(Excerpted from Chapter 12 of Startup CEO)
As a CEO, one of the most important things you can do is solicit feedback about your own performance. Of course, this will work only if you’re ready to receive that feedback! What does that mean? It means you need to be really, really good at doing four things:
- Asking for feedback
- Accepting feedback gracefully
- Acting on feedback
- Asking for follow‐up feedback on the same topic to see how you did
In some respects, asking for it is the easy part, although it may be unnatural. You’re the boss, right? Why do you need feedback? The reality is that all of us can always benefit from feedback. That’s particularly true if you’re a first‐time CEO. Even more experienced CEOs change over time and with changing circumstances. Understanding how the board and your team experience your behavior and performance is one of the only ways to improve over time. It’s easier to ask for feedback if you’re specific. I routinely solicit feedback in the major areas of my job (which mirror the structure of this book):
Strategy. Do you think we’re on target with what we’re doing? Am I doing a good enough job managing to our goals while also being nimble enough to respond to the market?
Staff management/leadership. How effective am I at building and maintaining a strong, focused, cohesive team? Do I have the right people in the right roles at the senior staff level?
Resource allocation. Do I do a good enough job balancing among competing priorities internally? Are costs adequately managed?
Execution. How do the team and I execute versus our plans? What do you think I could be doing to make sure the organization executes better?
Board management/investor relations. Do you think our board is effective and engaged? Have I played enough of a role in leading the group? Do you as a director feel like you’re contributing all you can? Do I strike the right balance between asking and telling? Are communications clear enough and regular enough?
Accepting feedback gracefully is even harder than the asking part. You may or may not agree with a given piece of feedback, but the ability to hear it and take it in without being defensive is the only way to make sure that the feedback keeps coming. Sitting with your arms crossed and being argumentative sends the message that you’re right, they’re wrong, and you’re not interested. If you disagree with something that’s being said, ask questions. Get specifics. Understand the impact of your actions rather than explaining your intent.
The same logic applies to internalizing and acting on the feedback. If you fail to act on feedback, people will stop giving it to you. Needless to say, you won’t improve as a CEO. Fundamentally, why ask for it if you’re not going to use it? And that leads right into the fourth point, closing the loop with the person who gave you feedback on whether or not your actions achieved the desired change.
Almost a year into my second journey as a startup CEO at Bolster, and I’m getting more and more questions from other CEOs about what it’s like doing a second startup after almost 20 years at the first one…and achieving pretty good scale by the end. The short answer is, it’s the same, only it’s way better. Here’s why.
I’m more confident. So is our whole founding team. When Jack and I started Return Path, we were 29. This time, we were 49 — and the average age of the founders was probably 46 or 47. The bottom line is that we don’t know everything about the business we’re building, but we know what we’re doing in terms of building a business, a startup, a software company, a service-oriented business, leading a team, planning, executing, and on and on. Confidence in all of those areas means large portions of our day and brain space are freed up to focus on the actual construction of the business without worrying if we’re doing things right or wrong.
It’s much easier to build a startup today. 1999 wasn’t the dark ages, but it feels like a different millennium in terms of what it’s like to start a technology company from scratch. The cloud and micro services/APIs mean that we are able to build our platform much more quickly at much lower cost than in the past. And in terms of tooling the business, we got up and running with about 20 different DIY cloud/SaaS solutions in about 6 weeks for a cost of less than $10k/year.
We are sharper on execution and impatient for success. Your first startup in your 20s is a lot about “enjoying the startup journey.” This time around, our team is significantly more focused on critical stage-gate success metrics. In both cases of course, the objective was to win, but this time around, we are much more focused on getting to that point sooner and with less waste.
We are a lot more productive. Ok, fine, we’re cheating because of COVID and working from home. No train commutes. No plane trips. No water cooler chatter. No fluff. It’s not sustainable, and I’ll write about that more in a future post. But it’s leading to a surge of productivity like I’ve never experienced or seen before in my career. I do like to think at least some of it comes from professional maturity — we’ll see when life returns to something more closely approximating normal.
I am having a blast being on the front lines. I went from running a 500-person company, where I’d honed my job and skill set around communication, people issues, and mobilizing the army to go do things…to spending less than 5% of my time running the company and managing people. Now depending on the moment, I’m an SDR, a customer success manager, a product manager, and a marketing copywriter. And probably some other things, too. And I love every minute of it. It’s a lot more fun to see the direct impact of my actions on the business as opposed to only really seeing the direct impact of my actions on the people in the business (and occasionally then on some aspect of the business as an individual contributor).
Maybe I’m not having a typical second startup experience. I know some friends who had successful first exits and hated going back to square one, or failed at a second business and were really disappointed about it, only to shift careers. But my experience so far is a much better second verse, even though it’s a bit like the first.
Welcome to the new StartupCEO.com!
I started writing this blog in May of 2004 with an objective of writing about the experience of being a first-time entrepreneur — a startup CEO — inspired by a blog post written by my friend, long-time Board member and mentor Fred Wilson entitled “You’re only a first time CEO once.” The blog and the receptivity I got along the way from fellow startup CEOs encouraged me to write a book called Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business, which was originally published in 2013 and then again as a second edition last year in 2020.
Today I am relaunching the blog as StartupCEO.com both to reflect that relevance of that brand as the book continues to get good traction in the startup ecosystem, and to reflect the fact that I’m now on my second startup as CEO, so “Only Once” doesn’t seem so fitting any more.
