Kill the Board Deck

This article previously ran in TechCrunch+

I previously served as the CEO board director at PlanGrid, and as an independent board director for two startups. I believed in the leadership and products at those companies, but I resigned from both startup boards because I couldn’t bear sitting through another company’s board meeting. I wrote an article in TechCrunch+ to offer advice on how to run an effective board meeting.

Time is a fixed resource. As a board director, it's crucial to be helpful to the leadership team with the limited time we have. Otherwise, attending board meetings becomes pointless. Concise materials can make board meetings more effective and leave room for useful conversations.

After Initialized and Next47 co-led TigerEye’s Series A, and a formal board of directors was put in place, this is what my cofounder and I wrote to them:

Dear Board,

From the start at TigerEye, we promised ourselves we would use our experience to our advantage by making better decisions across all vectors everyday. “What did we do that we never want to do again?” One thing we’d like to never do is the three-hour, too-in-the-weeds, non-strategic board meeting. Here is a memo we wrote instead of preparing a board deck. We hope this memo gives you the punchline on the business and how we’re thinking about the future, allowing the majority of our time together for meaningful conversations.

With gratitude,

Tracy & Ralph

The memo following our short letter is typically three pages long. It includes legal formalities like approving the last board meeting minutes and stock option grants. This is the boring stuff that needs to happen with the lawyers in the room, so we try to get that out of the way at the beginning. Then we review our financials, because that is how investor board directors like to keep track of the world. Included in the financial update is a snapshot of the business: how much money is in the bank, number of months or runway, revenue, growth and customers. 

We discuss what we accomplished in the last three months as a team and what we’re doing in the next three. Then it's an open discussion where we push ourselves to have the hard discussions on worst-case scenarios and how to de-risk against them. These conversations typically revolve around the competitive market landscape, our direction as a company, current economic conditions and a realistic check-in on how much money we’re burning and our ability to execute. 

TigerEye’s board meeting is one hour. The short length of our meetings has a lot to do with our size — we’re an early-stage startup. But I still plan to keep it concise and productive even as we grow. I’ve led and attended over a hundred hours of board meetings, and I never want to dread my own board meeting again. I also don’t want any founder to have that feeling. I have made many mistakes, and now I am sharing lessons on how to generate better board material and give more effective board meetings:
  • Eliminate 80-plus-page board decks: Every board deck I’ve made and seen is more than 80 pages long. I am not exaggerating. The challenge with this much content is there is a finite amount of minutes of attention we get from the board, and only so much information can be absorbed in one sitting. If there is truly that much material and information that needs to be communicated, consider sending out regular email updates, or having one-on-ones with the board, to keep them updated outside of the board meeting. The goal of the board materials is to quickly get your board up to speed on your assessment of the business, shine a light on the problems and get their help strategically.  

  • Show where the business hurts the most: It is important to celebrate the hard work of the team. But I’ve seen many board decks that over-index on wins and don’t focus enough on the losses. In my experience, everytime I ignored where it hurt in the business, it cost me triple the amount of time, because problems tend to compound — and do not go away on their own.   

  • Never bury bad news: I once experienced a situation where, with fifteen minutes remaining in a board meeting, the founders told us something that would completely change the business and put it at risk. We needed at least an hour to talk through our options, but everyone was out of time and steam at that point.

  • Eliminate the showboat: As a CEO who wanted to give each department head autonomy, I would structure the board decks with open spaces for each executive to provide updates. The challenge with that approach is that we ended up with an incohesive, showboaty board deck where each department leader used their allotted slides to brag about their teams’ wins and defend their roles. Instead, bring your board on your journey of wins. If a big deal closes, text your board or email them as it happens. Have a good cadence of communications with the board so they feel included. This will also help to cut down on the victory lap sections in the board materials.

  • Use existing artifacts: At my last company, it would take a few weeks to generate new graphs and artifacts for the board decks, and I’d later present them in All Hands. I now realize this was wrong. If we do our jobs as leaders, the whole company already knows how we think of our business and understands near- and long-term goals and how we are working hard at pushing the company forward together. A good way to capture and communicate the direction of the company is to have the team create artifacts that highlight the business, so they’re brought along early — and present those materials to the board.

  • Allow for closed-door sessions: A valuable lesson I learned from being on a board is the importance of closed-door sessions. The CEO held a beginning closed-door session to go over legal matters without their executive team. Then, there were two closed sessions at the end, one with the CEO and board and one with only the independent and investor directors. This gave the board space to debrief, discuss how to be most helpful, and create an action plan. One of the directors would then follow up with the CEO. Closed-door sessions allow for open and honest communication and can lead to more effective decision-making. 

The responsibilities of a board at a startup can vary depending on the size and stage of the company, but generally, the board is responsible for overseeing the company's management and ensuring the company is run in the best interests of its stakeholders (shareholders, employees, customers and the wider community). Keep board decks short so all parties can focus conversations on the long-term sustainability and success of your company, which includes managing finances effectively.  By doing so, the board can contribute significantly to the growth and success of the startup.