Please go put Decide and Conquer: 44 Decisions that will Make or Break All Leaders by David Siegel on your reading list, or buy it. David’s book is up there on my list with Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. It’s a totally different kind of book than Startup CEO, and in some ways a much better one in that there’s a great through-line or storyline, as David shares his leadership framework in the context of his journey of getting hired to replace founder Scott Heiferman as Meetup’s CEO after its acquisition by WeWork, including some juicy interactions with Adam Neumann, through the trials and tribulations of WeWork as a parent company, through COVID and its impact on an in-person meeting facilitator like Meetup, through to the sale of Meetup OUT of WeWork.
It’s hard to do the book justice with a quick write up. It’s incredibly concise. It’s clear. It’s witty. Most of all, it’s very human, and David shares a very human, common sense approach to leadership. I particularly like a device he uses to reinforce his main points and principles by bolding the key phrases every time they show up in the book: be kind, be confident, be bold, expand your options, focus on the long-term picture, be pragmatic, be honest, be speedy, do what’s right for the business, work for your people and they’ll work for you, be surprised only about being surprised. These all resonate with me so much.
One of the interesting things about the book is that David is a CEO, but not a founder (although he was sort of a re-founder in this case). A lot of CEO books talk about how to run a company, or give stories from the trials and tribulations thereof, but few focus on the elements of interviewing for the CEO job, or taking over the reins of a company in the midst of a turbulent flight. So the book is about getting the job, starting the job, doing a turnaround, leading a company through growth, a buy-out, and managing a company inside of another company. And because Meetup is such an iconic brand and business, it’s easy to understand a lot of the backdrop to David’s story.
I just met David for the first time a few weeks ago. We knew a bunch of people in common from his DoubleClick days. We instantly hit it off and traded copies of our books, and then were reading them at the same time trading emails about the parts that clicked. I just can’t recommend the book enough to any CEO or founder. In my view, it joins a pretty elite canon.
Post 4 of 4 in the series on Scaling CFOs – other posts are How to Engage with Your CFO, When it is Time to Hire Your First Chief Financial Officer, and What Does “Great” Look Like in a CFO?)
While all the functions of a team are needed, perhaps the most critical function to make sure your company is able to scale is the CFO. Cash flow, investments into the business, compensation, budgets—nearly everything that happens in a company flows through the CFO—and it should. So, getting this role right is one of the most important tasks of any startup team. But how do you know if your CFO is up to the task of scaling?
For CEOs, one of the first things that’s a telltale sign is what I call the gut check: do you have an uneasy feeling about cash, either that you’re running out of cash, or that you’re unsure how much cash you’re burning through and how fast you’re spending it? Do you spend a lot of your time dealing with finance-related issues like fundraising, debt, investors, or cap table questions? Are you on the hot seat during board meetings on finance-related questions, metrics, runway, cash burn, or other issues? Trust your gut. If you have even a little uneasiness about how your CFO is operating, it’s probably worth heeding. You might not have a person capable of scaling, or you might have to invest more resources (time, mentor, fractional executive) to level up your CFO.
For members of the executive team, a telltale sign is whether or not your CFO engages with you and your team to understand your part of the business. Do they spend time learning and steeping in the substance of the business? Do they interact with all the functional leads like product, marketing, and People? Do they spend time in-market with customers, partners, or vendors? Sure, a CFO can understand the business by looking at the numbers, but you’ll never be able to scale if that’s the primary focus of your CFO because the numbers—all of them, and all of the time—are lagging. It’s impossible to be proactive if your CFO is totally focused on the numbers but doesn’t understand your functional issues, timelines, upcoming events or expenditures—and why. A CFO who is capable of scaling doesn’t see their role as “corporate,” as “administrative,” or as an enforcement function. They see it as strategic and as a partner to other parts of the business.
Other Signs Your CFO Isn’t Scaling
One sign of a CFO that can’t scale is whether or not they’re scrambling to hit deadlines. Everybody has to pull an all-weekend stint or over-nighter—occasionally, but if it happens regularly…it probably isn’t going to improve over time as things become more complex in the business. There’s always a pending crunch time that requires their personal attention and a ton of manual work – the monthly close, the audit, the budget, commission planning, compensation cycles. These things are not surprises, and they come up the same time every month, quarter, or year. CFOs who are mired in doing all these things personally and manually haven’t built the systems, teams, or processes required to scale the business.