The web site has a very minimalist design – and I realize many of you read posts on either RSS or email — those will still operate the same as they have been (no new RSS feed).
As I approach the first anniversary of starting our new company, Bolster, where we help startup CEOs scale their teams, themselves, and their boards, I am recommitting to this blog and will try to post at least once a week. Because there is a lot of overlap between this blog and Bolster’s blog (which I’d encourage you to subscribe to here either by email or RSS), posts will occasionally show up on both blogs, or I’ll put digests of Bolster blog posts here.
But the Bolster blog will be broader and will also have many additional authors besides me, while this blog will remain distinct about some of the experiences I’m having as a startup CEO.
(This post was written by my colleague Bethany Crystal and originally published on the Bolster blog yesterday. While I am still trying to figure out what posts to put on this blog vs. Bolster’s blog since the blogs are pretty similar, I will occasionally run something in both places.)
At Bolster, we believe that 2021 will mark the rise of the on-demand economy for executives. More than ever before, executives are seeking out roles that distinctly aren’t full-time for a variety of reasons – they’re in between full-time roles and want to stay engaged and meet a wide range of potential employers; they’re retired or semi-retired/post-exit and want to keep working, just not full-time; they’re fully employed but are looking for advisory opportunities to help others; or they are committed to the more flexible lifestyle that being an on-demand affords. As business leaders, you might be wondering how to take advantage of this trend and incorporate on-demand talent onto your existing team. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.
Let’s start with a quick primer on the distinct types of on-demand talent. Here are the four most common themes we see among our member network at Bolster:
The Four Types of On-Demand Talent
- Interim: Someone who is partially or fully dedicated to working with your company, but only temporarily (you can think of them as “filling a gap”)
- Fractional: Someone who works part-time (or “fractionally”) with your company on an ongoing basis (they “own” the function on a long-term, part-time basis)
- Advisor or Coach: Someone who supports your existing team by offering external advising, coaching, or mentorship as needed (this might be on a temporary or long-term basis)
- Project-Based: Someone who is brought on to complete a specific project or a fixed span of work (this is the closest to typical consulting work)
Depending on your business needs, the capacity of your existing team, and your resourcing, you might find it useful to have one or more on-demand executives in the mix at any given time. We’ve also found this can be a great way to keep things fresh at the leadership level and make sure new ideas are circulated with some regularity.
Business Opportunities for On-Demand Talent
While every company’s on-demand talent needs will vary, we’ve already seen a few patterns emerge from the 2,000 executives in our member network. Here are a few times to think about bringing on-demand work to your business.
Choose interim work if you need…
- A temporarily placeholder at the exec level
Whether unexpected or planned, transitions at the executive level can come with a high cost: Any week that goes by with an unfilled seat adds more work to the team, contributes to business lag, or both. While full executive searches can take six months (or more!) to get right, many CEOs find it helpful to bring on interim help as a “stopgap” in the meantime. The most obvious benefit of interim on-demand work is to prevent your business from falling behind in areas where you may not have a deep bench below the executive level. And you might also consider that bringing in a seasoned professional as you conduct your full-time search will give your team a proxy to compare against, making that placement process a bit easier. Last – while it’s not a guarantee, there’s always the chance that your interim hire is a great fit for you and wants to stick around for the long term! You then benefit from an on-the-job “interview” or audition.
- Surge capacity staffing
Imagine a situation where your business doesn’t need an executive in a particular function. You’re small, scrappy, and you’re getting along perfectly well with the team you have in place – and you can fill in the bits of executive leadership required for that function yourself from time to time. But then something pops up where you need to be the CEO and can’t afford to ALSO be the CXO. An interim CXO could be the right solution. For example, the 3-5 months run-up to a Series A or B financing could be a good time to bring on an experienced CFO if your only relevant team members are handling AP, AR, and Payroll. Or you could be working on your company’s public launch with a less experienced marketing team and an agency – and an interim CMO could make all the difference between success and sideways.
- Parental leave coverage
With a growing business trend of increased parental leave coverage, CEOs are starting to use interim executives to fill holes that might temporarily exist on the leadership team. Interim work is particularly useful if there isn’t an obvious “second in command” role on that team who might take on a stretch project in their absence. Implemented correctly, bringing on an interim exec can also help to squash any fears of “getting replaced” while someone is away on leave. As an added bonus, bringing in a new face (if only temporarily) can give the remaining team a chance to “try out” a new leadership style and share feedback about what worked and didn’t work during the interim period.
Choose fractional work if you need…
- A seasoned professional’s experience and skillset (but not all the time)
Before every full-time leadership hire, there is the sticky “in between” period of need. That’s the period when some work starts piling up, but not quite enough to fill an entire work week for one person at the executive level – or the period when you know you need a more seasoned leader in a function but just can’t afford one full-time. If you don’t have an experienced executive in the role, you miss opportunities for effectively setting up scalable practices and processes. Often, a lack of senior focus in a functional area means that you miss strategic opportunities, and sometimes it also means that you expose yourself to risk that could be avoided with the right person having ownership of the function. This is the perfect time to introduce fractional work to your business. The most classic example of fractional executive talent is the CFO who oversees the bookkeeping and accounting for several companies at once. But you can find a fractional executive for just about anything. You might consider this type of on-demand executive if you don’t yet have anyone in that functional area, if you have a team of less experienced specialists or even a more junior generalist leader in that functional area, if you want a taste of what it’d be like to dedicate more resources there, or if you need just a few things done right, without having to think about them yourself.
