Entrepreneurs, Investors and Board Meetings: What’s the Right Balance for Start-Up Companies?

By: Paul A. Jones

Meetings are seldom fun, and board meetings are no exception. Moreover, meetings have a mostly deserved reputation for being unproductive wastes of time and talent. Still, some meetings – including board meetings – can’t be avoided, even by the most social-network enabled start-up entrepreneurs and their investors. So, given that board meetings are going to be with us whether we like them or not, let’s look today at the question of how often should you have them. I’ll talk about board meeting preparation and content in a later post.

While generalizations in this area can be problematic, my own view – based on having been both an entrepreneur and an investor in start-up technology businesses, as well as a counselor to such entrepreneurs and investors – is that most early-stage, tech-driven business should, at least for the first year post-funding, hold regular board meetings on a monthly basis, and that board members within a couple of hours drive time to the company should make every effort to attend in person.

Now, monthly meetings may seem like overkill, particularly if, like me, you dread attending formal meetings, and think of the start-ups anti-meeting culture as one of the things that give entrepreneurial firms a leg up on their more established and bureaucratic companies (most of which hold board meetings no more often than quarterly, or maybe bi-monthly). So, what gives? Why should entrepreneurs who are rightly skeptical of meetings generally want to have more board meetings than their more established competitors?

Several things come to mind. One is the fast-pace of start-up living. Start-ups can – and do – move faster than more established firms. Internal developments, product development, for example, is less predictable in terms of both substance and timing. And even if the external market doesn’t change faster for the start-up than for the more established company, the impact of those changes is often greater on the start-up, and beyond that start-ups are usually on a steeper market knowledge learning curve than the more established players. In short, time is even more of the essence for start-up than for more established companies, and that is one reason start-up boards should as a rule meet more often than boards of later stage companies.

Another reason start-ups should meet more often has to do with the expectations of inside and outside directors in terms of the role of the board and, most importantly, the value add expectations for outside directors and the need for time establishing good working relationships among directors, particularly between the insiders and the outsiders on the board. As noted above, things tend to move faster in the start-up world. Further, important strategic and significant operational issues tend to come up more often. And, finally, even if the financing dance went well, it is likely that it left the entrepreneur and investor(s) a little unsure about each other and, in any case, a bit up in the air in terms of what to expect from each other, in terms of information sharing and value add abilities and expectations. More regular meetings, particularly in the first year or so post-funding, can help address both of those challenges, and in the process foster better intra-board relationships and trust, as well maximize the value add of outside directors.

Finally, more regular board meetings can help a company establish and institutionalize more efficient and productive communications channels among inside and outside directors. The process of preparing for board meetings on a more regular basis – a sometimes frustrating process for senior managers with what seem like obviously more important ways to invest their time – can itself help both inside and outside directors “find their way” in terms of the appropriate timing and sharing of information about the company and it’s business and technology environment. Over time, as intra-board communications become both more routine and less formal, the regular board meeting schedule can be cut back.

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