Another sign that your CFO can’t scale is if their solution to problems is to throw more people at it. If the accounting teams swells in size you might have a CFO who can’t think strategically about creating innovative processes and systems. “Throwing bodies at the problem” is easy because it’s the path of least resistance, but would your CFO allow other teams to do that? Accounting teams in particular tend to be the most traditional, paper-based teams and don’t need to be. Your CFO should be thinking strategically about how to scale financial systems with process and procedure rather than adding headcount.
A final obvious sign that your CFO isn’t scaling is if they get forecasts wrong, or don’t even try to do them. Especially while your startup is in burn mode and constantly calculating its runway and months until the next required financing, regular and accurate/conservative forecasts are critical. Even without a ton of revenue visibility on forward looking sales, good CFOs should have enough of a grip on expenses, cash flow, and order-to-cash dynamics to produce good, rolling 12-month cash forecasts. Anything short of that and you’ll be blindsided in the market, unable to take advantage of opportunities, or limping along with so-so growth for a long time.
In many startups people are learning on the fly but at some point you’ll begin to wonder whether everyone’s able to keep up or, more importantly, whether the people you have will be able to help your company scale. The CFO role touches every part of the organization and it’s critical to figure out earlier rather than later if your CFO can scale or whether you need to go in another direction.
(Posted on the Bolster blog here).
Post 3 of 4 in the series on Scaling CFOs – other posts are How to Engage with Your CFO and When it is Time to Hire Your First Chief Financial Officer.)
A lot of startups have a bookkeeper, accountant, or even a spouse of a founder or employee handle the finances when they first start out, and that’s fine. But at some point you’ll want to hire a CFO and if you’re dealing with a lot of chaos it’s easy to think, “well, anybody is better than what we have now.” But I would hold off on that thinking because the CFO, a great one, will do a lot more than just manage the finances, AP, and AR. A great one can do four things particularly well:
First, a great CFO will spend time learning and steeping themselves in the substance of the business; they’ll understand the product, the people who created it and market it and sell it, and they’ll spend time in-market with customers and partners. They do not believe their function is only “corporate” or only a service function; instead, they see it as both of those, as strategic, and as pathway to greater financial understanding for every person in the company. They insist that the people in their department do the same.
Second, a great CFO is deliberate about regularly reviewing homemade systems, processes, and spreadsheets and looking for opportunities to streamline things, reinvent them, or move them into systems. Once most things are automated and in systems, they are constantly evaluating whether or not the systems are serving the business well enough and are looking to integrate systems across the company. They are not afraid to tear down and reinvent systems and processes that they themselves set up in the past. That is, their ego is less important than doing what’s best for the company.
Third, a great CFO will have the right balance of pessimism and optimism and they are strong at communicating both. While they are proactive and timely about delivering bad news to you and the Board, their orientation isn’t around “no” and bad news. Their orientation is around investment and return and always thinking about things going on around them in the company through the lens of realistic opportunity.
They can fly at multiple altitudes at the same time, noticing the smallest detail that’s off while thinking about business models and strategy. While most executives need to be strategic and tactical at the same time, the CFO needs to be like that more than most — mostly because the details and tactics are frequently life-or-death for your startup.
(Posted on the Bolster blog here).
I love innovation, and process is no different than product or business model in that regard. I’ve run and attended several hundred board meetings over the years, both those of companies where I’ve been CEO or Chairman, and those where I’m a director. I’ve written a lot about how I like running board meetings in Startup CEO, and as I mentioned the other day, I’m a co-author of a Second Edition of Startup Boards: A Field Guide to Building and Leading an Effective Board of Directors, which is coming out in June and is available to pre-order now, along with Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani.
There are two adaptations I’ve made to my standard board routines in the last year or so, one driven by the pandemic and one not.
In olden times (that makes me sound like I’m 400 years old, but “pre-covid” sounds so clinical), I used to have a board dinner the night before or after every board meeting, and of course, everything was in person. That was a really important ritual in my mind towards the end of building the board as an effective team, where people on the team know each other as people, share things going on in their lives, share vulnerabilities, and develop bonds of trust. Without regular in-person meetings and dinners or social events, that gets a lot harder. Even when we get back to “normal,” I imagine the most we’ll do in-person board meetings is 1-2x/year.
What’s the zoom version of this?