Choose advisory or coaching work if you need…
- Mentorship for your current executives
Sometimes it’s helpful to see what “great” looks like in order to achieve greatness yourself. If you’re looking for a way to give a current leader an added boost to their development plan, consider bringing on someone who can serve as a mentor or advisor on a temporary or long-term basis. Someone who has been in your shoes before and can give advice and guidance based on their experience. This on-demand exec role has two big benefits: The first being that it demonstrates to your executive team that you’re committed to their ongoing success and growth, which boosts morale (and hopefully performance). The second is that you’ll be able to equip your current team with the tools they each need to scale instead of having to bring on a new wave of executives for each business stage. The advisor or coach usually works a few hours per month, once they’ve set up a strong coaching relationship.
- Access to top talent without the full-time price tag
Just as remote work unlocked the potential to find “the best of the best” without geographic constraints, on-demand work does the same at the executive level. More and more, we’re seeing CEOs incorporate advisors to their business as a way to gain exposure to best in class talent (at a fraction of the cost). This can be a great way to introduce subject matter or functional expertise into your organization without committing to a full-time salary.
Choose project work if you need…
- A fixed-scope expert engagement at the executive level
Just as tools like Task Rabbit made it possible to find experts to accomplish tasks on a personal level (such as moving furniture or painting a bedroom), on-demand talent makes it possible to find seasoned executives to complete one-off projects at an expert level. That’s why, on Bolster, we ask each each member to indicate what roles they can take on, and also what projects they can be hired to do. As a CEO, you might consider outsourcing some of the crunchy stuff at the exec level that might take a lot of time, or in cases where you need a quick turnaround to get to an MVP. Common projects we’ve seen to date include building sales commission plan structures, designing a go-to-market launch plan for a new product, running due diligence on an acquisition, overhauling pricing and packaging, working on a strategic plan, TAM analysis, budgeting process, or creating a diversity & inclusion strategy for the company.
- An experimental project that won’t distract the current team
One final area where you might consider on-demand work is for a project that feels more like an addendum to your current business, or an early experiment. At Bolster, we brought on an on-demand executive to help us think through and roll out a brand new product that we’re in the early days of testing right now. We’ve seen other CEOs use project-based work at the exec level for things like evaluating market expansion possibilities or speccing out the MVP of a potential new product.
This is just a short list of some of the possibilities where on-demand talent might support you in your business today. One of our favorite parts about this type of work is just that – the flexibility it offers to you and your team. Whether your business is just getting started or if you’re operating on all cylinders, don’t forget to consider on-demand work as part of your CEO toolkit for this year and beyond.
– Bethany Crystal, February 2, 2021
Over the years, I’ve had a list of nagging questions every time I’ve contemplated my board, but didn’t have anyone I could turn to who had deep, broad advice on this topic. Those questions were:
- How big should my board be at this stage?
- How many independent directors should I have?
- What is the right profile of an independent director?
- How many options should I give a board member?
- How do I find the best, diverse, talent for my board openings?
That’s why Bolster is excited to announce the launch of our first CEO tool: Board Benchmarking. This application (which is free!) is the first of a series of tools that we’re designing to help CEOs understand the performance, design, and impact of themselves, their executive teams, and their boards. The results of this first application will shed light on the independence, diversity, and compensation of private company boards that’s never been available on a broad basis before.
Why are we starting with Board Benchmarking?
- Increasing Board Diversity is top of mind right now…
…and that means CEOs need to have a handle on three things at the same time to get it right: appropriate board size/number of independent seats, a talent pipeline that is diverse and well vetted, and clear compensation guidelines for independent directors. Diverse employee populations and customer bases start with having a diverse board and a CEO (you!) who is attuned to the benefits of diversity at the top. The longer you wait to prioritize diversity in the boardroom, the harder it becomes to change the makeup of your board. Culture becomes entrenched, recruiting becomes driven by referrals, and before you know it, everyone in an organization looks and thinks a little bit the same way. By capturing data on the diversity and composition of startup boards, we hope to offer an industry-wide snapshot to help CEOs start to have what can often be tricky conversations with their VCs about board size and composition as early as possible. And by pairing that with Bolster’s unique marketplace for diverse and vetted Board-ready talent, we hope to help CEOs slay all three dragons (number of independent seats, talent pipeline, and comp guidelines) at the same time.
- Private company board composition is notoriously tricky to benchmark.
Unlike public companies, which are required to disclose the identities and compensation packages for their boards of directors, private board structure tends to remain…well, private! While this makes sense from a regulatory perspective, it often means private companies CEOs are taking a shot in the dark when it comes to things like when to add independent directors and how much to pay them. By aggregating and anonymizing thousands of data points across hundreds of private companies, we hope to (for the first time ever) provide CEOs with a very real, in-the-moment look at how their board today stacks up against others in similar cohorts.
- Filling an open board seat is a high-priority item for a CEO, and a tough one to get right.
