs. It will likely take a few iterations to arrive at a set that achieve the goal of calibrating everyone on the status of the business whilst not overwhelming with detail. When you’ve arrived at the agreed set of KPIs stick to them and report the same each time.

5. Always provide a cash update

At a high level and as a minimum, you should include cash in bank, cash spent last month and months of runway remaining. Often management accounts with detailed financials will be circulated separate to the board deck.

6. Try to keep the business update short

Report the highlights and lowlights. Try not to fall into reporting everything that happened since the board met last. As per above, if you’ve circulated your board materials in advance then each board member should already be up to date so no need to overly dwell on this section.

7. Pick a small number of big topics to focus on

Choose one or two major topics that you want to spend the majority of the meeting discussing. Again, the topics should be included in the board materials sent in advance. You could also consider linking to additional background materials if this could help with the discussion. Be clear on what you want to get to out of the discussion. Try to include all of your board members to gather each opinion.

8. Take thorough notes

Basic, I know. However, it’s very difficult to lead the meeting and take notes at the same time. I’d recommend assigning one founder who isn’t doing the majority of presenting to take notes. You should use the notes to form the minutes of the meeting (that can be written up afterwards). Minutes are important because they help with keeping track of the history of the meeting. The minutes can also be used to document certain matters that may require board consent (for major decisions consider speaking with your lawyer in advance to determine what is required).

9. Track action items and follow-up

As you go through the meeting, your designated note taker (see above) should record where people volunteer to help with certain points that are discussed. Doing this makes it easy to follow-up after the meeting with the relevant people. Your board are there to help you so use them.

10. Don’t wait for board meetings to communicate

If there’s a major issue that you need to disclose to your investors do it right away. Don’t wait. Major issues discussed at a board meeting shouldn’t be surprises that the attendees are hearing for the first time. Having a clear and upfront dialogue with your board members and key stakeholders will make your job as a founder easier in the long run.

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Additional resources on board meetings:

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