We now do two 30-minute Executive Sessions (directors only) one before the board meeting officially starts and observers and team join, as well as the traditional one after the meeting ends. The purposes of the two sessions are different. The standard post-meeting Executive Session follows up on the meeting and has me talk about business or team issues that I don’t want to talk about with the full group present or get feedback from the board. But the one before the meeting is almost entirely social. I try to come up with a different question or topic to get all of us talking that is not about Bolster. Last week’s meeting was a simple “what’s the best thing that’s happened to you so far in 2022, and what’s the worse?” One time I asked everyone to show a picture from their phone photo roll and talk about it. You get the idea. It’s not the same as a dinner, but it seems like an effective substitute given the medium.
The second adaptation, and full credit to Fred for suggesting this one a while back, is the post-meeting survey. Now immediately after every Board meeting, I send a simple Google form to each director with the following questions:
- What are 1-3 areas/specifics where we are doing well?
- What are 1-3 areas/specifics you’re concerned about or where we could do better?
- Did the board book have the right level of detail and commentary? Is there anything you’d like to see change about the format or the content?
- Did the meeting meet your objectives for learning and discussion?
- If not, why not?
- Do you have any other feedback for Matt at this time?
I get great feedback, almost immediately and always from all board members, while things are still fresh in everyone’s mind. I’m planning to do this whether or not the meeting is remote…although it’s definitely good when the meeting is remote, and things like Executive Session, Closed Session, and debrief with me after Closed Session are quick or sometimes rushed.
There’s always room for innovation, even in standard and time-tested processes like board meetings.
A couple weeks ago, I blogged about some innovations we’d made in People practices around basic benefits. But that post raised questions for me like “Why do you spend money on things like that when all people care about is their salary? When they get poached by another company, all they think of it the headline number of their base compensation, unless they’re in sales and think about their OTE.”
While that is hard to entirely argue against, one thing you can do as you layer in more and more benefits on top of base salary, you can, without too much trouble, produce annual “Total Rewards Statements” for everyone on your team. We did this at Return Path for several years when we got larger, and it was very effective.
The concept of the Total Rewards Statement is simple. At the beginning/end of the year, produce a single document for each employee – a spreadsheet, or a spreadsheet merged into a doc, that lists out all forms of cash compensation the employee received in the prior year and also has a summary of their equity holdings.
For cash compensation, start with base salary and any cash incentive comp plans. Add in all other classic benefits like the portion of the employee’s health insurance covered by the company, any transit benefits, gym memberships or wellness benefits, 401k match, etc. Add in any direct training and development expenses you tracked – specific stipends, training courses, conferences, education benefits, subscriptions, or professional memberships you sponsored the employee attending. All of that adds up to a much larger total than base salary.
If you have some other program like extensive universally available and universally consumed food in the office (or a chef, if you’re Google), you could even consider adding that to the mix, or perhaps having a separate section for things like that called “indirect benefits” so employees can see the expenses associated with perks and investment in their environment.
Finally, put together a summary of each employee’s equity. How many options are vested? Unvested and on what schedule? What’s the strike price? What’s the value of the equity as of the most recent financing? What’s the value of the equity at 3 other reasonable exit values? Paint the picture of what the equity is actually likely to be worth some day.
Yes, you could do these things and still lose an employee to Google or whoever offers them $50k more in base salary. It happens. But if you’re doing a great job with your culture and your business and people’s roles and engagement in general, having a Total Rewards Statement at least makes it easy for you to remind employees how much they *really* earn every year.
I haven’t done short book summaries in a LONG time, but I’ll try to start adding that back into the mix as I read interesting and relevant books. Here’s one to add to your list: One Life to Lead, by Russell Benaroya. I was recently connected to Russell by a mutual friend, TA McCann at Pioneer Square Labs. TA had a sense Russell and I would hit it off, and we did. Russell is a multi-time founder/CEO, a Coach, and an author, so we have a lot in common.
One Life to Lead is an excellent book. First, it is short and easy to get through. Unlike a lot of business books, it doesn’t go on too long or contain anything extraneous. It’s to the point!
Second, the book is a business book that’s not really about business. It’s about life and what Russell calls Life Design, which is a great framing of how to be intentional about leading your life. While I have become less and less of a life planner as I’ve gotten older under the headline of “man plans, God laughs,” I am a huge believer in being intentional about everything, which I talk about in Startup CEO quite a bit in the nuts and bolts context of building your business.