It’s said that good choices come from good options. Early benchmarking results show that half of startup CEOs expect to fill an open board position within the next 12 months. Just as it’s critically important to get the right executives around your (well, now virtual) table, it’s equally, if not even more important to build a board that effectively supports you, your company, and your customers. Every month that goes by with a board vacancy is another month where you’re potentially leaving valuable introductions and perspectives on the table. We hope that by exposing these board searches across such a broad subset of companies, we’ll also empower CEOs to take immediate next steps to fill those vacancies — including help recruiting multiple board candidates directly from the Bolster network.
As we conduct this survey over the next month, we’ll provide greater visibility into the size, composition, diversity, and director compensation of private company boards. We’re also establishing robust pipeline partnerships to amplify board-ready talent from organizations with diverse membership of African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and women orgs. So for anyone interested in adding qualified diverse talent to their boards, we’ll be ready.
Participants who complete the survey will receive early access to your benchmark results and a comprehensive guide to building and managing your Board of Directors.
In early Q1, we’ll invite all participants of our Board Benchmarking survey to log in to Bolster and view their results interactively. CEOs will be able to see how their own boards stack up compared to others in the VC portfolio network or other cohorts. VC partners will be able to see patterns across the entire portfolio.
Watch this space in the coming days and weeks for CEO-specific content about hiring Board members.
As we wrote in Bolster’s Founding Manifesto, one of the reasons we started Bolster was to create a new way; a faster, easier, and more cost-effective way, for startup and scaleup CEOs to grow their boards of directors and make them more diverse.
There’s a lot of research out there that the more independent a board is, the better it performs for companies — and that there’s a high degree of correlation between more independent boards and higher performing companies as well. There’s also a lot of research out there that shows that teams which have diversity of gender and race/ethnicity perform better. And everyone who has ever been on a high-functioning board of directors knows that a board is a team.
These facts are well known, yet it is still the case that most private company boards are overwhelmingly made up of founders and investors who are still largely white and male. I believe that the lack of independence and diversity on boards is a big miss for the whole startup ecosystem, and it’s a part of the startup game that we at Bolster want to help change.
Startup boards are tricky things. One of the very unique aspects of a CEO’s job that sets it apart from other executive positions is building and leading a board of directors. But most startup CEOs have either little or no experience building and leading a board, so that part of the job tends to default to a “because that’s the way I assume it’s always been done” kind of task. Of course, if you’re not intentional about building and managing a board, you’re likely to get lousy results.
Building, shaping, and leading a world class board is one of the single most important things startup CEOs can do to help their businesses thrive and become industry leaders. It’s on par with building and leading an executive team. I’ve seen amazing companies held back by weak and ineffective boards and investor syndicates, and I’ve seen so-so companies succeed because the strategic advice, experience, and accountability coming out of the board room drives the management team in extraordinary ways.
So how is Bolster helping startup CEOs change the game with respect to Boards? We are doing three things.
First, as you know, what gets measured gets managed. Our first-of-its-kind Board Benchmark application will soon produce an industry standard set of data around private company boards. You can’t find data on private company boards but we’ll soon have important data like size, composition (independents/management/investors), independent director compensation and diversity (gender/race-ethnicity/age). This will help answer questions that I know I have had many times over the years as a CEO such as
- How big should my board be at this stage?
- How many independent directors should I have?
- What is the right profile of an independent director?
- How many options should I give a board member?
Starting next week, we’re opening up our Board Benchmark application to any company who creates a free Bolster account. It will tell us a lot about the baseline across the ecosystem, and it will answer a lot of questions startup and scaleup CEOs have but can’t get answers to. Although this is an ongoing real-time benchmark tool, I’ll post some results here when we have enough critical mass to start reporting out.
Second, Bolster is in the talent business, and helping match VC-backed companies with a strong diverse slate of board candidates who are well-matched with their company is at the core of our business. We are already working on many searches for independent board members, and we’ll only be doing more of them as our client base and member base grow.
Finally, this blog post is the beginning of a whole series of posts about startup boards that we hope will demystify them a bit and help change the world’s thinking about how to grow them. Some of the material I will borrow from other blog posts I’ve written, or from the Board of Directors section of Startup CEO. Some will come from other influential VC and CEO bloggers and from Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani’s book Startup Boards. But much of the content will be new. And because Bolster is a two-sided marketplace, roughly half of the content will be aimed at startup CEOs and the other half at executives who are interested in serving on boards and aren’t sure how to get from where they are today into a board room. We’ll be sending out all the CEO posts as an eBook to CEOs who complete the Board Benchmark study, and all the Member posts as an eBook to Bolster members who fill out their Board profiles. I’ll post both of those eBooks here eventually as well.
For CEOs, the topics we will cover include
- The purpose of a board
- Size and composition on boards
- Board evolution & turnover
- Diversity in the boardroom and the importance of appointing first-time directors
- What to look for in a director
- How to recruit and interview directors
- How to onboard directors, especially first time directors
- How to compensate directors
- How to build a director bench or Advisory Board
- How to evaluate your board
For executives searching for a board role, the topics we will cover include
- What startup corporate boards look like
- How to prepare yourself to get on your first board
- Should you serve on an advisory board?
- How to interview for a Board role
- What you need to know about board compensation
- How to approach your first board meeting
- How to think about corporate governance as a board member
- How to be a great board member
- How to give advice or difficult feedback as a board member
- Making sure your voice is heard during a board meeting
- How to know if you’re doing a good job as a board member
We believe that boards can make or break a company and we intend to chart a new course for startup boards. I look forward to sharing thoughts and data with you on that topic in the weeks to come.
