If your business is a corporation, you are required by law to have a board of directors. For many startups, it can seem like just an option. However, there are many reasons startups should aim to form their own board of directors early in their lifecycle.
Does Your Startup Need a Board of Directors?
Yes. Even for experienced founders, a new company comes with new challenges — and an opportunity to make all new mistakes. For first-time founders, you don’t know what you don’t know. The best way to avoid many of these mistakes is to surround yourself with experienced counsel, and a board is a way to formalize that. The primary job of a board of directors is to look out for shareholders' interests, oversee corporate activities, assess performance, assess the CEO and senior management and give feedback about the future direction of the company. Your board should help provide advice and mentorship from people who have been there, done that.
When Should Your Startup Form a Board?
As you start to think about your board as founder and/or CEO, the board can initially be as small as just one director: you.
As the startup grows and evolves over funding rounds, you should expand and include more members. The most standard time to form a board is after the Series A funding round, but some startups choose to after the seed round. Typically, the board expands as the company does from two to three directors (including the CEO) around the Series A, to five to seven directors when the company is in the Series C/D stage to seven to nine directors as it is preparing to go public.
I prefer boards on the smaller side because they can be more collaborative and interactive, but as you create board committees, you will need a larger board in order to have two to three directors on each committee.
Who Should Serve On Your Startup's Board?
One of the best ways to fill a board of directors is to find the people you wish you could hire but may be in positions where it’s not really feasible. For a startup, you should aim for a board with three to five directors. This should include one or more in each of the following categories: the founder, an investor in the company and an independent director.
You’ll want to have some of your investors on the board because they are the ones most rooting for and affected by the financial success of the company. This will also allow them a small measure of control and visibility into the company's progress. Keep in mind it’s important to keep cultivating these relationships for when you need to raise capital down the road.
Additionally, it’s important to have one or more independent directors — a person who is neither an employee nor an investor in the company — on the board early. Ideally, you’ll be able to find another founder, peer, colleague or acquaintance who has been in your seat before and can bring a clear, objective perspective to board discussions. A trusted independent director can let you know if you’re missing an opportunity or taking a step in the wrong direction. Plus, most importantly, help navigate the challenges that arise when the investor board directors may have a different perspective from or disagree with the operating board directors.
Lastly, the diversity of your board is also extremely important. Groups from different backgrounds, genders, races and perspectives make better decisions and improve business outcomes. I recently had a conversation with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin at the dot.LA Summit about this very thing.
A Board Success Story
Throughout my countless years working and growing with boards, I’ve had many opportunities to see just how important a good BoD is. A great example of when a board decision aided my company and me more than expected is from my time at Zillow.
Prior to 2008, investors were looking to invest more money into Zillow — which we didn’t need at the time. One of our board members, Bill Gurley, gave the great advice of “take the hors d'oeuvres when they’re being passed” or take the money when it’s being offered. We ended up taking on the new capital and it was good that we did. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the extra capital allowed Zillow to weather the storm and take advantage of the moment to expand more aggressively when the market was up for grabs.
It’s small moments like this that led to bigger successes down the road and prove the importance of having a board early.
Your board of directors should help you navigate challenges and serve as a trusted sounding board (pun intended) when you need advice. Something most, if not all, founders know by now is that startups are dynamic and constantly evolving, so as your startup scales your board will too. And if you build the foundations of your board thoughtfully, it will aid your startup in the years to come.
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