Finally, Russell’s framework is easy to understand and full of concrete exercises you can to. Here are his five steps, but you’ll have to read the book to get the details:
- Ground stories with facts. This reminds me a lot of the principles we have taught team members over the years in our Action/Design (and related) trainings. First, start with absolute concrete facts that everyone will agree are facts.
- Establish your principles. This is brilliant. Your company has documented values or operating principles. Why don’t you?
- Harness energy from the environment. Figuring out what makes you tick, and what drains your energy, is so important.
- Get in and stay in your genius zone. Shouldn’t we all focus our time on the things we do best and love the most?
- Take action. How to put it together and make it all happen.
If you don’t get out in front of life, it will happen to you, and Russell’s framework is about how to make sure you are in the driver’s seat of your own life. Here’s to that.
I wrote a post the other day about innovating employee benefits practices, and I realized I’d never documented a couple other ways in which we have always tried to innovate People practices. Here’s one of them: the Open Expense Policy, which I wrote about in the second edition of Startup CEO in a new chapter on Authentic Leadership when talking about the problem of the “Say-Do” gap. Here’s what I wrote:
I’ll give you an example that just drove me nuts early in my career here, though there are others in the book. I worked for a company that had an expense policy – one of those old school policies that included things like “you can spend up to $10 on a taxi home if you work past 8 pm unless it’s summer when it’s still light out at 8 pm” (or something like that). Anyway, the policy stipulated a max an employee could spend on a hotel for a business trip, but the CEO (who was an employee) didn’t follow that policy 100% of the time. When called out on it, did the CEO apologize and say they would follow the policy just like everyone else? No, the CEO changed the policy in the employee handbook so that it read “blah blah blah, other than the CEO, President, or CFO, who may spend a higher dollar amount at his discretion.”
When we started Return Path, we had a similar policy. It was standard issue. But then over time as our culture became stronger and our People First philosophy and approach became something we evangelized more, we realized that traditional expense was at odds with our deeply held value of trusting employees to make good decisions and giving them the freedom and flexibility they needed to do their best work.
So we blew up the traditional policy and replaced it with a very simple one — “use your best judgment on expenses and try to spend the company’s money like it’s your own.” That policy is still in place today for our team at Bolster. We do have people sign off on expense requests that come in through the Expensify system, mostly because we have to, but unless there is something extremely profligate, no one really says a word.
Similar to what happened when we switched to an Open Vacation policy, we had some concerns from managers about employees abusing the new un-policy, so we had to assure them we’d have their back. But do you know what happened when we implemented the new policy? We got a bunch of emails from team members thanking us for trusting them with the company’s money. And the average amount of expenses per employees went down. That’s right, down. Trusting people to exercise good judgment and spend the company’s money as if it was their own drove people to think critically about expenses as opposed to “spend to the limit.”
I don’t think in 15+ years of operating with an Open Expense policy that any of us have had to call out an employee’s expenses as being too high more than once or twice. That’s what the essence of employee trust is about. Manage exceptions on the back end, don’t attempt to control or micromanage behavior on the front end.
(This blog post was first published as an article in Entrepreneur Magazine on April 15.)
Creating strong boards can help propel a board forward. Weak and ineffective boards hold a company back.
As a CEO, one of the most important (yet overlooked) tools in the playbook is building and leading a board of directors. Throughout my 20+ years of entrepreneurship, I’ve led four companies (including Bolster, where I’m a co-founder and CEO today) and served on eight boards. I’ve learned that strong boards can help propel a company forward and I’ve also witnessed how weak and ineffective boards can hold companies back. Mediocre or mismanaged advice, plus lack of accountability, can do long-term damage to a business as well.
Drawing from personal experience and anecdotes from dozens of Bolster’s client CEOs, here are some tried and true “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Boards.”
Habit 1: Begin with the board in mind
A lot of CEOs treat board curation as an afterthought, which means that boards tend to consist largely of who happened to be in their network at the company’s inception: investors. CEOs also tend to treat their boards as a distraction or an annoyance. Both of these lines of thought are problematic.
Boards should be viewed as a CEO’s second team (along with their management team), as a strategic weapon that helps the company succeed and as an opportunity to bring new voices and perspectives. Research has shown the more independent and diverse a board is, the better it performs.
Habit 2: Be proactive about board recruiting
Devote as much focus to building a board as to building the executive team. This process is time-consuming and can’t be delegated to anyone else. Aspire to reach people who may feel out of reach. Asking someone to join the board is a big honor, so that ask becomes a good calling card. When recruiting, interview as many contenders as possible, don’t be afraid to reject those who aren’t a good fit and have finalists audition by attending a board meeting. Source broadly, too. Diversity is really important for many reasons; challenge any recruiter, agency or platform to surface diverse board candidates.