(Written by both my Bolster co-founder Cathy Hawley and me)
We founded Bolster two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and our founding team had not met in person after 6 months of working together. Now, luckily, we’ve all worked together for many years, so we have a lot of trust built up, and have a very strong operating system which includes full team daily standups. Still, nothing beats face-to-face interaction. If you’ve ever founded a startup, you know how impactful it can be to work side by side, bounce ideas off each other, and collaborate as you learn more about opportunities and challenges in your market.
We also have a strong belief in the power of the team, and the need to work together to ensure that we are aligned on all aspects of the business. And, we had a successful launch, with more interest in our marketplace than we had anticipated, so we knew we needed to step back to have a planning and strategy session.
We’ve done many executive offsites, and couldn’t imagine having an impactful offsite remotely, and we all agreed that we would be comfortable meeting up in person. So we started planning a 2-day offsite together in New York. Unfortunately, it turned out visitors to NY from Colorado and Indiana, the two states we were traveling from, needed to quarantine for 10 days when they got to NY. While technically we could get around this because we weren’t staying for 10 days, we decided to follow the spirit of the rules, and cancel our travel.
Since we really needed to have the planning and strategy session, and we’d blocked the two full days on our calendars, we decided to test out a ‘zoomsite’ – an all-remote video call. We modified the agenda a little – some things good in person fall flat on video. We knew we wanted to have really engaging conversations, and keep the agenda moving along, so that all eight of us could fully participate and complete the necessary work. I’m happy to say that we came out of the offsite with a revised strategic plan, new six-month goals set, and owners for each of the different workstreams. And, we had fun. Success!
The Foundry Group CEO Summit has been a different animal — it’s wrapping up today, but there’s been enough of it so far this week to comment on. Foundry took a regular annual event with a large group (50-75) and moved it online. They did a great job of adapting to the medium, spreading the event out with a few hours a day over multiple days to avoid Zoom fatigue and optimize attendance; scheduling content in shorter bursts than usual; making good use of breakout room technology; and encouraging heavy use of Zoom’s chat feature during sessions to make it as interactive as possible. Like the Bolster event, there were some elements missing — all the great “hallway conversations” you have at in-person conferences where people are staying in the same hotel and seeing each other at meals, in the gym, between sessions, etc. But it has also been a big success with enough community elements to make it worthwhile.
Want to have a Zoomsite? Here are some tips:
- Make sure you have the tools needed for each activity. When you are brainstorming in person, you may use sticky notes or flip charts to write on. Remotely, you can use Google Docs or Sheets or tools like Note.ly or Miro
- Prep the sheets or docs ahead of time, so that people can engage in the activities easily. At our Zoomsite, we modified our blue-sky brainstorm session so that we each answered a few questions in a Google Sheet. We had a separate section for each person, and the exercise was easy to understand and engage in, and people got straight to work.
- Schedule in more breaks, shorter sessions, or less than full-day meetings. We had a couple of hour-long breaks during the day, which helped people to focus. Foundry did a great job of getting everyone’s attention for a few hours every day, for more days than a normal in-person conference
- Plan your technology. At the Bolster meeting, we learned this the hard way. We tested out the idea of doing a “walk and talk” session where we’d each walk in our neighborhoods, and have a couple of strategic conversations just on the phone. Unfortunately, the technology didn’t work for everyone, as they hadn’t all used Zoom on their phones before, it was windy in some locations, and cell service dropped people from time to time. Probably not the best idea we had!
- Include a social component. We were a little skeptical about this at the Bolster Zoomsite, but we’d always incorporated social time into offsites, and we really value connecting as people, not just as professionals, so we gave it a try. On the second day of our Zoomsite, we took a 2 hour break at the end of the day, and came back for drinks and dinner together. We had personal conversations, including sharing our favorite tv shows. Eight people on video eating together might sound odd, and we weren’t sure if it would work, but we all agreed that it was fun, and we’d do it again. I missed the Foundry “Virtual Fun” session, but they did a virtual game show run by our sister portfolio company, Two-Bit Circus (and also had investigated Jack Box Games as another option for virtual games via Zoom screen share plus real-time voting and other engagement via phone). I heard that session was great and engaging from people who attended
We all hope life returns to some kind of normal in 2021, though it’s unclear when that will be. And there’s definitely value to doing meetings like this in person, but at least we now know that we can have a successful remote offsite or larger conference event. As with everything, it will be interesting to see how the world is changed by COVID. Maybe events like this will figure out how to mix remote and in-person participation, or alternate between event formats to keep travel costs down.
(This post also appeared on Bolster.com).
As we wrote in The Gig Economy Executive, the major societal trend to “gig,” or part-time/freelance work, has reached the C-Suite. We created Bolster to help organize a talent marketplace out of what is mostly an informal economy today – one where VC- and PE-backed companies find trusted freelance executives and consultants from their networks.
In that earlier blog post, we wrote about the different types of on-demand executive work that C-level executives engage in: interim, fractional, mentor/coach/advisor, project-based consulting, and board roles.
As we’ve been building Bolster this year, we’ve come to appreciate that not only are there different types of gig economy roles…there are several different archetypes of gig economy executives, too. While there is a clear common theme of the desire to do some form of freelance, or non-full-time work that cuts across the four types, they are very different in their stage of life and their needs. These are our four main Member user personae, to use the language of Product Management.
