Properly structuring your board of directors can be one of the most important factors in the overall success of a company. As we learned in my last article about why a startup needs a board, the best way to avoid early mistakes at a startup is to surround yourself with experienced people who can provide mentorship and advice.
So, what should you focus on when building a board? You’ll want to start with a solid base and grow from there. As your company shifts, pivots and gains new funding, your board should too. Take a look at how your board may shift throughout the stages of capital-raising:
At the very early stages of a company, there usually isn’t even a board of directions. Once you raise any capital, even if it’s from the family and friends round, it makes sense from a governing and legal standpoint to create a board. At this point as founder, you or you and your co-founder are the board. By the time you’ve raised early capital, you should have an idea of three to five other members you may want on the board for support and advice so you can incorporate the company. Remember that whoever the lead investor is in your next stage will want a seat at the table, so be sure that seat is saved.
Series A Stage
By the Series A, you should have around three directors on your board. This again includes the co-founders and now the Series A investor. The lead investor is normally someone who is serving on several boards at the same time, so they aren’t readily available for the everyday workings of the company. They’ll primarily bring financial advice to your business as you begin to see revenue growth.
At this stage, some companies will consider adding an independent director to the board. While this isn’t completely necessary, it can be very helpful for your company’s early development.
Series B Stage
Now at the Series B stage, you should start to see growth in the company. After adding on an investor from the Series B, your board should consist of the two founders and the two venture capitalists, and perhaps your independent director
This is an important time to add an independent director to your board if you haven’t already. This fifth member should be someone who can serve as a peer operator such as another CEO or executive in a related industry, and not just another investor. For example, maybe the company needs to hire a sales team but doesn’t know where to start. It would make sense to add a CRO (chief revenue officer) who has experience in ad sales or digital media here. You’ll want someone who can bring the experience of building out a sales team in a related category or industry.
It’s also crucial to be considering the diversity of your board. Just like any team, diversity across backgrounds, experiences, skills, genders and race/ethnicity will help benefit the company’s success. Having a diverse board means you will be able to understand and target a wider audience. So far, it’s mostly been your experiences informing the company so having a different point of view could add something fresh that you would never have considered.
Series C Stage
At this point, your company has gotten a lot larger and you may be thinking about IPO readiness. You need to think carefully about what roles you’re adding to your board and who you have to fill them. Use these additions as solutions to the functional areas of your company. If you need someone who can provide more financial rigor and be a good partner to the CFO, consider a former accountant, investment banker or former CFO who would have that skill set. It’s all about fitting the puzzle pieces of your board members together.
You’ll also want to start to think about different board committees such as nominating, executive, audit or compensation committees. When developing these committees, you should aim to have two to four board committees with two to three people each. They should have different regulations and the independence required to fulfill their purpose.
Lastly, adding more independent directors is also a wise decision at this stage.
If you’re about to go public, it’s time to look at those already on the board. It’s normal at this stage for changes and turnover to arise such as your Series A investor opting out of sitting on a public board. As things shift around, continue to consider the diversity of the board heavily.
I was recently brought onto the board of Varo Bank despite the fact that I have very little experience in fintech and banking. In addition to a wide range of backgrounds, Varo’s board also features a wide range of skills across marketing, audit, operations and more. So although I have little experience in banking, Varo was looking for someone to help scale the company and build the brand. As someone who has built a huge consumer brand and taken companies public before, I fit the bill.
The same goes for Zulily when I joined their board in 2013. At the time, most of the board consisted of people with retail experience and early venture capital investors. They didn’t have the operational experiences of CEOs who had already scaled companies and taken them public so I was brought on.
Building a board is not a one-size-fits-all process. As a board’s needs change or priorities shift, new board members can be recruited to fulfill the new needs or goals. No matter what stage of development your company is at, it’s vital that you have the experience, skills and diversity on your board to ensure that your company will continue to develop and grow.
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