Habit 3: Keep your board balanced using the Rule of 1s
Whether it’s a three-person startup board or a seven-person scale-up board, it should include representation from all three director types: investors, management directors and independents. A few basic principles on board composition that work well are what I call the Rule of 1s: First, boards should include one, and only one member of the management team: the CEO. Even if co-founders or C-level managers are shareholders, don’t burn a board seat for a perspective that you have access to regularly. Second, for every new investor to the board, add one independent director, which is the biggest opportunity to introduce external perspectives. If your board gets too crowded with subsequent funding rounds, ask one or more investors to take observer seats to make space for independents. And don’t be afraid to change your board composition over time. Companies are dynamic and boards should be, too.
Habit 4: Cultivate mutual accountability and respect
While a board might seem intimidating, work past the power dynamic and push toward collaboration and mutual accountability. To ensure board members are prepared for meetings, keep commitments and leverage their networks, set the example by demonstrating preparation, consistency and reliability. By regularly delivering pre-read materials to the board several days in advance, the board will build a new habit. By soliciting feedback from board members after each meeting (and even offering them feedback), you’ll show the board that you’re listening. Over time, they’ll lean in, too.
Habit 5: Drive intellectually honest discussions
Even on the healthiest leadership teams, it can be scary to disagree with or challenge a sitting CEO (after all, they are still the one in charge!). But this power dynamic flips in a boardroom, which gives that group a unique opportunity to push and challenge business assumptions. While it may be tempting to look for board members with softer dispositions, it can be more beneficial to have tough, direct board members who aren’t afraid to express their opinions, but who are also good listeners and learners. My favorite discussions are conversations where I’m pushed to consider a different direction. It helps get more done, surfaces better ideas and increases the effectiveness of the company.
Habit 6: Lean in on strategic, lean out on tactics
Even board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area. But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business: economics, competition and ecosystem. This is an easy habit to reinforce in meetings. If board directors drift toward getting too tactically in the weeds, that’s great feedback to offer after the meeting.
Habit 7: Think outside the box
Good board members understand all the pieces on the chess table; great board members go one step further and pattern match to provide advice, history, context and anticipated consequences. This is an enormous benefit to CEOs focused on the minutiae of the day-to-day, particularly if a business operates in a trailblazing industry where many of the rules may not yet be written. As a CEO, if you’ve never seen something first hand before, it’s hard to get clarity and external perspectives, which is why it’s crucial that great board members bring pattern recognition and “out-of-the-box thinking” to their role.
At the end of the day, boards are there to support and direct a company. There’s no perfect formula, but by implementing these steps with a few healthy habits, CEOs can cultivate strong, dynamic boards for their companies.
Sometimes the work we do as CEOs, leaders, management teams is glamorous, and sometimes it’s not. But it all matters. One thing we tried to do at Bolster this past year is to really amp up employee benefits. The war for talent is real. The Great Resignation is real. Sometimes startups like ours have natural advantages in terms of attracting and retaining talent such as being made up of letting people in on the ground floor of something, having small teams so individual impact is easy to see, being mission-driven and full of creativity and purpose, and having equity to give that could be very valuable over time. But sometimes startups like ours have natural disadvantages around recruiting like having less certain futures, being relatively unknown to potential employees, being unable to pay huge salaries in the face of the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and having limited career path options since the teams are so small.
My co-founders and I have always been big believers in innovating People Practices. We did an enormous amount of work around this at our prior company, Return Path, which has been pretty well documented and we feel was very successful. Things like our People First philosophy of investing in our team, an extraordinary amount of transparency in the way we ran the company, a sabbatical policy, an open vacation policy, a peer recognition system, 360 reviews (I’ve written about this a lot, but I don’t have a great single post on it – this one is good enough and has some links to others), and an open expense policy.
Most of those things, when we started doing them 20 years ago, were revolutionary. We had our own version of the then-infamous Netflix deck even before we saw the Netflix deck. But today, many of those people practices are more common, not quite table stakes, but not exactly unique either. So this year when we set out to do our annual retrospective and planning process, we decided to try to innovate on a fairly standard topic for people, employee benefits. Although there’s not a lot of room for innovation on this topic, we are doing a few things that new and existing employees alike have told us are noteworthy, so I thought I would share them here.