First, there is the In Between Executive. This is the original concept of our founding investors at High Alpha and Silicon Valley Bank that drove their interest in Bolster. The In Between Executive is someone who is generally mid-career and used to working in full time C-level roles and is, for whatever reason, between jobs at the moment. Maybe her company just got acquired and she is taking a break. Maybe her company restructured her out of a job. Maybe she needed or wanted to take a break from work for family or health reasons. Maybe she was just ready to look for a new career challenge. The In Between Executive is perfectly suited to any of the on-demand executive role types but is a particularly good fit for interim CXO, mentor/coach/advisor, and project-based consulting roles.
Second, there is the Career On-Demand Executive. The Career On-Demand Executive is usually someone who has had many years of experience as a full-time executive and who is now looking for something more flexible, or who just enjoys more variety in his work. One of the Career On-Demand Executives in the Bolster network I spoke with early on described her journey to me like this: she was “between things” when a friend of hers who had moved to France and started a company asked her to come set up her HR Department and run it for 6 months while hiring full-time staff. She took a month off, lived in Paris for 6 months, took another month off, then started to look for something else like that. Ooh la la. Sounds pretty good to me. The Career On-Demand Executive is a particularly good fit for interim CXO, fractional CXO, and project-based consulting roles.
Next, there is the Not Retired Executive. When I think of the Not Retired Executive, I think of my Dad, who was a successful technology entrepreneur for 30+ years. Since he sold his company several years back, he has helped a number of startup CEOs do everything from raise money to build a sales and marketing plan, to manage supply chains. Sometimes he gets paid in cash as a consultant, sometimes he gets equity as an Executive Chairman. Sometimes he talks to younger entrepreneurs and helps them out “just because.” The reality of the Not Retired Executive today, however, is that many people are “not retiring” younger and younger because they’ve made enough money to take a step back from hard-charging full-time jobs. The Not Retired Executive is perfectly suited to any of the on-demand executive role types. The ones who are later in their careers and closer to being actually retired are particularly good fits for mentor/coach/advisor and board roles.
Finally, there is the Side Hustle Seeker. The Side Hustle Seeker is someone who is a full-time executive somewhere but who is looking for additional professional opportunities. She may be an experienced CMO who is excited about mentoring up-and-coming marketing leaders via a local or industry-based professional organization. She may be looking for chances to “pay it forward” because someone mentored her along the way, earlier in her career. She may have accumulated enough experience and wisdom to be ready for her first board of directors seat. Regardless, she’s someone who is a “high wattage” professional who wants to learn and grow herself by connecting with others outside her day-to-day role. The Side Hustle Seeker is best matched with mentor/coach/advisor and board roles.
So, what kind of gig economy executive are you, and how can Bolster help you find the kind of work you’re looking for while providing you with tools and resources to simplify your life? Join Bolster as a member to find out!
(This post also appeared on Bolster.com)
As we wrote in our Founding Manifesto, Bolster was started in part to create a new way for startup and scaleup CEOs to think about growing their leadership teams.
Why do CEOs need help with this?
CEOs of any company have too many things to do at all times. This is even more true at startups and scaleups, which by definition are more fast-paced, dynamic, CEO-driven, and thinly staffed. All those challenges point directly to the specific challenge CEOs have with their leadership team.
Think about the journey of a company from a founding team to 50 employees. My long time friend and former board member Greg Sands once compared the phenomenon
of companies growing out of the startup stage to cell development in small organisms. Amoeba or paramecia consist of one cell, and that cell has to do everything: eat, move, sense its surroundings, and respond accordingly. When the cell divides, the new cells still need to do everything – they’re just attached to other cells. As organisms grow more complex, individual cells need to specialize. And when things get really complex, you need a liver, a spleen, a stomach, and a pancreas. By and large, startups work the same way. In the early stages, you have to hire generalists who are both willing and able to take on dozens of tasks at once. Your developers will have to speak with potential customers; your accountants will have to give advice on product direction; and the born salesperson on your team will need to put the phone down a few hours a day and set up a new employee’s computer. That’s a really different team than when you need functional managers on top of engineering, sales, etc. — not to mention needing strategic leadership of those functions as the company grows from 50 to 100 to 250 to 500 employees.
That’s the journey that startup and scaleup CEOs are on. It’s less of a journey and more of a roller coaster ride. Jason is running HR today…but tomorrow, the job of “head of HR” will be different, and Jason might or might not be capable of it. Then your VP Finance Sally gets lured away by an even hotter and sexier new startup and leaves a sudden, gaping hole on your team. Then cracks start to show up with the job Jamie is doing as your marketing director and you lose confidence that your upcoming product launch is going to be a success. Every time one of these events happens – whether it’s an actual event, or just an “aha moment” for you as CEO, you add something to your plate. You add tasks to take over work yourself. You add the task of finding a new person. You add stress from having to deal with one more critical thing.
Leveling up a leadership team is probably the hardest part of the CEO’s job.
Why don’t current solutions meet the CEO’s needs? Well, of course they do, sometimes. The problem is that the current solutions either aren’t tailored to the needs of startup or scaleup CEOs, or they’re ad hoc and inefficient. Executive search is slow and expensive, and it produces expensive full-time executives. And no matter how good an executive search firm is, I’ve never met a CEO who has a better than 50% success rate in hiring new leaders from the outside. Ever. Add all that up – expensive, slow, medium success rate, and perhaps most important for a startup CEO, leaving you with expensive full-time headcount in multiple areas of your company – that is not a recipe for startup success when you’re sweating your burn rate.