We started by getting the basics right. We have a good solid health plan, dental plan, vision, transit benefits, etc. And we are paying 100% of the basic plan and allowing employees to pay more for a premium plan. That’s not the innovative part.
Next, we decided to max out the HSA contribution. HSAs and FSAs are some of those things that people don’t really think about, or they think “oh that’s great, employees can set aside health care expenses pre-tax.” But employer contribution to them matters, especially because the plans are portable. So we are giving people whatever the legal limit is towards their HSA, something in the neighborhood of $7k/year for a family plan or $3k for an individual plan. This is real money in people’s pockets, and it takes away from fears and concerns about health and wellness.
Next, we decided to begin addressing two things we felt were always weird quirks or inequities in benefit plans. One is the fact that employees who DO take advantage of your benefits program essentially get a huge additional amount of compensation than employees who DON’T because they are on their spouse’s plan. So we decided to give all employees who DON’T use our benefits program a monthly stipend. The amount doesn’t quite equal what we would be paying for their health insurance (which varies widely for employees based on single vs. family plans), but it’s a material number. So those people who aren’t on our plan still receive a healthcare proxy benefit from us.
Another (and the final thing I’ll talk about today) was instituting a 401k match, but doing so with a dollar cap instead of a percentage cap. Percentage caps FEEL fair, but they’re not fair since the company ends up paying more money towards the retirement plan of the people who earn the most money and who presumably need that benefit the least. The IRS tries to help do this leveling with their nondiscrimination testing, but that doesn’t come close to achieving the same outcome because it’s about employee contributions, not employer matches. By instituting a dollar cap, we are making the statement that we value all employees’ retirements equally. Incidentally, this simple change is proving to be very difficult to implement since our systems and benefits providers aren’t set up to do it, but we will persevere and find workarounds and get it right.
Investing in our people is critical to who we are as a business, and if you take your business seriously, it should be in your playbook as well. Benefits sound like a dumb area in which to innovate since they’re very common across all companies other than the percentage of the premium covered…but there’s still room for creativity even in that field.
This is another big week for us at Bolster. On the heels of the announcement we made last month about our Series B financing, we are now announcing the launch of a new program called Bolster Prime and a new venture capital fund called Bolster Ventures. These are important steps in Bolster’s evolution and in the fulfillment of our mission, what we call internally our “Big Idea,” which is to empower the innovation economy.
The roots of Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures pre-date the founding of Bolster. In our prior lives, the Bolster founders worked together to scale up a business called Return Path and also
worked as advisors and mentors to numerous early stage founders and startups. One of the things we noted in our very first post, now part of the About Us section of Bolster.com, was:
After exiting Return Path [the company where our founding team worked for many years], we wanted to do for others what we did for each other as a seasoned executive team. We wanted to know: “How could we help other CEOs, executives and boards bolster themselves to go the distance and scale with their organizations?”
While the founding team was exploring potential business opportunities that allowed us to make a bigger impact on the world, Silicon Valley Bank and High Alpha Innovation were together envisioning a platform to help VC-backed portfolio companies more effectively navigate the complex world of executive talent needs. When our three groups came together, we realized we shared a vision to build a company that puts people first in all aspects to drive high-growth businesses.
I’ve never written before about those other “potential business opportunities” that our team was exploring along with our prior investment syndicate, Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures, Greg Sands from Costanoa Ventures, and Brad Feld from Foundry. The one our team was particularly excited about was a concept we were calling at the time “Venture Acceleration Partners.” The key points in the pitch deck we created were:
- There is a gap in the market of investors adding “management” value to portfolio companies between Accelerators/Incubators/Studios at the low end and Private Equity firms and very large VCs at the high end. What about the middle?
- “The middle” consists of venture-backed companies that are neither early stage nor mature. They are typically founder-led, often by a first-time CEO with new or incomplete management teams who need a lot of mentorship/development, and with a diversified cap table of firms that don’t own operating or consulting practices to help guide the scaling process.
- These companies tend to have consistent and stage-unique challenges around scaling execution across every aspect of the business.
- By creating an advisory firm made up of seasoned operators, we can quickly identify the risk areas and provide mentoring, guidance and execution to management teams for defined periods of time to keep them on the right track and increase their companies’ performance.
- We want to create a firm that has enough skin in the game to have long-term relationships with management teams…and that doesn’t charge (much) for services because incentives are aligned as a co-investor.
Our original deck envisioned a firm that was sort of a hybrid of a “McKinsey for startups” and a venture investor. When I shared that pitch deck (and two other ones I’ll save for another day), with my long-time friend Scott Dorsey from High Alpha, he responded by sharing with me a related pitch deck he was working on with corporate partner Silicon Valley Bank out of the High Alpha Studio for a talent marketplace. We immediately looked at each other and said “we should put all of these ideas together with this founding team, High Alpha and SVB, and the Return Path investors, and change the way startups connect with talent.” That’s what we did, and we almost immediately started building the first part of the Bolster business, which was the talent marketplace.
About six months into our journey building Bolster, I was talking to Brad and reminded him that I was interested in bringing the Venture Acceleration idea to life now that we had a vibrant talent marketplace up and running at Bolster.
Standing up a new program of this magnitude with limited resources at the same time as building a new venture capital firm from the ground up, on top of a still pretty brand new startup – that felt like a tall order, even for a large and senior founding team like ours. We needed another senior leader to join our team.
Brad’s visceral response in this conversation was a very clear, “you should hire Jenny.” Enter Jenny Lawton. Jenny is someone I’d known peripherally for many years as a mutual friend and colleague of Brad, but we weren’t particularly close. We agreed to meet for breakfast at a diner halfway between our houses at a time in the pandemic when there wasn’t a whole lot of in-person meetings going on.
As Jenny’s written about this week, it was the right call at the right time – we had a full meeting of the minds about the role mentorship plays in supporting entrepreneurs, the unmet needs of entrepreneurs even with all the support out there from accelerators and investors, and the desire that both of us had here in the back half of our careers to, as Steve Jobs would say, “make a dent in the universe.” Jenny’s experience as a multiple-time senior executive and startup advisor (including four years as the COO of Techstars) was a perfect match for us. She joined our team pretty quickly, first fractionally (the Bolster way, right?), then full-time in the middle of 2021.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Working as part of the Bolster leadership team this past year, Jenny has spearheaded the creation of Bolster Prime, from selling and mentoring the first few clients personally, to designing the curriculum and programmatic learning, to figuring out the right positioning and pricing to developing the recruiting strategy for the program. We’ve worked together and along with the rest of the team at Bolster to bring in an amazingly talented group of experienced former and current CEOs and other senior operators as our first group of mentors. Any entrepreneur would be lucky to have one of these mentors in their corner. We’ve now raised a venture capital fund as first-time fund managers from our own investors and our program’s mentors, all of whom believe in the power of Bolster as the next generation platform to help empower the innovation economy.
Most good ideas swim in a sea of comparables. There are now a handful of other firms out there that combine advice for entrepreneurs with capital. But we believe our model, with thousands of Bolster Member CXOs already on board, is unique. Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures, powered by Bolster’s on-demand talent marketplace, is here to help early stage founders reimagine the way they scale up their leadership teams, their boards, and themselves. We are changing the way the startup game is played. Come take a look and see what’s in it for you.
I lived one of my favorite metaphors last week as we announced the closing of Bolster’s Series B financing and had our first post-round Board meeting, and I realized I’ve never blogged about it before: that raising rounds of financing is like having a good night at the blackjack table.
When I go to Vegas or AC — and admittedly I haven’t done that in several years — I usually start playing Blackjack at the $5 table. It’s lightweight entertainment, low stakes, good way to warm up and remind myself how to play. If I start winning and accumulating a bigger pile of chips, I move to the $10 table. Rinse and repeat, to the $25 table and the $50 table. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a $100 table, and I assume there’s a somewhat tense and scary back room somewhere with higher stakes tables. As I progress through an evening, it’s more fun, but it’s also more stressful.
Raising successive rounds of financing has the same feel to it.
You’re playing the same game as you progress from Series A to Series B to Series C. You’re still CEO of your company. You may be playing with different strategies, more or less aggressive. But it feels different. It’s a little more stressful. Every bet is a higher percentage of your net worth, upside as well as downside. Expectations are higher, and external expectations are more noticeable.
What if blackjack isn’t going so well? If I am doing so-so, I just stay at the $2 table, and ultimately get bored with treading water. That’s probably the equivalent of running a company that’s just going sideways. I won’t go deep on extending the metaphor to a bad night of blackjack, but I’m sure it has a lot in common with down rounds and ultimately things like Chapter 11. Those loom large in lots of situations, too, but they’re not where my head is today!