Frequently, the CEO just taps her network for execs or for on-demand executives like the ones Bolster places — that could be asking board members or friends or advisors for suggestions. Quite frankly, those suggestions stand a better chance of success than transactional executive search since the candidate referral source is usually somewhat of an insider. But those searches are really disorganized or one-off. When a CEO turns to their network for spot help, they often aren’t running a comprehensive process, creating a serious job spec, seeing a broad set of candidates for comparisons, and the like.
Our job at Bolster is to make all of this easier and lighter weight. The rise of the gig economy means that startups no longer need to rely on the painful binary choice of “the person/opening I have today” and “the expensive full-time exec coming in from the outside.”The new way to scale an executive team is with a mix of interim executive talent to quickly fill gaps, fractional executive talent to provide strategic oversight and guidance to a team, part-time, functional mentors/coaches/advisors to advise a less experienced functional leader, project-based consultants to fill in specific holes, and yes, the occasional full-time outside hire, possibly via a search firm (or if your fractional CXO loves your company and joins full-time!).
With Bolster, you have a network of all those types of talent, well curated and well profiled, available for near-instant matches and near-instant start dates – and a suite of tools and services designed to help you proactively identify your needs across all your functional areas so you’re never scrambling your way out of a tight spot.
What about the existing team? If you’re a leader inside a startup or scaleup, Bolster is ALSO created for you. The painful binary choice CEOs face that I wrote above is particularly painful for you if you’re no longer scaling quickly enough. Frequently, promising junior people are layered or shuttered aside because the CEO doesn’t have the time, or the functional expertise required, to coach or mentor the person to success. Bolster creates an easy mechanism for CEOs to help pinpoint the areas in which you need growth and development as well as an easy way to find either temporary leadership or a function-specific advisor/mentor/coach to help you grow with the role and with the company.
The best startup CEOs I know are the ones who are already using multiple types of on-demand talent at the same time to help their companies along that journey from single-cell to complex organisms. I believe three years from today, the frequent usage of this kind of talent will move from the realm of early adopters to mainstream. The ones who embrace it first will have a competitive advantage.
(This post, written by my co-founder Cathy Hawley, also appeared on Bolster.com)
The gig economy is a labor market where short-term or freelance roles are more prevalent than permanent positions. It’s generally characterized by having independent contractors rather than full-time positions, but in some locations and for some types of roles, gig workers may be part-time or fixed-term employees.
The gig economy that started with roles like artists, drivers and web designers is quickly expanding to include executive-level roles. There are a few trends in today’s workplace that are driving this expansion. Startups and scaleups have more flexible, remote-friendly work environments and are looking for creative, less expensive ways of accelerating growth. Executives have shorter average job tenure and are more often displaced or between roles, and they are also interested in the flexibility that gig work can give them.
In a study conducted by MavenLink/Research Now, “The White Collar Gig Economy,” 47% of companies state they are looking to hire contractors to fill management and senior executive roles, including c-suite contractors. At the same time, 63% of full-time executives would switch to become a contractor, given the opportunity. These trends will be accelerated by the current economic downturn and recovery, as some companies have fewer resources, and more executives are displaced.
At the executive level, there are a few different types of roles that could be considered ‘gigs’. The most common two are coaching and project-based consulting. Coaching or advising, and particularly CEO coaching and advising, has become very prevalent over the last 10 years. The CEO hires a coach who can help them navigate new situations and challenges. Often, CEO coaches stay with a CEO for a number of years, helping guide and support them through the stages of company growth. There are also coaches and advisors for other functional areas to provide similar support for other executives, although more commonly these coaches are hired for specific initiatives.
Then there is project-based consulting, where executive-level talent is hired to run a specific project such as reviewing a company’s packaging and pricing, performing due diligence on an acquisition, creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy, or creating an investor deck for a fundraising event. This type of consulting isn’t new, and it’s similar to what large consulting firms offer. It seems to be more prevalent now for very senior roles than it ever has been in the past.
But the gig economy for executives now reaches well beyond coaches and consultants. There are also executives who are hired into interim leadership roles while a company searches for a permanent placement. Some roles take a long time to find the right person, but there’s an urgent need for someone to take on the leadership mantle in the interim. If the interim executive is a good fit, and is open to it, it’s not uncommon for this individual to be considered for the permanent position. “Try before you buy” works both ways — it can be good for the company and good for the executive, too.
An up-and-coming type of executive gig role is the fractional role. We are seeing this more and more in the last couple of years. Fractional executives can either be consultants or employees, since the expectation is a long-term relationship, on a part-time basis. For example, 3 days or a certain number of hours per week. The fractional executive is responsible for all functional areas as a full-time executive in that same role. The company may be too small to need (or afford) their level of expertise on a full time basis, but needs more than just an advisor or project consultant. The fractional executive generally remains with a company until the company needs a full-time leader for that function, in which case either the fractional executive goes full-time, or the company hires someone new. Fractional executives may support more than one client at a time, and may also come with a team of more junior functional experts who can support them to take on more work.
Finally, for our purposes at Bolster, joining a company’s board of directors could be considered taking a ‘gig’ role since it’s not a full-time executive role. Startups and scaleups need independent directors, and their needs change based on their size, stage and strategy. We see a growing trend of companies contracting with directors for 1 -2 years rather than lifetime service.
There’s a real opportunity right now for companies to capitalize on the expertise of this talent pool without having to hire them for long-term full time roles, and for executives who want to contribute their skills and expertise without the commitment of a 80-hour work week. Bolster is helping bring these two audiences together in a marketplace that matches on-demand executives with companies who need their services the most. Bolster also provides services for members so they can focus on their consulting rather than their business, and for companies to evaluate their executive teams and boards.
Welcome to Bolster, the on-demand executive talent marketplace. We are creating a platform that is the new way to scale an executive team and board.
We believe that startups and scaleups are not average companies. Their rapid growth means their appetite for talent constantly outstrips their budget — and that they can’t spend months searching for it. Their dynamic industries dictate that they keep pace with bigger and better funded competitors. Their leadership teams — the people and the roles — are always changing. Their CEOs spend a ton of time hiring and coaching their leaders and shaping the complexion and direction of the team. They stress out about big expensive new executive hires when sometimes they just need to level-up an existing manager or “try before they buy.” Their Boards frequently jump in to help, but those efforts can be a little ad hoc and inefficient.
We believe that experienced executives working as consultants is the wave of the future. The number of career executives who work flexibly and on-demand for a living is skyrocketing in recent years. People are more often “between things” and are interested in plugging into shorter-term engagements while continuing to look for their next full-time role. People are retiring younger, yet wanting to keep contributing. And even fully-employed execs like to advise companies and serve on Boards. Whether these people are career consultants or are looking for a “side hustle” or just to pay something forward to a future generation of leaders, they all have two common problems: finding work is time consuming and they’re often not good at or don’t like doing it; and managing their back office, everything from insurance to legal to tax to marketing, is a drain on time that could otherwise be spent with clients or family.
We believe that a new kind of talent marketplace is needed to meet the unique and complex requirements of both audiences — the freelance, or flexible, seasoned executive, and the startup or scaleup CEO who thinks holistically about his or her leadership team and carefully tends them like a garden. We are building a platform to make instant, tailored, vetted matches between talent and companies without the randomness of a job board and without the theater, long lead times, and cost, of a full service agency
Service marketplaces like ours work best when they help their stakeholders solve other meaningful, related problems.In this case, we believe that the need for back office services will help executive consultants focus on more important things. And we believe that CEOs need lightweight and dynamic support in thinking through the composition and skills required of their executive teams both today and 6-18 months in the future.
That is the essence of the business we are building. A business to quickly match awesome companies with awesome freelance executives and to help both sides be better at what they do. We are here to make it easier for you to:
- Bolster your executive team. For our Clients, our pledge to you is that we will quickly and cost-effectively fill the gaps in your leadership ranks (whether interim, fractional, advisory, board, or project-based) with trusted, curated talent, and that we will give you a platform to evaluate your overall leadership team and help you think through your future needs as your company evolves. Think of us as a shortcut to scaling your leadership team.
- Bolster your board. The best boards are the ones with multiple independent directors who come from diverse backgrounds with diverse points of view. We also pledge to our Clients that we will find great matches to help fill out their boardrooms as their strategic advisory needs change over time.
- Bolster your work. For our Members, our pledge to you is that we will find you the right kind of interesting clients and help you manage your back office so you can focus on your work (and all the other important things in your life!).
- Bolster your portfolio. For our Portfolio Partners, VC and PE board members, our pledge to you is that we will make it easier for you and your firm to both drive successful on-demand executive placements for your portfolio company CEOs, and to manage and expand your firm’s network of flexible executive talent.
We are an experienced team of entrepreneurs and operators who have scaled multiple businesses throughout our careers. All of us worked together as part of the leadership team at Return Path, a leading email technology company that we scaled from 0 to $100mm in revenue and 500 employees in 12 locations around the world while winning numerous Employer of Choice awards. All of us have independent experience scaling other businesses, small and large, public and private. All of us have experience being on-demand executives as well — whether interim, fractional, advisory, project-based, or board roles, we know the landscape of both our members and our clients.
We’ve all dealt with the stress of having product-market fit and market opportunities but not being able to capitalize on those opportunities because we were missing key talent. And we’ve tried everything from executive search firms (expensive, time-consuming, and slow), to leveling up people (will they be able to grow into the role?), to leaning in to our board (hit or miss, inefficient). Heck, we’ve been desperate enough to follow up on the “my cousin’s boyfriend has an uncle, and he might know someone” lead.
We believe there is a better way for startups and scaleups to find executive talent. Along the way, I published a book about scaling startups called Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business that has sold over 40,000 copies to CEOs around the world. And our whole team is working on a new book called Startup CXO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Teams, which is coming out in early 2021. Our team has a maniacal focus on helping startup teams scale and flourish and on helping leaders develop into the best version of themselves. That’s what we’re all about.
Plus, we have an amazing group of investors behind us who know how to grow businesses like ours and have incredible reach into the startup and scaleup world. More about that later. For now, we are excited to
soft launch Bolster and begin unleashing the power of on-demand executive talent to our Clients. Thank you for being on this journey with us. If you’re interested in the somewhat unusual story of how the company was founded, it’s here.